April 22, 2014

My 4-year-old, Perfectly Adequate MacBook Pro

I call this: computers,tech — Posted by KP @ 7:00 am

MBPat4I’ve been a computer geek basically my whole life. I started taking computer programming classes at gifted camp when I was 8 years old, and as a result of that managed to get my first computer when I was 9. Although my career isn’t in the technology field, and my knowledge of programming languages is pretty pathetic, I’ve always wanted to stay on or close to the bleeding edge of computing power and new technologies. For as long as I can remember, four years has been generally accepted as the amount of time a computer remains useful if used for anything more complicated than browsing the web, emailing and word processing. I certainly have never been satisfied with a computer any longer than that.

Another driving force in my life is my desire not to have to have a “survival job” while making a living as a professional stage manager. In the course of my career, I’ve had good jobs and bad, long-term jobs that barely pay the bills, and great-paying flops that ran a month. When I used to work more regularly at Phantom I could very suddenly end up with a lot of disposable income. Getting offered somebody’s vacation week meant I could go out and buy a computer just for fun. Last month I got offered a rehearsal and performance in the same week and thought, “Oh thank God, I can turn my cable back on!”

What I’m getting at is that sometimes the unpredictability of my career has forced me to put my dreams of computing on hold. Maybe I’m just getting older and more mellow. The money that buys the shiny new computer thing will probably be needed for rent, so I look more carefully at what I have, and what it can and can’t do, and really ask myself if I need the new features, extra speed, etc. that comes from the latest models.

Which leads me to my MacBook Pro. I purchased it when I was on the road in Philly, in April of 2010 (4 years ago today). You can read my post from the day I got it, if you like. It was something of an expected emergency. My 2007 MacBook Pro had been having problems with the screen for a long time. I waited for a refresh to come out for the 15″ MBPs, and from that point on, every time we got to a new city I’d call the local Apple Store to find out if they had 15″ high-res matte screen MBPs in stock, just in case it died. Finally in Philly, it was too far gone, and I brought home (to the hotel) my current model, officially known as the “Mid-2010” model. I liked it better when the names were a combination of construction material and processor speed, like “1.25gHz AlBook.” It’s rude to say how old a lady is. You’d never know it by looking at her.

File transfer in progress (note the show's lighting monitor that I brought home to use the old computer)

File transfer in progress (note the show’s lighting monitor that I brought to the hotel so I could use the old computer)

Its first performance. Philadelphia, April 2010.

Its first performance. Philadelphia, April 2010.

Anyway, to give you a brief montage of the life and times of this living legend (for this isn’t an “in memoriam” post for a computer being retired, as I’ve done in the past — this baby is still going strong as my primary machine), here are the highlights I can remember of its life so far:

  • Two tours with The Acting Company (the end of the 2009-2010 tour, and the entire 2010-2011 tour)
  • Morning on the bus.

    Morning on the bus.

  • Has been a stage management computer for at least 25 productions and other events (I keep terrible records of all my jobs)
    Who needs paper groundplans?

    Who needs paper groundplans?

  • Until recently had a relatively modest career running projections, having done only four benefits, until this month when it was pressed into service overnight before a matinee, when the PC running my current show died. It not only took over the multiple-projector show, but did it running Windows.
  • Occasionally runs QLab, serving as a rehearsal sound computer (including my current production)
  • Has edited two short films (one in progress), a music video, two other short videos, and countless personal projects just for fun
  • Suffered a video card failure in the middle of tech for Triassic Parq, and took several sick days to go to Texas for a new logic board
  • Tragedy strikes at the dinosaur park.

    Tragedy strikes at the dinosaur park.

  • I don’t think it’s ever needed a battery replacement, which is really quite remarkable. If it did, it must have been a really easy repair process, cause I don’t remember it. Battery life is maybe not quite what it used to be, but I go lots of places without my charger.
  • Now runs Windows 7 and has taken over some of the gaming responsibilities from my “gaming rig,” which hasn’t been updated since 2008.
  • A little hotel gaming.

    A little hotel gaming.

  • Began life with the 320GB 7200rpm hard drive from my old computer, and about a year ago was upgraded to 750GB/7200rpm. Presumably the last laptop I’ll own with a mechanical hard drive.
  • Getting naked for a hard drive swap.

    Getting naked for a hard drive swap.

    Saving Up

    When my last computer died its tragic death, I didn’t have the money to replace it, so I had a lot of debt on my credit card, which I was hoping to pay off during the following year’s Acting Company tour, but basically defeating the purpose of returning from tour with a lot of money. While we were in rehearsal for said tour, I got a check from Phantom, which was forwarded to Minneapolis. I said, “Oh, they’re probably paying out vacation pay. I haven’t worked there in forever, it’s probably like five dollars.” Around the same time I got an email from the company manager letting me know he had sent my vacation pay because it was “a significant amount of money.” At this point I’m thinking it’s like $50. So the check arrives in the rehearsal room one morning and I open it to see how much free money I’ve gotten. It was nine hundred dollars. Which was pretty much the remaining debt on the computer. Once again, Phantom provides the deus ex machina to all my financial problems. It’s like my employment with them is some kind of parable meant to teach me about the difference between wanting money and needing money.

    Anyway, the need to replace the computer without having any money saved up made me vow to be more prepared next time. Figuring I could get at least 3 years out of my new purchase, I began very slowly putting money away. Any time I found myself with actual cash (like birthday money, friend pays me for theatre tickets, etc.) I put it in a drawer. Sometimes I used that drawer money to pay the Dominos delivery guy, but over time I noticed the pile was getting bigger and bigger, too big to keep all of it in a drawer. It was actually becoming enough to significantly offset the cost of a top-of-the-line MacBook Pro, and that made me even more eager to put money aside. About six months ago, with my computer three-and-a-half years old, i.e. too old to be repaired if it breaks, I stopped putting money into the fund, because I had enough to pay for the computer, the taxes, and a couple hundred bucks of miscellaneous expenses I expect to need, like new adapters and cases. I was really proud of myself, especially given that I had had some long periods of unemployment and under-employment during those years, and despite my checking account coming very close to zero many times, had never had to give up my computer fund.

    So now I’m just sitting on the money, waiting to be unsatisfied with my 4-year-old computer. And it hasn’t happened.

    Looking Ahead

    Recently my iPhone needed a new battery, and I was left to wander the Apple Store for a half hour while the repair was performed. Having not had much disposable income in several years, I don’t think I own a single thing that was on display in the store, so it was an opportunity to get a little more acquainted with the current hardware options. First on my list was the newer, thinner 15″ MBP, as being the owner of 4-year-old, out-of-warranty MBP means that every time I open the lid there’s a chance some tiny component has fried, and whether I like it or not, the current top-of-the-line 15″ is going to be my new computer.

    I love the thinness, I love the lack of an optical drive, I love the resolution, I love the SSD. I hate glossy screens. The actual gloss has been much improved over the years. They seem much less reflective. But the other problem is that the glass is heavier than the matte screen, which means that the “thinner, lighter” form factor is not really that much lighter than my current model, because the screen is a pound heavier.

    I’ve been lucky to have purchased my last two Macs at a time when they were offering matte screens as an option. It seems they’re currently in another phase of forcing gloss on everyone, which makes me want to wait as long as possible in the hopes they change their minds and decide to be nice to their visual-artist type customers again. So that’s reason #1 that I’m underwhelmed with the current upgrade options.

