Category Archives: Computer

Backups: Don’t Lose Your Family Photos

public domain vector image of a hard drive
One of my friends contacted me recently about a failed hard drive in his 2009 iMac. Soon after an update the computer was failing to complete its normal boot sequence and it got stuck in a reboot-loop.

When I asked him if there was anything on the drive he needed to keep, he said yes. It turns out that he has over 40,000 photos of his kid and his family that is priceless.

Then I asked the question that I always hate to ask.

My question: “Do you have a backup?”

My friend’s answer: “No.”

#sadface

I hate to ask this question because 99% of the time the answer is “no” and no one feels good after I ask it.

My friend ended up taking the computer to the Apple Store. There the genius was able to see that the computer and the hard drive were communicating but he could not see the partition that was once there that had the family photos. The genius recommended an authorized Apple repair shop in the area that specializes in hard drive recovery.

My friend is going to have to pay several hundred up to maybe multiple thousands of dollars recover the files from this failed hard drive – with no guarantee that the files can even be recovered!

Please don’t let this happen to you.

Backup your system to another hard drive – frequently and definitely before any major system updates. Hard drives are (relative to disk data recovery) very cheap.

A new 1 terabyte (TB) drive costs around $50. Sending a broken drive to a data recovery specialist can cost (depending on the failure mode) between $750 and $3,000 (or more!!!) to recover the data and put it on a new disk.

This is definitely one of those things that is way cheaper to pay now vs. pay later.

Note: The recommended action items below assume that you are using some kind of encryption. Without encryption, any backups you make – to a physical drive or cloud backup service – will be viewable by other people.

Action Items: Today

Physical Backup

  1. Determine what files on your computer you cannot live without (family photos, tax returns, business files, home videos of kids, etc.)
  2. Buy two hard drives that are bigger than your installed hard drive
  3. Buy two USB 3.0 hard drive enclosures (there are some really nice ones from Amazon that don’t even need tools)
  4. Clone your existing hard drive onto each of these new hard drives
  5. Test your clones to make sure they work
  6. Keep one clone nearby and take the other clone somewhere safe – outside of your house
  7. Every month (or more often) re-clone your hard drive and swap the on-hand clone with your remote clone – that way you’ll always have a one-month-old clone if your hard drive fails …if you’re super-savvy you can make incremental backups instead of clones (saves a ton of time)

Cloud Backup

IMPORTANT: Once you put something online it will be there forever. Consider that before you embark on an unencrypted upload to an online service

  1. Get an account with an online backup service (check Consumer Reports for the best one)
  2. Start backing up your computer to this service

Action Items: Future

Before doing an upgrade (i.e. Windows 10 –> Windows 12 or MacOS 10.12 –> 10.13):

  1. Buy a new hard drive – yes, in addition to everything you already have
  2. Clone (exact copy) your existing hard drive to the new hard drive
  3. Test the clone to make sure it works
  4. Perform the system upgrade on the existing hard drive
  5. Test it to make sure the upgrade worked
  6. Take the clone that you made in Step 2 and take it somewhere safe outside your home
  7. Don’t touch this clone until it is time to upgrade to the next version of your operating system

Now you have a perfect clone that you can use if something breaks. Plus you still have your periodic backups that you were making from the Action Items: Today list above.

Moving from OS X to GNU/Linux: Applications

Moving from OS X to GNU/Linux was pretty easy because I was able to find comparable Free Software (libre) alternatives to many of the proprietary applications I used on Mac OS X.

Here is a listing of my most-used Mac OS X applications and the alternatives I now use on GNU/Linux:

  • Microsoft Office – I now do everything in LibreOffice. LibreOffice is a fork of the older OpenOffice. It is fantastic. I will occasionally use Microsoft Office 365 on GNU/Linux to edit files inside a browser window.
  • Screenflow screencasting software – I now use a combination of Kazam for screen capture, Audacity for audio editing, and KDEnlive for the video editing.
  • Firefox & Chrome – I use the Firefox version made for Debian and the Chromium browser (both work with 1Password)
  • SnagitShutter is nice. It has editing features to make simple annotations.
  • iMovie – The previously mentioned KDEnlive and OpenShot are fantastic non-linear video editors.
  • Marked2 – For editing markdown files, ReText can never reach the awesomeness that Brett Terpstra achieved with Marked but it is still pretty nice to use. If you haven’t heard of markdown, just buy Markdown by David Sparks. Markdown editing is the one skill I now use more often than anything else. It is a massive time saver.
  • 1Password – I now use the Windows version of 1Password on GNU/Linux (my HowTo post). I have recently been working on a transition to KeePass2.
  • YNAB – The Windows version of YNAB personal finance and budget software runs on GNU/Linux using Wine. I would love to move to GnuCash for this kind of money tracking but the iPhone app for YNAB and the syncing is soooo easy to use.
  • OmniFocus – OmniFocus just might be one of the best Mac and iPhone productivity (Getting Things Done or GTD) apps out there. The OmniFocus graphical user interface is tip-top. That said, upon switching to GNU/Linux I changed to the command-line Taskwarrior productivity manager. It took me a couple of days to get the hang of but now I can’t live without it. Besides a web browser, it is my most-used application.
  • Adobe Photoshop – The Gnu Image Manipulation Program or GIMP is a perfect alternative to the super-expensive Adobe Photoshop
  • Adobe Illustrator – Creating and editing scalable vector graphics is really easy and fun using Inkscape. I love this app. There is even a great course on Lynda.com to help you learn Inkscape.
  • Photos (formerly iPhoto) – My photo management is now taking place in Shotwell. Though, there are some alternatives such as Digikam and Darktable.

