Figuring out what to next – to accelerate fulfilment in my work

Talked to Sara (my muse) today about trying to work out in my head what to do next – what creative/skill-building exercise or learning opportunity to take on? I’m dying to break out, but hog-tied at the same time to try to assess among all the possible things I’ve thought of – which is most likely to give me the biggest payoff.

Yes I know that the only way to find out for sure is to try something and see how it fits. Yes I intellectually understand that if I’m so focused on outcomes from step one, the right brain creative impulses are necessarily being strangled in the crib. Of course it’s ridiculous to sort through so many things to find the perfect endeavour that lights the clear path to my next career.

All that said, and knowing how crazy I’m making myself, I have to acknowledge the simple truth of the complexities of being Mike: the situation I’m in right now, knowing I’m aspiring and working towards a more creative, ideas-oriented and wide-scoped style of work, and gathering to myself as I have been a preponderance of new things I’ve never tried and all of which occupy the sphere of user-centric creation that I’m convinced is where I belong…right now I have a perfect mental image of how that makes me feel right now:

I’m in a rowboat, surrounded by a sea of a thousand things I could, should and would like to try, I have no idea in which direction to row to find dry land.

So here’s some of the things that are rattling around just today (for which focusing efforts I’m grateful to Sara for her gentle nudges):

Why do I want to try these things?
– Take small bites of a lot of little things I’d like to become, to see which inspire me
– help me convey my big abstract ideas better to others
– demystify those creative expressions that have felt just behind the looking glass all my life
– tap into long-held adoration of abstract expressions that resonate with my soul
– personal enrichment that makes me feel more confident in my own very personal beliefs and ways of expressing myself
– spark new creative thoughts
– cultivate pure enjoyment at being part of the world of creative beings
– use more parts of my brain – tap into latent talents

A small selection of things I’d like to try:
– drawing classes
– glass blowing
– story boarding (visual)
– storytelling (verbal)
– learn a new app development skill (JavaScript, Python, CSS, HTML)
– try creating short videos to convey a personal idea
– more writing from places of conviction
– reading inspiring books in UX & ubiquitous computing
– 3D modelling and design
– certification and degrees
– volunteering to assist others who need my skills

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Status and failure of CacheMyWork development

Every month or so I get an email like the following:

Hi, Love your app CacheMyWork. Left some suggestions for improvement on your website a while ago. Any chance you’ll release an updated version with more functionality any time soon? Seems to my it has huge potential once it’s updated.

I get this kind of email – wondering when I’ll finish the app, asking about status, wondering why it seems incomplete or why I haven’t integrated [easy fix “X”] – for only one of the open source projects I ever released: http://CacheMyWork.codeplex.com.

Every time I get one of these, I feel like a jerk for not finishing (or continuing) what I started, and I realize that if I was just a better coder, I’d have a lot of happy people out there.

I could never get my head around the databinding that is necessary to connect the WPF front end i built for the “version 2” of my app to the well-formed, totally functional app-finding algorithm I built literally years ago.

I feel like I’m disappointing a lot of people by not getting this back underway, but I really don’t have a clue how to fix the damned thing. I think my failure to maintain/improve this project is one reason why I’m giving up on my dream to ever be a professional coder.

I swear something must be wrong with my brain – every time I try to re-learn databinding concepts for .NET they look like they’re pretty simple for the author, but when I try to apply the ideas to my code, it never seems to work. I’ve coded three different data classes, I’ve tried every combination of parameters in the binding (both the XAML and the code-behind) I could find, but at best I get code parameters in the UI – never anything that hints that the bound data is leaking through (even though I can clearly see the data in the data class when I set breakpoints in the debugger). It’s like I’m not “getting” something about how this is supposed to work – it reminds me of how I was a week or two behind in introductory calculus class, when my brain couldn’t visualize what it was we were manipulating with those damned equations. (I finally got the calculus, though I think by now I’d have to start all over again.)

What would you do in this situation? I’d really like to get this going again – at least make good on the unfinished “new” release, and give myself some closure on that chapter of my geek life.

My Mac Mini HTPC saga: software & configurations

Now that I’ve done the whole hardware upgrade and full, clean install of Mac OS X 10.6, I have to start all over again (this time with a little practice under my belt) on getting all the stuff assembled for a well-oiled home theatre machine.