    Thunderbolt seems cool in theory. I’d love to have a Thunderbolt display which I can connect all my other stuff to, streamlining the number of cables I need to hook up when I get home. Then I looked at a Thunderbolt display in the store. I couldn’t even tell how the picture was because it was so glossy all I could see was the reflection of all the lights in the store. I turned away in disgust without even using the machine. I believe it’s relatively late in its product life and probably due for a refresh, so I won’t judge too harshly, but it’s obscenely expensive (currently $999), 27″ isn’t unusually big for a high-end monitor these days, and it looks like crap! So consider me underwhelmed about the Thunderbolt connector, which is the biggest “you-don’t-have-this” item on the new models. Also, I expect any refreshed monitor will be like $1,500 and still be some degree of glossy. If I’m going to buy a monitor that costs more than a couple hundred bucks, it might as well be matte.

    One thing I am looking forward to, whenever the day shall come, is that the current MBPs can drive two external monitors. Mine can do it with a USB adapter, but it’s not native support and slows everything down. Now that I’m making a little money editing, it’s more than just something that looks cool to post on /r/battlestations on Reddit. But it will require a significant investment of money to do it right, between getting another mounting arm, and possibly needing to buy two monitors that match and fit together nicely, rather than just adding one. I’m crossing my fingers that I have a good job when the time comes, and have the flexibility to make quality purchases that will give the most benefit in the long term.

    In the years since I made my last purchase, I’ve stopped touring (although I’d certainly do it for the right job), and I’ve stopped gaming as much. I have little need for portable gaming power. But I’ve also started a side business as an editor. So raw computing power isn’t as essential as it was before, but I still need enough to work with HD video comfortably. I definitely wish my computer was faster, but it’s not so slow that I want to throw it out the window. It’s teetering on the windowsill, if you will. But I’m trying to be patient to see what’s coming down the road.

    I’m really amazed that after four years, and with the money in place, I don’t have any particular desire for a replacement. I’m not sure if this says something about the quality of the Mid-2010 model, my mellowing as a geek, or the lack of innovation in the last 4 years. I guess it must be all three. I don’t know how much longer we have together, but for now I wish a happy birthday to my strong and loyal friend, who I hope will be some part of my computing arrangement to its 10th birthday and beyond!

February 24, 2014

Filling Out Payroll Forms Remotely

I call this: computers,mac,pc,tech,theatre — Posted by KP @ 11:35 am

This is more of a company management post than stage management, but it might be a useful link to send to your company manager. Or if, like me, you take a company management gig because it comes attached to a stage management gig, and/or you just really need some money, you might want to use this yourself. Or maybe you’re actually a company manager, in which case, I invite you to let me explain this process to your company.

So everybody always wants to get payroll set up before first rehearsal. Especially stage managers, who are supposed to get paid on the Thursday before first rehearsal!

In a lot of cases, you have actors coming from out of town, busy on other gigs, or the company itself is out of town, and it’s hard to get everybody to come into the office early to fill out their contracts and other paperwork.

DISCLAIMER: Before we get into the paperwork stuff, I’d like to remind you I am NOT a company manager, general manager, producer, or any of those people who know or care very much about payroll or running a business. This post is really about the technical aspects of filling out and returning a PDF online. Which forms you need and what you do with them are up to you to figure out.

The IRS has payroll forms online that can be filled out and printed, for example:

So you send your company the link, and they can fill out their information on the form. But now they need to get the form back to you. I recently found myself in this position, and because it’s my nature, I guess, I basically wrote a blog post with graphics to my company explaining all the ways they could do that. So I figured, you know, might as well save all that work and put it in the blog. Plus, knowing how to print to PDF is something that everybody should learn because it has applications far more useful than filling out a W-4.

If you’re sending this to anybody, you can actually skip all the explanatory stuff above and use this link to skip to the good part: http://headsetchatter.com/blog/2014/02/payroll/#instructions

Instructions Start Here

This assumes that you’ve already got the link to the document you need, opened it in your browser, and filled in your information.

Now you need to print your document to a PDF, which you can then email to your company manager, producer, or whoever is asking for it.

Choose to print the document and then click on “PDF” and “Save as PDF” as shown:

On a PC there are a number of ways to add this ability. If you don’t know if you have it, look on your list of printers for something like “Save to PDF” or “Print to PDF.” Even if you don’t have this feature, if you use Chrome as your browser, you can use it within Chrome, which is good enough for our purposes. Open the IRS link in Chrome and when you’re done, choose print, then click as shown: “Change” in the printer section, and “Save as PDF.”

I didn’t bother confusing my company with this, but for you, my dear readers, I’ll share another of my paperwork-returning secrets: you can use your iPhone (or iPad for that matter, or your Android device) as a scanner. A crappy scanner, maybe, but if you have steady hands and decent lighting, it works fine for basic paperwork.

If you want a free solution for iOS I suggest GeniusScan, which has a free version that can quickly scan, PDF and email multipage documents (make sure you select PDF as the format — if it’s a single page it may try to send it as a JPG).

I own a scanner (which is ancient, and a pain in the ass because it no longer has Mac drivers, so I have to fire up Windows to use it), and unless I’m scanning photos or something very intricate, I never need to use it.

January 6, 2014

A Brief Moment of Technological Bliss

I call this: computers,iOS,phones,tech — Posted by KP @ 11:09 pm

Just before leaving work I had downloaded a sample of a book I was considering buying, thinking I would read the sample on the train, and probably buy the book when I got home.

I started reading the brief introductory chapter on the platform, and when the train arrived the conductor announced it was going local. Realizing I was already halfway through the sample, and that I liked it, I regretted not buying the whole book for what was now going to be an even longer ride home.

Then I set myself a challenge: could I set up a hotspot with my phone, connect my Kindle’s wifi to it, purchase and download the book, all before the doors closed and the train left the station? Thanks to the new cell reception in many midtown stations, I had a precious few seconds left at 59th Street, before heading north into the great underground wilderness.

I’m pleased to say that I accomplished my goal, and was so engrossed in my book that I nearly missed my stop. Sometimes, despite the obstacles thrown in our way by patent lawsuits and greedy wireless carriers, we can actually use our inventions to accomplish the things they should be able to do. [Hugs Verizon.] I’m sorry about all the things I said about you. They were all 100% true, and you deserved to burn in hell at the time. But I would be remiss if I didn’t also acknowledge when things cease to suck.

Telecommunications industry, you made my night.

February 26, 2012

Let Me Tell Ye: A Cautionary Tale About Calendars

I call this: computers,mac,phones,tech — Posted by KP @ 6:18 pm

Let me tell ye a story:
Last week I was very nearly late for a meeting because I completely lost track of its existence. In my defense, it was seriously the only appointment I had all week, and pertains to a job that doesn’t start until April. But I have a habit before I go to bed each night of asking myself what I have to do the next day. Sometimes it’s really obvious, like if I’m rehearsing six days a week and just sent out the next day’s schedule six hours ago, then I don’t usually need to consult a calendar to remind me. But if it’s not immediately obvious, then I check the calendar to be sure.

On the eve of this particular meeting, as I was preparing to shut down my computer and head to bed, I asked myself the usual question of whether I have something in particular to do the next day. And I consciously made the decision not to take the 5 seconds to open iCal and check. So sure was I that I had no responsibility in the foreseeable future.

Well let me tell ye, I was wrong. Thankfully, my PSM texted me a little more than an hour beforehand to double-check where the meeting was being held.

