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Back That Thing Up


Three Sundays ago, my primary Mac OS X hard drive failed. Those of you who follow me on Twitter got somewhat of a play-by-play as I discovered the depth of my drive failure I got home to the Spinning Pinwheel of Death (SPOD), and discovered quickly that my computer would not wake from screensaver or boot. However, I didn’t panic. Why? Because I have what I believe to be a relatively robust backup system for home use.

I can’t stress enough how important regular backups are. Data loss is one of my personal nightmares (well, that, and Lego or Andrle loss), since most of my life (professional and personal) is on the computer. Among other things, I’d lose every picture I’ve ever taken since freshman year of college, every homework assignment I’ve written on the computer since late 6th grade (when we got our first Mac), not to mention substantial configuration work and those precious saved games.

I sit atop what I call the Backup Tripod: regular clones to an external disk stored off-site, hourly incremental backups to a local disk or local network storage, and as-needed on-save synchronization to cloud storage. I’m sure there are many other articles out there that recommend a particular strategy, but this is my solution for Macs. I even convinced my parental units to use a similar setup. I’ll go into detail on what solutions I use and why (as well as recovery strategy) for each below the cut.

I can’t emphasize enough how important data backup is for the typical modern power user.


Posted in Computers, How-Tos Tagged with: , , , , , , , ,

Möbius Bagel

Via JWZ’s LiveJournal I found a method for slicing a bagel into two linked halves. I decided to try it. Video below the cut.


Posted in food, How-Tos Tagged with: , , , , ,

Amish Cinnamon Bread


A coworker of mine gave me some live yeast bread starter two weekends ago, and I have proceeded to actually bake it into bread. This is, believe me, quite out of character. I am posting this recipe here (which, as far as I know, is relatively useless without the culture) both for my records and so I have a place to point people who need the recipe and may not want a printed copy, perhaps because they are, like me, allergic to paper.

If you live in Boston, I’m happy to provide you with some starter for free (I hear it’s like a cult); I’ll have 3-4 become available every week and a half or so.

I don’t know the origin of the recipe; Liz gave me a photocopied sheet with no authorship information. I’ll try to find out. I’ve made a few minor edits for my own clarification.

I’m also open to suggestions on a means of distribution other than plastic gallon ziploc bags; while they have the advantage of being air tight, and clearly indicating when the bag needs to be squeezed, it seems like a waste of plastic. I am reusing the ones I’ve received, and the ones I’m keeping for my own permanent starter, but it seems like there might be a better way.


  • Do NOT refrigerate the mixture (this will kill the yeast)
  • Air formation in the bag is normal (a byproduct of fermentation)
  • “Squeeze” means let the air out, and mix the starter a bit by squishing


For each day, from the date marked on the starter, do the listed step:

  1. Nothing
  2. Squeeze
  3. Squeeze
  4. Squeeze
  5. Squeeze
  6. Add 1 cup flour, 1 cup sugar, and 1 cup milk. Squeeze.
  7. Squeeze
  8. Squeeze
  9. Squeeze
  10. Bake!


In a large bowl, combine the batter with 1 cup flour, 1 cup sugar, and 1 cup milk. Mix.

Partition 1 cup of starter into four 1 gallon ziploc bags. Pass along to friends and family, along with a copy of these instructions or a link to this blog post:

Add to the remaining batter in the bowl:

  • 2 cups flour
  • 1 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp baking soda
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 2 small boxes instant vanilla pudding
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 cup oil
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 3 large eggs
  • 1/2 cup milk

Mix well.

In another bowl, mix 1 tsp cinnamon and 2 tsp sugar (or just use cinnamon-sugar if you have it). Sprinkle this into the bottom of two well-greased bread pans, then add the batter.

Bake the loaves at 325° for 1 hour, or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.

Posted in How-Tos Tagged with: , , , ,

Compiling Django with Twitter support as a Mac OS X Universal Binary


This post is a guide for building your own version of Apache’s mod_python as a Universal Binary in order to support a custom Django install containing the Twitter libraries. As you can probably gather, this information is likely only useful to advanced Mac users who are comfortable in Terminal with compiling and installing software from source. If you’re still interested, gird your loins, crack your knuckles, grab some Mountain Dew, and read on.

Mac OS X 10.5 “Leopard” is yet another step forward into the world of 64-bit. At the same time, Apple has to support both PowerPC and Intel architectures. This is no mean feat, and this is where “fat” or Universal binaries come in.  Apple also has an explanation of Universal binaries, although it’s heavy on PR. This is all well and good, but there is one problem: once you make this leap, all of your library dependencies must contain the architecture you’re running as. Much software is still built as 32-bit only; while it may be a “fat” binary, containing both Intel and PowerPC machine code, it only has the 32-bit versions thereof. For reference, the names of the various architecture flags:

  32-bit 64-bit
Intel i386 x86_64
PowerPC ppc7400 ppc64

Huzzah naming conventions! There’s a lot of history in those names. I’ve linked to the relevant Wikipedia articles if you’re curious; these flags will be coming up again later when configuring various builds. The main thing to note is that most build configurations default to i386 on Intel Macs (even though Core 2 and Xeon processors are natively 64-bit), probably because most software is developed for 32-bit versions of Windows and Linux. As you’ll see, we’ll be overriding that default in several places to get this whole mess working.

