Rhythmus.be

A New Machine Migrating from a Sedentary PC to the Mobile Life of a Digital Nomad

How I set up my new MacBook Pro Retina (running OSX9 “Mavericks”) as a dispensable client that hooks in to my “cloud” of apps, fonts, and data.

I bought me the new MacBook Pro Retina. Since about July, I was looking forward to an update of the MacBook series — Haswell quadcore CPU, prolonged battery life, new OS… Lastly, during late tuesday’s “Apple Special Event” it arrived — sigh. It was about time.

High time. My old MacBook Pro has served his master well, but after nearly five years of duty, he really needed to retire. I exploited the poor machine to the very end: it got less than 10 Gb left on its (320 Gb) hard drive (while OSX requires at least 10% of free space). Its 4 Gb of RAM was quite spacious at the time of its purchase (january 2009), but over the past year, I was constantly running out of memory (we’re looking at you, Chrome, Dropbox, and a dozen of processes with weird names), sometimes with CPU usages of >104% — huh?

I hate that spinning beach ball. Those weird Exposé rendering artifacts. Mail taking forever to render the inbox list. Photoshop’s icon bouncing up and down on the Dock, ad infinitum. The random system and app crashes: the Finder! the Preview app! — even those crashed, all the time. Docpad didn’t run any longer: OSX would not allocate enough memory to the Node.js server. I’ve almost become to hate Apple because of the UX of OSX…

OSX is weird.
OSX is weird.

Developing on such a machine really is irresponsible: by no means can I legitimize the wastes of time and data loss. But buying new expensive hardware, still involves some serious budget aches. Unfortunately, buying new hardware really is the sole solution to an aged, puffy Mac. (Linux folks laughing.)

Yeah, the hardware still is okay: the screen, the keyboard, the Wifi antenna, the aluminum unibody… Except for a completely effete battery — more on that. One could do a clean re-install of the OS — but where to start from? From a bootable backup, that would bring in most of the mess of trial installs, incognito processes and drivers of unused peripherals, eating up scanty resources, fucked-up write permissions, &c. (Again, Linux folks laughing.)

So I finally gave in, and bought a new machine. At first I considered to get me the 13 inch MacBook Pro: with a RAM and CPU upgrade it would be as powerful as the 15 inch. And I guessed the smaller display wouldn’t weigh so heavy on resources as rendering 2880×1800 pixels would. But the hardware upgrade would postpone the delivery with up to three weeks — despite Apple’s web store asserting only two to three days!

I’m very happy to have gone with the “standard” configuration of the high-end 15": 2.3 GHz Intel Core i7, 16 Gb 100 MHz DDR3, 500 Gb SSD. The screen real estate is what I was used to — in high definition now!

First impressions

Retina

The high res “retina” display is gorgeous indeed. But we got spoiled: each time you see it on a new device, you’re less impressed. I first saw it on an iPhone 4S: I was stunned. In fact, I grabbed my 10× magnifying thread counter, as if I would do to inspect the screen dots of a printed piece. When I got me the iPad [3], I was somewhat more critical: I have very sharp eyes (I’m a print maker who takes pride in etching very fine-grained halftones), and Apple’s claim of “pixels not visible to the eye” is quite a bit of an exaggeration.

When it comes to resolution, I can really start nagging. (I’ve done it before.) The 220 ppi retina of this brand new laptop: it is not the same as the 264 ppi of my iPad, and that is not the same as the 326 ppi of the original retina iPhone. “Retina” is just a marketing concept. While these are but spec figures, the effect is that everything seems a bit blurry, or washed-out on the 15" display. But to be honest: having such definition on a wide screen (that also features great luminescence) is splendid indeed! Indeed, when I look back at the display of the old MacBook, it is as if I look back on a 1990s era plastic TFT screen. That’s the real selling point here: once you get used to that thing you never needed, you can’t miss it any more.

Typing

The keyboard is somewhat of a surprise. It has the same wonderful backlit design. But compared to the 2008 MacBook, the keys are a bit leveled out, flat — as if they adapted to the era of touch. Perhaps I just need to get used to it, but typing seems less comfortable.