As I sat fuming on a train wondering how this all happened, I broke it down to the most essential failure:

It wasn’t that I didn’t bother to check the calendar. It’s that this appointment was likely to be lost track of in the vast expanse of free time surrounding it, and I didn’t set a reminder alarm to go off several hours beforehand.

I have these kind of alarms for lots of things — when I’m going to visit my parents, the stage managers’ networking event at Equity next month, if there’s something on TV or an event on the internet like an Apple keynote (obviously things that don’t require leaving the house don’t need a 3-hour warning, but I might include a shorter warning in case I’m out shopping and need to get home).

So the real cause of my near-missing of this meeting is why I didn’t set an alarm for something so obviously in need of one. The real reason is because I’ve stopped using them as much.

I stopped using alarms because they had become unreliable.

I had been using my Google Apps account for my calendar, which is great because Google Calendar is kind of the de facto standard in calendar sharing in the theatre industry, even if it seems nobody uses it to its full potential. The problem is, for many months I’ve been having a lot of trouble with alarms properly syncing between iCal and my phone. I had done a lot of experiments with iCal, the Google web app, and the iPhone, trying to figure out the circumstances under which an alarm wouldn’t sync. I had looked for solutions online, and had heard some suggestions that adding a sound to the alarm caused problems, but that didn’t seem to fix it for me (not that silent alarms are a great solution anyway). I was really stumped. Sometimes it worked, and sometimes it didn’t, and instead of entering my appointment in whatever app I pleased, I was now having to check and double-check on multiple devices just to make sure there really, truly seemed to be an alarm set somewhere.

Let me tell ye: this should have been a huge red flag. A rather important component of my workflow (the one responsible for not forgetting to be somewhere) had essentially stopped working, and while I had spent many hours trying to fix it, I let it continue to be broken. I was smart enough to stop trusting it, but I didn’t replace its function.

Late that night after the meeting, I created a bunch of calendars in iCloud, and gave them the same names and colors as my Google calendars. Then I changed all the appointments pertaining to the upcoming show I’m doing from the Google calendars to their new iCloud equivalents.

Now let me tell ye: I don’t really have great faith in iCloud. It’s no better than MobileMe, which was not much better than dotMac. But I always felt that MobileMe’s calendar syncing was a little more reliable, which is only natural when you’re using apps designed for it, rather than relying on support between two companies’ implementations of calendar standards. The only advantage to using Google Calendar, as far as I could tell, was if I wanted to share calendars. And let me tell ye, I have hardly ever shared my calendars, and definitely won’t need to in the kind of jobs I’ll be doing in the near future. It would also be very easy to convert back. Just a checkbox to turn the account back on in iCal, and one of those blue switchy-things on the iPhone to turn calendar syncing back on for my Google Apps account.

So far things feel a little safer. I am by no means saying that iCloud is a superior platform to Google Apps. On email features alone, I declare it is not. But the most important thing in my workflow should be to prevent data loss, because it could lead to absolute disaster for me and whatever production I’m working on. Sometimes that means picking the safer solution. It’s why I’ve never used Google to sync my contacts — it adds an extra layer of syncing between Address Book and Google, and in 12 years of syncing contacts, if I’ve learned anything it’s that they love to either disappear or inexplicably get duplicated 5 times, and it’s even more fun when field names get mixed up. Since my contacts are just for my own use, I prefer to go from an app to a cloud service to an app that are all designed to work together.

Anyway, my point in posting this is not specifically to talk about which calendar syncs better. The point is that I failed to fix something that was broken in my workflow — I guess because I was stubborn, or because I was afraid of breaking something else by switching formats — and it caused me to become disorganized and nearly make a major mistake. So I present this cautionary tale to anyone who relies on computers as much as I do, or on non-computer routines, for that matter. If something is preventing you from staying organized, fix it. If your thing is that you stick post-its on your corkboard, and you run out of post-its, run to the store and buy more. If your new corkboard makes the post-its fall off, stick them on with push-pins until you figure something out. Don’t stop using the post-its!

Also, it’s a good idea to look at your calendar before you go to bed.

I think this article may elicit some FAQs, so:

Why is Google Apps better than iCloud (for you)?
What I meant about the email being superior is best expressed in this Apple knowledgebase thingy. In short, MobileMe email would not push changes in status other than the arrival of a new message. So if you got 2 emails and read them on your computer, and then deleted them, your phone would still show two new emails until you actually opened the Mail app, at which point it would connect to the server and the emails would be marked read and then disappear off to the trash. Now imagine you’re on a train, and don’t have access to the server. Even more annoying.

Google mail had no such problem — all changes get pushed instantly, so you never have false unread mail alerts, and everything is in the folder where it belongs. Thus proving it’s never been a problem with the phone, with multitasking, or anything else. It’s just that MobileMe sucked. I had hoped that iCloud, whose only selling point was basically “MobileMe, but without the suck,” would fix this behavior. It didn’t. And that knowledgebase article basically says, “yeah, we meant for it to be this way.” So I no longer use any of my old dotMac/MobileMe/iCloud email addresses because it’s so annoying, and clearly not likely to change. Also with Google Apps I can use my own domain name for my email address, and that’s nice. Plus, if I someday didn’t want to use Gmail, I can keep my address and take it somewhere else.

So why don’t you just use Google Apps for everything and forget the syncing to iCal and Address Book?
Because I hate web apps. I do not trust the web, or the cloud, at all. Its only use for PIM (which is a term that’s never used anymore, but it means personal information management, and it’s a useful phrase), is to create local copies of my data simultaneously on all my devices. If it can’t be saved, accessed, and edited offline, and then successfully synced later without fucking everything up, I don’t want it. There are a disturbing number of places where I have to do my business without any internet access, so I prefer to work in well-designed local apps that stay in sync with each other, rather than in web apps that might try to throw in offline access as some kind of afterthought.

I like to know that if my tenuous hold on 1KB of bandwidth is severed while I’m entering data, I’m not going to lose anything, I don’t need to stop working, and I won’t be prevented from accessing data I’ve already entered. Also, I like purpose-built apps that are well designed and reliable at the tasks they were built to do. Sure I could use a browser as an email client. I could also use Photoshop as a word processor.

The only time I appreciate the existence of web apps is when I need to access something from somebody else’s computer, and when I do it’s very useful, but those occasions are rare. Also, they always seem to involve something about a printer that can’t be accessed except from the office computer. So yes, a great option to have in your back pocket, but I’m not comfortable with it as my primary method of working with my data.

You’re insane, you know that?
I offer this FAQ only as an explanation of why I personally have dismissed other available options. My way is far from being the most appropriate solution for everyone.

October 30, 2011

Review: Leopold Tenkeyless Otaku Keyboard

I call this: computers,tech — Posted by KP @ 9:11 am


Months ago, I published a review of the Das Keyboard Ultimate Silent, one of the most popular mechanical keyboards available in the US. At the end of the review I said that I was returning the keyboard because while I loved it, the keypad was mostly useless to me and getting in the way of my mouse, and I was looking to get one of the “tenkeyless” designs popular with Asian manufacturers.

So I did. Months ago. And I took these pictures. Months ago. I wrote the bulk of a review. Months ago. And I have no idea why, but I just never got around to putting it all together. And I’m glad I didn’t, because what ended up happening is that last month Das put up this special offer on Reddit where you could buy a keyboard and they’d send you all kinds of swag, and that was enough to get me to do something about the fact that I’d been missing the feel of the Das for months. The other thing that made my initial reason for not purchasing it irrelevant is that Mac OS X Lion made the traditional mouse pointless, so I had stopped using one anyway, making plenty of room for the keypad.

