Posts you will never see

Looking at my blog’s “drafts” section reveals a number of posts that have been languishing, half-formed, some of them since before I made this blog public. Many of these occupied my mind at the time, but since have lost their timeliness. Some needed a bit more polishing. Some didn’t have enough legs to turn into a real post. Others I just haven’t fully formed in my head. Rather than keep them in the “maybe someday” box, they will be pasted in raw form into this post for posterity, and the originals will be deleted, just to get them out of my head.

In these descriptions, text in italics represents text added today for the purpose of explaining the post’s idea. Any original text from the draft will remain un-italicized. The are presented youngest first. In some drafts, text is fairly close to final. Some are only scattered notes. Most are a mix of lucid sentences with random phrases to remind me what I was thinking.

If these scattered thoughts trigger any musings in your own brain, I’d love to hear about them in the comments section.

Fighting illiteracy

Initially created April 2009

A post about how what’s really going on in the Middle East is a conflict of knowledge vs. ignorance. The main point here was to suggest a strategy in Iraq of taking over their educational system, under the assumption that educated masses are less likely to buy into fundamentalist attempts to manipulate them. Also, the point was to change the rhetoric of the United States to be more about enlightenment and opportunity, rather than the stupid “war on abstract concepts” language they use now. I never really got this working in my head.

In the modern world, intimidation and intolerance is the only is the only real path the illiterate have to power.

US pitches the war stupidly: “they hate us for our freedom” “evil-doers”, “war on terror”.

Symbol: the destruction of the Buddhist statues looked like nothing more than “boys with toys”.

Counterargument: reading doesn’t help US fundies from being idiots.

The vegetarian case for cannibalism

Initially created August 2008

In the later chapters of his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma, author Michael Pollan spends a great deal of effort thinking about the morality of eating animals. In particular, he wrestles with a moral argument laid out by Peter Singer in his book Animal Liberation, claiming that it “demands you either defend the way you live, or change it.”

Aristotle. I don’t remember the point I was going for with Aristotle. Possibly something about the risk that using reasoning based on assumptions depends significantly on the bias of your assumptions. (I also have a pet theory that at least some of the dark ages was created by the seemingly complete inability of people to doubt what Aristotle said, even when it was obviously wrong, and that the Renaissance happened when people got over this. Uh, and stopped being set on fire for heresy. Anyway…)

Essentially their logic leads to “point A”, at which time they ask “given that most people object to exploiting the retarded, why is it mortal to exploit animal”.

But using the same logic, you can ask “given that most people have no problem with exploiting animals, why is it immoral to exploit the retarded”.

To be convincing, a line of reasoning needs to lead inexorably to a single conclusion. Singer’s argument doesn’t: it leads to many. Worse, most of these contradict each other. So, while there may be some logic to it, it is not a tool for reasonable conclusion of anything.

Singer says “we have a strong interest in convincing ourselves that our concern for other animals does not require us to stop eating them”. It seems to me this should be turned around. Our strong interest in continuing to eat other animals requires that our concern for them is not convincing.

All this rambling was intended to illustrate how, using the same techniques that zealot vegetarians use to “prove” that all should stop eating meat, you can just as easily “prove” that all should start eating human flesh. I pretty much just lost interest in this one, though, so it doesn’t really form any coherent point.

Wheat and chaff

Initially created July 2008. I have no idea what the point was supposed to be.

Things which let you see bias:

The “whiners” comment, exposes party parrots.

Apple’s MobileMe launch.

Atheists for Jesus

Initially created May 2008

Basic idea is that it is possible to embrace many of Jesus’ teachings even with the spiritual side of them removed. Much of the rationale for Christians following them is that “the only way to heaven is trough me”, but that is a “why should I do this”, not a “what should I do”.

There is some meat there, but seems like others have probably tread over this ground before.

The Dread Pirate Roberts

Initially created September 2007. Back when bin Laden videos would surface every once in a while, but there was question if it was really him, etc. I realized that it probably wouldn’t really matter if it was actually him or not. Just like the Dread Pirate Roberts from The Princess Bride, maybe he could be turned into more of an office than a person:

Well, Roberts had grown so rich, he wanted to retire. So he took me to his cabin and told me his secret. “I am not the Dread Pirate Roberts,” he said. “My name is Ryan. I inherited this ship from the previous Dread Pirate Roberts, just as you will inherit it from me. The man I inherited it from was not the real Dread Pirate Roberts, either. His name was Cummerbund. The real Roberts has been retired fifteen years and living like a king in Patagonia.” Then he explained the name was the important thing for inspiring the necessary fear. You see, no one would surrender to the Dread Pirate Westley. So we sailed ashore, took on an entirely new crew and he stayed aboard for awhile as first mate, all the time calling me Roberts. Once the crew believed, he left the ship and I have been Roberts ever since. Except, now that we’re together, I shall retire and hand the name over to someone else.

