Pogoplug Cloud and Disk Backup

Introduction

This article is about disk backup as much as it is about Pogoplug and Pogoplug Cloud. Disk backup is the computing system operations practices that protect a computer system’s file system from hardware, software, and user failures like dos> format c:. So disk backup is a combination of things

  • A saved image of the file system state
  • The media that stores that image
  • The device and programs that read and write that media
  • The user practices needed to create the backup save sets

Backups come in two varieties, local backups and off-site backups. Local backups are complete copies of the file system that permit complete restoration of the file system to the last saved state. These protect primarily against disk failures or other hardware failures that cause the disk to become corrupt. This can include a dropped, lost, or stolen laptop computer. Off-site backups permit recovery of essential records when one’s home is damaged by fire, flooding, windstorms, or theft of a machine or the local backups were destroyed, stolen, or unusable.

In days of yore, off-site backups were local backups that were carried to a safe off-site storage location such as your safety deposit box. Today, they are transmitted over the Internet to a cold storage provider such as Google Drive or Amazon Glacier. Some people use Google Drive or Amazon Glacier directly while most mere mortals use a service such as Carbonite, Pogoplug Cloud, etc to create and restore off-site backups. This article describes Pogoplug Cloud and the things used with it.

Some Definitions

I’ll try to use the terms defined below in this article. These may not exactly match Pogoplug’s usage of them but I can match them up to things on my Mac.

Cloud Engines: Makers of Pogoplug and providers of Pogoplug Cloud services

Local backup: A locally kept copy of a group of files made for the purpose of restoring lost or damaged files.

Off-site backup: A remotely kept copy of a group of files made for the purpose of restoring important files when recovering from loss or damage to the local site.

Pogoplug: A local server running the pogoplug service. This can be a PC running pogoplug pc or a purpose built Pogoplug device.

Pogoplug Cloud: A remote server running the pogoplug service.

Pogoplug Backup: The local pogoplug service client that conducts backups and restores backups.

Pogoplug Companion: The Android/IOS application that allows a phone or tablet to use files served by the user’s pogoplug service.

PogoplugPC: A Windows/Mac OS X application providing the pogoplug service from user space.

Time Machine: The Mac OS X system backup and system recovery application.

Web interface: http://my.pogoplug.com

Introducing Pogo plug

Pogoplug is the trademark of Cloud Engines, an international software company headquartered in Israel with offices in Silicon Valley. Cloud Engines got its start making a gadget called Pogoplug, a computer built into a wall wart (hence plug) that provided a small amount of Internet accessible shared storage using a user provided USB disk drive. Over the years, the product has changed form and new services have evolved around the original USB media server. This page tries to coherently describe the benefits of the Cloud Engines product and the associated services, something Cloud Engines has trouble doing, probably for want of a good technical writer.

Pogoplug branded products and services support a number of use cases so I’ll try to present the products in terms of these uses cases.

  • Local backup of one or more computers
  • Off-site backup of one or more computers
  • Local and Internet file sharing (a personal cloud service).
  • Remote file access

A bit about me

I’m a scientific software professional who has worked for 40 years on nuclear power plant application software, nuclear power plant simulator software, and wargaming software. My career spans the period from the introduction of disk drives to embedded systems to pocket sized “super computers”. Back in my simulator days, I’d stayed ’til one AM doing an integration build. I was tired and cranky so I blew off the backup. The head crash occurred as I was driving to work the next morning. This was back in the days of CDC storage module drives and dinner plated sized multi-platter removable media disk packs. A head crash was a big deal. The repairs were $10,000, a new pack was $1000 or so not to mention the lost data and the day that it would take to do the repair and a second day putting humpty dumpty back together.

My professional background is in several extinct minicomputer operating systems, SunOS 4, and Linux. My hobby background is a mix of early Windows ’95, OS-2, and Mac OS X, mostly the latter. I’m an amateur system administrator these days looking after RedHat workstation and plain old Mac OS X.

I’m not at all familiar with Windows backup and recovery procedures and my recollections of them are over a decade old. I’ve done one OS X system recovery using Time Machine and it is a joy. I’ve done several SunOS 4 system recoveries that were a pain courtesy of all of the media handling of 8 mm video tapes.

Windows Local Backup

To this day, Microsoft continues to leave disk backup to third parties. Microsoft does include a backup product but nobody uses it. Most 3rd party backup products are designed for use by corporate high priests in corporate settings where tape drives or tape library robots are available. Tape drives, tape handling, and automated tape libraries are too complex for most home users so something different is needed at home. Pogoplug attempts to fill the Windows user data backup gap. Pogoplug Windows local user data backup requires the following kit.

  • A USB disk large enough to hold the files to be protected
  • A Pogoplug server, either a Pogoplug kit machine or a local host running PogoplugPC software.
  • Pogoplug Backup installed on each machine to be protected

Pogoplug Backup is a free companion program available at http://my.pogoplug.com/downloads. This link provides both Mac OS X and MS Windows versions.

A Pogoplug server turns a USB disk drive into a local backup server. A companion software product, Pogoplug Backup backs up selected parts of its host file system to the Pogoplug connected disk. Typically, each user’s home directory is backed up plus any public directories such as those used by photo libraries, music libraries, and video libraries. Pogoplug Backup allows selection of the directories to be backed up. The directories and files to be backed up must be readable by the logged in user running Pogoplug Backup. Once the user has nominated files and directories for backup, Pogoplug Backup transfers the files to Pogoplug which maintains an image of the most recent version of the file. The machine must remain running and logged in until the transfer completes.

This process is sufficiently fast that it should be possible to save the entire file system. In my initial exploration of Pogoplug Backup, I did not attempt to set up a full disk save because I’m using Pogoplug Backup with Pogoplug Cloud for off-site backup.

Pogoplug Backup runs as a user program rather than as a service. This means that the user account must be logged in and active while the program is running. I’m not familiar with Windows but I suspect some care is needed to tell the machine to skip hibernation while the backup completes.

I’ve skipped over little issues like restoring applications and the Windows registry. These make Windows recovery a royal pain, about as bad as buying a new machine. Everything has to be reinstalled from media to recreate the registry which is difficult to back up while the machine is running. I’m not a Windows guy so I don’t know the details or of any tools that would make this easier.

Pogoplug Backup Limitations

Pogoplug backup runs as a logged in user process so it has the following limitations.

  • Files must be readable by the user
  • Pogoplug cannot back up complex data structures like a MySql database or an Aperture photo library. The UI will not let you choose things that Pogoplug backup does not recognize.
  • Pogoplug backup will not let you select directory Applications or Program Files content for backup.

Pogoplug’s limitations make it suitable for backup of user data. It is not designed to support system recovery. In this way, Pogoplug and Carbonite are similar. They will save user directories that reside on the system disk. Pogoplug appears to give more user control of what is to be saved.

