Wednesday, December 9, 2009

MBP

So I got my new Mac Book Pro, named it "hemispheres" as mentioned in my previous post. I'm very happy with this machine, and here are my early impressions.

The SSD is pure win. It's quiet, cool, and fast. The biggest immediate downside of course is the cost, but as a refurb, this option was made much more affordable. It'll be interesting to see how it performs over time as there are known issues with the long-term use of the technology.

My two biggest concerns were the screen and the keyboard. I absolutely love my previous generation MBP keyboard, as it's about the only laptop I can comfortably use for 8 hours a day. The unibody MBPs have a completely different keyboard, with a different feel, but I hadn't used one for a long hacking session so I was unsure how it would feel after a few hours under my hands. I'm very relieved to say that while it has a different feel, it's still incredibly comfortable to use. Apple seems to know what they're doing.

I have had a few problems hitting the right keys, most notably not quite getting the shift-2 chord right to produce an @ sign. The reach is a little bit longer it seems so I often end up just typing a "2", somehow missing the shift combination. I have a few other common typing errors, but for the most part I'm getting used to it.

The other big uncertainty was the antiglare screen. I absolutely love the matte screen on my old MBP and hate hate HATE the glossy screens that seem to come on most laptops today. Honestly, if the MBP didn't offer a matte screen as an option, I probably wouldn't have bought it. Of course, now it's a $50 upcharge, but I think it's worth it. The antiglare screen has a different color temperature than the old MBP matte screen. It seems colder and I don't think there's any way to adjust it (well, maybe color calibration but my first and only attempt at that didn't do much). The screen also seems a bit more "washed out" than my old MBP, but it's also brighter because of the backlit-LED. I'm not fond of the dimming in the dark and brightening in the light (it seems backward to me), so I'm kind of riding the F1 and F2 keys, but after several days of use, I am getting used to it.

The machine does seem to have a very long battery life. For hacking in front of Sunday football, I'd estimate it's about a 5 hour run, and the battery indicator seems pretty accurate after its calibration. That's with the high performance graphics card, btw (there are two in this machine).

I'm getting used to the different arrangement of ports and media slots, and the sleep light seems much less obnoxious. I do wish the machine had come with an eSATA port, as I think FireWire at least for storage is becoming increasingly uncommon and/or expensive.

Snow Leopard (OS X 10.6) seems pretty cool, although honestly I don't notice much of a difference. There are still some kinks though, as my cursor freeze up occasionally. I'm sure Apple will fix this in subsequent patches. They did seem to fix a few Mail.app bugs I'd reported, but sadly not everything. And they broke GPGmail so currently I have no encryption in Mail.app (a release for Mail.app 4 is reportedly forthcoming).

I wanted this machine to run Ubuntu as well, so that I'd only have to take one laptop with me to conferences and such. I struggled with the best way to install Ubuntu: should I dual boot, use a virtual machine, or both? A colleague of mine had done the "both" route with VMware and bootcamp and I had enough disk space to consider this, but decided to see how the VMware-only approach worked first. The main problems are that Xorg configuration and MAC-address (and thus DHCP assigned IP addresses) would be problematic in a "both" environment.

Fortunately, Karmic Koala in a VMware 3 machine works absolutely great. It's very fast, looks and feels great, and doesn't tax the machine much that I can tell. The biggest problems are the lack of OpenGL/compiz for windowing, and a weird problem where Gnome-Do's summon chord of control-command-space has to be hit twice in order for it to work. I don't know if this is a VMware thing (since it works fine on my native Karmic desktop) or because I need to install vmware-tools. My last experience with vmware-tools was far from satisfying so I've mostly ignored it. I may try it to see if it clears up this problem though.

I should mention that I have an older version of Parallels, but ditched it because of some things that bug me about it, such as screen resolution during boot up, and more. Parallels 5 reportedly supports OpenGL/compiz for guests, so I grabbed a try-and-buy and went through the installation of Karmic in it, but was never able to enable desktop effects, so ditched it again.

In any event, I'm not going to try to set up a dual-boot until and unless I have to.