I’d hoped to get excerpts from these videos and show the different people that were carrying the “office” of Osama bin Laden, but it was sort of hard to find decent clips, and by the time I gathered some, the videos appeared with decreasing frequency. Still, I gathered a bunch of links.

Juries are stupid

Initially created May 2006. Post intended to vent about the reality reported by two articles; however, I’ve yet to find even a half-baked solution to this problem, so I never turned it into a real article (as per the rules).

Take heed the court stenographer

The second link used to point somewhere interesting, but now is just a place to buy drugs, which pisses me off all over again.

Making sausage

Initially created May 2006

A memo to my employees, the members if the United States Government:

I approach politics the way most Americans do, with lots of opinionated complaining a no real action. Sure, I’ll talk by the water cooler about which intern blew you when and where, or how much coke you did while attending an Ivy League school you weren’t really qualified to attend, or how they finally fished your girlfriend out of the river, or how old your former slave employee was when she bore your bastard child, or what contributor got which favor, or which particular lie you got busted for this time, but I don’t really care.

Most of my fellow Americans and I seem perfectly content to sit back and mostly ignore you, content in the knowledge that you are out there extending American hegemony.

The problem is: you suck at it now.

Sure, you’ve stumbled before….

Don’t make me get off the couch and overthrow your ass.

In darkest Mordor

Initially entered April 2006. This was meant to be the expansion of an offhand comment I made in an IM conversation about the “cartoon controversy”. The post has a central idea, but I could never make anything intelligent out of it.

How the Cartoon Protests Harm Muslims

If the Muslim world really desires the severing of all ties, maybe we should just surrender and put a wall up. Within 500 years, either they would have a renaissance of their own (see “Breeding the white out”) or they’d basically become orcs.

What do they import?

When the Sizzle is better than the Sausage

No relation to reality, indeed

Breeding the white out

Initially entered February 2006. I never turned this into anything more than an observation about the inevitable elimination of the palefaces.

A solution for Iraq

Initially entered February 2006

Get the “shadow government” to convince big wigs in Iraq that they should not fear democracy, because they’ll be able to manipulate it.

Another solution: leak a memo stating how glad we are that the sects are killing each other.

Things noticed from Fahrenheit 9/11:

  1. There is a scene showing a group of soldiers knocking on the door of a house and eventually detaining a guy living within, in view of his crying family. I think Moore intended for this scene to show how the “brutal fist of the evil U.S. Army” was smacking down the poor innocent civilians of Iraq. I took away something different from it. What struck me was, to my eyes, the complete overreaction of the crying civilians. Basically the soldiers knocked on the door and said “we’d like to talk to you” and the immediate civilian reaction was seemingly genuine terror, as if they were positive they were all going to get hacked into pieces and eaten within seconds. (What that means is that we are getting completely crushed in the propaganda war.)

    The Bush administration clearly thought (if they thought at all, which seems increasingly unlikely) that the reaction of most thinking Iraqi civilians would be something like “look at what the Americans did in Germany and Japan after World War II, maybe they’ll do the same here”. Instead, what reasonable Iraqis seemed to think was “here comes another bunch of white people to ‘colonize’ and oppress us.” Given Iraq’s history, this is a completely rational assumption.

  2. Compare the scene where a distraught Iraqi woman is crying hysterically and saying “please, God, kill them” with the crying of the American who lost her son.

Suggestions for virtual gesture standards

Initially entered January 2006

Eventually, and probably within the next few decades, a growing body of computer users will have reason to interact with 3D environments in a way that feels like manipulating actual objects in space, rather than clicking on a 2D screen. While the virtual reality concept of Neuromancer, Snow Crash and The Matrix seems to occupy the attention of pop culture, it’s probable that ‘immersive reality’, where computer generated objects are displayed overlaying real life, will become popular first. The most accessible demonstration of this idea takes place in the early portions of the film Minority Report, where the lead character uses ‘light gloves’ to interact objects he perceived to be floating in front of him (thanks to holographic screens). While holograms are a ways off, systems based on this idea (originally suggested by John Underkoffler) are already being built. I’m not sure what gesture interface these systems use, and I’ve remaining deliberately ignorant of it while writing this post.

I’ve been thinking about how you might use such as system (perhaps with glasses to give the illusion of objects floating in space) to sculpt three-dimensional objects. It seems to me that the gestures detailed below are the most natural for such a task. Most modelling systems can create basic shapes (cubes, spheres, etc.) but build a lot of complex interface to handle three basic properties of these primitives once created:

  • position: exact placement of the object in 3D-space
  • orientation: how the object is rotated relative to the xyz axes.
  • distortion: how the object deviates from its initial shape relative to other shapes (for example, being scaled larger) or within itself (for example, if part of the object is stretched from its initial position)

One of the less obvious problems in 3D modeling is that when altering one property, it is often difficult to control, or even identify, how your action might change the other properties. For example, if you click on a point on an object, then drag in some direction, will the object shift its position, keeping its orientation? Will it rotate around a central point? Will the part that you clicked pull away from the rest of the object?

