Category Archives: Tech

The Only Backup Plan That’ll Walk the Line

computercrash

Katie Floyd, co-host of one of my two favorite podcasts (Mac Power Users; my other favorite being Mac Geek Gab), has a very well-written and informative post on creating a backup strategy for your computer.  I agree with most of Katie’s plan, but like a lot of things I think backup strategies can be over-thought and overdone.  Like much of life, the secret to a good backup plan is making it easy enough to do regularly, and powerful enough to give you the results you need.

Before I describe the backup strategy I have settled on (after trying many, many others), let me add my voice to the chorus of those who believe that virtually any backup plan is better than the most common plan: none at all.  As you will see in a moment, I don’t think you need to backup every single piece of data on your computer.  But I do think that most people have some precious things on their computers (photographs, family videos, etc.),  as well as work product that would not be fun to re-create.  Backing up data is a lot like wearing a seat belt.  You don’t need it, until you do.  And if you haven’t used it by the time you need to, it’s too late.

There are two parts to my backup strategy.  First, figuring out what really needs to be backed up, and what doesn’t.  For example, I don’t think you need to backup your entire operating system.  In the event of a total computer failure, you can take the opportunity to do a clean install of the current version of your operating system, which will give you a cleaner, leaner and likely faster computer at the end of the restoration process.  Additionally, I don’t think you need to backup every single application.  On Macs, almost all applications can easily be re-downloaded from the App Store.  Those that were purchased directly from the vendor can almost always be obtained from the vendor’s website.  The exception would be those few applications you rely on that have been deprecated or are no longer available.  I keep installation files for those in a special “legacy applications” folder, which is backed up (more on that below).  It is important, of course, to keep your serial numbers and associated documentation with respect to legacy and directly purchased apps.  That information can be kept in a local file or in the cloud.  I keep this information in a Google spreadsheet.

What does need to be backed up are the files use with your operating system and in your various applications.  This includes your photographs, your videos, your music files (I long ago moved mine to Google Music, where they reside in the cloud and are accessible to me from almost anywhere; I do, however, backup the local copies of my mp3s), and all of your various word processing, spreadsheet, and other similar files.  The secret to making this approach work is both simple and important- you must establish and strictly maintain a folder system on your computer, so you will know which folders contain the files you need to backup.  Choose whatever works best for you.  My folder structure consist of five parent folders (documents, pictures, videos, music, and data files) with assorted sub-folders located thereunder.

Once I know what I need to back up and where it is located, we move to step two of my backup strategy: how and where to back it up.  I do this in two ways (complying with Katie’s redundancy rule).  One, via my Mac’s built-in Time Machine application, backing up to an Apple Time Capsule (in the interest of accuracy, this process does backup my entire computer, including the operating system, however in the event of a loss I would only restore the hard drive in its entirety via Time Machine if my second backup process (see below) failed).  This process is extremely easy to set up, and will work on any local or network attached storage-  it is not limited to Time Machines.  In addition to providing required redundancy, this approach allows me to open the Time Machine application on my Mac and find and restore individual files and documents that may have been inadvertently deleted.  In other words, I don’t have to restore the entire computer to recover data and documents.  I can go into the Time Machine application and grab the ones I want.

My second backup process consists of backing up the specific folders identified above to Amazon’s Glacier service (which is incredibly inexpensive) via the application Arq.  Stated simply, the folders described above are automatically backed up, every hour, to Amazon via Arq.  I backup to Glacier, but Arq supports numerous cloud locations.

Arq is a wonderful application, and does all of its work in the background.  An added benefit of this approach is that I can, if needed, access and restore files located on one of my Macs from another Mac, using the Arq application.  One caveat: one of the reasons Glacier is so cheap is because it is not designed for frequent storage and retrieval of files.  When you need access to a file, it can take several hours for Amazon to make it available.  This is both intentional (because Glacier is designed for backup) and a small annoyance to withstand, given how inexpensive Glacier is.

