Author Archives: Eduardo Sanchez

Screenshot of the Syncthing website

Syncthing – a free alternative to Dropbox

What is Syncthing?

Syncthing is an open source computer application that allows you to synchronize files between multiple computers. So, if you update your research paper on your laptop it will automagically sync to your desktop.

If you are comfortable poking a hole through your firewall, you can also sync to remote machines. This is extremely handy if you’re sharing files with a family member who lives far away.

One more nice feature is versioning. If you enable versioning, Syncthing will save a different version of your file every time you hit the “Save” button. This useful if you cut a chapter out of your novel only to decide a month later to resurrect it.

It is important to note that synchronization is not the same thing as backup.

Sure, if your laptop’s hard drive crashes, you will be really glad that your desktop has a recently synchronized version of your files. But if your house catches on fire or floods with both your laptop and desktop inside you will be out of luck.

I will write a post about backup philosophies in the future.

Why would I want to use Syncthing instead of Dropbox?

…or Google Drive, Box.net, or any other paid service?

When you use a paid service, your files live on the sync service company’s servers. Some of these services have experienced very embarrassing security breaches. In one case, all files on the service were accessible to anyone for a period of time – WOW! Imagine if you had tax records or blueprints for your secret volcano lair on that service, anyone would be able to know your private details.

In the case of Syncthing, your files live only on your computers or computers that you specifically allow to sync with your computers. This puts the onus on you not to do anything dumb with your computer.

The most important property of Synchthing is that its source code is freely available. You can actually look at the code to see what it is doing. If you want you can tweak it to better serve your needs or use it as the basis of an entirely new piece of software. This is very nice.

Do I need IT certifications to install and use Syncthing?

No, but it’s definitely not as simple as setting up Dropbox or Box.net. You need to know a bit about your computer and how the Internet works. Alternatively, you can probably hire a consultant or bribe a nerdy friend with beer to get everything set up.

I have set up Syncthing in Mac OS X, Linux, and on FreeBSD. All relatively painless, but there were many gotcha moments along the way that could have easily derailed the process.

So, is Syncthing for me?

Here are some pros and cons:

Pros

  • you are free to look at and change the source code
  • files live only on your computer (or computers you trust)
  • versioning
  • available free of charge
  • mobile application available for Android
  • unlimited storage (…well, limited only the size of your hard drive)

Cons

  • more difficult to set up than leading proprietary solutions
  • no iPhone app
  • no central server (this is also a “pro”)
  • no web interface through which to download or view files

HBR Article on Competency-Based Education

This week I took a deep dive into the world of competency-based education.

The article that spurred this on is The Real Revolution in Online Education isn’t MOOCs by Michelle Wiese in the Harvard Business Review.

I have a background in this type of learning because this is the type of education that I received in the Navy while becoming a nuclear power plant operator. After the Navy, the company I work for used the same type of learning system to teach me how to become a grid operator.

While my experience with competency-based learning was workplace-centered, the online educational trend described in this article has to do with online college learning.

In a competency-based education online degree program students are freed from the “classroom” model. Instead, students are assigned projects that they must master to prove that they have the skills described in the master skill set that defines the degree.

This type of learning can make job candidate searching really easy for a human resources department than traditional letter grades and credit hours can. This is because the traditional letter grades and credit hours do not accurately describe what someone knows, what they’ve done, or what they can do – instead, the traditional measurements only show what classes they took and how long they sat in the class.

Pecha Kucha

I had to create a Pecha Kucha for a class. If you haven’t heard of this before, it’s a brief presentation with the following limitations:

  • 20 slides
  • 20 seconds per slide

This limits presentations to just under 7 minutes. It keeps people on topic and allows multiple presentations to be packed into a very short time. Typically a few pecha kuchas are presented live and then the group divides up to flock around the presenter that they are most interested in – a question and answer session follows.

In our case, we made our pecha kuchas to be viewed online. This gave us practice using software tools to make our content viewable on the web.

My professor directed us to use Microsoft PowerPoint and Screencast-o-matic to create them. I am trying to use free software when possible, so I used this project as an excuse to flex some free software applications. Here are the app’s I used:

  • LibreOffice Impress – This free software version equivalent of PowerPoint was very easy to use. This was only my second time using Impress. It won’t be my last!
  • Kazam – This lightweight screen capture program is used to grab screencasts or screenshots. It was super easy to use and produced nice 1920×1080 screencast at 15 frames per second.
  • Audacity – I have used this application many times for recording voice-overs. I really like how quickly I can get good results with this app. I did have to take an hour-long class on Lynda.com to get up to speed on this app when I started using it. Since then it has been smooth sailing.
  • Kdenlive – This is a video processing app that I used to combine the presentation and the voice-over clips. This app was pure joy to use. I didn’t have to look anything up since it worked just like the iMovie app that I used to use when I was using OS X.
  • Pixabay – Ok, this is not an app. Rather, it is a website that points you to many public domain images that you can use in your presentations.

