The future and how we get there

I’ve spent a fair bit of this weekend reading through my notes from the conference I’ve just been at, and picking out some key concepts and quotes for a presentation I appear to be writing called “The future and how we get there”.

It’s mostly about new technology, and how we can use it to become more productive and make our lives more efficient. But I suppose it’s also a little about how the way people learn is changing, and how the bottleneck preventing instantaneous acquisition and processing of information has moved from the computers we use to…well…us.

It’s also about how we should be judged on output and not ideas, and how the theoretical only becomes powerful when it becomes actual.

Speaking of which, I’ve spent an hour or so this evening testing my theories about how easy it is to move a complicated WordPress installation with 9 years of content to a brand new WordPress installation on a different server.

See https://andyferguson.wordpress.com/ for what should be an identical clone of this blog (apart from this post, obviously). I’m not quite sure if this is me testing the water for a move to a hosted site, or if I’m just using this as a testbed for other projects, but it was an interesting experiment to run, and as I had a very recent backup (from this morning) it was also a good way to test my backup plan at the same time.

Technology is great when it works. And even when it doesn’t work it’s usually a learning experience.

New additions to my back up plan

I’ve been using Dropbox, Carbon Copy Cloner, iCloud, iTunes Match, Time Machine, Google Drive and Crashplan as part of my back up plan for a while. Recently I also added OneDrive and Copy, because they both give me a decent amount of cloud storage, and in the case of Copy it’s a decent interface to store large PDF files (such as downloads of Mac Format and Linux Format) that are too large for the Kindle app to deal with.

Today I also started experimenting with BitTorrent Sync. It’s not cloud storage, but it will mirror directories between multiple computers, and is only limited by disk space and the speed of my local network. I’ve not got much further than installing the client yet, but will write more about how it works if it proves to be interesting/useful.

First thoughts on new Macs, iPads and iPhones

I’ve been meaning to jot down a few notes about the latest product range from Apple for a while now, but work and travel got in the way. I now find myself with a largely free weekend, and I’ve also had time to visit the local Apple store and see a few of them first hand.

I’ll start with the new Mac Mini. Largely because I’ve been a Mac Mini user since they came out, and I’m probably due a new one. I was initially excited by what I’d heard about the 2014 Mac Minis, but based on the current range I might have to forgo buying one for the time being. My usual computer buying habits are fairly well established, in that I’ll buy the bottom of the range model, and then max it out with 3rd party hardware (memory, hard drives) to get the configuration I want. This time the base model is very underpowered, and because the memory is now not user-upgradable, I would have to spend quite a lot to even get something on a par with what I have now. Sure, I could spend £1000 and get a very nice machine that would meet all my needs, but for the same price I could get a significantly more powerful laptop, which would have the added benefit of being portable. I also wish Apple had not scrapped the server edition of the Mac Mini, because computers with two hard drives can be useful sometimes.

Next up is the new 27” iMac with retina display. It looks gorgeous, and it’s not as expensive as I’d feared. I still can’t justify one, but I think they have made all the right decisions with this machine, and I like the fact that it is possible to add 3rd party memory to get a really powerful configuration without breaking the bank. I’d like to think I’ll own an iMac again one day, and if I did then this is the sort of thing I’d go for. I’d also love to see a computer lab kitted out with these.

Both of the above come with Yosemite of course, which I’ve been running for a few months now. It’s a solid upgrade which hasn’t caused me any issues, and which looks a lot more visually impressive to my eyes.

I’ll now move on to the new iOS devices. This is probably the first year I’d consider myself a power user of iOS, and for a lot of this year I’ve left my laptop at home on short trips and done everything on my iPad and iPhone. I’m due a new phone soon anyway, and am also vaguely looking at iPads with more storage than 16gb, so I was particularly interested to see what Apple could come up with.

