Julia had my old PowerBook for a while. She liked that it was (externally) the same as my MacBook Pro, and it was fine for the Flash edutainment sites she uses, such as http://www.starfall.com/, http://www.cyberkids.com/, http://pbskids.org/, & http://www.poissonrouge.com/.

Using Mac OS X's Parental Controls, I limited her to a half-hour per day (although most days she doesn't use the computer), and I set her up with the Simple Finder. It didn't work perfectly -- Parental Controls prevented us parents (administrators) from configuring/fixing certain things, and the timer granularity wasn't really sufficient (she got a 15-minute warning in a half-hour session, which was just distracting, and we couldn't set anything between 30 and 60 minutes), but it worked pretty well. Unfortunately, the PowerBook finally died -- it couldn't retain access to the AirPort network, kept losing the clock (which broke Parental Controls), and eventually stopped booting entirely.


Amy and I agreed that buying a fixed desktop computer didn't make sense, but a MacBook with AppleCare would cost over $1,000. Fortunately, I found a (purple) Eee PC netbook for $229 at Amazon, with 512mb RAM, 4gb flash, and a 9" 1024*600 LCD. It came with Xandros Linux (Windows was a non-starter). I upgraded to 1gb, still well under $300. I wiped Xandros in favor of Ubuntu Netbook Remix 9.04, which is quite nice. It's basically a smaller Ubuntu distribution with a launcher instead of a static background. The keyboard is quite awkward for an adult to use, but it works fine with a spare USB keyboard & mouse. My attempt to upgrade to 9.10 failed -- Ubuntu uses a new image format, and doesn't have Mac instructions; I tried on a Windows VM but it didn't work, and hasn't been a priority. The built-in upgrade option doesn't work because there isn't enough free space on the 4gb flash drive. 9.04 works fine, though, so I'm not fussed about figuring out a workaround for the upgrade -- I'm sure they'll get working Mac instructions eventually.

Julia's UNR desktop

After installing openssh-server and setting up passwords, it's easy to manage from Terminal and X11.app on my Mac.


But the tough question was how to recreate the parental controls. On Linux, it seems fairly straightforward to run a network proxy to filter out 'bad stuff', but as far as I can tell, there is no such thing as a good site blacklist. Since Julia isn't yet 7, I think for now we can just explain that we'll keep an eye on her computer usage (browser history), and keep an eye on her when she's using the computer (it's staying out of her bedroom, for instance).

The other tough part is the time limit. Fortunately, the included Keyboard Preferences has a section called "Typing Break", which I have set to lock the screen after 30 minutes, and unlock 840 minutes later. That should provide a reasonable control, although I have already thought of at least 3 different ways around it. When I kill the program to release the lock via ssh (so she can finish what she's doing), it doesn't come back next time, and I haven't investigated how to restart it yet...

As a backup, I have configured the computer to send me email every 10 minutes when it's on, which should provide reasonable cross-check:

pepper@julia:~$ crontab -l
# m h  dom mon dow   command
*/10    *   *   *   *   (uptime ; last | head -3) | mail -s "julia netbook is on" pepper