Plex, Boxee, EyeTV, VLC, Transmission, Silverlight, MacTheRipper

Lots of software, so little attention span. 🙂

Plex

  • As my chosen media front-end, I intend to do as much as possible from here, and only veer into the other apps I’m using when necessary
  • I choose to install the following apps: Hulu, Apple Movie Trailers, South Park, Netflix, The Daily Show, Pandora, PBS, Picasa Web, Trailer Addict, YouTube

Boxee

  • I hear this is the only way to get full streaming of the CBS TV shows in a 10’ UI experience (rather than fire up Safari/Firefox and click away directly)
  • So I logged into Boxee.tv, downloaded the Mac OS X alpha of Boxee (which is simply yet another XBMC fork/port) and started looking at the “Applications” – Videos > CBS > Full Episodes shows listings for How I Met Your Mother (which I watch) but not for The Big Bang Theory (which I *slavishly* watch)

CBS: Fail.

EyeTV

  • Once I decided to definitely get a tuner (more on that in another blog article), the overwhelming number of times I’ve heard Elgato’s products recommended (not just their tuner, but their pretty great EyeTV software app to manage the tuner) was the clincher
  • The trickiest part was upgrading EyeTV from 3.0.x to 3.2 (which just came out a few days ago).  It turns out that on systems running Mac OS X 10.6, EyeTV 3.0.x won’t even launch – Apple in the infinite wisdom intentionally put a “block” in place so that it won’t start.
  • It turns out there’s an “under the covers” way to bypass such Mac OS X “blocks”, by launching the application’s actual binary file, rather than using the “user friendly shortcut” that is presented in the Applications folder (and which I, like most Mac users, seem to happily use until something prevents us from getting in the easy way).
  • I found an article at Elgato’s site that outlined the process: http://support.elgato.com/index.php?_m=knowledgebase&_a=viewarticle&kbarticleid=3628
  • Once I got EyeTV 3.0.x (I think it was 3.0.3 that shipped with my EyeTV 250 Plus tuner) running, I was able to use the EyeTV “Check for Updates” menu option to get the 3.2 download and be back working like a charm.

VLC Media Player

  • I remembered that VLC was the easiest way to get access to all the significant codecs, and have a nice media player in the background in case any of the rest of ‘em weren’t working out for me.
  • Downloaded, installed, and already confirmed that VLC can play VOB files that were copied directly off a DVD (for backup purposes, naturally – who wants to scratch their only copy of Robot Chicken?)

Transmission BitTorrent client

  • Ever since hearing about PeerGuardian for Windows (a piece of software that prevents your computer from connecting to “blacklisted” IP addresses – e.g. those servers setup by the RIAA, government agencies and others to track what you’re doing with your downloads and other torrent-like activity), I’ve been dreading the conversion over to my Mac Mini
  • Then somehow today, my searches through Lifehacker’s archives for “p2p file sharing ‘mac os x’” turned up an article from 2008 on Transmission – a BitTorrent client for Mac OS X and Linux.
  • It turns out that the friendly and nice folks at Transmission have integrated the PeerGuardian functionality into their app, including automatic downloads of the Bluetack blocklists
  • That’s enough for me – I’ve already got Transmission installed and slurping down some great media for later watching.

Silverlight 3.0 (for Netflix)

  • Silverlight is necessary for playing the Netflix Instant Watch streaming movies, and it doesn’t seem to get installed “in the background” by Plex, Boxee or any of the other media-front-end apps that provide a Netflix wrapper
  • Makes sense now that I think about it, but I can’t say I wasn’t disappointed by the fact that the Mac software community hasn’t made all this stuff entirely hidden from my relatively novice eyes.

MacTheRipper

Great little app for making backup copies of your DVDs onto a local hard drive.  Essential in this day and age.

Issue: Mac OS X 10.6 intercepts all Apple Remote commands

As of OS X 10.6, the operating system itself intercepts all Apple Remote commands, and cannot be overridden by application-specific configurations (as was apparently the case with Plex and probably others in the past).  Instead, hitting the Menu button on the Apple Remote will always bring up Front Row; hitting the volume buttons will always change the system-wide volume, and other irritating effects (for an HTPC user who’s using third-party HTPC-oriented software) are seen as well.

While there’s no supported, by-design way in OS X to disable this “feature”, there are some known workarounds – which I’ve implemented:

http://forums.plexapp.com/index.php?showtopic=8658

  • edited the /System/Library/LaunchAgents/com.apple.RemoteUI.plist file (after making a copy of the file in the same directory, in case I later want to revert back to the original settings)
  • deleted the /System/Library/LoginPlugins/BezelServices.loginPlugin (after making a copy of the file – ibid)

http://www.tech-recipes.com/rx/2754/os_x_edit_file_using_textedit_as_root_superuser/

I had to use this article’s cluefulness to allow me to interactively edit the RemoteUI.plist file using TextEdit.

http://support.apple.com/kb/TA25121

I also got bit by the “blank admin password” problem – wasn’t able to fire up sudo when my current account had a blank password.  So I changed it, did the sudo-enabled edit, and changed the password back.

