State of my toolchain 2021

I’ve been doing a summary of the state of my toolchain now for around five years (2019, 2018, 2016). Tools, platforms and techniques evolve over time; the type of work that I do has shifted; and the environment in which that work is done has changed due to the global pandemic. Documenting my toolchain has been a useful exercise on a number of fronts; it’s made explicit what I actually use day-to-day, and, equally – what I don’t. In an era of subscription-based software, this has allowed me to make informed decisions about what to drop – such as Pomodone. It’s also helped me to identify niggles or gaps with my existing toolchain, and to deliberately search for better alternatives.

At a glance

Hardware, wearables and accessories

Software

Techniques

  • Pomodoro (no change since last report)
  • Passion Planner for planning (no change since last report)

What’s changed since the last report?

Writing workflow

Since the last report in 2019, I’ve graduated from a Masters in Applied Cybernetics at the School of Cybernetics at Australian National University. I was accepted into the first cohort of their PhD program. This shift has meant an increased focus on in-depth, academic-style writing. To help with this, I’ve moved to a Pandoc, Atom, Zotero and LaTeX-based workflow, which has been documented separately. This workflow is working solidly for me after about a year. Although it took about a weekend worth of setup time, it’s definitely saving me a lot of time.

Atom in particularly is my predominant IDE, and also my key writing tool. I use it with a swathe of plugins for LaTeX, document structure, and Zotero-based academic citations. It took me a while to settle on a UI and syntax theme for Atom, but in the end I went with Atom Solarized. My strong preference is to write in MarkDown, and then export to a target format such as PDF or LaTeX. Pandoc handles this beautifully, but I do have to keep a file of command line snippets handy for advanced functionality.

Primary machine

I had an ASUS Zenbook UX533FD – small, portable and great battery life, even with an MX150 GPU running. Unfortunately, the keyboard started to malfunction just after a year after purchase (I know, right). I gave up trying to get it repaired because I had to chase my local repair shop for updates on getting a replacement. I lodged a repair request in October, and it’s now May, so I’m not holding out hope… That necessitated me getting a new machine – and it was a case of getting whatever was available with the Coronavirus pandemic.

I settled on a ASUS ROG Zephyrus G15 GA502IV. I was a little cautious, having never had an AMD Ryzen-based machine before, but I haven’t looked back. It has 16 Ryzen 4900 cores, and an NVIDIA GeForce RTX 2060 with 6GB of RAM. It’s a powerful workhorse and is reasonably portable, if a little noisy. It get about 3 hours’ battery life in class. Getting NVIDIA dependencies installed under Ubuntu 20.04 LTS was a little tricky – especially cudnn, but that seems to be normal for anything NVIDIA under Linux. Because the hardware was so new, it lacked support in the 20.04 kernel, so I had to pull in experimental Wi-Fi drivers (it uses Realtek).

To be honest I was somewhat smug that my hardware was ahead of the kernel. One little niggle I still have is that the machine occasionally green screens. This has been reported with other ROG models and I suspect it’s an HDMI-under-Linux driver issue, but haven’t gone digging too far into driver diagnostics. Yet.

One idiosyncrasy of the Zephyrus G15 is that it doesn’t have built-in web camera; for me that was a feature. I get to choose when I do and don’t connect the web camera. And yes – I’m firmly in the web-cameras-shouldn’t-have-to-be-on by default camp.

Machine learning work, NVIDIA dependencies and utilities

Over the past 18 months, I’ve been doing a lot more work with machine learning, specifically in building the DeepSpeech PlayBook. Creating the PlayBook has meant training a lot of speech recognition models in order to document hyperparameters and tacit knowledge around DeepSpeech.

In particular, the DeepSpeech PlayBook uses a Docker image to abstract away Python, TensorFlow and other dependencies. However, this still requires all NVIDIA dependencies such as drivers and cudnn to be installed beforehand. NVIDIA has made this somewhat easier with the Linux CUDA installation guide, which advises on which version to install with other dependencies, but it’s still tough to get all the dependencies installed correctly. In particular, the nvtop utility, which is super handy for monitoring GPU operations (such as identifying blocking I/O or other bottlenecks) had to be compiled from source. As an aside, the developer experience for getting NVIDIA dependencies installed under Linux is a major hurdle for developers. It’s something I want NVIDIA to put some effort into going forward.

