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In which I describe how to set up an awesome writing computer for just $175.

A $175 Chromebook writing computer

Last month I advanced to candidacy in my PhD program, which means I’m done with coursework beginning my dissertation. Because I’m a productivity nut, I’ve been sharpening my tools and setting up the most efficient workflow possible. As part of that, I started rethinking my daily computer. Since 2010 my workhorse machine has been a MacBook Pro. It has aged well thanks to a RAM upgrade and SSD, but is still heavy, big, limited in battery life, and too expensive to take just anywhere. It’s also filled with distractions.

For my dissertation, I wanted an ultraportable computer that would be ideal for doing just one thing: writing. My requirements included small size, light weight, a comfortable keyboard and trackpad, a good screen, long battery life, and sturdy build. It needed to run all the tools in my workflow: R, Python, Zotero, LaTeX, SublimeText, and Scrivener.

An 11.6″ MacBook Air would be a natural choice, but the $899 price tag seemed extreme for a machine that would only be used for writing. Next I looked at inexpensive, ultraportable PCs, but they had lousy reviews or were missing key features like two-finger scrolling.

Then I discovered Chromebooks. I learned these little computers are inexpensive, have quality keyboards and trackpads, have a long battery life, earn stellar reviews, and can run Linux. Sold. I’m now writing this on a high-quality little machine that cost less than $200 and perfectly meets my need for an ultraportable dissertation writing computer. The machine is not powerful. It is not fast. But it is absolutely perfect for doing just one thing: writing. In this post I’ll walk through exactly how I set it up.

1. Purchase a Chromebook

I opted for the Acer Chromebook CB3-131-C3SZ, an 11.6″ laptop that includes a 16GB SSD and 2 GB of RAM. It is the latest in a line of high-rated Acer Chromebooks, has a great screen, and advertises a battery life up to nine hours. The keyboard feels wonderful. The trackpad isn’t quite as smooth as my MacBook Pro, but is close enough. The computer cost me about $175, which I supplemented with a $10 32GB SD card.

2. Install new firmware

It is possible to run Linux on the top of ChromeOS with relatively good performance, but I had no need for ChromeOS and wanted a clean Linux install. That entailed downloading and running new firmware. After consulting the GalliumOS supported hardware list, I identified my processor as a Bay Trail, and followed the instructions here. The process went smoothly and I had new firmware in about five minutes.

3. Install GalliumOS

GalliumOS is a lightweight distribution of Xubuntu built specifically for Chromebooks. It has excellent reviews, seamlessly supports the trackpad and function keys on my Chromebook, and delivers fantastic battery life.

4. Update the OS

Open the terminal, and run the following commands. These will update the packages in your Linux distribution:

sudo apt-get update
sudo apt-get upgrade

5. Make the trackpad feel like a Macbook

By default, touchpad scrolling works in the reverse direction as my Macbook Pro. I switched this behavior to match my Mac by searching for “Mouse and Trackpad” in the Gallium search window, then clicking “Reverse Scroll Direction.”

I also can’t stand tap-to-touch functionality, as I am constantly tapping by accident while typing. I disabled this from the “Touchpad” tab of the same menu by deselecting “Tap touchpad to click.”

6. Install Dropbox

Because this isn’t my primary computer, I wanted a quick and seamless way to keep my files in sync. I already use Dropbox to store most of my files, so that was a logical solution. However, because of the Chromebook’s limited storage capacity and becuase I want syncing to go fast, I used Dropbox’s “Selective Sync” to only sync a couple key folders.

You can download Dropbox for Debian Linux distributions here. To activate selective sync, right-click on the Dropbox icon in the accessory tray, selective “Preferences”, click the “Account” tab, and press the button for “Selective Sync.”

7. Install Software

That’s it! We’re up and running! You can now install any software packages that will run on Ubuntu and other Debian distributions of Linux. Below are instructions for setting up the various tools in my workflow:

LaTeX

Open a terminal window and run the following commands:

sudo apt-get install texlive
sudo apt-get install texlive-latex-extra
sudo apt-get install texlive-bibtex-extra
sudo apt-get install latexmk
sudo apt-get install biber

R

From the terminal, run:

sudo apt-get install r-base

The ‘r-base’ package above completely installs R on your system. You can open an instance of R simply by typing “R” from the terminal. You can also open R consoles within SublimeText (see below).

