Best Feature of Leopard Yet…

… has got to be Time Machine.

Last week I was at a clients’ office and had my laptop drop off a counter just, just after I’d put it to sleep.

The good news was that the MacBooks and MacBook pros all have sensors that, upon sensing an impact can park the heads on the hard drive before they have a chance to crash into the platters and kill the drive.

The bad news is that right when you put it to sleep, the laptop writes out the contents of RAM to the HD in case the battery dies/is removed, but the sensors are not functional.

So I had one thoroughly dead hard drive.

After finagling around with Disk Utility and discovering I could create a partition big enough for all of my files that avoided the damaged areas and was thus usable, I restored the computer from my Time Machine backups and a few hours later was back to work. Most of this time was spent figuring out what parts of the drive were usable.

Then I ordered a new drive which I installed this weekend. Not ridiculously difficult (say… like a Mac Mini) but I’ll never complain about pulling apart a Toshiba or Compaq again.

Anyway. The point is that I had my computer back in full running order within hours in what was effectively a bare metal restoration. All my programs worked, and all of my settings were in place. All of this as part of the backup system that came with the OS.

Side note. I hate Torx screws. Why do manufacturers insist on using Torx screws on top of the mini-phillips (and even regular phillips) sized screws? The good news. Lowes has a nifty Kobalt-brand multi-head Torx screwdriver that includes T5 and T6 heads for about five bucks.

Double Life – Part II

It’s been over a year since Apple shifted over to using the intel chipset in their machines, and every end of the computer product line now uses them. Adobe finally got an intel-native version of their apps out (only to be delayed in making CS3 Leopard-compatible.), and I could play EVE online if I only had the time.

I said a while ago that time would tell, as it wouldn’t be easy.

Apple sure made it look that way though.

Leopard Features

My initial impression upon looking at Apple’s 300+ features page was “Good Lord!” The second was “A lot of these are pretty minor.” Remembering that Apple has built its success on making the little stuff work so well it completely changes how you do things, I dug deeper, and came away impressed. When I get around to reviewing it the review will end up being a long one.

Many of the features are actually minor ones, small usability enhancements such as doing a Google maps search by clicking the address in the address book, or the ability to add a new contact to your address book by clicking on an address in the mail body even if they didn’t send you a vcard. Each of these is minor. Each of these nevertheless saves you time by minimizing the jumping around needed to do each task. That way you get back to your work quicker.

In other cases, it’s the combination of features that’s the big deal. Sure, 10.4 had parental controls in place and workable whitelisting that made similar controls built into Windows look anemic and weak. Apple didn’t rest on its laurels, and made improvements. I’m not impressed by “dynamic” filters, but they are now available for filtering web pages if you want. What really blows my mind is that on top of whitelisting allowed websites, email contacts, chat contacts, etc. you can also now control when certain users are even allowed to be on the computer at all. You can also do this from a remote computer across the house so you can centrally manage your parental policies.

For parents geeky enough to be using these features in the first place: whoah.

The biggest deal to me is that Apple, in conjunction with their iWork update, has taken one more step towardsa replacement for Exchange/Outlook/Office that many workplaces rely on. The iCal server integration features offer what 90% of Exchange users use shared calendars for. Now if we could get shared address books (a real one that can be easily updated like Exchange, that LDAP schema doesn’t count) and a Access-like database program integrated with iWork…

The long and the short of it is that it looks like a number of the small features may be small, but they can change how you work in ways that going back will feel like being crippled. Other features work together to be a really big deal. To tell the difference, as well as which features really are just fluff, will take time. To explain how this could  affect you or improve your computer usage will likely use a lot of space.

Don’t expect a full review from me anytime soon.

This is Not Customer Service (I’m looking at You Comcast).

I am about this close to canceling my account with Comcast. After all, I don’t really watch TV and my life would be much more peaceful if I didn’t have to listen to anything else on the Disney channel for a while either. I’ve already been less than exceptionally happy with their response time for connection issues due to cabling (several days to a week), and level of knowledge. What really takes the cake is the experience that a neighbor just had.

