Snow Leopard to El Capitan in one easy step

My iMac is getting a bit long in the tooth. I got it in the spring of 2010. It is thus a late 2009 vintage iMac. It came with OS X Snow Leopard. And although it has done some updating of its operating system over the years, as of this morning it was still running Snow Leopard, version 10.6.8.

I’ve never had any problems with this machine.

Wait. This is closing in on six years, so maybe I’d better repeat that.

I’ve never had any problems with this machine.

Nevertheless, Snow Leopard is nearing the end of its natural life. Google Chrome will soon no longer update on it. I’m already a number of versions behind in LibreOffice. And even the program I use most, i.e. Scrivener, has been hinting that I’m well behind the times. So I thought it might be time to make a little change.

Of course OS X El Capitan has lots of cool features. Unfortunately, hardware of this vintage can’t exploit some of those. So my motivation was primarily to gain access to current and ongoing security and stability updates for my operating system. And there was also the nice carrot of potentially being able to download the latest version of LibreOffice as well.
But new(er) operating systems usually come with higher demands than whatever your computer came pre-installed with. It didn’t take much effort to learn that for a machine like mine, I would need to first upgrade my RAM. This is the main culprit in the poor performance many have experienced when they upgraded to Apple’s later OS Xs. The 4 GB of 1067 MHz DDR3 memory I had on board just wasn’t going to cut it in the brave new world I’d be entering. Perhaps for this reason Apple have provided an incredibly straightforward page for people to determine precisely what memory modules their machines can take and simple instructions on how to install them.

I was able to track down a nice 8 GB kit (2 x 4 GB modules) from Crucial. I got it at a good price as well. And it came in the post in only a few days.

Before the new RAM arrived I took the opportunity to audit the software on my machine and see how much of it would be immediately compatible with El Capitan. As noted, Scrivener was the key program and I already knew that it was El Capitan ready. I also use a program called iBank on a regular basis. It too was ready and waiting for the upgrade. So nothing was obviously holding me back.

But what about peripherals? I had come across a case of someone upgrading without adequate preparation only to discover that he could no longer access his printer after the upgrade. Well, there was probably more going on there than I knew, but better safe than sorry. Fortunately I was quickly able to discover that there were El Capitan compatible drivers for my printer. So all that was left was to wait for the postman to arrive.


Finally!

It would be churlish to describe the installation of the new RAM as easy. It was in fact idiotically easy. In less than 10 minutes I was up and running with, now, 12 GB of 1067 MHz DDR3 memory. And with that in place I quickly moved to download El Capitan from Apple’s app store.

It turns out that El Capitan is a 6.8 GB download. So that took some time. But once it was downloaded I clicked one button to initiate the installation. And then I waited. And waited. And waited. Installing El Capitan is a good time to read a book, or go grocery shopping. When you get back, you are ready to go.

I logged in to the new system and voilà. I’m good to go.

Of course I took my time going over all my programs to make sure everything actually worked. All of them did. Well, all but one. Apple has discontinued iPhoto. That was a bit of a shock since I do use that for all of our pictures. But Apple has replaced it with Photos, which after a lengthy incorporation of my photo library turns out to be just as good.

I’ve tested the printer. I’ve upgraded to LibreOffice 5.0.4.2 (I’d previously been using 3.0). And here I am writing this blog post using Scrivener. So I guess I’m done.

It was all pretty painless, really. And now I’ll see if I can keep this nearly 6-year-old iMac in shape for another few years.

 

Technical Interlude

During the summer, I was inspired by a friend in England to get back in touch with my inner geek. The result was both surprising and predictable.

Powerline Network

Somewhere along the line I missed out on the news about powerline networks. A powerline network uses your existing home electrical wiring in order to convey network access to, potentially, any electrical outlet in the house. The network connection is hard-wired rather than wireless and thus both more stable and able to support a higher throughput. In theory.

Also in practice, as it turns out. I chose to use a TRENDnet Powerline 500 AV Nano Adapter Kit with Built-In Outlet, TPL-407E2K in order to set up my system. Our house does not have an over-abundance of electrical outlets, so I could not afford to sacrifice any in order to “play” with adding a powerline network.

