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The Best Shows I Watched in 2016

 •  Filed under television

A little overdue, but here is the requisite "my favorite television shows" post (a music post is also in the works.) I didn’t watch a ton of television last year (moving to a new state and settling into a new house and having a busy year at work will affect your viewing habits) but I did find some great things to watch. Some are new, some are returning favorites.

The Expanse (SyFy): Based the series of novels by James S. A. Corey, The Expanse is the best science fiction I’ve seen on television in years. A great cast, solid writing, and pacing that never lets up. I’ve always thought that the best science fiction shows are the ones where you can pull the characters and plots out of their futuristic setting and plop them into the present and still have everything mostly work. Battlestar Galactica nailed that formula, and The Expanse has all of the humanity and politics that made that show so great.

Bosch (Amazon): This series debuted a few years ago, but I didn’t watch the first season until a few months ago. It’s by no means groundbreaking (a fairly standard story of a Los Angeles police detective solving murders) but it’s well done. Titus Welliver as the title character, Harry Bosch, owns every scene.

It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia (FX): What can I really say about Sunny that nobody else has said? It’s consistently funny, outrageous, and cringeworthy. I tell my wife that it’s like Friends except funny. The only way that comedies stay funny is if their characters never grow, never develop. We are eleven seasons into Sunny and it’s pretty safe to say that no members of The Gang have experienced any personal growth, and it’s still pretty damn funny.

Better Call Saul (AMC): Season 2 of this Breaking Bad spinoff was at least as good as the first season, maybe even better. The writing and cinematography continue to be the best on television. No one is better at this TV stuff than Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould.

The Americans (FX): The master of the “slow burn”, this Cold War spy thriller/family drama is still at the top of its game. The Americans does not move fast, but every single movement matters. There are no wasted scenes here, and the tension is always high. You should be watching this show. Thankfully it just got renewed for two final seasons!

Rectify (Sundance): This is the poster child for “best television shows which nobody is watching.” Can you even find the SundanceTV channel on your television? You almost certainly have a subscription to it, but good luck! Still, Rectify is worth the effort. It’s best described as a “southern gothic” series, but it’s incredibly respectful of the south and their culture. It stars Aden Young as Daniel Holden, after he is released from death row after an appeal vacates his conviction. It’s pretty rare for television to draw a tear from me, but Rectify is that powerful. This series wrapped up in December, but it’s on Netflix for your enjoyment.

Goliath (Amazon): I wasn’t quite sure whether to put this one on the list or not, but I really did enjoy it, despite some weird flaws in the writing. It’s yet another David E. Kelly legal drama, with many of his usual tropes (brilliant but flawed attorneys, rousing courtroom monologues) but it’s hard to ignore a show starring Billy Bob Thornton and William Hurt.

Practice Skeptical Computing

 •  Filed under nerd

From Ars Technica:

Former Firefox developer Robert O'Callahan, now a free agent and safe from the PR tentacles of his corporate overlord, says that antivirus software is terrible, AV vendors are terrible, and that you should uninstall your antivirus software immediately—unless you use Microsoft's Windows Defender, which is apparently okay.

This has long been my personal policy. More often than not, antivirus software causes more problems than it fixes. It's either an impediment to user activities, or a drain on system resources; most likely it is both. I haven't installed an anti-virus package on a Windows machine in over a decade (though I generally allow Windows Defender to continue to function.) I certainly haven't used a Mac antivirus in the OS X era.

Just practice smart computing. Don't download software from shady websites. Don't click on links you receive in your email (even if it says it's from your bank or your dad or the exiled Crown Prince of Nambutu.) Keep your computer's software, especially your web browser, up-to-date at all times.

Family Reunion

 •  Filed under nerd

I have a few small collections of things, but my latest curation is old software. In this case, Mac OS through the ages.

From left:
System 6 (the first retail boxed version of the Macintosh OS)
System 7
System 7.1
System 7.5
Mac OS 7.6 (Name Change!)
Mac OS 8.0
Mac OS 8.1
Mac OS 8.5
Mac OS 9 (this sealed copy even has a CompUSA tag on the outside, which made me covet it even more)
Mac OS 9.1 (the final retail release; 9.2 only shipped with new Macs)
Mac OS 10.1
Mac OS 10.2
Mac OS 10.3
Mac OS 10.4
Mac OS 10.5
Mac OS 10.6

About half of these are unsealed boxes of major system releases, while the other half are opened but complete packages. This is a mostly complete collection of retail Mac OS releases from 6.0 to 10.6 (US Releases).