Mac OS X Local Backup

Pogo Backup and Pogoplug can support Mac OS X backup and the procedures and prerequisites are the same as for the Windows use case. But, most OS X users continue to use OS X Time Machine for disk backup. Time Machine maintains the current state of the file system on an external drive, either directly connected or network storage provided by an Airport Time Capsule, Airport Extreme, or a network storage array such as a Droboshare. Time Machine differs from Pogoplug Backup by maintaining back versions of a file in the archive and permitting recovery of any back version that remains available.

Time Machine also differs in that it was designed to save the entire file system including directly connected external disks. This is easily configured and you can tell Time Machine to skip directories whose contents are transient.

I use a USB Drobostore with Time Machine that currently has 4TB of raw disk storage configured as a 2 TB virtual disk. I have a second 1 TB Drobostore that holds music and photos and the system’s internal 320 mB disk. Time Machine maintains the current state of the complete file system except the part dedicated to Time Machine itself. Time Machine allows user configuration to specify the storage device to be used and those parts of the file system to be included or excluded from protection. The 2 TB storage array is adequate to backup both if I have Time Machine skip the EyeTV spool directory and the iTunes spool directory. There’s no need to back up transient TV shows and movies. Eventually, I’ll have to put a 4th disk in the Time Machine Drobostore.

Time Machine uses hard links to maintain a current virtual image of the protected file system tree while retaining back versions of files. The hard links point to the current versions with the back versions on disk. The Time Machine user interface allows you to retrieve the current version of a file or any earlier version still in the archive. When Time Machine needs space, it starts shedding oldest versions of files.

I’ve needed Time Machine once when a system disk failed. The recovery procedure was dead simple, install OS X from external media, open Time Machine, and restore the volume. The next morning, Oswald was ready for use. I’ve used Time Machine a second time when my Aperture photo library fell victim to a disk malfunction. A Drobostore, then connected by FireWire became befuddled and my Aperture Library went missing. Time Machine came to the rescue. I had to rummage back a week or two but I found one that was usable.

Pogoplug Off Site Backup

The offsite backup process is identical for Windows and OS X. The material tha follows applies to both.

I’ve tried two solutions for offsite backup, Carbonite and now Pogoplug Cloud. Pogoplug Cloud is a $60/year service that uses Amazon Glacier to store the portion of the file system that you wish to protect. To use Pogoplug Cloud, you need the following

  • A robust Internet connection such as Cox Preferred
  • A Pogoplug Cloud subscription
  • Pogoplug Backup installed on the machine to be protected

Once these conditions are satisfied, you use Pogoplug Backup to nominate directories and files for backup. Pogoplug Backup transfers these to Pogoplug Cloud in much the same way that it transfers files to a local Pogoplug server but the process is limited by Internet speed rather than local Ethernet speed and disk drive write performance. My initial Carbonite backup took a good week and I had to pause it while watching Netflix or iTunes content. I expect that Pogoplug Cloud will be the same.

Pogoplug Local and Off-site Backup

If you have both a Pogoplug Server and a Pogoplug Cloud service subscription, your Pogoplug server will transfer backed up files to both its local disk and the Pogoplug Cloud subscription. Once properly setup, the off-site backup process is an extension of the local process and no additional user actions are needed.

Local and Off Site File Access

This is how Carbonite and Pogoplug differ. Carbonite permits backup and recovery only. Pogoplug permits on the go file access by web service at http://my.pogoplug.com. From here, you can retrieve any media saved in a home Pogoplug server or in the Pogoplug Cloud.

The Recovery Process

The recovery process is similar using OS X Time Machine or Pogoplug. For this purpose, we’ll assume a failed disk drive replacement. The work flow is

  • Repair the hardware by replacing the bad system disk
  • Reinstall the operating system and applications
  • Install Pogoplug Backup
  • Restore the user data system

With OS X Time Machine, recovery is relatively easy. Newer Macs include an Internet boot loader that will start OS X from the Internet for the purpose of recovering the system If you have an old machine like mine, initial startup requires an OS X installation disk for older versions of OS X or an installation thumb drive for Lion, Mountain Lion, and Mavericks.

  • Start the machine from a recovery disk or thumb drive image
  • Format the new disk using Disk Utility
  • Install OS X from the boot media
  • Connect the external Time Machine volume and allow it to mount
  • Restore the complete file system from Time Machine

With Pogoplug Backup and Pogoplug, the work flow is

  • Start the machine from a recovery disk or thumb drive
  • Format the new disk using Disk Utility
  • Install OS X from the boot media
  • Reinstall applications
  • Install Pogoplug Backup from the Pogoplug.com website.
  • Sign in using to your Pogoplug your Pogoplug credentials, usually your primary E-mail address and password
  • Restore the user directories and files saved

I can’t really comment on Windows recovery because I’ve not needed to do it. In OS X land, things are not so bad. There is no registry. Applications are saved as application packages (basically a directory) in /Applications which may be backed up. A Time Machine restoration brings everything back. I’ve been there, done that, and have a working system to prove it. Time Machine rocks.

I’ve not needed to do a network recovery and hopefully I never will. But I live in hurricane country and a Cat 2 will damage my home and a Cat 3 will blow it down and probably wash it away. So I’m careful. I rely on my Mac for all of my tax and financial record keeping. And my photos and home movies reside there. So I back up off site and it is money well spent because little of this can be replaced even if I knew what it all was. The choice of a Mac Mini was deliberate. I can throw the mini and Drobostores in a bugout bag should we need to evacuate.

Ooma Gumma, One Number to Rule them All

With apologies to Pink Floyd!

What is Ooma?

Ooma is yet another VOiP telephone service but one with a twist, Astersik running on the subscriber equipment and Google Voice integration. It was Google Voice integration that hooked me.

Ordering

I purchased my subscriber equipment directly from Ooma.com. The web store was a bit colicky when I purchased, probably as a result of unfortunate use of the back button on my part during the order entry. The site told me that the credit transaction failed so I tried again. Same symptoms. I placed an order with Amazon.

After running errands, I was surprised to find 3 order acknowledgments in my E-mail so I canceled the Amazon order and called Ooma operations support. They couldn’t head off the orders but told me to decline the duplicate. The next day during lunch, I receive a phone call from Palo Alto, CA, unusual. I answer it and find myself speaking to an Ooma programmer who questioned me about what I did and what I intended and cleaned up the mess saving me the trouble of an RMA and trip to UPS to post the returned duplicate.

Ooma has a daily sanity check the orders job that looks for duplicates and other common errors before shipping the accumulated orders. The QA process caught my goof and several like it so development tracked every order down to verify it and do what the customer intended! Having had a nameless pet sales company send a package to Portsmouth, Rhode Island, Afghanistan, this was a welcome surprise that puts Ooma ahead of the web sales pack.

Unboxing and Installation

My subscriber equipment arrived properly packed for UPS in Apple pretty packaging. I ordered both an Ooma Telo subscriber interface and an HD-2 handset. The setup instructions for both were clear and initial setup went smoothly. The combination has several advantages.