Colour customisation of the terminal with Gogh

I use Ubuntu Linux for 99% of my work now – and rarely boot into Windows. A lot of that work is based in the Linux terminal; from spinning up Docker containers for machine learning training, running Python scripts or even pandoc builds. At any given time I might have 5-6 open terminals, and so I needed a way to easily distinguish between them. Enter Gogh – an easy to install set of terminal profiles.

One bugbear that I still have with the Ubuntu 20.04 terminal is that the fonts that can be used with terminal profiles are restricted to only mono-spaced fonts. I haven’t been able to find where to alter this setting – or how the terminal is identifying which fonts are mono-spaced for inclusion. If you know how to alter this, let me know!

Linux variants of Microsoft software intended for Windows

ANU has adopted Microsoft primarily for communications. This means not only Outlook for mail – for which there are no good Linux alternatives (and so I use the web version), but also the use of Teams and OneNote. I managed to find an excellent alternative in OneNote for Linux by @patrikx3, which is much more usable than the web version of OneNote. Teams on Linux is usable for messaging, but for videoconferencing I’ve found that I can’t use USB or Bluetooth headphones or microphones – which essentially renders it useless. Zoom is much better on Linux.

Better microphone for videoconferencing and conference presentations

As we’ve travelled through the pandemic, we’re all using a lot more videoconferencing instead of face to face meetings, and the majority of conferences have gone online. I’ve recently presented at both PyCon AU 2020 and linux.conf.au 2021 around voice and speech recognition. Both conferences used the VenueLess platform. I decided to upgrade my microphone for better audio quality. After all, research has shown that speakers with better audio are perceived as more trustworthy. I’ve been very happy with the Stadium USB microphone.

Taskwarrior over Pomodone for tasks

I tried Pomodone for about 6 months – and it was great for integrating tasks from multiple sources such as Trello, GitHub and GitLab. However, I found it very expensive (around $AUD 80 per year) and the Linux version suddenly stopped working. The scripting options also only support Windows and Apple, not Linux. So I didn’t renew my subscription.

Instead, I’ve moved to Taskwarrior via Paul Fenwick‘s recommendation. This has some downsides – it’s a command line utility rather than a graphical interface, and it only works on a single machine. But it’s free, and it does what I need – prioritises the tasks that I need to complete.

What hasn’t changed

Wearables and hearables

My Mobvoi TicWatch Pro is still going strong, and Google appears to be giving Wear OS some love. It’s the longest I’ve had a smart watch, and given how rugged and hardy the TicWatch has been, it will definitely be my first choice when this one reaches end of life. My Plantronics BB Pro 2 are still going strong, and I got another pair on sale as my first pair are now four years old and the battery is starting to degrade.

Quantified self

I’ve started using Sleep as Android for sleep tracking, which uses data from the TicWatch. This has been super handy for assessing the quality of sleep, and making changes such as adjusting going-to-bed times. Sleep as Android exports data to Google Drive. BeeMinder ingests that data into a goal, and keeps me accountable for getting enough sleep.

RescueTime, BeeMinder and Passion Planner are still going strong, and I don’t think I’ll be moving away from them anytime soon.

Assistant services

I still refuse to use Amazon Alexa or Google Home – and they wouldn’t work with the 5GHz-band WiFi where I am living on campus. Mycroft.AI is still my go-to for a voice assistant, but I rarely use it now because the the Spotify app support for Mycroft doesn’t work anymore after Spotify blocked Mycroft from using the Spotify API.

One desktop utility that fits into the “assistant” space that I’ve found super helpful has been GNOME extensions. I use extensions for weather, peripheral selection and random desktop background selection. Being able to see easily during Australian summer how hot it is outside has been super handy.

Current gaps in my toolchain

I don’t really have any major gaps in my toolchain at the moment, but there are some things that could be better.

