Friday, December 30, 2005

PowerBook on a WLAN with a Billion 7402VGP

As the result of a protracted saga (involving two faulty Linksys WAG54G† routers supplied by Internode), my home network now runs through a Billion 7402VGP. Getting the PowerBook to work smoothly on the WLAN took some time. Maybe I've been spoiled previously, but with my previous router (a Netgear DG834GT), everything just worked.

I set up WPA-PSK on both ends. The symptoms were these:
  • After waking from sleep, the PowerBook was no longer connected to the WLAN, and it would not automatically reconnect.
  • Manually selecting the SSID from the AirPort drop-down menu wouldn't cause a reconnection. On the contrary, an extremely unhelpful dialog containing the text "There was an error joining the AirPort network Sesame Street", and no other information. What is it with Apple and error reporting?
  • Inexplicably, selecting "Other..." from that same drop-down, and entering the SSID by hand along with the password did work. The problem with disconnecting after sleep persisted.
Unfortunately, I did three things to try to solve the problem. I am not sure what subset of the following is necessary and sufficient:
  • I downloaded and installed Airport Update 2005-001.
  • I increased the Idle Timeout on the router (under Configuration/LAN/Wireless Security) to 65535.
  • I created a custom Location under the PowerBook's Network Preferences for use in my house. Obviously, it lists AirPort as the first preference for a network connection.
It has been working for 48 hours, so I am assuming it's fixed.

† I just can't let this post go without adding my voice to the myriad criticisms of the Linksys WAG54G. After purchasing one from my ISP, it ran well for about 36 hours. At that point, it locked up completely: the first thing I noticed was that the WLAN was down, then that it had lost line sync, and was not returning ICMP pings over Ethernet. It took three or four power-cycles to get it back to normal. This lasted perhaps another 12 hours, after which I reverted to using my trusty, old Netgear DG834GT. Internode replaced the WAG54G with another. The replacement couldn't even get a line sync on the known-good line—the Netgear was syncing up to 18Mbit/s straight away. I jumped through the Internode tech-support hoops—and it was pretty handy having the working Netgear by my side to fend off the more mundane troubleshooting suggestions—and they eventually suggested replacing the Linksys with a Billion 7402VGP. At my expense. Don't get me wrong—I am one of Internode's biggest referrers; they are a great ISP. But with the Linksys WAG54G, they're peddling junk.

The Apple Product Cycle

Hilarious: The Apple Product Cycle.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Drag and drop installation

I'm not sure how it came about, but it turns out that I was running Firefox several versions out of date. (Actually, I think Google told me. Thanks Google.) So I went to the Firefox download page and grabbed Firefox 1.5. Of course, it came as a disk image file—nothing new now that I'm a Mac fanboy. But, for some reason, I had a flashback to the last time I installed Firefox on Windows XP. Don't get me wrong, it's a nice installer, but it's nothing like this:
firefox-install
That's right, Windows schmucks, to install an application, you take the icon on the left and drag it into your Applications folder. And that's it.

Wednesday, December 7, 2005

Busmonster?

I was reading a post by Paul Graham about, and I shudder at the thought of using this term, "Web 2.0". The article is interesting. Towards the end, it links to a site called Busmonster. I had never heard of it before, so I checked it out:
busmonster
Here's a different take on that: Your website is not currently supported by my browser.

The completely hilarious bit is that Graham was praising the site as an example of "hackers ... writing stuff on top of [Google Maps]" in an essay claiming that "Web 2.0" was (partly) about "not dissing users".

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

X11 update: BadWindow, eh?

Since installing X Windows on my PowerBook the other day, I haven't looked back—it's been GNU Emacs on the OS X desktop like I was born doing it. (As an aside, I've been running Aquamacs, a native OS X build of GNU Emacs, for a while now. The issue that gets me excited about X11, though, is doing it all tunneled over SSH. This means that I can do all the shell-related activity I need to do anyway, and seamlessly launch into a GUI-mode editor for editing. I was previously editing in text-mode within the shell. If I had more than a barely functioning NFS setup between the PowerBook and bigbird, I could do the editing with Aquamacs, but then there would still be the disconnect between working in the shell and firing up the editor. But I digress.)

I have identified two problems with X Windows on the PowerBook:
  • When using Alt-Tab to bring the X11 application to the foreground, none of the actual X Windows windows come to the front. That is, the menu bar reads "X11" after the Alt-Tab, but the windows then need to be selected using the Windows submenu or the appropriate keyboard shortcuts. I've read in various places that this was a known bug, and that it had been fixed in some previous OS X update. Running "Software Update" gives me nothing, though. Have I "missed" this update because I only recently installed X11?
  • GNU Emacs seems to be randomly exiting with the following error message:
    X protocol error: BadWindow (invalid Window parameter)
    on protocol request 38
    That doesn't mean a lot to me, though I don't recall ever seeing Emacs quit unexpectedly like this in any other setting. I haven't been able to identify what (if anything) triggers it. Anyone?


Wednesday, November 23, 2005

An X11 saga

Yesterday I was in my lounge room editing a file on bigbird, my main FreeBSD machine. Now, bigbird lives in my office upstairs, and I was on the PowerBook, logged in using SSH in the conventional way. I was using GNU Emacs in text mode to do the editing. Now, I like using emacs in text mode, and I do it a lot—often just like that, over a SSH connection from a Windows box in my office at home, or at work. For no apparent reason, though, it occurred to me that OS X was supposed to be able to run an X Windows server and display client windows from programs running on remote hosts. I figured that, largely for the hell of it, I would fire up X Windows and run Emacs in graphics mode. That was about 24 hours ago.

I decided to approach the problem as a Mac user, so I started by looking in the Applications directory for anything resembling an X Windows server. Nothing jumped out at me. Next came Google. Apple's web site certainly seemed to suggest that Tiger shipped with X Windows, so I knew I couldn't be far from the solution. I soon found an article somewhere that suggested that X wasn't installed by default, but that it could be added as a package from the installation media. Now I was moving.

I figured I'd just do a quick Spotlight search on "X11" given my experience with Xcode—this isn't installed by default either, but, on my PowerBook at least, the installer was on the hard disk and I didn't need to use the Tiger DVD. Indeed, I found a likely candidate: X11SDK.pkg. Now, slightly less naive Mac users are probably chuckling already. Yes, that was (not surprisingly) just the software development kit—all the X Windows headers and manual pages for writing X applications. Not what I needed, but no big deal.

Next, I dug up the Tiger DVDs that were shipped with the PowerBook, but which I've never actually used for anything, since the machine had Tiger pre-installed. I fired up the package installer, which got not quite as far as the step where you choose a destination, and promptly died claiming that it was corrupt and unreadable. Great. I polished up the disc a little and tried again, but no joy. Broken installation media. While contemplating how much administrative joy would be involved in getting them replaced, I did what any sensible person would do—started putting the word out with Mac-owning friends that I needed to borrow some Tiger DVDs.

A friend in Sydney pointed out that the package I actually needed was X11User.pkg. The interesting thing here was that I subsequently found that package on my PowerBook, and tried to install it. It failed, claiming that newer software was already installed. Now I was confused. Did I already have the X server installed? I tried it several times. No joy. Further Googling lead me to believe that this error is just implying that the OS itself is too new for the package—it seems an old version of X11User.pkg was shipped on the PowerBook itself. Who knows. By this stage, it was today, and I was already tired of the whole saga.