  • The HD-2 handset uses DECT 6 wireless protocol in a band away from WIFI, baby monitors, microwave ovens, and other sources of trouble.
  • The traffic between base and handset is session encrypted.
  • The handset uses a codec designed for low data rates and high immunity to dropped packets. This encoding carries end to end when talking to an Ooma HD-2 or similar handset that supports this codec. Otherwise, the call is transcoded to coding that both parties can support.
  • The HD-2 handset can import your contacts in VCF format.
  • The product includes life of the product US calling. You pay the taxes and 911 service fee.
  • Home phone service with basic Ooma features costs $4 per month vs $35 for my Vonage bill.

The Ooma handset works well with a few minor quirks, possibly knowledge gaps on my part rather than product issues.

  • I’ve yet to learn how to change the handset and speaker volume during a call. The menu set to do this is preempted by the call menu set.
  • The navigation buttons are a bit small but serviceable.

Ooma Premier and Google Voice

Ooma Premier is an $10 per month option that unlocks a number of features, some of which are unique to Ooma. The one that attracted me was Google Voice. Without Premier, Ooma Telo can be one of your Google Voice forwarding phones. With Ooma Premier, two things important to me become available.

  • Outbound calls show my GV virtual phone number
  • Google voice and Ooma voice mail are merged.

Ooma Premier adds another much appreciated feature, community and personal blacklists. These work so well that one Florida subscriber received exactly two political telemarketing calls during the 2012 presidential campaign. Politicos are exempted from the do not call list. Should somebody leak through, it is a simple matter to go to my.ooma.com and add them to your personal blacklist, much as I do with unwanted callers to my Google Voice number.

When an inbound call occurs on my GV number, my mobile and the Telo HD-2 ring. Since the Telo telephone output is connected to the house wiring, the old cordless to be retired also rings. Telo does distinctive ringing so GV rings ring-ring and calls to my home number ring-ring-ring. I can tell them apart. By using my GV number, I can take inbound calls on my home phone as with any GV forwarding. When I make an outbound call via Ooma, my Google Voice number appears for my callers, something Vonage could not do.

Porting of my Vonage number to Ooma took about a week with no pestering from Vonage. I guess they have figured out that they have been one-upped. Consumer Reports ranks Ooma at the top of the heap for US domestic telephone service based on service quality, value, and unique features.

Before Ooma with Google Voice integration I had been making all of my home calls on my mobile. With the HD-2 handset and GV, it is as easy to do this calling by land and the call quality is much better for the recipient. They sound fine to me courtesy of that tall tower and beefy base station transmitter but my mobile is scratchy or worse at the other end courtesy of a small antenna and a few milliwatts of power. So my friends, family, and vet are much happier.

Voice Mail

Ooma Telo keeps voice mail locally. You can play it at the base station, with HD-2, or from my.ooma.com, or call your Telo number and play it remotely. Voice mail transcription is optional, an option I forgo using Google Voice transcription instead. Google does well enough that messages, though somewhat silly at times, are usable. I still have to check my mobile’s native voice mail separately but the message is to call my unstated GV number and leave a message there. If you don’t know it, we don’t have a relationship. Tough.

Outage Forwarding

Ooma will forward calls to an outage number. I have my outage forwarding set to my mobile’s native number. I expect this feature will see limited use but Thursday’s storm put the power out for 1.5 hours.

 

You know you are getting old when

  1. You start paying attention to mail from Social Security
  2. Medicare Supplement adverts begin to flood your mailbox

Both of those have happened. Will you still love me when I’m 64? And Medicare sets  you free from your employer’s health care plan! When that happens, my employer has nothing to offer that I want!

Some Modeling

That’s what I do so naturally, this winter I sat down and made some financial planning models. I’d done that exercise a year or so ago but was not satisfied with it. I began to look around for something more robust than my shaky advanced mathematics and found http://www.esplanner.com. Economic Security Planner is a sophisticated planning product developed by a Lawrence Kotlikoff, Boston University professor of economics, and his graduate students. It originally began as research with a spin-off company started to provide Windows software and web service. Professor Kotlikoff is a regular contributor to NPR’s Marketplace and to PBS News Hour.

Introducing ESPlanner

ESplanner is available as a web service and as a MS Windows program. The program version comes in 3 levels, basic, andvanced, and professional. The advanced and professional versions provide the same model but the professional version has client data management capabilities of interest to professional financial planners. The web service is layered with tiers similar to those of the program product. For most people, especially, those like me who keep a Microsoft Free Household (TM), the web service is the way to go. One program does not justify the hassle of Parallels and MS Windows administration when there is a viable alternative.

You can try the basic planner as a web service. The free test drive lets you enter model parameters, make runs, and retrieve reports but you cannot save your model for future updating. ESPlanner offers several levels of subscription that make saving model configuration, support, and advanced features available. The advanced versions of the model offer a couple of additional features.

  1. Monte Carlo evaluation for susceptibility to economic and market variability
  2. Pessimistic planning assuming that you loose all of your stock assets.

My first impressions of both of these features is that they are of limited use for assessing the basic adequacy of your retirement planning. What they do is offer some additional assurance that your standard of living is reasonably immune to market and economic events.

How ESPlanner Differs

Most free planners let you assume a yearly draw and determine the amount of assets needed to provision that draw at retirement. ESPlanner has a second mode of operation that answers the question “Given the assets I have, how much can I draw yearly?” Being in the position where wealth accumulation is drawing to a close, I used ESPlanner in this mode to determine what level of income my estimated assets at retirement would support. To my knowledge, this capability is unique and the results were reassuring. I was able to confirm that I held sufficient retirement assets to maintain my current standard of living.

What’s In the Model?

The ESPlanner model includes the following processes

  • Asset holdings
  • Investment performance
  • Proper treatment tax-favored (IRA and 401K) and regular brokerage accounts
  • Proper treatment of defined benefits pensions
  • Social Security and Medicare
  • US and State income taxes
  • Longevity assumptions (they recommend planning to 100)
  • Recurring obligated payments like mortgage, insurance contracts, etc
  • Planned expenses like cars, home renovation, college tuition, offspring’s weddings, etc
  • Periodic income from work or other continuing periodic sources
  • Lump sum income from estates, asset sales, etc.

The model calculates the yearly discretionary spending that your assets can support. In ESPlanner’s terminology, discretionary spending is any spending that is not obligated by law or by contract. For example, your taxes, mortgage payment, and loan payments are obligated. ESPlanner estimates your Federal and State income taxes from your total taxable income.

Monte Carlo Modeling

With the optional Monte Carlo feature enabled (at added cost) the model includes Monte Carlo analysis of sensitivity to historical stock market variability. This feature is useful for confirming that your holdings are adequate to survive stock market swoons and recoveries and inflation variability.

The Upside Investing Bit

The “Upside Investing” bit models the conversion of stocks to “safe” assets like bonds. Typically, you do this as you harvest growth assets to produce income. The process is a bit of a bucket brigade from stocks to intermediate bonds to short term bonds or cash. This is a rolling process because a good bit of the portfolio (50 to 65 percent) must remain growth invested to produce asset growth that keeps pace with inflation. The model does Monte Carlo analysis to confirm the adequacy of the asset migration plan in the presence of stock market swoons and recoveries. I found this feature less useful, possibly because I misused it.

