Jon Thysell

Father. Engineer. Retro games. Ukuleles. Nerd.

Month: August, 2012

What I use in 2012, Part 1: Hardware

I like to see how people work; especially for those whose work is mostly on the computer. So in the spirit of Paul Thurrott‘s What I Use for Home and Office Technology, and Lifehacker‘s How I Work series, I present the following list of what technology I use at home.

Note: I don’t endorse anything here beyond the implicit “this is what I actually use at home.”


Hester: Lenovo ThinkPad T420 (Notebook)

Hester is my primary machine, and is named after the main character in my Guineawick Tales stories. It’s got a 2.6GHz Intel Core i5 CPU and 8GB of RAM. It boots from a zippy 80GB SSD, and has second 500GB hard drive for storage. It has a 14″ 1600×900 screen and a 9-cell extended battery; I like my machines light and easy to travel with.

I love and use the TrackPoint almost exclusively, only using a Microsoft Bluetooth Notebook Mouse 5000 when I want a mouse, since Hester has Bluetooth built-in and that means no USB dongle.

Hester currently runs Ubuntu 11.10 “Oneiric Ocelot”, and has never seen a copy of Windows outside of a virtual machine. But more on the software in Part 2.

Cortana: ASUS EeePC 1000HA (Netbook)

Cortana is my secondary “swings in to save the day” machine, named after the Halo character. It’s got a 1.6GHz Intel Atom CPU and 2GB of RAM. It came with a 160GB hard disk, which I replaced with a 32GB SSD. The model didn’t offer Bluetooth when I bought it, but that didn’t stop me from installing the radio from another laptop anyway.

Cortana has a 10″ 1024×600 screen, which, along with the poor Adobe Flash support, is really its only weakness. When the original battery died, I replaced it with a monster 12-cell that gives me a whopping 14 hours battery life (only 8 with WiFi on).

Cortana spent its longest time running Ubuntu 10.10 “Maverick Meerkat”, but has also run Ubuntu 11.04 “Natty Narwhal”, Windows XP Home, Windows 7 Home Premium and Ultimate, as well as Windows 8. Last I checked it’s running Windows 7 Ultimate (I flatten this machine so much it’s hard to keep track).

I’ve won three NaNoWriMos on Cortana. It’s saved my butt at work on numerous occasions. This little machine has proved its worth so many times I’m probably going to bronze it when it finally dies.

Serenity: Dell Vostro 200 Slim (Desktop)

Serenity was my primary machine for four years until I bought Hester, and is named for the Firefly ship. It has a 3.0GHz Intel Core 2 Duo CPU and 4GB RAM. It boots from its original 80GB hard drive, but has an additional 1TB drive for storage.

It powers two 22″ 1920×1080 Dell S2209W monitors with a GeForce 8400 GS video card, and I used a Logitech Trackman Marble Trackball along with a Logitech Classic Keyboard 200.

Serenity started its life running Windows XP Pro, but then moved on to a long life with Ubuntu, starting with 7.10 “Gutsy Gibbon” and surviving 8 in-place upgrades to 11.10 without a hitch. It is only after Hester became my primary machine that I put Windows 7 Ultimate on Serenity, namely as a joint machine for Anne and I. Unfortunately, I find my lifestyle doesn’t require a desktop these days (and the desk to support it), and so Serenity has migrated into the closet indefinitely.

Horatio: MSI Wind Nettop 100 (Server)

Horatio is my personal file/backup/utility server, named after Horatio Hornblower. It’s got a 1.6GHz Intel Atom CPU and 1GB of RAM. It has two low-power hard drives, for a total of 2.5TB of storage. As a nettop with green hard-drives, it uses only a miniscule 35W of power.

The primary purpose of Horatio is to be a backup server. All of my other machines backup daily to Horatio. I also store my entire media collection here, so that I can stream it to whatever machine I’m currently on.

Horatio runs Ubuntu 12.04.

Franklin: ASUS EB1007-B0410 EeeBox Mini (Server)

Franklin is my remote backup server, named after Benjamin Franklin. It’s got a 1.6GHz Intel Atom CPU (gotta love those Atoms!) with 1GB RAM and a 250GB hard drive.