So anyway, I went back to using the Das for my MacBook Pro, and my other purchase, the Leopold Tenkeyless, is now on my gaming rig. It’s not a particularly good choice for a gaming keyboard, but since I use the machine for less strenuous gaming these days, I’d been looking for something small and solid to replace the giant Logitech G15 I’ve had forever.


Leopold’s style is very similar to another manufacturer, Filco, which is generally considered to be a little bit higher-quality than Leopold. I really can’t comment on that, because I’ve never used one, but that assessment seems to be more-or-less universal.

Despite that, the Leopold has a few advantages:

  • the USB cable detaches from the keyboard, which makes it a little easier to transport, and I suppose you could replace the cable if you wanted/needed to.
  • It also has notches for the cable to run in to the left or right, if your setup works better having the cable come out either side instead of straight out the back.
  • There’s no branding on it at all, which some people like. I don’t mind as long as it looks good.
  • The lights for caps lock, num lock and scroll lock are blue LEDs built into the buttons. I think they look much classier than the Filco, which has basic LEDs on the upper-right of the board.

The Leopold feels very well constructed. It’s surprisingly heavy, and doesn’t scoot around on the desk. It manages to preserve traditional keyboard dimensions without wasting any space. It’s a great keyboard for tiny work areas, or work areas you’d like to be able to expand by shoving the keyboard out of the way easily.


In the keyboard community, Otaku is a Japanese word (which means “enthusiast”), which has come to mean having no markings on the keys. It’s the same thing as the “Ultimate” in the Das Keyboard Ultimate. Some people like it because it makes you look like a keyboarding ninja. Others like it because it keeps their less keyboard-savvy friends, coworkers and relatives from using their computer. Honestly I like it because I think the printing on most mechanical keyboards is ugly.

While I touch-type, sometimes hunting and pecking is useful, like when typing in a password, or other sequence of keys that you really don’t want to screw up on the first try. So there are disadvantages to having Otaku keys, but I still think it’s cool. It might bother me more if my primary computer wasn’t a laptop. Any time I really need the keys labeled I reach up to the keyboard that’s right in front of me.

Custom Keycaps

The keyboard as pictured in these photos isn’t how it comes. The keys are supposed to be all black. I bought a set of custom orange keycaps on eBay. One of my complaints about the Leopold keys was that the little ridges on the default F and J keys were very small and hard to feel. On a normal keyboard this might be a minor complaint, but when there are no letters to see, you need a little more reassurance that you’re on the right keys. I also felt that relative to the Das, the keys felt lighter and cheaper. I know the Leopold uses ABS plastic, I’m not sure if Das uses the better PBT plastic. It’s entirely possible they don’t. My orange keys are PBT, which helped, but it still doesn’t feel as good as the Das. I’ve never quite been able to put my finger on it, but something makes it more comfortable to type on. It might be the shape or angle of the keys, or the spacing.


When it comes down to giving an actual recommendation, I don’t really know what to say. There are a lot of good things about this board. I haven’t been able to try its most direct competitor, the Filco Majestouch 2, but I suspect you do indeed get what you pay for. There are subtle design differences, which are a matter of personal preference, but the Filco is on average about $30 more, and based on what people say, that seems to be reflected in a slightly higher-quality product. The Leopold is not cheap crap, by any means. It’s just something to be aware of, depending on what your priorities are.

I also can’t really tell you what’s wrong with it. I’ve heard critical things about it having a noisy spacebar, “mushy” enter or backspace keys, or that the Cherry brown switches don’t have a good tactile bump. I don’t find any of that to be true. There may be other keyboards that feel better, but there’s no defect I can point to. Still, it just doesn’t feel “right” to me. If I had never used the Das for two weeks, I might not have ever thought about it. But honestly, I used the Leopold as my primary keyboard for three months, and I couldn’t get the feel of the Das out of my head. It’s not a very scientific opinion, but take it for what it’s worth.

Where to Buy

If you’re in the US and interested in purchasing a Leopold, pretty much the only place to get it is from EliteKeyboards. Their stock and availability of different styles and switch options fluctuates, but they recently added some new models, including an all-white version.

If you want a Filco, Amazon is your best bet, as a middleman to some overseas retailers such as The Keyboard Company in the UK. And they support Amazon Prime, which is great if you’re a member. Try this link for a selection of what’s available. You can also find individuals selling used boards on there.

And if you want a Das Keyboard, you can buy directly from Das, or from other retailers like Amazon. J&R in Manhattan has at least some of the variants for sale, where you can try them in person.

July 10, 2011

“The Mac is Kicking Ass” Music Video

I call this: computers,mac,tech — Posted by KP @ 1:36 pm

OK, I’m not a huge fan of autotune, or stupid YouTube videos, and I clicked on this one with very low expectations, but it won me over with its charming tune and visuals.

It’s Phil Schiller at Apple’s recent WWDC, auto-tuned and set to music.*

In other news, I am impatiently awaiting the release of Mac OS X Lion, rumored for July 14, which is 4 days from now, and entirely too far away. I think perhaps I should watch the WWDC keynote again to refresh my memory about how some of the new features work so I can get down to business once it’s installed.

*one note: for some reason the video uses a clip of the $129 price tag. That was part of Phil showing what OS upgrades used to cost. Lion, like Snow Leopard before it, is $29. Much more kick-ass.

May 27, 2011

Keyboard Review: Das Keyboard Ultimate (Silent)

I call this: computers,tech — Posted by KP @ 7:50 pm

When I got home from the road, I was determined to celebrate having a desk. As in, having the same desk every day, not something that passes for a desk in a hotel room or on a bus. The first way I went about celebrating was to research buying a new keyboard for my laptop. I want to give my laptop more of a desktop-like experience when plugged in at home, with a real keyboard and mouse, and multiple monitors.

What I have

I have a gaming keyboard (one of the original G15s from Logitech) which is connected to my PC, but when it comes to other keyboards in my household, I have an old and broken Apple Pro Keyboard in graphite somewhere in the bottom of my closet, a slightly less-old and not-broken Apple Pro Keyboard in white, and some crappy miniature backlit keyboard that I found on sale for $20 on the road three years ago. Aside from the G15, none of these are what could be called pleasant to type on. The G15 is decent, but it was needed for gaming, and I’ve always thought if ever I got the hell off the road, I wanted a really nice mechanical keyboard, one that would be geared towards writing, not for gaming.

Keyboard snobbery

While not as rabid as some fans, I did grow up typing on the old IBM Model M keyboards, so I did feel some nostalgia towards mechanical keyboards, although I definitely did not want a Model M replica (which are still made by Unicomp, and can be seen here).

The first thing I want to say about keyboard snobbery is that if you feel you may take keyboards a little too seriously, you need to head on over to geekhack.org. There you will find a forum filled with people who know everything about every kind of keyboard out there. I learned much in just a few days of lurking. They also sell and trade obscure keyboards and parts, and there are wikis and reviews with more information, too.

Two other forums I’ve found with some good info are at Overclock.net (especially The Mechanical Keyboard Guide, which is a great resource for beginners trying to choose a keyboard), and HardForum.com which has more opinions and reviews.