However, I also like having access to the power of RStudio, a complete IDE for R. You can download the most recent .deb file at https://www.rstudio.com/products/rstudio/download/. You can install it either by double-clicking on the .deb file in your web browser or file manager, or else install it from the terminal by navigating to the download location and typing:

sudo dpkg -i filename.deb
sudo apt-get install -f

Scrivener

Scrivener is a gorgeous application designed for writers, which breaks complex documents into a tree-like structure of smaller snippets. It also features powerful outlining and metadata tools. Now that I’m using LaTeX my writing workflow no longer includes Scrivener, but I do use it for organizing research. Scrivener has paid, highly-developed versions for MacOS and Windows. The developer also experimented with a Linux version. He recently abandoned it, but decided to release the final version for free. You can download the .deb here (and if you like it, should consider purchasing a paid version to support the developer).

Run the following lines at the command line, which will install some prerequisites. Then install the .deb file just as you did with RStudio.

sudo apt-get install python-gtk2
sudo apt-get install python-gpgme

SublimeText

SublimeText 3 is my new favorite application for doing almost anything. It is an extremely powerful, customizable, and extensible text editor. Its real power comes from its massive set of hotkeys. There is a learning curve, but once you climb it, you can rapidly switch between projects or project files, navigate within files, compile code, review results, and do many other things—all without your fingers leaving the home row of the keyboard. Even better, you can use the same interface and same hotkeys to seamlessly jump between Python, R, LaTeX, Markdown, or many other file types.

Sublime Text 3 also has a very nice full-screen mode, which makes everything disappear except for the active writing window. This is perfect for a distraction-free writing computer.

One more advantage to Sublime Text 3 is the customizable hotkeys. For me, high productivity requires mastering keyboard shortcuts, which makes it very difficult to swap back and forth between a Mac and a PC (for example, CMD-C versus CTRL-C for copying text). With SublimeText 3 I was able to remap my most common hotkeys so they feel identical to my MacBook Pro–at a small fraction of the price.

SublimeText 3 costs $70, but you can download and try it for free here. Then install the SublimeText package manager by following the instructions here.

I plan to write a separate post later explaining how I customize my ST3 environment. For now, key packages to look into are SublimeREPL and LaTeXTools.

Evince

This is a PDF viewer that integrates well with SublimeText and LaTeXTools, a SublimeText plugin. With Evince installed, building a LaTeX document in ST3 will result in the compiled PDF opening in Evince.

sudo apt-get install evince

Zotero

Zotero is free, open-source citation management system. You can automatically pull citations for journal articles and books using various web browser plugins, sync them across your devices, and automatically generate LaTeX .bib files for inclusion in your LaTeX documents. I paid a modest fee for increased storage, so all of my PDF versions of journal articles and reports are attached to Zotero bibliographic entries and automatically sync across my computers.

You can download a stand-alone Linux installer here.

Pin key apps to panel

You can pin your favorite apps to the panel by finding them in the OS menu, right-clicking them, and selecting “Add to Panel.”

#Monday musings

July 4, 2016 — Leave a comment

I’m proud to finally join so many friends and colleagues over at The Strategy Bridge, with a few thoughts of my own. Now that I’m done with PhD coursework, I hope to have more time for professional writing.

You can read my offering for #Monday Musings here.

Brad Edmonson at Leading Edge Airpower has published an analysis of my short story The Wasp Keepers, from an airpower theory perspective. I was glad when Brad reached out to me with the idea, because I always intended the story to be more than just science fiction. The story grew out of a question I deemed critical, as the Air Force was posturing itself for the future: What if we had perfect sensing and perfect strike, and could still lose? Read Brad’s analysis at the link!

