31 January 2007

Making the switch II

Today's release of Windows Vista has me reflecting on my first few months of Mac ownership. No, this is not going to be a (assume conceited voice) "Macs are far superior to PC's" post. (College roomies: I know exactly which voice you assumed in your head when you read that sentence ;-) ) But Microsoft's new operating system got me to thinking about computers in general, and I remembered a while back promising a follow-up post about my experience with my new Mac after I'd had it for a while. So here it is.

I hate to be the glassy-eyed disciple, but I have to say that I love my Mac. Some of what I love about it is that it's a laptop, and some of what I love about it is that it's a newer, faster computer. That means any opinions I have about Macs in general are colored by these uncontrolled variables. That said, I am really happy with the Macintosh operating system and how well all of the parts integrate. For example, today I got an invitation as an .ics file via email, and when I opened iCal later today, the invitation had magically appeared there. Granted, I've never used a calendar program before, so this may not be as shocking as it seemed to me, but the way the Apple Mail and iCal talked to each other behind my back was pretty startling and cool.

Another thing I really like is how transparent the operating system is. It's a snap to open the Terminal and do things on the command line that in many cases have a 1:1 correspondence to tasks I could do with the various GUI utilities that came bundled with the OS, just with more options. I've been analyzing a lot of data lately, and I've really appreciated UNIX's tools for searching, chopping, and moving information in text files.

As for Mac's much-touted stability, I can say that I've had few problems with crashes and weird behavior. Most recently, I've had a frustrating experience with a new external hard drive that I got for backups. I accidentally unplugged the cable connecting the drive to the computer before ejecting it, which incapacitated the drive beyond the abilities of the disk utilities that came with the computer to repair. After a 24 hour cooling off period, the drive seems to be willing to cooperate again, but I'm going to be treating it gingerly until I can be sure that I can trust it. Other than that I've not had many odd behavior issues, although they have happened, most frequently when I've been using MS Word, Excel, or PowerPoint, I'm afraid. Speaking of PowerPoint, I just started using Apple's equivalent, Keynote. I actually like it a little better. Some of the things that I'm used to doing in PowerPoint aren't quite as easy with Keynote, but overall I think it's an easier to use program. I especially like how easy it makes lining up objects on a slide. It's amazing how a minor little feature like that can be so exciting. Of course, most people (probably including many Mac users) don't use Keynote. Fortunately, it has an export to PowerPoint feature so I don't have to worry too much about formatting issues when giving talks at conferences.

Speaking of compatibility, my main concern coming in to this purchase was that I be able to continue using Microsoft Access because that's where all of the data for my dissertation, as well as some of the code for analyzing those data, resides. The Boot Camp option wasn't really a viable one, because it requires you to reboot into Windows. The major limitations are 1) the Mac and Windows drive partitions can't communicate, and 2) you can't simultaneously use programs that require different operating systems. To the rescue comes Parallels, which is a really nifty program. It's basically a virtual machine for running Windows (or any number of other operating systems) on your Mac. The catch is that the Windows machine is self-contained and acts like a completely separate computer, so you can't seamlessly use Windows programs within OS X. But if you're running XP (and presumably Vista), it's relatively easy to set up shared folders that you can use to transfer files back and forth. Unfortunately, I only have a copy of Win98. File transfers can still be done, but I had to take a crash course in networking to figure out how to set it up. Now that it's set up, though, I've got a system I'm relatively happy with for working with Windows.

Some of the things that come with OS X I'm not too excited about. The Dashboard and its associated widgets I haven't found too useful except for maybe the calculator and the widget the tells me the weather in Stockholm. (It's cold there right now -- I probably didn't need a widget to tell me that.) [OK, so I promised I wouldn't use this post to criticize Microsoft, but how ridiculous is it that for Vista they completely ripped off the idea of widgets, then didn't even bother to hide the fact that they ripped them off by giving them the absurd name of "gadgets"?] I'm getting to tolerate iTunes, especially as I get to use it more, but I still miss MediaMonkey which was a much better database. And the Mac versions of some of my more commonly used programs like Word and Endnote are a little touchier than their Windows counterparts. But those are minor quibbles overall.