Probably the first decision you have to make when choosing a mechanical keyboard is what kind of switches you want. The most common and cost-effective ones are made by Cherry, and are designated by the color of the plastic used for the top of the switch, which indicates the design of the internals. That guide I posted above from Overclock demonstrates the differences between each color. I should also mention that when I say “cost-effective,” bear in mind that mechanical keyboards are expensive. That’s why hardly anybody makes them anymore. They’re pretty much always going to be over $100, and the ones that use better switches than Cherry are usually going to be over $200.

When first researching, I was thinking I was interested in Cherry blues, which are recommended for typing (not so much for gaming), and have that nice loud, annoying click sound that mechanical keyboards were originally known for. They are highly not recommended if you plan to use your keyboard at work or in a home where other people will be able to hear you clacking away. But since I live alone and planned to keep my keyboard at home, I thought I would revel in the satisfying click of every letter I typed.

Slightly more popular than blues are Cherry browns, which are similar to the blues, but without the click. The thing people like about the blues is that they have an audible and tactile indication of when the keypress registers (which is about halfway through the press, not when it bottoms out). The browns have only a tactile bump, and no sound. That’s not to say they’re totally silent, but they don’t purposely produce noise. If you were really trying to type quietly, you can do it as well or maybe even better than you could on any other keyboard. But if you’re typing vigorously, you do get a heart-warming clickity-clack from pressing the keys down if you bottom out, and the noise of the key bouncing back up.

Trying it out

One of the few mechanical keyboards easily available in the US is the Das Keyboard, which was originally famous for having no markings at all on its keys — just a sea of blank black keys. These days they also sell a model that has letters printed on it, but I didn’t see the point of going halfway if you’re going to buy a badass keyboard.

At first this was what I thought I wanted — they sell both the printed and non-printed keyboards with blue or brown switches. But when I started to read reviews I got directed to the fine forums I mentioned above for recommendations of even higher-quality keyboards. I had a lot of choices to make.

While inspecting my options for purchase, I was looking at the Das on Amazon, and noticed the version I had put in my shopping cart was supplied by J&R Computers. And I was like, “reeeaaaalllly?” So I took a non-virtual shopping trip to J&R and played with both the blue- and brown-switched versions in person. I also came prepared with a thorough knowledge of their return policy (14 days), and a determination to buy a keyboard, whether I ended up liking it or not.

Decisions, Decisions

I went back and forth between the blue and the brown. The clicks of the blues were fun, but I found myself not really liking the feel of it. It’s very hard to tell in a store — I’ve never experienced a new keyboard that I liked typing on right away. But I found somehow the clicks were actually confusing and distracting me. I’m sure I would have figured it out, given enough practice. I also felt the slightly greater weight needed to depress the keys was making my fingers feel a little overworked. What really surprised me about the whole experience was not that I didn’t like the blues right away, but that I did like the browns. They didn’t feel mushy to me, they just felt like they would stay out of my way instead of making the experience of typing all about them. So I decided that since I wasn’t locked into my decision anyway, it might be the braver choice to take home the keyboard I thought I didn’t want, and make it prove to me that something was wrong with it. Also, in the back of my mind I was aware that the browns are more popular, and if I liked them I would have a wider range of options when looking at other models.

So I took home my Das Keyboard Ultimate Silent edition.

The Review

The first thing I’m going to say is that I’m not keeping it. It’s not that it’s a bad keyboard. I actually like it a lot. The real dealbreaker for me is that I don’t want the number pad. A bunch of other manufacturers offer a “tenkeyless” version, which is an otherwise full-size keyboard with the number pad lopped off. The idea being that if you don’t need a number pad you can slide the keyboard more to the right without pushing your mousepad miles away, which allows you to have the actual typing part of your keyboard more centered on your screen, and your mouse closer at hand, which just makes a whole lot of sense. The moment I got the Das home, I tried to slide it more in front of my screen and it crashed into my mousepad and I thought, “this would be perfect if I could just have those four inches back.” So I knew right away I had to go with another manufacturer. I just thought I should get that out of the way, because my decision not to keep it is really separate from my opinion of it as a very nice keyboard.


The body is shiny black plastic, and the keys are matte black. This contrast is really sexy. I’ve read a lot of reviews that criticize the piano finish because it collects dust and fingerprints. Yeah, it does. They actually include a lint-free cloth in the package, which is nice. It’s really a personal decision. If it makes you happy to look at your keyboard and think, “damn that looks really sexy,” then I think you should spend 30 seconds dusting it off every couple days. If you don’t want to put that much work into it, then you might prefer something that will never look as good, but also will never look as bad when not cleaned. I personally like it, and it’s actually the one thing I will miss from going with another model.

The other nice aesthetic touch is the way the caps lock, scroll lock and num lock lights show up. They’re below the logo on the upper-right, but you can’t see them at all unless they’re illuminated. I took the picture with the caps lock on so you can see. It’s hard to tell, but the icons are bright blue.

In general, mechanical keyboards are heavier than others, which is quite fun, as long as you’re not carrying it somewhere all the time. It feels very substantial and sturdy. I like to use the flip-out feet on all my keyboards, and these stand nice and firm.

The one thing I find a little weird about the physical design is the two USB ports on the right side. Having additional USB ports close at hand is always useful, but I don’t like that you have to plug in two plugs in order for this to work (one carrying the keyboardy-stuff, and one just for the two USB ports). I’m sure there’s a reason all the data and/or power can’t be passed through a single connection, and the Das doesn’t appear to be the only high-end keyboard that operates this way, but it’s just a little bit of a disappointment. If you’re a little short on empty USB ports, you should know that in order to fully use this keyboard, you will lose two slots. This wasn’t a real problem for me. Mainly I felt that it made the lack of a USB hub on the other keyboards I was considering less of a negative. In my case my laptop and a 7-port hub sit mere inches from my keyboard, so it’s not like I need ports on my keyboard to save me from having to reach down under my desk or something. If that sounds like your situation, then you may appreciate the Das more. It also comes with quite a long cable, if you need to have your computer far from your keyboard. It’s a single cable until it splits to two USB plugs at the end. The cable is slightly thicker than normal, but not ridiculous.

Typing Experience – switches

As I said, I took home the one with Cherry brown switches, to find out exactly what it is that makes them so popular. I was quickly sold. I am a bit curious to try the blues longer-term, but I’m pretty convinced that I will truly enjoy the experience of typing on the browns more, whereas the blues would be more for nostalgia and making me work harder, just so I can think “look I’m typing on a really expensive mechanical keyboard” with every keystroke, instead of, you know, thinking about what I’m writing.

Typing Experience – blank keys

The other big gamble I was taking, which is why I was glad for the opportunity to easily test-drive the Das, was whether I would enjoy typing on the blank keys. I am a touch-typer, but I’m the craziest touch-typer you’ve probably ever seen. When I was in school we learned all the ASDF / JKL; techniques (I can still hear the voice of the nun who taught our typing class reciting those letters over and over). I know how to properly touch-type, but somewhere along the way found it was faster to just assign fingers to keys on the fly, based on whatever was most convenient for the word I was typing. I guess the best way to describe it is that I find the keys not based on fingers (as in, the “E” is the key above my left middle finger), but based on where the “E” is relative to the whole keyboard. It’s weird, but it works for me, and when I broke the tip of my right index finger, I typed for months using just my middle finger and ring finger, without any real decrease in speed, making my typing look even more ridiculous than normal and confusing the hell out of everyone I worked with.

