Friday, July 31, 2009

Aiki Computing III - More Simplicity = More Happiness.

This will probably be my last post on the subject of simplifying my computing experience for a short while. Quite of bit of it will be based on Alex Payne's Rules for Computing Happiness which has a number of rules that are specific to him. Still, there are many which I had always obeyed, and many I came to obey, and, now, a few that I readily break, so you'll have to endure my own version :

  1. Don't install desktop software when there is a viable online alternative. Email is best served up as a web-based medium. Word processing, spreadsheets and presentations should be covered by Zoho or Google Docs. Even creating and maintaining your website could be moved into the cloud! Following this rule closely will free you from most constraints of choice in OS.
  2. Buy the smallest computer that can efficiently run the desktop software you require. If you are doing video rendering, or audio editing, then fine, buy what you know you need. But if you are just making a few websites and surfing the internet, you can buy the cheapest thing out there, secure in the knowledge that if it takes a complete dump, it's easily and cheaply replaceable.
  3. Buy and use an external drive for your documents. This will teach you the discipline of properly organizing your files onto that drive. It will also facilitate moving those documents from computer to computer with a minimum of fuss. If you use a portable computer, then your drive should be attached directly to your network. If you take this computer off-site but still need access to those files, you should either set up access through the internet, or syncronize them to a local directory on the computer.
  4. Backup your most important documents to TWO USB flash drives and store them in a very safe place. Flash memory appears to have a far, far longer lifespan than optical media (CD's or DVD's) and is much more portable and interchangeable. Netbooks and notebooks nowadays are beginning to appear without optical drives, but just about everything has at least one USB port. Included with this rule would be making a schedule for doing this, and then following it. As part of my month-end routine, I always copy all the previous month's pictures and videos to both drives, and store them in a fireproof safe in my basement.
Oh, and a possible fifth rule that really only applies if you are in a business environment, or providing IT for people, is that it would be best to backup computers by imaging the drive regularly. Do not just backup the files your client tells you are important. They have spent probably years getting it set up in a manner that no matter how inefficient it may seem to you, they know how to work with. An image will get them up and running with a minimum of callbacks to you.
Please, feel free to let me know if you have any of your own "rules", and I'd be happy to add them to the list if I felt they were listworthy :)

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Aiki Computing II - Why Virtual?

Today I'd like to talk a bit about Virtual Machines. In case you don't know, a virtual machine is a programme that you can run under the big three OS flavours (Windows, Linux and Mac), which emulates a full computer. You can change the hardware, pick your OS, load and unload software, and treat it as you would a real, physical system.
There are many advantages to running virtual machines, and I'd like to list a few and describe how I have configured my own.
  1. Deal with Windows Rot - After awhile, if your virtual machine is getting too bogged down to accomplish anything in a decent period of time, you can just ditch the machine and easily reinstall your OS. (From an .iso image or physical disc. Yes, with a virtual machine, even your CDs and DVDs can be virtualized).
  2. Security - Because these machines are generally isolated from one another, it is unlikely that malware or viruses will be able to spread from one to the next. You could even be extreme enough to only run antivirus software on the machine that is going to be accessing the internet, and not bother running it on machines which will be completely self-contained.
  3. Ease of Backing Up - A virtual machine resides on your physical computer as either a single file or directory. It doesn't require any fancy equipment to copy this machine and move it from place to place.
  4. Ease of Upgrading/Migrating/Dealing with Catastrophes - If you've ever tried to upgrade the motherboard under Windows, or, heaven forbid, move to an entirely new computer but continue using your existing Windows installation (It happens CONSTANTLY in business when a machine dies... Nobody wants to reinstall all their apps and settings at work), you know that Windows is pathetically unable to cope with too many new components being in the mix from one boot to the next. Now you can simply get any machine you like off the shelf, install the virtual machine software, and copy the files from the old to the new. You're up and running in an hour or two instead of days.
With my current configuration, I run my physical computer with antivirus and two browsers. One for each monitor. I also run two virtual machines. My "business" machine is dedicated to my accounting software and a few smaller programmes which I run for strictly business related activities. I also run a "sandbox" machine which generally is used for editing home movies, but also gets pressed into service when I want to test out new or unfamiliar software which I'm not sure if I'm going to want to keep. Whenever the sandbox starts to get sluggish or disorganized, I can simply delete it and reinstall from a .iso.
To make things easier across those three machines, I have also networked them together so that they SHARE the My Documents folder. This is easily accomplished by right clicking on the folder, selecting "properties", selecting "move", and then choosing a directory where you want them all to reside (I would suggest the directory for the physical computer, or perhaps an external hard disc, to ensure constant availability).
Going forward, I actually can see myself relying LESS on virtual machines. This is a personal thing though, as I migrate more of my activities online, and come to rely on specialized desktop software less and less.
As well, I'm becoming a big fan of low powered computing. I adore the netbook concept, especially on a homestead where electrical power consumption needs to be carefully monitored and considered. Virtual machines run best when you can dedicate a computer with fairly strong specifications to them.
I strongly recommend trying them out if you are constantly installing and removing and upgrading your computer(s). Let me know if you find any new or unique reasons to go virtual!

