Mon 6/29 My Setup

System Profiler

The following interview was inspired by The Setup, a collection of nerdy interviews, asking people from all walks of life about the hardware and software they use.

Who are you, and what do you do?

My name is Thomas Brand. I work at MIT. When I am not working, I write Egg Freckles and run marathons for charity.

What hardware are you using?

Early last year I built a Hackintosh named Siracusa. I wanted a small Mac desktop with expandable storage and graphics. I can’t say my creation lives up to the expectations of its namesake. But it only cost me $1,000, and is the fastest Mac I have ever owned.

My work Mac is a Early 2014 11-inch MacBook Air with 4 GBs of RAM running Mavericks. I use it mostly for writing, email, and system administration work. I wanted something small for commuting on the train. I keep it in a Twelve South BookBook case. People think I am carrying a Bible. I am not a religious man.

And what software?

These are the apps I use most on my Mac.

  • Alpine for email. (I have a habit of deleting everything.)
  • Cinch for keeping my windows equally split.
  • Dropbox for getting my files from one computer to another.
  • EasyFind for when Spotlight fails me.
  • Firefox is my browser across Windoes, Mac, and Linux.
  • ImageOptim keeps my PNGs small.
  • Keynote is my preferred way to give a presentation.
  • Lightroom 3 for photo editing.
  • Marked 2 makes sure my Markdown checks out.
  • OmniGraffle for looking smarter than I really am.
  • Pixelmator for image editing.
  • Twitterrific for Twitter, and trolling Ben Brooks.
  • VIM for writing, editing HTML, CSS, and heavy lifting.
  • VLC has replaced iTunes for playing music on my Mac.

How about mobile devices?

Today I am carrying a Amazon Fire Phone. Tomorrow my phone might be something different. I enjoy the freedom of switching SIMs, swapping phones, and not having to worry about a expensive computer in my pocket. T-Mobile gives me unlimited data and 100 minutes of voice for $30 a month. I do not talk on the phone very often.

I keep a Newton MessagePad 2100 on my desk for keeping notes, jotting down ideas, and distraction free writing. I sync what I write back to my Mac over email using a wifi PC Card. My Newton can run for weeks on four replacable AA batteries.

On my wrist I wear one of three watches depending on my mood.

The Omega, was a wedding gift I bought for myself second hand. It is the nicest of the four, but it keeps the worst time. The Apple Watch seems like a nice to have, but I still can’t see a compelling reason to own one.

I do not own an iPad.

What would be your dream setup?

I used to say I would never work for a company where I couldn’t use a Mac. But I don’t think that is true anymore. Mac, Windows, Linux, they all suit me just fine. Different choices with their own advantages and disadvantages. But I could not work at a company that would not give me a choice. The freedom to choose is my dream setup. Choice keeps me interested in technology.

Mon 6/29 GoJGo


My friend Stephen Hackett has a son who could have easily become an archived medical record number at any major children’s hospital. At six months old, baby Josiah was diagnosed with a Glioma Astrocytoma (brain cancer). He was unable to use the left side of his body. The doctors believed that he wouldn’t be able to see out of his left eye, that he wouldn’t be able to walk, and that he would lose his battle with cancer before his 3rd birthday.

Today, thanks to God’s blessing and the dedication of the people at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Josiah is more than just a number. He just celebrated 6th birthday. He is chasing his Uncle around the house. He is smiling in photos taken by his father. He is being held in his mother’s arms. And he is running with his sister through the laundry hanging on the line. Some people would say Josiah’s recovery is a miracle, but his fight for survival is a battle not yet won.

Josiah has undergone extensive treatment and care at St. Jude. He has been through brain surgery, shunt replacement, g-tube placement, port installation, 16 rounds of chemotherapy, countless hours of physical therapy, and a truckload of medications he must take every day for the rest of his life. As an outpatient, Josiah’s medical bills alone have reached over TWO MILLION DOLLARS. If it wasn’t for his proximity to St. Jude in Memphis, Tennessee, he would have spent the majority of his young life living in a hospital, and his family would owe even more for his transportation and stay.

As of today, Josiah Hackett and his family don’t owe a thing. St. Jude doesn’t charge a family any more than their insurance will cover. That means that my friend Stephen has not paid a CENT in over FIVE YEARS for his son’s treatment and NEVER WILL! St. Jude covers not just the cost of treatment, medication, and PT, but the price of transportation to Memphis and all of the living expenses including meals. Imagine what it costs to send a hospital full of young cancer patients and their families to St. Jude for treatment, housing, food, and care. It should be no surprise that St. Jude spends over 1.7 MILLION DOLLARS a day towards caring.