  • Visual Git Editor – I’ve been using command line Git for years now, but having a visual indicator of branches and merges is useful. I tried GitKraken, but I don’t use Git enough to justify the monthly-in-$USD price tag. The Git plugin for Atom is good enough for now.
  • Managing everything for me – I looked a Huginn a while back and it sounds really promising as a “second brain” – for monitoring news sites, Twitter etc – but I haven’t had time to have a good play with it yet.

State of my toolchain 2019

What’s changed in the last year?

As you might be aware, I’ve been doing a writeup of my toolchain every year or so for the last couple of years (2016, 2018). There are a couple of reasons for this:

  • The type of work that I do has changed in that time, necessitating exploring different tools, and different equipment
  • And the technology that I work with continues to evolve – new models, new ways of working, and new mindsets – and our toolchains need to evolve to

This year, I’m studying a Master of Applied Cybernetics at the 3A Institute in Canberra – back to being a student; which I haven’t done for five years. Interestingly, my tools of choice 5 years ago have remained steady – Zotero for referencing, LibreOffice for writing essay type work, and Atom as my IDE of choice.

The key changes are;

  • A change in the main laptops I use
  • I’ve adopted Trello / Pomodone / RescueTime as a combination for personal productivity, with Passion Planner as a written diary / visual planner
  • My Fitbit Ionic died an inelegant death and has been replaced by the Mobvoi TicWatch Pro

Main laptop

My Asus N76 finally gave up the ghost and had unrecoverable hardware failure, including failure of the Bluray/DVD-rom drive that was built in – it’s not worth repairing and I think I’ll send it to disposal / recycling after taking 7 years’ worth of stickers off the front.

You were a Good Computer, N76. You were a Very Good Computer.

In my previous Toolchain tear-down, you would have read about my interest in System 76‘s Oryx Pro 3. One of my friends was selling hers (huge thanks, Pia!), and I immediately fell in love with this hard working, nerd-first beast of a laptop. I chose to flash it with Ubuntu 18.04 LTS rather than System 76’s POP OS, basically because I’m so familiar with Ubuntu and I didn’t want any additional learning curve. This machine continues to be my desk-based workhorse of choice. It’s a beautiful, solid, high-performance machine, but it’s not a good mobile choice.

Enter the ASUS Vivobook (my model is the X510UQ). I bought one of these devices for Mum, as she needed a new machine, and was so impressed with it – it has 16GB of RAM and a reasonable NVIDIA GPU (!) that I went back to the shop and got one for myself. The mobility is so-so – with a battery of about 4 hours if the screen is reasonably dim, but then I tend to run a lot of CPU- and battery-hungry apps. It’s lightweight, has HDMI out and 3 USB ports and the small bevel means plenty of screen space. I’ve set it up to dual boot Windows and Ubuntu, and if I’m honest it could use a much bigger SSD. That will be a holiday job.

Mobile phone

My Pixel died a couple of months ago after the battery life suddenly dropped to less and 30 minutes after the update to Android 9 – a problem that seems to be quite widespread. I’ve been on a Pixel 3 since; primarily because it’s what JB Hi-Fi in Geelong had in stock. The camera is amazing, and I’ve finally ditched my 3.5mm audio jack headphones for Bluetooth headphones.

Wearables

My Fitbit Ionic was a beautiful device until a release of Android in around November last year; after which I could no longer pair the Ionic with the Pixel phone. Getting support for this was incredibly problematic; it was difficult, time-consuming and very poor after-sales support from Fitbit. As a result, I ditched Fitbit and made the switch to WearOS, and have been on the Mobvoi TicWatch Pro ever since. The device is too chunky for most women, but well, I’m not most women, and it fits on my giant fat wrist just fine. The battery life isn’t great, but I’ve found that the heart rate monitor is the largest drain on battery.

One gotcha with the Mobvoi Ticwatch Pro is the charger. I bought two chargers with the device, and managed to “fry” – short circuit – them both by running higher than 1 Amp current through them (with a high current charger). This is well documented on Reddit. This was pretty poor poor IMHO for a high-end smartwatch.

WearOS has been an unexpectedly smooth experience; it doesn’t have the ecosystem or the integration that FitBit has, but that’s also a positive. I can choose the apps and watch faces that best suit me, from multiple different vendors. I’ve settled on the Venom watch face in neutral colours.

A smartwatch remains a key part of my toolchain – moreso than ever.