All in all, my experience making this project really left me feeling good about using free software. All of the applications that I used worked very solidly and were relatively simple to use.

Thomas Jefferson on Ideas

I happened upon Thomas Jefferson’s letter to Isaac McPherson (via Bethany Nowviskie’s blog). Here is a section that struck a chord with me:

He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me. That ideas should freely spread from one to another over the globe, for the moral and mutual instruction of man, and improvement of his condition, seems to have been peculiarly and benevolently designed by nature, when she made them, like fire, expansible over all space, without lessening their density in any point, and like the air in which we breathe, move, and have our physical being, incapable of confinement or exclusive appropriation.

Teaching in Higher Ed Podcast

For the last 7 years I have had anywhere from a 60-minute to 4-hour round-trip commute. How do I constructively spend my drive time? Podcasts.

Finding my recent favorite podcast was a fluke. I heard the host, Bonni Stachowiak, on one of my regular podcasts, Mac Power Users. She impressed me as being both equally smart and cool. I decided to check out her podcast …I am soooo glad that I did.

Professor Stachowiak teaches college business classes in California. Her podcast is titled, Teaching in Higher Ed. It deals with adult learning, productivity, educational technology, and mindfulness.

After I listened to the first few episodes, I immediately downloaded every single episode and put her in my #1 listening spot until I caught up to real-time. Yes, it’s that good.

The thing that makes Dr. Bonni great is her positive attitude and her spectacular guests from the field of higher education.

Some of my favorite episodes:

Better Way: wet shaving with a double-edged-razor

A little more than a year ago I changed the way I shave – and I think it is worth talking about.

Shaving seems like a really boring topic. However, given what I know now, I need to share my knowledge.

Consider this: You are probably getting overcharged for razor blades.

As of today, an 8-count package of the leading 5-blade cartridge system costs $28.99.  

That’s about $4 per cartridge.  That is highway robbery!

You really only need one blade …one very sharp blade and the old-school method of shaving: the so-called  “wet shave” technique.

Double-edged razor and blade

Unmodified photo by Barney Bishop on Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)

What you need (all are available on Amazon):

  • razor – I have the Merkur Long-Handled Safety Razor 38c
  • double-edged blades – I prefer the Derby Extra Double Edge razor blades 100 for $9.47 or 2% of the cost of a cartridge of the leading brand
  • skin lubricant – I use Proraso pre-shave cream for later days (I’ll use olive oil as a base layer if I haven’t shaved for couple of days)
  • shaving soap – Taylor of Old Bond Street sandalwood is primo
  • badger bristle brush – A warm badger hair brush with warm shave soap feels really great
  • shaving mug – I recommend the Colonel Conk model 119 mug since it really retains heat well

Warning: It is way more easy to cut yourself using this method than with one of the 5-blade monstrosities.  That said, I’ve only cut myself on two occasions when I really lost focus and tried to rush through shaving and got tiny nicks.  This method rewards those who take their time – not turbo shaving like you see in the razor blade commercials.

I highly recommend wet shaving with a double-edged razor. You will get a super-close shave. If you want to learn more about this, search using “wet shave” terms.

A few pointers:

  • Shave right after your shower
  • Let your brush soak in hot water before you use it
  • Plug your sink and let your shaving mug sit in hot water while you shave – reapplication of hot shaving soap feels heavenly
  • Use at least two shaving passes
    • With the grain
    • Cross-grain
    • Use a third pass if you’re on camera later in the day and you don’t want to look like Nixon did in his debate with Kennedy
  • When you’re done shaving, splash your face with cold water

Andy Ihnatko on Opera

Andy Ihnatko's Celestial Waste of Badwidth - blog post

Screenshot of Andy Ihnatko’s post

I consider this one of my favorite examples of writing about music.

Andy Ihnatko, the Chicago Sun Times’ computer columnist, provides a unique perspective on music in this piece.

As a hobbyist musician and a fan of good writing I cannot recommend this bit of writing more highly.

If you love music or if you just appreciate beautiful writing you’ll love this piece.

Be sure to watch/listen to the opera scenes he includes in the piece for maximum enjoyment.

http://ihnatko.com/2012/03/02/rachele-gilmores-100-mph-fastball/

Bravo, Andy!

Installing Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary on Ubuntu GNU/Linux

It is interesting how the mind can store away important facts and make them available later.

Last summer, while reading an article by Dr. Drang about Markdown, I stumbled upon a new word, ‘limn’. I almost looked it up but instead allowed my laziness to get the better of me.

