Minimal Mountain Lion

The recent announcements regarding the forthcoming addition to the menagerie of clawed operating systems from Cupertino was very interesting to me for a number of reasons.

Chief amongst them is “Wooo! New toys!”, closely followed by “Yay, more consistency!” and finally the slow dawning of realisation that an idea which has been floating around in my head for some time can now be put into action: Project Minimal Macbook! But first, some background…

When I first got my Macbook Air I was delighted with it, but had to rigidly enforce some new ideas about how I used it compared to my previous Macbook which had considerably larger storage capacity. I couldn’t even get close to restoring my data onto it, I had too much stuff, and so I had to work from a fresh install and keep in mind that I needed to be at least mindful, if not downright picky, about what software (and importantly “data”) I could afford to allow into it’s hallowed SSD halls.

Straight away out went iPhoto and iTunes. I could fill my puny 128Gb of space with my music and photos alone. Co-incidentally around about the same time that I got the Air I picked up my first non portable Mac, and my iPhone 4. That’s another story, but still, off you go dear data, there’s a nice fat spinning platter just waiting over there inside the iMac… But I couldn’t banish it forever, I may as well not have it if I can’t access it. So thank goodness for iTunes Home Sharing, and iPhoto Sharing. They might not be ideal solutions, but they allow me enough functionality to be get by with only the occasional massive tantrum.

At which point, I suddenly suffer the timeless fate of those who are lucky(?) enough to have multiple machines, made more tedious by the addition of multiple platforms. What about the stuff that hasn’t got a Homeshare equivalent? What about my PDFs, my family tree data, diary entries, password files and so on ad infinitum? What about not just having access to stuff just from my Macs, but from my iPhone also? What about having anything I can use on my iPhone, also available on my iPad? And so the hunt for the ultimate synchronisation mechamism begins.

Suffice to say, I found ways to handle most of my data, either through carefully choosing to use software that had the ability to use Dropbox or iCloud or other mechanisms to sync for me, or through the use of a third party synchronsation tool that monitored half of my home folder, or by just admitting that I won’t do X on machine Y.

At the point in which these steps were largely dealt with and stable (it will never actually be complete) I had amassed quite a collection of methods and software that did the job, but the inconsistencies and sheer number of solutions and amount of times the workflow was only 90% there put a bug in my ear that’s never quite been removed.

Do I really need all this software? Do I really need an App for keeping track of my books and DVDs, or can I just do it in a Spreadsheet? Do I need a recipes App, or just a bunch of tagged Textedit files? Twitter client, or visit the website? Will I only ever play podcasts on my iPhone, or do I want to have more choice?

You can see where this is going. And now I have the chance to put the thought to the test: Can I manage without nothing but the pre-installed default apps on my Macbook Air running Mountain Lion.

Whenever I have previously thought about this, 2 simple words would stop me in my tracks: “Notes” and “Todos”. Ever used these features in Mail and iCal? Then you will feel my pain. Ever tried to sync them from OSX to iOS? Then you will share the nightmares. Many, many, hours and a not inconsiderable amount of pounds sterling have gone into messing around with replacement software that a) doesn’t suck so hard and b) syncs nicely, not just with my other Macs, but with my iOS devices too. Even when I thought I had nailed it, something would come up to bite me on the butt. A new App would appear on the radar promsing to do stuff better. An iOS app that I liked but discounted because it previously didn’t have a Mac client, suddenly would. An iOS app that was previously only for iPhone would get a Universal binary update to allow use on the iPad…

Each of these things would see me striving to compare the new possibilities against my existing setup. Do I need feature Z? Is switching to App X going to be worth the hassle of migrating and converting my data? Do I actually want to be able sync my podcast playback position back to iTunes…

The freedom to have so many options available to me, so many choices to make on how to do just everyday simple things has started to become time consuming and hard work. I don’t want to have to put so much effort into syncing my tasks. I want to tick those suckers off and get some work done! Right now I have 5 task manager apps on my iPhone that I am in the process of either using, evaluating or trying to export the data out of them so I can bin them…

It’s too much, I want another freedom, freedom from choice. And Mountain Lion gives me that. It covers the basics for almost any generalised computing activity, and makes it available across every device I own. There are no obvious holes in the integration. “Notes” and “Todos” (or should I now say “Reminders”) are finally something to look forward to just using rather than researching. Throw in to the mix that any temptation to download additional software has to run the gauntlet of compatibility with an as-yet unreleased operating system, and it’s a pretty powerful reason to try to keep things as stock as possible. Running on a Beta OS probably isn’t to be recommended, but given my data should be safe (and I have a fully operational other computer with all the 3rd party software anyone could wish for) it’s worth an experiment.

So with that in mind, I have the Developer Preview sat on my Macbook Air as we speak. And I am going to try my level best to not install a single piece of 3rd party software on it from now until it hits retail. Straight away I know this is an impossible task (1Password anyone?) so I may make exceptions with strict critera (namely it must be fully available on iOS and OSX via the App Store, as universal binaries, using iCloud or Bonjour sync only).

I’ll let you know how it goes. Wish me luck!