Eventually, I managed to get hold of the right package from the Tiger installation media. I installed it. From that point on, everything worked as I had originally envisaged:
  • Open an xterm on the PowerBook.
  • SSH to the remote host using the ‘-X’ command line switch.
  • Run an X application.
Nice. My personal saga aside, this kind of thing should demonstrate something to other vendors: X Windows isn't hard. As usual, I'm looking at you, Microsoft. I've run X applications on the Windows desktop before, but all the solutions (that I know of) are clunky and awful. Cygwin and TightVNC, for example, both require that you open an entire X desktop session (yes, window manager and all) in a single, monolithic Windows window. OS X lets you open individual X applications in their own windows on the OS X desktop, and they're essentially indistinguishable from any other application. (Of course, Cygwin and TightVNC are both great products—they certainly beat the nothing that you get from Microsoft in this area.)

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Review: iTunes Music Store Australia

Earlier this month, I wrote pretty enthusiatically about the opening of Apple's iTunes Music Store in Australia. I joined up pretty much straight away. I've already purchased some singles, a couple of albums, and an audiobook. So, how's it panning out?

Let me start with some criticisms—there aren't many of them, but they're not insignificant either. And then I can get back on with being the Apple fanboy I'm rapidly becoming. Firstly, and this quite possibly says more about my taste in music than it does about the store, the range seems to have some gaps. Here's just one example: the other day, for some reason, I searched on ‘Simon and Garfunkel’. (I realise that any rock cred I had three seconds ago has now vanished.) Nothing. There's some Art Garfunkel stuff, and there's some Paul Simon stuff. But, unless I'm blind, there's not a single Simon and Garfunkel album. And it's not like they're obscure. According to the RIAA in 2003, "they remain the best selling duo in history with sales of 38 million albums". You would think they would make the cut.

I am a big fan of audiobooks. The first thing I noticed is that the range seems to be pretty much identical to Audible.com. I assume it's just a straight licensing deal. Audible.com's range isn't terrible, but there's a lot of junk in it. At least iTMS seems to be making an effort to put an Australian front-end on it, with an ‘Australian Authors’ category on the front page. Browsing audiobooks, though, just plain doesn't work. Try this: starting from the iTMS home page, select Audiobooks, and then Arts & Entertainment from the categories list. A column-based browser comes up, but you're right back at the start of the entire iTMS catalogue. That is, not in Arts & Entertainment, and not even in Audiobooks. That's just broken.

My final criticism is a relative one: it's too damn easy to buy music. Now, that's fine (in fact, it's great) if:
  • you know what you're doing, and
  • it's your credit card that's linked to the instance of iTunes.
Both of those criteria are true in my case, but pretend they're not. Once a credit card is registered, that's it—as far as I can see, there's no ongoing or periodic authentication of the user of iTunes, so purchasing a song involves clicking one button. There's no password, there's no pop-up, nothing. Again, in my case (and probably yours, too), this is most definitely a feature, but if I had children, I'd want to be pretty careful about who was firing up my copy of iTunes. (Of course, the bigger issue here is that Microsoft Windows has such ad hoc user-level security. And, yes, I'm still running iTunes on Windows. This is explained elsewhere.)

These issues aside, I like iTunes Music Store. In particular, the ability for a consumer to purchase individual songs is long overdue. Since signing up three weeks ago, I've already purchased more music than I did in the last three months. The user interface is slick, and the integration with the rest of iTunes, and hence my iPod, is seamless. I have no doubt someone is making a pile of money from iTMS—probably Apple, possibly the recording companies. I imagine conventional music retailers are starting to worry.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

'Enter' and 'Return'

OK, I'll bite: what's the difference between the 'Enter' key and the 'Return' key on a Mac keyboard?

I didn't even know I had both 'Enter' and 'Return' keys until I was reading a post at Daring Fireball a few days ago. (That post, by the way, is a review of the new 15" PowerBook G4. It sounds like the range has a few nice improvements, but nothing that would make current PowerBook G4 owners want to upgrade.)

Tuesday, November 1, 2005

iTMS Australia: I'll buy that for $1.69

The Australian version of Apple's iTunes Music Store has finally opened. And it's certainly been a long time coming. I'm not going to pretend to be cool enough to know the real reason for the delay—presumably it lies somewhere along the spectrum from recording industry conspiracy to complete incompetence on the part of Apple—but there's no denying it's been a long time coming.

The standard track price is $A 1.69. That's more expensive than the standard track price in the United States at $US 0.99. Today, $A 1.69 is about $US 1.27. But it still seems fairly cheap to me. And I've been waiting for a music sales model like this for quite some time. Sure, I understand the art behind the album concept, but sometimes you're only interested in just one song, and it's not always the one the record company markets as a single. Getting a share of $A 1.69 for a single track is surely better than getting a share of $A 0 because the consumer couldn't justify buying the entire album.

Monday, October 17, 2005

iTunes needs better error reporting

The last two releases of iTunes (and weren't they rapid fire!) seemed to have a problem with my iPod. And I write seemed because it's difficult to tell: all iTunes would tell me was that it couldn't sync my iPod because “An unknown error occurred (–50)”. (This is iTunes on Windows XP. I use iTunes on Windows mostly for historical reasons—I had ripped my CD collection to that machine before I had a Mac.) With the last iTunes in the 5.x line, it would inform me of the error, and then carry on regardless (which is interesting behaviour), so I just ignored it. After updating to 6.0, evidently error number –50 became more serious, as it wouldn't sync at all. So I was forced to do something about it.

I checked the software on the iPod itself—it was the latest version. Being in Windows-mode, where the standard second-line solution to every problem is re-installation, I figured I'd just wipe the iPod and re-install the music from the PC. It worked, but it wasn't very satisfying.

Really bad error reporting seems to be a standard Apple software trait. Why is that?

iPod: Survives fall from 1 metre

Last night I tried very hard to destroy another iPod. Trying to slip it into its very snug neoprene cover while walking (I really shouldn't multitask), I dropped it from a height of about a metre. The impact might have been less severe if it had hit the carpet on which I was standing, but, of course, there was an object on the floor in the middle of the drop-zone: an LCD monitor I had been meaning to move for days. So, the iPod collided with the plastic base of the monitor. It didn't seem like a critical impact, but the iPod was unresponsive when I picked it up. I sighed, several times, while envisaging another trip to the local Apple Centre, and wondering about the insurance implications of destroying something that was a replacement for something I destroyed previously. However, after a web search to remind me how to perform a hard reset, I managed to return it to life. Nothing broken, nothing lost.

Thursday, October 6, 2005

USB mass storage data loss

I have an Apacer Handy Steno HT202 256MB USB flash storage device. (Am I the only person who refuses to call these things "flash drives"?) It had on it a tar archive from which I wanted to extract some data. Observant readers will note that I am using the past tense. Knowing that my Windows XP box would almost certainly be incapable of extracting data from a tar archive, I plugged it into the PowerBook. It came up on the desktop immediately with no fuss. (This, of course, is in stark contrast to the considerable amount of fuss caused by plugging one of these devices into a Windows XP machine. Why would I want a dialog asking me how the device should be dealt with every time I plug it in? Just mount the file system and leave me alone!) I opened a Terminal window and navigated to the device. I asked tar to extract the data.

