8/25/14

Backups: It's not just for computers

As anyone who knows me will tell you, when it comes to backups I'm a belt & suspenders sort of guy. In fact, add in a rope & duct tape as well. In the past I've covered some of my backup software choices as well as some choices for backup destination. Today I'd like to remind you that not all your critical data resides on your computer and that data needs to be backed up as well.



If you are like most Apple users you probably have a Mac or two, an iPhone and maybe an iPad, an Airport, a printer and maybe even a NAS. If you took my advice you already backup your Macs and if you configured your iPhones & iPads correctly they will either backup to iCloud or to your Mac when you plug them in. But what about your Airport, printer or NAS? Do you back up those configuration files? Trust me, if they fail recreating those configuration files can be a real pain so why not have a backup?

Airport Router Configuration Backup



Let's start with the AirPort. If you use another brand of router the method might change but backing them up is just as important. Open up the Airport Utility. This application is usually located in the Utilities folder.

Select the main Airport and click "edit"

A drop down window will then show up but don't edit or change anything. Just go to the menu and select "File" the "Export Configuration File ..." Make sure to save that file where you can access it later if you need it. If you store it on your Mac the file will be automatically included in your normal daily Mac Backups and your Monthly backups. You do back up monthly and store a copy offsite don't you?



Save the file and quit the application.  Should you ever need to restore the file just use the same steps and use the "Import Configuration File ..." selection.

NAS Backups

If you have taken the plunge into the NAS world you will want to make sure you have a copy of your NAS configuration file. How you back this file up depends on the type of NAS you have. Since I have a Synology NAS I'll show you how to back that file up. If you have another type of NAS just refer to the manual. Remember RTFM is a motto to live by. 

Log into your webpage as admin and open the control panel. Make your way to "Update & Restore" and select the "Configuration Backup" tab.


hit the "Back up configuration" button and save the file. 


As you can see it will back up settings that you spent a lot of time configuring. 

Switch Configuration Backup

If you have a complex network you may have a switch in addition to your Airport or other router. In my case I have a Cisco network switch. Because this is a an active switch I have spent some time setting it up and configuring it. 

If you have a configurable switch you can log in via the web interface and back it up. In the case of my Cisco switch it's as simple as selecting the "Download Backup Configuration" under File Management and selecting the Backup option. 


Again, save the file on your Mac under a directory that you can find later. When your Mac does it's backup you will also include a backup of all your other devices as well. A backup of a backup if you will.

Printer Configuration Backups

Did you know that some printers are configurable via a web interface? My Brother Laser printer is. Although there isn't a file you can back up you can do multiple screen shots of your configuration to help you if you need to re-run the configuration. 



Save the screen shot in your backups folder so you can use it later or use a notes or password storage application.

Other Configuration Files

Backing up information isn't just duplicating configuration files. Sometimes you need to record important information in case you need to set up or re-do a set up for applications. 

Can you rattle off the SMTP and IMAP server names for all your email accounts? What about the VPN or VNC information you use on a regular or semi-regular basis? All this information should be backed up and stored. 

Because of security concerns please don't use paper. For one it's just too easy to loose. So what should you use?  I recommend an application like 1Password or SplashID. They aren't just for passwords any more. There are other apps that do the same thing but these password/information storage applications are secure and work well for me. 


Here's the 1Password screen for email accounts


And this is a screenshot of SplashID's version of the same thing


Wrap Up

Some data is just too important to risk loosing. Other data is just a pain to reenter or reconfigure. Either way you need to back up. If you do so on a regular basis or when you buy something or get a new account, then it won't be too onerous a task. But don't look at your data and think it's just too much. If you only back up one account or item per day then you will at least be making a start. And with  anything, small steps will start you on your way and overcome your procrastination. 

7/30/14

My $752.64 cup of coffee

The current record for the most expensive cup of Starbucks coffee is $55 for a "Sexagintuple Vanilla Bean Mocha Frappuccino." If you aren't into Starbucks coffee you could pay $635 per pound for a bag of Kop Luwak coffee. The beans are collected from the feces of Civets after they are force fed coffee berries (Yuck!). But both of those pale in comparison to my $752.64 cup of coffee. And I didn't even get to drink it.



Like many of you coffee fiends out there I'm sure you love a nice hot cup of coffee while you check your morning email or browse the web. I do too. But if you aren't careful, a moments inattention can cause you to spill it. That's what I did. Not a big deal really. It's just a cup of coffee. But when any liquid is near your lap, especially hot liquid, you tend to jump back a bit. I did that too until I noticed that the brown flood of coffee was spreading and it was heading directly toward my new MacPro even though the Mac was a good 2 feet from the site of the spill.

