Going Retina – First Impressions

So, work has kindly equipped me with a brand new Macbook Pro with Retina display. Here are some initial thoughts.

  • The display is gorgeous, and this is coming from someone who’s already been well accustomed to the two other Retina displays out on the market (iPhone 4, iPad 2 and later). Like I mentioned to my colleague the day this product was announced, this screen is going to make every other screen in the world look horrible, and then the rest of the world will have to play catch up. Think full 1080p vs standard DVD.
  • It is very slim too. Granted, a bunch of compromises had to be made to get to this thickness. Because of its reduced thickness, the height to width-length ratio harks back to the 17″ Macbook Pro’s of yesteryear.
  • As far as compromises go, they’ve left out the optical drive, the Ethernet port and shortened the travel on the keyboard. It also only comes with two USB ports – one on each side. Two Thunderbolt ports have included as what I believe to be “wildcard” ports to soften the blow. This is Apple leaving out the floppy drive and dropping the serial/parallel ports in favour of USB in the iMac all over again. Except, USB is going to put up a much tougher fight.
  • There is no longer a Kensington Security Slot, which would have afforded me the option of leaving the laptop at work.
  • Another thing they’ve left out is the external battery charge indicator. I suppose this is the last nail in the coffin to the notion of the battery as an entity independent form the computer. There is no longer battery, only a computer that runs untethered.

While there is a lot more heft to the 15″ Macbook Pro compared to my personal 12″ Thinkpad X201, it is quite something to be able to hop on my daily commute, plug in a 4G dongle and bang away at an experience that come pretty close that of working at a desktop.

For more thorough reviews, lookup “macbook pro retina”

Digital Sentimentalism

Just last week, I learned from a colleague that the Android Ice Cream Sandwich was finally available for my Asus Eee Pad Transformer TF-101. After briefly going through the installation docs, I decided I’d give it a go.

There were two parts to the installation. The first was a scary sounding step called Super Wipe which essentially clears out the internal storage of the tablet before putting on the new software. Thankfully there were two versions. a Full and a Lite. I thought to my self “How clever, I can go with the Lite, and it’ll all my user data”.

So just before powering down the device in preparation for the procedure, I did a quick mental check “is there anything I might need to backup?”, followed promptly by a non-chalant “Naah…”.

I have this principle called the x-month rule of unneccessity: If something has been sitting in storage untouched for more than x number of months, it can be safely discarded (thrown away, sold, etc.) as an unnecessity. The value of x for me was 6 months, which is about how long I’ve been using my svelte Thinkpad X201 as my primary machine. Ever since then, the Transformer has seen very little use.

It all happened so quickly. Super Wipe Lite took less than 2 minutes, and flashing on the new ROM took about 10. After that, the thrill of watching the full potential of my tablet unleashed by a software upgrade took my mind of whatever digital etching were there before.

Until last night.

Maybe it was the dinner time conversation which inevitable turned to the subject of family holidays, but it suddenly occured to me that a large body of the photos from our Taipei trip were on the tablet, and nowhere else. It was during that trip that I bought the tablet, and I’d emptied all the photos from my phone to the tablet. Wifey and I would always enjoy the photos on the tablet so I never bother copying it anywhere else.

It was 1am at in the morning. The wine from dinner was keeping me awake, but the thought of our losing our photos forever haunted me. I rarely feel so helpless with my technology, I’ve never been more emotionally attached to 1’s and 0’s, and I never hated “digital” more.

One last puzzle to cap off the week, I suppose. But the stakes on these were astronomical. And it had to happened right after me accepting a post-dinner riddle from the father-in-law.

You can read a blow by blow account of how I eventually recovered the photos, but it was nerve wrecking.

More than a broad frustration with technology, it’s made me very hesitant to entrust any sentimentalism to these electrical signals. The less you have, the less you have to lose.

So much for being a technologist and a digital native.

Recovering data from my Android Tablet

So Super Wipe Lite had completely decimated the data partition of my Asus Eeepad Transformer TF-101 Android tablet, effectively wiping out all my photos. Here’s how I managed to get them back.

Hopefully this blow by blow account of my data recovery effort may help anyone who finds themselves in a similar predicament. The results of your recovery largely depends your old data still being intact and not yet overwritten by new data.

First, some prerequisites.

  1. Your tablet needs to be rooted. If you’re tinkering around with partitions getting formatted, there’s a good chance you’ve got root too.
  2. Some sort of terminal emulator that allows you to do dd. I used Terminal Emulator.
  3. PhotoRec software on your desktop.
  4. An external storage drive large enough to contain the partition that you’re recovering from. I had an old external HDD that I hooked up to the Transformer via the USB port on the keyboard dock.

An overview of the procedure.

  1. We’ll make a raw dump of the wiped partition so we can perform the recovery from a desktop computer.
  2. We’ll use PhotoRec to do a low-level scan of the data to look for signature of files, and recover them.

Now step by step:

Part I: Low-level copy of the partition

1. On your android tablet, open Terminal Emulator.

2. Go superuser by typing su. Grant SuperUser permissions to the Terminal Emulator when prompted.

3. Type mount. This lists all the partitions on your system. Look for a line that says something like /data, which was the folder that contained all my lost data.