Now, it was a pretty big archive, probably around 100MB. And being a USB device, it didn't really all happen at once, so I left it running. The PowerBook was not connected to the mains, and, as far as I can see, it went to sleep in the middle of the archive extraction. When I woke the machine back up, the tar process was wedged hard. Control-C didn't work. Control-Z didn't work. kill didn't work. kill -KILL (inexplicably) didn't work. Nothing worked. So I got the Finder to terminate the shell. And as a side effect of something in this chain of events, the USB mass storage device terminated my data. Gone. Well, not quite: MacOS X wouldn't admit to seeing anything in the directory where the archive was, and wouldn't even give a directory listing. Windows XP saw the directory and the archive, but wouldn't read the latter. FreeBSD 5.3 saw everything, but, again, wouldn't read it.

Ultimately this was my fault.
  • The data should have been moved off the USB stick months ago.
  • I should never have been doing the extraction on the device itself.
  • I should have had the PowerBook plugged into the mains if I was doing something important.
However, is it really too much to ask that either MacOS X allows USB data transfer during sleep mode, or it doesn't fall asleep while accessing a mass storage device? Do I have to wear the entirety of the blame here?

Friday, September 9, 2005

Brushed metal

A joint venture between the It's Funny Because It's True Department and the I'll Still Recognise It As A Music Player Even If It Doesn't Look Like A Hi-Fi Foundation presents: The iTunes 5 Announcement From the Perspective of an Anthropomorphized Brushed Metal User Interface Theme.

Thursday, September 8, 2005

Monday, September 5, 2005

Apple Stores and new iPod gear

If I recall correctly, the first time I saw an Apple Store was in Chicago in 2003, but at that stage I was not the Apple fanboy you see before you today, and so probably didn't get a lot out of it. In Adelaide, we have a small shop masquerading as an Apple Store, but it's not quite the same as the stores in larger US cities. I must admit, all the Mac and iPod gear out on display looks pretty nice, and it's fun just killing some time looking at all the stuff I can't afford. I recall reading some (other) breathless Apple fan commenting on how popular these stores are—they really are almost always completely packed. Now, I don't want to rain on the parade of the renaissaince of Mac popularity, but let me tell you why people flock to these stores: free Internet access. All the machines are net-connected, and anyone can use them for as long as they like at no charge. Which means, in a city like San Francisco where there's (very sadly) no easyInternet chain, you're fighting for standing room with every bored backpacker in a five mile radius.

Anyway, I was in San Francisco recently, and I did spend some time in the Apple Store near Union Square. While two friends dropped $US 399 on their very own 60GB iPods, I headed towards the accessories rack. After the iPod drowning incident of late July, I figured a nice neoprene cover might be in order:

IMG_3039

And, from the back:

IMG_3040

It's not waterproof, but it should stop me from doing lesser moronic things to the iPod. It cost $US 24. I also bought a Belkin FM transmitter for car use. $US 39.

IMG_3041

There were about five different models of FM transmitters. I chose the Belkin for aesthetic reasons, if anything. Frankly, I don't like the look of the iTrips, which seem to be quite popular. Sure, they're white and smooth, but they look like some weird sausage-tumour jacked into the top of the iPod where they sit. So I chose the Belkin because it's standalone: there's a short cord between the headphone jack on the iPod and the transmitter. It has a digital display, and stores four preset frequencies. It works nicely. Oh, and the iTrip, as far as I could tell, came with a CD which I think contained custom software you had to install on the iPod. Err, no thanks. The Belkin transmitter works well in my car, though power consumption is a little hefty. It takes two AAA batteries, and it seems to have almost consumed a pair already after only a few hours of use.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

iPod returns

I have a new iPod to replace the one I submerged in water a few weeks ago. For a moment I thought that the insurance company had tracked down a 40G monochrome model to replace the one I killed, but I was pleasantly surprised that, evidently, they hadn't:

IMG_2686

I notice that Apple is still pretty keen to differentiate design and manufacturing:

IMG_2688

I still think that's a bit lame. You've got to admit, though, the packaging is pretty neat:

IMG_2689

It starts out as a cube, and folds out to what you see above. Here are the accessories:

IMG_2690

I'm glad to see the wall-plug charger, as I've misplaced my original one. What's missing from the photograph above, though? My old 40GB monochrome iPod shipped with a desktop cradle, as well as a FireWire cable. These are now accessories that you can purchase separately—I think this is also lame. Of course, it doesn't affect me, because I have those accessories from my old iPod. But I'd be pretty disappointed to have to go out and buy them separately if I'd just spent the $A 600 to buy a new 60GB colour iPod.

Tuesday, August 9, 2005

Samba: it so almost "just works"

Now that I'm a veteran of the Finder's "Connect to Server..." dialog, I know exactly how to mount a Samba share on the PowerBook. All I've done since my aborted NFS trial is install Samba 3.0.14 on bigbird, the FreeBSD box. I used SWAT to set up a very basic Samba installation, aiming solely to share home directories. I added myself as a user to the smbpasswd file. (Usernames are shared across the machines, it's just UIDs that are not.) I fired everything up, and opened the "Connect to Server..." dialog. I entered my username and password, just as I would from a Windows XP machine. Then nothing. This progress dialog came up, and just kept on spinning:

samba-connect

Of course, the non-Mac user in me just couldn't give up there. On bigbird, the following cryptic lines appear in /var/log/samba/log.kermit, the client's log file:
[2005/08/09 17:28:13, 0] smbd/service.c:make_connection_snum(577)
Can't become connected user!
[2005/08/09 17:28:21, 0] rpc_parse/parse_prs.c:prs_mem_get(537)
prs_mem_get: reading data of size 2 would overrun buffer.
[2005/08/09 17:28:21, 0] rpc_server/srv_pipe.c:api_pipe_bind_req(919)
api_pipe_bind_req: unable to unmarshall RPC_HDR_RB struct.
I imagine the critical problem is that Samba "Can't become connected user!". This doesn't make a lot of sense to me, since, of course, the Samba servers are running as root.

To make matters worse, there doesn't seem to be anything (much) wrong with the setup of the Samba server, since I can connect just fine from my Windows XP machine. Are there any known difficulties with Mac OS X as a Samba client? I seem to be so close.

Saturday, August 6, 2005

NFS: it doesn't "just work"

I still do a reasonable amount of computing on bigbird, my main FreeBSD machine. (The details are not important—this post is about to get nerdy enough. It's just that bigbird is the fastest machine with the most storage on the LAN.) I log in remotely from kermit the PowerBook, but to view any output, I have been transferring it to kermit using scp. This got boring really fast, and this afternoon I decided it was time to set up an NFS export of some directories on bigbird to kermit. I'm no NFS guru, but it's not like it's anything I hadn't done before, either.

