GCW gets a new home

After many years of running Great Castle Wilson on some flavour of Mac, I’ve finally decided to give it dedicated hardware of its own. In part, this is because I enjoy proving to myself that I can still set up and configure a webserver and all the other required accoutrements — yes, I’m weird like that — but mostly it’s because I’m fairly confident that macOS Catalina is going to break my current configuration anyway, so it seemed like a good time to make a change.

For those who aren’t aware, Catalina is the first version of macOS that only supports 64-bit applications. There are some fairly significant changes under the covers, and the odds are low that my personal mix of random open source software and existing Mac tech is going to continue to work.

So without further ado, here is the brand new GCW:

Yep, it’s a Pi 🙂

Specifically:

So far the setup process has been relatively painless, but I did learn that WordPress does *not* like it when its API URL points at a different instance of WordPress than the one that’s making the request — that took a couple of hours to debug. 🙂

Anyway, if you can read this, then we’re live. The site seems quite responsive and the only posts that aren’t displaying properly are ones where some of the original content they linked to no longer exists

Welcome!

Some history…

I don’t post to NfGCW very often any more, but I love the fact that there’s years of history from our family here. I’ve blogged about many topics over the years, including the site itself. Here are some previous posts about the hardware GCW ran on.

OMG! Chromebooks are useful!

As of this weekend, I’m the proud owner of a new ASUS Chromebook Flip C213

ASUS Chromebook Flip C213
ASUS Chromebook Flip C213

For around 450 $CAN, you get a laptop with

  • The “flip” form factor (i.e. keyboard folds under screen so you can use it like a tablet)
  • A touchscreen (as well as a trackpad)
  • 12 hour battery life
  • 2 USB-C ports as well as two as two regular USB3 ports

Obviously, there are limitations, like unexciting screen resolution and limited storage, but I can honestly say that this machine is as responsive as my MBP, for all of the basic tasks I do day to day, and now that ChromeOS can run Android apps as well, I’ve been able to find all the missing features I need (like 1Password support) too.

Let me be clear: This machine is *fun* to use. And that’s even before you factor in the linux app support that is incoming — I’ve already heard of at least one person who has gotten Scrivener for Windows running on WINE. 😉

Never use iTunes to hold your own music.

(This is an old post from July 25, 2016, recovered via the Wayback Machine…)

For pity’s sake:

Mangled iTunes Match example

This is ridiculous. I’ve been trying to use iTunes to make my music (that is, the music I created) available on all my devices for *years*. No matter how many times I’ve tried it, and how many times I think it might, just *might* have worked this time, I always end up with the bullshit you see above: multiple copies, some local, some in the cloud, some that claim they’re in the cloud but you can’t download them, you name it.

It’s impossible to tell what is causing the failures or how you could fix them. You can’t even just go look at what is in the cloud, except through the lens of how it has been sync’ed to one of your iTunes libraries and that seems to *never* be correct.

Somebody, please tell me about alternatives that work.

Yes, the 9.7″ iPad Pro is the iPad you want.

(This is an old post from June 9, 2016, recovered via the Wayback Machine…)

If you’re looking for a tablet because you draw stuff for a living, then there’s no doubt the 12ʺ iPad Pro is the tool you want. It’s fast, the Pencil is as responsive a tool as you could ask for, and it has all the benefits of being part of the iOS ecosystem. And I can say this as someone who also owns a MS Surface Pro.

The thing is though, if you’re actually in it because you want an iPad, you’re better off going with the 9.7ʺ. It’s almost exactly as fast as the 12ʺ, but its weight and form factor make it a tool that you will carry around with you all the time. By contrast, as Deb said, the 12ʺ is something you’d “always be worrying about bending”. It’s just too unwieldy to be anything but something you put in a laptop bag when you’re not using it.

The other side of the question is whether an iPad Air would be just as good as your main iPad. All I can say to that is, if you want that to be true, do not try the iPad Pro. The Air is a great device, but the Pro really is materially faster. Really, with the lighter weight iOS running on it, the iPad Pro feels like it’s faster than my MBP for many tasks. It’s definitely the best way to read Notes email now.