I still need to have my bearings relative to the whole keyboard when I start, so I’m very grateful that the Das has nice thick ridges on the bottom of the F and J keys, which can be a visual or touch-based reminder of where everything is. Normally when I start typing I get my bearings by looking at the key I want to start with, and I can actually still do that without the letters most of the time, but I find myself using the ridges for guidance more than normal on the Das.

The scarier part of having no markings is the numbers and symbols. I think most people probably don’t bother to memorize that, and usually are hunting and pecking when typing them. I’ve had to use a little trial-and-error on those sometimes, but I’m doing pretty well. Also, in my particular case, I still have my laptop within reach, and in situations where I really need to type something correctly on the first try (like typing in a password that doesn’t display on screen), I can reach over and type it on my laptop instead.

I’ll be the first person to admit that the whole concept behind the original Das Keyboard was “look what a badass computer geek I am, I don’t need anything written on my keys,” and if you get the Ultimate Editions, that’s still the point. Another common reason people like them is that it’s good for keeping other people from using your computer, because if they can’t type on it, they won’t bug you to use it. This is a brilliant strategy, however since I’m using it at home it doesn’t really benefit me.

Frankly, I think plain black keyboards with white lettering are kind of boring. I’m more accustomed to gaming keyboards that have colorful backlit keys and interesting body designs. I think the blank keys are the only thing that can make otherwise ordinary-looking keyboards look cool, so I was more inclined to get the blank keys for that reason, rather than to show off (to nobody, in my apartment) how I can type without the letters. So yeah, it’s just because I think it looks slick and streamlined, it doesn’t have any function. There are also manufacturers (Realforce and Happy Hacking) that have nearly black-on-black lettering by default, and that looks almost as good, while still basically having the slick all-black appearance, plus the ability to see what the hell you’re doing if you need to. They are both, as the kids say, mad expensive. Unrelated to the color of the keys, they feature the higher-end Topre switches and are close to $300. A number of other mechanical keyboards feature blank keys as an option, mostly those made in Asia, where the style is known as otaku (enthusiast).

Anyway, my assessment of the blank keys is that they don’t impede my use of the keyboard in any serious way. I did some basic online typing tests in the first couple days I had the keyboard and was scoring on average about 75wpm on a keyboard I just got, and that was with tons of mistakes that seemed to come more as a result of an unfamiliar keyboard (i.e. not knowing how far apart the keys are or how much pressure they require) than from anything about the board itself. Those kind of things would quickly improve just from getting used to the dimensions of the key layout.

Wait a Minute, What About the Razer BlackWidow?

The other mechanical keyboard relatively easily-purchased in the US is the new BlackWidow from gaming peripheral maker Razer. You may have noticed from this blog that I own a lot of Razer products. The BlackWidow Ultimate is a gaming keyboard with Cherry blue switches, full backlighting, macro keys, USB and headphone/mic connections, media keys, powerful software, and all that good stuff you’d expect in a gaming keyboard.

When I first thought to myself, “I want to treat myself to a new keyboard when I get home,” this was the one I had in mind. It had just come out, and it sounded great. But I’ve heard some so-so things about the quality on them, and the more I started to re-think how I would make my desk more user-friendly, it became more about a compact and comfortable keyboard for my laptop, rather than sharing a gaming keyboard with my PC.

I have kind of a love-hate relationship with Razer. They make great gaming products, but honestly if you’re not using them for gaming, they can kind of be a pain in the ass. The drivers and software are just added complications. I’ve ranted on this subject before. Yes, for gaming you need that kind of programmability, but I like to live a little leaner when working.

I wasn’t going to buy the BlackWidow just for typing on my laptop, and in that case, I’d wind up gaming with it, and using the G15 for my laptop, which then ends me up with a mediocre typing experience instead of a great one, so what would be the point of spending all that money? And to be honest, I’m not doing the kind of serious gaming where having something better than the G15 would matter anymore.

The things I’d been hearing about the quality control on the BlackWidow made me nervous. There will be somebody saying something bad about any product, and others who will say they have no problems, but I was wary. It needs to type. You press a key, it makes a letter. And I knew from the half-dozen or so Razer products I own, they have probably totally over-thought things and in their enthusiasm, endangered its ability to reliably put characters on a screen. I don’t mean this to be a total trash-Razer post, I’m enjoying using several Razer products just in the course of writing this post, but I came to the conclusion that what I wanted most from this particular purchase called for a manufacturer with their priorities in different places.

That being said, the BlackWidow is very feature-rich, competitively priced (including the non-Ultimate version without backlighting and USB/headphone connections, which is very cheap at $80), and is probably the most widely-available mechanical keyboard in the US right now.

Other Options

I really intended this mostly to be a review of the Das Keyboard, but for a very brief look at what else is out there, the main competition is Filco, Leopold, Realforce, Happy Hacking and Ducky. I haven’t linked to any of these, you will note, because most of them are so hard to get, and so often out of stock, that I doubt any links I gave you would remain reliable. Googling may be your best bet. Amazon also has some, but the stock is usually very limited and pretty much always from third-party sellers, so it seems to be very hit-or-miss.

EliteKeyboards is a small US-based company that imports high-end keyboards and accessories from Asia. I have made my decision and ordered a Leopold Cherry brown tenkeyless otaku keyboard from them. Oh, fine, here’s the link, but good luck with that. I’ll save my discussion about why I chose it for a review of that, once I get it and have some time with it.

Basic Keyboard Tip for Macs

I know I have a lot of Mac-owning readers, and I just want to make sure you’re aware of a sort-of-buried system preference setting for using third-party keyboards.

Most PC keyboards you plug in will map the option key as the command key, and vice-versa. There’s a really simple fix for this:

  • Go to System Preferences / Keyboards
  • Click the button “Modifier Keys”
  • Select your keyboard in the pull-down menu if it’s not already
  • Set the option key to be command and command to be option
  • Click OK, and you’ll never have to worry about it again

These directions are taken from Snow Leopard, but hopefully are pretty consistent among all recent OSes.

May 17, 2011

Evernote Use Cases

I call this: computers,mac,pc,phones,tech,web — Posted by KP @ 9:44 pm

I made my first post about Evernote back in August, as I was preparing for the last Acting Company tour. If you’re not familiar with Evernote, I suggest reading that first, as it will give you a basic idea of what the app does. In very brief, it stores and categorizes any text, document, photos, or other media you want, and makes them searchable and available on the cloud (and as a result can also sync with your phone and between your computers).

I had just begun using Evernote when I made my first post, and since then have mentioned it in passing on occasion. My assistant, Meaghan, and I had been sharing Evernote notes during the tour, as well as keeping our own individual notes about various things related to the show. Now that the tour is complete and I’ve been using Evernote for about nine months, I finally feel prepared to really write about how I use it, not how I thought I would use it. So I went through all my notes to sum up which ones are/were most useful.

Like most things in my life, I find I can divide it into three categories: work, personal, and technology. So that’s how I’m going to break it up. Behold!


