October 2021

Using A PowerBook G4 in 2021: A Retrospective on my Thoreauvian Month

Last Tuesday, my faithful 2015 MacBook Air, the computer that I got the summer before sixth grade, the sole computer that I had until co-opting my desktop last year, died. It was an ignoble and yet overdue end: my best guess is that the SSD degraded and crashed [UPDATE: A visit to the Apple Store gave me a "logic board failing" diagnosis and a $480 repair quote]. It was certainly nearing the end: my brother, younger by two years, upgraded his sixth grade laptop (a Microsoft Surface) this summer—but my Air still worked fine for my purposes.

Thus, after writing my PSAT on Wednesday, I was faced with a decision—what laptop should I use in school on Thursday? I had two options: either bring one of my "vintage" laptops (my 2003 Thinkpad T41 or my 2004 PowerBook G4), or use my mom's newer MacBook Pro (but where's the fun in that?). In eighth grade, I brought my Thinkpad T41 to school one day, mainly to see whether it could function (it fulfilled all of the listed minimum tech specs, after all). As anyone could have warned me, it didn't go well—I was forced to complete certain web activities on my BlackBerry (a long story, but I happen to be back on the Blackberry too). With this experience, the choice was clear.

On Wednesday evening, I forwarded a port on my router for SSH (allowing me to run commands and code on my desktop remotely) and began to see what work I could do on my PowerBook. The choice was not entirely unreasonable: my ThinkPad was hindered by running Windows 7, the latest available operating system for its hardware, and so rather slow, but my PowerPC is still on Mac OS 10.4 (which is surprisingly still well supported by a retro following).[1]

The Requirements

I have 7 classes:
1. Orchestra - no need for a computer
2. Math - no need for a computer (Mathematica would be nice, though)
3. Computer Science - Java, spim
4. History - some web browsing (Schoology, Peardeck)
5. Biology - PowerPoint + reading documents + Logger Pro
6. Latin - some web browsing (TheLatinLibrary, William Whitaker's Words)
7. English - some web browsing (Schoology, Project Gutenberg, Google Drive)

Due to my use of vim/terminal for development, Computer Science (perhaps surprisingly) required the least modification to my workflow. After recovering my latest backup and downloading files that I had submitted for past assignments, I was right ready to go. In fact, I'd argue the episode left me with a more resilient setup, as all my code is now written on my desktop computer, so I no longer have to determine versioning between my laptop and desktop and, should I ever lose my laptop data again, my code will be safe.

TenFourFox, a Firefox port, allowed me to still access the modern web, loading Schoology and Peardeck (though with some effort).[1] I was thus able to download documents to read locally, such as the Biology presentations. TheLatinLibrary, William Whitaker's Words, and Project Gutenberg all posed no issue, as they are mostly text sites (kudos for the lack of unneccessary additions!).

So, I was able to complete my schoolwork just fine.

The Nice-to-Haves

1. Messaging - I frequently used services such as iMessage, Discord, Hangouts, and Instagram to message with my friends
2. Music - I have a large library on Spotify and listen frequently

These problems were tougher to solve. With my sudden loss of iPhone and MacBook and subsequent downgrade to Blackberry and PowerBook, iMessage was fully unavailable to me. Hangouts and Instagram I could still access in my browser, especially on my desktop but flakily on my BlackBerry as well, and Discord I could use on my desktop only. I ultimately decided to transfer my conversations as much as possible to Discord, as most of my friends were already on the platform, and resolved to find a way to use it on my PowerBook.

I had past experience writing Discord bots, so I approached the problem from an angle of using a bot as a proxy. I settled on a structure whereby I would run a bot on my desktop and, upon receiving messages, it would write them to files (of channels) in directories (of servers). I could respond by creating a file of any name/type in a directory denoting the channel/server (this allows me to respond with celerity). This enables me to interact with Discord entirely through text files through SSH. While this solution is not perfect, it has worked well enough to remove the impediments in communication that I faced at first.

I then turned my attention to listening to music. Somewhat ironically, I have a fairly large .mp3 song collection due to playing and importing CDs on my Sunflower iMac (for a time, I used the iMac as a distraction-free writing tool). At some point, I had written a python program that navigated the music's directory system and allowed me to select a song to play. While useful, it didn't suit my listening habits perfectly—I mainly listen to albums or playlists while I work, and this setup only played one song at a time. However, after building in album and continuous play support, it was good enough for me. I only miss the breadth of Spotify—now, I'm limited to whatever songs were on my parents' CDs :).


I've ordered a new laptop (a DIY Framework) and eagerly await its arrival, but this experience has taught me how little I need the latest technology, and, moreover, how little I need technology altogether. I was unable to access many modern websites—and that was fine! Of course, it would be great if Schoology, for instance, had a lighter version through which I could download files easier, but my computer always got there in the end. There are also some things that my PowerBook arguably does better than my MacBook (I'm thinking about its keyboard).

Upon reading Thoreau's Walden, my English teacher gave our class a challenge: to use tech only for work and to disconnect ourselves from everything else. After two months with no working phone (AT&T doesn't support my Blackberry) and a month with a 2004 laptop, my perspective and opinions have matured. I don't feel like I'm missing anything from the modern web. I believe the reason is simple—any site that I can't access has a high ratio of tech (Javascript bloat, eye-catching UI) to information. In other words, those sites put their efforts towards appealing to a large audience and keeping them engaged—without the foundation of information that makes these sites worth visiting (contrast this to Hacker News, which relies entirely on the content and quality of the ideas shared there to attract visitors). Of course, there are exceptions to this generalization, and I can think of some right now (such as repl.it). Still, I believe that, across the board, this may not be entirely inaccurate.

[1]: TenFourFox, a PowerPC port of Firefox that made this possible, will no longer have official releases as of October 5th.