Category Archives: Computer Stuff

Windows just got the only MacOS feature I missed

When I switched to Windows as my main machine last January, I found that, except for one thing, it worked more-or-less the same as MacOS. Many details were different, of course, but both systems had the same functionality (almost). Some apps, such as Lightroom, Photoshop, and a few others, were identical.

The feature I missed was being able to open up a UNIX shell. I used that a lot, especially when running scripts.

Well, I just discovered that Windows now has a Subsystem for Linux, which runs a genuine Ubuntu shell. It’s the real thing, a joint project between Microsoft and Canonical. Linux itself isn’t there, but the kernel API is. (As I understand it–I only spent 2 minutes looking into the technicalities.)

This is somewhat more convenient than what MacOS has, because its shell has BSD commands, whereas the Linux (GNU, really) commands are more widely known.

Now, as far as I’m concerned, there is no non-superficial difference between Windows and MacOS as OSes. There is still a difference between what apps are available. For example, there’s no Coda for Windows. In fact, there’s no ProofSheet or ExifChanger, two of my own apps. There are also, of course, lots of Windows apps that aren’t on MacOS. But all of my important apps (notably Lightroom and Photoshop) are on both.

And Windows hardware is substantially cheaper, no matter what Apple and Mac fanboys say.

Your situation is, of course, different.

Two Lightroom non-alternatives

From time-to-time I take a look at Lightroom alternatives. Not because I’m thinking of switching, but just to stay informed. ($10/month for Lightroom + Photoshop is an incredible bargain.)

First, I tried Lightzone. Didn’t get far, because the screen font was too small to read on my monitor, with no way to make it any bigger other than to change the resolution of the monitor, which is out of the question. So, can’t say too much about Lightzone. Maybe whoever works on the Windows port can get a better monitor for Christmas.

Next up, DigiKam. Lots of features, but it won’t work for me because (1) the raw editing is incredibly clunky, and isn’t parameterized like Lightroom (no going back to tweak an adjustment), and (2) no way to export JPEGs to a folder, something I do all the time when I create magazines and books, prepare a slideshow, upload to, and lots of other things. I couldn’t believe the app couldn’t do this, so I spent a couple of hours working on it, but I’m convinced. Maybe they think that since they’re changing actual image files, they can stand for themselves when you need a JPEG externally. That’s hopelessly wrong.

In the course of investigating digiKam, I came upon several very positive online reviews and user comments, and found most of them pretty sad. A combination of group-think, denial, ignorance, and boosterism. They don’t know what they don’t know. One guy made a comment that he didn’t use Lightroom, but his brother did, and, from what he could tell, the two apps were pretty much the same. Another reviewer was bothered by digiKam’s white screen, figured out how to make it gray, and then showed screen shots of digiKam and Lightroom side-by-side and figuratively patted himself on the back.

digiKam comes from the Linux world, although there are ports to Mac OS X and Windows, and the Linux people usually grade on the curve. If the Linux, MySQL, and Apache developers had that attitude, they would have gotten nowhere.

If a Lightroom competitor comes forth, it will most likely come from Affinity, whose Photo and Designer apps probably are giving Adobe sleepless nights. But, like Adobe, their apps don’t run on Linux.

How I do backups now – updated

When I last blogged about my backup plan, I was using Disk Master Free to do a backup each night, in addition to the continuous backups with Bvckup and CrashPlan. A reader suggested that having both local backups online all the time made then accessible to ransomware and viruses. So, I dropped the Disk Master Free backup and replaced it with two full backups once a week, alternating weeks. That way I get a week to discover if one of them has been compromised during the short time it was online. I’d have to go to CrashPlan with its time-consuming restore only for the files not on the last good backup. Safer, and not much additional work.

So, it’s:

  • Continuous backup with Bvckup and CrashPlan.
  • Once-a-week to alternating disks (also with Bvckup), kept offline when not being written to.
  • Photos to Amazon S3 a few times a year.

How I do backups now

(This article has been updated.)

