I hit five years with Automattic on January 20th 2023 and with that milestone I became eligible for a special benefit: A sabbatical. It’s a bittersweet timing, a little, because we’re in the middle of an exciting growth opportunity for the public sector, and especially the federal marketplace. Still, I’m extremely excited for June 19th when I get to turn off my work computer, delete Slack and the WordPress.com apps from my phone and log out until September. This will be the last time we have an entire summer off together as a family and we’re not going sleep on that opportunity.
One thing we’ve been asked a lot is what our plans are. We do indeed have plans, and we’ll blog about them over on the family blog. We flee the country on June 19th for a long overdue international trip with Laszlo and then will spend the remaining time enjoying our summer, doing local travel, and likely visiting friends and family in Minnesota.
In an effort to fully separate myself from work, and not be tempted to check up on people and see how things are going, I’m not only turning my work computers off, but storing them away. I have an iMac that sits on my desk, it’ll go back in its box. My laptop I plan to charge to 50% and store in the closet. The only things I’ll log into are the government issued machines,to ensure I don’t get permanently locked out of them.
But I’ve relied heavily on my work computer for personal use the last few years. Certain banking tasks, blogging, the occasional side project, all remain much easier to do on a laptop or desktop with a full featured GUI than attempting to tap things and mash my fingers onto small keys or a touchscreen keyboard.
Year of the Linux Desktop
It’s a bit of an experiment, I’ll admit, but my plan is to use a Raspberry Pi for the work better suited to a full computer. I have a few of them on hand including a Raspberry Pi 4B with 1GB of RAM. It’s a bit low-resourced even for a Pi, but the entire thing: cables, 128GB storage, case, HMDI cable, even a little e-ink HAT cost me probably around $100 total and has been in service for the last few years already. So if it doesn’t work out, it can go back to being a Pi-hole, or a media server, or whatever I think of for my next pi project. I’m committed to giving it a shot, though, as a primary desktop workstation. A “daily driver” if you will.
Pi OS Lite to full desktop
When I originally put this Pi in service, I used it for running pi-hole, Homebridge, and briefly, Home Assistant. I didn’t have a screen dedicated to it, nor did I need one. Everything I needed to do with it could be done over SSH with auto-login of the pi user. I installed Raspberry Pi OS lite, and since it would always be plugged in to a router, I actually disabled the WiFi radio entirely. The first stage in my journey to a Linux desktop was to convert the OS to full Raspberry Pi OS by installing a GUI and then re-enabling the WiFi and bluetooth radios. It was relatively easy to do and there are good guides for the former online.
I largely followed the advice from Raspberry Pi Tips for how to install a GUI and configure the Pi to boot from it. I’ve dabbled with Ubuntu in virtual machines here and there but am new enough to desktop Linux to not have a preference when it came to GUI so I went with PIXEL, which is a pared-down and pre-configured version of the already-lightweight LXDE (which I have some experience with). Once I had it all installed and working, I set out to figure out if I could make it work for me.
A capable browser: Vivaldi
I haven’t installed a theme yet or added many applications, because at 1GB of memory, this machine is pretty resource constrained as it is. One choice I did make was for a web browser. Raspberry Pi OS comes with Firefox ESR, Dillo, and a basic WebKit browser pre-installed. I also installed Chromium and Vivaldi to test their performance on the Pi. I found all of these to be limited, but all but Vivaldi were unable to reliably run an essential add-on: 1Password. So, for at least the months of my sabbatical when I’m at home, I’ll be a Vivaldi user. So far, I like it but I don’t know if I’ll give up Firefox as my primary for personal use on other platforms anytime soon.
A decent keyboard
All the keyboards I have lying around right now are either in use by someone else, or they’re old, big, or broken thanks to cats pushing them off shelves. I have a Keychron K2 that I love to use, so I bought another one just for use with this computer. This will help make the Pi much easier to use, and more pleasing on the fingertips.
Issues to work through
Adjusting to desktop Linux is far easier in 2023 than the last time I tried it in, probably, 2008. Pretty much everything works out of the box including printing to the same Brother Printer Everybody Else Has and connecting arbitrary peripherals like an Apple mouse and Logitech keyboard. Still, there’s was some real work to do to get things as I need them; using Raspberry Pi OS for everyday things is an exercise in patience. But the first time I tried to install Ubuntu on my 2007 MacBook, for example, I had to program in support for two finger scrolling on the built in trackpad, comparatively the Pi Just Works.
One example of this is automatic screen locking and screensavers. I had to edit a configuration file to get a “Lock” item in the main menu bar. I had to install
xscreensaver and then configure it to lock the screen after a certain period of time. It’s possible if I hadn’t installed “Lite” OS from the start, these would have been built in, I’m not sure. Regardless, juggling the difference between screen “blanking” “saving” and “locking” was not entirely intuitive and required some manual work.
Another limitation I’ll have to contend with is the limited RAM. This machine freezes up quickly under intensive load from complex webpages. I may be able to “solve” this by using Dillo for most things and only using Vivaldi when I need to log in or do something highly interactive. Regardless, I’ll have to be really intentional about limiting my open tabs and apps to keep memory usage under 1GB. If this all works out, I may decide to purchase an 8GB version of the same Pi which should be plenty.
There are a lot of other little things I need to figure out too. Like, how to reliably set display resolution. I have a fairly large screen and while I can make good use of it, the settings don’t always persist between reboots, and a separate application I used to control it seems to have vanished, possibly accidentally. A funny thing is that cursor size doesn’t seem to scale with the rest of the display, so I have a giant mouse pointer relative to the buttons and text I’m selecting. For now it’s equal parts fun and frustrating. I hope it trends more toward equal parts fun and enjoyable.
With all my laptops stashed away, I only have the iPad I’m using to write this post available for mobile use. Normally, for writing blog posts, I’d use the Jetpack app on my iPad, but were I to do that during my sabbatical, I’d have to find a way to ignore or disable notifications from work that push through that app. I’m not sure that’s possible, so instead I plan to log in with the web browser and saved my sites as progressive web apps. So far, so good on that front.
I definitely have some work to figure out. Since I self host this site, I have relied pretty heavily on Jetpack for mobile editing and haven’t really tried to upload images or work with content from a tablet. I’m getting a strange error when I try to upload from the Photos Library, and I’m not sure what that’s about. The wp-admin interface is still geared more toward desktop use than the tablet form factor, but so far I’m pleased with how it’s going.
Beyond blogging there really isn’t much I need to change in order to adapt to my iPad over a laptop. I already prefer the smaller and more portable screen compared to a laptop, and the relatively simple interface. The Magic Keyboard Folio makes it pretty easy to type and navigate webpages on an iPad wherever I am. Once I can get these details sorted out, I should be set.
What could go wrong?
Not much really. The down side of all this might be that I just don’t really use a computer much while I’m on sabbatical. I can’t say that’d really be a problem. In fact, it’s kinda the point of going on sabbatical isn’t it? I have a few projects I hope to take on but if I don’t get to them, so what? As long as I can blog while I travel, no big deal.