And speaking of which, I did indeed put the IBM security package on it, so I can now read my Notes mail and calendar, and get access to VPN, etc. To give you some idea of how much faster this is than my old iPad. My first gen iPad Mini took about 2 hours to install all the software. The Pro took just under 10 minutes. Very nice.

Anyway, the iPad Pro is too expensive to be an impulse buy. I was lucky enough to have my wonderful wife Deb give me permission to get one as an early Father’s Day gift. Thanks, love. It’s awesome.

A new machine, a new era.

Just a quick note to say that I have upgraded to a new machine. I had been using a Mac Mini to host GCW for many years, but the hard drive in the old beast is starting to sound like the gerbils are getting tired, and I thought it was time.

I know no one would guess I had given up on the Mac universe, so without further ado, here is the new beast…

iMac

It’s a 27″ iMac, with the 3.5 GHz i7 and the upgraded graphics chip (780M w. 4Gig of RAM). I must say, it is amazing. It’s actually fast enough to play PC games under Parallels with completely acceptable framerates even at high detail levels.

And so, it’s the end of an era: I am getting rid of my gaming PC. I’m also getting rid of the Mac Mini I was using for the server, and the MBP I was using for music. Believe it or not, at the end of this process, I will have just the one iMac in my home office, plus a station to hold my work laptop when I bring it home. I’m not sure how long I can stand it, but that’s the plan.

In any case, I have once again transplanted Great Castle Wilson to new hardware. This move was more difficult than previous ones, since (for some unknown reason) I was unable to load the mysql database directly by importing the records from the old site. Instead I had to use the export/import capabilities built into WordPress, which at least appear to have been successful. This is the first time I’ve tried this though, so if you see anything wrong/missing, please let me know.

One note: So far of all the old blogs on GCW I have only gotten this one going. I don’t think the others get many visitors, but I will get around to moving them eventually.

I know, I know. I haven’t been posting.

This is yet another of those posts that starts out by apologizing for not keeping up with the blog. Believe me, I’m more frustrated than you are that it’s been so long since I last posted.

The thing is, my life has been busy, to the point where I haven’t even been finding the time to keep up with 140 character tweets, let alone full blog posts.

Anyway, here are some highlights…

New role at work

In addition to being the Eclipse Project PMC lead, I have now taken on a significant architectural role working on the “IBM DevOps Services powered by JazzHub”. This is a new property that provides project hosting, including online development (based on Orion), tracking and planning support, etc., which is intended to be the premiere environment for building applications that are part of the “IBM BlueMix” platform-as-a-service. What’s even cooler about this is that it can be used for free. Definitely check it out.

Just finished a Divertimento concert

*sigh*. Yes, it would have made more sense to talk about it ahead of time. Oh well. This was the orchestra’s 30th anniversary concert, and it was an awesome program:

  • J. Strauss — Die Fledermaus Overture
  • Mozart — Violin Concerto No. 5, K.218
  • Brahms — Symphony No. 4 Op. 98

The concert was sponsored by the Austrian Embassy including bringing in the soloist for the Mozart, one Daniel Auner, who is a truly excellent up-and-coming violinist. Even though we only had a single rehearsal with him, I felt like he helped us achieve a recognizably stronger understanding of the music.

I bought a car

A Fiat Abarth. I haven’t actually received it yet — It’s still being built — but I expect it will show up some time in the next couple of weeks. For now, here’s a shot of basically what it will look like:

red

It’s very small, but I verified that it will hold my cello case with the back seats folded down, so we’re good. Zero to 100 KPH in 6.9 seconds. I’m excited :-).

MacBook performance

I have two Mac laptops, a 15″ MacBook Pro from 2011 and a 13″ MacBook Air from 2012. I use the MBP as my main home Mac, and it’s also the one where I do my music production. The MBA is my work laptop.

To give you some idea about their relative performance, here are their GeekBench scores — bigger numbers are better:

MPB15L2011

MBA13M2012

As you can see even though the 15″ MBP is older, it is a bit faster (19%). Mine even has an aftermarket SSD in it, which likely improves things further.

For comparison purposes, here are the numbers for the fastest current generation MacBook Pro and Air:

MBP15L2013

MBA13M2013

In both cases, that’s a gain of about 25% over what I have. I do find it interesting that the current MacBook Air is faster than my existing MacBook Pro.