I’m a week late sharing the link here, but if you haven’t already, I encourage you to read my new piece at War on the Rocks: How to Discover Defense Innovation. In this article, several coauthors and I discuss how our involvement in the Defense Entrepreneurs Forum 2013 conference led to unforeseen successes that directly benefit the Department of Defense. How? “Discovery activities” are the raw material of innovation–activities that broaden our horizons, relationships, and experiences, even if we have no idea how they will serve us later. DEF is a change to engage in three straight days of discovery with a group of fantastic people. That’s why I’m so excited to board a plane in a few hours for DEF2014. I’ll see many of you there! And for those of you who can’t make it, I’m coming out of my social media hibernation to participate on Twitter. Look for us at  #DEF2014.

This year I have no New Year’s resolutions.  Here’s why.

The very idea of making resolutions implies that we aren’t living the life we want; we are slaves to destructive vices that we need to break free from, or we are failing to invest our  time and energy in the good and noble things that we want in the depths of our soul.  New Year’s resolutions are discontinuities.  They are our declaration to ourselves and to the world that on January 1st we will cease to be the person we were the day before, and become somebody else.  That’s why we usually fail to keep them.  Few of us are capable of such heroics; for the mortals among us, change is slow and difficult.

Self-improvement is both desirable and achievable, but it is a continual process that requires unwavering commitment, hard work, and constant monitoring.  Life change isn’t a surgical airstrike; it’s World War II.  It is a long hard slog through the rain and the mud, and if you stop fighting for a moment, you will be overrun.  The good news is that if you do have the grit to fight every day, you really can gain ground.  As victories accumulate, you can change yourself and your world.  Victory becomes a habit.  And if you are striving every day to live the life that you want, New Year’s resolutions become redundant.

The past few years have been a time of incredible life change for me, largely by necessity.  I had to finally confront weaknesses within myself that were threatening to  ruin my entire life; the resulting change has been tremendous.  My time in Jordan forced me to alter parts of my personality by sheer force of will, because I could only thrive as an Olmsted scholar if I overcame my deep natural introversion.  The birth of my three closely-spaced children brought me the greatest joys and blessings of my life, but has also put incredible demands on my time and energy.  As a result, I’ve spent a great deal of time thinking about my values and priorities and strategizing how to pursue and invest in the people and projects I am sincerely passionate about.  Once a year or so my wife and I have a “Navigator’s Council” to deeply reflect on where the ship is sailing, and we make plenty of mid-course corrections along the way.

So when it came time to start thinking about New Year’s resolutions, I realized I didn’t have anything new to commit to.  In so many ways, my family and I genuinely are living the lives we want.  Of course, that doesn’t mean we have it all together; each night when my wife and I collapse onto the sofa after putting the last child in bed, we are just grateful to have survived the day–and we hope we didn’t make an impossible wreck out of everything.  We often feel like failures as spouses, as parents, as friends, as Christians and as professionals.  But if we look past the daily grind at the big picture, we’re mostly living the lives we want, and we’re constantly striving to improve in those areas we’re not.  We prioritize each other and our kids, undertake many adventures together as a family, and are constantly experimenting with different routines so we can better educate our kids or work out more or have more time to read.  My wife is regularly learning new, healthier ways to feed our family.  For my part, I’m always paying attention to my family-work balance, cutting out inefficiencies and wasted time, and improving my time management so I can complete the projects I’m passionate about while still dedicating abundant time to my family.

In other words, we don’t have discontinuities; we are committed to a constant process of growth and change.  We are always striving to improve ourselves as individuals and as a family, and improve the ways we interact with and give back to the world.

This isn’t to disparage resolutions or the people who make them.  I have plenty of resolutions–whole notebooks are filled with them and their outworkings–but I would never achieve any of them if I confined them to the start of the new year; I’m way too failure-prone to stand a chance.  To succeed, resolutions must be so much more than annual pledges; they must be seared into the core of our being, guiding us as we fight the new battles that each and every day brings.

That is why I don’t have New Year’s resolutions; they wouldn’t do me a bit of good.  Instead, my constant goal is to be a person of resolve.  To never settle, but to always be striving for the greater good in my life and the lives of others.