Cue up Gilligans Island: “Sit right back and we’ll tell a tale…”

Four days ago my neighbor called and complained that her computer couldn’t get online. I had her check her cable modem and sure enough, the lights weren’t right, and we reset the modem. It worked. For a short while.

The next day the problems came up again. I went over to look, and sure enough, the cable modem was flaking out and not consistently showing a connection light. I had her call Comcast, and amazingly, they were able to get someone out the next day.

The technician came out yesterday, and angered my neighbor to no end. She felt she was being bossed around. She was also suspicious of how often he called in to HQ, though I can’t say how necessary or unnecessary that was. What really got my goat was that after replacing her old Motorola “surfboard” modem with a different modem, he didn’t get it registered. Apparently the system was down at HQ, or possibly Comcast still uses IE5 for their config utility (which of course won’t work on an Intel Mac), or he didn’t know enough about Macs to get them setup, or something, but he couldn’t get the modem registered and activated, and left it that way with her confused about what to do. Note – this can easily be done by calling in the serial number. He also told her that she couldn’t have her cable modem split off the same wall point as one of her TV’s, and that he’d have to come back to run a separate line.

The last tweaked my antennas, because I’ve seen competent cable installers before. I know perfectly well that with decent splitter fittings and filters and tight connections that you can split the signal all sorts of ways and still have it work. Since there is only one cable coming up to the house the biggest practical advantage to splitting the cable indoors is that it’s not exposed to the weather. From previous experience weather can make a big difference. The fittings don’t like to have water in them.

Either way, I went over this morning to get the modem registered, and immediately had problems. It took a long time to get a valid address, and I couldn’t resolve the download site for the software (incidentally this is why I don’t know if they still use IE 5 for mac configuration). I called it in to tech support, and they registered the modem serial number, and I got an address. I thanked them and switched back to the wireless router.

More trouble. Mail started coming in but I couldn’t get to any web sites reliably or get a full page to load. Ping checks were showing 30-60% packet drops – meaning about half of the data was randomly wandering off into the wastelands never to be seen again. So I reset the modem and called tech support. While on hold for “slow connection” I realized I had not yet gotten an address but finally managed to pull up a valid public address as the phone flunky answered.

I refuse to give out this name, because the following help desk idiot is a perfect example of how not to ever talk to a client, even though he started out pleasantly enough.

We went through the script, resetting the modem and rebooting the computer (I actually rebooted in addition to the DHCP renew which would do the trick most times. I also tried disabling/enabling the ethernet port). I slowly received a new address. I even managed to ping the router. What I couldn’t do was resolve names. I tried to point this out to the helpdesk but he insisted that a) I had a valid IP and b) he could communicate with the modem so c) there was no problem and I’d have to take any other issues up with my manufacturer, i.e. Apple.

Here’s where he really proved he earned idiot, and then some. I patiently explained to him that yes, I had an IP address, and I was apparently getting some proper comms as I could ping known IP addresses (at least the router) but I could not resolve names and until I could I couldn’t get a website.

“Well try to open a webpage.”

I stopped for about thirty seconds, and told him “Okay, I’ll humor you.” Of course, no response and no web page. Again, I was told “Call Apple.”

We went through several rounds of this with me explaining that a) I make my living at this, b) I was using my own laptop from across the street and also on Comcast so I bloody well know the computer was fine, and c) I knew for a fact that the network wasn’t, and until they fixed the problem on their end so I could resolve names I never would get online.

I was told effectively “I don’t care,” “I don’t care how many computers you use there and who makes them you have a valid IP so you need to call the manufacturer,” “If it was our problem we’d have other people complaining,” and finally “I don’t know what all this stuff is about names.”

Oh yeah. And “I can’t help you, call Apple.”

After a couple more rounds trying to explain to him that a name lookup was needed to get a website and being told “I can’t help you,” I finally asked him to “please bump me up to someone who can help.”

For anyone paying attention who ever, ever has to manage or work in customer service, yes, this was a mildly open-ended question. I didn’t specify “your supervisor.” Yes, by now I’d told him quite bluntly that he was ignorant of networking, though only after I’d already explained to him for the umpteenth time that name resolution was needed for web browsers to work and that both computers in question worked fine elsewhere so the problem was their network (and I didn’t yell). Nevertheless what happened next left me speechless. This is filed under “Let’s see what we can do to piss our customers off.” It’s also filed under “never ever ever ever ever do this.”

