All posts by john

Setting Up A New Mac Redux

Since I get new Macs somewhat more regularly than most folks and since I want a consistent work / productivity environment across all of them, I have gotten a pretty decent way set up for going from zero to hero on a new, tabula rasa Mac.

It basically comes down to four things: dropbox, homebrew, github, and the App Store.  But here are the steps in more detail:

Step 1: Basic Data & Backup

This step is easy.  I just install & configure both Dropbox & CrashPlan.  After a while, Dropbox has downloaded my essential data and CrashPlan has got a backup going.

Step 2: Configuration Essentials

1Password.  Having some password manager is essential and increases both security and convenience.  And if you only use Apple products, 1Password is a no-brainer.  Otherwise I would still use it, but I could see arguments for LastPass.  Now with Mavericks, these aren’t quite as essential, but there are some web sites that Mavericks won’t save the password on, which is annoying and one of these apps can help with.

Alfred 2 — it’s the launcher I use for everything and a must-have.

Install Xcode — it’s required for homebrew, which is up next, and I use to get most unix tools.  In my experience it causes less frustration than macports.

Setup Homebrew.  I use this to make sure things like zsh, vim, git, etc. are installed and up to date:

brew install zsh
brew install git
brew install macvim --custom-icons --override-system-vim --with-lua

Then I get my some ssh keys set up to connect to github, where I store my .dotfiles as well as some vimwiki files.  This way I can make sure that my my zsh, vim, etc. configurations are the same on all my machines:

git clone ~/.dotfiles

Vundle — I switched from vim-pathogen to this a couple months ago after using pathogen for ages.  It really is better.

Programming Font: Panic Sans — super awesome (though I’m evaluating Fantasque Sans Mono and really liking it so far).

Step 3: Other Apps I Recommend


Airmail — I’ve been going back & forth between this and Postbox for my email client on MacOS.  I think in the end, I prefer Airmail.  It does tend to crash a lot, but it’s better when it works…

Intego VirusBarrier and Internet Security — Macs get viruses, but more importantly, malware.  People that don’t think their Macs are vulnerable to getting owned are kidding themselves.

Flux — if you use your computer for things other than playing games in dim light (e.g.: at night) this app makes the screen much easier on your eyes.  It changes the gamma to match the hour.

Bartender — if you have a bunch of apps that put icons in your menu bar, this will go a long way toward tidying them up.

Pocket — I used to use Readability for saving my reading list, but switched to Pocket.  It works better with PDFs.  I actually keep them in sync using ifttt.

Step 4: Work VPN

VPN support has been built in to MacOS for a while now, so this is pretty easy.

Step 5: Etc.

ScanSnap — have to install the software for my ScanSnap S1500M.  This thing is indispensable.  A ScanSnap or something like it is pretty critical to a reasonably organized life.  Getting the software installed is something of a pain unless you prepare / hoard, because you can’t just download everything from Fujitsu.  So I’ve made a disk image of the install media and squirreled it away on my Synology.

Aperture — since this is going to be my new main productivity machine at home, I need to copy my photos from my old Mac.  They’re in iPhoto and Lightroom.  I’ve decided Lightroom is just too clumsy for library management (though great for editing), so I’m going to give Aperture a try on the new box.

New Home Office Setup – New Mac, Desk, and Organization

It’s 2014 and my home office has been in total disarray for, I think, at least 2 years.

As a reward to myself / carrot to convince me to do it, I ordered the following goodies:

  1. A new desk: The Stir Kinetic Desk.  Mine’s supposed to come in just a few weeks and I’m super excited.   My current desk is an old dining room table and, while pretty, isn’t very functional.  The Kinetic desk can raise to a standing position or lower back to sitting with the touch of a button.  It has bluetooth and wifi as well as both AC and USB power ports on each of the 2 back corners.  Super pumped.
  2. New Mac Pro.  3GHz, 8 core, 64GB ram, dual AMD D700, 1TB PCIe SSD.
  3. Newly organized office.  It’s been a mess for years and Heather helped me correct that in about 1/6 the time I thought possible.  Now it’s amazing and I love being in it.

Ok.  So, I don’t have the desk yet, so my next post will detail how I’m setting up my new mac and any updates I’ve made to that process for my records.

I’ll also update my backup strategy stuff – Drobo, Synology, etc.  They’ve got some great stuff out now.

Stephen Wolfram Blog : The Personal Analytics of My Life

This article, Stephen Wolfram Blog : The Personal Analytics of My Life, is really pretty cool.  It makes me wish I’d been collecting this data about me for so long!

Man.  Every keystroke he’s typed for a decade!