  • Cast checklist This is by far the most useful single note in my Evernote. All it is is a list of the full names of the cast, with a checkbox by each one. Initially this can be used as a reference for remembering people’s first and last names, and checking spelling. Once you get to the point where you know everybody’s name, it’s basically used for taking a headcount, or marking off when things have been completed for each actor (such as if you were making labels for their valuables bags). I think it’s fair to say that Meaghan and I used this note nearly every day, very often multiple times per day.
  • Other checklists Some other uses of the handy checklist features of Evernote are for prop presets, pre- or post-show checklists, and one of my favorites, the list of things needing to be run at fight call, and the actors and weapons needed for each one.
  • Rule books and contracts I tend to also have these files on my DropBox, but this is something that is worth the redundancy, I think. I keep the PDFs of all applicable Equity rule books, contracts, riders, letters of agreement, etc.
  • Codes On the TAC tour we had a note filled with all the codes we’d accumulated over the tour: copier codes, combination locks for our road boxes, door unlock codes, bus door codes, computer usernames and passwords, etc.
  • Procedures How to do things you might otherwise forget how to do. An example of this would be on The Comedy of Errors, we used the house’s main curtain in our show. In theatres where that wasn’t possible or desirable we had an alternate set of lighting cues. In theory they were written into the show file. But I kept a note with the designer’s original notes of all the changes made to the original show file to create the curtainless cues, as well as a breakdown of the steps that needed to be taken to make the routine switch between the curtain show and the non-curtain show.
  • “People Who Have Gotten Screwed” I have a note with this title, which is simply a list of names (there were three by the end of the tour). The gist is that when somebody gets arbitrarily screwed (like there’s no way to make the schedule without somebody having a four-hour break in the middle of their day), the person who gets screwed gets their name on this list. The next time that kind of decision has to be made, if there are multiple people who could potentially be screwed, a person with their name on this list will be passed over for screwing.
  • Interview or initial hiring notes When somebody first calls me about a job, I use Evernote to take down quick notes about the name of the show, who’s involved, where it’s being done, the dates, and salary if known.
  • Quotes I kept a list of all the funny quotes that came up during the tour.
  • Directions and maps I’ve got some notes with maps and written directions for how to get to various venues and rehearsal studios.
  • Truck pack info I didn’t end up using this as much as I intended to (probably due to not being able to type on my iPhone with my gloves on), but I had a note for documenting our truck pack, which could be lists of the order items come on in, as well as pictures of various sections of the pack to show how the items fit together.
  • Travel info / itineraries Any time I got a flight itinerary (which sometimes was way in advance), I threw it in Evernote and didn’t worry about it again, knowing I would always know where to find it when I needed it.
  • Notes for reports On more informal shows, I take my notes for the rehearsal / performance report on my phone if it’s not convenient to have my computer out. It’s also handy for making lists of questions to ask the director, or for topics to bring up at a production meeting. Then when I get home or back to my computer, I can process them more appropriately.
  • Exit interview notes While on tour, I knew that at the end of the season I would be brought in for a meeting with the general manager to discuss what was good and bad, what had improved or not since last year, and so forth. I’m pretty terrible at remembering these kind of things six months after they happen, so from the start of the tour I kept a note with all these thoughts.


  • Shopping lists Definitely my favorite in this category. Great for quick, disposable lists like groceries, and also for long-term shopping that I might not get to for a while, like things I want to get for my apartment.
  • Movie and book recommendations Any time I hear about a book or movie I might like, I go to my “Books” or “Movies” notes and jot down the title and maybe a reminder of what it’s about, or the author. This helps me not to forget things that I’m interested in, because when I’m in need of some new entertainment, I can just go down the list and head over to Netflix or to bn.com to see if any are available.
  • Insurance information I have a note with various information about my health insurance plan, and another covering my eye doctor visits last year. I haven’t needed to reference them yet, but it will be very handy over time to have documented when my last check-up was, the doctor’s name, etc.


  • All useful infomation My most prized note in this category sums up everything there is to know about my Mom and Dad’s technological lives. I did a total revamp of their house quite a few years back, and do periodic upgrades and maintenance on their computers and network. Naturally I don’t always remember all the details, so I have a file that has all their various usernames and passwords, router names and passwords, wi-fi network name and password, and computer names. I use this all the time when I’m over at their house.
  • Ink cartridge information This could be as simple as a line of text with the cartridge numbers, but I prefer to take a snapshot of the printers’ ink cartdrige, mostly because it’s faster to take the picture than to transcribe the information. Also it gives you visual confirmation of what the cartridge should look like, which is sometimes helpful.
  • Troubleshooting procedures When something goes wrong with my stuff and I find the directions to solve it online, I generally make a note with that information, if I feel like it’s something I won’t remember if it ever happens again.
  • Terminal commands and other shortcuts Ever find something online like “just type ____________ in the terminal to get this really useful option”? That’s great. Until you reinstall your OS or get a new computer, and then you forget all about that thing you cut-and-pasted two years ago. So I have a single note (which used to be a Word document I dragged around from computer to computer) that holds all of these.
  • Specs of my computer I have one that’s just a screenshot of the item description of the last batch of RAM I bought. I’m pretty bad at remembering my computers’ specs over time, so I keep them in various notes. This also includes serial numbers and MAC addresses.
  • Product keys I really keep all my product keys in 1Password, but when I first get something I often snap a photo of the product key if it’s on the box or the CD or whatever. That way I can be sure I don’t lose it or accidentally throw it out before putting it into 1Password.
  • Configuration info The one that saves me the most time is the settings for Coda, which is the web development software I use. There’s a configuration screen that allows the app to access the local and remote versions of this site, and every time I have to re-enter that information I screw it all up. So now I have it in a note, with a screenshot of how everything should be filled in.


These are the notes I’ve found most useful. Evernote can really be used for whatever you want. For instance, I don’t make any attempt to make it a task manager, as I have the much more powerful and dedicated OmniFocus for that. I wouldn’t say that I’m a power user of Evernote. I do have the $5/month Premium subscription, which allows me gazillions of gaziggabytes of uploads (I believe that’s the technical term) per month (which is more necessary when you’re uploading photos), but I rarely have really needed that subscription. I think about bumping back to the free version (Evernote is fantastic about not making you lose any of your stored data if you decide to go back to free), but I keep thinking “it’s just $5” and I like the app so much. And I really don’t want to lose the 150×150 pixels or whatever it is that the ads take up. But if you were on a budget, you could easily survive the workflow that I normally use on the free account.

December 25, 2010

Why it’s Christmas Day, sir!

I call this: computers,gaming,On the Road Again,tech,theatre — Posted by KP @ 11:26 am

Tis Christmas morning. I have an 11AM (my time) video conference scheduled with my parents for the opening of gifts and exchanging of Christmas wishes. As crazy as that sounds, it actually works quite well. This will be our third consecutive year celebrating in this way. There are maybe a half-dozen presents sitting on my couch right now, the remnants of a large package that arrived at the Guthrie earlier in the week. Some of the contents were meant to be shared, like food, and a cute, and rather beautiful ornament with a palm tree and flamingo that my mom sent so we would have something warm to look at during the blizzard. So that stuff has been in the rehearsal room pretty much all week.

There are a few wrapped gifts that I have no idea about, and those are waiting for this morning. One of them is totally a portable pack of tissues. I’m pretty good at telling my mom’s traditional stocking stuffers just by weight and feel, so I try to pick them up very lightly so as not to give it away. But I grabbed the tissues a little too forcefully and spoiled the surprise. I also got one for Thanksgiving/Christmas, which is the other holiday the Parlato clan celebrates on the Acting Company schedule, in which there is a tree, and presents, and family members all see each other face-to-face and have a big dinner together. The only difference is we celebrate it on Thanksgiving because that’s when I’m in town. That’s when the real presents are exchanged.

