My Dedicated Writing Machine

I’ve been writing a sci fi series, and the longer I live with these stories, the more I become interested in the ironies and paradoxes of technology.

Ironies? Too many to mention. Suffice it to say that I live in the rural hinterlands and I am nevertheless connected with others via cell phone and the internet.

One last irony: A computer is generally great to work on — they can do a million little things, but I want to do one thing. I want a dedicated writing machine. Having the propensity to write creatively, I would prefer to work on a machine that feels imbued with that same creative spirit.

I wanted a dedicated writing computer, something that I can keep at a workspace that I use only for writing, equipment that only knows me as a writer. Not as a web browser, not as a teacher or web researcher or tinkerer.

The Mission

This dedicated machine, ideally:

  • is single-purpose like a pen and paper or a typewriter
  • has all the benefits of technology. (Copy/paste. Organizer features. Etc.)

Therefore

It needs to be able to run Scrivener.

(edit: Ironically, I have now transitioned to emacs, which, suffice to say, can run on just about anything).

Lately I have been using Scrivener to write. I am always interested in other writing programs, as I’m always interested in other ways to work with words. Voice recorder, longhand, libreoffice, typewriter… These days, I spend most of my time in Scrivener. I don’t even use most of its features, but haven’t found anything out there that compares — or rather, that competes. I do keep a separate text program open (gedit) and often simultaneously work from longhand notes and a jotty longhand outline.

Side note: I recently ditched QWERTY for Colemak and would recommend doing so to anyone who is interested enough in these matters to make it even this far into this post. I switched cold turkey, which was downright trippy for a couple of days, and definitely made typing more time consuming. After a week, typing the new way was no longer perplexing. “The new way,” I said. Yes! It’s a better way to type. If you don’t want to give up your QWERTY cold turkey, there are better ways to switch (like Tarmak).

Being able to run Scrivener may seem like a simple requirement, and maybe it is. But if you take a minimal computer like the raspberry pi for example, well, the pi runs on an ARM processor, not an x86, so it can’t run Scrivener. Great for other things, though.

No internet.
I want to be connected to the internet when I want to be connected, so something like an ethernet-only machine seems good. I understand the appeal of automated backups on a server somewhere, but I’m willing to forgo that for the sake of being streamlined.

Mechanical keyboard.
If you’ve used one, you know what I mean. If you haven’t, and the tactile experience of typing is one that interests you, try anything with cherry mx switches or topre or alps keys. Or even dig through the attic for an IBM model M bucking spring. Me, I love cherry mx browns with O-ring dampeners. Quiet, but tactile. Type rapidly without bottoming out and experience your fingers floating along. That sounds grandiose, and there you have it.

Dark theme or e-ink.
This is a minor issue really, and easy to accomplish. I usually prefer to have white on black than the glare of a white screen. Scrivener’s composition mode can easily accomplish this, though ideally the darkness carries over into the rest of the OS. As of today, an e-ink screen isn’t really an option.

Linux.
I have become something of a Linux enthusiast. I am all for free and open source. When it’s a company, I prefer it to be a small and/or reasonable one rather than a corporate monolith. I lean toward Debian/Ubuntu. This is an easy fix, as Linux can run on pretty much anything with a pretty good chance for being awesome.

No toolbars, no dock.
I want the screen to have nothing on it but my current application. I don’t want the cognitive availability of anything besides the page.
I accomplished this easily with Gnome. By changing a setting, I can hide the toolbar. Everything on the screen is an open field. To bring up the launcher, all I have to do is press the Super key. Otherwise, no side dock, no top toolbar. And a solid black background. If no window is open, it looks like the screen is off. Purity.

Multiple workspaces.
OSX does this really well, particularly with the multitouch integration. Four-finger swipe to a new workspace is brilliant. In Gnome, as with many Linux desktop environments, switching workspaces is as simple as Ctrl-Alt-Up/Down. In a way, having the keyboard shortcut is better for someone who likes his hands on the keyboard.

Minimal yet capable.
I don’t want the machine to give any sign of struggle with the generally non-processor intensive work I am doing. (8086, you’re disqualified.)

Low power, potentially portable.
In some ways, I’m just rethinking the laptop. The laptop is supremely versatile, but it’s also a compromise. Even my Mac Pro Retina is, for nitpicky reasons:

  • I can’t change the distance or elevation between me and the display.
  • The chiclet keyboard isn’t the dreamboat my mech keyboard is.

So why not just plug in the keyboard and use the mac display? In a way, it’s a waste of a computer. The Mac is a fully functional machine, and I am only going to use my writing machine for one thing.

Oh, and extremely inexpensive.
For an endeavor like this, the sound decision is to make it as inexpensive as possible. Goal: to cost about as much as my mechanical keyboard, which will likely outlive it.

Smallish screen with high pixel density.
This was one of the trickiest points. Though I suspect this will change in the recent future, as of now, most high pixel density displays are large (4k desktops) that need to plug into the wall. What about a high-dpi USB powered monitor? Not as easy to find, and cost about as much as a tablet costs.

Eventually,
I realized that a repurposed tablet computer fit my description perfectly. I got an inexpensive Onda v975w, a Chinese tablet running Windows 8 with a display identical to an ipad 2. I wiped Windows away and installed Debian Jessie via netboot, using a powered otg adapter and powered usb hub. I made a few customizations to Gnome, installed the i386 version of Scrivener, and called it a job well done.

For portability, a separate 5v usb battery pack will do the trick. (Plus this to power the usb hub.) Of course, the tablet has its own battery, but its single micro usb port can’t be expected to power a keyboard, mouse/trackpad, and USB drive. So, the battery is for that stuff, with the added benefit of also charging the tablet battery.

One last note: data portability/security.
In Scrivener, you can designate where you want to save (and almost continuously auto-save). You can set a separate location for where you want to save backups. I chose to save my document on a USB flash drive and save backups on the tablet’s removable mini SD card. I don’t save anything on the tablet’s internal drive.

In linux, you can easily encrypt both of these drives using luks or whatever. You have to enter a passphrase to mount the drive, and is a good idea if you’re traveling or have any state secrets on your thumb drive.

Recommendation: Velcro, for attaching the usb hub (and external battery) to the back of the tablet.

Also: I should mention that touchscreen functionality didn’t make it for my installation of Debian, but actually I prefer it this way. I don’t want to touch the screen, smear it up while I’m writing. Ubuntu 15.10 worked brilliantly — touch function worked when I tried it via live boot.

Also, the battery indicator doesn’t work. Not really an issue for me either, since I keep it connected to a power source.

Another note: If you decide to go with the same device I did, be warned! It’s a 64 bit processor but has a 32 bit bootloader. Installing or even booting a 64bit OS requires a 32 bit bootloader workaround, and sometimes the workaround requires more workarounds. In other words, be prepared to get really familiar with GRUB and BIOS/UEFI whatnot. I decided that since the device has 2gb RAM, there would be no harm in running a 32-bit OS and calling it good.

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Thoughts?

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