I installed the principle adapter in our kitchen where our router is located. The other adapter I installed in my office upstairs. Then I hauled out our old Dell computer that was languishing in the basement in order to have something useful to plug into the network. (Everything else in the house runs off the wireless, but that old Dell has no wireless card.) I was delighted to discover that this worked exactly as promised. I appear to now have a wired network running at 100 Mbps.

Installing Linux (again)

With a solid wired network connected to my old Dell, I took the opportunity to bring my Linux skills back into shape. The first step would be to install the latest version of Ubuntu. That old Dell is a 32-bit Pentium with 1GB of RAM and a 250GB hard drive. It’s got a nice monitor as well. And it had Ubuntu 13.04 installed on it. So the first step was to do a clean install of Ubuntu 15.04. It was certainly a pleasure to have a wired network connection here in my office thus avoiding the need to set up this computer in the kitchen so that I could plug it directly into the router for the inevitable raft of software updates that follow any new Linux installation.

One of my intentions in re-exploring Linux on this Dell was to see whether it could be used as a potential media storage device on the network. My thinking was that I might follow my friend’s lead and install Freenas and then, potentially, connect to the media via Raspberry Pi devices. (Yes, his setup was very nerdy and very cool.) Alas, this Dell is underpowered for such work. So the Freenas option was quickly ruled out. And that scuppered my Raspberry Pi envy as well. So instead I decided to try to solidify my working knowledge of Linux. And that gave me the opportunity to exploit our local public library’s fine collection of geeky books. I started with Ubuntu Made Easy: A Project-Based Introduction to Linux by Rickford Grand (2012) in order to ease my way in. But what it really aided was pointing me toward Linux Mint, which is an Ubuntu derivative that is allegedly more user friendly, especially for those not afraid to work on the command line.

Ah yes, the command line. As it happens, I’ve never been a real adept. So, back to the library. This time I got out Linux Command Line and Shell Scripting Bible: The Comprehensive, Tutorial Resource by Richard Blum and Christine Bresnahan (2015). Now I felt like I was definitely learning something. I even hauled out my rusty knowledge of GNU Emacs and burnished it. Clearly I was having too much fun.

The end result of all this is less satisfying. Since I don’t use these skills on a daily basis, I find that they very quickly drift away. I did take notes this time, but whether I’ll even be able to comprehend my notes come the next time I get my geek on, who knows?

Rethinking Music Options

As mentioned, part of the motivation for both the powerline network and for re-igniting my love of Linux was to potentially mirror the media setup that my more technically able friend was deploying. Although that wasn’t possible, I did continue thinking about whether or not we ought to transform our music setup in the house.

At the moment we have an excellent stereo (amplifier, cd-player, receiver) purchased back in 2000. That does seem like a long time ago now, but these are solid pieces of kit. Yes, they still run on UK voltage, so I have to use transformer. No big deal. And yes, the receiver is calibrated to UK frequencies which do not match up with North American frequencies. So the receiver is less than wonderful. But really we only ever use the cd-player anyway. We also have two Boston Acoustics radios which have fabulous sound for their size. All of our cds are ripped in iTunes (sigh). And we don’t ever merely purchase digital downloads of music. So, is there a game changer out there that could transform our listening lives?

There might be. I’ve recently been enticed by the heavy promotion of SONOS, at least enough to have a salesman walk me through a demo. Impressive. No doubt. But at the moment I (and more importantly my wife) remain unconvinced. I’ll keep thinking about it.

FOSS Redux

After a hiatus of several years, I find myself thinking seriously once again about free and open source software (FOSS). Not that I ever fully stopped. One way or another FOSS worked its way into my daily software use, deployment choices, and broader considerations of community. Still, it’s nice to focus once again specifically on FOSS communities, especially those relevant to the work of librarians.

Whether it is the integrated library system (ILS) or the digital repository, search facilities or servers, end-user terminals or integration with the virtual learning environment (VLE), a library of almost any size these days will engage with and potentially find its technical staff participating in the onward development of FOSS. So I was both honoured and intimidated to be asked to participate on a panel at the Ontario Library and Information Technology Association (OLITA) conference, Digital Odyssey 2014: Code, the Most Important Language in the World. I’ll be part of the panel discussion entitled “Open Source Software Projects and Communities.”

