Tag Archives: internet

The Evolution of the Bit

What would the reaction be like if we could go back in time to the 50s to tell computer researchers that, yes, not only do we have more powerful computers than anything they could imagine–and we carry them around in our pockets–but that we spend the majority of our usage talking to one another in little text chunks and playing games.  Seeing as our phones are likely orders of magnitude more advanced than what folks in the 60s used to ship people to the moon, it only makes sense that the main usage for our iPhones and Androids is to hurl little aviary missiles at the digital equivalent of Lincoln Logs.

Would it blow their minds to learn of the vast server farms that we run or the coverage of 3g connectivity? Wireless Xbox controllers?  Accelerometers in Wiimotes? The consumer-available motion capture technology in the Xbox Kinect? Could they even imagine the flood of cheap processing, memory and storage that made all of this possible? Would they understand how much we rely on it?  Hell, I haven’t used a phone book in at least a decade. Imagine all this from the perspective of a time when computers were the size of a small house and processing the motion of a peripheral to update a mouse cursor on a display would have been too much computational overhead. A “waste of cycles.”

I had an electronics teacher who, in addition to working in the industry, also worked for a while at NASA, teaching radar to astronauts. One day, he told the class about a day in the lab where everyone gathered around a display and watched as one letter at a time blipped up on the screen in slow succession; someone was sending them a message from a remote location.  It was the first time anyone in the room had ever seen anything like it.

Despite being raised on technology (my parents joke that I was born with a Nintendo controller in my hand), four areas of computation still amaze me:

  • Touch screens: Until we get implants and equal rights for cyborgs, there’s not much we can do to remove the barriers between computers and humans, but this was huge.  Touching things is just human nature.
  • Speech recognition: This one goes both ways, text -> speech and speech -> text. Another barrier knocked over, one that makes computers more like us, and is only in its infancy.  If I could go back in time, computational linguistics would be a fascinating career choice.
  • Drivers, hardware / software interaction: despite my years as a computer user and programmer, somehow it still twiddles my mind that on some fundamental level, these 1s and 0s interact with physical things.
  • Virtualization: The guys in 1950s lab coats were so proud of their room-sized computers.  Imagine their faces when we tell them, “Oh yeah?  Well, we have computers that run entirely inside of other computers,” like some kind of binary turducken.

Where do we go from here?  Is there a limit to Moore’s Law? If we look at what has happened in the last fifty years, can we even predict what our digital lives will be like in another fifty?  Or even another ten?  We’ve come a long way from the period I call, “Geocities, 1999,” where the only dynamic content was the animated GIFs we all loved, then hated, and now love again, thanks to Tumblr.

My Writing Software Setup–Syncing, Backups, Etc

I spend a lot of time thinking about software and how I can use it to make my life better + easier.  That includes the various ways I could set up my writing workflow.

I’ve been using this system for a while now and it’s worked well for me.  I realized that others might benefit from what I’ve come up with, so here’s an overview.  In addition, I hope to hear from others, as maybe I could be doing something better.

Since this is an overview, I won’t go into too many details on each piece of the system, but instead will focus on how I make them all play together.  First will be the problems/considerations, then the dramatis personae, and then how I hook them together.

Problems That Need to be Solved, Considerations to Address

  • I work on both a desktop and a laptop and need my files to be available on each of them.
  • I also need backups.
  • The more of this backup stuff that’s automated, where I don’t have to think about it or remember to do it, the better.
  • My data shouldn’t be locked away on someone’s server. If the company disappears, or decides to freeze my account, my work could go with it, and That’s Bad. An example of this would be Google Docs.
  • This one is very specific to my personality: I don’t want my prose floating around on the internet until I publish it.  I know that the chances of someone actually caring about my stories enough to steal the drafts is essentially nil, but I just can’t seem to get past it. Consider it deeply-rooted in my primal past, like fascination with fire and the urge to run away from large predators.

Word Processor / Composition

I use Scrivener for Mac.  Love, love, love this program.  Can’t say enough good things about it.  I’m also a fan of Ulysses, but I think Scrivener works better for most writers.  This is where my writing happens.

Syncing

Dropbox is like mana from heaven.

  • Short version: keeps a directory of files synced across all your computers.
  • Long version: once it’s installed, anything put into this Dropbox folder on your computer will be uploaded to their servers.  When you install Dropbox on a second and subsequent machines, the software will sync all changes to everything in that folder across all of them.  Plus, you can access all your files from their website, as well, and also via mobile phone apps.  Their free account can store up to 2GB, so there’s no reason to NOT be using it.  I use this program for darn near everything that I don’t consider private: PDFs I need to reference/read, lists I write, and files I need to keep handy all the time, like book covers, book blurbs, and my profile / headshot images.

Please note that if you want to sign up, if you use my referral link (here), we both get extra space for free.  That’d be nifty.  If you’re not comfortable with that link, you can find them here: Dropbox

Encryption

I use TrueCrypt for this.  Don’t let the website or software scare you–it’s fairly simple.