Going Audible

January 1, 2013 — 3 Comments

I’m always on the lookout for ways to improve my productivity, so a couple months ago I finally tried something I never expected to like: audio books.  I have to keep my mind engaged twenty-four hours a day to be happy, so I’ve always listened to interesting material like NPR or Arabic news when I’m in the car or working out, but I never thought audio books would be a satisfactory substitute for reading.  That, and audiobooks are expensive.

But on a whim, I checked out Audible and realized that their subscription prices actually made audiobooks affordable.  I downloaded a book that I had begun reading in print, but hadn’t had time to finish: Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses.  I was blown away.  The performance quality was excellent.  Frank Muller, the narrator, has a mesmerizing style and a range of voices that brought each character to life without ever sounding contrived or cheesy.

I’d listened for less than two minutes when I realized something profound that I probably should have understood years ago: stories are meant to be shared aloud.  Long before our ancestors invented written language, they gathered in caves or beside fires to regale one another with epic tales from life and from their imaginations.  Something of that is still in our blood.  After work each day, I rushed to my car and spent my twenty-minute commute completely absorbed in the austere frontier world of McCarthy’s creation.  Hearing the language brought it to life, endowing it with power and beauty it didn’t have on the page.  It helped me to better appreciate the book, and I have no doubt that hearing the music of language is making me a better writer.

Now, at the recommendation of a friend, I am listening to Thomas Jefferson: the Art of Power.  The performance quality equals that of All the Pretty Horses; I can listen to narrator Jon Meachem for hours without tiring.  With this book, I also discovered a neat little trick of Audible that is a godsend for those of us who never have enough time: you can listen to a book at 2x or 3x speed.  With this particular book, I found that 2x matched my need for time efficiency with audio quality; the book goes fast, but not so fast that the narrator’s wonderful voice degrades.

In short, I’m sold.  Next on deck is that literary masterpiece that was unquestionably meant to be performed out loud: The Iliad.

Technical update

December 9, 2012 — 3 Comments

I am still working out some kinks with the transition to WordPress.  I thought the RSS feed was fixed, and that subscriptions would be seamless for my readers, but just discovered that Feedburner is reporting my total number of subscribers has plummeted to 7.  Something has obviously gone wrong.

If you have been following Building Peace by RSS, I would love to hear your feedback.  Are you still receiving new posts in your feed?  Did you need to resubscribe?  Does anything seem broken?

In the meantime, you can help me out by spreading the word that readers should check in at www.buildingpeace.net to ensure they are receiving my most recent posts; if not, they should resubscribe to the feed.  Thank you!

Migration Status

December 2, 2012 — Leave a comment

The migration is going better than expected, but there are still a few hiccups.  The new WordPress site will hopefully be up today.

The first problem is that my RSS feed seems to be completely out of order, at least in Google Reader.  Rather than displaying posts in the order I wrote them, it is displaying them based on when they were last updated–and there were plenty of random updates during the migration.  I’m not sure if I can retroactively clean this up, but the feed should look better over time with new posts.

The second problem is that when I imported by Blogger posts into WordPress, the latter published all my draft posts–which were rough and incomplete, and a few of which I had stopped working on because I decided they weren’t appropriate.  The main culprit was one about the management of the AfPak Hands program.  I promptly deleted these, but Feedburner tells me that 19 of you read the AfPak Hands post.  If you did, please understand that this a half-complete draft post that I had decided not to publish.

WordPress Migration

December 1, 2012 — Leave a comment
I am about to begin migrating Building Peace from Blogger to WordPress, which will enable more features and provide a better platform for future growth.

I don’t expect this to be easy, so please bear with any technical difficulties.  If you are an RSS subscriber, your feed should still work after the migration–but if you don’t see any new posts within the next couple days, I encourage you to visit www.buildingpeace.net and re-subscribe.  You can follow me on Twitter for updates during the migration.

