My Life with Multitops: using multiple types of laptops

It’s the end of the year, and I have a lot on my mind. So rather than deal with it, I am going to write about laptops. I have owned many laptops over the years, most of them have been refurbished or re-purposed from some other role. In many ways, I am a bit like a crazy cat lady, but instead of cats, I am surrounded by laptops. I tend to own and operate a few laptops because I have a few specific use cases with different hardware requirements. Rather than calling them laptops, I like to refer to them by the purpose that they serve for me.

  1. TypetopA big laptop that is suited for long typing sessions. In the past I wrote (and hacked, and coded) a lot more than I do now. I used to write papers for school, reports or emails for work, blog posts, or creative works. While my ideal writing environment is an office chair, large monitor and a buckling spring keyboard, any table with laptop that has a full-sized keyboard will do. I don’t consider these large and rather heavy machines to be mobile so much as portable. Of my fleet of laptops, the ones optimized for typing also tend to be the most expensive. This is the model that I normally go for when an employer is picking up the tab.
  2. NotetopA tiny laptop that is suited for note taking. I have spent many hours in lecture halls and the like taking notes for classes. I don’t really use a laptop for notes at work, unless I am the designated minutes-taker, for example when I worked at a startup company out west, or in my time on the board of directors at Hive13. For class room notes, nothing beats a small netbook, especially if you are also carrying around textbooks and paper notebooks. I found that the accessory pocket in a backpack kept the laptop from being smashed by textbooks. It’s too bad that the iPad pretty much destroyed the market for cheap netbooks, because I dearly loved those old MSI’s.
  3. JettopA burner laptop for travel. I used to travel to hacker conferences like DefCon, and you would occasionally need a laptop, but there was always a chance that something awful might happen to it. It might get stolen, it might get confiscated by law enforcement at an international border, it might get hacked by someone with way better skills than mine, or someone [like me] might drunkenly vomit on it or throw it out of a window. To minimize this risk, I would take a cheap laptop with minimal personal information and strong encryption. Once I started carrying a smartphone, I would also travel with an old flip phone, just to be safe. Later on, I would just take my work phone and turn off WiFi and Bluetooth. In later years, I bought a refurbished Chromebook and traveled with it. I found that a Chromebook along with a small Android tablet combined to make a good, lightweight, toolkit.
  4. ShoptopA laptop for hardware hacking. In the years I spent with Hive13, I was always in need of multiple ports to connect to things around the shop. I would use multiple serial or USB ports to connect to hacker hardware like Arduinos or old copiers and printers. Even today I occasionally need to plug in multiple large external hard drives to share pirated goods at events like 2600. In the past, I have found older laptops to be indispensable in these “workshop” environments due to their legacy ports. For me, workshops are also fairly dangerous places, where laptops get exposed to power tool mishaps, fire, and on more than one occasion, blood. It is these dangers, combined with a need for old ports, that I prefer to keep older laptops around, however under-powered they may become. I am not sure what I will do in the future, when even my eldest laptop has only a couple of USB ports. I suppose that a shoptop is the kind of thing that I should probably build myself. I keep wanting to get back into electronics, maybe a DIY shoptop would be a good way to get started.
  5. CrashtopA laptop for network configuration and troubleshooting Pretty much always the secondary function of a shoptop, looking into network crashes pretty much always requires a laptop. For a dude that tinkers with computers, I like to think that I have a decent grasp of networking. Not just cabling, but also routing, switching and even telephones. My home network is as much a lab as it is anything else. My main router has a console port, and while most of the network configuring I do is with SSH or a browser, sometimes you just need a laptop that you can physically plug in to a device. Of all the legacy ports to disappear from a modern laptop, I will miss the gigabit Ethernet port the most. Sure there are USB serial and Ethernet adapters, but those just aren’t the same as having the gear built right in. Also like the shoptop, I often think about either building a device, or maybe refurbishing a vintage device to troubleshoot networks with. I have always wanted a very industrial-looking 80’s device like the old Informer 213 for terminal-type stuff. At one point in my life, I had an old laptop that had a voice modem in it so that I could also mess with analog telephone lines.
  6. I am not in the market for a new laptop just yet. My typetop plays Skyrim and Fallout 4 decently. Plus it’s time for me to get into consoles again πŸ™‚

The problem with everything is central control

I have been reading postmortems on the election, and it basically came down to a failure of media and political elites to get a read on the voting public. Basically, a small number of very powerful intellectuals operated in a kind of silo of information.