I very much like the look of the iPad Air 2. It looks like it could handle everything I throw at my devices, and there seem to have been hardware improvements around the area of recording video and audio, which I have found myself doing a lot of over the last year. I’m less impressed with the new Mini, and would have liked to see a smaller version of the Air, rather than something which looks like last year’s model with Touch ID tacked on.

I’m also quite torn regarding the new iPhones. I like the new features, but both models look a lot bigger than my 4S (and in the case of the largest one, not much smaller than my iPad mini). I have quite small hands, and as a result I’ve always tended to go for smaller phones, and I strongly suspect I’ll see if I can get a 5S next and then see what the upgrade options look like in a couple of years. I’m in no way an early adopter with phones, so I’m not too worried that I don’t particularly like these models as I’m sure there will be plenty of different options in two years time.

I’m liking iOS8, and especially the fact that I can manage text messages through my laptop. I have two factor authentication set up for a lot of different services, and it’s useful to get those messages on the screen of the device I’m actually sitting at. Apart from that it’s a solid but unspectacular update.

So yes, all in all not too bad, and I would not turn down any of these if I was offered them for free or on an existing contract. But I don’t think I’ll be buying any of them just yet.

What’s your backup plan?

This week at work we have been working on a video to promote backing up data. The tagline is “what’s your backup plan?” – which has made me think about how I back up my data, and how well what I actually do measures up to what we recommend.

The basic message is that for a file to be backed up, it needs to exist in an identical version in more than one location (and ideally three locations, one of which is physically separate from the actual machine the data is created on). I do try and adhere to this, although I think I’m still a step away from being as safe as I’d like.

I have two basic backup strategies. One is to ensure that any file I edit exists in some sort of cloud storage system (usually Dropbox, iCloud or Evernote). The other is to ensure that any computer I create data on is backed up regularly using at least two different methods/products. The combination of these two systems, plus the fact I use quite a few computers, ensures I always have several copies of everything, and can access historical copies of my data and bootable clones of my whole computer in almost all scenarios.

Most of this is now automated, in that all my machines back up locally through Time Machine on an hourly basis, and once a day to a bootable clone created using Carbon Copy Cloner. This works fine providing my house doesn’t burn down. I also back up my main home and work computers once a week to a disk that I keep with my at all times, but this has to be done manually, which isn’t ideal.

My iOS devices back up to iCloud, but also back up to my computer every time they are plugged in (with the backups then being themselves backed up as part of my other backups). I don’t have any unique data on them (at least not for long), but I still think it’s worth being able to restore them quickly and to have a second (and sometimes third) copy of all my apps.

So that’s my backup plan. It’s not perfect, but it covers most of the bases.

Easter Project : Setting up a new NAS

My project for this Easter was to set up some sort of storage solution for the vast array of music, films, TV shows and photos I have, and also to organise and catalogue them more effectively.

I asked for a few suggestions on Twitter, and there were a couple I liked the look of. The one that nearly won was the HP micro server, but I eventually settled for a Synology NAS device with a 4TB WD Green hard drive, which I’d read good things about, and which would also stream all my media to my iPad with minimal configuration. I still plan on getting some sort of Linux server at some point, but I think that’s a different project for another day.

Setting up the device was easy. Anyone reading this could do it, and there are plenty of guides on the internet. What was harder was coming up with a sensible way of organising my data, and making sure that I wasn’t just copying the horrifically complicated file structure from my old NAS without rationalising if it was still the best way of doing things.

Sorting the photos was fairly easy, once I’d tracked down where they were all stored. I created a directory, and then made a folder for each event, in a “year – event” format. That way everything will list in vague chronological order and I’ll remember what year things like weddings and holidays happened.

Films and TV shows was trickier, because I wanted to be able to access these more often, and in a way that allowed me to watch them easily. In the end I went with Synology’s default file structure, and made separate directories for films and TV shows. I then put each TV show in a separate folder, and made several folders for the films (by director if there were a lot by the same director, and then catch-all folders for English language films and those with subtitles). Copying the data was an overnight job, but it all went smoothly.