Battery

I got really picky about battery longevity. It became a major concern, whenever I would consider buying a new mobile device. My first snow-white 13" MacBook is over seven years old: its battery still is doing well. The “Pro” from 2008, on the other hand, without a power cord: it’s a dead brick. How can that be? (Maybe Dropbox got something to do with it.)

It’s not that I want to be too paranoid here, but whatever causes batteries to die, Apple sales certainly profit from the hardware genocide. Especially when batteries get soldered to the mother board, or glued in the case. When the battery of your precious iThing dies, the entire device is irreparable electronic waste. I can tell: I lost an iPhone, and the old MacBook is terminally ill. Understandably, I’m a bit concerned about the life expectancy of the new one.

I opened my brand new MacBook at 12:30 pm. At 17:50 pm I got a warning notification that battery level was at 2% and that I had to plugin the power adapter. That means that the battery was drained in under six hours — on its very first cycle, straight out of the box! That’s not the promised eight hours!

So, I’ll need to recharge twice a day. Apple says that “the built-in battery gives you up to 1000 full charge and discharge cycles.” That means that, at best, my brand new MacBook will last for… less than two years! (Now I get it, why they won’t comply with EU consumer law regulations, and only begrudgingly settle for a two years warranty.) That’s much worse than the life span of the previous one!

Apple clearly is heading for a strategy of producing cheap (?) disposable commodity devices as a fast-moving consumer goods business… (Maybe, I’ll elaborate on that thought some other time.) The iFixit teardown says it all: my new machine has the worst reparability score. Well, caveat emptor. Lesson learnt: I now know that my new machine will die prematurely, and that using it will cost me about € 3,- per day.

Digital Nomad

What I do know for certain is that the era of “personal computers” is over. In the sense that there is no longer one machine per person, living a sedentary life on a desktop pedestal. I want my machine to go with me, everywhere I go: from my couch to a pair-coding hackaton, from my desk to the class room.

That’s why we got laptops, which need to be portable, lightweight, all while having enough horse power to do real productivity work. For casual reading and information consumption we have tablets. For permanent reachability, quick lookups, killing time during commutes: we have polyvalent phones.

Unfortunately, the present generation of mobile devices is still too expensive to live up to the expectations of the mobile era. Also, the “cloud” still is too much bound to an obsolete server-client model, exploited by proprietary platforms. (I’ll certainly elaborate on that thought in a future post.)

A single individual now owns multiple devices, which are carried around, everywhere. These devices are nothing but access points to the Internet, where one’s data lives. The data must be accessible from all of these devices, must be kept in sync, must be ubiquitous and stored safely. When a device goes down, the data is still there. When a device dies of age, it shall be replaced conveniently and without cumbersome migration hassles.

And that’s also why these devices really need to be cheap: so we can loose them, spoil them, have them stolen, let their batteries die, without ever worrying too much over data loss, or a lost investment.


That’s but a few disparate considerations that came in mind, when I set out to set up my new machine. I have gone through migration pains all too often in the past. This time, I fancied, I would take advantage of our present-day digital habits, where the shift from the sedentary PC to the nomadic life on the abundant plains of the Internet has been made. My machine shall be mobile-proof, setup like it could die any day, or swapped for a fresh pack animal.

Setup

Unlike last time I migrated to a new daily working machine, I would go for an extra virgin install of the OS, and would not be using the OSX Migration Assistant. I want to make sure I have the leanest install possible and thus reserve all the resources I have, for the software I’m actually using. Also, starting a tabula rasa, is a nice opportunity for mucking out the stable of trial installs, obsolete software and apps I never got to use.

OSX System Preferences

Customizing the OS’s behavior: that’s up to one’s personal taste. But you really want to disable the “fool-proof” pedantry of OSX and show hidden folders and files.