Inflation and Investment Performance

Mean inflation rate and mean investment performance for each investment account are model input parameters. ESPlanner recommends 3% inflation and 5% investment growth. I used these values. The 5% value may seem conservative but this value is picked to reflect your mix of stocks and bonds. This is an assumption that I need to verify from time to time. During 2013, the S&P 500, NASDAC, and Dow are all up handsomely with soft bond performance. Bonds are returning coupon.

ESPlanner considers inflation and asset growth/shrinkage as part of the model but this does not appear explicitly in the reports. Rather, ESPlanner shows the reports in constant dollars. I find this easier to interpret than use of future dollars for future years. Future dollars make the inflation effects apparent but could mask declining real standard of living.

Social Security?

In the spending model, Social Security is an input obtained from the Social Secuirty web site or the yearly mailng. For a single person, that works well. If you have a spouse, you and your spouse have different ages and different earnings histories, and you have dependents, Social Security strategy becomes a complex problem with about one million permutations. The purpose of the Social Security optimizer is to evaluate you and your spouse as a unit to determine the optimum Social Security utilization strategy. Who should be the primary, who should be the survivors. Should one of you start and then suspend benefits? If you are single, the result is obvious as explained below. If not, then you need to use this model.

ESPlanner, Inc offers a Social Security optimizer. I gave it a try also and was surprised! The Social Security Optimizer told me I should delay collecting Social Security until age 70. Being a single male, this is a pretty simple decision. Delaying to age 70 to begin drawing Social Security increases your yearly draw by 1/3 from a defined benefits inflation protected source. By doing so and putting this result into the ESPlanner spending model, I was able to show that my yearly spending could increase relative to starting Social Security at age 66. The increase was significant.

This result seems counter intuitive so some explanation is in order. In the age 66 scenario, you must conserve assets early in retirement to maintain late in retirement standard of living. By delaying until age 70, those sequestered assets are freed to pay income during the shorter 100% out of pocket period. Basically, you are betting that you will live longer than the median life expectancy which Social Security uses to determine the payout rates. The Social Security early and late start adjustments are actuarially neutral. If your family history suggests, as mine does, that you will outlive median life expectancy for your cohort, it is a reasonable risk to take. My aunts and uncles not claimed by lung cancer or early colon cancer lived into their late 80’s and both paternal grandparents lived past 90. Given that I don’t have the risk factors (smoking, agricultural chemicals) of the early mortality uncles, It is a good gamble.

The other thing that surprise me was that Social Security would be a significant fraction of my after-seventy spending. For me, about half, maybe a bit more. A big surprise since I’m about a 92 to 93 percentile wealth unit. I’d assumed that Social Security would be providing Starbucks Money. Suddenly, I’m very much more interested in the shenanigans of the Republican House of Representatives now that I know Social Security will be doing more than buttering my bread.

New Music

It’s been a busy winter music wise. After watching Arron Embry, Ryan Keen, and some others, You Tube pitched Shaun Kirk and Kim Churchill who popped up in My Playing for Change subscription. I found Arron Embry at work listening to the clip linked above. Ryan Keen is courtesy of the London iTunes festival app. Apple produces this gig each summer and offers each set for streaming. Often, the opening acts are rising stars getting their first big event exposure. iTunes Festival is the UK equivalent of the Newport Folk Festival but it is not restricted to folk. Every genre of small ensemble music, jazz, classical, pop, singer songwriter, is there is some measure.

And over on the Jazz side, another serendipitous You Tube find, young Beka Gochiashvili, a Georgian teenager who has attracted the attention of the likes of Chick Corea, Bryan Blade, Lenny White and others. Beka is a force of nature. At 16 he picks up a lick by ear and makes it his own, playing in paragraphs. He’s quick but, more important, he can think on his feet taking a musical idea and making it his own. He’s studying at Juliard to get his theory, composition, and business skills. If you poke around on the Tube, you can find his recital videos from his trio lab. He’s one of those rare people who have the technique, something to say, and the arranging and leader skills to pull it together an make music that is more than the sum of its parts.

One of the miracles of the digital age is that folk’s formative years are being recorded and published. All of these guys are great and they’re all self produced. Well Lenny White produced Beka’s record (iTunes). Wonderful things are happening, none of them at a major label.  Beka’s Trio Recital is something else. Here are these three teenagers playing their hearts out trying to keep a properly professional face for their professors. Don’t let ’em steal your groove face, Beka.

DIY DVR

Background

I became a TiVO early adopter in 2002 buying a Sony TiVO for use with Cox Cable. Having a couple of greyhounds who needed walked during the evening, I quickly became hooked by the ability to record shows for later viewing and to pause what I was watching when the dogs demanded attention or to use the loo. As digital TV approached, I traded the Sony for a TiVO HD and went digital with cable cards. The writers strike drove me to take a look at BBC America. I discovered Doctor Who, Torchwood, and Top Gear.

With the passage of 5 years or so, the TiVO HD’s disk is getting tired, I tired of commercial cable, and TiVO’s $20/month is no longer a good value. After all, how many episodes of Ice Road Truckers can one person watch before going batty? What to do next?

Elgato

Enter the cat. Elgato makes media center software and video capture hardware for Apple Macintosh computers selling under the EyeTV name for about a decade. In the Apple community, Elgato is the company to go to for this capability. The current version of EyeTV supports the current Elgato video capture devices plus selected video tuner hardware made by others.

EyeTV 3 can record programs by channel and title. No need to do the VHS thing and set channel and time. Just open up the program guide and select record or record all. Record will create a one-time schedule entry to record the selected program. Record all creates a smart schedule to record all unrecorded broadcasts of that program on that channel. This capability mimics a TiVO Season Pass but goes it one better. You can add additional conditions that an episode must satisfy in order to be recorded.

Some Silicon Dust

I wasn’t keen on the Elgato USB tuner. This device is laptop oriented and can work with off the air and cable tv but I was not keen on connecting a lightening rod directly to my computer. It would be nice to have at least a little isolation. Silicon Dust HDHomeRun Dual came to the rescue. This is the current version of HDHomeRun which has been around for 5 or so years. The device has a dual cable/air turner, a bit of computing, and an Ethernet connection. Application protocols allow EyeTV or Windows Media Center to tune channels and start data streaming. The new digital TV is already digitized so no finicky analog to digital converters are needed. Just recover the MPEG-2 stream and tunnel it over IP to the host.

Silicon Dust makes multiple versions of HDHomeRun for use in Europe with DVB and in North America with ATSC. The current Dual version has 2 tuners and can stream 2 streams at a time. The HDHomeRun Prime version has a cable card slot and can stream both “clear QAM” and copy protected QAM. The Prime version also has a USB port for controlling a cable company switched digital video interface.

Putting it All Together

Setup is simple. Move the antenna cable to the HDHomeRun, plug up Ethernet, plug up the power adapter (small switching supply, not a hulk). Install EyeTV 3 from a disk image, start it, and add the license key. EyeTV 3 wakes up a start up wizard that guides you through the process of setting up the HDHomeRun, creating a TV Guide account ($20/year not $20/month), and loading the channel guide. Once this process is done, your DIY DVR is ready to use. The first year of the program guide is included in the EyeTV 3 price. All of this took about an hour with a little wrestling needed with TV Guide. It didn’t load at first. Elgato support forums had the fix, clear the guide and reload. This worked well.