I wrote an article in 2008 called “How To Back Up Your Personal Computer” that gave the best advice ever about what threats you’re trying to protect yourself from and how to handle them, but, of course, the specific hardware and software I use has changed a lot over the past 8 years.

(Quick summary: You need to protect against user error, computer failure, surge, disappearance, office destruction, and regional disaster. More protection means less convenience, and less convenience means that you won’t do the backups often enough. So, you need to combine several backup methods.)

Here’s what I do now:

Everything is backed up with CrashPlan, which is cheap and has an excellent client application. I have about 800GB there (including 50,000+ photos), and it took a month or two to get it all uploaded. But the incremental updates generally complete in less than a day. I only pay $60 a year.

Original photo files are archived to Amazon S3, as described here.

I like continuous backup, too. I liked Time Machine on my Mac, but I switched to Windows about six months ago. I used File History (built into Windows) for a while, but started to notice that files were being skipped, with no explanation. The user interface is horrible, so complicated that you’re never sure where any particular file is and how to get to it. Obviously, unreliable or confusing backup software defeats the whole purpose of backup, so I started looking for an alternative. Windows 10 is pretty good overall, but File History is an abomination.

Acronis True Image looked good at first, but its client application is very loosely connected to the underlying background processes, and various backups disappeared from the list and then reappeared after a time for no reason. There were also annoying delays with stopping and starting backups, probably also because of the loose UI/engine coupling. Again, too flakey to give me any confidence that the Acronis people are on top of their game.

FlashBack seemed to be much better, but not nearly as good as Bvckup, which has the best user interface I’ve ever seen in a backup program. And, unlike any of the others I’ve tried, Bvckup keeps the backup in the form of ordinary files (like SuperDuper! for MacOS), not inside proprietary database files, so you can easily verify that it’s working. You don’t need a special restore facility, and Bvkup doesn’t have one.It’s only $20 (for personal use), less than either Acronis or FlashBack.

Disk Master Free also works well. It doesn’t provide continuous backup and keeps its files in a proprietary database, but it is free. I have it set up to do an incremental backup every night at 2:00AM. My main reason for using it is so I can have two independent applications, from separate developers.

I have Bvkup and Disk Master writing to two different USB3 drives. 1TB drives are incredibly cheap ($60 or so), so this is a really practical arrangement these days.

I no longer make full copies onto a hard drive for offline storage, since I use CrashPlan.

My advice as of July 2016 would be:

  • Use Time Machine on a Mac or Bvckup on Windows for continuous backup to an external drive. Don’t use File History on Windows.
  • Use CrashPlan.
  • Twice a year or so archive your photos to Amazon S3.

Comment on the SmugMug 2.0 API

A post I put on the SmugMug forum, called Digital Grin:

I just converted my app SmugMugBrowser to the 2.0 API, and the result is OK, even an improvement in performance, because I can now access the folder/album hierarchy level-by-level. Before, I had to retrieve all the albums and then compute the hierarchy from the categories and subcategories. So, that part is good.

But the documentation is terrible. Someone, perhaps several people, think that the live API screens are a replacement for documentation, but they are wrong. Not that the live screens aren’t useful, but they are not documentation.

As a result, I’m forced to do a lot of guesswork and run a lot of experiments to determine the rules. This is silly! The rules should be stated explicitly.

For example, I determined that I could pass a “count” parameter when I’m getting nodes, but nowhere that I can see is this documented. There were lots of little examples like that. As a result, my work took longer, was frustrating, and may not be using the API in the best way.

Here’s a question I can’t answer: Is there a replacement for the CustomSize parameter that is in the 1.3 API? (I know that I can construct a custom-size URL–this is different.) I have a lot of questions like that. What parameters can I use to speed things up or produce a better app? No idea.

If SmugMug wants to continue to progress with apps and websites that work with it, it will have to do much better. This on-the-cheap approach just isn’t good enough.

SmugMug isn’t alone here–I see this lack of documentation all over, because API providers know they can get away from it. But it’s stupid: If you want developers, and every platform company does, why make it so difficult? In my experience, the best API documentation ever, by a wide margin, comes from Apple. SmugMug goes in that group at the bottom, the very worst.

