// Patrick Louis

Less ties with a machine

(Transcript of the podcast)

Less ties with a machine

Let’s say you’ve been using a machine for a year or two and over time you gradually become more attached and dependent on it. This is a situation I’ve found myself into more than once and it is quite annoying, it’s straining for the brain. I’ve been through it the past few days and it and I kept wondering about the ways I could make it less of a pain.
       Imagine if today you suddenly lost access to your current work machine, what would you do? This all rotates around the concept of having “less ties”, “less worries”, “better or lighter workflow”. And there are no exact step-by-step guide to reach this, only nebulous and vague ideas that rotate around it. However, checking some of them might make it less straining on the brain, less of a burden, for possible future changes.

So we’re going to discuss how we can have less ties with a machine, how to be more relaxed with our workflow, machine, and operating system.

I guess the best way, first way I can think of, to have nothing as a burden would be to have no machine to begin with. To be not tied with a machine at all. Let’s say to boot from a USB or live distribution. You’re completely untied in that case. Or what about using a thin client. Those are all less straining because you can’t necessarily make long lasting changes on live distros for instance.
       But other than live distros you could also have persistent pendrive, live distro that run entirely on the ram but that can keep persistent data on the USB itself. On the other side to do that you’ll have to deal with the disadvantage of having slower boot time, because of the media type, be it CD/DVD or USB. More than that you could do a full installation of a distribution on the USB drive but the disadvantage is that USB are sort of small and not supported for all fs. To counter that you could install the distro on a portable hard disk, those are pretty cheap Nowadays. A full install on a hard disk, no ties to a real machine. But the real disadvantage now is that usually a lot of binaries are architecture dependent (x86 x96_64 powerpc, etc..) so you’re not truly machine dependent because you’ll have to install all sort of architectures and libraries so that it’s supported everywhere.
       So this is an overview of how to lighten up your setup by not having a machine at all.

Did you run your daily backup, do you even have backups. Do you have backups and know how to deploy them back again. What’s the role of having backups on a desktop. Ok, I mean… What are you going to backup? That’s the big question we discussed in the episode about backing up and deploying: What to backup, how to backup, and how to deploy it.
       Backups themselves are a great way to remove a burden from your life, you have to run them because you never know when your data is going to be on fire. You have to keep redundancy, consistent, with all your important files. You have to make sure that what you care about is duplicated there, that it’s safe. But if at the moment you are a hoarder, stacking up files everywhere on your system, then what’s the goal of a backup if it’s a copy of everything. How are you going to set everything again after you lost the first machine. If you can’t make sense of what you have in the first place then backups are junk. It’s true they are duplicates but those duplicates are useless.

This is an extract from an article I’ve written called “Keeping track of your things”:
“”” What some us of tend to forget is that to make a workflow smooth you don’t especially need to know your tools by heart but you have to reach a point where your tools will guide you.
       You might argue that as a Unix user you want full power over your machine but this is not what this is about. No one, except the masochist, would want to work on a system by forcing his intentions into it. As a developer, sys-admin, Unix enthusiast, you dream of those days where everything goes smooth, where you’re happy to have chosen Unix because it suits you best.
       The smoothness comes from the fact that your environment evolved and morphed to your needs and is now capable of helping you get on track when you get lost. Enough of the sentimental talk, let’s get into how you reach such state.

Apart from knowing the basics of your system and how to use the programs themselves the biggest part of a enjoyable and sweet workflow is one that can acts as your second memory.
       By second memory I mean an extension of your thoughts, thinking, and physical brain memory. (resident memory but for human)

Let’s start with a simple exercise, for those of you that have been on Unix for more than a year. Close your eyes and remember the last time you had to work on a machine that wasn’t yours, what were the things that annoyed you the most?
       Was it the window manager itself? Was it that it was missing the tools you usually work with? Was it because it just didn’t seem to be responsive to your needs? Or was it because you were lost on that system?

The hard truth is that the only reason it was annoying to work on that other machine was because you were lost, it wasn’t your home, you didn’t know how to handle things that weren’t in your mundane daily flow.
       What makes a flow so intuitive.
       My guess is that it’s all about the way you inserted your thoughts in the environment in the first place. People keep track of things, that’s what information technology is all about.