The answer to this is usually that it depends on what tool is selected. I think a gesture system could make this much easier, by having the gesture being used imply the operation you want. As someone who “draws pictures in the air” during conversations, I think the following gestures are fairly intuitive (bear in mind these are specifically for manipulating 3D models, not a generic 3D interface):

Never got around to sussing these out. I now lack the desire. For some reason this link was at the end of this draft.

Poser data for RPS-25

Initially entered January 2006. It would have been world-shattering. For free, the world would have Poser data for all the hand positions of RPS-25, to render the epic battles in high definition, 3D goodness. Unfortunately, even I apparently don’t have that much time to waste. I’m too busy playing RPS-101.

Contraband

Initially entered September 2005

I am a dangerous man. In my Home Depot bag, I hold a substance so devastating it is kept under lock and key, only sold to those the government has deemed worthy of it.

This article was supposed to be an attempt to paint me as an Orginal Gangster for the “edgy, high-crime” lifestyle of buying goddamn spraypaint, which was kept in locked cages in my county, requiring a manager to open, due to a dumb local law. It was actually supposed to be a sort of investigative journalism type piece, doing interviews with both the managers of the stores affected as well as the idiots who signed it into law. I never did figure out what the reason was, though graffiti and huffing seemed like popular bugbears. In any case, it looks like this law got either overturned or exempted to the point that Home Depot no longer has the cages. So my wrath as been quelled, for the moment.

Billions shift from side to side

Initially entered July 2005. As you will be able to tell, I never really figured out what I was saying here.

Sometimes I get images in my head that make perfect sense to me, but have difficulty explaining them.

People are sheep.

If you modeled advances of the human population as a flow of particles that gathered around specific memes, the result would look fluid, but unlike a fluid, all the advances come from those who do not follow the herd, pulling the collective in a different direction. Could this idea be used to predict things? In other words, model as a fluid that has these attractors on the fringes.

[Liberal graph that Rob mentioned, Economic and some other axis as example]. Now imagine there were more than two axes. Things like “degree of religious observance” and “feelings about self-image”.

I hate the word meme, because it seems like you only ever hear it from the same people that say stuff like “if hierarchy presupposes sameness…”.

When whoever it is decides that “pink is the new black”, the masses shift toward a point in the space representing this idea. I’m not sure what the flow would look like, but instinctively it seems to me that it would have some characteristics of a fluid. Thinking about it now, the picture in my head sort of looks like Galactica.

There would be an unfluid characteristic though: innovators.

O’Reilly’s alpha geek strategy. Fashion industry tracking “cool people”. But that’s social. What about using math?

Visual debugging

Initially entered July 2005. This is another picture in my head that I cannot quite articulate.

Existing debuggers seem to think that what people need is more and more features. Wrong. What they need is vision, the ability to see what is going on in a malfunctioning process.

Shows a time line of a value weaving through the code. Blocks of data that expand when you look at them. Lines indicating a path through the code (would remember even if you didn’t step). Threads as threads of code on the screen, controlling them visually.

No little panes.

Order vs. Chaos

Initially entered May 2005

Reading Swarm Intelligence recently, I was struck by a comment that nature tends to organize. While this seems true to me, it flies in the face of the second law of thermodynamics, which holds that everything moves toward disorder. These two concepts can easily be combined into a flaky pop philosophy, which I will spell out now.

Part of this philosophy was to involve the weird kind of numerology that nature seems to use, where it tends to spontaneously organize things in particular ways, with certain units clustering in certain numbers. Those numbers are “two” (e.g. quarks in a meson, parents in sexual reproduction), “three” (e.g. quarks in a proton, licks to the center of a Tootsie-pop), “a few” (e.g. atoms in a molecule, wolves in a pack) and “a hundred billion or so” (e.g. atoms in a DNA molecule, stars in a galaxy, cells in an organ). That is, when natural parts gather in certain numbers, they become something greater. The pop-philosophy would fixate on what sort of ascension happens when 100 billion human brains come together.

Other parts of the idea were to focus on the natural tension between emergent order and entropy, but I couldn’t make it sound like anything other than the metaplot of season four of Babylon 5.

Computers in role-playing

Initially entered May 2005. I think laptops at a gaming table have still not really reached their potential. Seeing this projection system made me want to gather a bunch of ideas about using computers in tabletop role-playing together, but it never happened. Maybe someday.

Things I will never see

Initially entered August 2004.

  • A reenactment of the Nazis marching into Paris, but using the music and choreography of Michael Jackson’s Thriller instead of goose-stepping.

