Uses for a headless desktop

Despite my minimalist nature, I can't turn down an old desktop to play with now and then. But sometimes I run out of monitors for these poor things and need to run some computers headless. What can we do over SSH? Here's what I've come up with.

-rtorrent. Not only is rtorrent one of the most powerful bittorrent clients I've ever used, but it's also command-line based and easy to configure and walk away from. Run once and walk away, basically. Keep seeding those Debian CD's, boys! More bandwidth on the ports!

-Internet radio. You could run your own with Icecast if you feel like playing a random jukebox across your stereo systems, or you could listen to one already on the net. My favorite is SomaFM (Groove Salad!) and there's a variety of codecs to choose from. I use the AACPlus 64k stream just because my bandwidth is in low supply, but I imagine an MP3 stream would be easier for some older computers.

To play Groove Salad, I install MPlayer, and then I get the download location of the playlist SomaFM gives me and I give that to mplayer.


And it's off. Plug in some stereos and you've got an internet radio player. Alternatively, you could use the MPlayer options to record the music stream for later listening, like this:

mplayer -playlist -ao pcm:file=mystream.wav -vc dummy -vo null

Keep in mind this fills up pretty quickly, though, so make sure you have enough hard drive space to leave it running! After you're done recording, you could break it up with Audacity and encode it with Vorbis tools or LAME for a portable music player.

-Newsbeuter has some downloading options I haven't played with yet, but if you have podcasts or a netlabel you follow in your RSS feeds, you could set Newsbeuter up to download them for you so they're ready to be listened to.

-Games. Actually, it's funny how handy it is to have a server lying around for games, especially if my friends come over and want to play Minecraft together. Most games have Linux server options.

But there was another option I had in mind. Console games like Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup tend not to use much (if any) computational power, but there are some like Dwarf Fortress that are pretty heavy on the processor. DF isn't purely text out of the box, but you can mod it to be so. Dwarf Fortress is a very powerful simulation game that requires more power than your usual used computer can handle, so this is a great idea for situations where your laptop is less powerful than your desktop.

Any other ideas?

Decibel - music player

is a music player for Gnome (and other GTK desktops). It has an optional file browser on the side, and a playlist to add songs to below the controls.

It reminds me of Amarok 1.4, but with the restraint of Potamus. I like Potamus, but it forces me to have an extra window open to add songs to the playlist, unlike Decibel.

It's in most distros. Give it a run.

Fewer Files

The day after finals were over, I reinstalled Ubuntu onto my laptop as a temporary measure until CentOS or Scientific Linux stabilize. It's fantastic.

I transferred only the following:

-my URL file for newsbeuter
-a couple of files off of my music player (have I mentioned how much I love Kahvi Collective?)
-a saved archive of the latest Dungeon Crawl source code

The rest I forced myself to obtain naturally, on the internet. No old wallpaper folders. No gigantic music libraries. No random text scraps of ideas littering my documents folder.

My productivity jumped drastically. My dependence on my files and the management of them takes up too much time. Some of the times I do need, sure. But I don't need to transfer over 30 GB every time I get a new OS install!

I didn't feel in the mood to build up to my usual Ubuntu installation, so I built down this time, and it left me in a pretty good position. And I have to admit, uninstalling 600 MB of programs and libraries feels pretty good.

I've said before that less isn't very useful unless you're doing it for the right reasons, but it's still a very powerful tool, as everything can be.

Self Control

This article was sent to me and I gave it a good read. It's a New York times article about people discussing the ways the brain might be changing due to constantly multitasking with technology. The brain discussion was interesting, though I would have preferred some more concrete terms and research than the ones offered, but hey, it's the newspaper.

I couldn't relate to the main characters of the article! They're described as endlessly checking e-mail, to the detriment of the people around them (I often wonder how they find these random people for introductions in news stories); off checking Facebook as they're doing homework or reading Twitter as they're preparing for a presentation.