He transferred me to Apple.

That’s right. The next thing I heard on the phone was the automated prompting system at Apple Inc.. Not a supervisor. Not someone who actually understood how networks worked or would listen to me when I told him I wasn’t getting all of the required network data or consistently getting a valid IP address.

He transferred me to Apple.


For what it’s worth, there is a tech who at least listens over there. Tom, here’s to you. I called back five minutes alter after I’d regained my composure, explained to you that I still had problems getting an address and that even with an address I couldn’t look up names, and you listened. I also told you I tried several machines including known working ones from other households, and you listened. You also checked the data on the modem, and realized the signal levels (despite the visit the other day) were still not quite right by enough to cause problems.

They had two trucks there the next day replacing cables. Everything there works fine now.

I guess calling Apple wouldn’t have solved the problem after all.

I will be pricing out the local Bellsouth (wups, AT&T) service though. Even with the hassle of getting new internal lines installed so I can have the DSL modem where I need it and the outbound mail policies at Bellsouth, this experience coupled with past unreliability in my own house left such a bad taste in my mouth I’m inclined to never pay a dime to Comcast again.

Why I’m Glad I Don’t Depend on Windows…

except to make money off the fact that other people do depend on it.

To make a long story short, Microsoft had some issues with their database that determines if your computer has a valid copy of Windows Vista or XP on it, and the validation servers were unavailable. Many people all over the world had their computers automatically check in over those few days because they were installing a new copy of Windows or updating or installing something like Windows Defender that required a validation check. Those people were immediately placed in a “reduced” mode that shut off features on their computers.

update: Of course, this all makes my earlier rant on the problems of software activation schemes look prescient.

update2: And the guys from User Friendly throw in their two cents…

A Look Further Afield..

I normally don’t pay much attention to what John Dvorak has to say, but in this case I think he’s got a point. He’s taken a look at the further implications of the Windows Activation outage and applied it to all web services by asking the question – is it any safer to depend on online access to your data?

Me, I take it with a grain of salt. I use online backups as a slower, redundant system in case a fire or something takes out the much faster backup system at the office. I use Flickr, and this blog as a way to communicate with other people. Both of these are things that I cannot do without the web.  There’s a bit of a gray line when it comes to services like Google Calendar – which I  sync or subscribe to via iCal so if I don’t have online access I still have a copy of my data from the last time I got online, and a backup if they ever cancel that service. I go to the trouble because it allows my wife and I to keep a common calendar where I can refer to it when I’m off at work.

The only place I use an online document system is Googles notebook – and that is also used strictly for communicating with the people I work with.

Anything else I do – image manipulation, document creation, general writing, I have my own tools on my own computers that will work whether or not the internet is available, and can always be attached as files and sent to people. Not wanting to depend on the availability of servers is one reason why I work this way. It just hadn’t occured to me to think in terms of “What if you have internet access but the service gets shut down.” After all, who’d have thought Google would shut a service down, especially after people paid for it?

Software Piracy Prevention…

DWBlog, from the maker of NewsFire (the first RSS reader to hook me before I outgrew its feature set at the time) has an entry on a subject that I’ve often felt conflicted about: product activation. In many ways, I agree with his points, even this one:

What activation allows is for reasonable limits to be placed on licenses. One has to realize that people will try to pirate software, and that in cases of rampant abuse it must be possible to stop the bleeding. The use of activation means that while honest users are given very liberal boundaries, rampant and excessive abuse can and will be stopped. 99.99% of users will never have an issue. In the few cases where the liberal boundaries are broken, there’s probably something suspicious happening.

First of all – I absolutely loathe “copy protection.” In software this is the practice of deliberately manufacturing a CD or other disk so that it violates the spec but is still readable – on the majority of readers – but the “bad” sectors can’t be copied. Time after time this has resulted in disks that are bought and paid for that don’t work on some fairly small subset of perfectly functional CD-ROM drives. Given software return policies at most stores this is usually money down the drain. In the music industry this has resulted in everything from CD’s that won’t play in the fancy DVD/CD player you now use for your home system or in your car stereo, to CD’s that run software to prevent your computer from reading the audio tracks. Some of the latter, such as the Sony rootkit, have gone as far as completely hijacking your computer.