New Gaming Setup So Powa~

I decided I deserved a new gaming setup.  One that would be completely and utterly over the top.  So here’s what I ordered:

Maingear Shift SuperStock configured with:

  • Intel Core i7 3960X Six-Core 3.3GHz SandyBridge-E CPU
  • 32GB Corsair Vengeance DDR-1866 RAM (8x4GB)
  • 3x AMD Radeon HD 7970 3GB cards in CrossFire
  • 1500W Silverstone Strider PSU
  • 3x 480GB Corsair Force GT SSD SATA 6G (in RAID-5)
  • 1x 3.0TB Western Digital Caviar Green 5400RPM Drive
  • LSI MegaRAID SATA/SAS 9260-8i 512MB 8 port RAID card
  • 12x LG SuperMulti Blu-Ray Burner

And this monster will be driving 3x NEC MultiSync PA301w flat panels in portrait mode with EyeFinity.  This will amount to 5120×2560 resolution, more or less.

I’ve got the monitors already and hooked up to my old PC, but it can’t really handle it (I get a lot of micro-stuttering, have to turn anti-aliasing completely off, etc.).

So I can’t wait to get the new PC and have a go!  Should be ready in a week or so…

livescribe vs. Wacom Inkling

I’ve had a livescribe pulse since it came out more than three years ago.  Just yesterday my pre-order of the Wacom Inkling pen came in from Amazon.  So now I’ve got something to compare the livescribe to.  Really, though, there isn’t much comparison.  Livescribe wins, handily.

  1. livescribe is more accurate, especially out at the edges of the pages
  2. livescribe software is much better — the inkling software is bare bones to say the least; to wit, livescribe has search, Inkling’s Sketch Manager does not.  livescribe software knows about the ordering of pages, Inkling does not.  The list goes on and on.
  3. livescribe is much cheaper — half price, really.
  4. livescribe is easier to carry around: with the livescribe, you carry a pen and notebook just as you would need to otherwise.  With Inkling, you need to carry an extra receiver that you need to clip on to whatever you write with.
  5. livescribe records audio, giving you a whole dimension of context you just don’t get with Inkling.

I can see how the inkling, with its pressure sensitivity, etc. could be useful for artists.  But for a scientist, engineer, student, journalist, or anyone else really other than an artist, the livescribe is a far superior product.

CrashPlan Saves The Day

I had a pretty big data disaster the other day.  It was totally my fault, but fortunately I’d put safety nets in place so that my carefree ways didn’t cause me too much pain.  Basically I lost an afternoon of time where I would otherwise have been able to play the last mission in Starcraft 2.  The short version is my RAID was corrupted, my Dropbox picked up stale changes and screwed up all my machines, my Windows gaming PC wouldn’t boot, my home server didn’t cooperate, but CrashPlan saved the day.

(I meant to post this back when it happened, around November 2, but I just got to doing it now.  The point is that CrashPlan has been promoted in my opinion to “indispensable”.)

Drobo S vs. Synology 1511+ Performance Numbers

Since I got my Drobo S back up and running with a new power supply, I thought I’d put up some quick performance numbers.  The tests are just copying some DVD images back & forth using Windows Explorer and timing on a stopwatch.

Synology via Gigabit Ethernet

Read: 3920357376B in 53 files, 2 folders from Synology to my Desktop on my Shift PC: 67 seconds = 58512797 B/s = 468.10 megabits / s = 58.5 MB/s (just to put all the units out there in case anybody’s confused)

Write: 3921112106B (same as the test below from the same spot) to Synology: 69 seconds = 56.8MB/s

Drobo S via eSATA

3921112106B in 58 files, 2 folders from Drobo-S to same spot on Shift PC: 49 seconds = 80022696 B/s = 640.18 megabits / s = 80.0 MB/s.

Write: 3921112106B to Synology: 53s = 74 MB/s.

Drobo S wins soundly.  Here’s the summary, again:

  • Drobo S via eSATA: 80.0 MB/s read, 74 MB/s write
  • Synology 1511+ via Gig-E: 58.5 MB/s read, 56.8 MB/s write

Anybody think I can tweak settings to get the Synology to go faster?  Let me know what they are.

Where Do You Keep Your Files?

Now that I’ve got the Synology NAS and drives on the way, what is my plan for keeping the family data safe?

Well, we’ve got a diverse environment.  Desktop Macs, MacBooks, desktop PCs, phones, perhaps mobile PCs at some point…

Heather and I both have photos, music, documents, etc.  We want some of these things to roam about between machines, some not to, and everything to be safe even if NYC sinks into the ocean.

So…  Among my plan’s prongs are such diverse elements as:

  1. Back up all Macs with Time Machine, either to a directly connected external drive, or to the NAS, depending on convenience.
  2. Back up all Windows PCs to Windows Home Server (which I’ll upgrade to WHS 2011).
  3. Store documents, etc. in Dropbox
  4. Sync photos and music to the NAS
  5. Store videos, DVDs, BluRays, etc. on the NAS.
  6. Back up all computers off site (to the cloud) using CrashPlan.
  7. Back up the NAS and WHS to the cloud via CrashPlan as well.

Basic Backups

Time Machine + WHS will solve 99% of the times I’d need a backup.  I get versioning, fast recovery, etc.  They’re each well integrated with their respective operating system and supported by Apple or Microsoft, respectively.  So that’s almost everything fixed right there.