  • You create a Truecrypt file on your hard drive, the size of which is the total space you want to have.  This acts like a container for everything you want to encrypt.
  • The program lets you mount the file and use it like any normal drive–it’ll appear in your drive lists like a USB stick or, for Mac people, works just like a *.dmg file.
  • You do your thing, and when you’re done, you just unmount the file.  Truecrypt handles all the encryption+decryption in the background.

I’m purposefully skipping over some of the mechanics behind how Truecrypt works because it doesn’t matter for this explanation / usage.  If you have questions, please ask.  I’m happy to go into more detail.

Putting It All Together

  1. I created a Truecrypt file on my hard drive, inside my Dropbox folder, and named it “WritingNotes”.  I initially allocated 5 MB, because I know that text barely takes up any space, but I’ve since moved to a 100MB file because I forgot to account for the overhead of programs like Scrivener.  They do more than just store plain text, so of course the files will be bigger and I used up my space fast.
  2. Dropbox will do its magic and upload it to the Dropbox servers. Don’t worry about when this happens.
  3. Mount the file (ie., turn it into a usable drive) with the Truecrypt program:
  4. Now create a new Scrivener project and save it to the Truecrypt “drive” you just mounted.  Mine is the “untitled” drive in the device list and you can see some of my *.scriv projects:
  5. Do your thing, and when you’re done working, close Scrivener and unmount your Truecrypt file.
  6. Sit back and enjoy your beverage of choice while Dropbox uploads all your changes.
  7. Now or later, go to computer #2 and wait for Dropbox to finish syncing.  Mount your Truecrypt file, open up your Scrivener project, and bingo, there are your changes.

Edit 2012/05/04: You can right-click on the mounted drive and rename it to something more appropriate, like “WritingNotes”.  It will keep this new name each time you mount it, and this change will also propogate across to your other machines on your next Dropbox sync.  I tested it and didn’t have any data problems.

Reasons Why This Works Well and is a Good Thing

One of the key things here is putting the Scrivener file inside of a Truecrypt file.  Programs like Scrivener store their information in packages / folder structures, and syncing software can wreck havoc on these, to the extreme extent that your file is corrupted and unopenable.  Once you mount the TrueCrypt file, Truecrypt “locks” the file and keeps hold of it, and Dropbox knows that the file is still busy and so doesn’t try to sync it.  This, and the fact that as far as Scrivener is concerned, your file is still local on the computer, is what prevents your Scrivener file from getting corrupted.  I’ve been using this system since August, 2011 and haven’t yet had any difficulties (cue suitable superstitiously-related activities).

This system works because it uses the interwebs to sync your stuff, but none of your text is “out there” on the Internet: even if someone broke into your Dropbox account, the encryption happened before the file ever left your computer.

It also keeps all the text and files on your computer: if Dropbox goes out of business, at worst case, one or more of your computers will have an out-of-date file.  Just figure out which one is the latest and copy it to the other machines manually.  You’ll never be locked out of access to your file.

Another reason why this works is because of backups galore:

  • Scrivener saves a local backup whenever you close the program.  These are stored outside the Dropbox folder, so you’ll always have a copy on whichever computer you were using at the time.
  • Dropbox syncs your Truecrypt file, so you have a copy of the file on each machine, plus the one accessible from the Dropbox website.
  • Dropbox also maintains old versions of your file:
  • For Mac users, Time Machine backs up your Dropbox folder, so that’s a second backup of the file, including previous versions.  Between the Dropbox and Time Machine versions, you should be able to go back and grab a previous copy of the file if it somehow gets corrupted and then propagated to your other machines.

 

Summary

No system is ever perfect, including this one.  But I feel it has a lot going for it and has worked well for me so far.  One of the drawbacks is that there aren’t as many hour-by-hour backups.  I solve that by doing manual backups of my Scrivener project if I’m feeling nervous, and by quitting/unmounting everything to sync to dropbox every so often throughout the day.  I find that mealtimes and/or coffee breaks work well as a benchmark.

Hope it helps.

Sometimes I wonder what the Internet would be like if all those kittens in youtube videos began…

Sometimes I wonder what the Internet would be like if all those kittens in youtube videos began demanding royalties.

Time For Some Updates Around Here

I’ve become frustrated with the theme setup that I’m using one too many times, as well as the structure of the site, so expect some changes around here soon. This is the downside to using these huge, convoluted frameworks/systems (like wordpress, drupal, etc) coming from a programmer perspective: I have zero capability to fix it without plowing through who-knows-how-many lines of code.  Or I could fiddle with themes and plugins and hope I hit some magical combination.  I’ve been trying to resist rolling my own code for the sake of freeing up time for writing and composition, but sometimes….

Meanwhile, I have a few ideas for an ongoing series of posts, as well, and I’m excited to get those rolling now that Number Four is done.

I’m also about four months past-due for a new “About” blurb.  Once a year seems a pretty good time frame for writing them.

Are You Serious?

I am frightened that there are people calling for the government to step in and regulate AN INTERNET SEARCH ENGINE.  It’s like they said, “Fuck it, we can’t end poverty or educate our children or stop bombing people, so hand over your search algorithm.”