I remembered reading some articles about mounting filesystems over NFS on Mac OS X a few months ago, so I was prepared for it not to be straightforward. My preparedness was rewarded: it certainly didn't "just work". I had to find a system tool called "NetInfo Manager", buried in the Utilities subdirectory of the Applications folder. There's nothing, to me at least, about "NetInfo Manager" that says, "this is the application you use to set up an NFS mount". I knew it was, though, because I was following along with one of the many web pages that describes the unnecessarily complicated process of setting this up. Here's what I had to do:
  1. Click on the /mounts directory in NetInfo Manager.
  2. Add a new subdirectory called bigbird:/home.
  3. Add the following properties: vfstype=nfs, opts=net, dir=/Network/Servers/.
  4. Save the settings and restart the computer.
Now, to my mind, that's all a bit Windows-esque, especially the last step. Restart the computer? (Of course, the usual caveat applies: there may have been an easier way to do it which didn't involve a restart. But if there was, it wasn't obvious to me.) You certainly couldn't claim that mounting an NFS filesystem "just works".

(Worse, because the subtleties of syntax in the /etc/exports file on the NFS server were lost in the back of my brain somewhere, I had to restart the PowerBook no less than five times to get it all working. Now that's hardly Mac OS X's fault, but it would have been nice if there was an easier way than a restart.)

Thursday, July 28, 2005

iPod: not suitable for use underwater

Two days ago, I killed my iPod. I am in mourning, since it was only just over six months old. Here's the low-down. I had been listening to an Audible audiobook at the gym (Noam Chomsky's ‘Hegemony or survival: America's quest for global dominance’, if you're interested). I returned from the gym with my iPod stuffed casually in the bottom of my gym bag. (Gone are the days when the novelty factor was sufficient for me to, say, wrap it in something or put it in a separate pocket in the bag—the plastic screen is pretty much all scratched up now, so who cares?) I removed the iPod hours later from the puddle of water it had been sitting in most of the afternoon. My water bottle leaked. My iPod is dead.

I tried some resuscitation manouevres in vain. I let it drain. (Yes, drain—water ran out from the bottom socket. It was pretty wet.) No response. I tried a hard reset. I tried sticking it on the charger. Nothing worked. I could hear a waterlogged disk trying hard to spin up, but the display showed nothing.

There is some upside to this. Firstly, my home contents insurance policy should cover it. Secondly, the Apple Centre on Gouger Street has checked it out, and it's completely beyond repair. As a "service part", a new 40G iPod costs over $A 800. Now, if you've been tracking iPod prices, you'll know that this is about $A 200 more than the RRP of a new, colour, 60G iPod. So, I'm figuring that for the $A 100 excess on the insurance policy, I'm getting 20G of storage, and a colour display. Not bad. (Of course, the insurance company may decide to pay $A 800 for a replacement just to spite me, in which case I'll have paid $A 100 to be without an iPod for a couple of weeks. I hope that doesn't happen.)

I'll post news as it breaks.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Viewing PostScript

Here's an observation that combines mid-level geekery with "Ooh, isn't this neat!" (are you listening, Stephen?): Mac OS X's Preview application will display PostScript by rendering it to PDF on the fly. This alleviates a bit of hoop-jumping (such as installing Ghostscript) for the occasional viewer of PostScript files.

Monday, July 11, 2005

I can't believe it's not Unix!

(Of course, that's because it is Unix. But I couldn't resist the title.)

I'm surprised how little I use the command line on the PowerBook. And I'm surprised for several reasons.
  • Foremost, I'm an enormous fan of the command line. I've always considered the graphical user interface to be the bumbling Chester the Terrier to the command line's Spike the Bulldog. (If you have no idea what I'm talking about, and you've got a bit of spare time and some patience, read Neal Stephenson's† ‘In the beginning was the command line’. Not because it explains my (possibly lame) Warner Brothers cartoon reference, but because I think it does explain at least why people like me think the command line is better.)
  • I would never have predicted that the Mac OS X GUI is as good as it is. That is, I haven't felt the need to resort to the command line. It's generally easier to use the GUI, and that's unusual, for me at least. I can only conclude that Windows is comparatively harder, since I'm often found longing for a decent command line under Windows XP. And you have to do something like install Cygwin to get one, and that's way more effort than it should be. (By which I don't mean that Cygwin isn't great, but that after two decades or more of development, you'd think Microsoft could ship a decent shell with the OS.)
  • I suppose, lastly, that I'm still not confident enough about how Mac OS X (in terms of its Unix base) is all laid out. Sure, everyone wants to claim it's based partly on FreeBSD, but let me tell you that the filesystem ain't no vanilla BSD filesystem. I just don't trust myself not to screw anything up yet. Which is possibly a good thing, since it means I've yet to find a reason to put in the effort to discover how it all works. It just works.
But it sure is Unix:
kermit:~ paulh$ uname -a
Darwin kermit.local 8.1.0 Darwin Kernel Version 8.1.0:
Tue May 10 18:16:08 PDT 2005; root:xnu-792.1.5.obj~4/RELEASE_PPC
Power Macintosh powerpc
Nice.

† Sorry, Neil, I'd love to link to your home page, but Firefox tells me it's got a pop-up window. I checked it out, and it's quite cool, but pop-ups are lame—full stop.

Wednesday, July 6, 2005

iPod geekery

I've been reading John Gruber's Daring Fireball weblog since I became a Mac user, mostly so I could collect factoids and opinions I could repeat in conversations with real Mac users. In a post made at the end of last month, Gruber writes about Apple pseudo-abandoning its ‘iPod Photo’ line. At first I felt vindicated, since I never saw the point in viewing photographs on a screen no larger than the view-screen on a decent digital camera. By the second sentence, though, I felt like the same guy who predicted graphics on the web would never take off—it's really just a name change, since now all iPods will have colour screens and the ability to display photographs. (I still say, "So what?")

Apart from some intense font-geekery in the middle section, Gruber's post is an interesting read. (In fact, I'm just jealous that I'm nowhere near anal enough to make the font-related observations he makes.) On Apple's simple product range, he writes:
The most noticeable side-effect of the updated iPod lineup is that it’s been significantly simplified. There are now three main sub-brands: Shuffle, Mini, and regular, each with two sizes. [...]

It’s a lot easier to decide which iPod to buy today than it was a week ago. The hardest decision might be whether there’s any reason to get a 512 MB Shuffle now that the 1 GB model has been reduced to $129 [...]

This emphasis on a simplified product lineup has been a hallmark of the Jobs 2.0 Administration. For the most part, given a budget and a use case, it’s pretty easy to decide which Mac or which iPod to buy. (The hardest call to make, in my opinion, is between the iBooks and 12” PowerBook.) It seems so easy from the outside, but I suspect it’s very difficult to achieve, as evidenced by the muddied and complicated product lineups at most PC and consumer electronic companies.
I remember thinking pretty much exactly that when I was looking to buy a PowerBook. Gruber quotes from an interview with Creative Technology (a company that produces MP3 players that compete with the iPod) CEO Sim Wong Hoo, who seems to think the exact opposite is what people want. Of course, he also wonders why Creative can't beat Apple in the marketplace. Gruber gives the example of Creative's ‘Zen Micro’ range, which has a 4, 5 and 6 GB models. “What possible purpose does it serve,” Gruber asks, “to offer a 5 GB model, other than to make it hard to decide which one to buy?” Good question.

For a few weeks now, I've been wanting to buy a new graphics card for my Windows XP-based PC, but I just don't know what to buy. I'm actually at the point where I've offered a friend $50 to do the research and buy the card for me, because the choice is just so overwhelming. I can't even be bothered starting. Last time I checked with him, he couldn't either. It's just too hard. And poor old Sim Wong Hoo thinks that adding things like FM radio tuners and voice recording functions to differentiate Creative's lineup further is the way to go.