Synology NAS supports Time Machine, so I can dedicate some space on there to back up our laptops and any stray Macs that don’t have external direct attached storage for Time Machine.  In general, for a primary computer, I prefer direct attached Time Machine, because it is much much faster than via the network, especially since our house doesn’t have CAT-5 (I’m using MOCA 1.0 right now to get packets around the house, but this isn’t cutting it for various reasons that I’ll discuss in another post).  But for a MacBook, obviously it’s much more convenient not to have something attached by USB and to just back up over the network to the Synology.

For PCs, Windows Home Server will handle backups.  For the Media Center PC, it will also back up recorded TV.


Dropbox is freaking awesome.  The things I store in Dropbox, I just don’t have to worry about.

These include most documents that aren’t photos, videos, or music.  I could store those, too, but I just use the free version of Dropbox, so I’ve only got about 3GB of available storage.  And I don’t really need anything more.

One of the coolest parts about Dropbox is that it works on the iPhone, iPad, Android, Windows Phone, etc.  It’s got a web site I can use to get to my files any time from anywhere.  Sweet.

Syncing Around the House


Heather and I would both like to have many / most of our photos on both of our computers.  We use iPhoto on our Macs to manage photos.  Normally, it would be a pain to get photos synced between our Macs.  But fortunately, there’s SyncPhotos, which is pretty great and handles it for us.  You can set it up to sync multi-directionally, either automatically or manually.

So that takes care of photos on Macs, but to get photos to my PCs, the home server, and the Synology NAS, I need to get them out of iPhoto’s proprietary database.  phoshare does this job.  It copies the photos out to a nice folder hierarchy, keeps tags, metadata, etc.  Then that can be synced around to the NAS, PCs, the media center, my Windows Phone, etc.  Optionally, it can even just use symlinks rather than copying the photos.  This works pretty well, too.  I’ll probably use this mode, then rsync or something like that to get the files over to the NAS and, from there, wherever else I want them.


Heather and I don’t share iTunes libraries, but we do want both of our libraries to be accessible via Sonos.  And I want my music to sync between work and home so I can listen anywhere.  I also want to get both Heather’s music and my music synced to the Media Center PC.  From researching online, it seems like MediaRover may be the way to go here, but I’m not 100% sure.  I’ll have to give it a shot to see for sure.  I’ll update later on this topic.

Offsite Backup

If NYC explodes or sinks or whatever (or even if I happen to find myself in a strange land and want access to my data), I’ll need an offsite backup.  I was intrigued by Backblaze, because they have some cool stuff on their blog, but in the end I think I’m going to go with CrashPlan.  There’s a few reasons for this:

  1. I’ve got a year or so left on a 3 year family subscription I made a couple years ago.
  2. It correctly restores files on the Mac according to this post.
  3. I’ve read reviews that their customer service is good.
  4. CrashPlan’s engine is written in Java and can run on the Synology NAS itself.  Backblaze can’t and won’t back things up on a NAS without jumping through symlink hoops.
  5. CrashPlan supports backing up to their servers as well as friends / family.  So I can install some storage in some other place at a friend’s house, say, and back up there, too, for some geo-redundant backup that I control.
  6. CrashPlan keeps deleted files forever, by default.  So if I delete something and then in 2 years realize I want it, it will still be there.
  7. CrashPlan will keep unlimited versions of files.
  8. You can seed your initial backup to CrashPlan via a hard disk & snail mail.  Somewhat non-obviously, this is pretty high bandwidth (ie: a 1.5TB hard disk overnighted to me, then overnighted back, gives an upload speed of nearly 50Mbps).  This is 10x faster than my connection.  So personally, I’d probably just use my relatively fast TimeWarner WideBand connection at 5Mbps, but for someone with only a 1Mbps up connection, or more data than I’ve got to send, this could make a huge difference.
  9. More importantly, you can recover your files via snail mail + hard disk.  This is even better, from a bandwidth perspective, since it’s 1 day rather than 3, for the one-way trip; i.e.: about 150Mbps. My download speed is only 50Mbps, so this, too, is a good feature to have in an emergency if I need to get running again ASAP.

So anyway, there you have it.  I’ll update if I run into any issues, once the drives for the Synology arrive.  But in the meantime, I may as well start running CrashPlan on more than just my PC, where it’s been running for more than a year without me really even noticing.

Synology Arrived

Amazon delivered it around 11am this morning.

I opened it up and started reading the online manual.  Turns out that they have a Synology Hybrid RAID technology that seems close enough to Drobo’s BeyondRAID to suit my needs: you can add drives as you go, add drives with different sizes, etc.

But I overestimated how many hard drives I’ve got sitting around.

So I ordered some 3TB Hitachi 5K3000 drives to use.  They’ll come Tuesday.  Sucks that it takes so long, but it will take me a bit of time to figure out my whole backup strategy anyway…

Now I’m regretting I didn’t wait for the Synology 2411+…  Hmph.  Well, not like I need more than 9TB now anyway, but still.

Drobo emailed me back and asked if I had the thing plugged into a surge protector or directly into the wall.  WTF kind of absurd question is that?  Weaksauce.