I did have one big gotcha as I was getting the new MBP set up. Apple has a very nice migration assistant that helps you move your stuff (including applications, settings, home directory, etc.) from your old machine to your new machine. The first time I tried it was massive fail. First, I did a wireless-to-wireless transfer and it never warned me that it was going to take 12+ hours to migrate, and once it started it was impossible to interrupt. Second, 12 hours later when I tried to log into the new machine, I was completely prevented from doing so. I actually could log in, but OS X was throwing up a cryptic error saying it couldn't open my FileVault. My home drive on my old MBP is encrypted and of course I wanted the same on my new machine. I figured since Migration Assistant happy proceeded it would Do The Right Thing. Yeah, not so much.

After being on the phone with Apple support for a few hours, I was finally told that this was not a supported migration option. Thank you Migration Assistant for the warning. Not. The solution was to re-install the OS on the new machine (since I could in no way log in now), turn FileVault off on the old machine, effect the transfer, and then re-enable FV on both machines. The problem with this is that you need enough disk space on the old machine to turn FV off, and this I did not have. It took quite some effort to free up the 31GB of space on my old machine (1/3 of the total hard drive size), but by temporarily moving stuff off to a NAS, I finally managed it.

This time, I did an ethernet-to-ethernet migration and it took way less than 12 hours. Of course it was transferring a lot less data, but still, it only took an hour or so maybe. I guess that's the advantage of gigabit ethernet over 802.11G :).

Friday, December 4, 2009

Hemispheres

The relationship between the bass player and the drummer is one of the most profound and important relationships in rock music. I've been incredibly fortunate in my musical life to have played with a number of drummers with whom I've had a deep and usually immediate musical connection. Almost all are still close personal friends. For me, playing with a good drummer is probably one of the most important reasons to stick with a band long term (it's a necessary but not sufficient condition).

I've been with the U-Liners now for quite a few years and I've enjoyed every minute playing with our drummer Larry. He's in the Army band, so clearly he's talented, but it goes deeper than that. His feel is impeccable, his timing is great, and he hears everything. What I really love about him (and many of my other favorite drummers) is that he's solid but knows when to go for it. It's the occasional waltzes on the edge that make for an exciting, emotional musical moment. It can't be too often, but it has to be there. An element of risk is involved, and I love more than anything else, those improvisational moments within musical structure of the song, because that's where the magic happens.

This week has been extraordinary too because I've played with three of my favorite drummers of all time. Larry of course (and we have a gig this coming Saturday night), but also too great drummers and long time friends. Last night the U-Liners played a show that Larry couldn't make, so my friend Torro sat in. Torro and I go way back (he was best man at my wedding) and is an amazing musician. And at a jam party last Saturday night, my friend Keith came up from Florida and we got to play together for a while. Keith was actually the first drummer that I played with where I experienced that immediate mind meld, back when I was 16 or 17. We knew from the first song that we had Something, and now even 30 years later, it's still there.

Larry and I have been doing something very cool and fun for a while now that I don't think anybody (maybe not even our fellow band members) know is going on, but it cracks the hell out of us! At the end of songs, there's usually a little closing fill, kind of a ba-dump roll that ends thing. Larry and I have this little game going on where we hit those little closing rolls dead on. I honestly don't know how we do it, nor do I really want to know! We're not 100% together, but it's better than 9-out-of-10, and the rest are pretty darn close. It's not because that closing is the same every time; in fact, he sometimes challenges me by throwing in subtle differences, or delaying the hit, or adding a little extra flourish. The key to me seems to be to all mindfulness. I don't think. I just open my ears and my eyes and let my fingers do the right thing. If you see us laughing at the end of a song, it's because we've hit a particularly good one.

The wild thing about this is that even with the hour or so I played with Keith and Torro this week, I've managed the same connection with them. Keith and I played one song that was almost all improv, and it was one of those chord progressions where it always comes back around to the head, so you're never quite sure how you're going to get out of it. Then, out of nowhere, there it was, a clean ending where we Just Knew it was ending, Keith and I hitting the last notes perfectly in unison, perfectly unplanned, but as tight as if we'd played together every day for those 30 years. We looked up afterward and just had to laugh! Torro and I had several such moments at last nights gig.

