Hiccups and Wheezing

While fending off a bout of bronchitis this week, I decided to undertake a major computer upgrade. The logic at the time was "heal the body, heal the hard drive." If I was resting the former, the latter was certainly resting too. And the best time to do work on your computer is when you're not in the midst of actively writing a dissertation chapter. 

I had been having problems with my MacBook Pro for a few months. My database and archival photos and oral history audio files filled up the last remaining storage space on my hard drive and I began getting a regular pop-up message from my OS that my start up drive was full. On a few occasions the entire computer shut down, unprompted, and I was lucky that nothing got lost. I knew I was playing with fire and about to get burned. After two months of research, I decided the most cost-effective solution would be to exchange my 320GB 5400-rpm Serial ATA hard drive for a 500 GB Samsung 850 EVO Solid State Drive (SSD). It cost me $200 on Amazon, and I took it to a local computer repair store and paid $170 for the privilege of blaming someone else if the transfer did not go well. 

Overall, I'm very happy with my decision. I decided to do a "clean install" of OS X Yosemite onto the new SSD and then move over my files. The benefit of this method, as opposed to "cloning" the old HD onto the new one, seems to be that you leave behind a lot of the small files and programs and metadata that invisibly begin to clog up your storage over the years. My computer now boots up faster and I am not experiencing the lags (spinning rainbow pinwheels) that I used to have each time I opened up an app. I've transferred every photo, audio track, movie file, and document that was on the old HD, and I still have 196 GB free! And I had no problems moving DEVONthink or Scrivener over--the dissertation re-appeared completely intact. 

The ONE problem I did have was with Zotero, my bibliography/citation management database. I'm confident that this was 100% user error. In my recent attempts to empty out the old hard drive, I may have unwittingly deleted the destination folder that stored that program's content. I was under the impression that it was being backed up both on the Zotero website and in my cloud backups. I somehow failed to implement either of those processes over the past year, and now it is too late. I'm bummed, but relative to the disaster that would have been losing my DEVONthink database (which has all of the archival documents and sources for my dissertation) I can't get too upset. It's a reminder to not make big computer decisions when you're too sick to triple check your backups. It's also an opportunity to re-build the bibliography with the insight gleaned over a year of dissertating. I'm using the tool differently and curating what I include to better suit my process. 

In summary, here is my Pro/Con list for why someone with a pre-2012 MacBook Pro should consider swapping in a new SSD:

Pro: For only $200 in parts, you can have a computer with the same specs as a new MacBook Pro retailing for around $1800. I also believe that my computer feels a little lighter to carry around, but I have no proof for this.

Con: You won't have a retina screen, and the place you take your computer to do the switch probably won't be able to replace those little bumps on the bottom of the chassis that you knocked off two years ago. They'll clean out the fan with the little can of air, but you'll still have a machine that has experienced wear and tear. I have also noticed that my battery life does not last as long.

No Steps Forward, Two Steps Back

My enthusiasm for the the Mac operating system has been tempered since I last wrote on Tuesday. I actually had great blog posts planned for the past two days, but on Wednesday I realized that iPhoto wasn't loading the pictures from my iPhone that I planned to post. Trying to figure out why my iDevices weren't iConnecting turned into an "If you give a Mouse a Cookie"-type headache that lasted 24 hours. 

To make a long story short, I realized that I needed to upgrade my operating system to OS X Yosemite* if I wanted my photos to continue syncing to my MacBook Pro. In order to install the upgrade, however, I had to do a lot of maintenance and backup on my laptop. I do try to stay on top of these things, but I try to be extra cautious right before sending my hard drive under the knife. As a result I got no work done yesterday. My laptop was in a constant state of loading, downloading, or spinning the rainbow pinwheel of death.

One good thing did come out of the process. I now have a great app to recommend: Memory Clean. It's an unobtrusive little icon that sits at the top of your screen and monitors how much free memory you have. When it runs low, you can ask it to clean out file caches and app memory stuff (I don't really get what that is, to be honest) so your computer can process faster. For a free (!) app, it's stupid easy to use and I've been pleased with what its done for my tired old laptop. 

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I'm choosing, resignedly, to think of yesterday's upgrades as an investment in the health and future well-being of my laptop. What's one day of work if it means that I have a more efficient system for the next few months? It's just been a strange week and an unproductive few days, between grant deadlines, events, and the computer situation.

