Minimalist image by Ovan (https://www.pexels.com/u/knownasovan/)

Marie Kondo’s bestseller, The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up (Amazon link), is quite an inspiration. She takes what is, essentially, a slightly mundane activity – decluttering – and transforms it into a ritual; a rite of passage for one who wants to transcend from disorganised hoarder, to cleansed, enlightened minimalist.

Ok, perhaps that is slightly strong an example, but this is the idea.  The KonMari method of tidying is quite simple: do this, then do that.  Kondo hand-holds her reader through the treacherous caverns of uncertainty and out into a bright, new world.  Her two basic tenets are, that one must organise (and purge) by category, not by room, and that one should also focus on what to keep, but only if it “sparks joy”.

It’s simple, but it works – and surprisingly well, too. When followed correctly, it’s an efficient way to declutter, reorganise, and reset.

Starting the Journey

Getting started is remarkably easy.  KonMari dictates that purging one’s superfluous clothing is the best starting point.  I’d agree.  It’s interesting how you can start clinging on to item from your past, instead of looking forward to wearing something in the future!

I have since discovered what I like, what suits me, and what I feel comfortable in

It’s surprisingly easy to start in this way.  It teaches very effectively to be selective and mindful about what you keep for your wardrobe, and why.  The key lesson, letting go, is learned here.

Like many minimalists, I have since discovered what I like about my clothing, what I think suits me, and – perhaps most importantly – what I feel comfortable in.  And, like many, my wardrobe now features a number of more plain black, grey and white items.  But I don’t subscribe to monotone styling; blue is the colour I love, so I have a lot of blue in my wardrobe too, plus warmer hues.

Minimalism, to me, is far more about quantity.  It doesn’t mean I need to sacrifice style.

Decluttering the House

Decluttering produced these three boxes of books
Many old books, that no longer “spark joy”, being taken to my local library. Decluttering FTW!

After clothes comes the decluttering of books, paperwork, CDs/DVDs and miscellanea (random bits and pieces, called komono by Kondo). How much you have kept will determine how long this takes.  But a little dedication can bring surprisingly quick results.  Several hours are really all that’s needed for decluttering.

Five bin bags of clothes, and four boxes of books later, I feel well on my way to simplifying and minimising.

And what a great feeling, being unburdened.  

As I proceeded with old paperwork, the voice in my mind became yet more balanced.  I had to double-check on certain items, and felt freedom and empowerment to change my mind part way through – sometimes choosing to discard what I initially wanted to keep, and vice versa.  This process is mentally decluttering, and (if I were spiritual), spiritually cleansing.

Decluttering the Mind

Computing, for me, is a big thing.  As soon as I could record stuff on computer, I did.  I have databases and documents dating from the early 1990s onwards. Sadly, the file formats used for those documents are not widely supported any more.

This creates a problem: Do I keep those old documents, which probably serve no purpose to me now? If not, why did I keep them for so long? Or, do I go to the trouble of getting an older computing platform to convert them from, into a more modern, or at least less-encumbered, file format? Do I still need them? Will I ever? Or do I just archive them all off and save myself the time and effort?  (Do you see how all this digital clutter is causing angst and complexity?  Why am I thinking about this stuff…? etc.)

These questions have haunted me for quite some time, but eventually I came to realise that while it would be nice to have access to all my data, in reality, I don’t need it. And having access to it would increase the amount of digital clutter that I don’t need to be concerned with.

Am I Swapping Physical Hoarding for Digital Hoarding?

Although previously I wanted to convert all my old files into modern formats, I am beginning to realise that there really is little benefit to doing this.  Up to roughly 1999, I would have used my Amiga computer for word processing and other work (e.g. editing images).  When I got a PC in 2000, and installed SuSE Linux 7.2, I started using StarOffice (the precursor to OpenOffice/LibreOffice) instead.  StarOffice files are still supported in modern versions of LibreOffice, much to my delight.

But for pre-2000 data, I must accept that without significant time, energy and devotion, I cannot easily liberate my files.  This means all my university essays, college assignments, personal notes, documents, databases, images and other data are now part of that fabric of digital cruft.  The best I can do is securely archive them off, hoping that one day an easy conversion solution will be available.

Yet, in some ways, this is for the best.  What good does reading my own essay on Chaucer do, for me, in 2017? I am too busy with other things that are contemporary and relevant, right now, to indulge in that.  Digital decluttering is as important as physical decluttering.