All the stuff I have read and watched about the 2008 financial meltdown comes down to a failure of large banks. A small number of very powerful banks, operated in a kind of silo of finance.

This country is a mess because of centralized control and centralized culture. It’s a mess because of intellectual laziness and emotional cowardice. It’s a mess because we rely on crumbling institutions to help us.

Centralizing seems natural and logical. There is an idea in economics called the economy of scale. Basically, a big operation (a firm, a factory, a project) has better purchasing power and is able to spread fixed costs over large numbers of units. In network topology, the Star Model is the simplest to manage, putting all the resources at the center. I tend to think about economics and computer networks as kind of similar.

One of the primary criticisms of the Star Network is the single point of failure. If the center of the network has any sort of problem, the whole network suffers. This is also a problem with economies of scale. A lot of electronic component manufacturing is centralized in Taiwan, in 1999 an earthquake caused a worldwide shortage of computer memory. It seems that any time there is bad weather in New York City, flights are delayed across all of North America. In 2008, trouble with undersea fiber cables caused widespread Internet connectivity problems throughout Asia. A lack of biodiversity in potato crops contributed to the Irish Potato Famine. Centralized control is prone to failure.

This isn’t just a business or a technology problem. It can also be a cultural problem. Centralizing stores of information leads to gatekeeping, where a point of distribution controls the access and dissemination of information. This may be for financial gain, in the case of television and cinema, or it may be for political gain, in the case of the White house press corps. Media outlets repeating what the white house said, and the white house using media reports to support its assertions is how the us ended up invading Iraq under false pretenses.

The diametric opposite of the Star Network is the Mesh network, specifically the Peer-To-Peer network. These models eschew ideas of economy and control in favor of resilience and scalability. Economy of scale eliminates redundancies because they are expensive. Peer-to-peer embraces redundancies because they are resilient.

Embracing peer-to-peer from a cultural standpoint means embracing individuality and diversity. Not just in a left-wing identity politics sort of way, but in a Victorian class struggle kind of way. It means eschewing the gatekeeper-esque ideas of mono-culture in favor of cultural and social diversity. Peer-to-peer culture is messy. It’s full of conflicts and rehashed arguments. It’s not a “safe space” where people of similar mindsets never encounter dissent. It’s a constant barrage of respectful and learning argument.

The cultural division in this country is a failure of our core values. It’s a failure of the right’s anti-intellectualism, and it’s a failure of the left’s elitism. It’s faith by many in crumbling institutions that are out of touch. It’s a failure of corporate media that forces us to turn to our social networks for news that discourages discussion and only seeks to confirm our individual biases.

I’ll be writing more about this opinion (and make no mistake, it’s just an opinion) in future posts. Hopefully it will foster some of the discussion that I am seeking.

My [In]Famous Mac and Cheese Recipe

I was asked for my recipe for mac and cheese, and since it’s Thanksgiving, I thought I would post it here. I make this old-fashioned mac and cheese casserole at holidays on on birthdays for family and friends. I don’t make it very often, not because it’s difficult, or all that expensive, but simply because it is absolutely terrible for you. This isn’t creamy mac and cheese, it’s a dense baked pasta that you slice, similar to lasagna.