I then explored ways of accessing films and TV shows on other devices. Firstly I downloaded Synology’s iPad app, which is really pretty, and tries to find metadata and cover art for everything. When it works, it works really well, but it failed on a few of my more obscure films (especially the foreign ones), and whilst it played them fine, it gave them incorrect titles, which I think might annoy me in the long term. I also had to specifically point it at folders to index – it wasn’t quite intelligent enough to know where things were on its own.

I then fired up VLC, which I already use for offline playing of films when I’m travelling. It saw the NAS straight away, allowed me to browse the whole device, and pretty much just worked in the way that VLC has always worked for me. I’m not sure why I didn’t try this first, but it’s nice to see that software I’ve been using for 10 years still does the job I need it to do.

I already have all my music backed up in two places, so it wasn’t a huge priority to move it to this device straight away. But seeing as I had the space, I figured making a copy of my iTunes library wouldn’t hurt, so I at least have a snapshot of some of my music on this device. At some point I need to go through my old NAS and make sure there isn’t anything there that I don’t have in iTunes Match, but that is a job for another day.

As well as the music, I made a one-time backup of historical email and files. Both of these usually live in the cloud, but again I thought a local copy wouldn’t hurt.

Talking of backups. I also decided that now I have this new device I can probably afford the space to do Time Machine backups of my two laptops. Both currently back up to an external USB drive, which it reliant on remembering to plug the drive in, and so I am currently setting Time Machine up on both laptops with a view to being able to use the USB drives for something else soon.

I’m really pleased with the new NAS, and it has a lot of features I’ve not explored yet (like being able to run WordPress and Mediawiki and all the things I wanted a Linux server for). It’s taken a day and a half to set up, but the vast majority of that was copying data. The actual setup took minutes, and there was nothing that required being technical, using the command line, or understanding too much about networking.

And I still have half of the Easter break left to do other things, which is an added bonus.

Productivity

I’m generally regarded as someone who is quite organised and productive, which still baffles me from time to time because I don’t think I’m that organised at all. Most of what I’m writing about here seems fairly instinctive to me, but in the hope that it might help someone ready this then I’ll try and outline how I organise my day, and how I maintain at least a demeanour of getting things done.

My first rule is to get up when my alarm goes off, and to automate as much of my early morning routine as possible. I do the same things each morning, so it shouldn’t require much thought at all, and generally it doesn’t. I can be up and out of the house in about 20 minutes, as long as there is nothing to disrupt my routine (one of my cats bringing me a gift is the usual suspect for that). I then have a 25 minute walk at the start of my commute, and I tend to use that to listen to music and think about the challenges of the day ahead. This is followed by a 25 minute train journey, during which I read either the Metro or whatever book I’m currently reading on my iPad. By the time I get to work I’m wide awake, and focused on the day ahead. I then have a cup of coffee and start work.

A few years ago I did an exercise where I recorded everything I did for a week, and tried to match time slots to specific sorts of task. I’ve repeated this regularly for a few years now, and I have a fairly good idea of how to plan my day to get the best out of the time and energy I have. Solitary tasks such as writing, answering email, and tasks that require technical focus get done first thing in the morning while I’m wide awake and the office is quiet. I then put aside two slots for meetings – a morning slot for collaborative work, ideas generation, and meetings where I need to contribute a lot, and then an afternoon slot for meetings where I need to be present, but am not one of the main contributors. The rest of my day I work though my todo list, and my email inbox (both of which which I like to keep as close to zero as possible).

I also automate as much of my working week as possible. I have set weekly meetings with my manager, my co-worker, my team, and my direct reports. I also have set monthly meetings with a variety of other people and teams. All of my meetings are recorded in Google Calendar, and the agendas appear in Evernote 15 minutes prior to the meeting starting, thanks to the magic of IFTTT. I then make notes in Evernote on my iPad, and move any action points to my todo list as soon as the meeting finishes. Minutes are then archived to a workbook, so that my Evernote inbox contains only my todo list and things I am actually working on at that moment.

