A Twitter chat with Mark Fletcher reminds me that after years of trying, I finally have computer backups entirely sorted out. How’s your backup plan? Hard drives fail. And you need offsite backups too. Bad enough to contemplate your house burning down, but what if you lost all your data too?
For local backup, Time Machine is amazing for Macs. I back up to an external 2.5” USB drive. The 2.5” part is important because it’s fully USB powered, no need for a power adapter. For my Linux box I use rsnapshot. I don’t have a recommendation for Windows.
For remote backup, I am really happy with CrashPlan. There are many online backup products and most of them are bad. CrashPlan is good. It’s easy to configure, it’s very gentle on CPU and bandwidth, and they have lots of good restore options. Plenty of advanced features too; serious encryption, seeding by shipping a drive, even a free social backup. The Linux client is a little wonky but the consumer Mac client is fantastic. The price is reasonable, starting at $18/year.
The one hurdle I’m still overcoming is what to back up. I still have more data than is reasonable to back up, particularly offline, so I have these backup sets that exclude ripped DVDs or whatever. Increasingly I’m thinking that’s a dangerous optimization and that I should just back up everything and stop worrying about it.
Update: if you look around you can get a 10% discount on CrashPlan, as via this link.
Plex is good software. It’s a media player that makes it easy to play downloaded video on a TV. The mainstream market does not provide reasonable solutions for playing Internet video like Indie Game: The Movie. Plex fills the void nicely. There’s a bunch of competing media center apps; what’s important is the user interface, the remote, and the ease of playing video in any format. Plex is the best of the lot I’ve tried. Here’s a video demo of something like my setup.
My player is a jailbroken AppleTV 2 with Plex. I haven’t kept up with the current jailbreak scene, but Seas0nPass at Firecore is a good place to start. I think there’s no jailbreak for the new AppleTV 3 yet, so this may be a bad time to be buying the hardware. There’s other AV hardware that runs Plex, and there are also Plex clients on desktop computers and iPads.
My remote is a URC. The device is clunky but we already had it and the actual control part is rock solid. The AppleTV 2 remote is infrared only (dumb!), the URC is radio. Another option is to use an iPhone to control the AppleTV via WiFi.
My server is Plex Media Server running on a Linux box with my video files. The Plex server transcodes while playing so you can play back pretty much any video format without having to convert ahead of time. I used to think transcoding on the player itself was better (a la Boxee), but I’ve come around.
We’ve had 10 years of Internet video and there’s still no good consumer way to play downloads on a TV. You’d think the convergence would have happened by now. Instead the best mainstream option is still Tivo, a device that gets worse with every revision. In the meantime Netflix and Amazon are doing a complete end run around the mainstream market. I wish it would all just come together already.
Canon has a new version of their geek oriented point-and-shoot camera, the Canon PowerShot S100. My S90 essentially replaced my DSLR for walking around. The S100 is great; see this review. The cool new feature in the S100 is a built-in GPS for geotagging photos. I've tried to map my photos for years but without GPS in the camera it's been a hassle. Here's some notes on how the S100 GPS works.
The GPS antenna is in the top of the camera, above the lens. It's GPS only, no cell or wifi location, so it needs a view of the sky and won't work inside. There's three software GPS modes: entirely off, on when taking photos, or GPS tracking even when the camera is off. A warm start seems to find a position fix in 5–40 seconds. GPS location is written into EXIF tags in the photo and both Lightroom and Flickr understand the GPS format perfectly. There's no dedicated camera display of GPS data although you can see photos' locations in the viewer.
Digging deeper, exiv2 identifies 12 GPS tags in the JPEG and CR2 photo files. GPSVersionID is 22.214.171.124, there's lat/lon, altitude MSL (geoid corrected), timestamp, and minimal GPS status. Unfortunately location accuracy doesn't seem to be logged in the EXIF.
The GPS tracker is a nice bonus feature, I could see it being useful to document a photoshoot (although one wonders about battery life). Tracks are in standard NMEA format as a text file on the SD card. One fix is logged every 65-90 seconds. Each fix is logged both as GPGGA and GPRMC, basic position data. GPGGA includes HDOP and number of satellites and GPRMC includes speed and track. Note that as documented, the camera won't write GPS tracks to an Eye-Fi card but a standard SD card is no problem. Here's a sample log of me walking to lunch, see it mapped here. The track the S100 recorded is roughly accurate but missed logging my actual destination; compare to my AMOD dedicated tracker for the same walk. I'm pleased the S100 was able to log even when in my leather camera case on my belt.
The S100's GPS is a great addition to a great camera. It's not going to replace a serious GPS for navigation or technical measurements. But it's good enough for photos and terrific at making it easy to remember where you took your outdoor pictures.
Update: after a recent tourist trip to France I'm a little less excited about the GPS. It doesn't acquire position very quickly if you mostly keep the camera off, particularly for the first photos of the day. About 40% of my photos ended up without GPS coordinates logged, and that was after I was conscientious to stand around a minute or two letting the thing find position.
nvALT is good software. Its a simple note taking app, a fork of Notational Velocity. The key thing is it is very simple. You have a bunch of text notes in a bag. You edit one note at a time. Notes can be stored as text files in Dropbox. It autosaves as you type and has a simple navigation search UI. That’s about it.