Tuesday, July 5, 2005

Hardware quality

A couple of people mentioned poor build quality of Mac hardware. Let me add some comments about the PowerBook.
  • The keyboard is certainly the worst keyboard I've ever owned, and it is one of the worst keyboards I've ever seen. (I'm not just talking about quirky Mac layout issues, which are irritating, but not unexpected.) Sadly, it looks like a great keyboard. It is silver, and shiny, and blends in with the case, and has a backlight that comes on automatically. But none of that means anything when the keys start falling off. At the moment, the ‘Enter’ key cap is falling off about fortnightly. Evidently, Apple knows the keyboards are crap, since they provide comprehensive instructions for replacing the key caps.
  • This is not Mac-specific, but the LCD screen has at least one pixel that's either dead or only partly functional. (I say it might be partly functional, because I've seen much more obviously dead pixels than this one. In fact, it was weeks before I saw it at all, so it either died post-purchase, or it's really quite hard to see. Or both.)
  • Again, this is not Mac-specific, but power switches which are not binary switches but ‘switches that send a request to toggle the state of the power supply unit’ really annoy me. Of course, I can understand the arguments for them. For example, they allow the computer to display nice dialogs like, ‘Are you sure you want to shut down your computer now?’ rather than destroying the work you forgot to save. However, they're not so good, in my opinion anyway, for troubleshooting power supply issues. A few times, the PowerBook has inexplicably locked itself off (I suspect due to overheating issues involving air vent obstruction—don't ask). In this situation, the power button tells you nothing about what the computer is doing or is trying to do. Of course, the same kind of power buttons have been on PCs since the ATX case, so I am probably alone on this issue.
There's nothing too alarming here. Even the key issue doesn't bug me enough to get it repaired. Frankly, it would not be worth the cost of being without the PowerBook for the length of time it took to replace the keyboard. I've got replacing the key down to a couple of minutes.

Friday, June 24, 2005

Neat tricks

Here are two neat features of my PowerBook:
  1. I have used a mouse with a scroll wheel (under Windows) for years now, and I find it surprisingly frustrating to ever be stranded without one. Mousing away from whatever you're doing to use window scroll buttons is time consuming. Worse, for a while after starting to use the PowerBook, I would instinctively mouse over to the top of the scroll bar when I needed to scroll up, but by default the buttons are stuck together at the bottom of the window. Completely by accident, I discovered that moving two fingers up or down on the PowerBook's touch-pad scrolls the current window up or down. So now I've basically got a scroll wheel mouse. Firefox (but, as far as I can tell, not Safari) will also go forwards and backwards through hyperlinks by moving two fingers left and right. So no I've basically got a scroll wheel mouse with left and right side-buttons.
  2. Although it's got a lame, marketroid name (Exposé), Mac OS X's window-handling features are significantly more useful than Windows XP's. Sure, it does the standard Alt-Tab cycling (and Shift-Alt-Tab for reverse), but there's more. F11 temporarily clears the screen and exposes the desktop. Sure, Windows XP has a button to do the same thing, but I've never found a way to get the windows back using XP—no doubt one exists, but it beats me what it is. You can isolate just the windows of the current application with fn-F10. This dims the remainder of the screen, and brings all the current application's windows to the foreground, but, if necessary, shrinks them enough so that they can all be seen (possibly in miniature) at once. You can then select the window you're interested in. fn-F9 does this for all the currently open windows. (This is the kind of neat advantage you get when the operating system knows exactly what the graphics hardware is going to be, every time.)
Maybe every laptop with a touch-sensitive mousing area can do number 1, and maybe Windows XP can do some near-equivalent of number 2. Who knows. They're still neat tricks.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Unconventional wisdom

There was an interesting post on Professor Dave Farber's Interesting People (IP) mailing list earlier this month entitled "Steve Jobs' Stanford Commencement Speech". Apparently it's authentic—at least, no one's debunked it yet. It doesn't really matter if they're not Jobs's words, though, since the content seems to be widely acknowledged (on the IP list, at least) as the kind of story Jobs tells about the development of the Mac. Even more interesting than the original post, though, are the numerous follow-ups it generated. (You can read the follow-ups on the June 2005 archive page for the list. As an aside, unfortunately Prof. Farber runs the list by forwarding contributions to the list with altered subject lines, not by moderating submissions with decent mailing list software, so threading of messages is really poor. You'll need to find the follow-ups by searching for "Jobs" on the June 2005 archive page.)

I didn't know the history of the development of the Mac was so controversial, yet I guess I'm not really surprised. In my recent, pre-Mac past, I read "The second coming of Steve Jobs" by Alan Deutschman, a book that paints a reasonably negative picture of Jobs. To read claims that the conventional wisdom (roughly: Jobs visited Xerox PARC, came back to Apple and invented the Mac) is revisionist shouldn't come as a surprise, but, despite most of these claims being a decade or more old, they did. I guess that's the thing about conventional wisdom. Most people believe it.

I gather it doesn't stop there, though. In the last few days, I've read posts by (the late) Jef Raskin, and a response by Bruce Horn. Some of the facts differ in their accounts—and these guys were there at the time. I guess part of the problem is that any development effort like that was certainly a non-linear exercise. It's not just unsurprising that one person can't get the record exactly right, it's not really possible for them to do so. (Except if you're Steve Jobs.)

Friday, June 17, 2005

File type associations

I think I have reached the first point with Mac OS X where I am confused. I was going to say slightly confused, but I think I may be completely confused. And its the issue of file type associations.

As with every post I make, let me start with some background. In the Unix world, given some file 'foo', there is essentially no metadata associated with that file that tells me or the operating system what application (or range of possible applications) I should use to operate on that file. That is, you can certainly call a file pretty much anything, and there's no background magic telling Unix how to open that file, or what to display or edit it with. (It's not as bad as it sounds. As you would expect, conventions develop, and there are utilities (such as 'file') that use magic to determine file types for you if you're stuck.) I'm not saying there aren't 'file extensions' (like putting '.jpg' at the end of a JPEG file), I'm just saying that there's nothing forcing that behaviour, and nothing automatically arises out of you doing so.

In the Windows world, as far as I can tell, the famous MS-DOS '8.3' legacy is essentially alive and well, though the numbers there are a little larger. But the principle remains: Windows uses 'filename extensions' to associate a file with an application which can operate on it. If a filename ends in the literal string '.jpg', then that file is a JPEG image (and you can't really convince Windows otherwise). While this strikes me as a little inelegant, it works in practice about 99% of the time. (Here's an example of the 1%: you can't (again, as far as I can tell) convince Windows to do anything sensible by default with a file that has no filename extension. Once I tried to convince Windows XP to open extensionless files with a text editor—which, for me, would work most of the time (e.g., 'README'—it's not a 'README file', Windows, it's text—just take a look)—but couldn't.)

My understanding of how this all works under Mac OS X is fairly shallow, though I do gather there is quite a bit of metadata associated with every file. What I don't seem to have mastered just yet is manipulating it. I had the Microsoft Office trial on the PowerBook at purchase time. It expired, I removed it, and installed the full version. Now, Tiger seems to be confused about how to open Office files. I have a Word document attached to an email. From Mail, I clicked on the document, and got this response:

word-problem

How odd. Is this Mail's problem? Is it Tiger's? How can I find who is trying to hand the document off to whom? Next, I choose 'Save', and double click on the document in the Finder. Even the Finder is not going to play nice:

finder-problem

Now, don't get me wrong—I love a good cryptic error message (preferably with a negative error number) as much as the next guy. But this is starting to get a little too Windows for my liking.