Anyway, all this rumination is because I have been thinking about upgrading my work laptop to one of the new MacBook Pros. Don’t get me wrong, I love my Air, but unfortunately it only has 4Gig of RAM, which is fine for almost everything I do, except for running VMs with entire WebSphere installs on them (that require 4Gig allocated to the VM at minimum). You can get a new MBA with 8Gig of RAM, but honestly, for this use case I think going for 16Gig makes more sense, which means it has to be a Pro.

The thing is, given that the performance improvement is really not all that significant, I could probably hold off on getting a new machine for another year by switching my work environment over to the current MacBook Pro. The problem with this idea is that it would require me to move all the music software I use over to the MacBook Air. If you aren’t a musician, you simply don’t understand how painful that can be. Suffice it to say that I have three separate hardware (i.e. physical) “keys” that lock various pieces of software to one machine only. You have to painstakingly un-authorize each music application (and all the plugins) on one machine, then move the keys over, then re-authorize on the other. In a world where most of the software I use can be installed on a new machine by just connecting my Apple ID and going to the App Store, the music software industry just seems archaic.

In any case, it may yet come to that. I don’t imagine I’ll see much of a bonus this year, and without that I can’t actually afford a new machine. I guess we’ll see.

Mini Review: Kobo Aura

I didn’t really need another ereader. I have numerous tablets in multiple sizes and a phone with a retina display, all of which have reading apps for every ebook store out there. I even have a Kobo Touch, which is a perfectly reasonable e-paper device once you figure out how to get all your content onto it.

But I had seen various reviews (like this one from Engadget) that said good things about the Kobo Aura, so I went down to the local Indigo and checked them out.

I must say, they really are every bit as nice as you would expect for a $150 device: light weight, solid in the hand, easy to hold onto with a textured backplate, a brilliant front light [pun intended], and a capacitive touch screen. For me it was this last point that was the deal maker. I’ve never liked the feeling of “reaching past the bezel” of the Kobo Touch (or any of the IR based e-readers) to touch the screen. I’ve always found it error prone both in my targeting and the device’s ability to consistently register the interactions. Unlike IR based devices the Kobo Aura has a perfectly flat front face, and in addition to just being more responsive and accurate, I suspect the move to the capacitive screen also helped them get the overall size of the device down — the Aura is significantly smaller than any other reader I’ve seen with a 6″ display.

Anyway, as I noted above, the deal was made. I ordered an Aura from the Kobo store and Canada Post even got it to me undamaged, in less than a week. Time to go to bed early and catch up on my reading. 😉

Technology! Just because you *can* do something…

… doesn’t mean you should.

I bought a Philips hue starter kit a while ago. For those who haven’t seen it, it’s a system for controlling the colors and intensities of LED lightbulbs remotely, via a wireless base station connected to your home network, which in turn speaks the Zigbee protocol (I believe) to the lights. Essentially, it allows you to do stuff like this:

There are actually 3 lights in that picture, red and green ones visible, and a blue one lighting the top right corner.

Anyway, my thinking when I bought the kit, was that I was going to use the (very cool) RESTful API it provides to do some interesting web hacking of my the lights. Of course, I haven’t had time to do that — I don’t know why I thought otherwise — and so what I have effectively done, at this point, is replace a perfectly functional light switch with an app on my phone. I.e. enter room, get out phone, start app, tell lights to go on, put phone away. Not a win.

But wait, I think, someone must have built a light switch that will control a hue setup. All it would have to do is tell the lights to go on when the switch is flipped. Well… this may exist, but I couldn’t find it. The closest I could come was this:

The WeMo Light Switch

So, this is a light switch that, in addition to doing what it normally does (i.e. switch the current to a light on/off), also talks to your wireless network. That, in itself, wouldn’t solve the problem, but along with the obvious feature of giving you yet another app that can control your lights, the WeMo switch also interfaces to the brilliant site IFTTT (a.k.a. “if this then that”).

IFTTT is a website that lets you set up simple rules based on a trigger (i.e. “this”) and an action (i.e. “that”). It behaves exactly as you’d expect: when the trigger happens the action gets executed. There is quite a range of triggers and actions — it’s worth checking out — but the operative detail here is that WeMo light switches can be triggers and hue lights support several actions including turning on and off. Can you see where this is going?