Next Steps…

Wondering – do I really *need* a TV tuner, to enjoy the world’s best offerings of TV and other media?

My Mac Mini HTPC saga: upgrading hardware, optimizations

 

Replace RAM, Hard drive with beefier options I bought myself

I wanted to have the maximum available ‘headroom’ in this box before I committed a lot of time installing and configuring lots of software (e.g. if I wanted to run software-driven encoding, have multiple big apps running at the same time, or even to run a virtualized instance of Windows whenever I felt the ‘itch’). 

So after reading about what some of the braver souls have done under the hood, I decided that I’d purchase the lowest-end Mac Mini (with the exception of getting the fastest processor, which aren’t upgradeable AFAIK) and then purchase 4 GB of RAM & a 320 GB 7200 RPM SATA drive.

4 GB of RAM (or 8?)

While deciding on a brand of RAM is usually a decision with way too many options, on what should be but sometimes isn’t a commodity purchase, I cheated.  When browsing around Amazon.com for what kinds of prices they had available for Mac Mini’s, I noticed their “what other people purchase with this item” was consistently coming up with one package of Corsair 2 x 2GB DDR3 (PC3-8500) RAM – this one, for (at the time I purchased)

Note: I’ve done as much reading as I could about the new 64-bit capabilities unlocked by Mac OX 10.6 (Snow Leopard), and while there’s promising speculation that the Mac Mini could take 2 x 4GB RAM (i.e. 8GB total), the reality is the price of the 4GB PC3-8500 modules is astronomical compared to 2GB modules.  I’ll keep that in mind for the future, but for now the 4GB is plenty of extra capacity for now, and I can keep the extra couple hundred dollars for something else.

Which Hard Drive?

Over the decades, different hard drive manufacturers have produced drives of higher or lower quality, and I can never keep up with “which manufacturer is the king for each drive size and capacity”.  For this I trundled down to my local PC supply shop with two specifications in hand: it has to be a 2.5” drive (the bigger ‘desktop’ drives won’t fit) and it has to be a 7200 RPM drive (my reading suggests the faster drive speeds make a big difference in a Mac Mini HTPC).

The dude behind the counter was very definitive – according to him, the most reliable and best-performing 2.5” 7200 rpm drive on the market today is from Western Digital (aka the “Scorpio Black” line of drives).

If you’re looking at other brands, and you’d like to know if other Mac Mini owners have been successful upgrading with them, I found a really useful resource that could help: “Mac Drive Upgrades/Compatibility Database” at http://forums.xlr8yourmac.com/drivedb/search.drivedb.lasso

Procedure to Open the Mac and Upgrade the Components

Search Google for “Mac Mini RAM upgrade” and/or “Mac Mini hard drive upgrade” – there are many step-by-step guides available (e.g. this one), and a number of great YouTube videos that take you visually through the process. I just followed the first couple that I found and everything seemed to work fine (at least, for this “old hat” at constructing my own PCs for so many years).

For me, the only tools I needed were:

  • a putty knife or scraper blade (anything thin, metal and long enough to wedge in a few inches into the Mac Mini case)
  • a Philips (the “x” kind) screwdriver that is thin enough to get into a very narrow plastic tube (eyeglasses screwdrivers are usually good for this), and has a small/thin enough head that it can unscrew (and not strip) the screws with the very narrow “x” channel.
    • As some pointed out, magnetizing the screwdriver head is very handy for extracting those tiny little, fidgety screws – otherwise they tend to drop into the Mac Mini guts, and then you’re shaking it hard enough to get it loose (but not too hard so that you risk “damaging” some microscopic parts – not that I think there is any real danger of this with what I saw, but even an “old hat” gets worried there’s some new level of miniaturization that makes some part extremely sensitive to impact from even a 1/4-ounce screw.

Remember: Format your new Drive

Oh, and don’t forget to format the drive using Disk Utility (accessible from the top menu bar after the Mac OS X installer has asked which language you want to install).  I went through the install twice, both times wondering why the new 320GB disk wasn’t available as a selection for “where do you want to install Mac OS X”.  I figured that the installer was so smart that it recognized an unformatted disk, and would automatically format it for me.  (Soon, perhaps, but not at present.)  Embarrassing, but easily corrected – once I realized that I *had* checked all connections twice, and there was really very little that *could* prevent the drive from being recognized at the physical level.