The primary purpose of Franklin is to store backups of my backups, off-site from my home. As all of my machines backup to Horatio on a regular basis, so does Horatio backup to Franklin. Because of the lack of storage space (I wanted a tiny, silent machine)  I only backup my personal data and music to Franklin. Movies and other video content only live on Horatio for the time being.

Franklin runs Ubuntu 12.04.


Right now I carry an HTC Trophy running Windows Phone 7.5, which is named Jacobi after a character in my upcoming Guineawick Tales novel, Hester and the Kookaburra King. I’ve got an extended battery so I can go two days with heavy use and not charge.

I moved earlier this year, and as an experiment I used Jacobi as my primary computing device for a little over a month, while everything else was packed away. Email, web browsing, gaming, music, movies and reading. The phone held up remarkably well- enough that if I wasn’t a software developer or a writer, I could live pretty happy with just my phone. (You believe me, right?)

My previous phone was an LG Optimus S running Android 2.3.3, and the phone before that was the ill-fated Palm Pre. In general I like smaller phones; I for one am against the trend of larger, flatter devices.

Portable Devices

SanDisk Sansa Clip+

This $50 MP3 player is the best I’ve ever owned, and that’s including the Cowon iAudio5 that survived my service in Africa. My Sansa Clip+ has 4GB storage built-in, and I’ve added a 16GB card so I can carry my entire music collection plus podcasts and audiobooks.

While the original factory software was pretty good, I upgraded to the Rockbox open-source firmware, which really makes this little player shine. It lives mostly in my car, mounted to the dash, but I also clip it to my pocket when I go running.

Pocketbook 360

I’ve written about my PB360. Twice in fact. I still think that, even years after its original release, it still holds its own very well against the latest crop of Nooks and Kindles.

However, I’ll admit that the hassle of carrying a second device around means I hardly use my PB360 any more. I just want to read way more often than I want to carry around an e-ink reader. I do the majority of my reading on my phone these days; it’s a lot quieter and works in the dark.

Dingoo A320

I’m a big retro-gaming fan, and while I appreciate the strides in touch-screen based gaming on phones, give me a Sega Genesis and a controller any day. My Dingoo A320, on which I’ve installed Linux, lets me carry around pretty much every retro game, on every retro system, that I could ever want to play, and do it really well. When I want to play old games, this is where I go.


It’s amazing how quickly this little step counter as become “attached to my hip”. (Pun way, way intended). I’ve only had a Fitbit for a few months, but I think I’ve only ever forgotten to carry it once (and believe me, it bothered me all day).

I don’t put too much stock into its numbers- mainly it serves as a physical reminder for me to take the stairs over the elevator, to get up and take breaks from my desk at work. It’s just a really geeky string tied to my finger, but it works too well for me to give it up.

Home Technology

Internet, TV

I get Comcast High Speed Internet and average ~60Mbps down, ~15 Mbps up. I pay for TV service because it lowers my Internet bill, though I’m a cord-cutter in spirit: I have no cable-box and I haven’t hooked up a TV to the cable in several years.

Xbox 360

I work at Xbox, so it’s no surprise that I have an Xbox 360 in my home. Two, if you count Anne’s. Nothing special about it, other than a 250GB upgrade, though I do have a MadCatz Street Fighter IV Fightstick that I replaced the guts with a higher quality joystick and arcade machine buttons. I use it mainly for playing Pac-Man though.

My Xbox is set up in my game room / office with an Onkyo 5.1 surround system and (for now) a Insignia 32″ 720p HDTV. My 40″ Samsung 1080p HDTV is currently serving the living room, along with the other Xbox, an LG soundbar, and an LG Blu-ray player.

We have two Logitech Harmony 610 remotes, one for the living room, one for the game room. They’re perfect, and essential for keeping everything in sync. Haven’t had to touch the original remotes for anything in years.

Everything Else

These are just the things that I think of when I think of “what I use”. Believe me, I have lots more hardware lying around, though I try to regularly sell off or toss what I don’t use any more. Everything except cables: you can never have too many extra cables.

I have a Wii that’s ostensibly set up for retro gaming, though I haven’t powered it on more than a dozen times in the past couple years. I have a digital camera that I religiously charge the batteries for trips and events, but always forget to take pictures with.