Months with a Mini 9

Since Dell has discontinued the Mini 9, now seems like a good to to share some observations on two months of living with Mac OS X running on Mini 9 hardware. My friend’s living with it, I mean. In no particular order:

  • Dell’s suggested replacement for the Mini 9, the Mini 10v, has a screen that, in spite of being physically larger, contains fewer pixels. The Mini 9’s screen is 1024×600, while the Mini 10v’s is 1024×576.
  • I’d guess that those who were thinking about getting a Mini 9 will now buy the just announced EeePC 1008HA (Seashell), which looks a lot like a smaller version of the MacBook Air, done in plastic. It haven’t seen a post of anyone installing OS X on it, but it’s just a matter of time.
  • The battery on the Mini 9 can handle playing about three hours of DVD quality video ripped into MP4 or AVI or what have you. Supposedly the latest OS release (10.5.7) improves this by an hour or so.
  • Being only 600 pixels high, the screen of the Mini 9 isn’t large enough to handle HD video. If you rip video at it’s native resolution, though, it looks pretty dang good.
  • The OS X 10.5.7 update is tricky to install. Likely all such OS updates are. My friend has yet to do this successfully. When he, not thinking about it that clearly, ran the standard updater, all seemed to go well, but once completed, when the boot process should have drawn the menubar and the desktop, the video went wiggy.
  • It is possible to do a full Time Machine restore on an Mini 9. This starts off like installing OS X the first time, where you boot from a bootloader CD, then throw in a Leopard install disk. Instead of doing the install, though, one of the menu choices allows you to restore from Time Machine. This largely works, with two caveats. First, even if you are connected with Ethernet, you need to connect to a wireless network before starting the restore. Seems like this is the only way to get the networking to set up properly. Secondly, once the restore is done, the machine may not boot until you reinstall the DellEFI, similar to as described here.
  • Consequently, the mydellmini project is your friend.
  • The keyboard layout on the Mini 9 is insane. So much so, that some kibosh the whole idea just because of the keyboard. Swapping the Alt and Cmnd keys (taking off the chicklets and moving them) is a necessity, and most will probably want to swap the semicolon and quotation keys as well.
  • The lack of scrolling on the trackpad remains a problem. All posts on the topic seem to be obsessed with two-finger scrolling, but even something like what SideTrack does would be useful. Update: done!.
  • You can apparently buy clunky multi-cell batteries that would probably allow watching video the whole way across the Atlantic. These don’t fit inside the case entirely, so act a bit like a riser.
  • The Mini 9 apparently fits in the back pocket of 511 Tactical Pants.
  • The built-in Secure Digital card reader is more useful than expected, particularly on trips, where it allows you to access your pictures without a bunch of extra crap.
  • As mentioned in the previous post, Spaces adds more to a machine like this that it does to others. The free iTerm makes this even better, because it offers a full screen mode for terminals.
  • The AC adaptor that comes with the Mini 9 can handle European current, so all you need is a little adapter, rather than a voltage converter.
  • The machine works really well for tabletop RPGs, particularly if you get used to using PDFs in full page mode (which requires remembering some keyboard shortcuts, particularly for searching and switching display modes). Software like Yep can also help in finding what you need quickly.
  • Still haven’t tried Warcraft on the thing.

My friend’s Dell Mini 9 running Mac OS X Leopard

I have this… uh… friend whose wife gave him a belated Christmas present in mid March: a tricked out Dell Mini 9. He wanted this machine because a) it’s one of the only netbooks that can use all of its built-in “peripheral” hardware while running Mac OS X, b) the 12″ PowerBook G4 he used for role-playing is falling apart, with a dead DVD drive and failing wi-fi card and c) the Mini 9 was cheap enough to buy as an experiment. OK, maybe c) isn’t really true, but he wanted it anyway. Features and cost were like this:

Dell Inspiron Mini 9
  IntelĀ® Atom ProcessorĀ® N270 (1.6GHz/533Mhz FSB/512K cache)
  Obsidian black
  2GB DDR2 RAM at 533MHz
  Glossy 8.9 inch LED display (1024×600)
  Intel Graphics Media Accelerator (GMA) 950
  64GB solid state hard drive
  Ubuntu Linux version 8.04.1
  Wireless 802.11g mini card
  Integrated 1.3M pixel webcam
  Built-in Bluetooth 2.1 capability
$519.00
Portable CD/DVD-RW Drive with DVD Playback Software $80.00
Mac OS X 10.5 (Leopard) $129.00
Total $728.00

This is about as tricked out as you can make the Mini 9. Other configurations will be cheaper. It actually looks like Dell doesn’t even sell the 64MB drive as an option any more (at at least, as I write this). Another thing to note here is that the pixel dimensions of the screen are pretty close to that of the 12″ PowerBook G4 (which were 1024×768).