One side note on Mac culture: It seems that a MacBook is THE fashion accessory these days in San Francisco. Anne and I wanted to meet one day after work in the Mission, but our favorite coffee shop had been converted into a bike messenger bar, so we needed to find an alternative spot. We searched (Beau will appreciate this) on Yelp for coffee shops near 16th and Valencia. The place we found seemed like a reliable spot (I've since forgotten the name), although some of the reviewers were put off by the density of hipsters. We decided to ignore the warnings and meet there anyway -- we were going to a play nearby, and you can't swing a dead cat without hitting a hipster near that intersection. I got there first and settled into a comfy couch to do some work while I waited for Anne. When Anne plopped down next to me on the couch, she looked around and started chuckling. A couple Yelpers who had been most critical of the place had mentioned how you needed a Mac laptop to fit in there. Sitting on the couch across from me were two people working on Macs, and to Anne's right were two more. Probably eighty percent of the computer users in the coffee shop were using Macs, and probably ninety percent of the people were hipster tools. Who knew I was so fashion forward? Actually, as much as I hate to admit it, I do kind of like the cachet that comes with owning a Mac, but at that moment I was deeply embarrassed. I could almost smell a backlash building.

Well as you might guess from the length and tone of this post, I'm quite happy that I made the switch. Most of the things I was used to in the PC world have a (sometimes better quality) analogue in the Mac world, and I've been able to work around most of the things that don't. Having Parallels has made a world of difference, and if I ever get ahold of a copy of Windows XP, it might be even better. I won't say that I endorse switching for everyone -- it's a bit of work to learn a whole new operating system, even one that's pretty similar to (and easier to use than) Windows, and finding and setting up the software you need can create some headaches. But with only a few exceptions, I've been blissfully happy with this computer, and if that makes me a glassy-eyed disciple, well so be it.

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18 January 2007

One less car

Last weekend we went up to Mt. Shasta for some snowshoeing and hiking. We also dropped in on my great aunt and her son (my cousin once-removed?). It was a nice time; the weather was great and we got some amazing views of the mountain, both from the climbers' camp on its flank and from a few miles down the valley at Castle Crags. What made this weekend particularly noteworthy was that it was our first out-of-town excursion since we got rid of our car a couple months ago.

Some of you may remember that I got rid of my beloved but terribly unreliable Jeep about a year and a half ago. From that time up until last November, we got by with one car: Anne's 1983 Toyota Tercel. Luckily, her car -- like all Toyotas -- was incredibly reliable. It was the anti-Jeep in that respect. Also, not having a car didn't prove too much of an inconvenience. I ride my bike or the bus to school, and Anne takes BART most days (now every day). On weekends, we never needed to be in different places where at least one of them wasn't served by transit.

Every year since the Tercel turned 20, the state has been sending letters enclosed with its registration renewal offering to buy it, the logic being that it's in the state's interest to invest the $700 (don't ask how they arrived at that figure) they would spend on the car to get a potential polluter off the road. We always demurred, thinking that we would get rid of the car after I graduate and we leave the Bay Area. Well, last summer the stakes were raised because the car didn't pass smog. Now we had a dilemma. Although the state would provide some assistance to get the car to pass smog, it wouldn't cover the whole cost. Also, we weren't sure of the logic of using the state's money to repair the car only to retire it (and pocket their $700) ten months later. While we were weighing what to do, the state upped it's offer and promised $1,000 for retiring the car. Apparently a known polluter is of greater value than a suspected polluter. After dragging our feet and getting extensions on the registration as long as we could, we turned in the car at the end of November. (I say "we", but really it was Anne who put forth all of the effort here, including a few valiant trips to the DMV.)

We've been able to get around on public transit and bike without altering our lifestyle much. Luckily we live in a neighborhood where you can walk to most anything you need, although there are a few places that are more difficult to get to now (including, sadly, the Parkway, which we haven't visited since before we unloaded the car). With the exception of a couple interminable trans-Berkeley bus rides, we haven't been greatly inconvenienced. Which brings me to this past weekend.

