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Reverting Reversion of Macbook Pro End-of-Life

Remember how I decided to not get a new laptop after all?

Yea, I reversed my position. Again. But this time I went down a different path. Instead of purchasing an uber-expensive laptop, I went ahead and got an IBM Thinkpad T42.

much wow

It even came with its own docking station:

much wow 2

Also a USB keyboard and mouse, and the really nice guy from Craigslist even offered me a ride back to my house, paying a $3.50 toll fee along the way. No, I’m not dead yet.

A few differences:

  • It cost $50, cash: A really good deal for a laptop. Much better than the \$2600 I paid for the Dell. Also better than the other T42s on Craigslist that cost somewhere around \$250-500. I was kind of holding out for a \$10 laptop, like VWestlife’s \$7.49 Thinkpad T20, but I don’t think that will happen. I called a number of Goodwill stores around the area, but all they had were newer laptops. At this stage of the game, I think these computers will become more expensive as supplies run out and they become collector’s items.

  • It’s a bit older: I think these computers were released in 2003. They were among the last business laptops IBM made before selling the laptop division to Lenovo. It runs Windows XP (quite well, IMHO) and I’m guessing it doesn’t have any security patches coming its way anytime soon.

  • It’s in remarkably good condition: The guy who sold it to me had it for its entire lifespan, and used it to diagnose his car by way of an OBD/2 port. He sold it because now they sell handheld diagnostic tools and he got one, so he didn’t need the laptop anymore. I think I just need to wipe the keys and screen down and maybe defragment the disk, and it’ll be as good as new.

A done deal. So why did I purchase such an old laptop?

  • Better resource utilitization: I don’t want to pay money for things I don’t need; I realized that goes for computers as well. How often am I going to need multiple CPU cores wherever I go, given that most of my daily workloads appear in top as one CPU running at any time? Do I need to spend network bandwidth visiting ad-ridden websites and reading clickbait? The answer is no, of course not. For $50, I can execute 1 billion CPU instructions a second, I have 2 billion bytes of main memory, and expandable disk storage. To want more is frivolous behavior.

  • Greater empathy with end users: Most people do not use the latest and greatest hardware; developers demand it for their day to day work. I can’t find it now, but I recall a developer using a Thinkpad T60 because it helped him develop empathy with his customers, who did not use high-grade hardware. At the time, I thought I could probably replicate such behavior using cgroups and network throttling, but the more I thought about it, I realized trying to simulate slow hardware using new hardware would be extremely difficult, since there are so many components. Better to just have old hardware in physical form and set a total lower bound to test against. If it works here, it should work everywhere.

  • Better system design: I can use dynamic DNS, OpenVPN, and SSH in order to connect to a server and access compute resources when on the move much more cheaply than lugging all that compute with me. In this sense, all laptops become thin clients to unbounded compute elsewhere, which to me seems like a much better design for your personal infrastructure than a set of thick clients that do everything.

  • Better resilience: If I spill my tea or coffee on my super-expensive laptop and it got damaged or destroyed, I would become sad or angry. If I spilled my tea on this thing, I would still be sad because I can’t easily get replacement parts, but it’s $50. I could throw away the entire laptop and not have its cost significantly impact my finances.

  • Security concerns: Bit of a tinfoil hat here, but as computers have gotten more important, the number of people looking to attack them have increased. For example, Intel Software Guard Extensions (SGX) encrypts a portion of memory with a special section of the CPU so that cold boot attacks don’t give away encryption keys. That is, don’t give away to anybody except the U.S. government that plants hardware backdoors into processors at manufacture time. Apparently, the Kremlin has already moved to electric typewriters to reduce the risk of leaks. This, in addition to news that Spectre/Meltdown are too difficult to fix, makes me extremely wary of modern processors.

    Yes, it’s highly unlikely I individually would be a target of such people while also not doing anything illegal, and if I was a target, I probably couldn’t stop such an attack if it was deliberate and sustained. Still, it was made during a time where only the people in control of the security apparatus and their benefactors would have computers at all in the first place (reducing the likelihood they would insert a hardware exploit targeting their own people), and having a simpler processor may help me more easily understand how to protect it. As we migrate from a country of laws to a country devoted to power, and as the laws of power are effectively congruent with the laws of physics, the power we can anticipate to possess in the future comes what our physical world can provide. Only the paranoid survive and all that.

    As an added benefit, nobody would really want to steal this computer. All they would need to do is take a glance at it and drop it on the ground a few meters away, because it’s clearly so old they can’t sell it for parts. As a guy who’s been robbed a number of times, knowing I have less stuff to be robbed of than the next guy helps me sleep at night.

    Better to have it and not need it than need it and not have it.