To set up the machine (probably violating one or more license agreements in the process) my friend followed the instructions provided by Gizmodo. He reports some deviations from the instructions there:

  1. The post says “some drives are mysteriously not compatible with installing OS X on the Mini 9”. This might not be entirely true. The first attempt, using a brand new OS X DVD failed, as described. The second used an OS X DVD from the initial release of 10.5. This succeeded. So, it may have something to do with what version of the install disk you have. I believe the current version of the installer disk is called version 10.5.2. Among other things, it has new video drivers at the very least. To repeat, this version did not work, but the original 10.5 disk did. Might have just been coincidence, as there was a hiccup with installing from DVD…
  2. At step 4, the install process seemed to hang, and the DVD drive seemed to stall and spin down. Unplugging the drive (which immediately displayed a bunch of errors on screen) and plugging it in again caused it to spin up, and suddenly the install sprung to life and continued fine (with the 10.5 disk; the same technique didn’t work with the 10.5.2 disk).
  3. As a result of coercing the DVD to spin up, the painful USB drive-based install (Gizmodo steps 5 through 11) was not needed in this case.
  4. It took my friend a while to come up with a name for the hard drive volume during step 12, during which the DVD drive spun down. Again, the solution was to unplug it and replug it in. The UI froze until doing this, but resurrected once the drive was spinning again.
  5. There should be a step 19 added to Gizmodo’s instructions: boot into the BIOS and DISABLE the “Legacy USB Support” setting. Waking from sleep will not work until you do this. Note that, to be able to boot from USB devices, this setting needs to be re-enabled.
  6. There should be a step 20 added as well: Most windows size themselves correctly on the netbook, but some contain dialogs that don’t fit the small vertical resolution of the screen (which is only 600 pixels). Unfortunately, on the “doesn’t fit” list are some of the System Settings panels. This can be fixed by setting the scaling of the System Settings application, using the following command line:
    defaults write com.apple.systempreferences AppleDisplayScaleFactor .85

So far, everything has worked one the machine except trackpad scrolling. There appear to be some hacks to enable this, but these have not yet been applied, but may need to be soon. My friend claims that the trackpad is a bit uncomfortable, with the buttons needing way too much downward travel to activate. Using a miniature external mouse helps quite a bit.

Some other general observations from my friend:

  • The machine as a whole is slightly less stable than OS X usually is, though not significantly. When waking from sleep, sometimes the UI gets these sort of stalls, but usually another sleep/wake cycle brings things back to normal. One beta application that has always crashed every so often on standard Macs seems to crash a bit more often on the Mini 9.
  • It takes a while to get used to the shift keys, particularly the one on the right.
  • Spaces seems more useful on this machine, particularly when used for gaming, combined with the “full screen” features of Acrobat and Safari.
  • Some of the Fn keys work, and some dont:
    • Fn-1 (sleep): works
    • Fn-2 (toggle wi-fi/bluetooth): does not work
    • Fn-3 (battery status): does not work
    • Fn-4 (mute): works
    • Fn-5 (volume down): works
    • Fn-6 (volume up): works
    • Fn-7 (print scn): untested, since I haven’t set up a printer yet
    • Fn-8 (screen/vga/mirror): when no monitor is connected, doesn’t work
    • Fn-9 (contrast down): works
    • Fn-10 (contrast up): works
    • Fn-[key in home row] (F1 through F10): works; however, no keys exist for F11 through F13. This is not a huge deal, but some of the default Exposé key bindings need to be changed if you want to use them.
  • By default, the “alt” key is mapped to the Mac’s “command” key, while the “Windows logo key” is mapped to the Mac’s “option” key. This matches the positions of a Mac keyboard correctly, but it is totally wrong as far as nomenclature. Typically a Windows “alt” maps to a Mac’s “option”, leaving the “Windows logo key” to map to the Mac’s “logo key” (i.e. “command”). This can be changed around in the System Preferences if you want. Apparently the keys come off reasonably easily if you want to move them around a bit.
  • The machine is noticeably lighter than a MacBook Air. If you’ve ever lifted an Air, think about that a bit.
  • It seems to run movies of varying resolutions very cleanly, and FrontRow looks great. No battery tests have been done while doing this, so how long you could watch movies on a plane is undiscovered.
  • It runs games like Fate in 800×600 resolution, at reasonable frame rates. I’m guessing it would run WoW OK, with some of the settings turned down.

Seeking Mac advice

The iMac in my kitchen has flaked out and evidence suggests that parts of the logic board are fried. Though the board could be replaced, basically it’s time upgrade to something else (it is a PowerPC machine, after all). I’m struggling with what to replace it with, however, and am soliciting advice from readers.

This machine acts as the central hub for the house, so is our main media repository. It also hosts the sorts of information you might normally track using paper, magnets and a refrigerator: shopping lists, calendars, sticky notes, and so on. It’s also the recipe database and cooking timer. I should also mention that I will probably be redoing my kitchen soon, so the exact height between the counter and the bottom of my cabinets might change slightly.