Still missing are these hard-to-find versions:

  • System 7.1.1, aka System 7 Pro. A short-lived release, which I think was the most expensive version of Mac OS ever sold ($150/retail.) This was the first version with AppleScript (which still exists today) and PowerTalk.
  • I suspect that there was an 8.6 retail version (much like 8.1 was released in a box which was otherwise identical to 8.0) but I cannot find any hard evidence of its existence. I've seen a PDF version of the installation guide for 8.6, but it's unclear if this accompanied an actual retail release.

10.7 came on a USB stick, so that's definitely a weird one to fit into the collection.

Computers, and Macs in particular, have been a big part of my life for about 25 years. Whenever I look up at this shelf I can remember the first time I used most of these versions. I'm definitely nostalgic for the classic Mac.

Not pictured, my sealed boxes of Hypercard and ClarisWorks!

Sometimes I Backup My Stuff

 •  Filed under nerd

With most of my correspondence, financial information, photos, etc. only existing electronically, it has always been important to have reliable and redundant backups. I’m sure you’re the same way, right? If something happened to your laptop or tablet or phone, you’d have a means of recovery, I’m sure (?).

I have archives of documents going back to at least 1994, and that is not because I've never had a crash. I’ve had numerous failures of hard disks (and even an SSD failure three years ago) which resulted in total data loss. With a backup system in place, however, I was able to recover virtually everything each time.

A caveat: my system is a bit complex and almost certainly unnecessary for most purposes. I will have a simpler recommendation at the end.

Replication

My primary computer is a MacBook Pro, so nearly all of the software I write about here is Mac-only.

My first and primary backup utilizes software which is already on your Mac: Time Machine. Time Machine isn’t perfect, and under the covers it’s actually a little bit gross, but it just works and you should be using it.

While my machine is at my desk, it is always plugged into an external Time Machine drive (a second external Time Machine drive also exists and I rotate between these two; one typically goes with me when I travel.) I use full disk encryption should I ever misplace one of my drives. If you don't have an external hard drive already,
this one is a fine choice.

When I am on my home network, I also utilize storage from a Synology Diskstation, a network-attached storage device. My Synology has five hard disks installed (two of which are RAID-6 redundant.) My Diskstation is connected to a UPS (Uninterruptible Power Supply) and serves out movies, TV shows, and large amounts of storage to our home network. A lot of stuff gets archived here. Among its many tasks though, it serves as a network Time Machine for all of the Macs in our house (currently three laptops.) My wife and teenager are backing up their computers and they don’t even know it (or care.)

Update 2017-03-08: I have migrated my Synology to the Btrfs file system. Among new features like checksums, auto-healing, and copy-on-write, Btrfs supports Snapshots. Snapshots, in computer storage terminology, is capturing the state of the file system at a particular point in time. This is more efficient than a full, file-for-file backup of the entire NAS. With snapshots, I can capture just the bits which have been changed since the last snapshot, later even rolling them back in time to a previous snapshot state. It's not a replacement for full backups, but it's a very handy tool to have.

So that takes care of my incremental backups. I also create bootable full-images of my Mac. To do this, I employ a second piece of software called SuperDuper. This, combined with a third external hard disk, allows me to restore everything very quickly to a bootable state in the case of catastrophic failure. Historically, I would have a second (encrypted) SuperDuper backup disk that I store off-site somewhere, but this has been harder to pull off since I started working from home.

Remote and Off-site

Okay, but what if my house burns down? Well, I’ve got that covered.

My Mac, starting each morning at 2:00 a.m., wakes up and sends an incremental backup of everything to Google Cloud Storage. To accomplish this I use a piece of software called Arq. Arq is a pretty powerful tool, which can send your data to just about anywhere. I chose Google Cloud Storage as the endpoint because it’s almost as inexpensive as competing Amazon Glacier, with much faster transfer speeds.

My Synology also has a remote backup. Once a week, the system sends an incremental backup of everything (currently 3.52 terabytes, plus another terabyte of Time Machine backups) to Microsoft Azure storage. Restoring all of that data after a catastrophe would take a few days, but at least it’s possible.

Remote storage does cost money, but it’s worth the small expense for peace of mind. My monthly storage and transfer fees for Google and Microsoft are about $30.

Recommendations

Assuming you have a Mac and are in the Apple ecosystem, you have no excuse not to buy an external hard drive and use Time Machine. Even if you only perform weekly backups, that’s better than nothing. I also recommend buying additional iCloud storage and keeping your photos there (with room to spare for your nightly iPhone and iPad backups). Honestly, backing up is not hard to do and it will save you a lot of heartache.

You can start adding some of my crazy redundancies (Arq or SuperDuper) as you deem necessary for your storage needs. The important thing is just to start backing up, even if only with the simple Time Machine. Do it now.