Lessons Learned: essential apps, a few tips

I spent the past month on a ship out in the Gulf of Mexico serving as a data manager for a research expedition. I won’t bore you with details about what I was doing, but I want to share some observations about my computing experience. I brought aboard a new 15″ Macbook Pro running Leopard with a virtual install (using VMWare Fusion) of Windows 7 Beta. Windows was essential, as the database in which I did my day-to-day work was not Mac compatible. Here are some highlights:

Data sharing: While many of the people on the trip used Macs, several people used PCs. Among us, we probably had about 30 Terabytes or so of external disk storage. Problems arose when we needed to share data. The PC people’s drives were generally formatted in NTFS. The Mac people typically used HFS+. The NTFS-formatted drives would mount on a Mac, but were read-only. The HFS+ drives would not mount on Windows PCs. No one used the FAT32 format, which is the only format that I’m aware of that is read/write on both platforms. We ended up formatting a few drives in the FAT32 format so these drives could be moved around and shared. Since my disk was one of the external drives that had to be shared around more than others, my solution was to set it up with multiple partitions: an HFS+ partition to use for my SuperDuper Clone backup, and a FAT32 partition for shared data. One interesting note: I formatted a 1TB drive with multiple partitions on a Mac in a matter of minutes. In comparison, it took about eight hours to format a 1TB drive with one FAT partition on a very robust and powerful PC laptop. Egads.

Data backup: I was surprised that many people did not have a backup solution on the cruise. If their laptop tanked, they would not only potentially lose data, they would be out of commission for the duration of the expedition. I choose a cloned backup over Time Machine for this trip. The reason is simple: if something went terribly wrong with my laptop’s OS, I could at least boot from the cloned external drive and keep working until a point in time when I could take a time out to restore from the clone back. With Time Machine, I would have had to stop working until I solved the problem or restored the backup to the laptop (which can be very time consuming).

Force-eject a CD: It’s good to know how to do this. At one point during my trip, I placed a corrupted DVD in my SuperDrive and couldn’t get it to eject. Usually, I can get a stuck disc to pop out by evoking terminal and typing the command ‘drutil tray eject.’ That didn’t work. I tried disk utility. That didn’t work. The solution: I had to disconnect the drive from Windows, as it was in use by Windows via VMWare Fusion.

TextExpander: Data entry often entails typing the same thing over and over again. TextExpander is unbelievably useful for these sorts of repetitive tasks. In my case, I needed to paste the same blocks of text into my Windows database. I wasn’t sure if TextExpander would work from Mac to PC, but it did. It wasn’t as easy as it is on the Mac (i.e., I couldn’t use TextExpander abbreviations in Windows), but it did the job. Once I had TextExpander populated with a slew of repetitive text snippets, all I had to do was select a snippet from the Mac drop-down menu, then click on it to paste it to the clipboard, then paste into the relevant field in my Windows database. It was a bit cumbersome, but much easier than typing the same thing over and over again.

Screenshots: I was planning to use Little Snapper to capture screen shots, but found this application to be too cumbersome and bloated for my tastes. I like the idea behind Little Snapper. It looks great. But it just didn’t fit into my workflow. I found myself turning to Yellow Mug’s SnapnDrag. It’s tiny, unobtrusive, and does the job well. It stays out of the way. I’ve tried so many different screen shots apps, and I keep coming back to SnapnDrag.

iPhone: The only entertainment I brought on my trip was my iPhone. I brought music, books-on-tape, games, and some books to read via the Kindle and Stanza book reading apps. Overall, the iPhone did the job. I was duly entertained. The one exception is this: the tiny screen didn’t cut it for reading a book. It’s a nice idea. It’s not bad for quick reads like poetry or short stories. But it’s just not a comfortable or enjoyable experience when it comes to reading an entire book in my opinion. Next time I’ll bring a real book. Or perhaps I’ll have one of those Mac tablet-touchscreen-Kindlesque-thingies rumored to be just around the corner. Final point: the iPhone also served me well for screenshots on the go. In case you didn’t know this, if you press the two buttons on your iPhone or Touch at the same time, you device will take a snapshot of your screen and place the image in your Photo library. Very handy.

VMWare Fusion: I can’t speak highly enough about this app. The ability to seamlessly run Windows alongside my Mac, to switch back and forth on the fly, to share folders, and to drag-and-drop between the two operating systems was priceless. Perhaps we take this for granted now, but just a few short years ago this would have been unthinkable.

Entrain the brain

Now for something completely different.

Let’s talk about entrainment, the process by which wave frequencies in two or more interacting systems with different periods eventually lock into phase. You see it nature, for example, when fireflies start blinking together in unison. You hear it in music when different instruments in a jam session start to vibrate together in harmony. It even happens in our bodies. When you slow your breath, it leads to a slowing of heartbeat and brainwaves.

Now let’s talk about binaural beats. Binaural beats are perceived sounds which naturally arise in the brain when two slightly different frequencies are played separately into each ear. It’s best explained with an example: if you listen to a 405 Hz frequency (sine wave) in one ear and a 398 Hz wave in the other ear, your brainwaves will start to oscillate towards a frequency of 7 Hz, or the difference between the two sounds. This process happens through entrainment.

Here’s the interesting part: while human hearing is limited to an approximate range of frequencies between 20 Hz to 20,000 Hz, brainwave frequencies associated with relaxation, REM sleep, meditation, and deep sleep fall below the 20 Hz threshold.