EyeTV Remote App

For the princely sum of $5, Elgato has an EyeTV remote app which shows the program guide, lets you schedule recordings, review your completed recordings, and view recorded programs on your iThing. EyeTV App is AirPlay capable so output can be redirected to an Apple TV. Once the program is running on Apple TV, the iThing is free for other use like making phone calls, playing Angry Birds, or reading while PBS talking heads drone on.

EyeTV and Live TV

EyeTV 3 has the ability to pause and rewind, and resume live TV in a manner similar to TiVO. Unfortunately, with my older Mac Mini, this feature is usable on the main display but not on iThings or Apple TV. The Mac OS X Quick TIme libraries support MPEG-2 rendering allowing proper play back locally. Air Play to iThings is another story. iThings require conversion of the video stream from MPEG-2 to H.264. This is a compute intensive process that my older Mac Mini cannot do at 30 frames per second. It kept falling behind and trying to catch up Keystone Cops style.

The Apple Quick Time Codecs can use the video hardware for this process. This capability was in development and was one of the reasons Apple moved from Intel on board video to nVidia GeForce 9400 chips in that particular Mac Mini. But the older parts just don’t have the horses needed to do video conversion tasks at broadcast resolution in real time. A check of the Elgato forums did not have a clear answer t this question. Elgato’s specification is for the processor. They’re not thinking that the trans-coding process is actually occurring on the video hardware.

The solution was simple, keep the TiVO HD alive for live TV viewing. It has no trouble with that task. It occasionally snow crashes when retrieving the program guide or the recording catalog but I’ve moved these tasks to EyeTV. I can keep this guy going. Cost for this solution, $20 for a new high quality splitter. My older NTSC splitter is not up to splitting DTV.

Money

Here’s what this project cost.

  • $90, EyeTV 3
  • $5, EyeTV App
  • $80, HDHomeRun Dual tuner
  • $20, Digital splitter 1 to 2

Operating costs

  • $20/year, TV Guide
  • $240/year savings, TiVO program guide 

This project has about a 1 year pay back. As I approach retirement, I’m all about getting Corporate America’s hands out of my pockets. Sorry TiVO, you’ve been disrupted.

Google Voice Don’t Talk Southern

Hey Daddy this. Aunt Nancy, I was just returning your call, had a rental exactly when you called earlier in the couldn’t talk, but get back with me when you get a minute. Okay. That.

Just What is Google Voice

Google Voice is a new twist on plain old telephone service that integrates land and mobile services for you. A single number to ring them all (with apologies to J. R. R. Tolkin).

How Dave Got Google Voice

My iPhone 4 had been off contract for several months but was in good condition (Nick hadn’t taken a taste of this one) so I was free to do something without giving AT&T my first born male child (joke’s on them, I don’t have one to give). I considered purchasing a new iPhone but what to do with the old one that is still going strong? And buying a new one just forges new chains to AT&T or Verizon, pick your lesser of two evils.

Then I stumbled across the Straight Talk iPhone 5 announcement. “Hummm, what is Straight Talk?” Straight Talk is the largest carrier in the Americas with service from the Arctic Circle to Terra Del Fuego. They are a Mobile Virtual Network Operator. They lease capacity wholesale from AT&T, T-Mobile, Sprint, and Verizon. My iPhone is an AT&T phone. It has a SIM slot and is built for GSM frequencies so it can function on AT&T Straight Talk with HSPA+ 3g++ data service.

The folks at Cult of Mac have instructions for setting up an iPhone on Straight Talk So I ordered a SIM (by mistake, two of them) and decided to give Straight Talk a try. Activation and setup went smoothly following the instructions in the booklet. The only hard part was popping my AT&T SIM out using a paper clip.

Once I had confirmed Voice, SMS, and data, I put the AT&T SIM back in to file for divorce from AT&T by transferring the number to Google. A day later, the transfer was complete and I configured Google Voice to ring my new mobile number and my home number when anyone calls my old Sprint, then AT&T, now Google number.

Google Voice Features

Google Voice offers incoming telephone service and, using the Google Voice App, outgoing telephone service from your Android or iPhone mobile. The application offers visual voice mail at the web site and on your Android or iPhone mobile. Google visual voice mail is similar to the iPhone service. It shows each waiting message, no calling to listen to a list of messages. You select the message to play it. But Google upstaged Apple by transcribing the messages to text. It shows them in Google Voice, forwards them by SMS, and forwards them by E-mail.

Google Voice also provides the slickest voice mail on the planet. If you pick up, you answer normally. If the call rolls to voice mail, you can pick up, optionally record the call, or forward it to voice mail.

One More Thing

Google Voice can be configured to black list callers, including telemarketers. And it collects everything you need to file a complaint. Great for the 2016 elections!

The Bill

Straight Talk offers “unlimited” voice, text, and data for $50 per month, $30 less than AT&T for exactly the same service. You join Jack Bauer in the land of “burner” prepaid cell phones. Each month you have to visit Straight Talk to add another month, 3 months, year, or enable auto-refill. If you subscribe for longer than a month, you get a discount. Since you brought your own phone, Straight Talk is not financing your phone for you.

Why I Left AT&T

When you go off contract, they keep billing you the $25/month they were sending to Apple to pay for your phone. As long as you stay on your original service level, they keep collecting that extra money. Enough of it that you can buy an unlocked iPhone and come out several hundred dollars ahead. If you’re an impoverished student, carrier financing of your phone is helpful. If you’re a retiree, you want people’s hands out of your pockets so I sacked AT&T even though I had not experienced horrid service from them. The value wasn’t there, especially with them taking $25 a month to keep unlimited data for my next phone.

When It’s Time for a New Phone

Buy a new AT&T compatible phone unlocked from Apple. Put the Straight Talk SIM in it. Begin talking. You can get older refurbished phones at a nice discount at the Apple Online Store. If you’re willing to wait until world wide rollout is complete, you can get a new unlocked version of the current phone.

What, No Verizon

Currently (2013), this trick only works for AT&T phones that use a SIM. You may be able to do the same with a Verizon phone but the technique relies on all of a phone’s carrier identity being on a SIM. Verizon iPhone has a SIM slot but it works on a subset of frequencies supporting voice in Europe.

Convergence

All US carriers are moving to Long Term Evolution data (LTE). And there’s a voice variant. As this happens, all US phones and eventually all phones world wide will use a common set of protocols. There will still be differences in spectrum from country to country but the goal is to have a common pool of frequencies supported world wide plus additional channels in the larger countries. When this happens, Verizon and Sprint folk can join the fold.

