Computer Writing, 1979 Style
November 28, 2012 1:04 PM   Subscribe

DIY Computering: I want to build a dedicated, Raspberry Pi "writing station".

I've been slowly reading up on/getting inspired by Rasbperry Pi (heretofore RPi) projects on various blogs and youtube videos and I've realized that one thing I would absolutely love to build is a dedicated writing computer.

Basically something comprised of the following:

1. RPi
2. Old-Skool like 13" CRT monitor (RPi has composite-out)
3. Clicky-Clunky Keyboard (preferably to match the monitor)
4. Forced-boot into pyRoom or emacs or something
4a. Maybe with wi-fi/dropbox sync for the text files.

I've been searching on this topic for hours but it seems no-one has done anything quite like it. Which surprised me. Or maybe my searchpowers are whack?

Additional thoughts/questions:

Yes, I know. The entire point is to create an arbitrarily limiting workspace. Kind of like how Stephen King still keeps his writing desk facing the wall. It's a mind hack as much as anything else.

Any vintage monitor recommends? Personally I think something like a Commodore PET would be wicked cool but I don't even know if such a thing would work with the RPi's composite out.
posted by Doleful Creature to Computers & Internet (20 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I don't know about the PET, but I have an old C64 monitor I hooked up to my PS3 via composite when my HDTV broke.
posted by fings at 1:29 PM on November 28, 2012

Best answer: This seems fairly simple, why couldn't you just hook up your hardware and download Raspbian and then have it boot into your text editor of choice?

Also why the CRT? A limiting workspace doesn't necessarily mean painful to use.
posted by wongcorgi at 1:37 PM on November 28, 2012

Best answer: You could try using an old e-ink reader as a screen. I've seen Kindles used, in particular.
Also, I'd recommend a Das Keyboard. Very clicky, like the old Model M keyboards.
posted by CrystalDave at 1:40 PM on November 28, 2012

Best answer: For one thing, PETs suck to type on. Seriously, that keyboard is a crime. Composite-out is going to limit you to basically TVs, with which you can use an RF-modulator to connect the RPi to any available TV. There seems to be some info on composite LCD monitors, but for style with color it's probably going to be difficult to find something other than a boxy Apple or similar, which was the style at the time.

For clicky keyboards, my favorite right now is the CMStorm QuickFire Rapid, which is basically a Model M with the 10-key hacked off. Mine doesn't have backlighting, so don't be thinking you have to go full-teenager with this option.
posted by rhizome at 1:46 PM on November 28, 2012

Composite out on the Pi looks pretty terrible. Your eyes will thank you for using HDMI out.
posted by scruss at 1:46 PM on November 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Also why the CRT? A limiting workspace doesn't necessarily mean painful to use.

Aesthetics, nostalgia. I'm the kind of person who likes to use stuff like this, so. It's not painful to me. Also, it's probably 10% art installation to 90% functional thing.

Composite out on the Pi looks pretty terrible. Your eyes will thank you for using HDMI out.

Hmm, that's a shame. I really want the glow of tubes....
posted by Doleful Creature at 1:50 PM on November 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Yeah, composite basically gets you at best 320x240. I'd get an old-style case (or look to a friend with a woodworking shop to build you something 70s and wood) but put an LCD in it. All sorts of reasons to prefer it over CRT, for one thing if you actually use this device you'll end up saving the additional costs in electricity prices alone.

If you really need the fringing and the glow, do it in software.

Software-wise, I haven't looked at any of the Raspberry Pi distros, but I have done some embedded Linux, and there are two places to hook in: Either just replace /sbin/init (or whatever it is by default on your kernel compile) with your editor, or keep the distro and fire up the editor in /etc/rclocal (or wherever your init is looking to set up logins).

Come to think of it, on that case, we've had steam punk and diesel punk, is it time for polyester punk?
posted by straw at 1:53 PM on November 28, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I'd ditch the CRT idea and just get a widescreen HDMI monitor and put it in portrait mode. That would be awesome for editing lots of text.
posted by dobi at 2:23 PM on November 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I've been thinking about portrait mode with an HDMI monitor, sounds cool, but that basically means I'll be fabbing my own case for it then...and yes POLYPUNK should totally be a Thing.
posted by Doleful Creature at 2:41 PM on November 28, 2012

As others have said, on NTSC composite video you really couldn't read 80 column text clearly; the computers I used back then when I was a little kid only did 40 column text.