Closing Thoughts

I have observed that, during this decluttering process so far, I have had a tendency to hang on to things because of their value to me in the past.  My mindset in the present has been influenced by past events, of course, but this has also lured me into some complacency with regard to my beliefs and philosophy on life.

When we start becoming defined by the things we have, instead of the things we do, there is little value in “having” those things whatsoever.

I am looking forward to doing more, and having less.


Have you had a similar experience with de-cluttering?  Please comment – I’d love to hear about it!

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Screenshot of GNU/Linux Fluxbox desktop

[ this article is an incomplete draft, published for posterity ]

If you want to learn more about the GNU / UNIX operating system, and how Linux interacts with it, using a minimal installation of GNU/Linux will help.  It is harder work than installing and using GNOME 3 or KDE, but the benefits soon outweigh the costs.

Preface: Migrating to a leaner window manager

This article was created on fluxbox, but can probably be applied to any minimalist window manager for GNU/Linux.  My current operating system is Devuan, a fork of Debian.

If you are coming from Linux and have used XFCE, GNOME or KDE, or if you use macOS or Windows, prepare to invest some time in learning a new, yet more basic way of doing things.  Many people will claim that manually doing things in a terminal window is “old fashioned” or slow.  Actually, the more cloud-based and cloud-focused the world becomes, the more all of our programmatic and systematic workflows will rely on Linux.  Having a reasonable understanding of the GNU operating system software can only be an advantage for people these days.

But I digress.  I have written to some length about my love/hate relationship with GNOME 3.  Many of the design decisions of GNOME 3 are admirable but, in implementation, some of its features can become burdensome.  Using fluxbox, there is enough of a window manager for general productivity, but no more.  fluxbox is fast, yet it is so minimal that there is/are:

  • No native GUI tools to adjust its settings
  • No way of handling multiple monitors
  • No built in sound management
  • No native network management
  • No concept of power management
  • No icons on the “desktop”, and in fact, it’s not really a “desktop” at all – just a screen
  • A menu!  Yes, right-click on the desktop to access a menu and launch your programs! 😉
  • Workspaces.  Yep, that bastion of GNU/Linux productivity that us “open sorcerers” all enjoyed for years, before Windows 10 and Mac OS X (Lion) copied on…
  • Settings.  If you’re happy editing a text file, that is.  But if there’s one thing most people know how to do, that’s edit text files.

So, if none of the above phases you, then either you already use fluxbox, or you’re planning to and have now realised that this article is not about installing it for you!  Ah no… if you want some good guides to fluxbox, check out fluxbox.org, Arch’s fluxbox page or Debian’s fluxbox page.

Configuring easier multi-monitor support

Laptop with additional monitor connected.
My ThinkPad with an external display attached.  Yep, snapped while creating this post.

Being such a minimalistic “desktop”, fluxbox is not built to handle multiple monitors.  In GNU/Linux, a popular tool to handle this task is xrandr.

xrandr is handy.  It provides descriptive text output that can be used fairly easily as logical input in a script.

Here’s an example of xrandr on my dual display set-up:

# xrandr

Screen 0: minimum 320 x 200, current 1920 x 1980, maximum 8192 x 8192
LVDS1 connected 1600x900+0+1080 (normal left inverted right x axis y axis) 309mm x 174mm
 1600x900 60.01*+ 40.00 
 1440x900 59.89 
 1360x768 59.80 59.96 
 1152x864 60.00 
 1024x768 60.00 
 800x600 60.32 56.25 
 640x480 59.94 
VGA1 disconnected (normal left inverted right x axis y axis)
HDMI1 disconnected (normal left inverted right x axis y axis)
DP1 disconnected (normal left inverted right x axis y axis)
HDMI2 disconnected (normal left inverted right x axis y axis)
HDMI3 connected 1920x1080+0+0 (normal left inverted right x axis y axis) 478mm x 269mm
 1920x1080 60.00*+
 1680x1050 59.88 
 1280x1024 75.02 
 1440x900 74.98 59.90 
 1280x960 60.00 
 1280x800 59.91 
 1152x864 75.00 
 1280x720 59.97 
 1152x720 59.97 
 1024x768 75.08 70.07 60.00 
 832x624 74.55 
 800x600 72.19 75.00 60.32 56.25 
 640x480 75.00 72.81 66.67 60.00 
 720x400 70.08 
DP2 disconnected (normal left inverted right x axis y axis)
DP3 disconnected (normal left inverted right x axis y axis)

My laptop’s display is identified as LVDS1, and my external monitor is HDMI3, despite that I connect via DVI.  This output was generated with my laptop in a docking station, so without this it may report a DVI connection as HDMI1 or HDMI2.  The T420 also has a DisplayPort++ interface, which would appear to be one of DP{1-3}, and a VGA output too.

