Third article of the offline laptop serie.
Sometimes, network access is required
Having a totally disconnected system isn’t really practical for a few reasons. Sometimes, I really need to connect the offline laptop to the network. I do produce some content on the computer, so I need to do backups. The easiest way for me to have reliable backup is to host them on a remote server holding the data, this requires network connection for the time of the backup. Of course, backups could be done on external disks or usb memory sticks (I don’t need to backup much), but I never liked this backup solution; don’t get me wrong, I don’t say it’s ineffective, but it doesn’t suit my needs.
Besides the backup, I may need to sync files like my music files. I may have bought new music that I want to get on the offline laptop, so network access is required.
I also require internet access to install new packages or upgrade the system, this isn’t a regular need but I occasionnaly require a new program I forgot to install. This could be solved by downloaded the whole packages repository but this would require too many disk space for packages I would never use. This would also waste a lot of network transfer.
Finally, when I work on my blog, I need to publish the files, I use rsync to sync the destination directory from my local computer and this requires access to the Internet through ssh.
A nice place at the right time
The moments I enjoy using this computer the most is by taking the laptop on a table with nothing around me. I can then focus about what I am doing. I find comfortable setups being source of distraction, so a stool and a table are very nice in my opinion.
In addition to have a clean place to use it, I like to dedicate some time for the use of this computer. I can write texts or some code in a given time frame.
On a computer with 24/7 power and internet access I always feel everything is at reach, then I tend to slack with it.
Having a rather limited battery life changes the way I experience the computer use. It has a finite time, I have N minutes until the computer has to be charged or shutdown. This produces for me the same effect than when starting watching a movie, sometimes I pick up a movie that fits the time I can spend on it.
Knowing I have some time until the computer stops, I know I must keep focused because time is passing.
Last year I wrote a huge blog post about an offline laptop attempt. It kinda worked but I wasn’t really happy with the setups, need and goals.
So, it is back and I use it know, and I am very happy with it. This article explains my experience at solving my needs, I would appreciate not receiving advice or judgments here.
State of the need
Internet is infinite, my time is not
Having access to the Internet is a gift, I can access anything or anyone. But this comes with a few drawbacks. I can waste my time on anything, which is not particularly helpful. There are so many content that I only scratch things, knowing it will still be there when I need it, and jump to something else. The amount of data is impressive, one human can’t absorb that much, we have to deal with it.
I used to spend time of what I had, and now I just spend time on what exist. An example of this statement is that instead of reading books I own, I’m looking for which book I may want to read once, meanwhile no book are read.
Network socialization requires time
When I say “network socialization” this is so to avoid the easy “social network” saying. I do speak with people on IRC (in real time most of the time), I am helping people on reddit, I am reading and writing mail most of the time for OpenBSD development.
Don’t get me wrong, I am happy doing this, but I always keep an eye on each, trying to help people as soon as they ask a question, but this is really time consuming for me. I spend a lot of time jumping from one thing to another to keep myself updated on everything, and so I am too distracted to do anything.
In my first attempt of the offline laptop, I wanted to get my mails on it, but it was too painful to download everything and keep mails in sync. Sending emails would have required network too, it wouldn’t be an offline laptop anymore.
IT as a living and as a hobby
On top of this, I am working in IT so I spend my day doing things over the Internet and after work I spend my time on open source projects. I can not really disconnect from the Internet for both.
How I solved this
First step was to define « What do I like to do? », and I came with this short list:
- listening to music
- playing video games
- writing things
- learning things
One could say I don’t need a computer to read books, but I have lots of ebooks and PDF about lots of subjects. The key is to load everything you need on the computer, because it can be tempting to connect the device to the Internet because you need a bit of this or that.
I use a very old computer with a PowerPC CPU (1.3 GHz single core) with 512MB of ram. I like that old computer, and slower computer forbid doing multiple things at the same time and help me staying on focus.
For reading, I found zathura or comix (and its fork mcomix) very useful for reading huge PDF, the scrolling customization make those tools useful.