When we got rid of the Jeep, we realized the big sacrifice we were making (other than the subtle pleasure of riding everywhere with the heat on full blast) was that we would no longer be able to get away easily in the winter without the four wheel drive. Last winter, we limited our winter adventures to places that are relatively easy to reach on the train (Truckee and Reno), but Mt. Shasta was out of the question. Ironically, getting rid of our remaining car has freed us up to head to more remote places. It somehow seemed fiscally irresponsible to rent a car while we still owned one, but now that we don't own a car at all, it's an easy decision to rent one to go away for the weekend. Which is how we were able to head up to one of our favorite places in California for a weekend of playing in the snow.

I must say that I'm really happy with our decision to go car-free. In fact, it's been oddly liberating, as if not being tied down to a vehicle makes us more free to move about. (It certainly helps ease the mind that we're not paying for gas, insurance, or the inevitable parking tickets for forgetting to move the car on street sweeping days). Obviously it's not for everyone. My mom, for example, would be confined to her house if she tried to get by without a car in Las Vegas, but it's worked out reasonably well for us living in an urban area (relatively) well-served by public transit. Depending on where we end up next year, we'll probably have to buy a new car when we get there. But I'm going to enjoy it while it lasts.

12 January 2007

The Decemberists Rock!

I've been hearing a lot about the Portland band The Decemberists lately. It seems that everything I read about them makes liberal use of analogies to all sorts of seventies rock and folk icons, but then makes pains to say that the group's aesthetic is firmly rooted in the 19th century. (I've read the "They draw influence from the 70's ... the 1870's" gag at least three times.) This rambling list of influences is invariably followed by talk of pirates and murder ballads. All of this definitely piqued my curiosity, but it made it hard for me to know if I'd like their music or not. I've heard their songs on KEXP, but they never stick with me, leaving the impression that (assuming the hype is earned) they were one of those bands that require multiple listens to appreciate. Unfortunately, I'm cheap, so I'm wary of buying anything new that doesn't grab me right away. What if multiple listens later, I just think it sucks? Well opportunity came a-knockin' when my mom gave me an iTunes gift card for Christmas. With this free money, I downloaded their newest album last week. And now I am a Decemberists fiend.

I've been listening to the album continuously since then. It's a bit more indie rock than what I usually listen to, which prompted Anne to tease me that this album -- coupled with the new Neko Case CD that I'm still listening to incessantly months after buying it -- means I'm currently in a "pussy music" phase. (In my defense, I also used the gift card to get the new Mastodon album.) But let me tell you that even if they write songs about Civil War soldiers and a man who married a crane, The Decemberists still rock. "When the War Came" has a crunching guitar riff that proves that the heart of grunge still beats in the Northwest, and one section in the middle of the epic, second track boasts a Moog solo that channels Songs From the Wood-era Jethro Tull. If this is pussy music, then I'm guilty as charged. I just can't get enough of it.


10 January 2007


Last year I broke with tradition and actually made a couple of New Year's Resolutions, then posted them on this blog. Having them in a public place made me more diligent about keeping them, so I thought I'd try it again this year. But before I make this year's, I should review how I did in 2006.

The first resolution was to exercise more. I actually managed to do well on this one, at least for a while -- I got to the gym four or five times a week for the first five or six months of the year. Most importantly, I'd put on a few pounds since college, and I was able to shed those. Things kind of fell apart the second half of the year, though. Although I bought a fall semester membership to the gym, I don't think I went once. Good thing the memberships are heavily subsidized by the university. I'm glad all of those fee hikes are going somewhere.

My second resolution was to write more. Of course, I write a lot of academic stuff: grant applications, papers, etc., but I had in mind something a bit more creative. Well, I don't know what I was thinking. I enjoy writing, but it's never really been a habit, and it certainly didn't become one in the year I started writing my dissertation. I did manage to keep up this blog relatively well, which I should be happy about, but that was about it. I think that tells me that it's important to have a plan of action before making any resolutions. Which brings me to...