As an aside, I also currently backup my iPhoto file to Glacier in this matter.  It appears (and I deeply hope) that Apple is about to make this process unnecessary, by storing all photos in iCloud via the upcoming iOS 8 and the forthcoming Photos app.

So, let’s recap.  You need to back up some things, but maybe not everything.  There are many ways to do it, and the key is to pick a process that is both simple, redundant and reliable.  Unchecked, however, the process of backing up data can take a burdensome life of its own, which often results in people performing irregular backups or abandoning the process altogether.  Approached correctly, a backup process can be virtually invisible to you on a day by day basis, while acting as a digital seatbelt to protect important documents and data in the event of a digital accident.

Do it.  Now.  Here’s some music to enjoy while you do.

 

The Calendar Conundrum

calendars

I’m a devoted Mac user, with interconnected (via Google Drive and Back to My Mac), backed up (via Time Capsule and via Arq backing up to Amazon Glacier), and secured (via multiple, redundant means) iMacs at home and on the farm.  These beautiful, powerful devices communicate and interact beautifully with my Macbook Air, iPad Air and iPhone.  It all works beautifully, and elegantly, except for one little problem.

I have a job.  Where I am forced to use a locked-down Windows computer.  A committed Apple-loving geek being forced to work on a walled-off Windows machine all day is a recipe for disconnected frustration.

lockeddownThere are shortcuts, hacks and workarounds for most of my workflow.  I use Google Drive, IFTTT and Hazel to move documents around, and to keep them in their desired locations.  After years of managing a single contacts list via Google Contacts, Google’s insistence on jamming my contacts into Google+ and Hangouts and my desire to have a small, manageable personal contacts list led me to separate work and personal contacts, with my work contacts located inside the Outlook prison on my work computer and my (very limited) list of personal contacts residing in iCloud, and my various Apple devices.  I used to think having two separate contacts lists would be burdensome, but the increasing integration between Apple contacts and various apps-and my desire to avoid inadvertently sending personal content to work contacts- made me a believer in separate contacts lists.  In other words, my inability to sync my Outlook contacts with my iCloud contacts (and thereby my various Apple devices) led me to embrace a better, separate solution.

As an aside, I think work contacts are going the way of newspapers and record labels.  I almost never resort to my work contacts list.  Rather I search my emails (instantly via X1) to find the email address or telephone number I need.  If that fails, I Google it.

I have always had separate work and personal email addresses and accounts, which has been and will always be preferable.  Again, my inability to access my Outlook email via iCloud or my Mac has never been a problem.  After all, both sets of email and both contacts lists are easily accessible via an iOS device, even if not be via a Mac.

Such is not the case for my calendar.  Unlike email and contacts, I very much desire a single, unified calendar.  Also unlike email and contacts, accessing multiple calendars via an iOS device alone is not a happy solution for me.  For years, I kept my calendar on Google, and pushed (not synced) my Outlook calendar entries (consisting mostly of accepted meeting invites) from Outlook to my Google calendar via the recently deprecated Google Calendar Sync.   Sadly, this no longer works and there is no acceptable substitute.

Which leaves me with the Hobson’s choice of having two separate calendars or having to manually enter every single Outlook calendar item in Cloud or the calendar application on my Apple device.  The latter is simply unworkable, given the large number of calendar entries I have.  The former is extremely unsatisfactory.  There is just no answer for a Mac-loving geek forced to work on a locked-down Windows computer.

Until I find a better solution, I am currently using a less than ideal workaround, via which I repurposed two of my old iPads as dedicated calendar devices, each hung on the wall in each of my offices, and each displaying my combined calendars, via Fantastical.  Because Fantastical can display multiple calendars, at least I have a unified calendar to look at, without having to pull out my iOS device each time.  This is horrible solution, but it’s the one I have.

I wish there was a better way to solve my calendar conundrum, but for the time being this is the best I have come up with.