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Aiki Computing - How I learned to stop worrying and love Google.

Over a process that's taken up a year or two, I've realized that simplifying your computer makes for a far richer experience.
I'll likely post more on this subject over the next few days, as it's something that's been on my mind quite a bit lately.

For starters, let's discuss email. Here is my list of why web-based email is a no brainer. Feel free (in fact, you're encouraged!) to comment if you disagree.
  1. Safer - Statistically, you are far more likely to suffer from a crashed hard drive or email database file than have Google, Microsoft or Yahoo suffer the same.
  2. Easier - Email Address, Password. That's all you have to know. Incoming and Outgoing Server Names? Username? SSL? Ports? Authentication? I have a headache and a list of possible combinations for every different local ISP already.
  3. More Secure - All the web-based providers pre-screen incoming emails for viruses and phishing with filters that are always far more up-to-date than what your little anti-virus programme can match. And they do it without having to install any software that can slow down your computer.
  4. Less Spam - Well, this could be argued, but not unless you specifically have your ISP pre-blocking your spam, or install more software to do it for you. The big names all have excellent filters that work better than you could hope to do on your own.
  5. Accessible - You have access to a browser? You have your email. Simple as that. I can't believe I lived without this ability for as long as I have... I can't count the number of times I've been at a client and realized I needed to look up something that was sitting in my Outlook Express at home and hence, useless to me. I even considered setting up remote access for my home computer just so I could check emails while out and about - dumb dumb dumb!
  6. Faster * - Well, this one will really only apply for those homesteaders who are still on dial-up. Web-based email will allow you to preview your emails, weeding out the movies and pictures of dubious value that insensitive louts with broadband constantly forward to their entire address book, using up 10-15 minutes of your connection time.
* In the interest of fairness, I should point out that web-based email does have the disadvantage of being unable to allow you to view ANY emails when you don't have internet access (how often does it happen that you want to read emails when you're away from an internet-connected computer?). I believe the time taken to download unwanted attachments is generally far longer than that taken to read and reply to emails. Even so, this could be mitigated on gmail by using their offline gmail feature.
Also, it is more vunerable to account hijacking, and as such, you need to have a stronger password than the average person likely does for their email.
All told though, I can't currently see myself going back to a desktop client unless circumstances force me there.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Here I am, stuck in the city...

Just to be clear, we're not yet on our ideal homestead.
As you could gather if you checked out my profile, you'd see that we're still in Kitchener. A very nice city, but a city nonetheless... We have a house which is entering its' seventh or eighth decade, still in very good shape, which is small by today's standards, but just enough for us.
The photo I am using for the blog is actually a still from the movie "The Last Samurai". I really felt drawn to the village in that movie, and would love to recreate that environment around myself.
We have had our ups and downs in our search for property, centralizing our search around the area northwest of Thunder Bay, Ontario. My in-laws are based there, and land is somewhat within our budget there, so it makes the most sense.
Unfortunately, we've had to modify our criteria a few times to suit what was really available, and found property that was ideal, but not available at any price, and property that was a great price, but absolutely not ideal. We would be happy with meeting the two points halfway, but that's not happened just yet, although perhaps... Who knows?
Anyway, just wanted no misunderstandings... And this way, my loyal reader will be along for the entire ride, and get a chance to experience our trials and tribulations from even before we are back to the land.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Whole Wheat Bread

Well, no time like the present to get into the meat of things and begin to present some real content. Today my son and I are going to have to bake some bread again. We almost always go for the whole wheat/whole grain loaves, as we all know those are better for us, right? I reserve the all purpose white flour for our Friday night pizza's and occasional pies and pastries.
I have seen all over the web the "no knead" recipes, 99% of which seem to be white bread... Nothing wrong with that from time to time, but I figure that your go-to bread should be something a bit healthier. As well, I actually don't mind kneading, it's not difficult, it doesn't take heaps of time, it helps work the fingers and forearms, which I need for Aikido training anyway, and it's a bit relaxing once you get into it.
Here's the recipe that my son and I use to make one loaf...