The Opening Quote

Earlier Sunday, I’d called Aunt Nancy. She had house guests and asked to call back. When she did, I was slow answering when 2 cordless, the cordless base, and my iPhone all began ringing at once. Chaos. I missed picking up so the call went to voice mail. Google’s Elbonian slave labor transcribed the call producing the result above. Hilarious but enough of it right to fix it up from context. If the text is a hopeless garble, the speech is still available for playback. Oh, and Google can archive messages for a good long time. Be careful what you say on my voice mail. It will be in the Google way back machine long after we both are buried.

How Lance was Named

20130112-070626.jpg

I adopted my first greyhound during the 1995 Tour de France. With Greg Lemond recently retired and a new American star, Lance Armstrong, beginning his career, I was following the race as best one could from Connecticut. Needless to say, I needed a name for a dog not knowing whether my luck of the draw would be a male or a female (bitch is the term of art). Application approved, I drive out to western Connecticut to pick up my new hound. The adoption coordinator brings out the two year old black boy pictured above, Boligee Pistola, called Pistol around the kennel. And Pistol had no idea he had a name. Needless to say, he really needed a name.

A few days before, there was a mishap on the Tour. An Italian rider on Motorola (Lance Armstrong’s team of the day) had gone off the road and over a mountain cliff to his death. With the Tour drawing to a close, young Lance decided to do something to commemorate his fallen comrade. On the last day of road racing, about 30 kilometers out (20 miles) Lance Armstrong attacked from the front of the pack opening a 2 minute lead. Out front by himself, he held his lead until the finish through the final climb up to a ski lodge. Breathless, he comes to a stop, dismounts, seeks out the Italian TV interviewer, and says in rough Italian, “Today, I rode with the strength of two men.” Lance showed serious courage on the final climb and some serious class with this act. I believe this win was the first stage win of his career. Up to this point, he had been learning the art and riding in support of the team stars.

I was so impressed with Lance Armstrong’s gesture that Pistol became Lance. Lance Armstrong, like Michael Phelps, has that unique combination of body structure, physiology, and competitiveness that it takes to be a world champion. Lance Armstrong is driven to excel while his namesake was content to sit in the back during his 1 month racing career. Lance Fourlegs quickly petted out. Lance Armstrong, gaining experience, learned the art of the Tour, and began to rise to the top of his sport to have his career interrupted by testicular cancer.

I can understand the temptation to use performance enhancing techniques in the Tour de France. What those riders do is amazing and if you’ve not tried to race bicycles or completed a 100 mile ride, it is hard to appreciate the challenges they are facing. The peloton races 200 kilometers (120 miles or so) and, tomorrow, they get up and do it again. The Tour is probably the toughest sporting competition on the planet. At the pace they are riding, the athletes deplete the body’s glycogen stores and must efficiently burn fat to complete the race. By the end of the Tour, each rider is ripped, probably 4 to 5 percent body fat even though they are eating 9000 or so calories per day. This is an event that places great demands on the body’s ability to recover to race again tomorrow.

The longest I’ve ridden is 108 miles on my first century ride. I love to ride and to bike trek but I don’t have the physiology for it. The next day, I was a dehydrated zombie walking around in a fog. It took a couple of days to recover. And no, I didn’t get up and do it again tomorrow; I was useless. Having this experience, I can understand the desire to have a technical edge to be ready to race next morning. European cycling started an arms race to make it possible to ride today’s times on today’s courses day after day with a rest day every four stages or so. Lance Armstrong joined that arms race and competed with the same drive and pursuit of excellence that he showed us on the road. I can understand why he did so and that he did does not lessen the courage and class he showed in that first stage win in his learning years.

New camera

The picture below is one of the first I took with my new camera, a Sony Alpha 65. The Sony is somewhat different than a traditional SLR. It has a fixed mirror that transmits most of the light to the main sensor. Part of the light is reflected to a second sensor that drives an electronic viewfinder and serves as autofocus sensor. This design allows the Sony cameras to provide continuous autofocus during still and motion picture shooting. In movie mode, the zoom lens may be used and manual focus may be used. Motion picture shooting, though good, is not a match for a camera designed for that purpose.

Fletcher Sunset
December Fletcher Dr Sunset

After many years of point and shoot digital photography, it is time for a proper camera with a proper viewfinder and no shutter lag. I’ve been putting off this purchase for some years because the technology was in flux and digital sensors weren’t the equal of the prior art from Kodak and Fuji. In the last 5 years, this has changed so, this winter, I finally made a choice and bought my first DSLR camera.

Buying point and shoot cameras is easy. They are self-contained. There is little that carries over from one to the next. DSLR cameras have interchangeable lenses so the choice of a camera is a commitment to a lens family. Most hobbyist cameras are sold with a nice general purpose lens, usually a wide angle to portrait focal length zoom lens. This lens is a great learning lens but usually makes performance compromises to keep the kit price reasonable. Most hobbyists later buy one or more fixed focal length prime lenses or zoom lenses with different characteristics than those of the kit lens

Jessica and Katelyn candid
Jessica and Katelyn

I’m just beginning to explore the camera. It does very well taking holiday gathering photos. The camera has little shutter lag, particularly if the red eye blinky flash feature is off. The kit lens has a nice focal length range for general photography including candid portraits at full length. The aperture range is f3.5 to f5.6 or so which is the primary compromise that keeps its price reasonable. It is a very flexible lens that is equally at home in the lounge taking kid and pet pictures and at the beach taking landscapes.

Christmas Day 73d St Beach
73rd Street Beach Christmas Day

The Sony Alpha 65 is designed primarily for hobby use but is up to light professional service. The camera uses a unique lens mount, the Sony A-mount. Sony partners with Carl Zeiss gmbh for lens design and manufacture. Carl Zeiss also makes A-mount lenses for the camera. Professionals regard Zeiss and Leica lenses as the finest there are. A-mount to Leica mount adapters are available. Access to these two lens families was one reason for my choice. Sigma and Tamron, two third party lens makers also have nice A-mount product.

The body features were the second. The electronic viewfinder works well with eye glasses. It is bright and visible outdoors and indoors. It shows a wealth of information inset in the display and what is shown can be tailored. The display features include an artificial horizon that aids in leveling the camera in roll and pitch. I use the artificial horizon quite a bit.

The camera has a rear LCD display whose use is optional. It is used to set up the camera for a session and to review images and footage. These tasks can also be done with the finder but are most conveniently done in the rear display. This display is articulated and can be rotated to permit use as a ground glass viewfinder. This is a useful trick when the point of view needs to be different than eye-level. But like all of its ilk, it will wash out under bright conditions. The camera automatically switches between the finder and the rear panel. Placing the camera to eye enables the internal finder. Moving it away enables the rear display.

One thing I was unaware before starting my research is shutter life. Most shutters are designed for 100,000 to 150,000 operations. That’s 20 years of shooting for a hobbyists but maybe a year and a half for a busy pro shooting advertising. The Alpha 65 is designed for 100,000 frame service life and is not drip proof — it’s not sealed to be out in the rain, something a photojournalist would want. These things make it more a hobby camera than a pro camera. But the image quality is first rate and the sensor and processor are shared with Sony’s pro products.

2012, That Was the Year that Was!

