Category Archives: Technology

Lights and sleep

I didn’t set out to read about light colors and sleep cycles, but as of late it seems my news feeds and newsletters are full of articles on the topic.

A big one going around is how light color – blue light – affects our sleep cycles in a negative way, due to our addiction to our mobile devices and doing things like Facebooking on our iPhone in bed before going to sleep.  Basically, light isn’t “white”, it does have color, or more specifically, a color temperature. Ever notice how some lights are more yellow-ish and some are more blue-ish? Choosing the right color temperature for your lighting matters. You’d probably want more blue-ish in places like an office or a kitchen, and more yellow-ish in your bedroom. Blue-ish corresponds more to natural daylight, and yellow-ish less-so (think sunset colors). So given that, can you see how blue-ish light is more associated with mid-day, being awake, doing things? And yellow-ish more associated with end of the day, going to sleep, and not doing things?

And so, with our mobile devices emitting more of a blue-ish light, that signals our brains to “be awake”, which isn’t the best thing to do right before bed. So more and more studies are coming out on this topic, and there’s a growing “best practice” that you should stop using the computer and your mobile devices at least an hour before bed. While color temperature is nothing new to me, I hadn’t thought about the effects from my mobile devices. For the past few weeks I’ve been working to keep my mobile device use to a minimum after supper, and if I really want to do something in bed, read a book (not an eBook).

I also found a really neat free app called f.lux. Basically, it knows your location, when sunrise and sunset will be, and automatically adjusts the color temperature of your monitor accordingly. As I write this article, it’s before sunrise and f.lux is giving my monitor a slightly yellow/orange/pink hue. As the day progresses, it will slowly change. I’m still getting used to it, still tweaking the settings, but so far I’m digging it.

Another thing you should consider? Monitor calibration. Two things here.

First, mind your brightness setting. Open any sort of window on your computer that allows you to have the full screen filled with a white window. You want to strike a brightness setting between the window still looking white (not a dull gray color) but not so bright that it winds up being a light source in your room.  I also use my Mac’s auto-adjustment of the brightness setting, but only after I’ve configured the base brightness setting.

Second, after setting the brightness, set the color calibration. If you have a Mac go to Apple Menu -> System Preferences -> Displays -> Color. Even tho Apple ships a default Display Profile, you should still click the “Calibrate” button to calibrate your monitor in your room lighting to your eyes. After calibrating, flip back and forth between the default calibration and your calibration. Chances are good things will look better with your custom calibration.

Don’t be afraid to readjust settings. Your eyes will need some time to adjust and get used to the new setup, and you may find after a few days of less eye strain that you can fine-tune your settings for even better effect.

Bottom line? Less eye strain, less wear and mental exhaustion by the end of the work day, and better sleep. Something we can all use, and it only takes a few minutes of adjusting that thing you stare at for hours on end every day. Little changes add up.

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Why is my Apple TV so slow?

We have an Apple TV. Love it. We dumped cable TV, have no broadcast antenna, the Apple TV is it. We get the shows we like, that we’re curious to see, and watching as we want, when we want, to pause when we need to, no commercials, I’m all for it.

But there’s one problem.

It’s slow.

Sometimes we go to start a show and the load time takes… well, it never loads. It’s mighty frustrating and unsatisfying when you sit down ready to relax with a favorite show, and you can’t get the show. Instead, you spend 10 minutes trying to troubleshoot and fiddle around to get things working. Reboot this, check configurations, etc..

Only some things have this problem. It seems to be high-def movies/shows. Music is rarely a problem, older shows encoded at lower quality no problem. So that tells you something.

But what gets further odd is streaming direct from the Internet (instead of the internal media server) is usually fine.

The signal strength is good. I even ensured to force it onto the 5Gz WiFi. I’ve checked the strength of other wireless devices in the same general area and they all get good, fast, transfer times.

 

This is not an uncommon complaint. A little Google searching turns up many people with similar problems.

At this point, I can only assume the Apple TV’s WiFi antenna sucks or has some other sort of throughput problems. Some network software I looked at seemed to show the Apple TV was only getting like 6 Mb/s data rate, which would explain the problems.

