Greymeister.net

Moving the Blog Back

I have decided after not posting for a long while to take down my Squarespace site. I’ll be hosting this older version built off of Octopress on S3 in case anyone happens to wonder back this way. Links will probably be broken but at least there will be something left here in case it was useful to anyone.

The Full Stack

When I see a job requirement list like the following, I really have to wonder about what the day-to-day would be.

My guess is that it is a nightmare of bad management and poorly made technology decisions, but thankfully I’ll never know.

De-Applification Part 2: The Trash Can Had to Go

As mentioned in part 1 I decided to start removing my dependencies on the  company due to my increasing sense that their platform was becoming hostile to my usage patterns. The biggest, fanciest, and most expensive piece of hardware came in the form of my 2013 Mac Pro.

Mac Pro Ebay

When the new Mac Pro was announced, my enthusiasm for Macs was already in decline. I was a little disappointed that the classic cheese-grater look was going away, but it made sense given the tendency that Macs were getting smaller, more streamlined designs. The hardware was a significant upgrade compared to my 2008 Dual Quad Core Mac Pro. That machine, in retrospect, was one of the most reliable computers I ever owned. Its hardware expandability allowed it to stay useful and performant 6 years after its manufacture date. This new, ashtray Mac was more akin to the retina Macbook Pro, there were little or no options when it came to upgrading the machine. OWC and some other shops eventually offered upgraded components, but it was certainly not going to be with any components that were readily available. The only way to add SATA drives would be through expensive Thunderbolt drive enclosures. The optical drive would have to be a USB Superdrive. For HDMI video capture, I’d either need an expensive Thunderbolt capture device or an expensive Thunderbolt PCIe enclosure for my current capture card. There’s a theme to all of this, but I’ll revisit that shortly.

I eventually took the $6000 [≈ 2007 CEO hourly pay] plunge and got a model that made tradeoffs I could live with. The benefits to the new design were instantly recognizable. The machine is almost silent. I thought the 2008 Mac Pro was quiet for such a powerful machine, but sitting next to the 2013 Mac Pro, there was a noticeable difference. The 2013 Mac Pro is also very small in comparison, I have shoeboxes that are larger. That might not be a selling point for everyone, but moving across the country has taught me to appreciate the cubic centimeters of boxes. Everything that Apple had promised to deliver was proven out with this impressive, fancy new machine.

Recall that previously I mentioned all upgrades would largely need to be based on the 6 Thunderbolt ports the Mac Pro has. I started with adding an Elite Pro Dual to have some fast temporary space off the main SSD for video files. The two SATA drives in it were previously inside the 2008 Mac Pro, so those were already on hand. I also added a very nice Aja ioXT HDMI capture device to replace the Blackmagic PCIe card I had been using. I also connected an older USB 3 enclosure that had been hooked up to the 2008 Mac pro to one of the Mac Pro’s USB 3 ports. After some time and a lot of money, I essentially had reinvented my old setup. But at what cost?

Certainly there was a financial cost, as pricing for Thunderbolt devices seem to be “take the cost of a USB or Firewire device and then multiply it by 1.5.” There was also a very noticeable desk space cost. While the 2013 Mac Pro took up much less space than the 2008 model by itself, I had the 2008 tower underneath my desk. Now I had to make new space on my desk and around it for all of these peripherals that replaced the internal drives and PCIe capture card. On top of that, I had to dig out an old power strip because of my new set of required AC adapters. There was also the Thunderbolt Kudzu growing from beneath my desk, spreading to every corner. One day while cleaning up, along with the occasional unmounting of a drive and a device getting knocked out of its surge protector, it dawned on me:

The 2013 Mac Pro is a fancy laptop.

Sure, a laptop with more powerful hardware, but also a laptop without a screen, battery, or mobility. For years, the solution to using a Macbook Pro for professional work was a collection of cables and chords to connect all matter of periphery to expand it. It’s not that I don’t use laptops or begrudge their usefulness, but this machine seemed to come with all of the drawbacks of a laptop with none of the benefits.

To Expandibility and beyond!

My idea of a home office workstation is a machine that fulfills many different roles, some of which the 2013 Mac Pro did. I also prefer it to be able to run games, even if it has to dual boot or run a Windows VM. I also want it to be able to support running multiple virtual environments to test things for work or for hobby projects. That requires a lot of resources and a lot of flexibility. The cheese-grater Mac Pro was the last example of that combination offered by Apple. The 2013 and presumably later Mac Pros have limited flexibility to external expansion which, generally, was the only flexibility laptops had. My Macbook Air can connect via Thunderbolt to a CalDigit docking station which gives it Ethernet, display, and USB 3 ports. This is great, especially since I move my laptop around a lot and don’t want to have a lot of cables to unplug when I grab it. For a workstation, this provides no benefits at all (unless you happen to need to run workstations office to office which, given how expensive these are, I totally understand).

Interior flexibility and customization is actually much more useful for a workstation because it not only extends its usefulness beyond its initial technological limits, but because it provides simplicity with the literal and figurative “black box” of components it contains. When I need to move things around my workstation, I can turn it off, unplug it, and then move it. I don’t have to worry about which power strips its peripherals are plugged into and which combination of chords I need to orchestrate for everything to work again.

I used the 2013 Mac Pro for awhile and, although I eventually sold it, it was a very impressive machine. It turns out though that, much like their software, Apple Hardware is going in a direction that doesn’t really fit my needs.

De-Applification Part 1: The Long Road Here

I have come to a difficult decision: I need less  in my life.