A Kind of Glory: Part III
In part I of this series, I quoted John Steinbeck’s beautiful essay from East of Eden celebrating the majesty of the individual human mind and its creative power.  In part III considered why it is hard for those in large bureaucratic organizations like the U.S. government to “find the glory.”  Modern economies depend on the division of labor; bureaucracies can undertake epic projects by distributing the load across a vast workforce, but the downside is that most employees will only ever deal with a tiny fragment of the finished project.  That can make job satisfaction elusive.  Employees must also suffer with all the bureaucratic minutiae that large organizations inevitably spawn.  Both these factors are all too present within the U.S. military and government.  They drive a lot of good people away, and create endless frustration for the good people who stay.

In part III of this series, I want to speculate about whether or not it needs to be this way.  Can we make it easier to “find the glory” for those serving in a large bureaucracy like the U.S. military?  Is it possible to bring the work and the glory closer together, even to put the glory to work for us?

Most people have passions in life, activities they wish they could do for a living.  The problem is that our passions seldom completely align with our jobs.  We don’t know how to make money off of them, or we think it’s not possible to make money, so at some point in our lives we make the decision to “grow up” and study something useful.  The passions are still there, pleading for expression, but they suffocate under the demands of tomorrow’s staff meeting and the next mortgage payment and finding a good health care package.  Nearly every artist in the world knows what I’m talking about.  Many people wither away in jobs they despise, then die filled with regrets.

Every once in a while, we find those who miraculously reinvent themselves midway through their lives.  They quit the secure job, forsake the regular paycheck, and take a daring plunge into doing that one thing they’ve always dreamed of.  Stunned relatives think they’re crazy, and for a while they’re living in an apartment again and burning through their life savings, but they do it: they find their footing, and in a few years they’re making money at something they love.  They write inspirational books and give motivational speeches, and we love these people, because we wish we had the courage to make that same plunge.

My dad did this.  He gave up a comfortable job managing a successful boat store because every evening after he work he built models and R/C submarines and boats and cars, and he’d always dreamed of opening a hobby store.  After a near-fatal car accident led him to do some deep thinking, he acted.  Eleven years later, he sold what had become the most successful hobby store on the West Coast and he was nationally known in the hobby retail community.  Now he does decidedly ungrown-up things like building completely functional replicas of R2-D2 and doing occasional contracts with Lucasfilm.  Wow.

If there is one thing that drives dissatisfaction with work, it is this gap between our work and our passion.  Smart companies nowadays are trying to close that gap.  Google popularized the idea of the “20% project.”  Employees are only expected to work on their primary project 80% of the time; they can commit the remaining 20% of their time to pet projects.  This policy lets a bunch of software geeks do the thrilling, Red Bull-pounding, frenzy of coding that they did in their garages as teenagers–in other words, fulfill their passion.  But more importantly, it has brought huge dividends to the company.  Many of Google’s leading technologies like gmail and Google Talk are a result of 20% projects.  The policy has helped Google employees find a little bit of glory, and simultaneously put that glory to work.

So let’s bring this back to government service and the military.  We aren’t a company; our work is quite different, and compared to the corporate world, it can be pretty exciting.  I’m fortunate to do something that is a passion, something that is a dream for many young Americans: being an Air Force pilot.  I’m certainly not complaining.  The problem, though, is that being an Air Force officer entails a whole lot more than flying airplanes, and just like in corporate America, the passion and the work can diverge.

In the military’s archaic personnel system, we are largely viewed as interchangeable parts and can be reduced to a handful of numbers on a single-sheet career summary.  The system can barely account for our actual skills, let alone the things we care about, are passionate about, and want to do for the rest of our lives. Our careers move on rails, and the system is so rigid and centrally-directed that it is ill-equipped to handle the unique contributions that talented individuals can make.  It can’t harness the glory.

I’ll share a few examples of missed opportunities:

1. Plenty of my fellow pilots have no interest in commanding a squadron, and are content to let the all-stars have the job.  They really want to do just one thing for the rest of their careers: fly airplanes.  But in an up-or-out promotion system, that is the one thing they can’t do.  In fact, there is only one place where they can do that and still wear a uniform: the Reserves.  So shortly after they hit Major, many of our most talented instructors and evaluators “cross the street” to the reserve squadrons.  The Air Force spends a vast amount of money on signing bonuses to staunch the flow.