Fresh Installs, or How to Find New Stuff and Stuff You Just Never Knew

Upgrades being what they are, namely quick and easy on a Mac, many people have never needed to reinstall their OS from scratch, and indeed most people should never need to. I have read of people who have been using the same OS image, that has been upgraded 4 times over as many machines and half as many hardware platforms.

I, however, like to install from scratch each time there is a new OS, mainly because it’s a neat way to remove the crud that I accumulate (I install a lot more stuff than the average user I imagine, for example I have attempted to install at least a half dozen driver/application packages for a Mobile Broadband dongle that would’t work under Snow Leopard, none of which a) worked, or b) got uninstalled), but also because it’s a great way to discover the neat new stuff that appears. When was the last time you trawled every option in system preferences? Probably when your machine was first purchased. This is where I start with any fresh install.

But, I am getting ahead of myself. This time, I had been using Lion for several months as part of the developer program, and as such decided to try something new. I scalped the Dock. Every icon, every app, gone. Launchpad, AppStore, FaceTime, Photobooth the works. Get rid of them. I long ago switched to using Spotlight for application launching, and many people use third party tools such as Launchpad and Alfred etc. A combination of this and the new gestures for switching between programs and such like means the only thing I ever use the Dock for is emptying the trash. I predict that there will be no Dock if not in 10.8, then the one after.

Next, I hit up System Preferences, and make the following changes:

General

Set a highlight colour, completely unimportant, but I like to change the colour every so often, and try to pick one that matches the wallpaper I have. No idea why really, just feels good to mix it up a little.

Desktop & Screen Saver

Desktop – pick one of the new backgrounds. It was Mt Fuji on Snow Leopard, I’m on the Eagle Waterfall in Lion. Screen Saver – unlike what I just said, I always keep this as Paper Shadow – go figure.

Dock

Reduce the size, and set auto hide to on. Turn off the indicator lights for running applications – I don’t have anything in my Dock, so if it’s in there, I know it’s running, don’t need the light to show me.

Mission Control

Depending on if I am on a portable or a desktop, I may remap the keys for showing the desktop etc, largely depending on if I also have a magic trackpad in which case I never use the keys.

Security & Privacy

General – Set the time to requiring a password after sleep to 1 minute. Show a message when the screen is locked, currently it’s set to “This computer belongs to Dan Wilkinson. Please contact dan@stuffe.net for a reward if found.”, but as this is a new option, I may tweak the text over time to get that nice balance between pleading and bribing… Filevault – Turn this on for portables, I don’t bother with the desktops, possibly because they don’t have SSD drives so the performance hits may be more noticeable – it barely is on the Macbook Air. Firewall – Turn this on. Seriously, why does this default to off? Privacy – Turn on sending of diagnostics to Apple – I figure if everyone did this, it probably does help identify problems fast than would happen otherwise.

Universal Access

Click to enable access for assistive devices. I have no idea what these are, but you come across the odd program like Steam that requires it.

CDs & DVDs

Turn off any and all automatic actions on disc insertion. So irritating trying to second guess me.

Energy Saver

The new name for power management. I fiddle with the settings variously depending on which machine I am doing it on. on the iMac I turn off the automatically reduce brightness before the display goes to sleep setting, as the screen makes an awful buzz when dimmed in this way. I leave it on elsewhere as it’s a handy reminder to whack a key should you actually still be doing something like reading etc.

Keyboard

Change full keyboard access to all controls. Embarrassed to say I only discovered this a few months ago, even though it’s always been there! It allows you to tab between OK and Cancel buttons for example, rather than having to use the mouse, and then use space or enter to select either the minor or major highlighted option. A great timesaver.

Trackpad

Turn on tap to click. To be honest, this is probably the very first thing I do, after logging in with any new install! Also, turn on App Expose in the more gestures tab.

Printer

Add my printer, this sits hung off the back of my Airport Extreme router, so it’s just a case of tick the box and download the drivers automatically.

Sound

Turn off the volume icon in the task bar, turn off feedback for volume changes – you can see onscreen the levels etc, no need for a beep, and if you are muting to prevent unnecessary noises when recording audio, for example, you don’t want it adding a beep in there when you realise you are half way through and forgot to do it already.

MobileMe

Log in, set to fully replace all data on the computer at the next sync, and set everything to sync except Dashboard, Dock and Prefs – turn on Back to my Mac.

Bluetooth

Turn this off for anything that doesn’t need it for peripherals (i.e off on the Air, on on the iMac), and get rid of the icon in the task bar.

Sharing

Change the computers name to something more descriptive, and turn on file/screen sharing. Set a VNC password.

Users & Groups

Create a new Admin user, remove admin rights from my normal user, remove fast user switching menu bar icon. This does add extra steps when upgrading/installing software, but that’s not necessarily an every day task, so the added security is probably worth it. Set the Apple ID – it asks for this during install, but then fails to make the connection, which I am not sure is a bug or just odd.

Date & Time

Show the date in the clock, check the location data is finding a sensible city.