It's moments like these that make me so thankful to be a bass player bless with good drummers, and really just great musicians in my life. It's what makes being the bass half of this whole thing such an ongoing joy.

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It looks like my new Mac laptop will be delivered today, so it's time to name it. My naming theme has always been Rush references, with a preference going toward one word song and album titles. This laptop is going to dual-boot Mac OS X and Ubuntu, so it seems appropriate to call it "hemispheres" although I've yet to figure out which one is Apollo and which one is Dionysus. Maybe I should call the machine Cygnus instead...

Hemispheres was also the first Rush album I heard, and I've been a rabid fan ever since.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Laptops

I really need a new laptop. While I love my 3.5 year old Mac Book Pro, it's by now showing its age and the abuse I've given it. It runs Fusion to give me an Ubuntu desktop, but because the disk is almost full I have to run that from a USB drive, so it's slow. I know I can upgrade the disk, but the machine is a Core Duo only, so that probably wouldn't help much. I also have an old IBM Thinkpad X40 which has an excellent form factor, but a small screen, and the motherboard power jack has an annoying habit of screaming at a high pitch when plugged in, so it lives in its dock, making it heavier and much less portable. And this thing is really slow.

What to do? Well, I've been looking around and with Cyber Monday (do you hate that marketing term as much as I do?) I knew there'd be some great deals around. One of the best, which if you're reading this the same day I post it, is on Lenovo computers (formerly IBM), including steep 35% discounts on Thinkpads. I know, I should get one of those!

I looked at the x200s and the x301, the former being closest to the X40 form factor, but with a WXGA+ 1400x900 screen (yay!), no trackpad (boo), and no built-in webcam (boo). The latter has the same WXGA+ screen (yay), a trackpad (yay), a built-in webcam (yay) and default solid state drive (yay). It's still under 3lbs (yay) and only .5lbs heavier than the x200s in its stock configuration. But it's about $800 more before you start customizing it. Still the discounts really bring both computers into the realm of possibility, especially for a work computer that I'll be using constantly.

I came this close to pulling the trigger, but ultimately decided not to. Why? Because the Thinkpads just don't feel right under my hands. I use a Microsoft Natural Keyboard on my desktop because I can type for hours with no pain. It's about the only Microsoft product that I can highly recommend . I think it's literally saved my career. There's no straight keyboard in the world that I can use for more than 5 minutes without feeling pain... except the keyboard on my Mac Book Pro. For some reason, that keyboard is also very comfortable and pain free.

What's not comfortable and pain free is the keyboard on my X40. So before I pulled the trigger on the Lenovo, I sat down and used the X40 for my most common tasks: reading email and coding. Within about 5 minutes I remembered why I've given this machine to Max (my son, who is about as anti-Windows as I am, and loves his little Ubuntu machine). The thing just hurts to use. I'm certainly not going to spend over $1000 on a machine that hurts, even if the discounts are insanely good.

I've decided instead to save my pennies and get a new Mac Book Pro some time in the next 3 months or so. The design of the 15" MBP has changed pretty significantly since I bought mine in summer of 2006. They use an aluminum unibody now, a default glossy screen, and most importantly a completely different keyboard. I honestly don't know if it will have the same comfortable feel as my current MBP. (TBH, I don't know that the Thinkpad x200s will have the same painful feel as my x40, but I think it's a good bet. Their designs haven't changed that much since then.) The little I've played on a new MBP is encouraging though.

And one thing's for sure, the Mac hardware is just better. The aluminum bodies are solid and sturdy, and I think few laptops could have put up with the abuse I've given mine. I know my old little Dell (now donated as an Ubuntu machine to a friend) failed me after about a year. Yes, you pay for it upfront, but they are reliable workhorses, so IMO well worth the money. Coming up with the money is a different matter.

Of course, Apple won't actually build the machine I want: a Mac Book Air with a 1400x900 matte screen. But the MBP, even with it's heavier weight, will have to do.

In any case, I know that the Thinkpad isn't right for me, so for now, I will choose not to decide.