Glow With The Show – if you’ve never seen it before

In 2012 Disney unveiled their Glow With the Show hats, Mickey Mouse Ears that illuminate in sychronization with certain night-time shows at the Parks.  Although I’ve yet to see it in person, the effect is really quite striking.

Here’s a ground-level view from the day it debuted at World of Color at a Disney’s California theme park.

The Verge explained the underlying tech.

The net result is that Disney’s canvas for their shows now extends far out into the audience space.  Spectators now become willing participants.  The sense of spectacle is dramatically heightened.

Converting Internet video – VLC and Miro Video Converter

The interestingness of a piece of video on the Internet can often lie in direct proportion to the level of obscurity of the file format in which it is encoded.

VLChas never once failed to open whatever obscure piece of video I’ve dropped into it and I highly recommend it. VLC – or more formally, the VLC Media Client – is a video and audio player created and maintained by a globally-distributed army of computer programmers. They’ve graciously decided to give their tool their tool away for free (as in beer and speech). Subsequently, it can be used on just about any computer made in the last 20 years – not only Mac and Windows machines, but also 11 different flavors of Linux and eldritch beasts like Solaris and OS/2.

Occasionally I want to share some of these interesting yet obscurely formatted videos with family and friends or just keep them around as archival footage. That means I need to convert them into a format that natively works within the Apple ecosystem. While spunky VLC can be used to do this too, I always turn to a more focused tool with a similar nerd pedigree: Miro Video Converter. It spun-off from the fruits of yet another army of programmers who created Miro, a free, open-source video and audio player that can actually be used as an iTunes alternative.

To use Miro Video Converter, you simply drag your video files into its main window, pick the type of device you want to watch them on, and click the Convert button. I always use “Apple – AppleTV” as my target device, which produces results consistent with “Apple – Apple Universal.”

Pushing the button

After a few days with my ear to the Twitters for any sign of danger, I pushed the button and upgraded to Mavericks.

MacWorld has a very thorough, common-sense approach to prepping for your upgrade that’s worth a read.

There’s also the Murphy General Rule of Upgrades:  Before making changes to any system (whether it be an iMac or a business process), prepare for it to fail in spectacularly unpredictable and horrible fashion.  Plan accordingly.

Here’s what this Murphy did to stave off the chaos while upgrading:

* Checked on Mavericks compatibility for all the apps that I really cared about and upgraded them as necessary. Quite a few updates had already quietly arrived during the weeks leading up to Apple’s announcement.

* Double-checked that I wasn’t doing anything fancy with Gmail

* Temporarily stopped doing other fancy things – even though they were already Mavericks compatible – including disabling TotalFinder, Bartender, and iStat Menus

* Made a fresh bootable total backup of my system using SuperDuper

* Double-checked that nothing crazy had happened with ReadyNAS connectivity in Mavericks – a particular pain-point in previous OSX upgrades

* Turned off Appletalk on my NAS and replaced it with CIFS, moved all my file-shares over accordingly; this resulted in iTunes having to rescan my media library which took longer than the upgrade itself

Roughly 20 minutes after clicking the install button, my upgrade was complete. Immediately afterwards, I had only two extremely minor configuration issues:

1.) I had to re-grant Textexpander its Accessibility permissions
2.) the Java runtime needed to be reinstalled for Crashplan

Otherwise, it’s been rock-solid and just as nice as you’d imagine.

UPDATE 10/30:  Ok.  Using Gmail in Mail is actually a bit wonky.

1Password Love

Out of sheer necessity, the password manager 1Password is always the first app I install on a new iOS device.

If you’re an iCloud user, here’s the science-fictional goodness that now happens when you do this:

When you launch the app for the first time, it automatically detects whether or not you have iCloud enabled. If you do (and why shouldn’t you?), it looks for a backed-up version of your keychain and downloads it to your device. You then type in your master password like normal and everything is exactly as you last left it.

There are no confusing prompts asking for confirmations or credentials. It’s all so seamless and streamlined that the effect is a bit startling. It’s pretty much exactly how these cloud-services are supposed to work.

AgileBits, the makers of 1Password, also have a new podcast that explains the automatic iCloud syncing and lots of the other new features found in the latest version of the app.

Dead watch

I killed my wristwatch, first in slow degrees and then abruptly.

I bought the watch as a gift to myself after graduating from undergrad. A Mudman. Sitting upon my wrist like a matte black can of tunafish. Water resistant down to 200 meters. Using sunlight as its only energy source. Listening to a radio signals from an atomic clock in Fort Collins, Colorado to set its time. I dreamed that I would give the ugly black wart to my daughter at her own graduation.

But then, just a few years later, the screen started to fog up on the inside. Moisture was inside the casing.

I (of course) opened the backing and cleaned the insides thoroughly, leaving it all to air-dry for a few days. I put it all back together and watched as a black blob of ink swallowed up the LCD. And this was the exact moment that I thought to dig out the owner’s manual and discovered the myriad number of ways in which I had just voided the 20 year warranty. That’s how I abruptly killed my watch.