Anyway, back to the document. I Ctrl-click on it (yes, I am a power user now):

word-confusion

OK, so Tiger thinks there are two possible versions of Word. I started thinking, "Presumably one of those was the trial version, and the other is the full version." Then I started thinking, "Why should I even care?" At this point I slumped back in my chair. I bought a Mac to get away from all this Windows-esque stupidity.

There is a happy ending to the story. After burrowing around in Finder preferences, system preferences, file information dialogs, and probably a few other places, I got pretty much nowhere. The negative error number dialog was obviously completely useless, and it's the kind of Windows-style user interface element of which Apple ought to be ashamed. However, after Ctrl-clicking the document and trying the suggested applications one-by-one, I finally got a useful error message: the problem was that the trial version of Word was still in the Trash. That was it. Empty Trash, no more problem. So, the summary is this: I'm happy, but it shouldn't have been this hard.

Tuesday, June 7, 2005

Mactel

Lots of the cool kids have been talking about rumours of Apple switiching from PowerPC to Intel processors for the Macintosh, and some of the coolest kids have been saying, "I doubt it." For what it's worth (which isn't much, since a month ago I didn't own a Mac and didn't know a Finder from a Spotlight), I was saying, "I doubt it," too, albeit only to myself. But, it seems, it's true.

Here's a prediction: I think this will turn out to be a mistake. While Intel's x86 line has certainly proven to be a very popular microprocessor, having its legacy stretch all the way back to 1978's 8088 is surely going to prove brittle eventually. Consider how the unnaturally long dependence of Microsoft Windows on DOS crippled the former for years on end.

Of course, I have a bad track record in technology predictions. I still remember the first time I read that someone was experimenting with transmitting graphics over HTTP for use in web pages. Using lynx at the time, I still recall wondering, "Who on earth would want to see graphics on a web page?"

Friday, June 3, 2005

Pain-free GUI building

I have been pounding away at code examples in "Cocoa Programming for Mac OS X" (ISBN 0321213149), a book by Aaron Hillegass. (For anyone who's interested, it's certainly so far an excellent book for people who, say, know some C or Java, but don't know Objective C or even anything much about Mac OS X.) I want to make an observation about Mac OS X which I think is neat, but I had better preface it with a short description about my Java experience, just in case it turns out that the observation is not that neat, and, in fact, I've been doing things the hard way all along.

I have written quite a few lines of Java code over the years, the majority of which has been console-based tools and applications. However, I've written the odd toy, and collaborated on a single substantial project, using Swing to create graphical user interfaces (GUIs) for Java programs. Further, I've never been a fan of great big, hulking integrated development environments (IDEs). And that's not through a lack of trying them out, starting way back with Sun's Forte. I'm more of an emacs kind of guy, and even in the large Swing application, we built the GUI by hand—that is, by typing in the code to build the GUI bit-by-bit. It was, well, awful.

Enter Apple's Xcode. Xcode is a great big, hulking IDE. But it's free, and it comes with good documentation, and Hillegass's book has been stepping me through it. There are (some) emacs key bindings in its editor, and they're getting me through the withdrawal. Finally, here's the neat bit. There's a tool called Interface Builder for putting together the GUI for applications. Nothing remarkable there. Instead of generating code to recreate the GUI at run-time, though, what Interface Builder does is this: it allows you to construct the actual object hierarchy for the GUI in a drag and drop fashion (which is probably what the Java IDEs are doing as well), and then just serialises that object to a file for reconstruction at run time! That is, it doesn't translate the object hierarchy you built into code to reconstruct that hierarchy, which is the only way I've ever seen a Java IDE do it, it just serialises the actual instance of the object hierarchy you've just built on-screen (or "archives" it, in Apple-speak) for deserialisation ("unarchiving") at run-time. I think that's neat.

Friday, May 27, 2005

Syncing

In an earlier post, I wrote about my dream of having address book and calendar information synchronised across multiple devices. This is a progress report: I'm getting there, but it's still not quite right.

I started my iSync adventure with my Palm Zire 71. Already, here's the first curiosity of the syncing extravaganza: iSync doesn't talk directly to the Palm. I still needed to download the (rapidly ageing) Palm Desktop Software from Palm. Sure, it's not an enormous deal, but considering I plan to use the newer iCal and Address Book applications, it's software I'm just not going to use. I then needed to sync the Palm with that software once only. From then on, apparently, I could sync with iSync.

Of course, even that's not entirely true. After firing up iSync, a dialog asks me to press the sync button on the Palm cradle—that is, there's still some manual intervention required. Again, not an enormous deal, and this time it's a hardware limitation and hardly the fault of Apple. Evidently Palms are designed to be disconnected from the USB bus by default, and only connect when the sync button is pressed.

Still, at this point I had populated iCal and Address Book with my existing information. It was time to sync the Motorola V3. I decided to be cautious, and used the PC desktop software for the V3 to erase all of its contact information first. All that information had come originally from the Palm anyway, so there would be no loss. Surprisingly, it took several runs with iSync to get the phone to accept the information—even though its memory was empty and the Address Book was full, the V3's contact list would remain blank after a sync. To be honest, I can't even remember what I had to do to resolve this. It may have had something to do with resetting the ‘syncing history’ of the device, which, of course, is strange because it shouldn't have had a syncing history. I'd never synchronised it.

So after some initial bootstrapping, I had two devices (one over USB and one over Bluetooth) syncing with the desktop applications. Later, I added my iPod over FireWire, but that's only a one-way sync, so I certainly wasn't expecting any problems there. The story isn't quite over, though. There are some peculiarities in the system.

The Palm DateBook application is notoriously limited, so, as many people do, I use the (uh, economically named) DateBk5 application from Pimlico Software, Inc. In an effort to be minimally disruptive to the Palm way of doing things, DateBk5 stores some of the metadata about, for example, appointments in the Notes field. Ordinarily, this is fine, since DateBk5 simply avoids displaying it. But all other applications, now including iCal, do. Not an enormous deal, but now I've got to ensure that this metadata isn't altered in the syncing process, or inadvertently by me on the desktop. Further, and this was a problem with the standard Palm Desktop Software as well, iCal obviously doesn't generate the right metadata for DateBk5 itself. An example is appointments that start on one day, extend over midnight, and end on the next. Now, believe it or not, the standard Palm DateBook can't handle this level of appointment sophistication. (Evidently everyone at Palm goes to bed really early.) DateBk5 handles it in its own idiosyncratic way. iCal handles it too, but it's dropped on the floor by a sync in either direction. Disappointing. But nothing to do with Apple, Mac OS X, or iSync.

There are some other bugs which I haven't been able to fully characterise yet. For example, a few appointments inexplicably had their start and end times moved by half an hour on a sync from iCal to the Palm. I haven't been able to replicate it, though.

Overall, I am happy. Synchronisation is an order of magnitude better than it was under Windows XP. In the tradition of throwing money at the problem, though, I think my next step will be to buy a Palm that talks Bluetooth. And, of course, a Palm that knows about the concept of midnight would be handy, too.