Let’s list all the places where I keep my memories as a personal example:

  • A todo list
  • Commands
  • Browser Bookmarks/Opened Tabs
  • Program Launchers
  • Conky/Wallpaper
  • Shell History/Aliases/Functions
  • File Manager Bookmarks/Soft Linking

Exercise number two: List the top of your memory-helpers on your current machine. Now think back to that time when you used that foreign machine, if you could have the equivalent of those memory-helpers on that box would you still feel the same way?
       No, there’s nothing wrong with having your machine helping you remember things. No, it doesn’t make you machine dependent, on the opposite, it helps considerably. My bet is that you’re already doing all that I mentioned unconsciously. Though it would be a bad idea to start doing that if you haven’t grasp the basics and are heavily reliant on your little fake memory.
       The last step is to make those actions concious. If you know that your shell history has helped you why not take it to the next level and have a side program handle that history for you.

Keep it between machines synchronized.
Keep track of your things. “””

It’s satisfying to know about the things that help you use your machine as an extension of your mind. But where do draw the line, to stop taking things from the machine or from memory. Creating in the meanwhile mental clutter and visual clutter on the machine.
       That’s where the concept of minimalism comes into play. We’ve amply discussed that topic quite a bit in a podcast with this topic before, you can go back to that. There are many aspects around this topic, simple living which conflates with minimalism in the world of computing and minimalism in the world of art and digital minimalism. Simple living would be simplifying one’s own lifestyle. Minimalism in computing refers to hardware and software design that goes to the core of the value of what you’re using. Minimalism in art is about using as less material as possible, as less visual bloat as possible while still conveying the message. There’s an article I’ve recently linked in the newsletter by Cal Newport on digital minimalism and I think the things he mentions in the article encompass the message I want to convey here. He splits the value you can give something in the digital world into three categories. Those categories are very subjective, you can associate them to whatever you personal think is appropriate for yourself. Those categories are: the core value, the minor value, and the invented value. The core value is for any technology that majorly impact your life, something you can’t live without. A minor value is something that provides some moderate benefits while being a positive part of your life. And an invented value is, like the obvious name, is something that gives an invented value, it solves a problem that the technology itself brings to light/into your life. Those values themselves, again, are very subjective you can associate the tech you want with what value you want, but all in all it’s important to talk about minimalism when discussing the topic of less ties. To have less ties you have to minimize. When you have less things you are able to foc us more to keep track of your things more and realize truly what you need.
       And while you are doing this backups do make sense. What else can you do to keep track of your things and to keep them in order.

So maybe you really know what you want from the get go. Maybe you
have that small space in your mind to keep track of whatever you have installed on your system at the moment. However most probably you don’t, you don’t keep track of everything and that’s where some softwares come to the rescue. For example you could use one to help you manage dot files, like gnu stow which works by having a repository (farm) holding your dot files and it managing them, keeping them in order, in sync, etc.. Or you could have a software to give you a list of whatever you have installed, somewhat like a tutorial. For example ricerous that we built at nixers. You could also use softwares to sync machines together like rsync and others. Or you could probably keep a simple text file with a list of softwares you have installed, or even hook it with your package manager so that it’s in sync with the current packages, whenever you install a package it will append it to this list. What I want to say is that there are a bunch of ways that can help you leverage the burden on your mind to keep track of what is on your machine and how coherent it is without necessarily it being a hassle.
       But I think this management part comes after the minimalism step, after cleaning up, when you already know what you want install and knowing how your system works. Maybe you have to mess up your machine at least once, to learn, and then go through this process.
       So overall use those softwares if you’re not able to keep order yourself.

There are some good practices that can help you have less ties with a machine while still being productive. One of them is to not have configurations installed for all users, as in installed globally in /etc/ or /usr/local… So that means having everything in your home, having a transportable home. Having something that is reproducible. Having a well ordered tidy home directory is really important when it comes to having less ties with a machine. If you want you can glance at a thread we had on the forums about creating nice home directory trees. It could inspire you. Overall what I found what help was to have at least a binary directory with executables in it, so it’s appended to the path, some documents directory, some media, some source code, whatever suits your needs. You just need to keep up with it, and not hoarder.
       A well ordered home directory is a transportable home directory.

Let’s continue with the good practices, another thing would be to have a reproducible, scriptable, deployable home directory, which would have everything in it. It’s sort of the mix up between the dot file keepers, the setup stepbystep keeper, and the portable home directory, along with the script that sets everything up, config in the home, creating the symlink where they need to be, install the packages, etc.. Once it’s setup it’s setup, that’s it. It’s a good way to have less ties because it means copying your home and running the script will reproduce your system, workflow, minimal stuffs, and core value. I think this is the epitome of whatever having less ties with a machine means.

With that we can conclude this podcast.




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