This is only about the documentation. Near as I can tell, SmugMug’s API itself is really well implemented, and I didn’t find any bugs, either. No one is saying they’re not good programmers.

My SmugMug Digital Photo Frame

digital photo frame

For a few years I’ve had a home-made digital photo frame on the wall in the breakfast room, composed of an 24-inch monitor and a Western Digital media player. I described it in an article I wrote back in 2012 but forgot to blog about.

Recently, as I’ve done a few times already, I uploaded a bunch of vacation photos to SmugMug, and then put the identical photos on a USB stick for the photo frame. Why am I doing this? I asked myself. It would be great if the photo frame just ran off of SmugMug.

But, neither the Western Digital media player nor Apple TV had a browser. That’s what I really wanted. All those media-player features (e.g., Netflix, YouTube) were irrelevant. I had a spare Intel NUC running Linux, but the NUC is too much for photo frame, and I liked having the Linux computer around. I tried a Raspberry Pi, but it was was under-powered.

Then I discovered a Chromebit, essentially ChromeOS on a dongle. That is, a Chromebook without the keyboard, touchpad, or screen. A Chromebox, but much smaller and cheaper ($83 or so).

Perfect! It tucks behind the TV even better that the media player did, and, as it runs ChromeOS, I’m totally familiar with it. I just browsed to SmugMug, started a slideshow, and I was in business. (The photo shows it un-tucked.)


I didn’t want a browser logged into my Google account in such a public place, so I created a new Google account just for the slideshows.

The Chromebit worked OK, but not as well as I would have liked. It seemed that the images didn’t always fill the screen, I couldn’t vary the time as much as I wanted, and I didn’t want all that web traffic, as the photo frame runs all the time. (The browser caches images, but I’m not sure to what extent. Some of my slideshows have over a thousand images.)

So, I took a Chrome App I already had, SmugMugBrowser (in the Chrome Web Store), and added a slideshow feature. As a bonus, it’s much easier to navigate to the show you want than it is on the SmugMug site. It caches the whole show, so the only internet traffic is for the first trip through the slides.

Now all my SmugMug galleries are instantly available to show, not just the few I had on the USB stick. From time-to-time the media player seemed to corrupt sticks, and that’s gone, too.

With a monitor and a Chromebit, you’re not limited to SmugMug, of course. If you have some other site that provides slideshows, you can go there just as well.

My new NUC has arrived

I installed the RAM, the SSD, and the hard drive in the NUC without a hitch. Unfortunately, the Dell U2515H monitor I bought won’t allow the NUC to be mounted to the VESA mount on the monitor’s back, because the monitor’s stand covers the VESA mount, which it doesn’t actually use (it has its own clips). So, I can’t use a nifty VESA extension bracket I found, one end of which would go between the monitor and VESA-mounted stand, and the other end of which would hold the NUC.

Instead, I mounted the NUC’s VESA mounting plate to the lower part of the stand with plastic straps, as shown in the first photo. That made a suitable mount for the NUC, as shown in the second photo.

MJR_2016-01-06_File_000 (2)MJR_2016-01-06_File_000 (3)

I ran the crude NovaBench benchmarks, and came up with an overall score of 862 for the NUC, compared to 505 for my late-2009 iMac. The CPU Tests were 478 compared to 234, the Graphics Tests were 100 compared to 94, and the Hardwware Tests (disk/SSD speeds) were 44 compared to 26. (This was with the SSD in the NUC; the hard drive wasn’t yet installed.)

More realistically, going from Lightroom to one of the Topaz plugins and back to Lightroom was so slow as to be painful on the Mac. On the new computer, it takes just seconds. Some of this is no doubt due to the 16GB (vs. 8GB) of RAM, which didn’t enter into the NovaBench scores.

I was also pleased that I was able to download the utility for my very old Spyder 2PRO monitor calibrator, and it works!

I’m now transferring my 450GB or so of photos. Then I’ll have to open the catalog in the Windows version of Lightroom, tell it the location of the originals, and I should be off and running.