Quantified Self

I continue to use and be very happy with RescueTime and BeeMindr. I’ve been through a myriad of to-do tools in the past few years and seem to have settled on a combination of both Trello and Pomodone this year. Pomodone is beautiful; it’s an electron-based app that’s available for Linux (Woot!). Seriously considering upgrading to the paid version in a couple of months if it continues to prove its value.

For visual planning and diarising, I went to Passion Planner, driven by being a full time student again. I’ve been very happy with the model it uses – iterative goal setting and pattern-forming, and have already bought in my 2020 diary. As a visual person, it gives me plenty of space to visualise, to draw and to map out plans, goals and actions. I used the medium size this year, and found it marginally too small; so have upgraded to the large size for 2020.

Headphones

No change, the Plantronics Backbeat Pro bluetooth headphones are still fantastically awesome.

Streaming Media

No change, still Spotify premium.

Input devices

No change.

Voice Assistant

No change, still the awesome Mycroft.AI

Internet of Things and Home Automation

I’m on residential college this year at Burgmann College at ANU. Their Wifi network is a 5Ghz spectrum, PEAP/MSCHAPv2 authenticated beastie, and nothing much in the IoT space speaks to it, because IoT standards and security, what are they even? 🙁

It feels really weird to have to physically turn my light off now – my default behaviours have been changed by home automation.

Gaps in my toolchain and how they’ve been plugged

In the last edition of State of the Toolchain, these were my key bugbears:

  • Visual Git Editor – I’ve given up on this and learned to love the command line. In hindsight it’s been a great learning experience, and my git fluency has improved out of sight (hah!).
  • Better internet – ANU is on gig internet. *laughs in TCP/IP* I’m going to be in dire straights though if/when I have to go back to a copper-based NBN FttN service *cries in copper*.

Have I missed anything? What do you use?

State of my toolchain 2018

Back in mid-2016, about two years ago, I did a run-down of my personal productivity stack – essentially a ‘State of my Toolchain’. After almost 2 years, it’s time to provide an update and see what’s changed.

Main laptop

My Asus N76 17.3″ laptop is still going strong as my main workhorse; but its days are numbered. I’ve had to rebuild a couple of times now after hard disk drive sectors have failed, so it’s a matter of time before it’s forced into retirement – but at nearly six years old, it’s had a good run.

So the question becomes – what replaces it? I’ve always been very happy with the ASUS gear I’ve had over the years, but the Zenbook range doesn’t seem to have that much in the way of high end GPU specs – which I need for both gaming and machine learning stuff. On the other had, the RoG range doesn’t seem to have good battery life; although that really isn’t a major consideration.

Enter System 76. I hadn’t heard of these guys until some of my linux.conf.au and Mycroft AI mates mentioned them, including this kick-ass video.

https://youtu.be/TcWVKqeF0MY

After doing some asking around, folks seem pretty happy with them, but the downside is that they’re costly; especially with the poor $AUD exchange rate – and then on top of that you have to pay import duty. Might have to see if the $AUD/$USD exchange rate improves.

Mobile laptop

My Asus Trio Transformer TX201LA is still going strong as a mobile laptop; the battery life isn’t great but having the Android & Linux combination on one device has come in very very handy. I’ll be hanging on to this until it dies – and then I’m very interested in one of the newer Transformer models.

Mobile phone

Two years ago I was using the LG Nexus 5X but unfortunately it was victim to the Bootloop issue. Now I have a Pixel, and it’s brilliant. Right size, great battery life, and great bluetooth and NFC support. And yes, I often use it with with headphones.

Wearables

With Pebble being acquired by Fitbit and subsequently sunsetted, I needed to find a new smartwatch. My Fitbit flex was also degrading, so it was a natural choice to go with the Fitbit Ionic – essentially combining two wearables – fitness and watch – into one. I’ve been incredibly happy with Ionic – I was skeptical at first, but the battery life is long – about 3-4 days and the reminders to move are useful. The range of applications is limited, but the key feature – of passing notifications from my phone to my watch – works well.

I’ve found that over time, my smartwatch is very definitely part of my toolchain – it’s no longer a nice-to-have extra – it’s a tool that I regularly check and rely on.