Apps

The App Store is great: it really is a management tool for your apps. As soon as you log in, all of your previous purchases are waiting for you, ready for download. Before the cloud/appstore era, one had to do bookkeeping (Yuk!), track your app purchases, their respective serial numbers, keep backup copies… Now, I can just go over the list in the App Store app, re-install the whole bunch, or pick them one by one, whichever I want to keep. And as I want to keep my new Mac lean ’n’ clean, that’s exactly what I did: I only retained what proved itself useful to me. Check my list of indispensable Mac apps over on Github!

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One exception, though, which I already regret: I installed the iWork+iLife apps. Pages, Numbers, Keynote, iMovie, iPhoto. Why did I waste disk space on these? I really only use iPhoto. Trapped by the marketing fuss? Or maybe just to make sure I can open files I get send over. I hope I won’t need MS Office any more, but I can’t expect other people to not send me their Excel sheets, .doc(x) files, and powerpoints. The iWorks suite may then be a good (free) fallback file-opening tool.

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The obligatory Adobe Suite

I’m vetted in print design. For years, the (graphic) industry standard Adobe productivity app suite was obligatory to me. It still is. My baby steps in Photopaint and CorelDraw, are long behind me. I lament that my early page layouts are locked up in mute PageMaker files. I remember the launch of InDesign 1.0, became an Adobe fanboy, witnessed every PR event for the release of yet another Creative Suite successor. I loved maundering about Adobe’s boot at the DRUPA in Düsseldorf — it felt like home.

Then I didn’t upgrade to CS5.5, neither to CS6. I lost the enthusiasm — maybe more for print than for whatever Adobe has been doing. The Web is where I work now, and print will be my hobbyhorse, when I tinker with my Original Heidelberg letterpress.

Still, every bit of a graphic designer needs Adobe. InDesign is my absolute darling. Then Photoshop, and Illustrator. Acrobat is an indispensable tool, for those increasingly rare occasions that I send out print jobs. The purchase of new hardware is a traditional occasion on which I upgrade my Adobe tool belt. I was confused: there’s no Creative Suite any more?

The nostalgia of an afternoon: a cup of coffee, those shiny CDs in their colorful box, watching the new feature highlights during the never-ending install procedure. Those days are over. The ease of Creative Cloud’s pick-whatever-you-need is great: it’s like Apple’s Mac App Store, only better. I now have access to applications I never used (needed to use) before, like After Effects. And I’m really curious about Adobe Edge and Muse: will those be actually useful for Web design, unlike that retarded Dreamweaver?

Thus, Adobe made the transition to the Web, too. It’s now “Creative Cloud”, and Adobe has become a dedicated SaaS company. I can understand that: I would do the same if I were strategic officer at Adobe. One thing penetrated painfully to me, however: some day, Adobe will be gone, or I won’t be upgrading any longer. And quite like these old WordPerfect documents, and PageMaker files, I won’t be able to open those many hundreds of InDesign gems, on which I spent thousands of creative hours — they’re my life. I really need to start preserving them: select those that matter, and convert them into open standards…

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Fonts

Keeping things lean on the new machine, also means I will have to skimp on the amount of fonts installed. For a typophile addict like me, that’s probably the toughest thing. Over the years I spent fortunes on font licenses. My collection is top-notch. But having more than five hundred full-blown OpenType font families constantly sitting Kampfbereit on my machine is a burden. I tried all them font managers, but none I found to be good enough. So I ended up using the pre-installed OSX Font Book app.

It’s my intention to give Fontcase another chance. All while confining the number of installed fonts. I’ll try to stick to nothing but my real favorites, those which I use daily — regardless my thoughtful theoretical principles on what a type library should be. (I’ll be doing a full write-up some day.) I need to be pragmatic, nowadays.

The great thing is, that, just like I can with the App Store, and Creative Cloud, I can rely on cloud services for my fonts: I felt it coming, so I very much remained faithful to MyFonts for my type purchases. It will pay off, now, as I can re-download my precious type investments at my convenience, any time. Alas, not all of them: in the beginnings I thought it to be ethical to directly purchase from independent foundries — that’s too bad, since these wonderful type families are not in my MyFonts library, as a consequence…

I’ll do a separate write-up on my font management. For now, I got a very very basic font collection on my new machine, just to get started:

Dev Environment Setup

Setting up my daily productivity apps was easy. Setting up my development environment is a different beast. I hate it. It’s all dark and obfuscated. I’m still afraid of the black abyss that is the terminal. I will always dread the command line. Especially when I must key abracadabracronyms like sudo, chmod, ls -la Rf, and what have you — commands that could ruin my brand new machine.