I don’t know precisely which use-case stars divine the course of QA testing on a Mudman. Chronic, rapid temperature changes amd chemical baths would appear to be the outliers. Because I wore mine into hundreds of hot showers. I took it in and out of a hot tub, submerging it in very, very hot chlorinated water, putting it into room temperature air, submerging it again (and repeat, repeat, repeat). I wore it into many, many different chlorinated and saltwater swimming pools. I loved it so much that I never took it off if possible. And why should I? It was tough enough to withstand more rigorous hardships than my own relatively measured life would dish out.

I was fundamentally wrong in my thinking about the watch and its purpose.

I still needed to be careful with it. Just as careful as any other watch really. It shouldn’t have gone into swimming pools or hot tubs if I could avoid it. And if something terrible and unpredictable were to happen, it would hold up longer and under far worse conditions than most other watches.

Before true disaster, it faced the slow death of a thousand first-world paper cuts.

Upgrades and downgrades

I bought my dear old 17″ MacBook Pro just a few scant months before my daughter was born back in 2007. That means as of this writing, it’s just a shade over five human years old – or about one hundred and seven if expressed in terms of Moore’s Law.

I installed a solid-state drive (SSD) in it a few weekends ago.

You know those particular stories where some Benevolent Extraterrestrial places its advanced alien technologies into an otherwise ordinary terrestrial object and suddenly transforms it into something familiar and yet decidedly other-worldly? Where something like an old Datsun hatchback can suddenly fly or a raincoat can render its wearer invisible, or impervious to bullets, or both? That old trope is the closest approximation I can give to what installing an SSD is really like.

Echoing some of the sentiments Iíve heard from around the Web, it really is the most significant hardware upgrade I’ve ever done. My old laptop now goes from being turned off cold to fully ready in less than 30 seconds. Safari springs fully to life in a single bounce upon the Dock. The effect is startling. It’s like watching reality play like a sped-up film reel.

But to be perfectly honest, that’s not all I did.

I increased the amount of installed RAM from 2 gigabytes to 3 (the maximum addressable amount). I have to keep reminding myself that an increase of a gigabyte of memory was once considered a significant enhancement. I also downgraded the operating system back to Snow Leopard (Mac OS X v10.6) from Lion (v10.7).

Back when Lion was originally released, my MacBook was listed as the absolute, bare-minimum supported hardware spec. I went ahead and upgraded it – which had the unfortunate side-effect of effectively lobotomizing the poor thing. After moving to Lion, my apps would crawl and stutter and hang. Multitasking became almost impossible. Network connections would mysteriously drop and mandate a full reboot despite my command-line level chicanery. USB hard-drives would disconnect and reconnect as if their hardware was failing. But of course, this really wasn’t the case – it was my under-powered MacBook struggling to avoid slowly losing its mind.

My house full of iOS devices had already almost totally reduced it to a gloried iTunes Server. This performance hit was the final straw. I ended up letting it languish while I hatched a new plan: I’d buy a new Mac Mini and then attach the MacBook to my HDTV as a dedicated Plex client.

While waiting for Apple to announce refreshed hardware I started getting the MacBook ready for retirement as a dedicated media player. In the hope of making it boot as fast as a “real” consumer electronic device, I added the small SSD drive and extra memory. Now the thing is so ridiculously zippy, I’m beginning to doubt the plan. What do I really need a new Mac for anyway?

It feels like there may be a useful life-design pattern hidden in here.
I should give more thoughtful consideration to refurbishing the old instead of pressing ahead with new acquisitions. I need to remember that taking a deliberate step backwards is always an option, particularly if it enables more productivity than it inhibits.

Leaving Facebook

I left Facebook and at first that really felt like something I should write about. The first few times I tried to get something down onto the page though, it just didn’t go anywhere particularly interesting.

The problem?

I was trying to make it all out to be a much bigger deal than it really is. The presumed emotional weight of the whole shebang just didn’t match up to the skinny little verbal struts I found myself writing and rewriting.

You might not have even noticed I was missing from Facebook. And why should you? What’s one drop of tea gone missing from inside the roiling kettle?

I left Facebook because I tired of their constant overreaching, further eroding my privacy by tracking my movements across the entire breadth of the web - whether I was logged into their services or not. I left Facebook because – while I find some of their services quite valuable – I find it inelegant. It’s designed to be sticky flypaper for your attention. These crossed-purposes, users craving connection while Facebook craves their focus, make it all a clumsy affair.

(NOTE: I didn’t comprehend how awful the whole affair really is until I happened upon Path, a social network that’s really quite wonderful in its simplicity and elegance. And almost vacant from what I saw.)

That’s such a shame too, since our tools can be so much more than the sum of their parts. At best, they make the difficult things a possibility for us. Good tools can inspire us to reach further and deeper.

Ultimately, I left Facebook because I wanted to pause for a moment and evaluate how this thing really fits into my life.

During the interlude, I soon realized that I’d reactivate my Facebook account one day or another. Eventually. Like I mentioned, the basic service that Facebook provides is valuable. Connectivity is valuable. Having a chance to see the things my friends and family want to share is valuable. And while I had the spew turned off? I didn’t have a way to wish a good friend a happy birthday. I missed photos of five-year old birthday parties, Disney vacation photos, friends dressed as pirates and honestly who knows what else.

When I was in my early 20′s I got similarly fed up with Microsoft Windows . In that instance, I ended up only using Linux for years and years in response. Today I have a more measured response: privacy-strengthening browser plugins and heightened awareness.