What I really wish is that Macs had infiltrated corporate America long ago, so that I could use a Mac at work.  This is probably never going to happen- and will certainly not happen in my lifetime- so the best I can do is keep looking for some hacked up workaround that will allow me to live semi-efficiently within the frustrating digital walls I cannot climb.

I welcome any other ideas.

Stop Planning, Start Doing

startbutton

I used to be part of a group that met every few weeks to plan all the awesome things it was going to do.  There were action plans, charts, and PowerPoints.  There were discussions about global strategy, leveraging platforms, and other important sounding phrases.  It was mind-numbing.  Eventually, I realized that planning had become camouflage for the absence of doing.  Observers saw very serious people doing some very serious planning for some very serious objectives.  It looked very serious, for a while.

Eventually, I split.  I hate planning.  I especially hate meetings where people who seem to specialize in planning want me to listen to them plan, when I could be out there doing.  Or sleeping.  Or anything else.

overplanning

Stop planning.  Start doing.

One of the favorite tools of planners is networking.  Which is usually just a fancy word for trying to convince prospects that they are semi-friends so they will, at least in theory, be more likely to buy whatever you’re selling.  The problem is that it rarely works like that.  If you want to sell your house, are you going to hire a broker just because he likes the same music you do?  Of course not.  You’re going to look around and see who’s kicking butt in the house selling department and hire her.  I realized long ago that no one is going to hire me just because I share their love of fishing, or because I agree that Rectify is a great show.  They’d rather go fishing with their kids and watch TV with their spouse.  When they hire me, it will be because they looked around and figured out I’m really good at what I do.  And maybe a little because they like me, probably because I’m not always trying to sell them something.  People buy brands.  People don’t buy your product just because you stuff a business card into their overflowing pocket and bullshit with them for five minutes about how bad or good the local sports team is doing.  When you are at a so-called networking event, everyone is selling.  No one is buying.  PandoDaily puts it in harsher tones:

Contrary to popular advice, networking is for losers. Why? Because the kind of people you want to meet aren’t out at networking events, handing out business cards. Think about it. Have you ever seen Marc Andreessen at a Tweet-up or a monthly chamber of commerce mixer? Of course not. He doesn’t have time to hang out with smankers and people trying to sell him things. Going to an open networking event is like going to a dating party for really unattractive people. There might be an occasional diamond in the rough, but usually it’s just rough.

I wouldn’t put it in quite those words, but I reach the same conclusion.  As does Jeff Archibald in a post at Lifehacker:

How many of you approach a networking event (man, I hate that term) with that sort of mindset? “I’m going to meet people who I might be able to get some business from”, or “There will be a lot of potential business opportunities at this event,” etc? That mindset is wrong. It’s inherently selfish. That’s why your networking attempts are failing and fruitless.

stopnetworking

You don’t want to plan, and you certainly don’t want to network.  Rather, just start doing it, and by letting others see you actually doing something they find useful, you can build your personal brand, let them figure out why they want to hire you without making them suffer through a poorly disguised sales pitch, forego the nonsense and get down to business.  Which is, you know, the point.

Let’s be clear, however, that a decision not to over-plan and to avoid traditional networking does not mean you just fly by the seat of your pants in a chaotic flight to who knows where.

So, yes, I plan.  A little.  Really, I think about what I need to do, until what I need to do becomes clear to me and then I do it.  Everyone is different, but for me this process usually happens when I’m working out.  Not because I’m some fitness buff, but because when I’m working out I’m so eager to be done (the best part of the day is when you step off that treadmill) that my mind does amazing tricks to pass the time.  A year or so ago, I had a major network (the computer kind) failure at home.  As a part of the fix, I wanted to greatly simplify my network setup.  While suffering through a 90 minute treadmill session, I had three successive revelations, the last of which resulted in a completely different network setup using some of the devices I already had, while dispensing with a bunch of other hardware I didn’t need.  There was a lot more to it than that, but you get the idea.  Most of my planning, from work to home, from farm to family, gets done that way.  No meetings, no mind map, no PowerPoint.