Quantified Self

My Fitbit records and stores a lot of data about how active I am, however I’m still using RescueTime and BeeMindr to help with day to day productivity and long term goals. RescueTime gave me a great deal on a premium upgrade (big ups, guys!) and I’m using the “focus” features a lot – which prevent you from using time-wasting websites like Facebook for a period of time. RescueTime also continues to deliver great visualisaitons that help to see where you’re spending your time.

rescuetime-usage-2017
My RescueTime logged time by category for 2017

Headphones

Plantronics Backbeat Go 2 Bluetooth headphones were great, but being an idiot I left them in a hotel room while travelling. I replaced them with the Jabra Rox – the magnetic earbuds are great for not losing them, however I’ve struggled to use the “wings” to get a good fit.

My Logitech H800 is still going strong. Great headphones.

I did splash out on some Plantronics Backbeat Pro bluetooth headphones that have noise cancellation for concentrated, focused work in noisy places – like co-work spaces. They’re great – 20-odd hour battery life, and they really do cancel out a lot of distracting background sound. My one niggle with them is that the ‘active off’ feature – which pauses music when you take them off – activates with movement, like walking around the house or getting up off a chair.

Streaming Media

With Pandora moving out of the Australian and New Zealand market, I needed to find another streaming music provider. Spotify was an easy choice because of their cross-device support – including a native Linux desktop app. On the plus side, Mycroft AI has a Spotify Skill that, due to API restrictions, is only available with Spotify Premium accounts.

Input devices

My keyboard, graphics tablet and presentation pointers haven’t changed in two years, but I did back Sensel Morph on Kickstarter, and have started using it, but because the Linux driver isn’t great (yet), it tends to work better under Windows. I’m hoping that the Linux support matures in the future.

Voice Assistant

Would I like an always-on spy listening device in my house? Hell no.

Would I like a useful voice assistant that doesn’t save what I say to sell me advertising and invade my privacy? Hell yes.

Which is one of the reasons I went to work for Mycroft AI. But I digress. As part of my role, I do a lot of testing and documenting for the Mark 1 hardware – and I have three of them around the house. They’re solid little units with microphones that are better than I expected for RPi-based devices.

One thing I did need to get for working with the Mycroft Mark 1 was a new set of torx hex keys – the ones I had didn’t have a long enough handle to disassemble the Mark 1.

We also have a build of Mycroft for Raspberry Pi – Picroft – that needs a microphone and speakers. For this I got  a Jabra 410 – it’s much better than I expected for a mid-range omni-directional USB microphone.

For Picroft I also need some Micro SD cards; my key learning here has been that cheap Micro SD cards will cause you pain and misery and suffering and segfaults. Don’t use cheap Micro SD cards. You’re better than that.

Internet of Things and Home Automation

My bevvy of LIFX light bulbs continues to grow; I really like the range. I did have an issue with their LIFX Z light strip; one of the three strips that was delivered didn’t work, but it was covered under warranty and they shipped me a replacement. One of my favourite integrations here is with Google Home; I can turn off my bedroom light using the power of my voice.

I’ve also been hacking around with some Ruuvi tags; I want to spend more time on these, they’re pretty cool as sensors.

Software

My software stack hasn’t really changed in two years – I’m still using LibreOffice, with Firefox and Thunderbird, and Atom Editor. In particular,  LibreOffice Draw is becoming my go-to tool for diagrams and process flows. Scribus, Inkscape and GIMP are still top in my toolbox too. The new version of GIMP is much smoother.

Gaps in my toolchain

Even with all these great tools, I’m still missing a few components from my overall stack.

  • Visual Git Editor – The range of visual editors for Git on Linux is limited. I tried GitKraken but didn’t like it much. GitHub for desktop doesn’t yet have an official Linux build; I tried to install the shiftkey fork, but couldn’t figure out how to install it.
  • Better internet – my internet is connected at about 6Mbps down, 1Mbps up. It’s slightly faster than two years ago. It’s usable, but very slow. If I have to download or upload a large image – which I often have to do for work – I have to plan ahead. Oh NBN. I simply don’t have the words.

 

Have I missed anything? What do you use?