HACK / MAKE

Mac Brain: Automating and Simplifying My Computing

The ways of computing have changed in the last five years. We’re in a revolution and a post-PC era where the tools available to us are smarter and many of the problems we have to solve have been simplified. Apps encourage doing one thing well which has shifted our focus while computing. The Cloud has abstracted a core problem for ubiquitous data.

But for geeks, the transition can hurt a little.

The power in iOS software can be diminished by the constraints it’s under. The main market for iPhones don’t need fully-supported background processes and the nerds who want that may not appreciate the tradeoffs that comes with. Geeks want our devices to do more and we want the cloud to do more. Incredible software innovation has happened from this want and will continue to happen over the next decades of this new technical revolution.

But for now, we need something to ease the pain.

I bought an iPad as soon as I could. From the start, I didn’t know exactly how I would use it but I knew it was a blank canvas device that could be turned into nearly any tool just with an app; I wanted that. The new iPad made this device totally irresistible to me. The screen—oh, that screen—was gorgeous. The things that were on it seemed more alive because they weren’t constrained to living in these little RGB boxes. Well, they were but I couldn’t see the pixels anymore so in my mind, what was on screen was more real. LTE meant the things I wanted to do could be done faster. Way faster. I quickly found that my MacBook Air stayed at the office and that my iPad became my main device.

But I found myself sometimes caught in the middle of the freedom and simplicity of reading, writing, playing, and making on my iPad and the constraints simplicity brought. The questions of where my stuff actually lived when it was “in the cloud” and whether I should trust said cloud to be the only place I back up my memories worried me. I needed to patch the gap between the future of computing and where we are now. I needed something that could be an outboard brain for my iOS devices and a smarter cloud for my data. I didn’t need a file server or a home theatre PC, I needed a brain that could worry about computing so that I didn’t have to.

I picked up a Mac mini a few weeks ago and have been working to set it up so that it can be an outboard brain—for my devices and for me. It’s running headless1 because I don’t need a desktop computer. It’s not plugged into a TV, partly because I don’t own one.

This humble silver box will live most of its life doing thankless tasks. It’ll help manage files—a job which has become “simpler” yet more abstract on iOS. It’ll back up my digital life without even being asked. My humble mini will handle some things that my iPad can’t or I don’t want it to and it will be a system for me to experiment with automation in my home and in my life.

The core of this system is powered by Dropbox, Hazel, Lingon, iTunes, and Server.app. I’ll be writing more about how I’ve set this up, how I continue to manage it, and the impact it has on my computing. In a series of posts that will cover things like backups, handling and organizing text files, archiving, automating apps and tasks, and using your iPad as a launch center to control your Mac brain, I’ll hopefully be able to lead you through setting up a similar machine. You don’t need to have a standalone machine dedicated to these tasks to take advantage of what it can do. If you have a Mac at home, put it to work.


This machine will become an important part in my system. One of the last innovations Steve Jobs left us was iCloud. It would shift the model of how computers were designed to interact with each other.

Jobs at WWDC 2011, addressing the problem of sync:

So we’ve got a great solution for this problem. And we think this solution is our next big insight. Which is we’re going to demote the PC and the Mac to just be a device. Just like an iPhone, an iPad or an iPod Touch. And we’re going to move the digital hub, the center of your digital life, into the cloud.

This approach has worked in the past year and adding a Mac to handle some tasks I give it will fit well into this architecture. My Mac brain will continue to be just another device, but one reserved for handling the computing jobs that I’m not ready to give up control of yet and jobs that will allow me to think less about computing and more about creating.

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  1. I do see the irony of a “headless” computer (one running without a monitor) being a “brain.” 

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