Saturday, May 21, 2005

I guessed wrong

I was browsing around my home directory this evening, using the Terminal. (Are Apple and Microsoft having a competition to see who can co-opt the most generic words?) Looking in ~/Desktop, I was pretty sure I knew how desktop folder aliases were going to work. For example, on my desktop I have an alias called Documents which points at ~/Documents.

documents folder

I was confident that 'ls -l Desktop/Documents' would yield something like:
lrwxr-xr-x 1 paulh paulh 9 May 21 18:22 Documents -> 
../Documents
(That line is wrapped for readability.) That is, that Documents in ~/Desktop would be a genuine, bona fide Unix symbolic link. It's not. It's an empty file:
-rw-r--r-- 1 paulh paulh 0 May 17 22:58 Documents
What's going on here? An 'ls -al' shows a couple of possible candidates for an explanation:
-rw------- 1 paulh  paulh  6148 May 21 18:23 .DS_Store
-rw-r--r-- 1 paulh paulh 0 May 13 14:24 .localized
Since .localized is empty, I'm looking at .DS_Store. This didn't help:
$ file .DS_Store
.DS_Store: data
Yeah, thanks file. Nor did this:
$ strings .DS_Store 
Bud1
sdilcblob
rdilcblob
sdilcblob
bdilcblob
cdilcblob
fdilcblob
DSDB
Fascinating, but not useful. Interestingly, making a symlink in ~/Desktop does do just what I thought it would:
$ ln -s ../Documents Symlink

symlink folder

So, what's going on? Am I close with .DS_Store? Or is the magic elsewhere?

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Hello, world!

I found the Xcode development tools installer a couple of days ago. What a neat idea—include a complete IDE and full documentation about developing for an operating system with the operating system. (Are you listening, Microsoft?) Being an emacs fan, this might take a bit of getting used to, but I'm prepared to give it a try. Especially given the tome of documentation supplied.

Anyway, I did what any good Unix Wiener would do: I timed how long it took to bring up "Hello, World!" Selecting New Java Swing Application, I was presented with a few files of skeleton code. Of course, there's no minimum standard for writing "Hello, World!"—any old code will do. So I compiled and ran the skeleton code, and noticed it brought up a small window with a message in it. Easy—find that message in the source and substitute my own. Except, it wasn't easy to find. But I learned my first Apple programming paradigm in doing so: we store text in "Strings Files" for localisation.
Any text strings in your project that may be displayed to users should be localized. To do this, you place them in strings files, providing one localized variant for each language you support. A strings file, which has the extension strings, stores a series of keys and values, where the values are the strings and the keys uniquely identify the strings. Xcode supports localization with strings files by providing options to make a file localizable and to add files for local variants.
Neat. Hardly earth shattering, but you'd have to admit that sounds like the Right Way to do things. So I did my trivial string substitution (yes, feeling like a fraud), and had "Hello, World!" up on the PowerBook in seven minutes. Even better, Xcode just told me there's updated documentation available, so it's downloading all 200M of it right now.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Laugh? I nearly cried.

I saw something this afternoon that stopped me dead in my tracks:

restart

OK, it was because I'd just upgraded the entire operating system to 10.4.1, but I had hoped the days of this kind of dialog box were well behind me. (Can I consider myself an ex-Windows user yet, since I haven't touched XP in four days?)

(Oh, and I'm only kidding here—even FreeBSD requires a reboot when you make the world.)

Saturday, May 14, 2005

Search, don't sort

If I recall correctly, it was Google that first started hammering us with the catchy mantra, "Search, don't sort". I also recall that I wasn't buying the idea. To me, it seemed less like a revolutionary new paradigm, and more like just shifting some of the leg work around. A friend of mine was more enthusiastic. "Wouldn't it be great," he suggested, "if I could store all my images in one place, and instead of having to sort into directories, I could just search for images of 'Paul Hoadley'?" Well, sure, that would be great, except it hides a few implementation details. And the most critical of these is: How does the machine know that a certain image depicts 'Paul Hoadley'? Well, the obvious answer is that my friend would associate some metadata with the image somehow, containing some fragment of information like "depicts: Paul Hoadley". (The details aren't important.) At this point, "search" is starting to look suspiciously close to "sort". In fact, I would argue that they are essentially equivalent, with the only significant difference being how you associate the metadata with the files. In the "sort" scenario, the metadata is implied by, say, the directory structure (or the bookmark structure, or whatever you like—again, the details are not that important). In the "search" scenario, you make the metadata explicit by, say, embedding it in the file, or putting it nearby somewhere.

Of course, images are probably the pathological case (as my friend pointed out), in that there's very little (if any) intrinsic metadata available. That is, you really do have to provide it all yourself. Plain text (such as an email message), on the other hand, is a lot easier to extract useful information from. Hence the appeal of Gmail—you would have to admit that Google seems to have pretty much nailed the plain text searching issue.

All of this is a rather lengthy introduction to something I observed this afternoon. When I heard that Apple (and Microsoft, of course—they never want to be left out) were looking at approaching filesystems in the same way ("search, don't sort"), I was skeptical. It seemed like the kind of thing that could easily be done quite badly. Enter Spotlight. You can read the press release copy and comprehensive reviews elsewhere, but let me just recount what happened to me today.

I have been updating my address book. (I will cover my various iSync experiences in a separate post.) A neat feature of the OS X Address Book is that you can add fields like "partner" and "child" to an entry. I plan to never forget a friend's child's name again. Anyway, I was updating a particular entry, and I had forgotten my friend's partner's last name. But I knew his first name was "Andres", and I was pretty sure I had an email somewhere with his last name in it.

I brought up my Mail window, and, thinking "not a chance", I typed the name into the Spotlight text field.

There were two reasons why I was thinking "not a chance". The first was that I am reading my mail over IMAP from my FreeBSD gateway. That is, the messages are all sitting on that machine, I don't download them to the PowerBook. Despite this, I got two hits straight away:

name-search

The second hit was the email I was thinking of. The second reason for my skepticism was that the name I was searching for was not in the body of the mail, but in a (plain text) attachment to the mail.

found-textfile

Despite this, Spotlight came up with the goods:

found-andres

I'm impressed. I think I am going to head back to that Ars Technica review to see how this all works.

Friday, May 13, 2005

First look

After the Star Crap Express fiasco, I drove out into 18-wheel truck territory to pick up the PowerBook. Star Track Express made it difficult to the last minute (of course I don't park in the spaces marked "Visitors", I drive around the back where all the 18-wheel trucks are loading—silly me!), but that's enough press for them, bad or otherwise. The package was there, ready for the picking up:

IMG_2299

Of course, a Mac comes in its own cool packaging, with handle:

IMG_2300

It looks like Apple's still a little self-conscious about this:

IMG_2303

I nearly cried. I don't think I've seen a user manual for a computer since I had a Commodore Amiga.