Here are my main contenders for a replacement:

A 20-inch iMac: This is the obvious choice, but for for one glaring problem: it’s about a half-inch taller than the space under my cabinets, so it will not fit as is. There is, however, quite a bit a clearance between the bottom of the machine and the bottom of the stand stand, so it would definitely fit if I took the stand off. I could then mount it to the wall on an articulated arm, which would actually be quite helpful. Unfortunately, the 20-inch iMac doesn’t include standard mounting brackets on the back. Apple does make a bracket for the 24-inch model, but this wouldn’t fit even without the stand. So it looks like I need to use a custom solution, making use of this third party bracket and then, because this leaves the stand in place, cut a good bit of my stand off with a metal saw. (Further, as I understand it, getting the stand off of this model iMac is very involved, and certainly voids the warranty, so I might need to saw the thing while it’s still connected to the machine.) I was hoping that MacWorld 2009 might feature an iMac revision with a VESA mount, but no such luck.

  • Pros: powerful, one unit (i.e. not as many cables running amok), sexy.
  • Cons: setup that is complex, annoying and risky

A Mac mini and VESA mounted LCD. In this case, I would mount the mini upside down to the bottom of the cabinet, and use an articulated arm to mount the LCD. With choices of vendors, I could certainly find a VESA mountable monitor, so the labor wouldn’t be a problem. The issue here is that while I was hoping for an iMac rev, I was flat out expecting a revision of the mini during MacWorld. The current version was released in August 2007, and was only a very minor improvement to the version released in February 2006. While they are fairly cheap, buying 18-month-old tech is not a great idea, especially a product line that might be canceled soon (or mutated into something very different, like an AppleTV/Mini hybrid). This counters one of the mini’s largest advantages in such a setup: that you could keep the same monitor and just swap in new minis as the tech curve advances. Since Apple doesn’t seem that interested in the mini, that advantage instead changes to the bummer of basing the whole thing on a concept that isn’t sustained. The biggest problem with the mini, though, is that the hard drive in the current models just isn’t large enough to be a media center. While it’s possible to upgrade the drive, it’s a pain.

  • Pros: cheap, potentially upgradeable, easy setup, monitor choice allows more flexibility (such as also using it for TV, speakers, etc.)
  • Cons: old tech, uncertain future, underpowered, extra cables

A mounted Modbook Pro. These were introduced at MacWorld 2009. Since Apple is never going to make their own tablets, this is the only way to get a tablet right now. (An iPhone with a bigger screen won’t count, and Apple might never make that either.) New to this model is the addition of a touch interface, to go along with the pen input of the previous model (or a bluetooth keyboard). In some ways, the pen input is a natural fit for a kitchen, and the touch is even more so. It would also be nice to pull it from the mount to use as a tablet on occasion. A drawback, in addition to the cost, are that it would be a step down in screen size, though this might not be the end of the world. The other problem is that I can’t tell if it is VESA mountable or not. The old one was not, but Axiotron claimed to be working on a bracket for Q3 2008 that would allow VESA mounting, though they have yet to deliver it. There hasn’t been much coverage of the Modbook Pro so far, so I’m hoping for more mounting information.

  • Pros: touch interface, could be unmounted and used as portable
  • Cons: expensive, smaller screen than current iMac, uncertain mounting, not available until the summer

Other possibilities exist, but aren’t as palatable to me. A small form-factor hackintosh, for example, could be done similarly to the setup mentioned for the mini. It’s not clear how long hackintoshes will remain possible, though, and I’m not sure I want to be bothered setting one up. (Also, I’ve been counting on the purchase of a new Mac to provide an upgrade to iLife, which I would otherwise need to buy.)

What would you do? Are there other choices? And what kind of VESA arm should I get?

Pimp my cable box

My cable provider supplies a digital video recorder (DVR) that records high definition. It’s not a very good one, with possibly the ugliest user interface ever (from an application called SARA), but it’s adequate and gets the job done. Or did, until the DVR started to run out of disk space. It turns out that this particular cable box/DVR (a Scientific Atlanta 8300HD) has an external serial advanced technology attachment (eSATA) port on it. I happened to have some SATA drives left over from upgrading my RAID, so I thought I’d try to plug one of these in. This turned out to be a bit of a challenge.

The first task was to put the drive into something that supported the eSATA interface, which means getting a drive enclosure for the bare drive I had. I wanted this to be as versatile as possible, so I managed to find the OWC Mercury Elite-AL Quad Interface, which supports eSATA, USB2 and both flavors of FireWire. This case is quiet and solid, made largely from large pieces of aluminum. Mounting was easy, and I tested the drive on my Mac with no problem.