Reinstalling Mac OS X and the rest of the bits from the two DVDs

This part was a freakin dream – so few questions, everything possible automated – it’s like Apple realizes that most people don’t care to fiddle, they just want the sucker to work.

The only extra steps I had to take were installing the optional bits (mostly utilities, but also Safari, Mail, iCal and some other useful things) from the OS X install DVD, and then installing whatever comes on that DVD labelled “”.  (Heck, it only consumed 4GB of my new 320GB drive, and until I know more about what I *don’t* need, I’m pretty comfortable taking 4GB “just in case”.)

Misc optimizations:

  • enable SMB sharing in Mac OS X, so that Plex (or Boxee) can find and scour any locally-attached external drive for photos, music and video.  (Apparently the XBMC codebase always expected to find all media on a network-shared device, since the original XBox hardware itself couldn’t retrieve or store that much media locally on the puny 20GB XBox drive.)
  • Add an entry point in the Front Row menu for Boxee – does this work for Plex as well?
  • Added link to 10-foot-UI-friendly version of my Google Reader account (via http://mymediaexperience.com/feeds-as-newspaper-in-your-living-room/)
  • Something about reconfiguring audio for Plex: “As for setting up Plex with a DTS or DD receiver. Go Configure The System -> System -> Audio Hardware from the menu. Then change the audio output from analog to digital. ” (http://www.123macmini.com/forums/viewtopic.php?t=20440)

My Mac Mini HTPC saga: filesystem selection for external media drive

 

Quest: best filesystem for my external hard drive

I have a 750 GB Seagate FreeAgent drive, where I’ve kept most of my media (photos, music, video, backups) for the past couple of years.  Until now, I was operating in an all-Windows world of my own design, and NTFS was the best (most reliable, performant, flexible) filesystem for that drive.

Now that I’ve introduced a Mac into my life, and because I’m planning to plug it into the Mac Mini for the vast majority of the time (to host media I record from or wish to display via the Mini) I’m faced with what feels like an imperfect choice:

  • FAT32 doesn’t support > 4 GB filesize, which in this day and age of recorded/downloaded TV (not to mention the potential for virtualization in my future, in case I want to keep experimenting/developing) is damned easy to exceed.
  • NTFS isn’t natively supported in Mac OS X (at least, not for writes, though a read-only NTFS driver is available).
  • Mac-only filesystems (e.g. HFS+) feel like a bit *too* much commitment to a platform that isn’t the dominant in my lifestyle yet – e.g. what if I want to unplug that drive from the Mac mini and hook it to my Windows box to do some USB 2.0-speed backups or other file transfers?  I know that most of my file transfers will probably work fine with an SMB share over the Wifi network (it’s all 802.11 g or better, in a pretty confined space), but sometimes I just want to get something done quickly.  Not to mention I’m not yet familiar with what steps I would have to take if I were to hook up my external drives (the 750GB – cleaned off now – and my backup one – FAT32), format the 750 gigger and try to copy over all my FAT32 data into reasonable facsimiles of the data I replicated off the 750 (before I repartitioned it).

There’s some fairly predictable chatter about lower performance of 3rd-party (R/W) NTFS drivers when used within Mac OS X (http://www.123macmini.com/forums/viewtopic.php?t=23243&highlight=ntfs), and I’d expect similar concerns about 3rd-party HFS+ drivers (R/W) running in Windows.  I’m not worried about booting from the external drive, so that limitation of NTFS-3g isn’t a concern for me (http://www.123macmini.com/forums/viewtopic.php?t=23057&highlight=ntfs).

However, after thinking about what my *majority* usage will be, it’s clear to me that I’ll end up leaving the drive mounted to the Mac Mini 95% of the time, so I should optimize it for that scenario and not the “just in case” fear-based scenario.  If it turns out that I’m using the drive directly attached to my Windows box *that* often, I can always use a one-time read-only HFS+ driver in Windows to get the data off the drive, then reformat with NTFS.  Getting the data off the drive isn’t a worry of mine (these drivers all seem good enough for at least the “disaster recovery – get my data off the drive *eventually*” scenarios); so I’d be an idiot not to optimize for the day-to-day performance issues I’d otherwise be facing with a non-native filesystem for the host where it’ll be plugged in 95% of the time.

Next time

  • Quest: a tuner I can “set and forget” (i.e. reliable, stable, robust performance)
  • Quest: improve the screen drawing response time in “Screen Sharing” (aka VNC)

Obama White House – starting to feel a lot like Christmas

I’m getting awfully excited about the team that Obama is building. Biden’s track record & poise, the behind-the-scenes bulldog who’s going to be chief of staff, Clinton’s abilities/intelligence, Richardson’s sheer ability to articulate… It’s like the Bizarro world version of the Bush White House.