I used Google Calendar to organise everything I do (and everything I plan to do), and go back afterwards to ensure that how I spent my time is accurately recorded. This allows me to track how much time I spend on tasks, and how my work and personal schedule change over time. I also colour code everything, and have separate calendars for work and my life outside of work, which I strongly recommended as a compartmentalising exercise if nothing else.

I’m not a great fan of clutter, although anyone who has seen the inside of my study might debate that fact. I like to keep a clear desktop (physical and virtual), and I’ve been largely paper-free since November 2013, which has helped both with the reduction of clutter and with general productivity.

My Setup – 2014

I’ve not done a post about my setup for a couple of years, and as a few things have changed I thought it was worth an update.

Hardware

Right now I seem to be a big believer in a two computer setup, but it’s not always the same two computers, because I split my time between two offices at the University plus my own study at home.

On the left hand side of each desk I work at, I have a large monitor. This could be plugged into a computer, waiting for a laptop, or plugged into my iPad and used as a TV.

On the right hand side I have a laptop, or a space for a laptop. My general philosophy regarding laptops is that it’s hard to beat a Mac with maxed out memory and an SSD drive, and as such I hardly use anything else now. I think it’s quite possible to get decent speed and performance out of a fairly old machine, as long as that machine is configured correctly for what it is being used for, and as long as I have access to one powerful computer for occasionally processing digital media then there is nothing else I do that requires me to have bleeding edge hardware.

I’m also currently using iPads a lot more than I thought I would. I have one for accessing work email and making notes at meetings, and another (smaller) one for carrying around with me at all times and acting as a portable media and internet machine. Since I started using iPads, I’ve found that my laptops hardly ever leave my desk, and I do toy with the idea of a setup that consists of one powerful desktop machine and an iPad.

Software

All but one of my regularly used desktops/laptops are now Macs running OS X, although I do maintain several VMs running Linux (Ubuntu and Debian) and Windows. I sometimes need to test applications on every single OS/browser combination, and I’m actually not sure how I managed to do this sort of work before I started using VirtualBox.

I use three browsers on an everyday basis. Safari on my iOS devices, Firefox for work, and Chrome for personal web browsing. Firefox works better with some of the web applications the University use, and I like to compartmentalise data from the various areas of my life anyway. I also have one machine that runs the development versions of all three browsers, which I largely use for testing purposes.

I also use a wide variety of other software, most of which I’ve mentioned in pervious posts. The big changes are that I use Evernote for a lot of things now (which deserves a separate post), and I’m also increasingly managing my work email through Good for Enterprise on my iPad, which makes Inbox Zero achievable rather than just being a pipe dream.

Backups

As far as backup goes, any machine that stays in one place (or mainly stays in one place like my heaviest laptop) backs up nightly (via Carbon Copy Cloner) to an external hard drive. I also have a portable hard drive that I back up to weekly with a bootable copy of the two machines where I regularly create data (as opposed to consume it). When I’m not backing up to it, this drive is kept in a different physical location to the machines it is backing up. Additionally, all my music is in iTunes Match, my photos are in iCloud, my work laptop backs up to another machine via Crashplan, and everything text based I’m currently working on will exist in either Evernote, Dropbox or Google Drive, depending on what it is and who else needs to access it.

I test my backups monthly (sometimes more than monthly), including booting all the full disk clones to make sure they actually boot. I think this is important.

My dream setup

I think I am probably fairly close. I would like some machines I use to be newer, lighter, or faster, but on the whole I think I am satisfied right now apart from wanting to put an SSD drive into my Mac Mini, which I plan on doing very soon. Of course, that doesn’t stop me looking wistfully at the 13” Macbook Pro with Retina Display and the new iPad Air, but I very much plan on waiting a few months until I buy anything else.