I also discovered a bit of a bonus: my MacPro has some spare SATA plugs on the motherboard, and the same company that sells the case sells a cheap doohickey that plugs into these ports, and exposes them as eSATA ports on the back of the machine. Simple, inexpensive and useful.

Anyway, connecting this drive into the cable box didn’t work. It turns out that the DVR is very finicky about both the drive and the enclosure that it talks to. Since its all standard interfaces, this is both stupid and irritating, but it seems to only accept certain combinations. My drives were Maxtor drives and didn’t seem to work. Possibly they are less standard than usual.

By this time, we were really running out of space, and I got a bit obsessed about gaining extra storage for the damn thing. I wound up finding a solution made specifically for the Scientific Atlanta 8300HD, with a money back guarantee if it didn’t work. This meant getting a whole new drive, so wasn’t the most cost effective thing to do. Still, I can use the Mercury Quad for other things, so it’s not a total loss. It was also an excuse to get a larger drive than that one I had.

From opening the box, it took all of five minutes to get this drive working with my cable box. Very simple, really quiet, works great, and roughly quadrupled our DVR recording ability. So, pretty happy with it, though a bit beyond the original budget. I have yet to try to unmount the drive and read it with a computer. From what I read, this doesn’t really work that well.

This summer, we also totally upgraded our main TV area, adding a Playstation 3 and flatscreen TV (which necessitated a new receiver that could handle HDMI, and lots of it). After connecting it all, and resurrecting some old hardware to make the 802.11n connection a bit more reliable, our setup now looks like this:

Network diagram

The ten-minute 1TB backup RAID installation

The Mac Pro contains four accessible hard-drive bays. Mac OS X comes with easy to use RAID software. Put these together, and you can quickly build a backup system using redundant disks, so that if one drive fails, another takes its place.

Building a RAID (meaning “redundant array of independent disks”) like this may be ideal for backups, but isn’t as useful for other applications of RAID technology (such as striping for great video encoding performance, and so on). This because the RAID is controlled by software, so is on the slower side. It’s possible to put an optional hardware-based RAID controller into the Mac Pro, but it is pricey and complete overkill for backups. The speed doesn’t really matter for backup use, especially when using Time Machine, since it is all done unnoticed in the background anyway.

Preparation

The key thing about making a RAID is that you need to use multiple identical disks. As mentioned, speed doesn’t really matter for backups. In fact, you are usually better off buying the slowest disks you can find because they a) will still be fast enough, b) are cheaper, c) are usually quieter and d) usually draw less power. The Mac Pro uses Serial Advanced Technology Attachment (Serial ATA or SATA) disks. The drives used in this post are a pair of 1.0TB Western Digital Caviar Geen drives, due to their lower power consumption and sound output. These drives use a variable number of rotations per minute, but are rated at between 5400 and 7200 rpm. So, these are not speed demons, but they don’t need to be. At the time of writing, Other World Computing had the best deal on this particular drive.

In addition to the drives, you will need a Mac Pro, one functional hand, and a standard phillips screwdriver. You might also want a grounding strap to prevent electrical damage to the components, particularly in dry climates or if you tend to get shocked by light switches a lot where you live.

To start the installation, shutdown your Mac Pro.

Hardware installation

Pull out the tab on the back of the Mac Pro, pull the top of the side panel out, then remove the side panel (click on any of the images in this post to see a larger version):

Open Remove side

About a third of the way down, find the four numbered drive caddies. If this is a new machine, chances are that drive bay #1 holds the primary disk and the other three caddies are empty. These instructions assume that this is the case, and that you’ll put your RAID drives into bays #2 and #3. Adjust this to match your machine accordingly. It doesn’t matter which of the bays the RAID drives are in. Give a tug to caddy #2 (or whatever) and slide it out. It should come out without much effort; it is not secured with screws or anything:

Remove caddy #2 Caddy

Before unwrapping your drive from its anti-static bag, hold the bag and touch a metal part on the frame of the Pro. This should lessen the chance of a spark that could damage the drive. Unwrap the first drive and find the four silver holes at the edge of the side with the visible circuit board. Note that these are in the same orientation as the screws on the caddy. Line the caddy up with these holes and connect with a phillips screwdriver. Note that the “open” end of the caddy should point towards the back of the drive (where the copper pins are).

Drive and caddy Attached caddy

Put the caddy with the mounted drive back into the machine by locating the tab-like rails into which the caddy slides. These should fit very naturally. Once in place, slowly but firmly push the caddy all the way back in. It should be flush with the rest of the caddies.

View from below Sliding drive back in

Repeat the process with the second drive, using bay #3. Once done, replace the side panel by lining up the bottom of it with the space in the machine, then tilting the top back in place. Once flush, close the tab on the back of the machine to lock the side in place. Boot the Mac Pro.