Especially after the past two years’ painfully-drawn out campaigning, the forced antagonism, the hyper scrutiny of every little difference between presidential candidates. Now, to see some of the strongest, smartest Democratic candidates all coming together to form such a solid team – it’s like this is the reward for sufering the last couple of decades of rampant Republican deconstructivism.

Actually, the first thought when I realized that we had these five (and others) I’m the same cabinet was, “this is starting to make me think of The West Wing [the fantasy White House that most of us had wished was really running the country]” – above all, with more collected intelligence and good intentions than I could’ve hoped would come together to lead this country.

I’ve been saying for the last couple if years that I’d be happy with a president that accomplished exactly *nothing* during their term, after the retarded clearcutting & international embarrassment of the tenure of the Connecticut Chimp. Now I’m actually looking forward to not just a period of healing from the road rash W has left behind, but real improvement in the lives of significant numbers of people (both inside and outside the US) that really *need* the help [instead of just lining the pockets of those who’ve already enriched themselves at the expense of the hard workers whose backs bore the burden of the conquistadors].

I’m not quite retardedly naive to think this will be a scandal- or failure-free era, but it’s awesome to not have to grit my teeth every time the president is about to open his mouth and prove how “special” he really is.

"you most closely resemble survey respondents within the Omnivores typology group"

Apparently I too am a technology/information Omnivore, according to the Pew Internet & American (?) Life project.

Basic Description
Members of this group use their extensive suite of technology tools to do an enormous range of things online, on the go, and with their cell phones. Omnivores are highly engaged with video online and digital content. Between blogging, maintaining their Web pages, remixing digital content, or posting their creations to their websites, they are creative participants in cyberspace.

Defining Characteristics
You might see them watching video on an iPod. They might talk about their video games or their participation in virtual worlds the way their parents talked about their favorite TV episode a generation ago. Much of this chatter will take place via instant messages, texting on a cell phone, or on personal blogs. Omnivores are particularly active in dealing with video content. Most have video or digital cameras, and most have tried watching TV on a non-television device, such as a laptop or a cell phone.

Omnivores embrace all this connectivity, feeling confident in how they manage information and their many devices. This puts information technology at the center of how they express themselves, do their jobs, and connect to their friends.

When I read this description, it reminded me of something my wife Robin has repeatedly pointed out about me: I am one of the least social people she knows. I rarely make social plans with anyone (including her), I don’t naturally or voluntarily engage with people outside of work, and I am quite comfortable (or at least not dissatisfied) staying home with my TV, laptop and dogs.

So how to reconcile these two states of being – the “meatspace” Mike, who doesn’t engage in any social contact, and the “cyberspace” Mike, who engages with strangers, colleagues and friends with nary a second thought, on a frequent, bleeding edge basis? I have to assume that the cyberspace activities of an Omnivore are not just a pleasant and easy means of interacting with friends/family/colleagues, but are in part a way of shielding ourselves from the demands of the meatspace environment where the interactions are somehow (cf. Introvert) more draining, demanding and threatening.

I am the same person, but in these differing situations I am able to engage in much different ways – and it appears that I’m on a trajectory that will increase the divergence between my social and cyber personalities.

I don’t know what to make of that – whether it’s a natural progression of the aging Introvert, or if there’s some progressive neurochemical change that’s making it harder to engage in person (and thus I’m biased more towards the distant/electronic/asynchronous interaction), or maybe I just don’t have the strength, adrenaline and childish curiosity that I did in my 20’s.

Apparently I too am a technology/information Omnivore, according to the Pew Internet & American (?) Life project.

If you can’t pronounce it, you shouldn’t get to make policy on it

It amazes me that one of the most powerful people in the world (a Yale
“graduate”, though that just proves how little that must mean these
days) still hasn't learned how to pronounce “nuclear”.

I can understand that science can be a hard subject, and god knows
that man displays surprising lack of intellectual horsepower, but on
this my opinion is unwavering: if you can't even spend the time to
learn how the word is pronounced, you couldn't possibly convince me
that you're even listening to the “elevator pitch” summaries of the
key issues, let alone sat down and really weighed the difficult
questions around nuclear power.

So ParanoidMike's Rule of Power power is simple: if you can't
pronounce it, you don't get to create or influence policy on it. A
retarded chimp shouldn't have their hand anywhere NEAR the button.