So make this recipe at your own risk!! Also eat small portions, and maybe have a salad or some other green vegetable along with it. I have seen family members bemoan their wrecked digestive systems as they cut another helping. This dish can quickly shift from comfort food to discomfort food. You’ve been warned πŸ™‚

You will need:

a large pot and

a large casserole dish (4 qt.) with aluminum foil OR

a 5 qt or larger dutch oven (you can boil the macaroni and then bake it in the same dish, but placing the pan lower in the oven will mean a browner outside)

a colander

1 box of elbow macaroni, 16 oz. in size

2 bags of shredded cheddar cheese, 8 oz each

1 bag of shredded mozzarella cheese, 8 oz in size

1 stick of butter or margarine, 4 0z

2 eggs

1 cup of milk

garlic, salt, and pepper to taste

optional: non-stick cooking spray

To prepare:

Preheat the oven. If you like brown/burnt cheese set it to 300 degrees if you prefer stringy/gooey cheese set it for 250 degrees.

Boil the macaroni until slightly over done, this keeps the pasta from getting dry and chewy when you bake it.

Drain the macaroni thoroughly with a colander, then return to pot immediately. If you are using a pot and a casserole dish, I recommend using the pot and not the casserole dish for this step. If you are using a dutch oven, I recommend melting the butter in the pan and making sure it coats the sides of the pan, or just spraying the pan with non-stick cooking spray before putting the macaroni in.

Add Β the stick of butter and stir until the butter is melted and the pasta is coated. If your mac went cold during the draining process, you can put the pot on low heat to help the butter along.

Add the salt, pepper, and garlic. Keep in mind that the cheese is salty, and your butter might also be. Personally, I skip the salt, but don’t be shy with the garlic πŸ™‚

Add the whole bag of mozzarella cheese to the now buttered and seasoned macaroni and stir until evenly distributed. I used to layer cheese and macaroni, but i don’t think it made much difference in the finished product.

Now is the time to talk cheddar. If you are looking for a thick browned layer of cheese on top of the casserole, you can skip this step. However, if you want a more uniform cheese experience (with the occasional crunchy macaroni noodle on the top) add one whole bag of the shredded cheddar cheese and stir it into the macaroni. If you can’t decide, just add half a bag of cheddar (4 oz) and stir it in. Be confident in your decision, it’s hard to mess up a recipe with this much cheese in it.

If you need to use cooking spray on a casserole dish, now is a good time to spray it. Non-stick measures are important, because for some folks, that crunchy brown outside is the best part.

Transfer the macaroni to your casserole dish and spread it evenly.

Now is an important step that I forget all the time. In a small bowl or measuring cup beat your eggs and milk thoroughly. The resulting mixture should look like something a bit too runny for making scrambled eggs or french toast. If you find your macaroni is dry, use more milk next time. Drizzle the egg mixture over the macaroni making sure to distribute it evenly. Most of it is going to run to the bottom, which is what you want.

Now is the time to add the cheese. Dump all the cheddar you have on top of the macaroni and spread it across the top, making sure to cover the corners. In our house, people would fight over the corner pieces, so I have taken to using the dutch oven. Make sure the cheese gets to those edges though. that’s the good stuff.

Also, if you are just now realizing you forgot the egg and milk mixture, you can add it now, just make a few holes in the cheddar layer and pour the egg mix in. Then carefully tilt the pan to each corner to distribute, being mindful that you are holding almost 3 pounds of slippery noodles and shredded cheese.

If you find that your mac and cheese comes up over the top of dish a bit, it’s OK. It will settle into the pan a bit as it cooks. If your lid/foil will be touching the cheddar be sure to spray the inside with cooking spray. Don’t use a lot, it can go brown and leave a weird taste on the cheese.

Cover the pan with a glass lid or aluminum foil. Remember to spray the inside if it will touch the cheese.

Now it’s time to bake. Cooking times can vary. If you are looking for brown cheese, bake it at 300 degrees for about 30 minutes. If you are looking for gooey cheese, bake it at 200 to 250 degrees for 40 minutes. Either way, you should hear the mac and cheese bubbling.

Once you can hear the mac and cheese bubbling, uncover the mac and cheese and cook it until the top reaches your desired brownness. This can be as little as 10 minutes or as long as 20, so check it every 5 just to be safe.

I have no idea how many people this dish serves, but it’s a lot. It also reheats well, and is even good cold.

I have tossed around the idea of using spinach and tomatoes in this dish to make it slightly healthier (or at least help me not feel so guilty about serving it to my family) but the family always talks me out of it.