Previous versions of this post

July 2010 – http://teknostatik.co.uk/2010/07/18/my-first-stab-at-self-interview/
March 2012 – http://teknostatik.co.uk/2012/03/18/what-im-using-to-get-the-job-done-in-2012/

Updates and upgrades

This weekend I have been making sure that all my devices are running the latest version of their OS, and also that they are fully backed up (and that the backups work).  This is something I try and put aside some time to do every month or so, and whilst it can be dull, it at least means that everything is working as efficiently as it can do when I am going through a period of being busy and productive.

I also updated this blog to the latest version of WordPress, which is so far looking good on my iPad (although I have not tried it on a computer yet).

I am hopeful that soon I will be able to write about the next version of Mac OS X. I am running it on about half my machines now, and am so far liking it a lot. It is not a revolutionary upgrade, but it also feels familiar enough to not slow me down.

What I’m using to get the job done in 2012

A couple of years ago I documented the hardware and software I use as a homage to http://usesthis.com. I thought it was probably time to update it.

I’ve been working with Macs and with OS X for most of the past 18 months. As a result of this, most of my hardware has shifted from generic Dell and Sony machines running Linux, to Macs running OS X. I still maintain a couple of physical Ubuntu/Debian machines, but mostly virtualise now, especially as by using powerful Apple hardware I can create VMs that are significantly more powerful than their physical counterparts.

I do most of my work on either a Macbook Pro or Macbook Air, both of which were the absolute bottom-of-the-range at the time they were purchased. I generally have one of these machines with me wherever I am. I also have access to a more powerful Mac desktop, as well as several VMs covering OS X, Windows, Debian and Ubuntu.

At home I have a 2011 Mac Mini, a generic monitor, and the same keyboard and mouse I was using 5 years ago. I back everything up to a large external hard drive and a NAS device that also streams media to an ancient Mac connected to the TV in the living room. I also have several laptops set up for specific purposes, but am in the process of moving everything important onto a series of VMs hosted on the Mac Mini.

I also have a Kindle 4 (the £89 no frills model), and am really enjoying being able to read books on the train without breaking my back or zapping the battery on my phone.

Since I went truly cross-platform, I’ve simplified things a fair bit. I use Chrome (home) and Firefox (work) for browsing, and use Google’s web-based apps for pretty much everything. At work I use Microsoft Office 2011 for those things that require it, but am getting to the point where I can be fully productive with a web browser and a terminal session. This makes moving between Mac OS X and Ubuntu easy, as does having everything I’m working on in Dropbox so that as long as I’m on one of my machines I can sync my changes back home instantly.

I think if I was starting again with setting up what I needed to make me truly productive, I’d go for a maxed out Macbook Air coupled with a 27″ Thunderbolt display in every place I worked. I’d also want a Debian or Ubuntu server to deal with backups, storage, and working on Linux specific tasks. None of this is out of the question, but is hard to justify until the machines I currently use cease to be of use.

Looking back and looking further forward

By this time tomorrow I will have successfully implemented the support of Mac OS X in my workplace. It’s been a long 14 month slog, but I’ve learned a lot about Macs, project management, and a fair few things beside. I’ve also lived pretty much wholly in Mac OS X since April 2011, which scared me at first but now feels oddly familiar.

Next up will be iOS and Linux. iOS is a new thing for me, but Linux certainly isn’t, and it was quite soothing today to open up my Linux laptop and do my first bit of Ubuntu work for nearly a year.  I’ve also (finally) given up Gnome 2, and after a brief dalliance with Gnome 3 have decided that Unity is the interface that I’ll use on all my Linux machines from now on.

Not that I’m giving up my Macs though. Unity and OS X are actually quite similar in a lot of ways, and I see both of them featuring heavily in both my personal and professional future.