For people who don’t mind doing a little one-time backup setup, Arq + Backblaze B2 is one of the best deals around. I’m currently backing up close to 300GB for 86 cents per month. 86 cents!
Arq Backup is currently a $49.99 one-time purchase. Backblaze B2 pricing depends on how much you store and restore from it. Arq automatically keeps the total storage used within your storage budget. Backups are fast and happen in the background. If Arq detects you’re using your computer, it throttles the upload speed so you never notice anything happening.
For folks who need something very simple requiring almost no setup, Backblaze Personal Backup stores unlimited data for $6/mo. Also a great deal, and no Arq required.
I decided to try TurboTax 2020 this year after getting fed up with bugs in H&R Block’s software. It seems TurboTax’s quality isn’t great either. I kept getting unsuccessful import errors when trying to import H&R Block 2019’s PDF.
The trick, I discovered, is to prune down what H&R Block puts in the PDF:
Open H&R Block and pull down the File menu.
Click Print, and deselect everything except for Forms to Submit.
Print to PDF. The PDF that’s generated will import successfully into TurboTax.
I guess the TurboTax importer was getting confused by the cover pages and/or supporting forms/worksheets. You’d think Intuit would test this. (and perhaps revamp their importer or at least include a useful error message)
Other annoyances I’ve found with tax software this year:
I re-downloaded H&R Block 2019 from Amazon and tried to run it on my M1 Mac. It refused to open, even using Rosetta 2. No error messages, it just won’t open. Thankfully, I had an old Intel Mac I could use to open it and perform the above steps.
Today the news came out that the Brave browser team bought a search engine. This led me to find out about Presearch, a search engine that pays you in cryptocurrency, while keeping your searches private. Just do your normal searching in it (no excessive searching or bot searches), and you get paid. The catches seem to be:
You can only withdraw in 1000 PRE increments.
You can get up to 8 PRE tokens per day. Searching every day, that would mean 125 days (~4.1 months) until payout.
At first, you can only withdraw 50% of your tokens, but this percentage improves as your searches appear more legitimate. This is done to combat abuse of their system.
PRE is currently worth about 6 cents per token, so that’s $60 every 4-5 months. Not bad. (This assumes you search normally without trying to game the system.)
Search results so far are actually good. And on the rare occasion when they’re not, they offer one-click links to DuckDuckGo, Google, and many other search engines.
Presumably, Brave will be doing the same with their search engine, but since their engine isn’t released yet, I’ll stick with Presearch for now. Check it out and get a 25 PRE bonus (~$1.50, currently) for signing up through this link.
Update: The redemption requirements have changed so it basically takes almost 2 years to redeem $100. Not worth it, decided to switch to Microsoft Rewards via Bing instead, where at least you can redeem every month.
The air quality in my part of the world gets pretty bad during wildfire season, so I decided to pickup a Winix C545 air purifier, mostly based on the Wirecutter review. Here’s what I found:
It’s really quiet on low and medium, and only starts getting noticeable on high. I’m sensitive to noise, and it works for me. At low speed, it’s usable in the same room as you video conference in without anyone else noticing. It’s also suitable for sleeping – for kids and adults. Definitely quieter than air conditioners and dehumidifiers.
Design-wise, it blends into the room. Our kids ignored it from the start and have never pushed the buttons.
Price is reasonable – you can get one for $129-$200, with the average price being around $178. A good chunk of that price goes toward the included HEPA filters.
It has a bright blue light when the air quality is good, but that light (thankfully) automatically switches off when the lights are out.
You can instantly tell when air is good, slightly off, or bad, via the LED indicator light on top which glows blue, yellow, or red.
Air purification works quickly for cooking smells, wildfire smoke, and flatulence.
The WiFi feature is mostly a gimmick. You can check filter status via your phone, and turn on/off the purifier, but I find it easier just to open it up and look at the filter every month. You can vacuum out the filter screen easily. I disabled the WiFi shortly after I got it. If it had HomeKit support, I might have left WiFi on, but it doesn’t.
We liked the C545 so much, we got second one – a refurbished one for $89 – for our downstairs bedroom. I found that it’s almost the same as new, with the exception of one problem: Once every couple of months, it refuses to notice when the room light has been turned off. You have to unplug the purifier and plug it back in for it to automatically shut the blue light off again.