To add insult to injury, if anything happens to the original media it gets scratched or your 4-year old decides it makes a shiney frisbee you are stuck, with no recourse, because you cannot back it up.

That said, I think every software distributor deserves to be paid for his work if you use his product. That leaves us with the question of what is fair value and how to best enforce the programmers/distributors end of the bargain.

He’s right. programmers need a way to tie “you paid for this” to “you can use this,” and serial numbers are so easily distributed and cracked that it’s practically worthless. My point of disagreement with his article is the following many people pushing activation and digital rights management are very restrictive in their activation licenses, and the boundaries are not liberal and are very easy to slam into. There are also other issues relating to activation vs. serial numbers that can make it a pain to use and need to be addressed.

Let me get one triviality out of the way. There are a few other methods of piracy prevention. One that is common with higher-end and specialty software (Lightwave, Nobeltec) is to use a “dongle.” The huge disadvantage with this methodology is the same as copy protected media – if the key is lost or damaged then poof, no software. That said, it allows you to install a copy on several machines that you may sit at use the software at whichever one simply by bringing the key along.

Another method is to not even bother. Apple takes this approach with a good percentage of their software, though not Aperture and their “pro” apps. The sci-fi publisher Baen Books, one of the few to make significant money off of ebooks not only doesn’t lock theirs down at all, but gives away an entire “free library,” the better to hook you with. All of the books are available in numerous, standard, easy-to-transfer formats. If you want to know why they did this:

If I can’t make a living as a writer by the quality of my writing outweighing any losses I might suffer from theft — without trampling all over blind and crippled people in order to stop the theft — I’ve got no damn business being a writer in the first place. I’ve still got my tool box, and I haven’t forgotten how to be a machinist.

Eric Flint

Entire pages of this material on copyright and why they did the ebooks the way they did are available at the old Library still available at: under “Prime Palaver.”

Back to our topic. Our remaining issues are these: What constitutes fair use and what problems does “activation” bring to the table for users?

With serial numbers/etc. if you lose the number, well, you’re toast. That said, it’s easy if you’re reasonably careful to keep duplicate copies of your serial numbers and disks so that if anything happens, you can still install and use the program.

What happens if the company providing the software or service goes away or is bankrupted, and the computer you originally installed the program on had to be replaced or reinstalled? Suddenly, even though you have a product bought and paid for that you can reinstall off of your backup discs, you can no longer use the program because there is no activation/authentication database to activate it against.

This to me is the biggest achilles heel of any centralized activation system, and one reason why despite the weaknesses of serial numbers, etc., I avoid “activation”-based schemes where possible.

Lest you think I’m merely fearmongering, even worse is already happening. Google just shut down their pay-for-download video service. Everyone who bought a movie through the service will no longer be able to play those videos because Google will not even continue to run the authentication servers for the rights management embedded in the movies. Since they can’t verify the copies are authentic and on the approved computer they will not play. Google may decide to do something different, but right now they are only giving partial credits towards new purchases that expire after 60 days. At least with iTunes you can backup your music store purchases to a real CD that can get re-ripped, in the event the iTMS gets shut down – and your music will also still keep playing on any authorized computers.

So what is fair use? Obviously, that depends on what the software maker decides, to some extent. The blogger that inspired this article obviously “gets it.” Some of his products feature “family pack” pricing that allow several users in a household to use the program without buying entire separate copies. Apple does the same with OSX. For $200 you can buy a family pack for up to five users instead of the usual, one-user standalone copy that goes for $130. Contrast this with the price of Windows, which “mere mortals” like us can only get one very expensive copy at a time. While required to have some sort of DRM for the iTunes Music Store, Apple made the policies very liberal by any other retailers standards: You can burn a song to CD any number of times, just not the same playlist more than 7 times. A song you buy on iTMS can be copied to, authenticated, and used on up to 5 computers. Songs can be shared via streaming to however many computers are practical that are also running iTunes.

