The Last Computer

This is a project I’m calling, ‘The Last Computer’. It boils down to these questions: What if I could not buy another computer? How long can I keep the computers I already have in working condition? When I say working condition, I mean in actual use by me in my day-to-day professional and personal lives.

I am not very technical. At my best I can remember a rudimentary sequence using the terminal to run ClamAV, a free and open-source virus scanning program.

I’m certainly not the first person to try this kind of project. I’m inspired, for example, by Kris de Decker at “Low Tech Magazine” and similar thoughts, like those from elioat on “forever computer“. These aren’t just technical questions. They need:

storytellers, designers, folks dreaming of how a forever computer could be something wholly new…not just a really sturdy PDA with a keyboard and easily serviceable parts.


I have a desktop and two laptops. The desktop is a MacMini (mid-2012). One of the laptops (pictured below and on which I am writing this post) is a MacBook Pro (also mid-2012).

The project began on Oct 15, 2022 which was International Repair Day. I took some time to load Ubuntu on to the MacBook Pro.

Since then I have I’ve been able to load all the additional software I need from free and open-source instances. As users of Ubuntu will already know, the OS comes with LibreOffice suite preinstalled. I’ve used LibreOffice in other circumstances and feel quite comfortable with it. Most of my work is writing and LibreOffice integrates smoothly with Zotero. I also depend on Standard Notes which offers end-to-end encryption and syncs across all of my devices, including between the laptop running Ubuntu, my desktop running the macOS, and my iPhone.

The one area of difference that is noticeable for me with Ubuntu is that it has no built-in speech-to-text abilities the way macOS does (at least so far as I am currently aware). Until relatively recently this would not have been an issue for me. However, I’ve been experiencing pretty bad carpal tunnel in the last few months. Using speech to text has really been helping me heal (as well as offering me a whole new ways of writing, but that’s a different subject).

I thought I might’ve found a work around with the Brave web browser. I was surprised to learn that Google Chrome is premised on open source software and that the Brave browser has used it to create a web browser centred around privacy. One of the amazing things about Brave is that because it’s based on Chrome, all plug-ins for Chrome also work in Brave. But…the examples of speech-to-text plug-ins for Brave that I have found don’t seem to work on my Ubuntu laptop.

At this point I’m not sure if it’s a software issue or a hardware issue in the sense of the plug-in being unable to recognize the built-in mic of the laptop or the headset that I use. So far neither have worked. I’ll keep looking for alternatives.


Saturday, February 11, 2023

The laptop has now become a production machine. I’ve overcome most of the software issues that I had described in the previous post. I haven’t been able to get speech-to-text software to work, but I have found a workaround: I installed Audacity, an audio recording app. It picks up audio phone from the built-in microphone. I can then upload the audio to my Trint subscription and get a transcription. It’s not an elegant solution but it works. And, although I describe this laptop as a production machine it isn’t my main computer and it’s not where I am generally writing. As a consequence, my need for speech to text on the laptop is more of a nice-to-have rather than an essential service.

Today I also finally got around to replacing the battery on my iPhone. I held off on getting a smartphone for a long time. Eventually, in January 2019 I got a refurbished iPhone SE (the original first generation). Battery life and crashing issues have been steadily accumulating since winter of 2021. At that point cold temperatures or changes in temperature (say, going from a pocket while I’m outside to the kitchen table inside) seemed to be associated either with sudden and rapid drops in battery charge to near zero even if the battery had shown 100% only a few minutes ago. Or, sometimes, the phone would just crash. As I say, these issues seem to be largely seasonal and related to temperature. During the current winter (2023) the issues have been acute, so I ordered a replacement battery from iFixit. I already had the tools that I needed, but I did splurge and also purchased iFixit anti-clamp device opener.

Although I’ve done one other major device repair (replacing the motherboard of a laptop), this was my first phone battery replacement. iFixit’s manual for the iPhone SE battery replacement was essential, but even more important were the user provided comments on the manual as a whole as well as on particularly tricky steps. Like many users commenting on the manual it was the reassembly of the metal bracket covering the home button cable that was trickiest (Steps 9, 10, and 11 of disassembly). Despite having all the right tools I dropped the bracket multiple times and I had to hunt for it on the floor. I found that once I had a home button cable reconnected I probably could have just done away with the bracket as several users commented that that was the procedure they used. In the end however I did manage to get the bracket back on and the phone back to working order just like new. Going slowly was absolutely key and, while I wasn’t trying to break any land speed records, it took me several hours over the course of the day as I juggled various other tasks such as laundry and an important meeting.

With respect to my interest in the environmental contributions that repair may or may not make there is an important comment from a user on the iFixit page which bears thinking about carefully. The user notes that a DIY fixer such as myself is likely to use the special purpose tools that I bought for these purposes for no more than a few minutes out of their whole lives or existence. The users suggestion was to simply bring your phone to a professional repairer who will be using their tools to conduct their work for many years. Professional independent fixes like a battery replacement are really not much more expensive than the price of the new battery I purchased plus shipping. Certainly there is some personal satisfaction to be had from fixing my own device.

At least anecdotally with this one battery replacement, using my new anti-clamp device opener for example amounted to no more than three minutes during this repair. Yet that clamp is made from plastics that are, of course, ultimately fossil fuel based and the clamp was manufactured in Taiwan according to the packaging. So, although I’ve amortized the embodied energy and materials of the phone over a longer period of useful life that is typical, whether that amounts to a net environmental conservation value is at least somewhat questionable. This point leads into a whole literature on for example repair cafés, tool libraries, and even more broadly into whole other ways of organizing our economic lives that some have called library Socialism. There is much to be said about such an economic system, but as I’ve written elsewhere, it offers the possibility of “a smaller number of high-quality products to be made and shared instead of a mass of lower quality but cheaper products owned by many.” Whether such an approach to creating access to things (rather than ownership of things) will automatically lead to reduced energy and material throughput is an open, yet empirical question to be pursued.