Sadly, there are still some Mac OS X applications that I have not been able to find an alternative to in GNU/Linux.

  • PDFPen – This Mac-only PDF manipulation application is pretty much the best thing that ever happened to PDF. Surprisingly the iPad version of this app is equally fantastic.
  • Textexpander – I have not yet been able to find anything that comes close to comparing with the awesomeness that is Textexpander. If you use a Mac and you don’t have Textexpander you are doing it wrong!
  • iCal – Unfortunately, I am still using Calendar via iCloud.com. I will soon be moving my contacts and calendar to Nextcloud – expect a post on that when it happens.

Besides the proprietary 1Password, YNAB, and Microsoft Office 365, all the GNU/Linux software I now use is Free Software (“free” as in freedom/libre) or Open Source Software. It is also available free of charge!

I think the best way to find Free Software applications it to visit the Free Software Foundation’s Free Software Directory. The software is sorted by groups and has pretty good descriptions.

Additionally, the Ubuntu Mate distribution (which I use on my RaspberryPi) has a great software tool called ubuntu-mate-welcome that you can install on regular old Ubuntu. It has a nice listing of useful proprietary software and Free Software (you can tick a box to hide the proprietary software).

Review: Lenovo ThinkPad x220

This is my review of the Lenovo ThinkPad x220 laptop.

Lenovo ThinkPad x220 laptop

front view of x220

Last summer I was testing out an HP Stream 11 laptop. While I loved it for its price and portability, it sometimes choked under a heavy load. This led me to search Craigslist for something a little beefier.

I had used a Lenovo ThinkPad T430 with a quad-core i7 Intel processor as my work laptop for a few years and had grown to respect it. So, when it came time for me to replace the HP Stream 11 (which went to my niece), I ended up going with the T430’s smaller and older brother: the Lenovo ThinkPad x220 (released in 2011). I picked it up from a local Craigslist seller for $230 with Windows 7 and Office 2010 installed. I immediately swapped out the hard drive with an SSD with Ubuntu GNU/Linux. I have used it for a year now and I must say that it is a great little laptop.

What I like about the x220

  • small – Its footprint is about the size of a sheet of paper which makes it very portable.
  • battery – The replaceable battery lasts 6 to 8 hours. A full-day battery is also available.
  • cpu – Even though it is 5-years “old”, the quad-core i5 processor hasn’t choked under load yet.
  • OS – Ubuntu GNU/Linux works great on this laptop …everything just works.
  • modular – Since this was a best seller for corporate computer rental fleets, many spare parts and repair guides are readily available. I have replaced hard drive and wrist pad.
  • multi-monitor – The graphics card can support an external monitor in addition to the built-in LCD screen. Theoretically, it can even support 2 external monitors (built-in LCD must be disabled) with the use of a docking station – but I haven’t tested this.
  • on/off switch for WiFi – This allows you to quickly and easily turn WiFi on or off.
  • ethernet jack – It has a full-size (not fold-down) ethernet jack for fast network transfers.
  • keyboard – I LOVE this keyboard. The spacing of the keys is perfect for touch typists. Specifically, I love the gaps between function key groups and comically large Esc and Delete keys. The placement of the PgUp/PgDn and arrow keys means that I almost never have to look at my hands.
  • video ports – The x220 has both an old-school VGA port and a new-school full-size DisplayPort to connect to older and newer monitors. Together with my DisplayPort-mini DisplayPort adapter and mini DisplayPort-to-everything adapter I can connect to almost monitor.
Lenovo ThinkPad x220 laptop

view of the x220 keyboard

Lenovo ThinkPad x220 laptop

view of left-side ports

Lenovo ThinkPad x220 laptop

view of right-side ports

Modifications

Here is a listing of the modifications I made to this laptop.

  • 16 GB RAM – Although the spec sheet lists the maximum RAM at 8 GB, I can confirm that 16 GB of RAM is recognized and used.
  • 250 GB mSATA drive – I added this sweet, tiny mSATA drive as the boot drive – it really makes this computer FLY! Startup time is on the order of seconds.
  • 240 GB SATA SSD – I added this 2.5-inch SSD about 6 months ago to store virtual machines that I spin up for testing or one-time use. The fact that it can fit both a 2.5-inch SATA drive and an mSATA drive means that you can have 2 TB or more of storage on this tiny computer.
  • 3M Privacy Filter – I travel a lot. That means a lot of nosy people on buses, trains, and planes try to sneak a peek at what I’m working on. While I have nothing interesting on this computer, I still don’t feel like anyone has the right to invade my privacy. Luckily this privacy guard makes it impossible for anyone not sitting directly in front of the computer to see what is on the screen.
  • dock – I was able to buy a dock on eBay for less than $40 bucks. This enables me to quickly connect an external monitor, mouse, keyboard, power, and ethernet …soooo convenient.
Lenovo ThinkPad x220 laptop

x220 with 3M Privacy Guard on the screen

Conclusion

If you are looking for a cheap, tough, powerful, upgradable, easy-to-fix laptop (especially one that runs GNU/Linux), look into the Lenovo ThinkPad x220.