The best part of this so far is that for the past month I’ve been turning my mind once again to the character of FOSS communities. It is a rich topic for debate, strongly held opinion, principled (and unprincipled) disagreement, and hope. I always find that I get more positive and enthusiastic about the possibilities for all of us, everywhere, when I think about FOSS communities. I love the very idea of using a legal instrument such as a copyright licence to facilitate social change. I love that even those who abjure the social engineering aspect behind some FOSS licences, who embrace instead the open development methodologies touted by many open source enthusiasts, end up promulgating social change in any case. Even the notion that communal development can be driven through a meritocratic hierarchy is exhilarating. It’s just so much fun thinking about FOSS communities.

The hardest part is going to be constraining my contribution to the panel to a mere fifteen minutes canvassing a variety of different types of FOSS communities that these librarians might encounter. Fortunately I’ve had a bit of experience with those communities, though admittedly that was a few years ago. Exploring various FOSS communities today I find much remains the same, but I also see a significant increase in the professionalism of and care towards community development. For example, it is great to see that Evergreen, the ILS used by a number of Ontario universities, is now part of the Software Freedom Conservancy. And so many projects have people now with community development as part of their job title or job description. I hardly think a mere enthusiast like me is going to have much to say to librarians who are already undoubtedly fully FOSS engaged. Or at least that’s what I assume when I see so much good work being done.

In any case, I’m looking forward to seeing some old friends at this event and to making some new ones. And glad to be thinking about FOSS once again.

Chromecast: the very thing

So many things in life are less than they claim, or that you hope they’ll be, or that you imagined they might be. Google Chromecast, which is now available in Canada, is exactly what you imagine it will be, exactly what you hope it will be, and exactly what it claims to be. It is the very thing.

The future was always meant to be like this. In it, I saw myself drawing down content from somewhere on the Internet and then sending that content to various devices in my home. I’m sure I must have seen George Jetson do that in a cartoon when I was a child. Now I’m doing it too.

The Google Chromecast device is modestly priced. It is about the size of the remote key for your car. It plugs into an HDMI slot on your television. A usb power cord plugs into the Chromecast. The device begins sorting itself out almost immediately. In advance I had installed the Chromecast app on my Nexus 7. Once I activated that app it immediately searched for nearby Chromecast devices. Once the association was made and I had given my renamed Chromecast device access to my home network, it upgraded its software and then a minute or so later it was ready to go.

Go where?

My first port of call was the YouTube app on my Nexus 7. Since YouTube is owned by Google, it is not surprising that it is one of the first Chromecasting enabled apps. I found a video on YouTube to use as my first test. It was one of a friend of mine’s young son playing his guitar. I tapped the “cast” icon which connects the app with the Chromecast device. And there he was, my friend’s young son, large as life on our, admittedly somewhat large, television screen.

I believe, “Too cool,” is the appropriate expression here.

Next up was a short animated film from Google Play. This Pixar animated drama happened to be pre-installed on my Nexus 7 when I bought it. I’ve never purchased or rented any other films from Google Play because, frankly, although the Nexus 7 screen is a marvel, I rather prefer my films to be a bit larger. (It’s okay with me that the kids these days seem to love watching movies on their phones, but it just doesn’t work for me.) Once again the “casting” of the media to my television was a breeze. And the picture quality was, as to be expected, amazing.

I don’t have NetFlix. The main reason I don’t is because neither our television nor our Blu-Ray player gives us straightforward access to the Internet. However, it did not escape my notice that NetFlix is also a Chromecast enabled app. I suspect a lengthy discussion in our house now as to whether or not we should make the leap to NetFlix.

The final step in my Google Chromecast testing was via a desktop computer. In this instance the computer in use was an iMac. The browser I was using was Google Chrome. And yes (you’ll have guessed this), the Google Chrome browser is already Chromecast enabled. Once I clicked on the connection icon I was offered the option of casting any tab from the browser onto the television screen. I think I already mentioned the future and what it looks like. Well my future always looked like this.

Of course the possibility of casting a web page onto a 48-inch high definition television raises a few challenges. For example, I like to watch Hockey Night in Canada, which is streamed live on Saturday nights on the CBC website. I’m looking forward to casting that onto our television this weekend. But already I know that it is highly unlike that the CBC is streaming its broadcast in HD. And that means the picture might look a bit fuzzy on the big screen. Will content providers need to up the ante on such live streamed events? I think so. And this got me thinking of web designers more generally. For the past few years we’ve been perfecting sites that look great on both a desktop computer but also on a tablet or even a phone. Will the advent of casting to much larger screens require a substantial rethink in website design? Almost certainly.

