A Retro-grouch and ATB computer


"Retro-grouch" is a facetious term I believe was originally meant pejoratively to denote a bike geek out of step with the current trend in new bicycle technology. Now I see it laughingly and affectionately adopted by many folks passionate about steel all-terrain bicycles, practical commuter accoutrements, and resistance to keeping up with new, useless, expensive bike technology 'innovations.'

I favor just this kind of riding for a few reasons. It values tried and true tools and technology. We don't need to adopt hydraulic brakes, tubeless tires, and internal routing. These things are more expensive in the first place, and require new tools and specialized parts, and often expert level knowledge. Alternatively, classic bike setups can be understood reasonably by me, an amateur, through experimentation, how-to books and tutorials, and they use fairly universal swappable parts.

I think it's the approach that many of us on the smol web happen to take already with our own computers, but I thought I'd consider the idea a bit more and see if the comparison can bring new ideas to fore.

As I'm interested in thinking through aspects of permacomputing and resisting consumer culture, I've been trying to think through what aspects of a retro-grouch approach to computing might mean, and does this overlap with some of the other thinking I see out there in discussions of ideas about permacomputing.

By the use of the word retro I am not implying using retro computers (which my mind places in the 80s), but rather 'tried and true' basics. Getting a bit more in the weeds, there is also the bike term ATB, originally a term that rivalled MTB / mountain biking but gradually fell away in the past few decades and has recently begun to make a comeback as a term in some smaller bike communities. ATB or all terrain biking is a term for the on-road/off-road, commute or travel, grocery haul or long distance ride bike. It's a bike that can do it all and has done it all. It needs to be sturdy, weather and road-resistant, but able to be laden down with supplies, and yet still comfortable. An ATB is not a vintage road bike, nor a racing bike or even a 'gravel racer.' It is a bike that can literally do it all.

Here are some of my ideas on speculative aspects of a retro-grouch and ATB approach to computing:

Parts should be basic, swappable

This could mean basic wired keyboards, usb hard drives, thumb drives, and likely a Linux distro operating system.

Should work offline

i.e. not a Chromebook or equivalent 'cloud'-reliant computer. That's not to say it can't have browsers or go online, but it should have capabilities and all basic programs available on the computer, without needing to pay for a subscription, commercial service or commercial software.

a stable OS

By stable, I'm suggesting it should be a basic Linux or BSD distro that doesn't really need dotfiles or extensively studying documentation. It should not require constant updates, and at risk of starting an argument I'll suggest more than once a month being too much, as a start, and maybe shooting for twice a year is better.

it should be repairable by its user

The user of this computer should be able to reasonably keep the working and running of the machine and its parts in their head so that they can fix an issue when it arises. And the documentation for how to do so should be available offline as well. When I purchased a CHIP computer about a decade ago, I was impressed that a simple easy-to-read PDF manual was placed in the home directory. You could start up and go without reading it, but if you did need to alter something or had to troubleshoot (such as a non-working DIP to connect a HDMI monitor), you could open up the manual and read about it without needing to go online. When reading about the DIP that's where I learned I likely had a power issue and needed to power the keyboard through a powered hub to free up power for the monitor connection.

simplicity where it counts

Like everything else on this list, this particular facet can be debated extensively, but my main idea here is that while the computer should be 'simple', I don't mean it should be command line only, or a minimalist distro per se. While that is no doubt a great approach for folks (like myself) interested in it, for those that just need to 'get around' the computer should be simple enough and no simpler!

I have purposely not specified a single distro or family because I think this is really up to the individual. Just like how one may buy a custom Rivendell bike, a production Crust bike frame, or spec out separate parts to build up together, or revive a 1980s city bike for example, there are many approaches one can take.

All the accoutrements

Here's where I mention bike bags, baskets, fenders, water bottle holders, good tires and tools. On the computer we need text editors, file manager, spreadsheet, calendar, word processor, layout software, music software, image editor, some games and anything else one may want. A WMDE (window manager / desktop environment) can obviously come with this on some distros, or one has to add them on others.

Obviously, each person can individually tailor their own computer, and will have their own needs and preferences. Like there are fixed gear riders and fat tire bikes, there is Damn Small Linux on an old eee PC or running Void on an a desktop Alienware. Sorry, maybe these are silly comparisons!

Seat, pedals, handlebar

When trying to consider the retro-grouch approach to biking one thing I sometimes see emphasized is where the user comes into contact points with the bike: seat, pedals, handlebar. By the same token, this is where we consider practicality, aesthetics, and function for our computers as well. The interface of the machine is important, impacting our comfort. I'm talking about the mouse, keyboard and seat. On the one hand there are the mechanical keyboard addicts, and on the other, those happy to use the generic keyboard that came with their machine. I like a trackpad and basic usb mouse, but I've also been happy with a trackball. All this is in opposition to the expensive and finicky touchscreen. I'm not totally against them, but I've yet to see them work really well.

Quality and longevity

I've not specified how long this machine should last. If the parts are made well-enough, capable of being replaced, basic, and simple, this should last a long time. With my XPS 13, it still feels snappy enough to me at 5 years old that my only plan for right now is to fix a broken key. I ordered the part for $10 online. And I'm going to replace the battery, with one I bought online from the manufacturer.

I've left out discussing the monitor, but it should be obvious I doubt an ultra high definition monitor is necessary for computing. The monitor of several years ago should be just fine. For speakers, I just plug into my desk speakers, and that works fine as well.

You may have been reading this whole post and gotten down to the end and felt like this was all obvious stuff and what you're already doing. Hopefully so. And yet it's in stark contrast to the kinds of machines I mostly see advertised online, the computers sold by the mainstream brands, and especially our societal emphasis on the latest tech trends and consumption. The more we can normalize these kinds of values I think it's better, especially if we can reduce consumption, increase know-how and confidence in working on one's machine if necessary.

If you don't have a machine like this, it may be worth acquiring one: used on Ebay, craigslist, from a university, or gathering dust on a shelf somewhere. This summer I'm thinking of building up a few of these in a small fleet for an informal co-working/hang space on Governor's Island in New York, with folks that are definitely not Linux users or knowledgeable of it. For one thing, it will be useful for folks in my community that need a space to work and some occasional computer use. For another, it can serve as a model for some folks of this kind of computing, and I can get some feedback from them on how useful it is and what its limitations may be.


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