And being a geek, I use technology.  To help me.  Not as another chore where I become bound to log every decision and note every step.

The key is to use technology to help keep you organized, without letting the process of being organized take on an inefficient and burdensome life of its own.  That’s where many tech-savvy folks get turned around.  Sometimes the best mouse trap is the simple one you’ve had for years.  Everyone needs to create a system that works for them.  I use a semi-connected combination of Evernote, Reminders on my iPhone, Fantastical (my favorite calendar app) and Dictate+Connect, a handy dictation app I learned about via David Sparks, to do this.  Simply stated, I put things to do on my calendar, the status of those projects that need to be tracked (and most don’t) in Evernote, and I delegate both word processing and tasks via the dictation app.

But here’s the thing.  90% of the tasks you need to do can be simply done or delegated in the time it would take you to set up some sort of task management process for them.  Don’t over-plan.  Don’t over-organize.  Just start doing.

Trust me, it works.

An Ode to Stupid Jargon

blahMy extreme dislike of stupid words began around the time I noticed the first few car dealers replacing their used cars signs with ones that said pre-owned cars.  Put a new word on something, and instantly convince the masses that it’s something different.  The fact that it apparently works doesn’t help.  It just makes me mad at humanity for being as dumb and gullible as they think we are.

Since then, there has been a steady stream of invented words, designed to fool us into all manner of beliefs and action.  Web 2.0, semantic web, thought leader (by far, my most hated), etc.  In real life, when people start talking at me in this language, I belittle them by saying “I don’t understand all these made-up words you’re using.  Can you just talk regular?”  The look on the person’s face and the laughter from anyone who overhears this (some of whom, by now, know it’s coming) almost make it worth it.

It’s harder to stop this semantic madness when you’re reading stuff online or (if you enjoy day old information) in those quaint newspapers.  Over time, you become less sensitive to it, but it remains a mild irritant.  Like shirts with starch in them.  And ties.  I don’t need a neck tie, because I have buttons.  I don’t need to reach out to someone, because I can email them.

I’ve always been a Weird Al fan.  Now, I have another reason to be one.  This is my favorite of the recent Weird Al videos.

weirdal

NOTE: Some stupid deal made by somebody seems to be preventing people from embedding the video, which means we all get forced to the WSJ page to see it.  I just love the way old media tries to apply the old media rules to the web.  It doesn’t make us love you, folks.  It makes us as annoyed as some of the words in the clever music video you are holding hostage.

Regardless, the video is worth the trip.  Good stuff.

When the Web was Cool

nerdalert

The Atlantic has a great read on the good old days when coolness (or maybe not) ruled the web.  Back in the 90’s, when all of this was new, there were some mostly (and mostly thankfully) now-forgotten trends.  One of them was publicly shared bookmarks- a list of (allegedly) interesting sites to visit.  This evolved into blog rolls, which you still see once in a while.  Another was guest books, where visitors could- if they were so inclined- add their names and acknowledge their visit.  Sort of a communal “Kilroy was here” sort of thing.  Another was were script driven, rotating lists of links where you could add your page’s link to the top.  Then return later, after it had rotated off, and add it again.  I remember adding the first iteration of Newsome.Org to such a list hosted by (and I’m not even kidding) some teddy bear company.

outpost

And there were awards.  Everyone had one.  The one I bestowed on lucky web masters was called the Rancho DeNada Outpost of the Week.  Awesome, right?  The graphic above is the original award from the mid-nineties (converted to png).

Here’s a screen cap of the page with the lucky winners, also from the mid-nineties.

Click for a larger version of this vintage awesomeness!

Click for a larger version of this vintage awesomeness!

Of those, the only one I still visit is IMDB.  I can’t even remember most of them.

Of course, the mid-nineties version of Newsome.Org also won some awards.  It was hard not to.  Here’s a screen cap of the page with some of those approbations, again from the mid-nineties.

Click for a larger image of this vintage awesomeness!

Click for a larger image of this vintage awesomeness!