The sections we’re interested in here are:

LVDS1 connected 1600x900+0+1080 (normal left inverted right x axis y axis) 309mm x 174mm
 1600x900 60.01*+ 40.00 
[...]
HDMI3 connected 1920x1080+0+0 (normal left inverted right x axis y axis) 478mm x 269mm
 1920x1080 60.00*+

Two things of note:  Firstly, when a monitor is connected to a display interface, xrandr reports this as “connected”.  Otherwise, it’s “disconnected”.  Secondly, a monitor may be connected but may not be active.  How do we tell this?  Well, the resolution line displays an asterisk if the display is active, and omits an asterisk if not.  Working on the basis that the xrandr output will always list resolutions from maximum to minimum, and that we would want any monitor to run at best (native/highest) resolution, we can assume that it’s ok to test for the presence of this asterisk in the line that follows the main display line.

(UPDATE: 8 Dec 2016)

Next steps

Since drafting this article in August, my computer and computing needs have changed drastically over the past few months.  Despite a happy 16+ year relationship with Linux on the desktop (YMMV, BTW, but for me every year for me was the “Year of LOTD“), my working and personal computing needs came to an impasse which could only be resolved by moving over to a Mac.  My feelings and initial impressions of Mac usage are still true; for a better desktop, get GNOME – even if there have been several annoying problems.

Coming back to configuring xrandr, I’m afraid I never completed this exercise and instead opted for a quick and dirty logic script that determined which monitors were connected.  Because monitor positions would rarely change, I hard-coded the positional relationship into the script.  The script is will be below (when I’ve found it).

As I continue on with the Mac, I will dump more of the old Linux-y stuff into my blog, to use mainly as a reference for myself should I every have the pleasure of going back there one day.

(UPDATE: 14 Feb 2017)

After 10 months of trial and error, I am finally giving on up the Mac as a means to do work.  I’m faster and happier on GNU+Linux, so that’s where’s I’m headed.  Again.  Happy times! 😀

I’ll still post the script when I find it.

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Minimalism embodied: a minimalist desk image.

Many people reach a point in their lives where they see clutter and excessive personal possessions for what they are: distractions and time-sinks that deeply – and negatively – impact one’s life.  Minimalism seeks to change this.

I am no different; I, too, have been conscious that for many years I have amassed a vast number of gadgets, had far more clothing than I could ever really wear (before it went seriously out of fashion), and bought books far quicker than I could read them.  Freely, I admit, I still do the latter – but I can “hide” them now on my ebook reader!

The Internet’s “Minimalism”

It is amusing to see, particularly on certain social networks, how minimalism is portrayed.  Let’s describe a typically “minimalist” image:

  • White.  It must be white.  White walls, white furniture, mostly-white accessories, all well lit (often artificially).
  • An Apple Mac computer, centre-stage on a desk.  Typically a 21-inch iMac, but sometimes a 27-incher too.  In front of the Mac must be the following:
    • A wireless keyboard & wireless trackpad – both precisely aligned;
    • A notepad
    • A pencil
    • An iPhone
    • Sometimes… a mug of coffee (although I am allowing myself a crossover into that other bastion of internet imagery here, the “Getting Organised!” image);
  • A desk lamp;
  • A single picture on the wall, bordered with a white frame, casting a soft shadow thanks to…
  • A window on the adjacent wall;
  • A crappy plastic chair (still white) that no-one in their right mind could ever sustain a day’s work in;
  • A wooden floor.  Or, if the floor is white, then the desk is wooden.  Or the chair back might be green.  You get the idea.
A silly picture of my wardrobe.
For completeness, here’s a terrible picture of my wardrobe, showing just how far my minimalism still needs to come (it’s not just white, grey or black)!

For an example, check out Jessica Comingore’s minimalist studio.

Flipboard is a great resource for these types of images.  Search for ‘minimalist’ and you’ll soon happen upon this template of what a minimalist lifestyle apparently involves.

What Is Minimalism?