“Too Long, Didn’t Read” Summary

I am a nerd with way too many toys and I’m rarely satisfied unless I’ve broken their warranty and made them do more than the manufacturer intended. Especially if it means getting a longer battery life. I prefer Linux over Windows, except with my phone.

And remember, this is just my personal stuff- none of this includes the tech I use for my work as an engineer at Microsoft. Hmmm, that might be an interesting post…


Update (9/22/12): Be sure to check out What I use in 2012, Part 2: Software.

P.S. So what do you use at home? Leave a comment below!

The Taoist knack for living

A Taoist constantly strives to achieve the state where they can do the best thing in the best way at the best time, without conscious effort.

From Diary of a Daoist Hermit:

As Graham characterizes him, Zhuangzi (Chaungtse) believed that human beings are at their best when “heaven” lives through them, or, when people “merge with the Dao”. This is not some sort of cosmic daze, but rather when people develop an appropriate form of intuitive spontaneity that allows them to do the right thing in the right way at the right time—without having to think about it. He uses the analogy of a skilled tradesman who has developed the “knack” of his craft and suggests that a sage has a similar “knack” for living.

He calls it “the knack” or “intuitive spontaneity”, I sometimes call it “skilled unawareness”, but they’re all one and the same. How impressive it is to watch experts in every field, so “in tune” with their expertise that their actions seem to flow effortlessly. It’s a phenomenon much akin to a professional athlete’s “muscle memory”, and how it unconsciously guides their physical movements.

Taoism demonstrates this “knack” in the text Chuangtse:

A good craftsman draws lines and circles without the help of compasses and squares. His fingers are so sensitively attuned to his material that he does not depend on the direction of his mind.

And in Taoism, as suggested by the opening quote, a sage is one who applies such skill to the art of living.

In order to achieve this state of being, Taoism suggests experience over education. The 48th chapter of the Taoist text Tao Te Ching starts:

The student of knowledge (aims at) learning day by day;
The student of Tao (aims at) losing day by day.

The Tao can be inadequately defined as the “way of the universe”. Loosely put, the Taoist abandons education and wrote learning for experiencing the universe first-hand. Then, seeing the results of their actions, they develop a deep wisdom of how the world works, which, with time and practice, blossoms into “the knack” of the sages. Just as an athlete practices and practices their sport until their body moves the right way instinctively, the Taoist sage experiences the universe again and again until their own instincts guide them to do the right thing, no matter the situation.

Now the similar Bushido precept of “treating matters of great concern lightly” suggests the alternative approach, as a student of knowledge. Bushido promotes a lifetime of endless study, devouring new knowledge day by day. In following Bushido, one plans ahead for as many obstacles as possible, in order that when the time comes, one can treat those obstacles lightly and meet them head on. This is much in the way of governments who prepare response plans for emergencies that may never come. It’s all about preparation for the unknown.

Whichever the path though, the end goal is the same: to be able to handle anything that comes your way.

Oddly enough, both paths acknowledge a strange side-effect of achieving this state of being: one often appears to be an idiot. For Taoists, this is because non-sages often see a sage’s behavior as opposite of how things are “supposed” to be done. This is poetically obscured in chapter 45 of Tao Te Ching:

The highest perfection is like imperfection

In Bushido, this appearance of idiocy happens because even a sufficiently prepared follower is encouraged to believe that their skills are never sufficient. In recognizing the limits of their knowledge, followers of Bushido consider themselves to be idiots. The Bushido text Hagakure says:

In the highest level a man has the look of knowing nothing.

I believe that this concept of “the knack” can be found beyond eastern thought. When I first wrote this article, I spent hours pouring over my books and notes on Existentialism. I’m sure with enough time, I’d find a Existentialist parallel to “the knack”.

In the meantime, I present two options: Taoism with its path of constant experiences, or Bushido with its path of continual study. Both help us better respond to the world around us, and enable us to, in the words of the opening quote, do the right thing in the right way at the right time.

Call it skilled unawareness, intuitive spontaneity, treating matters of great concern lightly, or simply “the knack”. My question is, which path appeals most to you?

An earlier draft of this article was originally published January 26, 2008 under a former pseudonym of mine. I rescued it with WXR to HTML, and I present it here revised and expanded.