I have been using Apple hardware and Software semi-exclusively since around 2007. I was very impressed when I first saw a consultant my company had brought in who used a Macbook Pro. That company I worked at in 2006 was a Windows-only shop, and I had naively assumed that was just what to expect. In my time at Universities, I had fallen in love with the GNU/Linux ecosystem. In 2006, I thought “Well, this is industry I guess” and started the long tedious battle for productivity against my nemesis: Windows XP.

The consultant had shown me some amazing things in a very short time. The first was, yes, this fancy laptop looked impressive. After working with it first hand, I learned it had very respectable hardware, and was running BASH natively. I felt right at home, the sludge and frustration of working in Windows COMMAND.COM world was suddenly lifted. He also set up VMWare Fusion or Parallels running a Windows VM. We hooked a monitor, keyboard, and mouse to the Macbook. One of us could be sitting at the Macbook using the built-in display and keyboard/trackpad using Leopard and the other less fortunate person (me) could sit at the external display and keyboard using Windows. The application had to work in IE and so the Windows side would usually just have a browser window while the iDE and application server ran on the host OS.

Within a year of that experience, I had other co-workers who were enthusiastic about Macs and Mac OS X. I had also gone to a couple of conferences where, unsurprisingly, most of the presenters used Macbook Pros. I saved up and bought a used 15” 2006 Macbook Pro. Not only was it lighter and faster than the ugly craptop my company had issued me, it looked fancier. Slowly but surely I moved to doing all my development on the Macbook Pro and let the craptop perform the one function it was fit for; a hot paperweight.

Those were happier times using Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard, and there was very little to complain about. Expose` seemed like magic to me. I could hit F3 and all of my windows would scale down to properly proportioned versions where all of them were visible. Macports was similar to FreeBSD and enabled most open source packages I wanted. VMWare Fusion wasn’t cheap, but it let me bring up IE as well as Office to open proprietary documents that every company I worked at loved. After buying a replacement battery, the Macbook Pro seemed to run noticeably longer than the craptop did. This, despite having replaced the CDROM with a second battery on the craptop.

All things, especially good things, eventually come to an end. The first signs were subtle little annoyances when I upgraded to 10.6 Snow Leopard. Expose` didn’t work the way it used to. It no longer spaced the windows proportionally across the screen. I may be inaccurately recalling this from memory, but I believe it made all windows the same size (why?). There was a hack that I applied to make it function in the old way, but it just seemed odd to me at the time that Apple did this. Why was I suddenly fighting my old war for productivity against this fancy operating system?

And then there was 10.7 Lion. This was the first time I honestly wondered if I had made the wrong choice in buying into the Apple ecosystem. I stumbled through that steaming pile of skeuomorphism, and 10.8 Mountain Lion was hardly an improvement. None of the changes served any benefit for my uses of the computer, but worse than that, seemed like an increasing set of fancy obstacles. Take your pick; “natural” scrolling, iCloud, Gatekeeper, Mission Control replacing Expose`, Springboard, or Spaces being eradicated. One by one features that I relied on were mutating into less useful variants, or going away completely.

10.9 Mavericks, the first non cat release with a fancy California name, is the last release I have used for any extended period of time. I find the Yosemite look and feel revolting. I realize I can’t run Mavericks forever, as security updates eventually become “upgrade features” for OS vendors. This leads me to the painful conclusion that Apple’s concepts of what an operating system should be is about as far removed as possible from mine. Realistically, I have to choose to either ignore my instincts and just get used to OS X caring about as much for user preference as Gawker cares about privacy or hit the eject button. Instead of fancy OS’s named after fancy California places with new, fancier California fonts, I’m done.

I plan on documenting how I do this in sequential posts because this will not be an overnight thing. Wish me luck!

I Made a Thing

One thing I’d never done before was a URL shortener. Obviously there is no direct need for another one of these, but I thought I would add a bit of a twist: I’d use emoji characters. Already you should realize this has no practical purpose whatsoever.

Getting Rid of Duplicates in the Hacker News Feed

I’m happy to say I’ve survived the Google Reader Apocalypse and switched over to Feedbin to synchronize my feeds. Reeder on my iPhone supports this aggregator and so from that perspective the change has had very little impact on me. I miss is the desktop experience I had with NetNewsWire, but the web interface for Feedbin is much better than Google Reader and removed my need for a dedicated application.

The only new issue that I’ve encountered that I don’t remember from the Reader days are duplicated feed entries, which is only a big nuisance when it comes to a feed as active as Hacker News. The GitHub issue explains why this happens, but to summarize, Hacker News doesn’t assign a unique ID to each post, so Feedbin tries to assign one for it. Unfortunately, the way an ID is generated means that if the post title changes, as is often the case with Hacker News, a new ID is generated and appears as a completely different post in my feed. It got to the point where I became suspicious of visiting any posts on a topic I’d already seen. However, this sort of mental burden is exactly the sort of thing software is supposed to relieve us of!

Fighting With Filenames

I was playing a little Sega CD the other day (actually a CDX but who’s keeping track), but I was having some problems with a disc which was a bit scuffed up. I figured now that it is mostly readable I’d better back it up while I had the chance. Sega CD discs were sort of tricky for noobs like me back in the day because they are multi-track discs, with one data track and a number of audio tracks. Usually, even today, I resort to something like Nero Burning ROM when simple programs like Disk Utility do not properly handle these discs. If you back them up as MP3s and ISO you get the benefit of data compression, as well as playability with emulators. I prefer to play games that way sometimes because I don’t have to mess with component/composite cables on a receiver that isn’t easy to get to.