My 2007 resolutions:
1) Start going to the gym again. This one I'm optimistic about. Since I don't know where I'll be after the early part of this summer, I figure all I have to do is match last year's performance and I'm set. So far I've either been to the gym or gone running nearly every day of the past week. (Special side note: as far as I'm concerned, New Year's resolutions don't start to count until after Epiphany.)

2) Play the guitar more. This is an explore-your-creative-side resolution that has a slightly higher chance of success than last year's because I've actually been intermittently in the habit of playing the guitar since I was in high school. In fact I have two guitars sitting at the end of the couch. I actually bought a new acoustic guitar last summer, and was pretty good about playing it for a while. Now that I've resolved publicly to do it, maybe I can keep it up. So next time you're over, I'll be taking requests. As long as it's a song by Iron Maiden or the Grateful Dead.

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05 January 2007

Back from vacation

I've been neglecting my blog a bit since we got back from the holidays. For a couple days, I was still recovering from the Fiesta Bowl. Then last night, I had the noblest of intentions to write something about visiting our families over Christmas. Unfortunately that was pre-empted by the season premiere of Beauty and the Geek (and is it just me, or does the CW/WB/UPN have the best reality shows?) Anyway, as you can see, I was much too distracted to write anything.

Well, here I am, sick of writing cover letters and needing a little break, so I guess it's time to tell you all about where Anne and I were over the holidays. We've fallen into a pattern over the past few years of seeing one of our families for Christmas and the other's either the week after or in January. This year, it was my family's turn for Christmas, so we headed up there on the train the Saturday before Christmas.

(For those of you who are interested, we did manage to hold Hobbitfest II a couple days before leaving. The menu was virtually the same as last year, although I had a beef pie instead of lamb. I'm way into the grass-fed meat after reading The Omnivore's Dilemma.)

When we're in Reno for Christmas we always do Christmas Eve dinner with my parents then head up to my aunt and uncle's on Christmas to have dinner with my mom's side of the family. It was great to see everyone, and we even got to see my mom because she came up from Vegas this year. The only drawback was that the smoking ban in Nevada apparently doesn't extend to my parents' house, so I started to develop a respiratory complaint that would follow me the rest of the trip.

The morning after Christmas, we caught a plane to Portland, where we rented a car and, after making a brief stop to visit Sarah and her kids, we headed for Eugene where we met Anne's mom and aunt. We spent the next couple days at her aunt's house in Marcola, a tiny town about 30 minutes outside of Eugene. There wasn't much to do, but she does have satellite TV, including a set in the guest bedroom. I'm really glad we don't have a satellite because I would watch TV all the time. I saw a lot of European soccer and also VH1's countdown of the top 20 metal bands of all time. (Iron Maiden placed a respectable third.) The only drawback of our time there was that her five cats predictably exacerbated by respiratory issues.

Our next stop was in Aberdeen, where we stayed with Franz and Ann. (Franz is the German fellow who gave a toast at our wedding.) They live on 17 acres of land outside of town, and it's always a treat to stay there and wander in the rain (because it's always raining) through the Douglas fir and hemlock surrounding the house. My aforementioned respiratory complaint peaked while we were there, so I also slept a lot.

We came home on the 30th, and after getting cleaned up immediately headed out on the town. We decided to economize this year on Christmas gifts, so our gift to each other was dinner and a concert that night. We went to the new downtown Oakland location of Breads of India for dinner, then headed to Yoshi's to see McCoy Tyner in concert. Yoshi's is one of the coolest places on earth to see live music -- it's a Japanese restaurant / jazz club -- and the concert was great. (How could it not be when there was a living legend on stage?)

We had a pretty low key New Years, having gone out the night before, and I've been spending the time since then trying to get back in the working mood, which has been helped by having a couple postdoc / job application deadlines next Monday. Speaking of which, I should probably go.... Next: New Year's Resolutions, 2007 edition.

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