Why don't I feel the same way? Certainly I spend some time on the internet, checking Reddit like the family in the story do. But I don't seem to have issues beyond entertainment value. Could it be that I run a blog with the word "minimalist" in the title? Perhaps! I could offer some solutions at least.

The biggest thing that jumped out at me was not that the people in the story couldn't help themselves, but that they didn't. The biggest example was the father who knows that Twitter gives him useless information when he's trying to do work. Why doesn't he turn off the Twitter feed? A lack of self control? A misplaced priority? A desire to know information when it happens? Certainly all of these things.

No one would be surprised if you placed yourself under four screens and an iPad filled with distractions and when you were asked to do work, nothing materialized. It takes self control many of us do not possess to get work done in an environment that breeds uninterest, so we must have the foresight to eliminate these things ahead of time.

How does one focus with technology pestering us so often?

1) Eliminate the internet's immediate gratification.

I find that doing simple things like unplugging the router or using a blocking program on your computer doesn't quite do it. I've seen friends of mine simply get up and plug the router back in, or reboot their computer to get around their artificial limitations. It's sad, really, but I see why. Some pope just can't go on without something, anything.

The best way to eliminate the internet is to set up a torrent on a headless second computer in a remote location in the building. Download something like Ubuntu so that it uses all of your bandwidth, and choose a good file size so that you have an allotted time. You can still access web pages and email on your other computer, sort of, but it takes a long time to load and by the time it does, people who have low self control have already moved back to their work.

2) Get rid of everything else.

Twitter feed? Close it. Email client? Nuke it from space. RSS? Fagettabahdit. Just turn it all off. If you're managing text, go X-less. Remove until you cannot remove any more. And don't be like the people in the story, who would most certainly say, "I can't remove that!" You can and you will.

3) White noise. Yes, it works. If the white noise irritates your ears, try some thunderstorm sounds instead. The internet's full of both.

4) Make a schedule, Gatsby style.

From The Great Gatsby itself:

Rise from bed 6.00 AM
Dumbbell exercise & wall-scaling 6.15 – 6.30 AM
Study electricity, etc 7.15 – 8.15 AM
Work 8.30 AM – 4.30 PM
Baseball & sports 4.30 – 5.00 PM
Practise elocution, poise & how to attain it 5.00 – 6.00 PM
Study needed inventions 7.00 – 9.00 PM

Be even more ridiculously specific than that. Break down every task you have into smaller chunks. Estimate the amount of time needed and craft a schedule from that. Print out the schedule and paste it over your workspace. Stick to it. Cross off time sand appropriate if you need to, but your shame for muddying up your lovely schedule will most surely bring you back to your task.

5) Make resolves, Gatsby style.

Again from the book:

No wasting time…
Read one improving book or magazine per week.
Save $ 5.00 $ 3.00 per week.

You don't need to have life improving bullet points. Mostly "Get it done and do it right the first time." I like to make these more interesting by adding expletives and insults to the sentence, to make it sound gruff and edgy like a wise, tough old man is passing down his wisdom through tough love.

Maximalism versus Minimalism

I've seen the concept of "maximalism" echoed through the web sphere a couple of times and I wanted to discuss the difference between it and minimalism.

Maximalism, as I'm lead to believe, is the act of pushing what you already have as far as it can go, finding new and inventive uses for the gadgets and computers that you bought.

Minimalism is (in the classical sense) the act of toning down what you do in order to focus, utilizing what you already have in more efficient ways.

Both ideas stem from the idea of "what you already have;" aka not going out and buying a new laptop because the old one doesn't do what you want any more. They're both tweaks of the perspective that end up with the same result: "I'm fine where I am."

The only difference between them, then, is why you feel fine. "I'm fine with what I have because I still manage to push its boundaries above and beyond!" versus "I'm fine with what I have because I can shrink my needs to work for me and the boundaries of my currently existing machine."

I doubt I'll make a distinction in the future between the two, but I think both can be followed in tandem.