Did you know that some of the most touted features of the of the Late 2013 MacPro are it's thermal core, quiet operation and new fan design? A single fan sits at the top of the Mac and draws air up from the base to cool the thermal core thus drawing the heat up and away from the electronics. As I watched the tsunami of coffee head toward my Mac I found out just how powerful that quiet fan was.

Like an over powered Suck-O-Lux vacuum the Mac pulled in the coffee where it disappeared inside.  I lunged forward to yank out the power cord but before I could get to it I heard a pop, my screen went dark and my heart hit my stomach. A trip to the Apple Store for repairs and over $750 later I had my Mac back. I vowed that this would NOT happen to me again.

During the week and half repair I thought about the accident and what I wanted to do to prevent any recurrences. The new MacPro is gorgeous machine. It should be on display. It's small, fits perfectly on your desk and I really wanted to keep it there. After thinking about it I decided that what I really needed to do was to get the Mac up off the table and away from any future spills. So, like many dedicated Mac fanboys, I decided to put my Mac on a pedestal, literally.

A couple of sketches later and knew I was on to something. I wish I had the skill and tools to make my pedestal out of anodized aluminum but I'm an amateur woodworker so I made it out of wood. I worked through several iterations of drawings to get it just right and even added a built-in slot for a USB 3.0 hub. I added a nice ebony finish it to match the black of the MacPro and I was done.


Here's the finished product


It's hard to tell in the photo but the Mac sits in a circular depression that I routed out on the top of the pedestal. Being an aerodynamicist by degree I knew that the airflow was critical so I made sure to round over the lip of the depression so as not to impede the airflow.



All in all I think it looks good, works well and will hopefully protect me from any future spills. If I were to do it over again there are a few improvements I would make in the design and manufacture but for now I'm happy.



7/19/14

What is a DAC and do you need one?

When I got my new MacPro I knew it would be faster, quieter, smaller and cooler than my previous hulking MacPro from 2009.  I love my new machine but like every honeymoon, once the newness wears off you realize it's not perfect. Don't get me wrong, I am still  head over heels in love with my new machine it's just that the audio performance was adequate at best. I'm not talking about the tiny internal speaker. I knew that would be horrible for any sort of music. I'm talking about the listening to music on nice external speakers.  Why didn't it sound better than my old machine? Doing some research I found out that your audio performance comes down to the internal Digital to Analog Conversion, better known as DAC. 




Every Computer, MP3 player, iPod, iPhone and music device out there has a small chip inside that takes a digital file and converts it to analog audio. Depending on the DAC design, the chip will smooth out the rough spots, fill in the digital holes and balance the volume. Just like computers CPU, the better designed the DAC chip is, the better the sound quality. There is a huge difference in abilities & quality between a DAC in a $5.99 CD player from Walmart and the DAC in a $1000 sound system from a high end audio store. 

In a perfect world your music looks like this and sounds great


image source 

Here's a representation of the output from a normal DAC


image source 

Notice how it approximates the curve with a stair-step function? That's not the best sound and to a discerning ear it can sound awful.

I won't bother you with all the technical details of what makes a good DAC, just know that there is a balance of bit rate, sample rate, filters, clock-rate as well as production costs. 

Some audiophiles say only an old fashioned tube will give you the "warmth" of live audio. Some argue that upsampled bit-rate is the key. There are a ton of articles and arguments out there on what makes a good DAC and if it's worth the cost. I'll list some links at the bottom of the post if you are interested. For now, just know that as expensive as the new MacPro is, one item that isn't top tier is the built in DAC. 

I did some digging and found out the MacPro probably uses a chip based on the Cirrus Logic CS4207. Not a bad chip but there are better. 

So after all this technical talk be aware that there are a lot of DAC choices out there. DACs are built by every major electronics firm and a lot of independents as well. Look around, you'll find them. After months of looking I finally decided on a quality DAC built by Schiit Audio.  Yeah, go ahead and say that name out loud and laugh, they laugh at their name as well. 
"Yes, that is our name. Shih-tah. It's a proud German name, host to a long line of audio engineers who slaved away in crumbling Teutonic fortresses as lightning lashed the dark lands outside, working to perfect the best amplification devices in the world... 
Or, well, no. Yep, Schiit is our name, and it's pronounced, well, like "hey man, that's some really good Schiit!" And now that we have your attention..."





With my DAC I also purchased a pre-amp volume control and have never been happier. Here's a diagram of my audio setup:





The sound quality with the DAC & speakers is wonderful. Much better than the analog output directly from the Mac itself. If you are an audiophile or just someone interested in getting better sound out of your Mac, I highly recommend looking into a DAC.