The sequence of operations is this:

  1. Hit WeMo light switch
  2. Light switch connects (over the internet) to IFTTT.com
  3. IFTTT tells all (3 of) my hue lights to turn on.
  4. Room lights up

Unfortunately, aside from the completely gratuitous use of the internet to control something entirely within my home office, there are two real problems with this:

  1. One of the 3 hue lights is connected to a wall sconce that is physically switched on/off by the WeMo switch. Because the power to that light is interrupted when the light is turned off, when it turns back on, it comes on white (i.e. it loses whatever color setting it had before).
  2. Although IFTTT does get the other two lights to turn on, the time between when the switch trigger happens and the resulting action is fired is… variable. Often it’s only a couple of seconds, but I have waited as much as 15.

Oh well. The end result is I can now almost turn the lights on and off again, and I have learned an interesting lesson in the limits of technology.

(Oh, and my lights flash when someone blogs about Orion. 😉 )

ChromeBooks

So, my wonderful wife decided to get me something especially nice this Father’s Day. I had pointed out to her the Chromebooks that they have down at the local Future Shop, so she took me out Friday night and we went and got one. This one, to be exact:

From the Samsung website

At $250, it’s clear that compromises were made, but it works surprisingly well given it’s specs — 2Gig RAM, 16Gig SSD, 1.7 GHz “Samsung Exynos 5” processor (ARM Cortex-A15). The benchmarks show it as faster than a base Atom machine, but only 30..50% of an i3. Anyway, plenty fast enough.

To give you some idea what it’s capable of, as I type this, I’ve got a mouse and keyboard plugged into it, along with an external (HDMI) monitor. I have about 10 Chrome windows open (because, really that’s all you can do <g>) with one of them pointing at Rdio (and playing the latest Punch Brothers album over the HDMI speakers), one showing a remote desktop on my home server, one SSH’ed into my Raspberry Pi, a couple being used to write this blog post, and one connected to JazzHub where I’m keeping notes.

It also has a builtin microphone and camera and will happily participate in a Google Hangout video chat. It will cold boot in about 10 seconds and wakes from sleep in about a second.

As to the apps for it, in addition to the above, I managed to find solutions to almost all the things I normally need to do:

  • Files — DropBox, GoogleDrive, iCloud
  • Mail — iCloud Mail and GMail for home email; iNotes for work
  • Chat — Hangouts; no solution for Sametime yet
  • Twitter — Tweetdeck
  • RSS — Feedly
  • Reddit — Reditr
  • eBooks — Kindle Cloud Reader, Kobo Instant Reader, Google Play Books
  • Office — Google Docs, Sheets, Slides (and iWork once it comes out of beta)
  • image editing — Pixlr

I even managed to get access to my password safe, albeit without the full browser integration.

Of course, the reason I wanted one of these was to use it for testing the experience of working with Orion. I’m going to try to use it for my day to day development and testing for at least the next few weeks. So far, the experience has been good, but I’ll let you know if I discover anything particularly limiting.

So what don’t I like about it?

  • Regardless of the offline support some apps provide, this really is a one trick pony: It’s for being on the internet, and if you don’t have a connection, you might as well save your battery life.
  • The external hardware support works, but just: I wasn’t able to get the acceleration rate high enough on the mouse I use; the max resolution on the HDMI port was lower than the native resolution on the monitor I use; I hung the entire machine twice while getting the display hooked up; etc.
  • The keyboard layout is pretty wonky — massive ctrl and alt keys, with a tiny shift key and hard to hit return key, and somebody must *really* like the backslash character since there is a key to enter it on both sides of the keyboard (in exactly the right places to have you accidentally hit them while going for the shift and return keys).
  • It really does have an incredibly small SSD drive, plus limited ability to expand that using the built in SD card slot since the memory card sticks out so far you have to remove it when you aren’t using it. *sigh*. The former I might understand given the low price, but it makes the latter unforgivable.

Anyway, it’s not a replacement for the MacBook Pro, but it works pretty well. I could see taking just this device (and a USB HD to download pictures) if I was travelling. I believe the pricepoint is interesting too. It’s a nicer experience to work on than an iPad (even with a keyboard) at a significantly lower price. Now all they have to do is get the app ecosystem a bit bigger and it might start to make sense for the wider community.