  • 1 1/4 cups of water (I often mix 1 cup of water straight from the tap with 1/4 cup of water I boil while making tea - this way it's warmed up a bit.)
  • 1 1/4 teaspoons of yeast (I usually just use a really heaping teaspoon)
  • 3 1/2 cups of whole wheat flour (keep more handy, you'll want it...)
  • 2 tablespoons of sugar, honey, or maple syrup, depending on your supplies or mood
  • 2 tablespoons of milk powder
  • 2 tablespoons of butter
  • 1 teaspoon of salt

I have also listed the ingredients in the order I prepare and mix them...
Mix the warm water and yeast together and set it aside to "proof" (I usually just do this right in the measuring cup - you'll see I do everything to minimize how many dishes I have to wash)
Just put all the other items into a large mixing bowl. If you use sugar, then you can reuse the same spoon for the powdered milk and finally for the butter.
Grease up another bowl to use for letting the bread rise.
After 15 minutes to an hour, depending on how many other chores you're doing, pour the water and yeast mixture into your mixing bowl, and start to mix it around. I just use one of our regular spoons at first, until the mix begins to get stringy and not obviously wet. Then I use my hands to wipe the spoon clean, and begin to mix the dough by hand. I mix it up quite thoroughly, scraping down the sides of the bowl and bottom, almost to the point of the bowl becoming clean again. As you do this, you often find the dough getting sticky again. This is when I dust it with a bit more flour, and continue mixing/kneading.
Eventually you'll be satisfied that it's not too sticky any more, and does seem to have the texture of dough. Transfer it to the greased mixing bowl, and cover it with a wet towel or greased plate. I actually purchased a large, glass measuring cup that I can put the dough into and actually watch it rise...
To give it a nice, warm environment to rise, I put it in the oven, but am too cheap to actually turn on the gas, even on low... I just turn on the oven light - which is perfect!
Usually after a couple of hours, it should have risen up quite remarkably. I grease up a loaf pan, knead it back down for just a minute or two, shape it into a loaf and drop it into the pan.
I usually try to grease the exposed surfaces of the loaf with more butter, so that it doesn't dry out as it rises a second time. Pop it back in the oven, and it generally rises quite nicely in less time than the first rising.
Once you're satisfied that it's the height you want, just turn on your oven at 350F for 55 minutes, and you're done!
Kenny and I enjoy the process, and there really isn't anything that can compare with that bread coming straight out of the oven and getting slathered with more butter.
It freezes well, and we often use it to dip into soup or load up with chili.
Let me know if you try it and how things work out... I've learned that the most important thing seems to be kneading it and adding flour to keep it from getting too sticky. Dough that's too wet tends to fall too easily once you turn the oven on.
I'll try to take some pictures and add them to this post to show you how things work for me.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Continuing on...

Well, thanks for coming back, or finding us, as the case may be...
I'll try not to use up all my good material at once here, as I have
all-too-often found myself subscribing to a blog that starts out
strong, but then runs out of steam.
If you've taken the time to track down my online profile, you'll
see that two of my interests are Aikido, and homesteading. Actually,
it was Aikido that introduced my wife and I to one another, and then
it was our mutual interest in homesteading that sealed the deal (or
was it the way I looked in my keikogi?).
As we've grown together, and introduced our son to the world, we've
kept our focus on someday escaping from the city and our jobs, to get
to a more Walden-like existence. Not really a unique dream I'm sure,
but we feel we are in the unique position of being quite close to
accomplishing this. We've managed to pay off our mortgage, embrace a
frugal lifestyle, and have either had, or are cultivating, an ability
to be more self-sufficient.
We have a really strong vision for an acreage where we, and our
friends and family, can spend time re-connecting with not just nature,
but our own nature... Finding and embracing things that bring us
closer to a rich life, and weeding out those things that clutter the
mind and our environment. Not just physical items, but also mental
ones.
Please, feel free to come along with us, we're always open to
listening to advice and direction, especially from those who have gone
on before.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Baby steps...

Please, I'm just learning how this all works, so be gentle... I'm thinking it would be best for me to create a small website, and then simply embed this blog within it to keep friends and family abreast of what we're thinking and doing... Let me know if you have other ideas for our website, homestead, or life!

Monday, July 6, 2009

Privacy Policy?

Apparently I need to provide full disclosure about the adsense ads on the website, so here goes...

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