Links:



5/12/14

Viewing your X-Rays

In today's world many formally analog process are finally getting the digital treatment. This includes the medical world. Many modern doctors or chiropractic offices now have new digital x-ray machines. These new machines expose you to less x-rays and develop the "film" instantaneously. The visit may not be fun but the great part about this new technology is you can usually get a copy of your x-ray just by asking. The down side for the Mac user can be unreadable files and an unusable PC only application. As a Mac guy I knew there must be a Mac version of a medical application out there somewhere that can read DICOM files so I did some sleuthing and found an application called OsiriX.




Files from medical imaging devices like MRI’s, ultrasound, PET, X-Rays & CT scans come as a collection of .DCM files. This file type will not open on using your average image  application. There seem to be a lot of applications out there for Mac that say they support this file but many are outdated and don't run on the latest Mac OS.  I finally found a DICOM image viewer called OsiriX that works well and best of all is free.

Download the application, open it up and insert the CD/Thumb-Drive or manually import the files your doctor has given you. If the application is already open you should get a dialog like this:

Select copy and the files will be imported. When finished you can now view the x-rays on your screen



If you want a more universal file you can export the file as a JPEG.  Go to the file menu and select "Export to JPEG"and select your destination.



OsiriX is a free version of a professional application so there are a lot of options you can play with. For the non-medical user however it's a great tool to look at files you might not otherwise have access to. If you need the iPhone or iPad version it's available for $30.

If you are willing to pay a little money there are other applications available that do the same thing. For $3.99 you can pick up an application called Espresso Ray that can view and batch convert DICOM files. But if you need to batch convert x-ray files I think $3.99 is the least of your worries. For me free works well.

I hope you never need this application but if you do you can view and save your own medical data to your home computer.

PS - The files make great backgrounds!





3/30/14

Geek Day off 2014

Last year I did a post titled "What do Geeks do on their Day off?" about Seattle's amazing Emerald City Comicon. I loved it so  much I went again this year.  It was again jammed with artwork, comics, TV stars, & people dressed as their favorite characters and was a a great break from the more technical side of my brain. 

So here are this years photos for all to enjoy!



Badges are a must and I picked up 3-Day passes as Christmas gifts for my family. 



Off to the Con!


Comic Con wouldn't exist without comics and the artists that create them. Unlike some of the bigger Cons (San Diego, L.A. etc.) Seattle prides itself on putting the artists front and center. There are booths and tables filled with the famous and not yet famous. Most of the time the artists sell prints, postcards or paintings to help make ends meet. 


The part that most fans love is dressing up. Just pick someone from your favorite Anime Series, TV Show or Movie then make your own costume and go have fun.


Here's an example of a my daughter as Jack Frost (on the right) and two total strangers dressed as Anna & Elsa from Disney's Frozen. At the Con everyone is a friend you haven't met yet and sharing stories about your costume is expected. 



Some people go to extreme lengths to get just the right look. This guy was AMAZING! I started talking to him and found out that his armor was hand made. Each piece was individually formed acid etched or burnished then put together. And I love the eyes! It made for a great finishing touch.

Here's a collection of some of the people on the show floor.



Link was well represented this year. 


This fairy spent a lot of time getting her ears & wings just right. 




The Hulk



Loki obviously spent some time on the details

There were a ton of kids in attendance and a lot of them were in costume too. I feel in love with this Minion outfit. A ton of mom and dad bonus points to the parents of this little guy.




There were a ton of people dressed as their favorites from movies. It's always nice to see someone dress up in a way really fit's with their own looks. This version of Oswald Chesterfield Cobblepot rocked!



 And this Mr. & Mrs Shrek really hit the mark as well. 



Steampunk was big this year with a lot of Steampunk versions of Disney characters.



I really liked the Steampunk Tinkerbell.


I even found the whole Waldo family!



At about 6' 5" This Wonder Woman really made an entrance.



This one was subtle. Dressed to kill (literally) this woman could only be Irene Adler. Stunning to say the least. I had fun playing with Photoshop to get this photo.


ECCC is for all ages.

One thing that also goes on is selling autographs & Photos with a star. This year ECCC had Karl Urban from the TV show Almost Human & the Star Trek Movies, Stephen Amell from the TV show Arrow, Richard Dean Anderson most widely know for his role as MacGyver, John De Lancie & Michael Dorn from Star Trek and Eliza Dushku from Serenity, Buffy & Dollhouse. You can check out the full list on ECCC's web page

They also had famous CosPlayers. Here's YaYa Han in costume.  


Because ECCC is about comics they also had well know cartoonists. My family loves Jan Elliot and her comic strip "Stone Soup" She is a wonderful person and we spent about 5 minutes or so just talking about her strip.


And of course there are things to buy. If you ever go, take cash. Lots and lots of cash. 




Star Trek Fez anyone?



Everyone needs a sword right? But maybe a tee-shirt is a bit more your style. Which one? Maybe you can grab one next year!!