This concept is just perfect for a typical household. it is becoming more and more common to have multiple computers in a house. I personally have two: a workstation at home and the laptop I use on-site. Ponying up for two copies of everything just so I can use it as the sole user where and when I need it at the best computer for the job is ridiculous. So is having to pony up for separate full-price copies of an office suite just so the kids don’t have to take over my workstation to work on a school project – one more reason I’ll be getting the newest version of iWork. I’d gladly pay extra for Windows if it gave me the right to run several copies concurrently in virtualization or on several computers in my household. As it is – I don’t buy the extra copies (still running a w98 and a w2k machine) – and MS will get an even smaller cut via Dell or a similar vendor when I finally do replace my computer.

Piracy is an issue that needs to be addressed. The problem is that many of the cures are either only marginally effective, or worse, actively interfere with your ability to use a product you paid for. A lot of software vendors could look to Apple and Baen for ways to effectively deal with piracy without ruining their own image – by providing a better value for the reality of how people wish to use the software they paid for, and being very careful not to step on the toes of those self-same customers.

Safari vs Firefox

As a web designer, I get to deal with every major web browser in existence on a weekly basis. As a Mac user, I use two, as a matter of practicality. As a computer geek, that means that I’ve developed a favorite I consistently use, though at least I’m not fanatic enough to draw blood over it.

This is a tale of my attempt to shift my day-to-day browsing from Safari to Firefox, and why I went back to using Safari for most everything.

This is not to say that Firefox is a bad browser. First of all, it has built-in AJAX handling that makes it easy to edit online weblogs such as those driven by WordPress with a convenient formatting toolbar. I may be a hand-coding web geek, but when I’m writing the last thing I want to do is remember tags. Second, it has a dedicated plug-in and theming architecture that allows you to add some absolutely fantastic tools. Third, many web designers who care if their site works with a browser other than IE on Windows will make sure it works and looks good in a Mozilla-based browser first – especially if there’s extensive Javascript or css changes.

Since google had added a bookmark synching capability, as a long-time Safari user I decided to copy all my bookmarks over and give it a try.

All in all, it was nice. The plugins worked as advertised. Full AJAX support was a joy. With the appropriate theme the windows didn’t hog the screen any more than safari did.

Over time, several things drove me nuts. First of all, Firefox is noticeably slower, especially on an older G4-based iBook like I was using at the time. Secondly, the bookmark synchronization was nowhere near as smooth as I’d hoped between my office desktop and my iBook – often failing if I forgot to completely shut down Firefox on the other machine. Lastly, while they finally, finally put the close boxes for tabs somewhere sensible (on the individual tab), the behavior still wasn’t consistent. Once I’d opened up enough tabs, the tab closure box would disappear off of all the tabs except the current one, still forcing me to shift to the tab I wanted to close before closing it.

Safari might be missing a few features, and isn’t expandable or themable, but it doesn’t use up excessive real estate, it’s faster, and in a matter of utterly personal stylistic preference it behaves more like I’d like a browser to.

That said, I still bring up Firefox to do weblog updates, and to reserve books at the library.

Backing Up Is Hard to Do …

One thing that I’ve had underscored recently is a hint I repeatedly give my clients that can be put across in four words. Back Up Your Stuff

Nevertheless, despite repeated warnings, many people don’t. Some just flat out don’t believe that they will be the one whose hard drive ends up making strange and scary klunking noises. Others are well-intentioned, but just don’t manage to because, frankly, backup software is still more difficult to run than it should be. Nevermind the hassle of adding and removing drives, etc. for laptops, and you start getting some real headaches that explain why those of us who are a bit confused and even scared around computers wouldn’t want to spend the time.

The surprising thing is not that it happens in the business world as well, but that among those who do back up, it’s all too common to only back up the server and not track down laptop and other users who may keep files on their local hard drive.

When you’re dealing with a machine like a tablet PC, and the hard drive or other component fails that will result in it getting sent to the shop, you’re staring at losing a lot of critical data. You know: Family photos, your CD collection for iTunes, copies of tax returns, your email.

So. Do what you have to. Get an external drive. Archive stuff off to CD or DVD. use another computer in the house as a place to duplicate your critical information. Whatever. Just please, keep extra copies.