If you Google this, no doubt you will see a definition along the lines of styles in art, music or design.  But these days, “minimalism” has come to mean something else: the removal of superfluous possessions leading to a perceived reduction of stress and distraction in a person’s life.  It’s this definition what I am most interested in, which is the one driving most internet imagery these days.

Minimalism is not, necessarily, about choosing to do without

Minimalism is an interesting side-effect of western capitalism.  The effect of acquiring wealth is curious; it more often than not seeks to be displayed through the adornment of expensive garments, and through “showcasing” the necessity of owning various accessories, plus the outward demonstration of their worth to a “successful” person.  But to many people, myself included, the effect of acquiring objects is that they increasingly demand more time from the owner in order to manage.

This is detrimental to their original purpose, because time will now be split between the owner using the objects, and the owner managing the objects.  Thus, the fewer objects there are – whether these are clothes, cars, bottles of liquor in the cabinet, or watches – the more utility such devices actually provide and therefore the more effective they become both at their original purpose, but also as a showpiece.

What Minimalism is not.

Minimalism doesn’t, in my mind, have any connection with frugality, virtue through sufferance, or eco-mentality.  To me, “being green” and “being minimalist” can be mutually exclusive, although they can also co-exist very well too.

Minimalism is not, necessarily, about choosing to do without.  It is choosing to do with what you need, in the numbers your need it/them, and do without what you don’t.

Minimalism is also not doing without, for the sake of doing without.  It’s a great exercise in making one reconsider what is important and what’s really important to you.  This is the key.  It’s justifiable to say that you need something because it makes you happy.  Most people listen to music because, for their happiness and wellbeing, it’s needed.  That’s fine.

Being minimalist does not mean sitting in a silent, white room, looking at perfectly pressed shirts hanging in a wardrobe.  And it’s also not about choosing £20 shirts instead of £100 shirts.  One can enjoy life’s luxuries, and one probably will enjoy them more, if their number is measured.

My Minimalism Experience

Macbook Pro 2015: forcing my minimalism.
A really expensive laptop considering the spec. A true minimalists machine!
Image of ThinkPad T420: my barrier to minimalist computing.
A great laptop, but sadly superfluous to my needs.

For example, just before Christmas I came to a difficult decision:  I decided I had to sell my ThinkPad laptop.  There were no two ways about it; I had too many computers adoring my house, due to accumulating older work laptops as time went on.

My thinking was, “well, it still works and it’s still powerful enough to do lots of stuff, so I can get more done by keeping it and splitting my activities between the MacBook Pro that I now use for work, and this.”  Except that doesn’t really translate into the bigger picture.  Sure, I could keep both machines and pretend I’m being more productive, but in reality I started spending more time wondering which machine to do what on, or moving data from one to another, or agonising that I was simply distracted by this entire thought process, or generally finding that the MacBook Pro was more portable and thus my preferred choice to take somewhere.

I historically associated my perceived productivity benefits to my ThinkPad, its wonderful keyboard, and loved how I had complete control over the GNU/Linux operating system I used on it.  But in reality, two machines became a burden.  Yet, this wasn’t the only laptop I had “laying around” (although occasionally used).  Actually, I had four other laptops.  This was akin to hoarding, and served no benefit whatsoever.  There was basically no chance I would ever use them all until they broke, one by one.

So before Christmas, each laptop – an HP Pavillion, a ThinkPad T420, another ThinkPad – a T420s, and a Samsung Chromebook, all found new homes.  They also found me richer – not only for the money I made on them, but also for the less clutter I had around the house.

Finally, the agonising dissipated and with that, the stress went.  I had more space to think, fewer options to consider (as far as my computing went) and happier productivity.

Moving forwards

Once you get the bug for selling or giving away old stuff, it is hard to ignore.  As soon as I can find the time I will work on selling more computing kit I have laying around.  And there are other things too – all sorts, in fact.  Like old pieces of furniture (bin/tip), old garden tools (tip/sell), old clothes (donate to charity), one or two old TVs (!) … it goes on and on.  In fact, the speed at which one can acquire goods is absurd.

Moving forwards, reducing this clutter alongside a renewed focus on personal development has already made a huge change in my self-perception.  I feel stronger, lighter and more focused.


If this post has helped you, or if you have had similar experiences, please comment or link below!

Minimalism & Debian

Less is more, as the saying goes.