The solution? Ethernet. But there’s just no way I can run a wire through my house like that.

In my latest bout of frustration, I came across Powerline adapters. Basically, it’s a way of using your home electrical wiring as network cable. You buy at least 2 adapters: one plugs into the wall with a cable to your Ethernet hub/switch/router; the other plugs into the wall with a cable to the Ethernet port on the device (Apple TV in this case). If all goes well, you’ve now expanded your network through your electrical wiring! Ta da!

Now there seem to be caveats.

  • There are a lot of standards, and you want hardware that conforms to the latest, fastest. What that is will vary as standards evolve. But again, Google will be your friend here. (e.g. “Powerline AV+ 500″ or “HomePlug AV2″)
  • Your home wiring quality will affect speeds.
  • Be aware of how circuits affect connections. It does seem that if the adapters are all on the same wiring circuit, things should work. If they are on different circuits, it may or may not work — it just all depends how the wiring is all set up.
    • In my case, the model I bought required the adapters to be on the same circuit to reset the encryption keys, but are working in normal function on two different circuits.
    • So in short, ensure there’s a good return policy if things don’t work out for you.
  • It’s never going to be as good as proper wiring, so you have to see if the trade-offs are worth it.

I bought a Actiontec 500 AV Powerline Network Adapter Kit (Retail SKU: PWR511K01). I stumbled upon a CNET review of a bunch of different Powerline adapters, and bought based upon their review of the Actiontec. Why this model? Because it was touted as the cheapest solution that basically worked, good for someone who wants to dabble but doesn’t want to spend a lot of money to do so. Yes, I wanted to go right for their recommended top pick of the Linksys PLEK500 because I like getting good stuff, and brands I know and can somewhat trust (who the heck is Actiontec??!?!). But for a first time? Fine, and if it didn’t work I could return it. The trade-offs for the lower price were things like the lack of a pass-through power socket (not a problem for me), using a regular Ethernet jack (not a problem as 100-Base-T should be sufficient for my need, and I expected line quality would be low anyways).

So how did it go?

Unboxing was nice. I didn’t expect to get 2 Ethernet cables with it, but I did. That was nice (I’ve got a box of cables, so I didn’t bother purchasing). They are small, and crafted to easily work on the wall jacks without taking up too much space and/or blocking the other jack from being used.

But then, the suck.

They make it sound easy, like plugging it in and away you go.

Nope.

No signal, no nothing.

Their website troubleshooting doesn’t tell you much to really troubleshoot, but it does talk about resetting the encryption keys. Could that be the problem? Tried it, but the lights didn’t blink right. Used their online chat tech support. The first guy was not helpful — just wasn’t clear enough in his instructions. Then the session was abruptly ended; I was left with the impression he didn’t want to deal with me any more and killed the session. I tried following the instructions and still no dice. I contacted support again and this time got a much more helpful support person. He pointed out a key thing — both devices have to be on the same circuit for resetting the keys (tho they don’t for normal operation). So I tried that and managed to get everything reset, matched, and then went I plugged it all back in, it worked!

According to das blinkenlights, I’m getting less than 50 Mbps. Far from ideal, but testing so far is working well. Shows and movies that may not have loaded or took forever are loading fine now. So it may not be blazing, but it seems “good enough”.

For all the move to wireless (it felt weird to have no Ethernet port on my new MacBook Pro), it’s still tough to beat a good wired connection.

Updated (Aug 2014): Since I wrote this, I have dumped the Powerline approach. I think it might work out ok, but it would have sporadic issues that were a major pain to resolve, such as things seemed “out of sync” between the devices and it would be a major undertaking to try to get them to sync up and communicate with each other again. This possibly could be worked out with a better with a set like the Linksys, but I can’t say for sure (didn’t buy, no plans to buy). I also don’t know how much my house’s wiring was at play, with an older house and certainly having to “jump” circuits. But whatever the reason, this wound up being more trouble than worth.

So I went back to Wi-Fi.

Oddly, it seems to be working OK now.

