My Punk Learning Stack: what hardware and software will I use to learn?

I know I enjoy writing blog posts like these, and I also know that I often get distracted when writing them. So I decided to share this one early on, and get to learning as soon as possible, without spending too much time on the details of my gear and apps! Of course, I will post an update whenever a new gizmo gets added to my inbox.

I'm not posting any links below - feel free to search for these on the internet. In time, I will possibly do some in-depth demos of the more relevant apps or setups.

1. Why I use what I use

There are probably seven computers at my flat right now. I say "probably" because, frankly, I've lost count.

Some are currently in use. Some see intermittent use - there's the gaming / video editing desktop PC. Some were sent to us by the companies we used to work with, and never got picked up. And one or two of them are seemingly too obsolete to be of any real use.

This laptop used to be one of these "fossils". Now it's back in service. I'm not doing this because I have to. My other machines could probably handle my learning projects with relative ease. There are two big reasons why I chose to use the older laptop.

The first reason has to do with what educational experts call "learning in challenging circumstances." My interest in education and lifelong learning has often meant that I was busy chasing the latest technological breakthrough, debating the pros and cons of the newest EdTech solutions, and so on. This, in turn, often meant that I was blind to the other portion of the learning landscape. Learners and teachers who are not (or cannot be) early adopters of cutting-edge technology may sometimes feel confused and disorientated by the newest learning or teaching tools. Many of them aren't as privileged as this household; they cannot switch from one device to another, cannot order a new tablet on a whim, and may think hard before purchasing some new software. And for many more, even this level of access would be problematic.

I use what I use to remind myself that learning doesn't need the latest gadgets, and that it can (and sometimes must) happen with the use of tools and solutions which are far from perfect.

The second reason is the brighter side of the first. Curiously, it was best described in the context of Nintendo's tech philosophy! In designing early versions of the game consoles and peripherals which we now all know and love, Nintendo was resolutely rejecting the pursuit of the latest, priciest components. Game Boy could have been a more modern piece of kit - but because of its older components, it was able to sell at a lower price, and game programmers were quick to launch games which used the solutions they already knew and felt familiar with. This "lateral thinking with withered technology" was what inspired me to start the Punk Learning project in the first place.

I use what I use to discover and remember valid and effective uses of the technology already at hand, and to think about successful learning in the context of low-tech, familiar and affordable solutions.

I promise I'll come back to the two points above one day. For now, let's leave theory for another day, and introduce you to the tech at the disposal of the Punk Learning project.

2. Laptop: HP Compag 6820s

This used to be my wife's work laptop. I am sure that she already had it back in 2008, so it's at least 13 years old. A quick eBay search tells me that I could get a similar model today for about 100GBP - although maybe some of it is already collector value?

My wife used the laptop for her translation and photography work. For both these tasks, the laptop was a great choice - the screen is taller than in most modern models, which means you get to see more side-by-side text, or a bigger preview of the photo you're trying to edit.

The laptop's been given every reasonable upgrade a few years ago, when the idea was to use it as "backup" which we never needed in the end. As such, it now has 4GB of memory (the most it can handle) and a new solid-state drive.

It's never been the most portable of beasts - the size of it is quite unwieldy! But all that is moot, since the battery must have gone missing and never got replaced. It only runs from mains power now. This helps with temperature, but it's annoying when the power cable pops out of the machine (which it did on a few occasions).

There is no webcam. The speakers are so-so. It's got Bluetooth. It has wi-fi, but the connection procedures are arcane; I ended up using my phone as a tethered connection point, or an Ethernet cable.

The biggest problem so far will probably be the audio capabilities. The laptop is barely able to handle recording and editing a single Audacity track - and I know that the memory and processor won't be able to handle much. In short, the technology is so "withered" that my thinking when it comes to making music will have to be very "lateral" indeed :)

The most annoying thing about it? Too many cables sticking out at the side. But I suppose that's the beauty of old technology.

3. Operating system: Lubuntu 18.04 32-bit

This was one of the first decisions I needed to make. There was no way this laptop could handle modern-day operating systems (don't get me started on this; it's definitely a topic for another rant). And I was resolutely against using Windows or any other proprietary system. It had to be Linux for freedom's sake - and a lightweight distro for the tech's sake - and probably an older version of the distribution, for the sake of the laptop's age.

I'd tried Xubuntu and Lubuntu before, and decided to give Lubuntu a go. This replaced an existing Windows 10 installation on the laptop. The results were very promising - Win10 was slow and sluggish on this machine, whereas Lubuntu 18.04 is just about enough to get the most features for not too much hassle.

