Hardware Process Programming

Building a lean and mean (and frugal!) Python development machine with Peppermint OS

I always keep an old computer or two around “just in case,” and it often turns out that they’re useful for all sorts of things. In an age when online access is a necessity and in a line of work where being able to put together a quick web page, application, or server is important, a spare computer — even one that’s a little bit backward by today’s standard — can be a handy resource.

Enter “tinymint,” a Compaq 610 laptop that Anitra got from her old workplace a couple of years back for $50. (You should be able to find a used one, or one with similar specs, for about $100.) We originally got it to give to her parents so that they’d have a half-decent machine on which to surf the web, but we’ve since replaced it with a Chromebook, which requires less maintenance. They gave the Compaq back to us, and I’ve since boosted its RAM to the maximum: A whopping 4 GB, which was pretty respectable in the Windows Vista era when it was manufactured.

Diagram showing the parts of the Compaq 610 laptop as viewed from the front and left sides.
An excerpt from the QuickSpecs manual for the Compaq 610.

In case you’re curious, here’s a quick rundown of the specs of my particular Compaq 610. Remember, this laptop is almost old enough to get its own YouTube account or Bat/Bar Mitzvah:

  • Chipset: Mobile Intel GME965 Express chipset with ICH8M, 800 MHz front side bus. This chipset is from around 2007.
  • Processor: Core 2 Duo T5870 (2.0 GHz, 2 MB L2 cache, 800 MHz FSB). This is better than the other options: The dual-core Celeron T1500 and the Celeron 560, both of which had the slower 533 MHz bus.
  • RAM: 4 GB. This is the maximum, which isn’t surprising for a 2009-era computer. 32-bit operating systems were the standard then (64-bit OSs were available, but at a premium), and they’re limited to accessing about 3 GB of memory. The machine originally had 2 GB, and I got replacement RAM from NewEgg for about $20.
  • Hard drive: 250 GB. Not all that different from what you’d get with the lowest-end MacBook Pro today.
  • Wireless networking: Intel PRO/Wireless 3945ABG wifi a/b/g
  • Wired networking: Marvell Yukon 88E8042 PCI-E Fast Ethernet Controller
  • Webcam: 2 megapixels, so it’s 1080p.
  • Other goodies marking it as a 2009-era computer:
    • A 56K modem! I don’t think I’ve had dial-up service since 2000. Even during those rare occasions when I need to send a fax, I do it through online fax services.
    • Separate 1/8″ mic and headphone jacks.
    • VGA output. Good thing I hung onto that Acer VGA monitor.

There were a few variants of this machine, and I’m a little surprised that this turned out to be one of the better ones — normally companies go with the bottom-of-the-line configurations, especially for computers whose primary purpose was probably producing cover sheets for TPS reports.

Desk with a Compaq 610 laptop on a wooden box, Acer VGA monitor on a stack of Smalltalk-80 books, an Apple wired keyboard and a Microsoft mouse.
Installing Peppermint Linux on the Compaq 610.

I like to think of “tinymint” as a Raspberry Pi with a built-in monitor, keyboard, and battery (although I need to pick up a replacement battery; this one no longer holds any charge). This means that it’s still got some years left in it, where it could function as a server, a runner of automated tasks, or as a budget Python programming machine.

I’m scheduled to teach an “Intro to programming with Python” course in July, and I may actually use this as my demo machine, just to show what’s possible even on a limited budget.

In order to get the most out of this machine, I replaced the Windows with something considerably more lightweight: Peppermint.

Peppermint is a Linux distribution based on Ubuntu, and it’s designed to run on systems with limited resources. To this end, it uses a desktop environment that’s a mix of LXDE’s lxsession session manager and Xfce’s panel and applications menu. Simply put, it’s not going to look as slick as commercial OSs or even other Linux distros, but it’ll be reasonably good-looking and run quite well.

Since Peppermint is a Linux distro, it has all the command-line goodness that a developer needs. I wanted to make “tinymint” a lean mean Python machine, so immediately after Peppermint finished installing, I installed Anaconda Individual Edition and Visual Studio Code, both of which installed and run without any issues.

I’m going to make regular use of “tinymint” and post the occasional report about my experiences with it. If you’re a developer with an older computer and a limited budget, you should look into Peppermint — you might find that it’s exactly what you need.