For some reason, despite the fact that the Pi is designed and manufactured in the UK, it defaults to NTSC even though PAL is what's been historically used there. Evidently you can switch it to PAL according to this thread; PAL has a slightly higher number of scan lines (resolution) and might make things clearer.

A Raspberry Pi is more powerful than a Cray-1 supercomputer would have been in 1979 so if you actually come across any old terminals or personal computers from that era and connected them to the Pi via a USB-to-serial cable or something like that, implementing all of the modern stuff on the Pi as a server, they'd do just fine.
posted by XMLicious at 3:08 PM on November 28, 2012

Best answer: I think the most satisfying would be to get an ancient dumb terminal and connect that to the RPi via a serial link. It'll be a hassle to set up (most documentation hasn't been updated in at least 10 years), but all Linux software should still support it just fine.
posted by reynaert at 3:28 PM on November 28, 2012 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Raynaert's idea sound like fun. You can use the GPIO pins on the pi to directly interface with the terminal, and not have to mess around with usb-to-serial converters. They're plenty fast, though you'll probably need a cheap logic level converter (example) to turn the 3.3 volt signal from the pi into the 5 volts that a terminal will probably expect. Mounting the board inside the case of the terminal would be pretty slick - a stand-alone writing station that looks like a vintage dumb terminal and syncs files wirelessly. There are plenty of online documents that discuss setting up serial communications with the pi headers, though you'll probably want to start by finding a hardware terminal and then figuring out exactly what it expects.

The e-ink idea is an interesting one. As someone who loves e-ink, it sure sounds tempting to me, though I'd worry that the slow refresh rate would take some getting used to. An inefficient but dead easy approach would be to use an old Nook reader, most of which can be easily rooted and will run a custom android install. You could then set up a script that starts a (terminal and connects to the pi, perhaps using gnu-screen in a multiuser session in order to easily accept input from a keyboard connected directly to the pi. (The obvious question is why not just run an editor on the e-ink device itself. . . but, convincing it to talk to a good keyboard may take some work, and running something like full blown emacs on the pi is a breeze.)
posted by eotvos at 4:41 PM on November 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: If you want to lean more to the art project side, make your own case, using a rear screen and a laser projector. Use a flexible screen and you can play Videodrome.
posted by Sophont at 5:58 PM on November 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Holy crap I actually have a pico projector that I basically never use...hadn't even thought of that!
posted by Doleful Creature at 6:28 PM on November 28, 2012

the 5 volts that a terminal will probably expect

(shakes grizzled old head) Kids these days.

Do it properly.
posted by flabdablet at 7:32 PM on November 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

If you end up buying a standalone clicky keyboard, go for the IBM Model M.
posted by scose at 9:02 PM on November 28, 2012

Regarding the terminal route, take a look at this link.

The Pi has a serial port on the P1 connector, so you only need a level converter to get it up to standard RS232 levels, as flabdablet wrote.
Alternatively, connect a simple USB to RS232 adapter and configure your getty process to provide a login on this serial port.
posted by mirage pine at 3:40 AM on November 29, 2012

Response by poster: Ok, follow-up thoughts and question:

1. I'm still looking into the dumb terminal idea, but if sourcing becomes imptractical out I'll probably go with the portrait mode LCD concept...but:

2. I'm also highly intrigued also by the rear projection idea, and am wondering if anyone has any thoughts on the idea of re-purposing the screen from a rear projection TV as the projection surface? I see those things getting junked all the time.

3. Throw distance may also be a problem for the overall footprint of this thing. Can a mirror help with that? Ideally I'd LOVE it if i could make the portrait screen equivalent to a sheet of standard letter paper (8-ish"x11-ish""). That would be rad.
posted by Doleful Creature at 9:44 AM on November 29, 2012

Best answer: You can make a screen by using very fine sandpaper on plexiglass. Use a front surface mirror to avoid a double image.
posted by Sophont at 4:50 AM on December 1, 2012 [2 favorites]

It might not give you the glass TTY effect you were looking for, but FocusWriter — “a simple, distraction-free writing environment” — absolutely flies on a Raspberry Pi. It also supports X niceties like the Compose key for real symbols and accented characters.
posted by scruss at 4:56 AM on May 11, 2013

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