Podcasts in my Queue

I have been a heavy podcast listener since around 2003/2004. I started by listening to former MTV VJ, Adam Curry’s, Daily Source Code. Since then, not a day has gone by without some podcast listening.

Here is a list of what is in my queue and why it is there:

screenshot of my podcast player

Screenshot of my podcast player

  • DTNS – Tom Merrit’s Daily Tech News Show (DTNS) is my …uh …daily tech news show. I listen to this show every morning as I am getting ready for work. It is an easy way to keep up with all the tech news worth knowing.
  • Security Now – This podcast has been in my queue for years. It is probably my favorite podcast because it dives deep into privacy and security – two things that really matter to me.
  • Teaching in HigherEd – Although I am not “teaching in higher ed” I find a lot of the things that Professor Bonni Stachowiak discusses with her guests applies directly to adult learning. This podcast is the one that most aligns with my job. Bonni has the best guests on this show. I highly recommend it if you are interested in adult learning and educational technology. I wrote about this show before here.
  • The Linux Action Show! and LINUX Unplugged – These two shows satisfy my weekly Linux nerd needs. Chris and his co-hosts and virtual Linux User Group provide tons of great Linux and free software news and entertainment.
  • The eLearning Coach Podcast – Connie Malamed’s wonderful show has tons of information useful to me as an instructional designer. If you have a job where you make or give training, this is a show for you. All of the guests on this show are the well-known learning professionals from around the web. You will learn TONS from listening to this show.
  • The Ihnatko Almanac – This is the outlet for Chicago Sun Times columnist, Andy Ihnatko. Dan Benjamin joins Andy for stories and miscellaneous musings. Andy is hilarious and his views on life are classic. This podcast does not seem to have any strict release schedule but when I see it pop up in my queue it jumps over pretty much everything else. By the way, Andy’s writing is fantastic. I wrote about his writing style previously.
  • Mac Power Users – Even though I have reduced my Mac usage to less than 1% of my total computer usage (Linux all the way – woohoo!!!), I still love listening to Katie Floyd and David Sparks talk about the interesting way they are using computers in their respective law practices and in their creative lives. If you use a Mac, I highly recommend giving this show a listen. I found out about this show about one year after they started recording. After I listened to the first show, I went back and listened to everything from episode 1. These guys are serious Mac power users.

That is my queue. I hope you find some of these podcasts as entertaining as I do.

Share your podcast recommendations in the comments!

ubuntu computer running 3 vm's

Running Windows on GNU/Linux

Since my move to GNU/Linux I have had to run proprietary software several times. This is typically because of school projects that require Windows or Mac-only software like SMART Notebook or WebEx.

So what do you do when your GNU/Linux can’t run the application that you need to use?

Solution: Run Windows in a virtual machine.

What’s a virtual machine?

A virtual machine is a separate computer that runs inside your current computer. It runs inside a program on your main operating system called a hypervisor. In my case, I use a program called VirtualBox. It creates a fake environment where you can install another operating system – for me, it is Windows 7 or 8.

Said another way, a virtual machine is a client computer running inside a program on your host computer.

Getting Windows

For short-term Windows use, your best option is to download pre-configured virtual machines from Microsoft’s Modern.ie. Modern.ie is a site that allows web developers to download time-limited (90-days) virtual machines to use for testing websites on Microsoft browsers.

screenshot of Modern.ie website

Microsoft’s Modern.ie website

The virtual machines available on Modern.ie can also be used to test and use any software that runs on Windows.

If you need to run Windows over a longer term you will need to get a legitimate license. Students can check with their campus computer store for free or significantly discounted licenses. Home users can check with companies like Newegg.com for discounted original equipment manufacturer (OEM) versions of Windows which typically cost around $99.

Windows 10 on Newegg.com

Windows 10 on Newegg.com 2016-03-13

I have used virtual machines for:

  • Testing proprietary software for school – SMART Notebook
  • Test installing software to see how it affects the operating system
  • Using proprietary software not available on GNU/Linux like WebEx
  • Logging in to my work terminal server via Remote Desktop

Here is a screenshot of my Ubuntu machine running three virtual machines:

  • Windows 10 VM from Modern.ie
  • Ubuntu 15.10 displaying a remote Windows terminal server instance
  • Windows 8 installation (free from school – yay!)
ubuntu computer running 3 vm's

My Ubuntu computer running 3 virtual machines

More help

Here is a YouTube video by a fellow named Quidsup. He shows you how to install Windows 10 inside VirtualBox.

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

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:

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.