Software setup

If all goes well, once you boot up, you will see messages asking you if you want to format the new drives. Say no to (or cancel) these messages. You’ll need to reformat these drives as a RAID, so no point in formatting them just now. Instead, launch the “Disk Utility” application (usually found in Applications/Utilities).

When it comes up, you should see the new drives listed on the left, along with your primary drive and your DVD drive. From the tab selections at the top of the right-hand section of the window, click “RAID”. Enter a name for your new RAID, such as “Backup”. Make sure “Raid Type:” is set to “Mirrored RAID set”.

RAID panel Mirrored RAID

Now select one of the new drives from the list at the left. Holding down the shift key, click on the other new drive, to add it to the selection as well. Drag the two selected drives into the large white space on the right-side section of the window. This will add two entries to this list, saying something like “New member: ‘disk 0′”. Below this list, click “Options”. Make sure “Automatically rebuild RAID mirror sets” is checked, and click “OK”. (This setting will correct problems in the RAID if one of the drives has an error.)

Dragging the drives RAID options

Click “Create”. A confirmation screen will come up, warning you that creating this RAID will completely erase the drives. This is a good time to make doubly sure that you have selected your new drives into the RAID, and not any other drives. When satisfied this is so, click “Create”. A progress bar will appear as the RAID is being created. When finished, you should see the new RAID show up in both the left side list, and in the right side section. While the Disk Utility will still show you the individual disks, everything else will see the RAID as if it is a single drive.

Confirmation screen Ready RAID

Note that the capacity of the RAID as a whole matches that of one of the drives, not their sum. This should be as you would expect. The whole point of the RAID is to act as a “virtual disk” and when a byte is written to that disk, the RAID software writes that byte to the same spot on both of the drives, making sure they each have a copy of the same data. Thus, either one can fail, and you still have a working copy of the data.

A short digression

Before setting up this RAID for use with Time Machine, a quick digression. For troubleshooting purposes, it is sometimes useful to get more information about the drives you are using. Six months down the road, for example, you might have forgotten which drive you put into which bay. The System Profiler application can provide a bunch of information about your system, including the drives. You can launch this app either directly from Applications/Utilities or by selecting “About This Mac” from the Apple menu, then clicking “More Info…”.

Once the System Profiler launches, clicking the “Serial-ATA” section will show a list of the drives in the machine. If you click on one of your new drives, the bottom right section will display all sorts of information about the drive. Two more useful bits of information are the “Bay Name” setting, which tells you in which drive bay the drive is physically installed, and the “BSD Name” field, usually set to something like “disk1s3”. This code is needed for a number of command line disk manipulation tools, so is good to know when troubleshooting problems.

About This Mac System Profiler

Time Machine

Setting up Time Machine to use this RAID is the same as using any other drive. Just “Open Time Machine Preferences” from the Time Machine menu icon (by the clock in the menu bar), or by selecting “System Preferences…” from the Apple menu, then going to the Time Machine section. Once there, turn Time Machine on and select the RAID.

Time Machine

GeForce 8800 GT and Leopard

Upgrading the primary hard drive in my Mac Pro exposed an annoying hurdle that might not be very obvious: if you have upgraded your video card to an NVIDIA GeForce 8800 GT, you might not be able to boot from your Leopard Install DVD any more.

I ran across this because, after installing my new drive, I decided to try a “full restore” from Time Machine. In theory, this would result in a clone of my old primary drive, just on a new, larger disk. It appears, however, the only way to use this feature is to boot from the Leopard Install DVD, and then select “Restore System from Backup” from the “Utilities” menu. The problem I had was that when booting from the DVD, I kept getting the dreaded grey screen telling me that “You must reboot your Mac” in several languages.

The DVD booted other machines just fine. The Pro booted from other sources just fine, at which point a dialog telling me that my machine crashed and would I like to submit a report to Apple? It didn’t even occur to me that the video card might be the culprit until I read the crash log attached to this report and noticed the stack contained a bunch of video initialization calls. From there it occurred to me that the GeForce 8800 GT to which I upgraded several months ago didn’t even exist when the install DVD I was using was created, so the DVD probably lacked the correct drivers.

Fortunately, I still had my old video card, so I swapped it in and the rest went as planned.

Looking on the net, I discovered that some others had my problem, but that there is a newer version of the install DVD (10.5.2) which does not have this problem. Most people reported that attempts to get the Apple store to exchange a 15.0 DVD for a 10.5.2 DVD failed, but since this seemed so stupid, I decided to try it anyway. I didn’t have much trouble (though I may have been helped by a) having once been a paying Apple developer and/or b) the long list of hardware I’ve purchased from the Apple store, including the Pro and the video card) and supposedly I will be getting mailed this newer DVD soon.

Sadly, even with all this, this was still probably my easiest primary drive upgrade ever.

Update: My (sparsely labelled) 10.5.2 DVD arrived.