2. I have another colleague who is a strong pilot and excellent leader, who dreams of being a squadron commander.  Serving commanders recognize that he is a natural pick, but his paper record probably isn’t strong enough because he missed opportunities as a lieutenant and young captain.  To cite a hypothetical but typical example, his record is weaker than a guy who got a #1 stratification as a Lieutenant for planning the squadron Christmas party, and whose record snowballed from there.

3. A colleague of mine is skilled at mobile programming, and was working on iPhone apps for our Wing.  He got a by-name request by a general officer to do software projects, but was denied by his assignment team because they needed a body to fill a modest staff job that required no special talents.

4. At a time when fuel cost savings is a top priority for Air Mobility Command, our pilots rage at inefficiencies in the U.S. global logistics system.  We routinely fly empty or half-empty jets from place to place.  I have friends who earned Master’s degrees in subjects like Logistics Management and Operational Research, who could offer so much in this area, but our personnel system is blind to the content of degrees and is not equipped to capitalize on their experience.

I could go on, but you get the idea.  The rigid, centrally-directed, up-or-out promotion system limits how much officers can maneuver within their careers.  It makes it very difficult for officers to do that one thing that they really dream of doing with their lives, or are uniquely suited to do.  How many opportunities are we missing?  How much stronger would our squadrons be, if we let our best instructor pilots fly out their remaining years instead of driving them to the reserves?  How much innovation could we harness by recognizing bright officers who have great ideas, and letting them work in environments where they could bring those ideas to life?  How much better would our staff work be if we could actually look at what officers studied in their Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees, and let them work–to whatever extent possible–in related staff jobs?

I’m also intrigued by the idea of offering sabbaticals.  We have an all-volunteer force, but after a decade of continuous war we have burned out and ground down too many of our volunteers.  We also expect our volunteers to serve in one non-stop burst, from the day they show up to basic training to the day they separate.  During that time we push them relentlessly, which has a perverse side effect: our professional military education (PME) assignments, those times when we are supposed to be learning and stretching ourselves to prepare for higher-level service, are often viewed as our only chance to rest. That doesn’t help our collective performance in these schools.

Is it possible to give service members voluntary sabbaticals, in ways that wouldn’t hurt their chances for promotion?  Imagine what it would do for retention, if tired mid-career officers could take a year to find the glory… whether that’s working on a doctorate, traveling the world, or just spending a quiet season with their families.  And imagine the potential payoff to the military and government, from officers who choose to broaden themselves through more study or civilian work during these periods.  I know exactly what I would do, if I had a year sabbatical; I would move right back to the Middle East, and spend a year immersed in the countries I was never allowed to visit because of the DOD’s ludicrous travel restrictions.  I can guarantee the government would benefit when I got back.

They two keys to these various suggestions are flexibility and choice: enough flexibility in the career ladder that jumping the rails doesn’t guarantee the stagnation or end of your career, and enough choice that passion and job requirements have a fair chance at aligning.  That means letting individuals seek out the jobs that excite them, and giving supervisors the freedom to hire uniquely talented individuals who bring more to the job than a good stratification.

These aren’t easy issues, and no doubt any change to our personnel system would invite a rash of second and third-order consequences.  Perhaps that is why no one has dared to try to change it.  Choice can only go so far, in a profession filled with undesirable billets that absolutely must be filled.  A commitment to duty and service before self will always matter.  And it makes sense that an organization like the Air Force wants its commanders to have a certain breadth of experience before taking the job.  I have no background in organizational management, and am not qualified to put forward specific suggestions.  This post is about speculations, not concrete proposals.  However, it is clear to me that the military’s personnel system is showing its age and is increasingly out of synch with the approaches taken by modern companies.  I do think there is a place here for real reform, and I think the biggest winner of all would be the organization itself.  If the organization can harness the glory, it will be that much stronger.