Each time, things go wrong, and you’re forced into debugging mode — damned, just for a basic config! If I could just login into a prepped dev environment somewhere on a server. We tried everything out there: shell scripts, a bloody Vagrant box… It keeps being a mess.

You can say a lot of bad things about Xcode, but Apple surely makes setting up the very basics somewhat less of a hassle. Installing Xcode got the fans on my new machine spinning like mad! I don’t wanna even know. Should I regret to have hauled that horse? Timeo Danaos et dona ferentes. — Anyhow, on OSX Xcode is obligatory. (Though it seems that on Mavericks, Xcode is no longer needed to install the Command Line tools.)

Next: SourceTree. Okay, that’s an app, as in: has a GUI. Well, memorizing all them git commands, in my experience, is no great UX. In fact that holds for all Command Line Interfaces: they lack typography! I.e. there is no visual organization, no oversight of options. Just an example: I really like how, in a graphical user interface, like that of SourceTree, I can go over my changes, pick specific hunks of code, and commit them separately.

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Xcode and SourceTree bridge the world of design with that of development. On the other side, it’s commands only. Here are all of the setup instructions for my dev stack, over on Github. Cheers! This is of course my opinionated setup: I don’t need much. It’s all simple Web development: Docpad, Meteor, Compass — and their dependencies.

Moving my Data

Unpacking the new toy and bolstering it with software is the nice part. Moving my data, is the contrary. It’s massive. Fifteen years worth of files. Most of it has been moved to several external drives already. In multiple copies. And clones of copies. And copies of the clones. I’m obsessed with backups.

As a child I dreamt of studying paleontology and one day being famous for my theory on the warm-bloodedness of dinosaurs. I went fossicking for belemnites, sea ​​urchins, shark and ray teeth. All sorts of fossils. I kept a scientific logbook of my findings, wrote a thesis on dinosaur anatomy. One morning, I couldn’t find the 5.25" floppy disk that stored my hard work. The other night, my father’s brother had been on a visit, and they had been playing around on the family PC, copied some games over floppies that lay around. My floppy. Eventually we found it, cut up in a waste bin, over at my uncle’s home. There was mayonnaise on the label, but beneath you could still read: “Theorie over de warmbloedigheid van de sauriërs. Door Wouter.” That trauma caused my neurotic file copying. (Fun fact: the game that had destroyed the fruit of my filial diligence, shortly after devastated our XT 386. It featured the notorious Larry Laffer. And one of the very first computer viruses we came to know of.)

That first feeling of existential angst over data loss, alas was not a one time tragedy. Over the years, I survived several hard drive crashes. On a recent occasion I was in the middle of writing up another theory, on paleography and the curvatures in type. That InDesign file got irretrievably corrupted.

Online backup services are however no-go for me: I don’t trust third parties with my life’s work. So I set out to set up a homebrewn backup strategy, with regular copies as bootable clones on disks stored in a vault, permanent syncing of working copies, over the wire, between my laptop, the PC at my office, and a network drive, to and fro. It all turned out to be too much of a hassle.

Why must setting up an architecture for backup still be such a headache?
Why must setting up an architecture for backup still be such a headache?

Yet I can’t keep dragging my life’s digital archive along forever. There needs to be a definitive, solid solution for electronic archiving. I must find it yet, and hence, I’ll keep buying external drives, for storage of file directories I needn’t access daily. But for data I need to have readily accessible, I’m determined on a cloud solution. The good thing is, it is a jolly folly what commercial competition has brought forth for us peasants of the Interwebs: 50 Gigabytes of free cloud storage! And there’s probably some more up for grabs.