2012 has been an interesting year that included bidding a fond farewell to Faux News, my 64th birthday, Barak Obama’s reelection, a new blue ray player, and a new camera and several milestones.

Milestones

This summer, Aunt Mildred, Dad’s brother John’s wife passed away. This fall Johnny and Sue Gray (Dad’s sister) celebrated their 65th wedding anniversary. Shortly after that, Uncle Charlie Hamby passed away and recently, Aunt Gurla, John Watson’s wife. Aunts and uncles are getting thin on the ground.

Last year’s round of Christmas letters brought news of Peter Newcomb’s passing. Peter and I worked together at Combustion Engineering. Peter was a key part of the management of our simulator upgrade business, and was, like me, a former Navy Nuclear Propulsion professional. Peter was an interesting character who just missed a walk-on as offensive end at Penn State and worked for Pensky Racing in his miss-spent youth. One summer, motorcycling with his wife on holiday in North Carolina, Peter road by the farm and noticed the sign and asked about it on his return to work.

Charlie was notable in his dedication to the farming way of life and his active support of farm land preservation. Charlie was eloquent in his recollections of the good times had on the West Rowan, NC farms during the rough times of the depression. The Hambys, Watsons, and Bargers farmed the land at the west end of Sherrils Ford Road with the Watsons and Bargers on what was to become the extension service farm, “state farm” next door to today’s Hamby Brother’s Farms. One quote that has stuck with me over the years is, “I’m a farmer because I’m too stubborn to work for somebody else” Charlie also actively supported responsible hunting by leasing a tract for dove hunting to the local game preserve. Charlie was a character always ready with a ghost story for the nieces and nephews.

Gurla (Barger) also spoke fondly of her years growing up on the farm, particularly recalling how the three families would work the fields together and would help each other in times of hardship. This sort of helpfulness was a farm life tradition with 3 generations and sometimes 4 living on the farm. These were the days when mechanization was beginning. During the depression, my dad’s family worked the land with mule and horse teams. After the war, they began to mechanize and shifted from tobacco and cotton to dairy production. Uncle John was the leader of this transition, introducing ideas brought home from NCSU School of Agriculture.

Back in the day, people actually married the girl next door. Mildred Watson was dad’s girl next door and Gurla Barger was John Watson’s girl next door. As you drive around west Rowan County, you see names like Berringer Road, Hildebrand Road, etc, named for the farmers who built them for access to Sherrils Ford Road or the Statesville Road. During the pre-mechanized period, farms produced livings for several of the sons. With mechanization, national, and now world commodity markets, it is a challenge to support one family and children often move to the city as we are seeing in my cohort and our children.

Now, most of us are wage slaves in varied occupations and scattered all over the south east. Only a few cousins still farm, notably Louise Watson and her husband Joe Dean and Paul Hamby who does corn and beans on Hamby Brothers Farm. One second cousin is working on a microelectronics PhD, something about sharks with lasers. Another is a genetic biologist and is actually studying reef shark migration using DNA analysis. Another is a nurse. Cousin Jackson is in the large animal veterinary pipeline at Kansas State. Another is an undergrad at NCSU, judging from his Facebook posts, majoring in NCSU sports fan. Another has just started UNM and is either undeclared or unconfessed. And cousin Dustin is angling to work as a race car mechanic for one of the NASCAR teams. Others are IT professionals, cosmetologists, farm land preservationist, wilderness preservationist, you name it.

You know you’re old when you start reading mail from Social Security

Will you still love me when I’m sixty-four? Well, I’ve made it past that milestone and have actually been reading the Social Security Administration mailings I’ve received for the last two years. In the past, I would file them with the tax records after taking a brief glance. Needless to say, my retirement planning is changing from strategic to tactical.

I’m in that brave new world of defined contribution retirement. The strategic part is that I began saving for retirement in 1972 and believed Billie Holiday when she sang, “God bless the child who’s got his own.” Early on, I did not like the idea of leaving my retirement to the good graces of others and have been a conservative retirement saver. I also have a good financial advisor at Essex Financial Services which is the top ranked independent financial planning company in Connecticut. Hooking up with EFS was a beneficial side-effect of Mom’s injury back in 1993. The law firm who did Mom’s estate planning referred me to them. Between the two I’m well positioned to retire at 65 should I wish to while maintaining my standard of living.

It is important to do some careful planning as transition approaches because time value of money things can be counter-intuitive, particularly when Social Security is part of the mix. I found a good planning tool at http://www.esplanner.com that can do basic time value of money things. The basic planner is free and serves as a sales tool for their software and web services. The basic planner can function in accumulation mode or in economic mode. In the traditional accumulation mode, you tell it how much yearly income you would like in retirement and it determines the assets you’ll need to accumulate to produce that income. In economic mode, you tell it what your assets are, how they behave, and your obligated expenses (debt and other contractual obligations) and it will tell you how much discretionary spending your assets can support considering Social Security.

The model presents things in terms of your obligated expenses (taxes, contractual expenses, Medicare Part B, and your additions). Discretionary spending is anything not included in the obligated expenses Way cool. This is how I determined that I was OK. The model lets you add life stage expenses to the obligated side of the ledger. These may be things like eldercare, college expenses for offspring, or capital expenditures for home, cars, boats, etc that are one shot or recur for a few years.

When to take social security is the counterintuitive bit. Not having a surviving spouse, it is simple for me but the complexity of Social Security law with surviving spouses, disability, two earnings histories, two ages, two longevities, etc in the mix makes for a complex optimization problem. Esplanner has a tool for this problem too, unfortunately not free. In my case, it concluded the obvious, wait until 70 to collect Social Security. This increases yearly payout by 1/3. If you live to 85 (a reasonable assumption given aunt’s and uncle’s longevity), you break even. The counter intuitive bit is that this actually lets you increase you standard of living by freeing some assets held in reserve to produce late in life income for higher yearly discretionary spending. I would have expected being fully out of pocket for five years to have the opposite effect but the increase guaranteed (assuming Dec 2012 law) late in life income gives the opposite result for me.

The optional fee-paid models also lets you make assumptions about investment behavior and runs Monte Carlo simulations to determine the 95/95 spending supported over an ensemble of several hundred investment performance and yearly inflation random walks out to age 100. It also has an upside planning mode (a third option) that assumes that all equity investments are lost. Given this scenario, it does a Monte Carlo analysis to determine the 95/95 income that your bond investments can produce.

The basic planner does best estimate planning. If you guess the ensemble average investment performance and inflation rate conservatively (lower investment yield and higher inflation shrinkage) you will be ok but with lower predicted spending rates. Given that model initial conditions change each year as you spend and investments perform or not, it is good to repeat the exercise every year or so planning income harvesting for 2-3 years out.

This outcome is highly dependent on your total assets and the split between tax-favored and taxable accounts. You have to run the models for your individual initial conditions and assumptions. And the model produces predicted results. Actual results will differ.