For example, on Wednesday I co-coordinated a Tu B'svhat event for graduate students. We fed everyone a free falafel lunch and provided terra cotta pots and succulents so that grads could honor the holiday by planting a little aloe for their office. Most of grad students don't really have the space to plant a tree, which is the traditional observance, so we decided to be figurative and have some fun with it. Over 15 students came during their lunch hour and it was lovely to spend time with Carnegie Mellon's Jewish Masters and Doctoral candidates. 

On Sunday I'm heading back to New York for a longer research trip, and I'm looking forward to the quiet studiousness of the archive. 

*My current assessment of Yosemite: My first impression is that the only major difference between Yosemite and Maverick--besides the cartoonish design--is that Safari and iPhoto are now more connected to my iPad and iPhone and it's easier to continue browsing the web/photos from one device to another. I'm not experiencing WiFi connectivity issues (which are widely reported in the App store reviews). When I upgraded to Maverick I saw a dramatic decline in the speed at which my apps loaded, but so far Yosemite hasn't seemed to make it any worse. 

New Discovery

I'm having an interesting week with my computer. Knock wood, so far it's only the good kind of interesting. This weekend I was working on a Word document and I needed to refer to something in a window behind it. I clicked the window I was working in and moved it to the side. All of a sudden, I was in this new desktop! It was just me and my active Word document, and nothing else. No browser with 100 tabs open. No Mail. No iCal. 

After I freaked out for a second, I realized that I could just drag the window back towards the edge and return to my original desktop. Upon my "return," the desktop seemed so busy compared to the serenity I had just experienced. I still had no idea what had really happened, so I went to Google and typed in the most ridiculous search term: "second screen feature mac?" Most of the results were actually about using a second monitor with your Apple computer, but this article clarified that what I had stumbled onto was the "multiple desktop" feature within the "Mission Control," which is what Apple calls the window rearrangement function of their operating system. Mission Control is also what enables "corners," which is a feature that allows you to see all the windows open in an application (or on the desktop) just by navigating the mouse arrow to the corner of the screen. Corners is one of the most useful tools in my workflow, because I often move between documents like chronologies or indexes or notes and the document in which I am actively writing. 

There are two ways to access Mission Control. The easiest way is to press F3, but I hate taking my hand off the trackpad so I prefer to swipe three fingers upward. All of your open windows are displayed, and you can move them to the desktop you would like to view them in. For example, over the past few days I dedicated a new desktop to grant materials, but all other Word documents opened in desktop 1 (except for my chronology document, which opened in desktop 3 along with my database). When I was finished with writing and editing, I moved the Word documents back to desktop 1 to turn them into PDFs and email them off. 

Here are some clear benefits to the "multiple desktop" feature that I've seen so far:

1) Escape the web browser. I often have multiple tabs open in my browser when I'm doing research, and they can distract me from writing. I have now set Safari to only open in my "original" desktop (desktop 1) so that when I'm writing in desktop 2 or reading documents in desktop 3, I do not en up checking my email every time I catch a glimpse at my Gmail account. If I do need to look something up on the web, I can easily swipe three fingers left or right to move between the desktops quickly and easily.

2) Isolate projects or tasks. If I need to focus on one thing, It's nice to have it all together in one place without additional clutter.

3) Novelty. Starting new desktops is fun and keeps life feeling fresh. 

There are some drawbacks, of course. When you use corners with multiple desktops you are still shown ALL of the open windows in that application, regardless of which desktop it will open in. If you accidentally click on a window that's active in a different desktop, you get dragged over immediately. So it's not completely isolating or zen. Plus, the icons at the bottom do not disappear when you're not using an app in desktop 2 (or 3, or 4, etc.)--so you are still tempted to click on the Safari compass icon and end up back in the original desktop. 

Also, I really think the best thing I could do to minimize distraction would be to shut down all but the bare minimum of windows and focus on what's necessary to get any particular job done. I usually lack the self control to implement that advice, so this multiple desktop feature gets me a few extra minutes of focus without feeling like I'm denying myself the pleasures of the internet and apps. 

Has anyone else used this feature? Are there other ways to use it to improve a research workflow? I'd love to know!