Quitting Computer Hoarding
25 November 2020
I sympathise with hoarders. Until 2 days ago, I owned 12 computers. Today I’ve got 9. Tomorrow I’ll have gotten rid of half the computers I own.
Dealing with hoarding is really an exercise in untangling. It’s not really about throwing away 3 laptops. It’s about coming to terms with how I got such a successful career in tech without formal education or spending much money. Did I deserve this? How can I give this to others? Separate those thoughts from the physical objects.
By the end of the day I don’t think I’ll have answers. But I will have gotten rid of all my portable computers which run OpenBSD.
It’s an operating system you install on your computer like Windows or Linux (Ubuntu, Debian, Arch et al.) to… you know… use it.
I learned a lot about computers by forcing myself to use OpenBSD. It was like learning a 2nd language. Learning a second language is funny (French for me); what really happens is you learn how languages work. The side effect is that you learn another language. That’s why everyone says learning subsequent languages is easier (Dutch for me).
Using OpenBSD allowed me to put problems into a broader context that I wouldn’t have been able to do if I was developing on Linux for Linux, or troubleshooting on Windows for Windows.
Driving all around Sydney from eye surgeries to dusty basements, I was configuring firewalls. There’s no iptables on OpenBSD. So you start thinking about firewalls more like computers which forward and filter network packets. Configuring a firewall means altering rules governing that behaviour - not running some magic iptables commands.
At a TV station, 802.1x was used both on the WiFi and the ethernet. If I was using Windows, I guess it would just magically work. Instead, I needed to install and configure wpa_supplicant(1) to just connect to the network.
Working at a large insurance company in the Netherlands, I couldn’t access a particular critical system without a particular web browser plugin. Instead I learned how the system really worked by sniffing the network traffic using tcpdump(8) and curl(1). I learned it was an old .NET application serving base64-encoded files over SOAP. When the software vendor needed help troubleshooting the application, they called me to find the logs and make sense of them.
If someone was having some problem with some script or program, I would try running it on my own and bugs would be revealed. Often this was a result of assuming some component was present on the system, and often that component wasn’t even needed. There were shell scripts relying on some crazy built-in bash(1) functionality, instead of using system utilities like how the shell was designed. There were Python programs using outdated external dependencies instead of something simpler from the standard library.
Setting things up on OpenBSD isn’t as easy as doing a Google search for “how to configure (x) on ubuntu”. Instead it’s more about taking a breath and reading the manual for a little while. Practicing this meant that when I started working on some new proprietary system, arriving at the inevitable point of reading the documentation and the source code to work out what’s going on took way less time and effort overall.
At FOSDEM 2018 in Brussels, my laptop was one of 23 (out of 64000) running BSD.
What got me into BSD was the same thing that got me into Linux: curiosity. What kept me there was this general feeling:
BSD is what you get when a bunch of Unix hackers sit down to try to port a Unix system to the PC. Linux is what you get when a bunch of PC hackers sit down and try to write a Unix system for the PC.
X220. The battery sticks out the bottom of the computer so it’s a pain to put in a bag. That big battery only ever lasted a couple of hours. With its great tactile keyboard, I didn’t worry about it.
X240. I bought this one because it was the X-series laptop with Intel’s Haswell microarchitecture CPUs. These CPUs gave Apple the opportunity to make MacBooks with 12 hours of battery life for the first time. A few years later, my X240 lasted about 4 hours running OpenBSD. The trackpad sucked (they would bring back physical left,right,middle click buttons in subsequent ThinkPads), and the keyboard wasn’t great. But the battery lasted now, so I took this laptop with me into TV studios, conferences and funny corporate meetings across the Netherlands and Belgium.
X1 carbon (1st generation). Bigger screen, better keyboard, thinner than the X240. What’s not to like? No ethernet port, so I needed to carry a dongle with me to plug in to corporate networks. Since I was running OpenBSD I spent extra time searching for a USB ethernet dongle that had a chipset OpenBSD had a driver for.
Big thanks to K.Mandla’s blogs Motho ke motho ka botho and Inconsolation for getting me back into the Unix world and showing that running old computers is no problem.