What this means is that binaural beats can, in theory, be used to entrain your brain to frequencies that fall below perceived human hearing. If you search for brain entrainment on the Web, you’ll find a slew of articles, thing for sale, and wild claims. And I know of at least one institute that will gladly take lots of your money to provide you with a life-changing (patented) brain entrainment experience at their facility.

My interest is more casual. I first came across the idea of binaural beats and brain entrainment back in the early 1990s while researching a paper in college. I found the idea intriguing. I played around with an oscilloscope to observe two waves suddenly lock together after growing closer and closer together. I found the idea of it fascinating.

Then, at some point (the timeline is a bit fuzzy), I came across a sound editor called Syntrillium Cool Edit Pro. This was a classy PC audio editor that once, to my surprise, included a somewhat-obscure menu for creating sound files for brain entrainment using binaural beats and pink noise. I tried it. I liked it. While I didn’t have any crazy experiences, I did find that some of the files I created were effective for relaxation, meditation, and focus.

As I recall, the brain entrainment submenu disappeared at the next Cool Edit Pro software update after I started using it. I don’t know why. Then, years later, Cool Edit Pro was bought out by Adobe. It is now called Adobe Audition.

Fast forward to 2009. While the auditory intrigue of brain entrainment (or, more accurately, the effects of this technique) remains in the speculative and hypothetical range, there are now several choices for the PC and the iPhone/Touch to try this out for yourself. The desktop programs are nice, but these are audio-centric apps that require headphones. It should come as no surprise, then, that the iPhone/Touch apps really shine.

Here’s what you can get for your Mac, Windows, or Linux box

<1. SBaGen. (Mac, Linux, Windows) This is a good, free choice if you like to roll your own, are comfortable with the Terminal, and don’t mind getting your hands a bit dirty. There are sample sounds for backgrounds you can download at the site. If you want to have some fun, and are the type of person who likes the DIY ethic, try it out.

2. BrainWave Generator. (Windows only) This isn’t a Mac app, but I used it in my PC days. It hasn’t really changed at all since those days, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s like SBaGen, but it has a Windows user interface and is much easier to use. It offers a lot of user control to fine tune frequency settings. It’s shareware. It now costs $40 to buy a private license, which is steep for an app that hasn’t been updated since 2005.

2. Pzizz. (Mac, Windows) I tried the trial when it first came out a while back. It uses binaural beats, but also mixes in sound effects, people talking, and music in some sort of fancy algorithm. Many people like it. I didn’t care for it. Why? I can only say it’s a matter of personal preference. I preferred the free SBaGen. I preferred it, that is, until I found the iPhone apps.

But this was made for the iPhone/Touch

1. Binaural Beats. Free. Offers presets with nice background music. You can also try Easy Relax Ultimate from the same company for $2.99. I found the free Binaural Beats app worked for me as a relaxation and sleep aid.

2. AmbiScience. Try the full app for $.99 or the Lite free version. For the price, the $.99 app is nice application that does the job well. It includes entrainment for relaxing, meditating, focusing, or sleeping. The interface is pleasant. I bought it. I use it.

3. mind Wave. The cost is $1.99. Haven’t tried this one. It includes some interesting choices such as headache treatment, weight loss, and creativity boost. I’m a bit skeptical, but it’s not very expensive. You can also opt for “mind Freek,” a separate app from the same developer that also costs $1.99, and offers more esoteric settings such as astral projections, out of body experience, etc. Sounds wacky, and results may vary…but it’s cheap and may be fun to try. I think I’ll probably pass.

There you have it. Does this work, or is it pseudoscience? The truth is likely somewhere in between. I will vouch for it as a tool for sleeping, meditation, relaxation, and focus. What is certain is it costs next to nothing to try aural brain entrainment. So why not?

Site hack recap

So, the site is back to normal. The question is how did this happen? My passwords consist of 12 randomly-generated digits/symbols, I’m using the latest versions of WordPress and various plug ins. It could be that I was just one of the lucky first few to have their WP 2.7 installs compromised. It could also be that the attack came from a hole in one of my plugins.

It appears that only my wp-config.php and index.php files were overwritten. My MySQL database and theme files were unaffected. It wasn’t that hard to recover from this, but it was a bit scary. The majority of my time was spent checking through all of my files to ensure I captured the extent of the damage.

Whatever vulnerability I had, this incident is a good opportunity to take stock of ways to minimize the chance of this happening.

1. Spend some time learning about hardening your WordPress installation. One thing I learned after this incident is that anyone can peek into my plugins folder.

2. Backup. Backup. Backup. Not just your WP files, but also your MySQL database.

3. Keep up to date with the latest plugins and WordPress version.

4. Make sure your file and directory permissions are correct.

5. Choose good, long passwords. Use a manager like 1Password so you don’t have to remember what they are.

6. If you have multiple WordPress installs (or Drupal, Joomla, etc.), ensure those sites are up-to-date as well. For instance, I had two Drupal installs and two other WordPress installs in the same public directory on my host. My Drupal installations were not up to date. This could be a vulnerability.

I’m not going to rehash all of the WordPress security tips and tricks here. It’s exhaustively documented. Start with the WordPress Codex. Learn a bit about the .htaccess file. Learn a bit about file permissions. I’ve linked to some of the more interesting documentation I came across. Hope it helps.

Site will be back to normal soon

Even though this site was running the latest version of WordPress (2.7) and the latest plug in versions, it was taken over sometime overnight and replaced with a site espousing an end to Palestinian violence. Thankfully, I had a good backup.

I’m still in the process of restoring everything, changing and strengthening passwords, etc.

Everything is back to normal, except for my sidebar tabs. They are refusing to be tab-like. I’ll have them working again shortly…and I’ll post about the experience soon.