At Last, a Real Camera

I finally tired of point and pray photography. With retirement approaching and time to kill, it was time to acquire a real camera. My pick is the Sony Alpha 65, a digital SLR camera, but with a twist. This camera uses a half-silvered fixed mirror that passes most of the light to the main sensor but splits some to a second sensor that services the viewfinder and phase shift autofocus sensor. The viewfinder is electronic which lets the camera show technical info and settings in-set in the finder. The finder design is excellent. I can see the full frame with my bifocals on and a diopter correction makes it possible to focus without them or I can let Auto do that chore. The finder also has a way-cool artificial horizon that lets you level the camera in pitch and roll. A pure optical finder can’t do this trickery at all. A hybrid finder can show a much smaller amount of information, usually mode, shutter speed, and aperture.

The fixed mirror makes the camera quite and low shake, just a focal plane shutter is moving. The shutter and electronics are capable of 10 frames per second until the burst buffer fills. The camera can also shoot full motion HD video in addition to high quality stills. The autofocus is like that in a motion picture camera. It continually focuses the camera as the subject moves and allows use of the zoom during filming. The auto exposure logic manages passable sunsets and indoor candids. This is the first camera to get them decent.

Being an enthusiast’s camera, it is also capable of full manual exposure and focus. In this way, it handles somewhat like a film camera but aperture and shutter speed are set using a front finger wheel. You have to toggle between them. Most of the time, you pick one and let Auto pick the other. Another convenient control lets you manually bias the exposure and you can configure the camera to take automatic bracketed 3 or 5 frame bursts.

Politics?

So far, I’ve avoided writing politics here because I know many of you are set in your preferences and won’t be persuaded. But, many of you are just getting started. I’ll write a bit about my biases at any rate. First and foremost, I’m a city mouse. I grew up in small town New England on a river and surrounded by woodland. Gales Ferry, CT ( the Ferry) was a great place to grow up, but I’ve become a city mouse.

I was fortunate to go to a good private high school with a twist. Norwich Free Academy provided high school services to Norwich and the surrounding towns on a contract basis. That is to say, it had elements of a public school but also elements of a private day school. I was fortunate to have good teachers and one taught me civics. I firmly believe that whatever our political preferences, between elections, we all should work together for the good of the commonwealth.

The two great inventions of man that make everything possible are written language that allows us to have an institutional memory that is potentially but not necessarily accurate and the city that brings us together to specialize and trade. Life as we know it today is a result of our making effective use of these two enabling inventions. Great cities are more than the sum of their parts and owe their essential character to the interaction of those parts to make something more than the whole. Technically, they are systems. A system is an entity whose existence results from the mutual interaction of its parts.

When you look beneath the superficial analysis offered on the for-profit news or even NPR, when you look at the long analysis pieces in journals like The Atlantic Monthly, you see that our divide is between city mice and country mice. The city mice understand the benefits of living and working together and are willing to chip in for the common good. Many things that are just there in the country must be preserved and maintained or provided in an organized and engineered fashion in the city, things like open space, woodland for recreation, etc must be reserved and maintained to sustain the resource when exposed to concentrated use. Water, waste disposal, environmental quality, all require greater and more sophisticated effort than in the country because of scale. But because we are concentrated, we bring together critical masses of resources and talent to do things that don’t happen in the country. And we all realize that these advantages of membership require us to pay our city club dues (taxes).

That connection is less strong in the country. Many individuals seek country life because they find different things to value in a rural setting including a sense of freedom that results from the lower density of people in rural areas. Rural settlers provide their own water and sanitary services and schlep their own trash to the transfer station because the population is too diffuse to require doing these things as community services. Yet we still have to be good stewards of our land and follow good practices to preserve clean air and water to the benefit of both city mouse and country mouse. Because the country is less densely settled, the challenges and conflicts are different and a one size policy does not fit both our dense urban areas and the Nebraska outback with its 500 person Connecticut-sized counties. Techniques and doctrine that are adequate in the country fail under the weight of concentrated life in the city.

I view government to be much like a gardener. The gardener clears his garden patch, amends the soil, and maintains a proper environment in which his garden plants can prosper. The sower sows seed on prepared soil, unprepared soil, and rock. The seed falling in the seed bed germinates and grows well while that landing on sand and rock does not grow. I was fortunate to land in good soil. Like Paul realizes the importance of maintaining healthy soil on Hamby Brothers Farm, I realize the importance of maintaining healthy national soil so my second cousins and their kids can prosper too.

Many of our differing political preferences follow directly from our urban or rural living choices. One school of thought believes we’ve chosen where we live to be consistent with our political taste. Another believes that cities, by their very nature, are liberalizing forces in our lives. I lean to the second of these opinions but I have seen indications of the former in my cousin’s choices of places to retire.

Mountain Lion Arrives

After yesterday evening’s fireworks wound down, I installed Apple OS X Mountain Lion on Oswald Cobblepot, my middle-aged Mac Mini that does photo, movie, and music chores. Mountain Lion installs in two steps, purchase of the installer from the Mac App Store and running of the installer. The installation process takes a couple of hours but requires minimal attention once started. At least, that’s the case when upgrading from Lion to Mountain Lion.

I was a little bit nervous. Although the skies were quiet when I kicked off the update, another wave of storms came through the area about mid-way through. The thunder gods were kind and left the power alone. Once installation is complete, the machine restarts using the new OS image and updated programs. The changes from Lion to Mountain Lion are subtle. Apple has revised the OS X applications to look a lot like their iPad counterparts in IOS 5. They’ve added messages, reminders, notes, and a notification system similar to that in IOS. A lot of the release is about integration with iCloud. Mountain Lion syncs notes and reminders in addition to calendar items, contacts, and mail.

At the moment, there appear to be no downsides. The applications that I use weekly work without fuss. These include iBank and Investoscope, both purchased outside the App Store. Gatekeeper is a new feature of Mountain Lion that is baked into the process launch services of the operating system. The process manager checks each application being started to verify that it was signed by the Apple App Store or a registered developer. Gatekeeper will let you run unsigned applications by presenting a dialog reporting that the image is unsigned and requesting authorization to run it.

Apple did not tinker with Air Play other than to make it possible to redisplay the Mac OS X desktop on an Air Play display server. iPad, iPhone, iPod Touch, Apple TV, and other Mountain Lion equipped Macs can be Air Play display servers. This is a nice touch for business. Buy an HD HDMI interface projector, connect it to an Apple TV, and presenters can show visuals without all the silliness that goes on at meetings. And you can play Hulu+ content on your telly, even things not permitted to play in iPad/iPhone.

Another thing Apple left alone is the annoying habit of the window manager of going into beach ball mode and refusing to let you work with another application when you make a slow to finish request. In 10 years of life with OS X, I’ve yet to see a pattern to when the window manager does this. Modal dialogs are evil, particularly those that kidnap the mouse until dismissed. Apple is slowly eliminating this sort of thing but there is still some of it left. OS X’s great strength is that it is multi-user and multi-tasking from the kernel up. No need to act like Windows 3.1.

A third party audio player went into a hard run playing a high resolution FLAC file while I was writing this article. That’s about it so far for troubles. And this may be the player’s fault, not the OS update.

The trials and tribulations of the retired moocher lifestyle