No matter. We’ll deal with it.

After all, now that the future is here we’ve just got to live with it.

Duolingo – my favourite app

DuolingoPardon me while I enthuse briefly about Duolingo. For the past 68 days, I have used the Duolingo app on my Google Nexus 7 every day. I’m working on my French. It’s getting to be a habit. A good habit. According to Duolingo’s statistics, over those 68 days I have used (successfully) some 1223 French words. I’ve reached, approximately, the half-way point in the 25 skill levels available. My wife says that even my pronunciation is improving. I love this app.

I’ve been working on improving my French for at least 10 years, off and on. It is one of my great regrets in life that I did not pursue French as a youth when it might have been easier and when the language might have got better secured in my still malleable brain. For some reason, I was permitted to drop French after grade 10 in high school. By the time I reached my second year of university, I knew that I’d made a big mistake. But there was no going back. Instead I decided to start from scratch with German and to learn it intensively. That did the trick. I reached a passable level of German and for a while there even carried on conversations with my wife’s unilingual German relatives.

The initial impetus to reclaim my French came when I visited France, and more especially Paris, for the first time. It was the turn of the century (the current one; I’m not that ancient). We were living in London, England, just then. I must have been thinking that it was time to start afresh. Time to make a commitment to who I wanted to be. Time to reclaim the half of my Canadian heritage that I’d admired in the past but never been able to participate in. It was time for me to learn French.

Learning a language well past the age of 30 is, frankly, hard. For me it was very hard. I don’t have a natural aptitude for language learning. And I’d already had a less than stellar history with French nearly 20 years earlier. So there were some obstacles. On the other hand, nothing greatly depended on my learning French. It was just something I wanted to do for myself. I could go at my own pace. And that is basically what I’ve done. Slowly.

Enough about me. Let’s get back to Duolingo.

I can’t say that I set about researching lots of language learning apps before I started using Duolingo. When I first got my Google Nexus 7, I looked briefly at the apps recommend on Google Play. Duolingo had two things going for it straight off. Lots of people were using it, and it was (and apparently always will be) free (as in no cost). So I gave it a whirl.

In Duolingo the user works through a learning tree from basics to intermediate to advanced. Each set of exercises centres around some aspect of the language, either grammar or vocabulary. For example, one set might be focussed on adverbs and another on clothing, or pronouns, or directions. There are four or more lessons in each exercise set. Once you successfully complete all of the lessons in a set its colour changes to gold and, usually, new (harder) exercises are unlocked. The activities in the lessons vary between translating from French to English, translating from English to French, transcribing a sentence you hear in French (I find that the hardest), and repeating a sentence in French until the software declares that you’ve got it close enough to move on. Probably nothing there that you would not expect to find in any technologically sophisticated language learning program.

So you make your way through lesson after lesson, completing exercise after exercise, probably thinking, “This isn’t so hard.” And then one day you notice that an exercise set earlier in the series, which you had completed successfully, is no longer gold. What’s this?

It’s time for revision. Duolingo determines by some algorithm that the skills you learned a week or two weeks ago may already be getting a bit rusty. Time to go back and do a lesson in order to practise your skills. Complete one such lesson successfully and the entire exercise set reverts to gold. You can move on.

The constant need for revision — call it hectoring, if you like — turns out to be exactly what I, as an older learner, need. I need to go over and over those adverbs or pronouns to get them well and truly locked in my head. And then I need to return to them in the not too distant future to deepen the grooves.

Of course once you get to the half-way mark in the learning tree, there are more and more exercise sets behind you that are going to need revision periodically. And that, inevitably, will slow your progress. But I think that’s a good thing. I feel like I’m finally getting some things secured.

My entire experience with Duolingo has been through its Android app. I now know that Duolingo is available through your web browser as well. So you definitely don’t need to wait until you get a tablet device to start enjoying Duolingo. There is also a social component to Duolingo that I have not explored. For example, a group of individuals could join Duolingo together and compete as friends in their progress through the language they are learning. That didn’t appeal to me, but it may appeal to you. And of course there are more languages than just French. You could try Portuguese, German, or Italian. Other languages will follow.

I probably won’t ever reach a level of real proficiency in French. But everything isn’t about the endpoint. It’s about the journey. Duolingo helps make the language learning journey more enjoyable. I recommend it.