Listening to music
I buy my music as FLAC files and download it, this doesn’t require any internet access except at purchase time, so nothing special there. I use moc player which is easy to use, have a lot of feature and supports FLAC (on powerpc).
Emulation is a nice way to play lot of games on OpenBSD, on my old computer it’s up to game boy advance / super nes / megadrive which should allow me to do again lots of games I own.
We also have a lot of nice games in ports, but my computer is too slow to run them or they won’t work on powerpc.
Encyclopedia - Wikipedia
I’ve set up a local wikipedia replica like I explained in a previous article, so anytime I need to find about something, I can ask my local wikipedia. It’s always available. This is the best I found for a local encyclopedia, works well.
Since I started the offline computer experience, I started a diary. I never felt the need to do so but I wanted to give it a try. I have to admit summing up what I achieved in the day before going to bed is a satisfying experience and now I continue to update it.
You can use any text editor you want, there are special software with specific features, like rednotebook or lifeograph which supports embedded pictures or on the fly markdown rendering. But a text file and your favorite editor also do the job.
I also write some articles of this blog. It’s easy to do so as articles are text files in a git repository. When I finish and I need to publish, I get network and push changes to the connected computer which will do the publishing job.
I will go fast on this. My set up is an old Apple IBook G4 with a 1024x768 screen (I love this 4:3 ratio) running OpenBSD.
The system firewall pf is configured to prevent any incoming connections, and only allow TCP on the network to port 22, because when I need to copy files, I use ssh / sftp. The /home partition is encrypted using the softraid crypto device, full disk encryption is not supported on powerpc.
The experience is even more enjoyable with a warm cup of tea on hand.
Hello, this is a long time I want to work on a special project using an offline device and work on it.
I started using computers before my parents had an internet access and I was enjoying it. Would it still be the case if I was using a laptop with no internet access?
When I think about an offline laptop, I immediately think I will miss IRC, mails, file synchronization, Mastodon and remote ssh to my servers. But do I really need it _all the time_?
As I started thinking about preparing an old laptop for the experiment, differents ideas with theirs pros and cons came to my mind.
Over the years, I produced digital data and I can not deny this. I don't need all of them but I still want some (some music, my texts, some of my programs). How would I synchronize data from the offline system to my main system (which has replicated backups and such).
At first I was thinking about using a serial line over the two laptops to synchronize files, but both laptop lacks serial ports and buying gears for that would cost too much for its purpose.
I ended thinking that using an IP network _is fine_, if I connect for a specific purpose. This extended a bit further because I also need to install packages, and using an usb memory stick from another computer to get packages and allow the offline system to use it is _tedious_ and ineffective (downloading packages and correct dependencies is a hard task on OpenBSD in the case you only want the files). I also came across a really specific problem, my offline device is an old Apple PowerPC laptop being big-endian and amd64 is little-endian, while this does not seem particularly a problem, OpenBSD filesystem is dependent of endianness, and I could not share an usb memory device using FFS because of this, alternatives are fat, ntfs or ext2 so it is a dead end.
Finally, using the super slow wireless network adapter from that offline laptop allows me to connect only when I need for a few file transfers. I am using the system firewall pf to limit access to outside.
In my pf.conf, I only have rules for DNS, NTP servers, my remote server, OpenBSD mirror for packages and my other laptop on the lan. I only enable wifi if I need to push an article to my blog or if I need to pull a bit more music from my laptop.
This is not entirely _offline_ then, because I can get access to the internet at any time, but it helps me keeping the device offline. There is no modern web browser on powerpc, I restricted packages to the minimum.
So far, when using this laptop, there is no other distraction than the stuff I do myself.
At the time I write this post, I only use xterm and tmux, with moc as a music player (the audio system of the iBook G4 is surprisingly good!), writing this text with ed and a 72 long char prompt in order to wrap words correctly manually (I already talked about that trick!).
As my laptop has a short battery life, roughly two hours, this also helps having "sessions" of a reasonable duration. (Yes, I can still plug the laptop somewhere).
I did not use this laptop a lot so far, I only started the experiment a few days ago, I will write about this sometimes.
I plan to work on my gopher space to add new content only available there :)