What changed? I really can’t say. Maybe updates to the AppleTV software, maybe updates to iTunes.app, maybe both. Maybe the stars aligned better.

Sometimes things still get stupid, and usually restarting iTunes on the home media server and restarting the AppleTV clears things up.

I have wondered if a RAM upgrade on my server Mac Mini would help. It’s only got 8 GB and tends to run on the edge of that; maybe that’s a factor. But a 16GB RAM upgrade is a little expensive for me to justify right now.

Anyways, hopefully this helps y’all solve your problems.

Gee thanx, Apple

Since I was forced onto Mac OS X 10.9 (Mavericks) a couple weeks ago well… it’s more or less been fine.

I like how more apps are taking advantage of native notifications (sorry, Growl), and how with chat apps I can reply directly in the popup. Oh yes, and how Messages has native emoji support — that’s critical. :-)

I like watching all the stats in Activity Monitor. The new memory compression stuff is interesting to me.

But all in all, life is as it was.

Except….

for…

my phone.

I didn’t realize it until a few days ago. A friend sent me new contact information. I updated things, and after a sync of my phone the updated data wasn’t there. What gives? So I give the iTunes app a deeper look and it seems the “info” panel is gone! How in the world am I supposed to sync my contacts, calendar, and other such things?

Oh I see.

Apple is forcing iCloud upon us.

Great….

Look, I know “cloud” is the hot new sexy. But I’m not willing to trust it (yet). I mean, it’s great for the horsepower and other processing and work stuff. But when it comes to trusting my data to someone else? Gee, that always seems to work out so well, right Adobe? And now they want me to store my credit card information in iCloud? Not just “no”, but “hell fucking no”.

Don’t worry, Apple. My distrust isn’t exclusive to you. And while I can see the convenience in having such information readily available across all my devices, once there’s a leak, talk about my life getting inconvenient. The trade off is not worth it, and you cannot guarantee bulletproof iron-clad security here. Yes, Apple, you have pretty good security, but you also had that big developer portal breach not too many months ago.

So yeah, to sync my contacts, to sync my calendar, I have to use iCloud. Fuck.

So I go ahead and flip that on in the System Preferences.

Then I go into the Calendar app to look at things, and it hangs forever trying to “move calendars to server account”. Watching error messages in the Console got redundant, because apparently it doesn’t know how to break out of this looping. I have to force-quit Calendar.

Then I find the solution? You have to go turn off iCloud Calendar support… which will delete all your local calendar information, so hopefully everything made it up there ok! (you can log into icloud.com to check). Then you launch Calender app, from there Add Account, adding your iCloud support, and from there it will work. It will take a few minutes to sync everything up, but thankfully it seems all my data wound up “in the cloud” OK and so it got it all back.

Gee, thank you Apple for nearly fucking me hard. Looks like you need to add some cases to your test plan.

I will admit, it is nice to just create an event on my phone then it shows up on my desktop. That is nice that I don’t have to explicitly and manually sync to get that. And it isn’t the worst thing in the world if my calendar info gets out. Contacts — well, just ask your friends with Yahoo accounts how great it is to now be subject to all the spam from address books getting slurped up by spammers.

I know Apple wants to push iCloud. I know that for all of iCloud’s suck, it won’t get better unless people start using it. But damnit. I really hate being forced, instead of being able to choose when I feel assured and certain (enough) that my personal data will be secure enough, and I’m willing enough to trust your service.

Retina MacBook Pro impressions

So, what do I think of the new MacBook Pro?

First, my old reference point is my prior MacBook Pro, which was a “MacBookPro8,3“. I believe I had the 2.3 GHz model, 750 MB hard drive, 16 GB RAM. Note that officially this machine only supported 8 GB of RAM, but OWC said it could do 16 so I upgraded to 16 shortly after buying the machine and was quite happy with the added RAM. I also ran Mac OS X 10.8.5 (Mountain Lion) on it; I couldn’t upgrade to Mavericks (Mac OS X 10.9) due to some work requirements.  Also, this was a 17″ screen, and the last 17″ MacBook Pro Apple made.