There were probably better choices when it came to the operating system, and part of me was keen to try out several options before settling...but here's the problem with this course of action: you end up comparing operating systems for weeks on end! I was determined to install something, check that it does the basics well - and then get to work, as an average learner would. This isn't a Linux learning adventure, it's a learning project which happens to use Linux. Well done Lubuntu for being hassle-free.

4. Other software and apps (more to be added soon)

For this step, the choices were simple: I wanted something as open-source as possible, as free as possible, and respecting my privacy as much as possible. This isn't a new preference; this is how I try to do my work. Many of the choices, therefore, were either already confirmed - or were about to be decided very quickly.

Of course, this list is just the starting point. I will be adding more tools to the repertoire - I feel that the music / composing area will need the most head-scratching!

4.1. Tor Browser

Tor Browser is meant to work just like any other browser, with one exception: instead of sending your web traffic directly from the requested server to your computer, it masks your activity and directs your traffic through a series of nodes located around the world. (I know it's not a strictly accurate description, Tor experts; it will do for now.)

Tor isn't perfect. As a browser, it has its quirks; as a privacy measure, it is probably not 100% sufficient. And it's not Chrome - which is especially annoying when I try to use online synthesizers (they all love Chrome and hate Firefox, which Tor is built on).

I am still determined to use Tor for as much of my research and work as I can manage. The reasons are outlined above, and there's a third argument joining them: the need for privacy. I believe it should be legitimate, possible, and valid to learn in a way which is 100% private. As such, this project will be a voice in support of such efforts. Tor it is.

4.2. Standard Notes

Probably the best note-taking app in history. It works on each of my devices, and syncs across them without a hitch. It's encrypted, open-source, and customizable. Best of all, its "Extended" (meaning, paid) version allows me to publish my notes directly to this blog.

Everything about Standard Notes encourages me to use it more, and I love it. The Extended payment was made several months ago, so I guess you could say I "inherited" this paid perk - even without it, I think I'd still use the app for note-taking purposes.

4.3. KWordQuiz

My Linux distribution doesn't, so far, let me run Anki. And I need a flashcard app to test and review my Japanese vocabulary. For now, I'm choosing KWordQuiz.

The interface is sparse, to say the least - but this makes the flashcard editor one of the easiest programs to master. And I like that it gives me several options to review my vocabulary. I've used it on a few occasions so far, and it does its job well. I wish there was an audio feature - fortunately, there are few difficulties with Japanese pronunciation...

4.4. Liferea

An RSS feed reader is a beautiful thing: it delivers webpage content to my machine without the need to start up a web browser. This means fewer distractions, more focus, and a more lightweight experience.

So far, I've started on my collection of Japanese learning blogs - there are several which I'm already liking. I have also subscribed to my favourite ambient and new-classical music mixes, to help me study and concentrate! Again, the interface is minimalistic - but I get the text and the sounds with no problem, and I enjoy having control over what reaches me.

4.5. Audacity

This audio recording software is an old favourite, and I'm pleased to report that it does the job pretty well on this laptop. I've managed to work it out much quicker than other, more robust tools (I've got Ardour 5 for editing / mixing, but its time will come).

Audacity lets me carry out the basic operations on my sounds, and doesn't get in the way too much. I am excited about the recording process already.

4.6. Bristol, Hydrogen, etc.

Today marked a small victory: I have managed to get Bristol and Hydrogen to play back audio! Bristol is a synthesizer emulator with several legendary synths to choose from, and Hydrogen is a drum kit software. These are both free, open source, and nimble enough to run on my laptop.

The list of synth / music software is likely to grow. I wouldn't want this to become the main focus of this project - but the appeal of finding just the right sound among all the 70s/80s nostalgia is strong, I must admit :)


This is a free, open-source, web-based chess service. It works in Tor, and is my main source of knowledge about chess these days.

I couldn't imagine a better website for all things chess. The great grandmasters use it alongside complete beginners like me. There are puzzles, studies, streamed games, and lots of variants of chess to pick from. There's even a useful analysis model, which I'm not on speaking terms with lately ("...what do you mean, ALL my moves are blunders?!").

5. Digital piano: Yamaha YPT-255

This is an entry level digital piano, with several nice-sounding presets and some useful beginner-friendly tutorial features. A few years ago, I managed to pick it up in a UK discount supermarket.

It doesn't have a USB or midi output, so connecting it to the computer will possibly be a big problem. For now, I'm planning to use it to actually learn how to play music - making sounds and composing with the use of the laptop is one thing, but feeling the melody and rhythm with my fingers is another.

That does it, I think! There are some other apps and gadgets which may join the list at some point. But for now, I'm happy that I've managed to get this old laptop to do most of what I need - without spending money, and without compromising my preference for privacy.

I hope you've enjoyed this quick list. If you have questions or comments about my choices, feel free to get in touch - there should be a way to contact me on the "About Vic" page.

Take care, and stay classy!


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