I am asking for your help in raising money for St. Jude and to save a child’s life. Cancer is not a number. It is a terrible disease that is robbing us of our children and stealing away our future. Even if you don’t see the face of Cancer every day, you know the smiles of children we can’t afford to let slip away.

Last year I reached my goal by raising $5,000 for St. Jude. This year I hope to do the same. I have already donated another towards Josiah’s treatment, and look forward to spending the next several months training for December 5th when I can fly down to Memphis and run 26.2 miles with Josiah on my mind. In the past I have run races for myself, but this time I am doing it for a little boy with brain cancer who needs our help. Please consider giving what you can. If not for me, Stephen, Josiah, or St. Jude, then to fight a terrible disease that is stealing our children’s future one smile at a time.

Mon 1/12 HiDPI

Quartz Debug

When an Apple product has a Retina Display, each user interface widget is doubled in width and height to compensate for the smaller pixels. Apple calls this mode HiDPI mode. HiDPI mode can be enabled on any Mac. You don’t need a high-resolution Retina display, or a fancy third-party Menu Bar widget to enable it. Simply enter the following command into the Terminal, and log out of your computer.

sudo defaults write /Library/Preferences/ DisplayResolutionEnabled -bool true

When you log back in all available HiDPI resolutions will be accessible via the Display Preference Pane. You may be able to reveal additional scaled resolutions by clicking the Scaled radio button while holding down the Option key.

Running a make-shift HiDPI resolution is unusuable for normal work, but it does give you the oppurtunity to take HiDPI screenshots on a non-Retina Mac.

You can turn off the option to display HiDPI resolutions by performing this Terminal command.

sudo defaults delete /Library/Preferences/ DisplayResolutionEnabled

As a legally blind Mac user, I use HiDPI resolutions on non-Retina displays to give me a bigger picture without the fuzziness associated with pixel interpolation.

Fri 1/9 Hackintosh


Early last year I built a Hackintosh named Siracusa. I wanted the smallest desktop Mac possible with expandable storage and graphics. I can’t say my creation lives up to the expectations of its namesake, but maybe it comes close.

Siracusa includes the following components.

Siracusa is the fastest Mac I have ever owned. The whole setup cost me less than a $1,000, but setting up a Hackintosh is not for the faint of heart.

Thu 1/8 Fire Phone

Fire phone

For the past month I have been the owner of an Amazon Fire Phone. The mythical device whose name is adhered upon many an Amazon shipping container, but whose visage is rarely seen in public. For the past month I have grappled with a decision. Should I accept the Fire Phone as my primary digital companion, or send it back to Amazon in the cardboard box that bears its name? As a instrument of suspense, I will leave my ultimate decision until the end of this review. In the meantime here are some of the factors that led me to my decision.

At $199 the Fire Phone is a steal. That is the price I paid on Black Friday, when the 32 GB Unlocked Fire Phone went on sale. Had the price been $249, $449, or $649, I would not have bought it. Even at $199 the price is deceptively high. A Fire Phone at any price comes with one year of Amazon Prime, a $100 dollar value. As a regular Amazon Prime subscriber you could say my 32 GB Fire Phone cost me the same as a 16 GB storage upgrade on a iPhone 5s.

Unboxing the Fire Phone was a real treat. Straight out of Apple’s playbook, each fold of the box revealed a new discovery. From the carbon fiber texture of the packing materials, to the way the micro USB cable, charger, and earbuds came tucked away in their own separate compartment. Everything felt luxurious.

Even setting up the Fire Phone was a delightful experience. Upon pressing the power button, I was greeted by name. My Fire Phone had been preregistered with my Amazon Prime account, Amazon Music, and Amazon Cloud Drive. Imagine if your next iPhone came preregistered with your iCloud account, apps, and the latest software updates. Amazon gets a head start over its competitors by having Fire Phone come preregistered out of the box.

The phone itself resembles a super-sized iPhone 4, Gorilla Glass front and back, except the metal band has been replaced by soft touch rubber. Thicker than the iPhone 6, the Fire Phone really feels good in the hand. There is a weight to it that I associate with high-end electronics. Some people might say the style, thickness, and heft of the phone make it appear old. But I would rather hold a comfortable phone in my hand, than watch a slippery slice of glass and aluminum shatter on the floor.