Those were fun days.  Looking back, a lot of these trends look like the digital equivalent of a bad haircut.  But like haircuts, what looks silly today was rocking back in the day.  Or was it?

Tech Farrago

Here are a few tech related items I came across recently.

Google Voice wants to make its transcriptions better.  That’s cool, since they haven’t gotten any better since this (which was over 4 years ago).  I like Google Voice, but the transcriptions are only useful as unintended comedy.

Speaking of Google Voice, you can also save the audio voice mails to Google Drive with this handy script.  I don’t do that, but it’s cool that I could if I wanted to.  What I want more is for Google Voice not to die a Google Reader death.

Save a web page as a PDF here.  You could probably just print to PDF via your Print menu, but where’s the fun in that.  I am still looking for an Automator, Apple Script, Hazel, etc. process to reliably and automatically convert documents in a specified folder to PDF.  Sounds simple, right?  But it must not be, because it doesn’t exist as far as I can tell.

labelmaker

I shouldn’t admit this, but I’m intrigued by the new Brother label printer.  I’m a big fan of Brother printers in general, and I too had one of those rotary label makers.

I love Fujitsu ScanSnap scanners.  Brooks Duncan (number one web site for paperless living) tells us how to disable the progress window.  I scan a lot of stuff, so this is good.

Not technically tech related, but awesome.  The New Yorker is opening up its archives.  Only for three months, though.

James Berardinelli explains exactly why I rarely go to movie theaters.  It’s the people, man.  Always the people.  I’m probably going to make a exception for the new Planet of the Apes movie this weekend.

As I noted the other day, I like the Philips Hue line of automation devices.  This light switch looks very promising.

My friend James has an idea for a new Apple device.  I don’t know.  The Windows convertible devices I used back in the day were, well, not fun.  On the other hand, I haven’t worn a watch in years, and I’m very curious about the iWatch.  Maybe Apple can recreate two previously obsolete devices.

Automatic, Not for the People

automaticsda

I’m very interested in automation and the aggregation of life data, and am a longtime user of Dropcams (excellent), WeMos (very good), SmartThings (kludgy, but OK once you get them configured, and possibly about to suffer death by acquisition), Philips Hue (good) and IFTTT (maybe the best thing on the internet).

So when I read about the Automatic Smart Driving Assistant (a reasonable $99), the under-dash device that promised to connect my car to my iPhone and then to IFTTT, giving me all kinds of helpful data, geolocating my car, and making me a better driver, I was interested.  A month or so ago, I took the plunge.  Shortly thereafter, I bought a second one for my daughter’s car (some teenage driver monitoring can be done now, via the device, but Automatic has indicated better monitoring features are coming in the future).  Here’s a summary of my experience so far.

The good?  Installation is easy.  When it works, the device and app combination clearly has potential.  The developers have an active and friendly presence in the support forums.  I want to love this device.  Hopefully, one day I will.

The bad?  Just about everything else.  The device is completely dependent on your phone for capturing and recording data.  Most annoyingly, the device only connects to my iPhone about half the time (and yes, even with the app open in the background).  Which means that I get data on about half my trips, and nothing, nada on the rest.  A taste of honey and all that.  One of the killer (potential) features of the device is that, via IFTTT, it will automatically create a spreadsheet on Google Drive that automatically logs your trips.  Awesome, right?  Except here’s a screen cap of my current log, which- like the Automatic app itself- says I haven’t driven since Monday (three days ago).

automaticlog

There’s a lot more information in the spreadsheet. It’s more awesome than the limited capture above.  When it works, that is.

That’s actually better than the one in my daughter’s car.  It says she hasn’t driven in over a week.  She just got her license and her first car, and drives all the time.

Automatic says the failure to connect issue has, at least in part, to do with limitations under iOS.  OK, but isn’t that like selling a jet pack and then saying its failure to work properly has to do with gravity?

In sum, the Automatic Smart Driving Assistant clearly has potential.  When it works, it’s pretty awesome.  But it isn’t quite ready for prime time.