The current version is “Peppermint 10 Respin,” which came out in December. It’s based on Ubuntu 18.04 LTS, and if you want to know more about this release, check out their announcement.

Want to know more? Here are a couple of recent video reviews of Peppermint:

Humor Process

Agile theory and agile practice, explained with Phoebe and Joey from “Friends”

Thanks to Renoir Boulanger for the find!

Current Events Humor Process

Security threats, shown as the people from “Tiger King”

Deals Process Reading Material

“The Essentials of Modern Software Engineering“: A must-read book, free for a limited time!

The Essentials of Modern Software Engineering is an apt title for a book that helps you move from programming (writing code) to software development (the larger process, which includes requirements, design, testing, delivery, maintenance, and so on) to software engineering (bringing the discipline of engineering to software development, which involves repeatable, consistent processes, and a move to relying more on science than on craft). Better still, it’s a $60 book that’s now available for free right up to June 30th, 2020!

ACM logo

Who’s giving away this book?

The book is part of the digital library of the ACM — Association for Computing Machinery — one of the world’s first and largest professional groups devoted to computing. Founded in 1947, the ACM pre-dates the first time a thing we would consider to be a program was run on a thing we would consider to be a digital computer by a year! The ACM’s mission is to promote computing as an academic interest, science, and profession.

On Monday, March 30th, the ACM announced that they have opened their normally paywalled digital library to the public for the next three months as a way of supporting the computing community during the COVID-19 crisis. From now until June 30th, 2020, it will cost nothing to access the library or to download any number of electronic books from it. You can visit the library right now without having to log in.

Here’s the thing: the ACM is an organization run by academics, and you’ll see that as soon as you visit the library. Their books are more like university textbooks and less like “For loops for Dummies”. Still, there are a few books in the library that you’ll find useful even if you aren’t looking for works to cite for your Ph.D. dissertation. The Essentials of Modern Software Engineering is one of these books.

Why should you get this book?

Most books on development these days focus on what I call the mechanics of building software: the vocabulary and syntax of programming languages, how-tos from programming tools, frameworks, and libraries, and the technologies and techniques for getting a specific kind of functionality into the applications you’re writing.

Fewer books and even fewer courses cover the larger process of building software, such as design, development,  testing, evaluation, and maintenance. Software engineering is not programming: It’s the application of techniques borrowed from engineering to craft complete solutions, of which software is a part.

The Essentials of Modern Software Engineering provides a good introduction — or for those of us who took the course long ago, a good refresher — to the topic.

Who should read this book?

  • If you’re a computer science major: Software engineering is a key course in just about every university’s computer science degree program. This is because it’s part of a recommended standard computer science curriculum developed by the ACM and IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers). The Essentials of Modern Software Engineering is one of the most up-to-date textbooks on the topic.
  • If you’re self-learning or in a code camp: Software engineering is one of those topics that gets missed in the code schools and courses, where the emphasis is on a specific programming language and technologies and not the larger topic of the software development process. The Essentials of Modern Software Engineering is essential supplementary ready for you.
  • If you’re a junior developer: Are you on your first job, or perhaps the first couple of years in your software development career? Think of The Essentials of Modern Software Engineering as a way of gauging prospective workplaces or the place where you’re working, as well as a guide for what you should be learning.
  • If you’re a senior developer: What a senior developer anyway? Well, if the number of developers doubles every five years as it has been since the ’90s, it stands to reason that half the developers out there have less than five years’ experience. If you have 5+ years’ experience as a developer, you’re a senior, and you should treat The Essentials of Modern Software Engineering as a checklist!
  • If you’re a non-technical manager of a development team or project: The Essentials of Modern Software Engineering is pretty layperson-friendly and quite readable. You should at least skim the book for an overview of what’s considered better ways to build and maintain software.
  • If you’re in hiring or recruiting: You should skim The Essentials of Modern Software Engineering to get a better feel for the software development process. You might also get some insight into the sort of skills and aptitudes that developers, especially senior ones, should have.

Get the book now while it’s free!

In case you were wondering, The Essentials of Modern Software Engineering currently has a five-star rating on Amazon. Yes, it’s from 7 reviewers, but 7 high-quality reviewers.

Humor Process

This is what having to deal with new tickets in the middle of a sprint feels like

The only thing worse is when you complete those additional tickets and all management does is exclaim “That little droid did it!”

Here’s the relevant clip from The Phantom Menace for context: