Tag: technology


I use Macs for most of my computation needs these days. I started using them because I needed a Unix laptop (after having a Linux laptop for a few years) and my experience has been that the hardware has been pretty bombproof*: my kids are still using the Mac I bought ten years ago, and my wife’s machine isn’t much newer. Managing Macs is less onerous than my experience has ever been with Windows, and less panicky than my experiences with Linux**.

They last.

But they do sometimes need software upgrading.

All of our machines complain if we want to install recent applications that the OS version is too old. The concern with an upgrade is that we may not be able to run the tools we like on newer versions of OS X***.

So today’s project is to upgrade my machine to a more recent version of the OS and then install the applications my wife wants to make sure they still work.

… or to provide a firm signal that it’s time to find another tool to use.

33 minutes remaining, it says. Time to find some more displacement activity.

[*] apart from a lemon of an iBook which had its entire guts replaced three times before getting a replacement. Which, to be fair, Apple did not cavil about.

[**] I love Linux because I am technical, but I am also too lazy to maintain a system to the standards I want to uphold.

[***] this is a weird echo of concerns I hear constantly at my day job also, which is a reminder that people use tools rather than the other way around.

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Welcome, glaaki!

A couple of weeks ago I picked up my new laptop from the Apple store.

My previous machine, yig, was a bit long in the tooth: its RAM wasn’t big enough to run all the applications I want at the same time* and the hardware is starting to fail in interesting ways (audio connectors, especially). The machine is more than six years old though, so I feel like it’s had a pretty good run.

This new laptop is the lowest end of the MacBook Pro line – the one without the Retina screen but with an optical drive – and I am optimistic that it will last a while, probably past the point where Apple still sells machines I want to use (although that topic is a separate post for another time)**.

Thanks to a hardware failure on the day job laptop, I have recent experience of using Time Machine to recover a machine state so I did the same thing with the yig brain transplant: plug a USB drive into yig for a current Time Machine backup, then run Migration Assistant to suck the contents of the brain into glaaki***. It went just as smoothly this time.

… which is to say that it worked well for the GUI applications, but all the command line stuff was hosed.

Other things I’ve found difficult:

  • Google Drive kind of sucks if you’re doing a brain transplant. Even having copied the Google Drive across to glaaki, I had to abandon the copy and download everything from the network. I only have a bit of data in the Google cloud, but this discourages me from putting any more up there.

    Dropbox, it should be noted, transferred its state through the brain transplant without a hitch.

  • all the command line tools had to be reinstalled: new Homebrew install, new Perl library installs, and so on. Probably not a bad thing since the versions I had were stale, but tiresome.
  • as a precursor to the Homebrew install, all the XCode tools had to be reinstalled. In the Long Before, these were on an installation disc but there’s no installation disc now so it all has to come off the network. Which is great for being up to date, but bad for tripping any bandwidth limits.
  • MacVim isn’t available as a binary image any more that I could find. Pulling the git repo and building it was not hard, but would be a barrier to use for a less technically inclined user. Mind you, MacVim is probably not the editor for that user.

Despite those few problems, glaaki is a fine machine and I am glad to have its services for the foreseeable future.

Now to glass yig so I can bump the OS and see if it would still be be usable for my kids.

[*] or, more precisely, I still run the same applications, but their RAM requirements have grown.

[**] I hope it’s clear from that remark that I’m not an uncritical Apple fanboi. I like their computers because it’s a Unix system which works without endless tweaking, but I do not really care for their iOS devices. Assuming that this is my last Mac, which seems quite plausible, I will most likely be looking for a Linux laptop in five years.

[***] I do this rather than a machine-to-machine connection for two reasons: firstly, the bandwidth of a USB disc is higher than a network connection, even a wire; and secondly I can use the machine being backed up while its brain is being copied.

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Tech Goes Obsolete

The nice thing about pen and paper is that it doesn’t crash, and it doesn’t become obsolete.

I’ve been using and programming computers for a long time and they play a central role in my life, but I am not particularly an early adopter of new technologies. Part of it is nervousness over data loss, but part of it is cost – it took me a long time to get a smart phone, because they just cost too much. New technology costs more.

I looked at tablets for a long time, thinking they might be useful but cringing at the price. I also wasn’t keen on the size of Apple’s iPad: I could see the benefit of the 10″ screen, but the device felt too heavy for me to hold for a long time. It was therefore enthused by Amazon’s Kindle Fire: a 7″ tablet for a reasonable price.

And I have used my Fire ever since I got it three years ago – it’s a good, if now basic, device: the battery lasts well, and although the touch screen is not very accurate* it was good enough to type on. I would have used it more if it had had a camera or Bluetooth, but it did most of what I wanted.

That is becoming less and less true.

The problems now are triggered by the fact that the device is, as these things go, old. The Fire runs Android (although with Amazon’s own tweaks) but the version is relatively ancient now, so new software doesn’t run on it. However, Amazon have never supported a lot of the applications that I actually want to run – the installed web browser doesn’t support a lot of things that modern web sites use, and their app store has no other web browsers for download. I side-loaded a slightly better browser, but that’s been overtaken too.

I’ve stopped using the Fire for writing now, because there are two workflows that just don’t flow at all:

  1. TiddlyWiki doesn’t run – part of the the problem is that there’s no Dropbox client in the Amazon app store, and then I’d have to sideload Firefox as well.
  2. new versions of Evernote won’t install any more – I use Evernote for a lot of notes in my writing, but I can’t edit them on the Fire any more because the database format has changed, and the newest versions of Evernote don’t run on the old Android version the Fire uses.

At least I can still use it for reading and annotating manuscripts.

I’ve been through this cycle recently with both my phone and my laptop: the phone was four years old and wasn’t running what I needed it to run any more because of version issues, and the laptop is a MacBook which was running an unsupported version of OS X. The phone was replaced, the laptop at least has a newer version of Mac OS on it so I can continue to use it for a while longer.

But the Fire? I have a couple of options, both of which would take me away from Amazon’s half empty app store: replace with a Google tablet that would get OS updates, or install a more recent build of Android on the Fire.

More research needed, but the Fire is about to go out.

[*] the first generation Fires used resistive touch sensors rather than the more accurate, but presumably more expensive, capacitive.

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Consciousness, Artificial and Otherwise

Since I write science fiction, I often have characters who are artificial beings of one kind or another. Sometimes their sapience is taken as read, but in other instances there’s more of an opportunity to consider what minds are and how they could be created artificially.

Made How?

There have been stories of artificial beings of varying levels of intelligence for millennia, going back at least to tales of golems. These stories are usually of some magical technique which instils the essence of life.

But “the essence of life” doesn’t really cut it when considering artificial consciousness*.

For these purposes, I will say that an artificial consciousness is a self-aware mind that did not arise through spontaneous evolution. So, a human or other ape mind is not artificial, whereas the latest winner of the Turing test most assuredly is.

So, there seems to be a continuum of origins for artificial minds.

  • made by man – human understanding of the mind is deep enough that it becomes possible to program an artificial consciousness.
  • instigated by man – the initial conditions for a mind are setup by humans, but the mind itself is formed through some kind of training. In this model, our knowledge is enough to understand what makes minds possible rather than how minds actually work. This type of mind origin would also cover artificial consciousness that emerges from another system.
  • made by machine – artificial minds make other artificial minds.

Most of these origins require some degree of learning or training for the nascent mind, but that seems desirable to me: if the only thing a mind can know is what was programmed into it on its creation, then how can it adapt and change to different circumstances? What actual use would it be?

Are Natural Minds Different?

But at this point I have to note that if artificial minds need to learn and be trained to be functional, then how is this really different from teaching a child?

I’m not a dualist: I do not believe that we have souls. I think that our minds are software running on the hardware of our brains. It’s custom software, annealed to operate on and take advantage of the specific idiosyncrasies of our cranial contents, but it’s still software: the mind is shaped by the brain and the brain is where the mind resides, but the mind is not the brain itself. In those terms, I think that copying our mental state into another medium should be possible**, but running it might be hard since the runtime for the mental state would need to be the same as the original hardware.

This is an idea which Greg Egan explored very thoroughly in his anthology Axiomatic. One of the central concepts is that people have implants which replace their brains – the implants are much tougher than brain tissue and a constantly backed up – but those implants have to be trained to replicate the personality over many years.

So while artificial minds and natural minds may need some of the same inputs to become effective, they have different properties once established: artificial minds might be copied to run on standard hardware, while human minds have social advantages which might not be afforded to artificial consciousness.

Real Artificial Consciousness

People have been trying to build artificial minds for decades, and so far the only consistent truths which have been found are that it’s always ten years away, and that if you know how it works then it’s not intelligent***.

Still, it’s coming. At some point we’ll have artificial minds amongst us.

Let’s hope that artificial consciousness has a real conscience.

[*] note that I am consciously avoiding use of the term artificial intelligence, because intelligent behaviour does not require self-awareness. Are chess playing programs self-aware? Yet making a computer play chess was a key benchmark in early AI research.

[**] assuming there are no issues with observation changing the system.

[***] eg, chess.

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a 45 MB hard disc, the first one I owned (now sadly deceased, but backed up first)

a 45 MB hard disc, the first one I owned
(now sadly deceased, but backed up first)

I mentioned a backup device in passing in my technology post last month, but I wanted to have a more detailed discussion about my philosophy on this aspect of living with technology.

The Value of Backups

As the noted technology blogger Daniel Rutter says, data you haven’t backed up is data you do not want.

And in these modern times, everything is data: photos, documents, books, video, music… if it’s represented or manipulated by a computer, it is data and if you care about it then you should back it up.

I always try to be sympathetic when I hear tales of lost data – I have a few of them myself – but fundamentally, if you don’t back it up you really should not be surprised when some of it disappears into the æther.

Multiple Backups In Multiple Places

What is a backup?

A backup is a copy of the state of your data at some known point in time.

So, whenever you save a copy of your document with a different name, or copy your photos onto another spot on the disc, then you are taking a backup.

However, a backup is only really useful if it is available when catastrophe strikes. If the only backups you are taking are on the same hard disc as the original data, then the backups won’t be available when that same hard disc goes to the Great Spindle in the sky.

You mitigate this risk in two orthogonal ways:

  1. copy the data onto multiple forms of media
  2. put the copies in different places

Doing these two things will maximise your chances of being able to recover the data when you need to.

Automate It Or It Doesn’t Happen

Any backup process which relies on a human typing a command or pressing a button to trigger the backup will inevitably fail.

In other words, if there’s no automatic backup then there is effectively no backup at all.

Trust But Verify

Do the backups you are making actually work? That is, can the data you have saved on these multiple forms of media be read back?

I’ve been bitten by the assumption that they could. I had a fault in the motherboard of my PC which prevented it from calculating checksums accurately. I knew that fixing it would require at least an attempt to format the hard disc and reinstall the operating system, and so I backed up all of my data onto zip archives which spanned multiple floppy discs*.

… except that all the zip archives were corrupt, because the PC couldn’t calculate checksums.

That was not a good day.

Anyway, it is a phenomenally good idea to occasionally check that your backups are real rather than notional.

What I Do

There are basically two classes of data which we care about backing up:

  1. laptop state – what the individual machines have on them which we would need to restore if they suffered a hardware failure.
  2. shared data – irreplaceable files, particularly family photos and the like.

So, with those points in mind, here are the levels of backup which we have:

  • Time Machine – we are, for reasons explained in the technology post, a Mac household and so it is a trivial matter to set up backups to a Time Capsule device using Time Machine. Once you have that backup, you can use it to restore your computer to its original state***.
  • external HDs – we have a pair of external hard discs which I alternate between to perform manual backups on all user machines. As noted above this is not a reliable process because it is human-driven, but this is the form of backup which is stored in the fire safe (and which is therefore safe from network intrusion too).
    One friend of mine also puts the unused external HD into a safety deposit box at the bank, which seems like a pretty sensible thing to do.
  • shared network storage – the Time Capsule can act as shared network storage, but I prefer to use another device so as to avoid overworking the storage drives in the Time Capsule. Also, the Time Capsule does not apply any redundancy to its storage.
    Hence we have a Synology Diskstation with two matched drives in it which are configured in a redundant array. This is where we put common data, since there is some chance that we would still be able to access it even if one of the RAID discs died.
  • shared storage backup – there are a number of network storage devices out there, but the reason I picked the Synology one is that you can attach an external disc to it and have the data backed up occasionally to that external storage.

I’m pretty happy with this backup system, inasmuch as there are multiple copies of everything in multiple forms. The only thing I would wish to add would be some kind of cloud backup.

My Writing

In addition to the primary backups, I also backup my writing.

Firstly, active projects are stored on Dropbox so that I can share the manuscript between those machines that I use – in point of fact, the sharing is in fact the reason I do this but having a cloud-based backup does not hurt. And of course this is regularly verified by my using the project on the other machine.

Secondly, at the end of any writing session, I will archive my Scrivener project and email it to me GMail account. Again, this serves as a cloud backup.

Finally, a lot of my notes are in Evernote – not exactly backed up under my control, but at least in the cloud and therefore supposedly backed up by the company****.


So, that’s what I do – do you have a backup strategy? How redundant is it? And do you have any terrible lost data stories?

[*] the 3.5″ kind, which were neither floppy nor circular**.

[**] yes, yes, I know – the medium inside was a flexible plastic disc.

[***] my only hesitation with this is that I do not know how to test this backup without another Mac to overwrite.

[****] now I come to think about it, I need to revisit this.

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Technology That I Use


two of my most essential tools.

I am bit geeky about technology – I’ve been programming computers for more than thirty years, which means that I have collected a broad array of opinions, many of which are still relevant.

The inevitable consequence of this geekiness is that I use a lot of technology in support of my writing practice, and I thought it might be interesting to look at what those technological tools are.


I use Macs. This is not because they are Apple products*, but because they are Unix laptops.

The first Mac I bought was in 2002 when my old Dell Inspiron with its cobbled together Linux install finally became too unreliable to use. I got an iBook because it was a Unix machine, and because it’s sleep/wake behaviour when you closed and opened the lid was so perfect.

I have stuck with Macs because they take less administration effort than the alternatives (we are a Windows-free household for this reason) and because Mac software is generally more thoughtfully designed than Windows**.

So, the machines I use are:

  • a 2009 MacBook – 2.4 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo, 4Gb RAM, and 300Gb HD. Recently upgraded to OS X Snow Leopard so I have access to current software, but this has been a reliable workhorse for the whole of the more than four years I’ve had it. It’s just about getting to the point where the battery needs replacing.
  • a 2012 MacBook Pro – 2.3 GHz Intel Core i7***, 16 Gb RAM, and 500 Gb HD. This is my work machine, but when I write over lunch or on the bus then this is what I use.


  • Scrivener – an amazing tool, the most efficient creative writing-preparation environment I have encountered. I’ve said why I started using Macs, but Scrivener is the single largest reason why I won’t be switching to a Linux-based machine when my MacBook finally turns up its toes.
  • vim – Scrivener is amazing, but if I need to apply regular expressions to my text it will be in vim.
  • Gimp, Inkscape, Dia – free software for making pictures. I’m not a particularly sophisticated user of these tools, but I can get things done. Gimp is the bitmap tool (equivalent to Photoshop), Inkscape is a vector drawing tool (equivalent to Illustrator), while Dia is a diagramming tool (like Visio).
  • Evernote – I use this for note-taking and sharing text across all devices. This is the usual place where blog posts get written, and where a lot of the unstructured noodling for roleplaying scenarios happens.
  • Dropbox – a terrific file sharing service. I use this to share Scrivener projects between machines, and to transfer all my writing management freight from one box to the other and back.
  • OpenOffice/LibreOffice – Scrivener is great for text but not so awesome for layout, so I use OOo and its LibreOffice fork**** to setup manuscripts for printing.

Other Devices

Despite my technological comfort level, I am a fan of appropriate technology – we only got smart phones a couple of years ago, for example, although I was one of the first people I knew to have a digital camera. Still, these are the supplemental devices in my life.

  • LG Optimus – an Android smart phone, pretty elderly as these things go since it’s running Android 2.2 but it still mostly works for my purposes. The main thing is that I can run Evernote and Feedly (my preferred RSS reader) on it.
  • Kindle Fire – a first gen device. It’s been a pretty solid tablet for the nearly two years I’ve had it, and the 7″ screen form factor is the right size for me. This early version is missing some features which I will be looking for in any replacement, particularly Bluetooth so I can use an external keyboard, but it is possible to write on this.
  • Synology DiskStation – you do back up your data, don’t you? I’ll write more about this box and how it fits into our backup system another time, but it’s been good so far.
  • pens – I like fountain pens, but what I use all the time are Uni Jetstream ball pens. They are terrific pens: even, reliable, and durable. My arty sister introduced me to them, and they are pretty much indispensable to me now.

Any More?

These are the tools that I use. What about you? Are there any toys I am a fool to do without?

[*] nor is it because I dislike Microsoft. I do, in fact, dislike Microsoft but that dislike is not why I avoid most of their products.

[**] there are exceptions, such as iTunes, but I don’t spend much time in there.

[***] lower clock speed on the newer machine, but far more cores: the Core 2 Duo has two cores, while the Core i7 has four which apparently present as eight because of hyperthreading. Which explains why the newer machine is faster, although the bigger RAM footprint makes a huge difference too.

[****] LibreOffice is a perfect example of how free software is supposed to work. OpenOffice was sponsored by Sun, and when Oracle bought Sun the future of OpenOffice looked doubtful. The response was to fork the code into LibreOffice. OpenOffice is still going, but now there are two good free office suites rather than just the one.

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Bad UI

Future tech is a major part of many science fiction stories. Indeed, if the whole point of the story is to examine the consequences of a novel technology, then the technology is going to be highly visible.

Something I like to think about is what the user interface would be. This is the first in an occasional series on user interfaces.

Every tool has a user interface

A user interface is how the user tells the tool what to do. Every tool we use has a user interface, or UI, of some kind: the UI for a hammer is to hold the handle with the heavy end pointing up and then to strike the heavy end against the object needing percussive force.

Physical tools tend to have tactile and relatively obvious usage modes: hammer, saw, and screwdriver all have pretty simple interfaces although there is a skill and subtlety involved in using such tools well. And these tools often have alternative usage modes: remove nails with a claw hammer; open a paint tin with a flat head screwdriver; or play a saw as a musical instrument.

Tools which use mechanisms have more complex and less obvious interfaces. The trigger switch of the gun or the drill is pretty clear and simple but it could have been done another way. The handlebars of an upright bicycle serve the dual purposes of steering and stability and so would be difficult to arrange much differently, whereas the arrangement of controls in a car is largely by convention. But again, there is subtlety to be learned in controlling these mechanisms well.

All of these systems have a direct relationship between the controls and the effect, though. This relationship breaks down for electronic devices, and especially digital electronics: software has no physics. The basic problem is that because (to a first approximation) computers can do everything it is hard to figure out how to tell them to do anything.

Too many features

The Guardian published this article recently, bemoaning the meaningless proliferation of features in household appliances.

The premise of the article is that there are too many useless features on these appliances, but I contend that the real problem is inadequate UI – the user has to know that all of those features are available and then make a conscious choice to use each one. A better UI would provide options appropriate to the situation, or based on previous usage patterns. You’ve put a piece of bread in your toaster? The SmartToast would present a big button to say “toast this how I like it”, with smaller buttons to choose whether to burn in a design of your choice: weather forecast, smiley face, Darth Vader helmet. It’s a waffle instead? SmartToast sets the crispness level to your usual choice.

And so on. If you don’t want that level of complexity, you could choose to just have the toaster present something closer to a simple “heat for this long” control, but with the added consistency of taking account of whether the heating element is already hot or not.

The point here is that the options presented to you should be appropriate for the circumstances, rather than necessarily everything at once. This is the thing that Apple’s UI people understand (mostly, iTunes notwithstanding) and Microsoft’s historically do not (the Office ribbon was theoretically an improvement but broke every existing user’s established usage patterns).

Next time I want to talk about feature hiding.

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