The new machine is a retina MacBook Pro, which is technically a “MacBookPro11,3“. It’sthe 2.6 GHz model. 1 TB flash drive, 16 GB RAM, 15″ retina screen. I didn’t relish spending that kind of money, but because you can’t upgrade the thing after the fact well… given I need as much RAM as possible, here we are.

How do things compare?

Overall… meh.

OK, no question it’s faster, and I know I’m going to be happier with it. But my “meh” is because I don’t like upgrading like this. My old machine did NOT feel long in the tooth at all. It was still quite a capable and functional machine, hardly obsolete. I only bought because I was essentially forced to. When these machines came out I didn’t feel there was anything compelling about them that I could gain from an upgrade, and I still don’t think they are a significant enough upgrade from the prior machine.

But that said, there’s some good and some bad.

First the flash drive. Holy crap it’s fast. Long long ago the disks were faster than everything else, so things like CPU were bottleneck. Now the disk i/o is by far the slowest subsystem and everything waits on the disk. I have no idea if the disk is still the slowest subsystem now, but holy gee whiz, Batman! This is unreal fast. Everything is so responsive. It’s awesome. Compiling is very disk intensive, and it seems to be better, but I can tell when I’m still up against CPU now (e.g. when the deep static analyzer is running). Still, if I could have benchmarked before and after, I’m sure I’d see improvement. If nothing else, the fact so many apps now launch almost instantly is awesome. No more waiting and waiting to start rolling on your ideas and work. That’s welcome.

Second, because of the drive… gee, are there any moving parts any more? Ok, the fans, but otherwise wow, she’s quiet.

I haven’t tried putting her on battery alone yet to see how battery life is, but supposedly it will be a lot better.

I am impressed with how light/thin it is. Almost feels too much so tho.

The screen? That’s a mixed bag.

First, retina. I wasn’t explicitly caring about retina, but as I started using the machine and just reading text on screen, it started to sink in how crisp and vibrant everything was. It just slowly crept up on me, but wow, it’s a significant difference. I am mighty impressed. It’s just… wow. My initial feeling was that my aging crappy eyes would really love this towards the end of the day as my eyes get tired of staring at the screen all day.

But, I did not like the loss of resolution. Yeah, the pixel density is huge, but then since retina is just a double-density trick, I lost massive amounts of resolution compared to what I had before. That sucked. I always got the largest screen because I like screen space, I like being able to see as much as possible when I work. Back in the day, I always used 2-monitor setups. When I went laptop-only a couple years ago, I wanted that 17″ precisely because of the screen real estate. So now it’s a step back — a big step back. Retina isn’t worth the trade-off here, for me.

Now, you can scale the display. In fact, I can scale it to the same resolution I used to have on the 8,3 model. However, it crams that same resolution into a smaller screen. So if I want the real estate, it’s now smaller. So far my eyes are ok with it and don’t really seem to notice. And the quality of the screen still seems ok and better — maybe strong LCD backlighting? maybe the glossy screen vs. the matte? Either way, quality of picture does seem better, but I’m annoyed by the loss of resolution (or the trade-off of making everything smaller to regain the resolution). Who knows tho, as I work over the coming weeks I might try the smaller resolutions for a while to see if I can work with the smaller resolution in favor of the retina fun.

One nice thing about the 15″ screen tho?

I can now get one of the ITS Tactical Discrete Messenger Bags to use as my briefcase. :-) Win!

On paper, the 11,3 machine looks to have some slower specs than the 8,3, but I think it makes up for it with the flash drive. I really don’t notice. Again, the 8,3 was really a fine machine. But remember, what I mostly do in a day is do email, do lots of stuff on the web (running Safari, Firefox, and Chrome, depending what I have to do), intensive work in Xcode, TextWrangler, communication work (Adium, Skype, Messages), and then other things here and there like Calendar, Yojimbo, Terminal, Textmate, etc..  So, my needs and workflow are different from yours. But there we are. So that’s how things work out for me.