Fire Phone is adorn with the usual ports and buttons. A power button and headphone jack on the top, micro USB port on the button, volume rocker, dedicated camera button, and nano SIM card slot along the left side. Because the low volume and camera button feel similar, I find myself sometimes taking a picture of the inside of my pocket by mistake. Fire Phone has paired speaker grills along its top and bottom; giving it Dolby stereo sound when held in the portrait orientation. The volume of the speakers is better than most phones. As a nice touch, the Amazon logo and regulatory information have been etched into the back glass. A noise canceling microphone, 13 megapixel camera, and LED flash bring up the rear. Photos are on par with an iPhone 5 or 5s, but not an iPhone 6. It is not until we get to the front of the phone that things start to become interesting.

On the face of most phones there is at least one camera staring back at you. Fire Phone has five. In addition to the usual proximity and ambiant light sensors, Fire Phone tracks your eye movement and viewing angle with the use of four low power cameras. (A 2.1 megapixel front facing webcam is available for selfies.) Amazon calls this feature Dynamic Perspective, and it gives the user interface a third dimension not usually associated mobile phone displays.

Fire phone

Think of Dynamic Perspective like the gyroscope-driven parallax effects in iOS 7, only turned up a notch. You might call it a gimmick, and I would not say you are wrong. Just like the gyroscope in the original iPhone, Dynamic Perspective doesn’t have much value until developers take advantage of it. The only problem is that unlike the gyroscope in almost every modern smartphone, the Fire Phone is the only phone with Dynamic Perspective, and it will probably stay that way for a some time. I quickly learned to turn off Dynamic Perspective to save battery life.

A 720 x 1280 pixel, 4.7 inch (~312 ppi pixel density), IPS touchscreen dominates the face of the phone. The screen is super bright. So bright in fact, that I have its brightness set to one of the lowest settings, and it still outshines most other phones. With this settings, and Dynamic Perspective turned off, Fire Phone’s battery gets me through the average day with charge to spare. Below the screen is a raised rectangular Home button. It gives you a little extra grip when pulling Fire Phone from your pocket.

Because Fire Phone doesn’t have any other hardware buttons, the Android-powered user interface is navigated with gestures. They aren’t as complicated as gestures on the BlackBerry Z10 I tried a couple months ago. Just the usual swipe left, swipe right, and swipe up, but they can be confusing for new users. Amazon provides a tutorial to get you started, but even I found it confusing that many Amazon apps stick to the prescribed swipe left and right to reveal hidden menus, while most Android apps from the Amazon App Store do not. At least you can always rely on a swipe up from the bottom of the screen to bring you back, and if all else fails the Home button returns you to the Home screen and a grid of icons.

Since the interface on every Android phone is a little different I can’t say the Fire Phone is unique. The large Coverflow inspired carousel of recently used apps works for finding your last launched applications. Below that a dedicated dock of four apps keeps your favorites close at hand. While swiping up from the bottom reveals a grid of icons, familiar to any iPhone user. The combination of all four user interface elements means I can always find the app I am looking for. Some apps even show additional real-time information below their enlarged carousel icon, but often Amazon just uses this space to sell you something.

Fire phone

Just like on Google’s Android Double tapping the Home button brings up the multitasking switcher, holding it down brings up voice command. Unlike Google’s Android, the voice commands are not powered by Google Now, and there is no Google Maps, Play Store, or Gmail to be found in Fire Phone’s App Store. Apps can be side-loaded of course, but if you are looking for the Google experience on Fire Phone, look somewhere else.

I did find most of the apps I wanted from Amazon’s App Store, and the built-in Android apps took care of my Exchange email, contacts and calendars. I come from using Windows Phone where a diverse choice of applications are hard to come by. I might be satisfied by Amazon’s offering, and the option to side-load apps, but I feel most iPhone user’s will be disappointed.

I am keeping my Amazon Fire Phone. As I said before, it is a steal at $199; even without the one year subscription for Amazon Prime. The hardware is top notch and the software, although limited, does everything I want a smartphone to do. Fire Phone may not be right for you. If you base your choice of phone on carrier subsidies, or are heavily invested in an existing phone ecosystem Fire Phone should not be you first choice. But Fire Phone makes a pretty good unlocked spare GSM phone, even if you don’t plan on shopping with Amazon.