/dev/block/mmcblk0p7 /data ext4 rw,nosuid,nodev,noatime,user_xattr...

Basically we’re wanting to find out what the corresponding block device is. In my case, it was /dev/block/mmcblk0p7

4. From that same list, you can also figure out where your external HDD is mounted. Mine looked something like this:

/dev/block/vo1d/8:5 /Removable/USBdisk2/Drive3 tntfs rw,relatime, uid=0...

If the partition you’re wanting to recover is larger the 4GB, make sure you use something like NTFS or ext3/4. FAT simply won’t cut it.

5. With all the information gathered above, we’ll do a the dump like this

dd if=/dev/block/mmcblk0p7 of=/Removable/USBdisk2/Drive3/transformer-recovery.img

Sit back and relax for a moment. Mine took around 20 minutes for a 15GB dump. When it is finished, you’ll be returned to the prompt.

Part II: Recovering the files using PhotoRec

1. Now that we’ve got a low-level copy of the partition, plug the external hard drive into a desktop computer where you can run PhotoRec.

2. Fire up PhotoRec. Because PhotoRec is only able accept actual partitions as targets for low level scanning, we’ll play a trick where we point it at the partition containing the image file transformer-recovery.img.

3. When asked about the filesystem type, pick ext2/ext3.

4. When asked if all space needs to be analysed, pick Whole.

5. Finally pick a folder where you’d like the recovered files to be stored.

In a nutshell, what we’ve done is imprinted all the low-level information from the block device in the Transformer to an external HDD, and used PhotoRec to scan through and pick up any file signatures it’s able to find.

Hope this guide has been a help.

The shifting concept of permanence

Over the past week, my latest geeky little project has been to take a look at all the IT infrastructure that I operate and rearrange things around a little to match its current utility. Nothing drastic, just tweaks here and there, consolidating a few VPS‘s, swapping out email services and setting up a more robust DNS solution.

Which has brought me to today’s reflection on permanence and the irony of how such a concept survives in our hyper-transient digital world.

Permanence is typically associated with physical mass and tangibility, while transience, the lack thereof. A dead-tree bank statement bears far more permanence than a PDF. Molding a lump of clay with your bare hands, more than pushing polygons. Capturing light on photo-sensitive celluloid more than voltages on a CMOS chip.

But something dawned upon me as I was fixing up some mail forwarding settings for my primary email address: I’ve changed my physical real-world address at least 5 times since I last swapped email addresses. Going a little further, I must have gone through many more mobile phone devices since I signed up for my current mobile number.

Somehow, or some why, these very transient entities (email addresses, mobile number) seem to have lasted far longer than items that we traditionally deem “more permanent”. Don’t even get me started on how difficult it is to mop up an incriminating information leak, or an embarrassing photo on your social network.

This surely begs further and more thorough discourse, but here’s where my thought ends today. Maybe you’d like to chime in: how does such a shift affect the we live, and the way we value things?

How a nerd finds rest

People often wonder what nerds do during their down time, you know, to relax, or to wind down. Allow me to provide you with some insight.

Back in my early teenage years, computer operating systems (read: Windows) would age and deteriorate with use. No, this wasn’t some time-limited DRM or SaaS strategy. Just poor engineering. So, 2-3 times a year, I would make it a point to do a “fresh” reinstall of the operating system to keep things humming along optimally.

If you’ve got everything in place, I discovered that performing a reinstall can be a very rewarding therapeutic zone-out activity. All you’ve got to do is step through a long sequence of actions, and stare at the screen in between. If you follow it correctly, you’re rewarded with a brand spanking new computational canvas upon which you etch out your digital life, all over again.

Kinda like how some people like to sort their wardrobe by wavelength, or rake tiny pebble around in a zen gardenExcept, you get a faster computer at the end of it!

I’m not sure what got into me back then, but I was doing this reinstall thing so often (probably because I’d always find a new way to ruin the system) that I perfected the process of getting my computer from bare metal to a functioning Windows NT 4 workstation in under 15 mins. Yes, you read right – in less that a quarter of an hour, I could drop a blank hard drive into the system, install the operating system with drivers, and be surfing the ‘net on Internet Explorer 5.5.

That was what I did for fun.

Fast forward to yesterday, I’d recently commissioned a brand new VPS to run some of my clients’ websites, and it was 1999 all over again for me. Selecting and rebuilding the server with a CentOS 5 image, updating and hardening the machine. Setting up BIND, and Apache, and MySQL. Meddling with Postfix, ssh, iptables, etc. Did someone say multiple versions of PHP over FastCGI?

Every time I go over the steps again, I try to take the “advanced” route for a component or two. I’d attempt to perform manually something that was previously done automatically through a pretty GUI. This time, it was setting up mail forwarding. It used to be all point-and-click through a cPanel Reseller account, but I spent a good few hours tweaking it by hand, and understanding a little more how email plumbing works.

Fascinating, and incredibly satisfying.

Maybe next time, I’ll try and roll out a Gentoo or FreeBSD box.