Overall, recommended if you have air pollution or a wildfire season in your area. You can occasionally find them at Costco, Amazon, and Winix direct (for refurbished models). Warning: they sell out fast during wildfire season, so get one off season.
I am thinking about getting an iPad for an external display for a Mac mini and have a couple questions about how it would work:
If you use Fast User Switching to switch to a different user, what happens to the Sidecar display?
If the display sleeps, what happens?
Nobody was able to give me answers to this online, so I tried it with my wife’s iPad and MacBook. Here’s what happened:
When you switch to a different user, the iPad display shows the login screen background, but no login prompt. The login prompt shows on the primary display. After you login with the new user, Sidecar disconnects. And you can’t use Sidecar with a user that is not signed into the same iCloud account as the iPad is.
When the primary display sleeps, the iPad shows the iPad login screen. When the primary display wakes up, the iPad automatically wakes and shows the secondary desktop.
Luna Display/Astropad can’t really switch between two users either. Here’s what their helpful support rep told me: “When you switch to the second user, even without User A fully logging out, the [Luna Display] app will still remain running on the iPad and keeps the last-known screen images on display. This means that User A’s screen contents will still remain on the iPad after User B logs in, and Astropad will remain connected to User A even if User B opens the Astropad app, until the connection is stopped by either quitting Astropad before switching to User B, or closing and restarting the iPad app.“
I only have space left on my desk for something about the size of an iPad. A 10″ IPS monitor of dubious origins costs $120-$140. It would have a lower PPI vs. an iPad, a lower quality display, and not be as generally useful. Though it would allow Fast User Switching. The iPad and iPad Air sometimes go on sale around Veteran’s Day for $279-$289, so for double the price I get a full iPad built into the display. Not bad. I think I’ll get one!
I spent some time trying to figure out how to export contacts to comma separated values (CSV) on my Mac. This was in preparation for sending out Christmas cards.
On the Export menu, it only mentions you can export to vCard, PDF, or to an Archive file. I looked around for a programmatic way to do it, and found some possibilities, but everything seemed too complicated.
After some experimentation, I figured it out. All you have to do is:
Select a bunch of contacts in the left column. (Hold shift while clicking to select multiple contacts.)
Then this Sony Blu-ray player — with Bluetooth — popped up brand new on Craigslist for under $88. I bought it, and tried it out with both AirPods and AirPods Pro. In each case, it technically worked, but the AirPods were too loud, and the AirPods Pro were too soft. The Bluetooth volume control built into the player didn’t work to change the volume of the AirPods.
So I had to figure something out. What are the cheapest true wireless headphones that sound decent and are compatible with the Sony player and its Bluetooth volume control? I decided to take a chance on the clumsily named Sony WF-XB700 true wireless earbuds for $60. They worked great, and provide a wide range of volume control.
Now we no longer have to think about untangling cords. We just pop-in a disc with one earbud in my ear and the other in my wife’s and it’s off to the movies!
A friend invited me to join him and a few of our other buddies on a 90 day asceticism/prayer challenge called Exodus 90.
I’d felt that my prayer life was rote and lukewarm for some time, so to get this invitation and join was a blessing. It’s been the first time in a long while that I’ve had a good long freeform talk with God.
A few of the ascetic disciplines we have to take up daily:
Take short, cold showers
Regular, intense exercise at least 3x/week
Get a full night’s sleep (at least 7 hours)
Abstain from alcohol.
Abstain from desserts and sweets.
Abstain from eating between meals.
Abstain from soda or sweet drinks (white milk, black coffee, and black tea are permissible).
Abstain from television, movies, or televised sports.
Abstain from video games.
Abstain from non-essential material purchases.
Only listen to music that lifts the soul to God.
Only use the computer for work, school, or essential tasks (e.g., paying bills).
Only use mobile devices for essential communications; cut non-essential texting, app, and internet use.
Take Wednesdays and Fridays as days of fasting. (Abstain from meat and only eat one full meal, as well as two smaller meals that together are not equal to a full meal.)