While I love using Fedora in my daily work, sometimes when I want to relax I find using an alternative distribution is good therapy.  Fedora is fabulous with its GNOME Shell finery, but occasionally I hanker for something simpler and more lightweight.  It’s also good to see how the other half lives 🙂

So, I decided to put Debian on my netbook.  With no GUI.  Everything I do on it must be by the command line, including web research.  Compared to Fedora, Debian‘s system requirements are practically non-existent, which is especially good if you want your system to still run nice and quick.

First steps…

  1. Firstly, I had of course to grab the distribution.  I’m not over-fussed about running cutting edge stuff on this machine.  For me, the most important thing is a low-maintenance base where I don’ t need to think much about the distribution changing every 6 months.

    I visited the Debian Mirror List and grabbed a NetInst CD image.

  2. Next off, I plugged in the USB CD/DVD drive and installed the software, making sure I didn’t overwrite my XP partition.  Well, you need a reminder every so often how awful life used to be.. 😉
  3. I won’t go into the installation process here – there’s plenty of documentation elsewhere which covers that.  So, once installed, I really wanted to keep the installed software as trim as possible.  That is, with one or two exceptions…
     
  1. Firstly, I have tried and tried it again but I just can’t/don’t/won’t do vi, vim or anything similar.  It’s just not my bag.  It’s emacs for me.  I also want to keep my mail inside emacs, so it’s goodbye to mutt – even if it does suck less, apparently 😉
  2. Also, Exim4.  The servers I manage don’t use it (generally it’s Postfix or QMail) and I already have a tiny smattering of Sendmail knowledge – so I have no desire to pick up on this.  I’m sure it’s a fine MTA and undoubtedly there are many technical reasons why I should keep it on my netbook… but even so, no thanks.

    Therefore, my software changes are:

    $ sudo aptitude remove exim4 exim4-base exim4-config exim4-daemon-light vi mutt

    $ sudo aptitude install emacs w3m-el sendmail

  • So far so good.  However, I was still stuck with a chunky 80×25 character screen when booting up, which is real ugly.  Through much searching and grub configuration editing, I found that my answer was actually to install the intel video package.

    $ sudo aptitude install xserver-xorg-video-intel

    You’re on to a winner here, because Debian Squeeze is already set up for Kernel Mode Setting.  In other words, as soon as your system starts booting up, the video drivers get loaded and the optimal video mode is enabled (or, at least, that’s the intention).

    Whether or not it’s worth specifying screenmode in grub is open for debate.  FWIW, I put this in /etc/default/grub:

    GRUB_GFXMODE=1024x600
    GRUB_GFXPAYLOAD=1024x600x16

    … And in /etc/grub.d/40_custom:

    set gfxpayload=1024x600x16

    Then, I simply updated grub with the new config:

    $ sudo update-grub

    Please note that this step relates to my Intel-based netbook.  Yours may vary.

  • The only significant piece of the puzzle remaining was to get wireless sorted out and connect to my server:

    $ sudo aptitude install wireless-tools iw wpasupplicant autofs nfs-common

    ** PLEASE NOTE: this step assumes your wireless network device doesn’t require firmware or that you already have the firmware installed in /lib/firmware. **

    Once done, you need to uncomment the /net line in /etc/auto.master and restart autofs:

    $ service restart autofs

    If you want to refer to server by hostname and are not running a DNS server, add the hostname to /etc/hosts (somewhere below the localhost lines):

    111.222.333.444      myserver.mydomain.com  myserver

    At this point, assuming all went well, you can cd to /net/ in either the shell or a file manager such as nautilus (if running a GUI).

    So, this takes care of a basic local network configuration, but we still need to actually get connected to it on wifi.  So, there is, in my /etc/network/interfaces:

    # The loopback network interface
    auto lo
    iface lo inet loopback

    # The primary network interface
    allow-hotplug eth0
    iface eth0 inet dhcp

    # Wireless
    auto wlan0
    iface wlan_mynet inet dhcp
    wpa_ssid my-network-ssid
    wpa-psk  my-network-key

    Once done, save this file and change the permissions for extra security:

    $ sudo chmod 0600 /etc/network/interfaces

    – and connect up, like this:

    $ sudo ifup wlan0=wlan_mynet

  • Voila!  With luck, maybe a little patience, and possibly an extra step or two (which you can hopefully figure out, if needed) these are the key set up steps which will make your netbook/laptop nice and lean, and perhaps more fun to play with.

    Next time, I’ll go through a few tools I use for ‘net stuff.