Time Machine

Point the thing at my backup drive, which these days is attached to another machine and shared out. Set encryption to yes in the options. Prepare to come back here later to add areas like Steam data files to the exclude list as and when they get installed.

That’s pretty much it for the preferences. I always recommend trawling through these after every major upgrade. Things change, get renamed and moved etc, and there is always something new that you may want to alter.

After this little marathon is over, I then start to configure some of the included apps with some changes. These include changing the battery icon to show percentage left, changing finder preferences so new windows start with my home folder not the “all my files” one, changing Safari to always show tabs and configure iTunes to use Home Sharing.

I may follow up this article with the next steps, which are to install and license all the software that I find essential. Over time this will get easier as I migrate more software to the App Store editions, but at a bare minimum I fire up DropBox, then the 1Password installer, because if nothing else, it holds all my license keys for non App Store software in a datafile on DropBox!

I hope you found at least one setting that you had never considered changing before, and if you have any “must change” configurations that you insist upon, or think I have missed something you consider mandatory, then let me know.

Regards,

Dan

That’s how I scroll

Muscle memory is an odd term. Unlike our real muscles which need to be exercised regularly if we are to build them up, muscle memory is gained through the repetitive motion of minimal effort.

We computer slaves lazily build up our muscle memory, getting our minds ripped without even noticing, building up muscles on top of muscles, muscles in places where most users don’t even have places… Keyboard shortcuts, gestures on trackpads and even physically opening the lid of your laptop. We have no need of steroids and maxi-muscle whey supplements, mere time is the catalyst to getting our minds buffed.

I realised today that I could open the lid of my Macbook Air, enter my username and password, then quickly jump into Mission Control in almost a single motion, and without any conscious effort. I don’t need to think about how much pressure to use with the lid in order to open it without lifting the base off the desk at the same time, or look at the keys to see what I am typing, or think about how many fingers I am using to make the appropriate gesture etc. It just happens. I’ve spent enough time with my computer to build up the muscle memory to impressive proportions.

This sounds like a good thing, experience and time alone help to speed up the everyday things we do, meaning we expend less effort, both physically and mentally, which presumably frees you up to expend that elsewhere, on the new stuff, on the things that you actually need to concentrate on in order to do them. But, like all good things there is a downside, one that allows the 6 stone weakling users who still have to methodically and consciously direct their thoughts at normal thinking speed to kick sand in the faces of us, we the Charles Atlases of computing, and that is this: Unlike real muscle, failing to use muscle memory does not make it less effective over time.

But surely this is a good thing? It can be, if your usage for those muscles never changes, but when it does, when you need to learn something different, rather than something new, it causes mayhem with our suddenly puny minds.

I first noticed this when switching to use Firefox on my work laptop. Having shunned I.E. for anything that wasn’t work related I had used Opera for many years. It did the job, and I never had an issue with it. At home, I would use Safari on my Mac, and likewise be happy enough. Then, for whatever reason, I had to swap Opera out for Firefox, and a battle has begun with my own mind that I am in no way close to ever winning.

You see, in both Opera and Safari, when right clicking on a link within a webpage the first option would be ‘Open in new Window’, followed by ‘Open in New Tab’. I couldn’t tell you which order they were in until I checked a few seconds ago, but get me surfing around and throwing a few links into background tabs and I just do it, I know what to press, I never read the words on the context sensitive menu that pops up immediately after right clicking, I just do what I have learned to do after years of repetitive motion. Enter Firefox. The menu items are the other way around.

Now, I know they are the other way around, I know approximately a tenth of a second after I finish clicking that I have just done it wrong, but in no way can I stop myself from opening those links in windows instead of tabs. I cannot do it. The actions takes place, the realisation that I have just done it wrong AGAIN occurs, and I immediately close the new window that has arrived to mock me and do it again, this time reading the menu. It drives me mad. I have been using Firefox for almost 3 months now, and I am not sure I will ever manage to train myself out of this ridiculous dance. I think it’s because it’s not so much a change, but a deviance from the norm. If Safari changed to match, I would probably get it in the end.

Which brings me to Mac OS X 10.7. The roar of the mighty lion is insignificant to that heard when I scroll backwards in a document by accident. However, this time I have a fix. Like the relative order of the menu items across my browser software, the problem isn’t so much one of change, but one of deviance from the memory. Whilst my work PC scrolls one way, and my Mac now scrolls the other I seem doomed to frustration. The simple fix is to switch off the so called ‘natural’ scrolling on the Mac. A more complex fix might be to do the opposite, and hack Windows to swap the direction.

But I had a better idea. One that would leave me free to leave them both different, but still retain that muscle memory in such a way that would allow me to use both systems frustration free.

I binned my mouse.

That is to say, I took my mouse to work, replaced the slightly erratic and elderly work supplied one with it, and refuse to use one any more at home. on Windows, I scroll with a mouse. On my Mac I have graduated solely to a trackpad, both on the Macbook and with an external Magic Trackpad for the iMac. It’s genius. My iPhone has trained me to touch scroll that way without ever even realising it was different to using the scroll wheel on a mouse. I never get it wrong, on either machine.

And that, is how I scroll.