There are some exceptions to this list: On Sundays and holy days, we are allowed to relax one discipline. We also check in with each other daily on how we’re doing and share our challenges/struggles.
The tough ones for me are cutting out movies, snacks, and podcasts. But I’m doing a lot more reading and am more involved with my kids now, so that’s great.
It’s been challenging so far, but rewarding. My wife told me she noticed a big change already: “You’re more there, more attentive, and less absorbed with your phone.” She loves it and it makes me happy too. I feel calmer and more relaxed throughout the day. A couple days after stopping snacks and sugars, my average resting heart rate went down too.
There’s a version for women too, called Fiat 90. My wife hasn’t tried it but it looks good.
One criticism of the Exodus 90 program that I’ve seen is that it does nothing for your life on day 91 and beyond. The creators have updated the program though, with a plan for day 91+. We’ll see how it goes!
The company I work for encouraged me to use a top of the line Linux laptop — one of the latest ThinkPads — as my daily driver. Here’s what I’ve found in the first few days of using it, with Ubuntu 20.04.1:
Coming from a MacBook with its butter-smooth trackpad, the touchpad is painful. It’s not smooth at all, even with the default Synaptics drivers. It’s almost impossible to precisely focus your cursor in a small area. It’s really astonishing how bad it is.
Don’t expect to have external monitors work right away. I plugged my LG 4K monitor with a USB-C cable that works fine with several MacBooks into the ThinkPad. All I got was a cursor on the external monitor screen. That’s it, a cursor. Changing resolutions and refresh rates hasn’t helped. A colleague spent half a week futzing with settings until he finally got it to work. Another colleague recommended an unstable open source Nvidia driver instead of their proprietary driver, but I haven’t gotten that installed yet.
After I haven’t been able to get a single Bluetooth peripheral connected. Not a wireless keyboard, wireless trackpad, or wireless headphones. The Ubuntu Bluetooth settings app either hangs, crashes, or just displays a spinning cursor on the device you try to connect. After updating the ControllerMode to bredr in /etc/bluetooth/main.conf , I was able to get my AirPods to connect. To get the wireless keyboard or trackpad to connect, I had to unpair them from another laptop.
You’ll need a couple utilities to get most keyboard shortcuts to behave like a Mac, including spacebar for QuickLook, and Cmd-H to quickly move an app out of the way. I still haven’t figured out how to change the keyboard shortcut for going back in my browser. Alt-Left-Arrow just scrolls to the top of the page. Update: The author of Kinto, the keyboard shortcuts utility, is going to make Alt-Left-Arrow/Alt-Right-Arrow work in browsers in an upcoming release.
Scrolling web pages (in any browser) is slow and choppy. Supposedly you can fix this in a config file somewhere, but I haven’t found where yet.
10% of the time, the laptop refuses to wake from sleep, requiring a long press on the power button to power off and reboot.
The fans spin up for no good reason when I plug the power cord in. Thankfully, they aren’t too loud.
I kept having my wireless bluetooth trackpad disconnect and reconnect, every 2-4 minutes. Eventually I figured out this was due to the UPower daemon polling the trackpad for battery status. Adding NoPollBatteries=true to /etc/UPower/UPower.conf and then running systemctl restart upower.service and the problem seems to have gone away.
I also had the problem where every time the bluetooth trackpad disconnected/reconnected, it would lose its trackpad speed and natural scrolling settings. To fix this, I updated the mutter package.
The fingerprint scanner is actually pretty good. It’s not quite as reliable as the MacBook’s, but it’s 80% of the way there. It’s nice to unlock the machine and use sudo with a fingerprint.
In full screen mode, you can put another app window in front of the full screen app. This is convenient, and unlike macOS. On the Mac, you’re forced into the full screen app and have to switch completely out of it to get to another app.
Gnome’s Activity view (Alt-Space), a hybrid of the Mac’s Spotlight and Expose, is very nice. It’s fast and accurate.
The ThinkPad itself is fast and battery life excellent. The plastic body isn’t as solid feeling as an aluminum MacBook, but it’s better than your average creaky PC laptop.
WiFi works without a problem.
The janky touchpad and choppy scrolling are the hardest to deal with. If I figure out how to fix these, I’ll update this post.