One side effect of the new machine was being forced to adopt Mac OS X 10.9 “Mavericks”. So far I haven’t noticed any problems or issues. It’s been fine. The main reason I couldn’t upgrade was the possible day-job need to still run Xcode 4.x.x. However, the need for that is rapidly fading and essentially a non-issue now that Apple’s forcing Xcode 5 and iOS7 compatibility for any App Store submissions. So, I think it’s fine to take the upgrade at this point. However, it did break my ruby install, so I have to spend a bunch of time in ruby gem hell now. One fun thing about the Mavericks upgrade? I use the Messages app, of course on my iPhone, but I’ve used it on my machine while I work because it’s easier to use for Messages interaction (texting Wife and Kiddos and other Apple-based folks, much nicer when I have a real keyboard). Well, finally in Mavericks there’s support for real emjoi! Yeah I know, totally silly reason, but that was probably the main reason I wanted to upgrade to Mavericks. ;-)

Anyways, I’m not happy about why I had to go here, nor having to unexpectedly drop that much money. But so far the machine is alright and I’m sure as I use it more I’ll come to appreciate it more.

The hard drive saga gets worse….

So that hard drive swap? The story got worse.

After the long weekend of swapping and getting back up to speed, I finally go back to work. Close the lid on the MacBookPro, lift it to put it into my bag… and there’s this buzzing noise coming from the hard drive. It sounded like a lightsaber (best way to describe it).

That can’t be good.

I contacted Other World Computing about it. It only makes the sound when on… doesn’t have to be going to sleep, could be lid open and in the middle of doing whatever, pick up the machine and tilt it (not even a quick tilt, just gently) and noise. So it’s not say a loose bracket or something. They opt to send me a replacement. I got the replacement just before this past weekend, and just time.

See, all the week while I had the new drive in, I had strange crashes. Some background daemon would crash, or Xcode would crash in a non-normal way (yeah, Xcode 5.0.2 crashes on me, but the crashes seem to be fairly deterministic and reliable — these new crashes were out of character).

Made worse? All day Friday while at home (the great Austin Ice Storm of 2014!) I kernel panicked 3 times. Well, more than that, but after the 3rd one I figured it was time to stop work for the day and investigate. All my crashing and panicking was coming out of processes like mds and backupd, which starts to point to disk i/o. Hrm.

So I swap in the new drive (so we have “original drive”, “replacement drive 1″ and now “replacement drive 2″. I put replacement 2 in, and start the process again of restoring things. Hrm. Long story short, first restore attempts fails for some unknown reason. Try again, and it appears to have succeeded but didn’t, because reboot and while booting it panics again (couldn’t find ‘init’. That’s bad). So again I go around and around. Yeah, it starts to panic again.

And I tried tilting the machine. Sure enough, replacement 2 makes the same vibration lightsaber noise.

Well crap.

It’s unlikely to have 2 faulty drives in a row, possible, but unlikely. What gives?

I did a bunch more experimentation. After talking it over with my buddy W, it came down to a simple thing: time vs. money. To try to further diagnose this problem would require a lot of time, perhaps a week or two without the machine. I cannot afford that. If it was just for email and Facebook, whatever. But as a developer, the machine is vital to my daily existence. Time is more critical here.

So….

I am now the proud owner of a MacBookPro11,3 — the 15″ retina model. :-) And the big model too, because these machines can’t really be modified or upgraded after the fact, and 16 GB of RAM and 1 TB drive space matters given what I do in a day.

No, I’m not happy to have suddenly dropped 3-grand (and yes, I got AppleCare — always do), but I’m thankful that I could.

So I’ve used Migration Assistant and things seem to be getting back to normal.

As for the other machine….

While doing some of this restore work, I had put their “replacement 1″ into an external case (see their DIY upgrade kit). On a whim I tried it… I just tilted the naked drive. Sure enough, it vibrated. I’ve been in communication with OWC’s tech support, and just sent them a follow-up with a little video of the vibration noise. We’ll see what they say.

I was convinced the old MacBookPro was dying a hardware death somewhere, but now I’m not so convinced. Nothing I can do about it now… I guess it just means the kids get a nice MacBookPro for school. But we’ll see how everything shakes out in the end.

The story continues…. but I just hope that I’m nearing the end of it, at least the major headache portions.