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Dropbox18 Gb
Google Drive15 Gb
iCloud5 Gb
SkyDrive7 Gb
Amazon Cloud Drive5 Gb
GitHub~1 Gb
Bitbucket~1 Gb
=~2 + 50 Gb

For the time being, these freemium file hosting services offer a neat, practical solution for my daily working needs. Media files are something else, though.

Ideally, I’ll roll my unlimited own “Dropbox clone”. I’ll pick my Plogopug of the dust, or buy me a real NAS server. Or I’ll hook up a really big hard drive to a Raspberry Pi. Try the open source syncing tools, play around with AeroFS, or Seafile, or SparkleShare. But it seems that that kind of nerdy bricolage isn’t all too trivial as yet.

Music

I guess the music I purchased from iTunes, will be awaiting me on each Apple device I’ll ever (?) use, very much like my apps will be always (?) there, in the App Store. This implies however that my Windows Phone has no walkman functionality… Whatever. I’m not that much of a music geek, and at home, we’re moving back to analog anyway. Last Christmas my girlfriend gave me a turntable and since then we started raking up cheap vinyl in thrift stores: within a few months and for about under € 150,- we built a collection of dozens of LP records — all the classics from Deutsche Grammophon, which a previous generation had to make savings for, an entire lifetime.

Photos

Our family snapshots and picturesque memories cause me some more trouble: about 100 Gb of memories, locked up in iPhoto Libraries. All in all,the situation is not that bad: iPhoto libs are just file dirs, which I can move over to the external drives.

e-mail

E-mail remains the biggest headache. It’s huge, and its archives have become too valuable to just give up. Much of my life lays locked up in big, obsolete binary Outlook files and messy Mail directories. If there were only a solution that would allow me to just drop those hundreds of hundreds of megabytes somewhere in an app, clean it up, compress it, and turn it into an easily searchable standards-compliant open database, like a personalized electronic edition of my collected correspondence… Instead, the obesity of blunt text messages continues to increase each day I postpone my single-handed termination of e-mail.

I’m notorious for hating e-mail. For one: I hate spam, and at the same time I don’t trust spam filters. That’s one big management trouble. Two: spam is not restricted to Viagra and Ghanese princes; it has as much to do with corporate news letters and reply-to-all-of-the-10K-colleagues RE: lost shawl. Three: the mental model of e-mail as a port of analog letter writing is a big waste of my time: “Dear Madam, Sir … {{introductory bullshit}} … blah blah … {{to-the-point RSVP}} … blah blah … {{closing formula nonsense}} {{signature bloat}}”. Four: NSA. I could go on and on.

Once upon a time, people sent each other messages using an ancient internet protocol. It was cool, back then, to get a ping and a kind word, once in a while, in your “inbox”. But then the messages came in daily floods, and people also started “attaching” megabytes of dumb files to their “e-mails”. Their computers got stuffed with huge directories of darkness. Worse still, each day evil Russians sent millions of e-mails over the Interwebs, polluting the skies with tons of CO². One needed “spam” filters, people’s mental health got messed up over “POP3” vs “IMAP”. You got “Exchange servers”, and ICT departments were doing almost nothing else than untangling the confusion. Internet businesses to which one could outsource the arcane e-mail management, thrived. Matters grew worse when it turned out that evil Americans had been reading all the world’s letters ever since! Soon after, electronic mail died — and nobody noticed. Too busy chatting on the Facebook and the Twitters.

Electronic mail must die, and eventually it will. We need e-mail 3.0: secure and private. But it need to be as much lean, as it needs encryption. Paul Graham has a nice piece on what e-mail could become, from a usability viewpoint.

If I were in a position to do whatever I wanted, I’d stop using e-mail altogether. But I can’t: I rely on it for doing business, to keep in touch with the old folks, and because I’m contractually required to read corporate and governmental spam. Either way — e-mail will be with us — and with me, for some time still. I guess I’ll keep the old MacBook around, as a dedicated e-mail machine. So long, old friend!

And you, my new friend, I hope we’ll have a great time together and do some wonderful things, those twenty-and-a-bit months we have before us. Let’s go create some awesome stuff henceforth!

May I steal your attention for a few more minutes?

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