Last year my big gift was a super-warm coat from Eddie Bauer. It’s still awesome. I have yet to be cold this year. This year I couldn’t really figure out what I wanted until a few days before, when I decided to get something not very exciting, not something I can take on the road, but practical: a 2TB hard drive and enclosure for my desk at home. I was doing a little too much juggling of files between all my hard drives (aside from my Time Machine drive, which is half a terabyte, all the others are either 160 or 320GB) and it was starting to get dangerous in terms of losing track of data and deleting something. So now I have a place that can hold everything, and it’s also at a different location (usually) than my primary drives, so it’s safe against theft or other destruction. Of course I got an enclosure that’s very Mac-like and attractive. It has USB, FW400 & 800, and SATA. The HD is from Western Digital, which is my go-to brand in the superstitious art of deciding who to trust with your data (Fujitsu is the other brand I’ll buy if I have to, and in fact is what my Time Machine drive is). I only had a week to play with it and dump all my files onto it before leaving town, but so far it seems great.

For myself for Christmas, while ordering gifts for everybody else, I finally bought myself an account for Eve Online. I’ve gone through at least three 14-day trials trying to learn the damn game enough to where I could even decide if I liked it or not. I like the idea of a game that’s impossible to learn, but once you crack it open the possibilities become kind of limitless. The last trial I just finished convinced me that it was indeed fun, although there’s so much I have yet to learn, it’s really hard to tell long-term. The other thing it convinced me of is that it has really low bandwidth requirements, and at least in the small battles I’ve been involved in, can actually run in virtualization so well that you forget it’s not Boot Camp.

It seems like the perfect game for somebody on the road with questionable internet. If nothing else, you can log in for a few minutes a day to set your skills training, and still be progressing all day long. If I were home with a real computer, I don’t necessarily think I’d prefer it over Fallen Earth or Battleground Europe, but it seems to me like a game I can play without feeling like I’m fighting against my screen size, processor speed, lack of peripherals and bandwidth. Great FPS action is nice, but it requires all those things or else it totally sucks and you spend all your time pissed off that you got killed by lag or your connection dropped out just as you were supposed to do something really cool.

Also, despite my ranting about Parallels (I still think they’re greedy bastards), out of curiosity, when I started playing Eve pretty seriously a few weeks back, I tried it in Parallels 5 to compare it to Fusion. Perhaps not surprisingly, it ran a little better. I also really prefer Parallels’ UI, and the feature “modality” which shrinks your windows screen into a tiny semi-transparent floating window that you can keep an eye on and click things in. So having discovered a game I could actually play — and enjoy playing — without ever booting into Boot Camp, I decided that tipped the balance a bit, and I went back to using Parallels. After a few days of wonder at the miracle of virtualized gaming finally being playable, I took my $10 coupon that had been clogging my inbox, and bought Parallels 6 for $40, which honestly is at least close to reasonable. My beef with them is not that they charge for yearly upgrades, but that they charge more than $40. Out of principle I had refused to buy it at all, but honestly I installed Parallels 6 and it was so much better than Fusion that the experience of being able to fully play an MMO while not only booted into OS X, but with enough power left over to use OS X normally, with the MMO running in the background in full screen… well, it’s amazing. So I didn’t even do the whole trial of Parallels before I put the money down. If you’re interested, the upgrade price is $40 until the end of the year. And as I said in that link above, I needed to buy 8GB of RAM to make Parallels really run flawlessly, so that’s another requirement of getting this to work. It was a great investment, though.

Eve really wouldn’t have been worth buying except that it works so damn well virtually. It’s really low-maintenance tour gaming. So I guess you could say Parallels was the other part that made my Christmas gift possible, though I think of it more in terms of being a LORTmas gift. LORTmas is kind of like Chanukah, actually, in that it’s not celebrated only on one day. I celebrate LORTmas every Thursday at midnight for our two months’ time at the Guthrie, when that sweet, sweet LORT B salary drops into our bank accounts. As I interpret it, the point of LORTmas is that it’s a time when if you want something you don’t really have to think about it, you can just say, “Of course I can afford that, it’s LORTmas!” Which ends up being great fun because sometimes you say that about enough things that you lose track of how much extra money LORTmas actually creates, and you’re like, “Where did my rent money go?” But that’s all part of the LORTmas spirit.

EDIT: OK, here’s the ornament:

I hope you’re all enjoying the holidays! Back to work for us tomorrow!

December 23, 2010

Dropbox is the Shiznit

I call this: computers,mac,pc,phones,tech,theatre — Posted by KP @ 10:57 pm

Over the past six months or so, I’ve written a couple posts which mentioned my interests in incorporating cloud computing into my stage management life a little more. I talked about the wonders and terrors of cloud computing in general, and mentioned in passing about the software Meaghan and I are using on this tour.

Over the summer — I don’t think I talked much about it — over the course of three productions, I quietly and tentatively began using Dropbox to store my folder of show files on the cloud. I used to use MobileMe’s iDisk for this purpose, but being slow as all hell, and just as likely to corrupt and delete your data as to save your bacon when you need remote access to a file, I would periodically back up to MobileMe, but never actually trust it with the primary copy of the show files.

At the urging of several of my colleagues (and readers), I tried out Dropbox. As I said in one of my other posts, “It’s just like MobileMe, except it works.” So while it’s redundant, it’s also completely life-changing. Over the summer I went from cautiously putting my show files on it while keeping backups elsewhere on my hard drive, to using it as the primary storage point. I also back up to a Time Machine drive, of course, so in theory there is an isolated copy that’s at most several days old, even if Dropbox totally fails and deletes an important file both from the server and from my local copy.

The Acting Company tour this year is the first production I’ve done where every file related to the show (except the backup of our SFX files, which is over 2GB) is kept on the Dropbox, and is shared with my ASM. The files are also stored locally, so we also have offline access to the most updated files on our hard drives, for those times when we’re in a basement theatre or the bus has driven into a patch of wilderness, without ever having to think about making manual backups or syncing.

For all intents and purposes, as far as the show is concerned, it’s like both our computers share a single hard drive. And our iPhones can access that drive if they need to, as well. It’s like the most exciting thing to happen to stage management since the headset. Only once have I seen a situation where we both tried to edit the same file at once, and it seemed to have been handled safely, if a little clumsily, with a copy being saved in each of our names. For the most part, Meaghan has things she keeps paperwork on, and I have others, so the odds of us needing to edit the same file at the same time are surprisingly low. We tend to reference each other’s paperwork a lot, but not necessarily collaborate heavily on the same thing. In a different situation the limitations of this system might get more annoying.

Also, here in Minneapolis, Meaghan has been using the Guthrie-provided laptop. She can’t install Dropbox on it, sadly, but can still access and upload files through a web browser, which is not nearly as convenient, but still a great option to have when you’re using somebody else’s computer that’s locked down.

My favorite story comes from the New York rehearsal process of R&J: we made a change to the script, and some hours or days later, I went to add the new text to our Word file of the script. When I got to the appropriate page there was a happy purple bubble pointing to the already changed text telling me that Meaghan had made such-and-such an edit on such-and-such a date. After last year’s extensive re-writes, which Nick and I took turns updating by emailing the file back and forth to each other (and having to be very meticulous about who had the absolute most current file), I was actually stumped for a moment at how this had happened. But it’s so simple. There is really only one copy of every file, so there’s virtually never an issue of “my copy”/”her copy.” We’ve been working this way for three months now, and I can’t imagine how stages were ever managed before this!

So I just want to say to any stage management team: Dropbox. Do it. It will change your life. In the good way!

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