Unfortunately, Universality is a cancer, which in my case starts with the Apple-shipped version of the Apache web server in 10.5, a universal binary. Everything it touches needs to be Universal as well, so that Apache can run as a 64-bit process by default. I wanted to add Django support on my web server via mod_python, specifically to play with the Twitter API, which meant I also needed to build python-twitter and its dependencies, as well as a MySQL python module to allow Django to talk to my database. None of these are included in the default Leopard version of Python 2.5.1.

After getting all of this set up, and trying to start my test Django app, mod_python was giving me errors about architecture. As it turns out, the included version of Python is only a “fat” 32-bit binary, not a Universal binary… which means all of the new Python modules I just compiled to support Twitter and Django were only 32-bit, which in turn means that the included Universal version of Apache and mod_python couldn’t use them. Yay.

Below the cut you’ll find my complete instructions for compiling all of the relevant components and their dependencies. I also took the opportunity to update to the latest release version of Python 2.6 and MySQL 5.1, and as a side effect my database server is now running as a 64-bit process. Progress has been made here. Feel free to comment or contact me if you have questions.


Posted in How-Tos Tagged with: , , , , , , , ,

Local Version Control With Git


I’ve recently become obsessed with git for version control. I know that there are many git tutorials out there; this is probably redundant, but it focuses on only the simplest operations for my own reference. The git man pages themselves are extremely well written. This post is an adaptation of an article I wrote for our department wiki, targeted at some of my fellow researchers who have probably never heard of git. I removed all of the references to our internal projects.

Unfortunately, one of our major codebases at work is stored in a Microsoft Visual SourceSafe repository; it has been for years, and there’s enough momentum that we likely won’t move to a better version control system any time soon. If the motivation sounds odd, I mostly write research code, so we are regularly creating totally new code that may be used once or twice and then never again.

Visual SourceSafe has limited branching capabilities, so many users keep large subsets of the codebase checked out onto their development machine. When a major experimental change is feature-complete, dealing with merges in VSS is a pain that typically involves face-to-face negotiations of who checks in what when, or one person spending a day or two fixing conflicts in WinMerge or a similar tool. This article demonstrates how to use git, a modern distributed version control system used by the Linux kernel (among others), to manage smaller-scale changes to VSS code trees on Windows without having to risk checking in files that “break” functionality for other users.

The main point of using a local version control repository inside of a VSS checkout is three-fold:

  1. Commit more often
  2. Easy branching for experimental code (whether or not it pans out)
  3. More detailed history/self-documentation of recent changes

I’ve found that my development habits have gotten much better using git; in particular, I commit just about every successful compile-and-test, and I try to isolate commits by functionality as much as possible, so that it’s trivial to cherry pick experimental changes that should be kept or not.


Posted in How-Tos Tagged with: , , ,

Vortex Cannon


I generally do Big Brother on Saturday afternoons from about 2 to 6 at Patrick’s house near Central Square. Sometimes we go out for a museum (a trip to the Museum of Science is likely next week), or a movie, but this week I didn’t have any ideas. Patrick had previously showed me some YouTube videos of  water balls, and we’ve done “kitchen science” before, so I was looking into that this morning… but it looked like the listed materials would be hard to obtain, and a number of comments claimed that the video was fake. However, in the related videos, I stumbled across this page on vortex cannons, and decided that would make a fun quick activity. Unfortunately, because I’m an idiot, I didn’t take any pictures >.<.


Due to the supplies at hand, we had to use a slightly different procedure, but the visual effect was pretty impressive.

  • One (1) 1-liter plastic bottle, empty and dry
  • One (1) tea candle target
  • One (1) fog machine
  • Matches (or some other candle-lighting device)
  • A room with still air


We found two techniques worked pretty well, but produced very different results. One, when combined with the fog machine, allowed us to really visualize what was happen, and gave me the opportunity to explain some of the science to Patrick; the other actually put the candle out.

We first tried it without the fog machine, but couldn’t get the candle to blow out; it turned out that our aim was a bit off. The chemical fog stuff (part of an old Halloween setup) allowed us to actually see and aim the smoke rings, and see the vortices forming.

Grabbing the bottle with both hands and squeezing in a quick pulse produces a large, slow-moving smoke ring, with a long-lasting vortex that you can watch stretch as the ring expands. If you squeeze too hard, you just get a turbulent puff; too soft and you get nothing. It takes some trial and error. While these were nifty to look at, they couldn’t put out the candle, even from only a few centimeters away.

I found tapping one side of the bottle with just two fingertips, very firmly, produced a small but fast burst that formed a very fast-moving smoke ring. You could barely tell it was a ring at that speed. They moved fairly straight (as opposed to the slower-moving rings that tended to drift a bit), but were a bit touchy to aim. Once you connected with the candle flame, it went right out, without any guttering as you would see when trying to blow it out manually. We were able to successfully put the candle out at about a meter.


This was a very fun demonstration, and only took a few minutes to set up. It also requires no cleanup, and you can hypothetically sneak up on your little sister and blow smoke rings at her. Not that I would encourage that sort of sibling mischief…

One thing I needed was a concrete example of why this is important science, and not just a toy demonstration. It’s hard to explain fluid dynamics to a ten year old. Patrick enjoyed it as a project, though.

Posted in How-Tos Tagged with: , ,

Nicolas Ward

Software engineer in Natural Language Processing research by day; gamer, reader, and aspiring UltraNurd by night. Husband to Andrle
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