After reading the article, I went on to the next feed in my RSS reader (NewsBlur), Gabe Weatherhead’s Macdrifter. The first post that day was an article about using a better dictionary. What does he show in the example image? An image of a dictionary page with the listing for ‘limn’! It also had a very nice jab at Dr. Drang about how a dictionary can act "as a translation guide for communicating with the ancients." Ha!

screenshot of Macdrifter article

Screen capture of Gabe Weatherhead’s Macdrifter article

Gabe’s dictionary post points to a fantastic article titled, "You’re probably using the wrong dictionary" by author James Somers. It is a wonderful read and I highly recommend spending some time absorbing it.

Toward the end of James’ post he provides directions on downloading and using Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary (written in 1828 and revised in 1913).

After reading that article, I dutifully followed the instructions and added the dictionary to my mac and never looked back.

Fast forward to today, more than a year later. I happened upon the word ‘Epistemic’ while reading a paper by Krista Muis published in Educational Psychologist. I went directly to my Dictionary app… Oh, right, I’m no longer on a Mac.

My brain instantly recalled the chain of events that led to my downloading and installing the old Webster’s dictionary on my Mac. Now that I’m on a Linux machine I had to have Webster’s 1913 dictionary on my computer. I managed to get everything working. While Webster’s 1913 dictionary did not end up having the definition of ‘epistemic’ it did have the definition of epistemology that got me pointed in the right direction.

In the spirit of sharing, here are the instructions.

Install and use Webster’s 1913 dictionary on Ubuntu GNU/Linux

  • Download the dictionary file from James Somers at this link.
  • Locate the downloaded file dictionary.zip and extract the contents.
  • Unzipping dictionary.zip will yield two folders:
    • __MACOSX – not needed, delete it
    • dictionary – keep
  • Navigate into dictionary and unzip the file named stardict-dictd-web1913-2.4.2.tar.bz2.
  • The resulting folder stardict-dictd-web1913-2.4.2 is your new dictionary folder.

Now you need a dictionary app to read the dictionary folder you just set up. I recommend that you download GoldenDict from the Ubuntu Software Center.

Follow these instructions in GoldenDict to get the Webster’s dictionary up and running:

  • Press the F3 key (or Edit –> Dictionaries…) to get the Dictionaries preference pane
  • Click on the ‘Add…’ button.
  • Navigate to the stardict-dictd-web1913-2.4.2 folder, highlight it, and click on the ‘Open’ button.
  • Click the ‘OK’ button.

Enjoy using your new dictionary.

GoldenDict

Screen capture of GoldenDict on Ubuntu GNU/Linux

Thanks, Dr. Drang, for using such an seldom used word that triggered this adventure.

If all of this is too much for you, the dictionary can also be viewed online.

Samsonite Xenon 2 Backpack

Samsonite Xenon 2 backpack - exterior

Samsonite Xenon 2 backpack – exterior


My favorite computer bag is the Samsonite Xenon 2 backpack. My wife found this for me when we were stuck in Fort Lauderdale after all outgoing flights got cancelled.

What I love about it:

  • Travel friendly – the computer section unzips to lay flat for airport X-ray machines
  • Five compartments – this bag has two bottle pockets (I use these for an umbrella and my coffee mug) on the exterior and 5 zippered compartments (2 tiny compartments, 1 iPad-sized compartment, and 2 large compartments)
  • Huge – I have squeezed a Lenovo T430, a Lenovo x220, and an HP Stream 11 in this bag at the same time along with all the other stuff I normally carry
  • Nooks and crannys – the interior sections are split to keep things organized
  • Carry handle – there is a comfortable handle at the top of the bag for times when you don’t want to sling it over your shoulder
  • Sits upright – more than any other bag, this one can sit upright pretty well as long as the laptop section zippers are not completely unzipped
  • Easy access – it is very easy to get stuff into and out of this bag using only one hand
  • Stackable – this bag has a loop that will fit over your rolling bag’s handles
  • Padding – there is thick padding on the side that comes in contact with your body
  • Lining – the two tiny pockets and the computer sleeve have a very soft lining

What could be better:

  • Zippers open on their own – I have had zippers on the 2 largest compartments slowly unzip many times. I remedied this by hooking the two zipperheads on each compartment together with mini-caribiners
  • Key hook – there is nothing to hang your keys on – weird since even cheap backpacks come with a key hook these days
  • Computer padding – although there is padding around the laptop section, it could be thicker – especially at the bottom of the bag

This bag has been my daily carry bag since the beginning of 2014. I have taken it on every trip that I have taken. It continues to serve me well. If you are looking for a well-made and well-designed computer backpack, consider this Samsonite Xenon 2 backpack.