I’ve tried a bunch of note taking solutions. Either they’re too simple and unstructured (like a simple text file) or they have too many features with a busy UI (like Evernote). nvALT is just about the right level of complexity. I use it mostly to track projects. One note per project, like “blog about nvALT”. Tagged with category (“blog”, “code”) and a numeric priority. I also have a top level Tasks that I prepend the day’s action items to.
nvALT includes a MultiMarkdown formatter with live preview that is useful enough to, say, write blog posts in. What I really wish it had was a simple WYSIWYG editor with HTML output. For some reason there still is no good simple visual editor in the world that spits out clean simple HTML.
The Vantec SATA/IDE to USB adapter is good hardware. It lets you quickly plug a variety of internal drives into a computer via USB. Great for rescuing data off of an old disk or from a dead computer. It supports SATA and IDE in a variety of form factors and includes a power connector.
There’s nothing special about this Vantec adapter; Amazon has hundreds of similar adapters for $5–$30. The cheapest ones have lousy power supplies that can fry a hard drive, the Vantec one seemed to have better reviews. If I were needing an adapter a lot I’d buy one that supports USB 3.0.
The NTP Pool is a vital but unappreciated Internet service. It runs quietly providing correct time to millions of computers all on a volunteer basis. A lot of the credit goes to Ask Bjørn Hansen who's been coordinating the project since 2005.
NTP is an old, simple protocol that lets one computer set its clock by the time on other computers. We take it for granted now, but before NTP was widespread computer clocks were often days off correct time (or worse, 3 seconds ahead). Microsoft and Apple both build NTP into their operating systems now and run their own NTP servers, but where do all the Linux servers get their time?
Mostly, Unix servers use the NTP Pool, a surprisingly small set of servers contributed by volunteers. Today there's just 2792 NTP servers giving time to an estimate of 5–15 million clients. NTP itself is amazingly efficient; one packet every 17 minutes once things have settled down. But the pool requires a lot of extra management, tracking reliable servers and providing a fairly complex DNS setup.
I love projects like this, where a small team can build a public resource that makes the Internet better.
TileMill is good software. It's a turnkey system for designing custom slippy maps for web publication. It's very easy; in four hours I was able to create a simple map of US airports and airspace without having much background in the software or GIS concepts involved. Making a map requires a bunch of things: data, style, publication. There's been open source ways to do this for a few years but it's pretty complex tech, TileMill makes it much simpler. I put my project up on GitHub, the map is live. Natural Earth like country outlines, roads and rivers, and urban areas. I added custom data: airport locations from GeoCommons KML and airspace definitions from FAA shapefiles. Easy to add, just a bit of sweating the missing projection metadata from my sources.
Designing is where TileMill really shines, a beautiful browser-hosted GUI for making maps. You style the map in Carto, a simple CSS-like language (here's my style file). The development environment includes a live view of generated tiles and a great little editor. Really a joy to use, especially considering all the complex Mapnik stuff going on behind the scenes. TileMill is capable of more complex design than I used, like labels and interaction, but it's also deliberately simplified compared to using the underlying tools directly.
Publication is simple. You can create single PNG or PDF images like this. Or you can generate an MBTiles file, a bundle of all the pregenerated tiles for a web map. Hosting a map at web scale yourself is a bit complicated. But you can upload your tiles to the inexpensive TileStream hosting service or just copy it to the free iPad app for personal use.
I've been learning about open source geo for a year now and it's easy to get overwhelmed. TileMill is impressive in how it combines so many powerful tools into an easy to use product. Great work by Development Seed, the company behind TileMill. They're supporting a lot of interesting humanitarian projects with great mapmaking tools.
Adobe Lightroom is good software. Adobe rethought the digital photo workflow a few years back, tossing out the chaos of Bridge and Photoshop. And they got it right. Lightroom is like Picasa, Aperture, and iPhoto in that it's as much about managing a library of photos as editing any individual image. But from what I've seen Aperture is the only other tool close to touching Lightroom's professionalism.
If there's one downside to Lightroom it's that it's a bit confusing to learn this new way of doing things. I still don't really understand what all it can do. But it does a good job easing new users in and the basic things you need to do are easy and, well, basic. Import photos. Mark the good ones. Edit them a bit. Export them to Flickr. All easy to do.
I have special love for Lightroom today because I just migrated all my stuff over to my Mac and it couldn't have been easier. My Windows serial number activated the Mac copy, no fuss. All of Lightroom's metadata about everything I've ever done in the .lrcat catalog. My edits, tags, titles, all in this one single file. It's portable. I simply copied the catalog and my image files to the Mac, told Lightroom where the photos had moved, and I was done. Stress free and transparent.
Lightroom's not cheap, often $300 retail. But it goes on sale occasionally; right now it's available for $145 on Amazon, as good a price as you're likely to see. There's also a generous free trial program. There's also a good third party geocoding plugin.
Awhile back I came up with a Windows hack to make Caps Lock search Google. I missed that ability on MacOS so I cobbled together a hack to do it. It's crazy how in every OS that big useless key under your left hand is so hard to use!