IMG_2304

Finally, behold the shininess:

IMG_2305

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Star Slack Express

In Adelaide, at least, Apple chooses Star Track Express as their courier. Star Track Express is one of those companies that thinks that normal people with, say, full-time jobs are nonetheless able to be at home on any given day between 8.00am and 5.00pm to receive deliveries. The courier called today and left a card—that's fine, we didn't know he was coming. But, despite the fact that I can take all of tomorrow afternoon off, and I'm prepared to waste it sitting around waiting for a courier, Star Track Express are simply unable to estimate a re-delivery time even to the half day. That is, even if they could tell me "morning" or "afternoon", I could respond with "don't bother" or "bother". But they can't. So tomorrow afternoon I will make a half hour round trip to their depot in order to pick up the PowerBook, whose retail price, I have no doubt, includes a portion for Star Track Express to drive it to my house. Which, I guess, they technically did. It's just that they drove it away again, and can't tell me when they're willing to bring it back.

Needless to say, a couple of website feedback forms were filled out—one to Star Track Express, the summary version of which was, "The 1960s called—it wants its computer technology that leaves you unable to estimate delivery times to finer than one day back", and one to Apple, the summary of which was, "Star Track Express really bites."

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

PowerBook has left the building

It looks like all that manufacturing paid off—the PowerBook has shipped:
Shipped as of 06:26 PM JST, 05/10/2005
Japan Standard Time, eh? No wonder it took so long.

Sunday, May 8, 2005

Doing things right

A story about a guy waiting for a PowerBook is probably even less interesting than one about a guy buying a PowerBook. So I'll try and keep the momentum going here. Trust me, it's bound to get hilarious when it finally arrives and I have to use it.

So while I wait, let me write about the iPod. Only briefly—it's not like the iPod needs the hype—and only because I suspect that owning an iPod was my first, tentative step towards understanding the Apple Phenomenon. It's also very small (physically and conceptually) and maybe it says something useful about Apple.

I never planned to buy an iPod. I received it as a gift. The first thing that struck me about it was the packaging, which, as I recall, was a cubical cardboard box which opened by splitting in half with a hinge at the back. Very nice. Very Apple. The second thing, and I recall this clearly, was that the packaging (and, I discovered later, the iPod itself) was imprinted with the message: "Designed by Apple in California. Assembled in China." This struck me as a somewhat overly self-conscious confession of the fact that Apple outsources manufacturing. Big deal. Who doesn't? And why make a scene about it? It was the first thing I read on the box, as if they wanted to get the confession over and done with early, and move on. Maybe that's precisely it.

There are no doubt more than enough places on the web where you can read reviews of iTunes, about getting it running on Windows, about ripping CDs to MP3 or AAC, about how slow USB 1.1 was and how much better FireWire is, and so on. (For the record: I like it, it's easy, it's harder than it should be, very slow, and much better in that order.) What I want to consider briefly is the iPod's user interface, and the couple of things which made me stop and think, "Yes—that's exactly how that should work."

In an earlier post I wrote that I thought the iPod's UI was neat, but not "genius" as I see it described in many places. If you haven't seen an iPod up close, it's difficult to describe the controls (and not worth trying). In particular it's hard to explain what the touch-sensitive scroll wheel is on the latest models, and how it works. Difficult in words, that is—as soon as you touch it you know how it works. Maybe people are describing that aspect of the hardware as "genius". If so, I still think they're exaggerating, but I will concede it's impressive. It's a neat combination of four microswitches and a touch sensitive area. Well done Apple.

If, as I suspect, people are describing the software layer as "genius", then I'm afraid they've just got very low standards. The software part of the UI is a hierarchical menu system which allows the user to approach the collection of on-disk music via various views. One view of the collection is by artist, for example, so there's a menu under the top-level Music called Artists, and under that are the artists' names, and then album names, and then songs. This isn't genius, it's just the right way to do things. Hierarchical, menu-based presentations of data in different views were around long before the iPod, and long before Apple. Apple just seems to have realised that you really don't need to make the UI to a music player resemble a piece of hi-fi equipment to be confident that people will understand how it works. People are pretty comfortable with hierarchical menu systems. Well done for choosing that as the iPod's UI. Now, let's move along.

I don't want to sound too negative—I like the iPod a lot. So, what did impress me? Two simple things: iTunes counts the number of times you listen to each song, and you can rate each song on a scale from zero to five as you're listening. Why are either of these things interesting? Because iTunes has dynamically updating playlists. For example, you can create a playlist called "Ten Most Recently Added" which is then updated every time you add a new song. Better, the playlists can be (almost, but not quite) arbitrarily complex. You can create a playlist which displays the twelve most recently played songs which you've rated greater than three out of five. It's not really mind-blowing stuff, but once you see it, you recognise, again, that it's just the right way to do things, and you wonder why no one ever did it this way before. (Actually, they did.)

Friday, May 6, 2005

Raising the bar

I am not a Mac user yet, so I am only theorising here. But I suspect Mac users look disdainfully over at their Windows-using friends and wonder, "How can they bear it? What makes a person endure so much hardship?" Well, I'm here to tell you: we just set our standards lower. It's true. A happy Windows user is one that just doesn't know any better. The rest of us are in denial.

So, in the world of personal information management (there's an acronym that peaked too early—PIM), I've set my sights pretty low. I don't have any customer relationships to manage, and I don't need to share my appointment calendar with friends. I just want to store some names, phone numbers and addresses. But—here's the catch—I only want to do it once. That is, I want to store the name, phone number and address of everyone I know in some central location that I can update. I want that location to send the information to, say, my mobile phone. Let's say the central location was my Palm Zire 71, but I don't really care if it's not. It would be neat if I could "synchronise" my Palm with, say, my mobile phone, so that if I add a new number to my mobile, it can tell the Palm there's a new number. However, in the spirit of lowering expectations, I don't care if it's only one-way traffic.

This doesn't sound like a big ask to me. But in the Windows world, it is. Let me give you two examples.

I used to own a Sony Ericsson T68i mobile phone. (This phone takes the honour of being the worst phone I ever owned. The user interface alone would have ensured this honour, let alone its other deficiencies.) The price of the (non-standard) cable to connect this phone to a PC was, if I recall correctly, somewhere between $50 and $100. So, instead, I bought a Bluetooth to USB adapter. I actually succeeded (after a procession of "wizards") to connect the phone and the PC over Bluetooth. Great. The missing link, however, was any software to then get names and numbers from the PC (for example, from my Palm desktop application) to the phone. The Sony Ericsson website was completely unnavigable, and seemed to constantly refer to using software that it no longer distributed or supported. There were a few poorly-written third-party applications floating around the web, all of which purported to do something useful, and none of which delivered anything, yet still managed to ask for a $US 10 payment. I struck out, and gave up.

I now own a Motorola V3. (And it has a much nicer user interface.) To my utter astonishment, Motorola provided not only a USB cable, but actual software to allow my PC to talk to my phone. Now, recall my PC hardware purchasing success story as you read on. This is a PC to phone interfacing success story. I have my desired one-way Palm to mobile phone information flow working at last. This is what I need to do:
  1. Export the Palm address book in vCard format.
  2. Import the the vCard file into the phone's desktop contact organiser. Here's an interesting fact: on performing this import, everyone's "Home" phone number as exported by the Palm application is imported as their "Home 2" phone number into the phone desktop application. Remember this, we'll need it shortly.
  3. Export the address book from the phone software as a comma-separated values (CSV) text file. I kid you not. People still use those.
  4. Load the CSV file into my favourite editor.
  5. The top row contains the field names. Change "Home 2" to "Home". Save.
  6. Import the address book from the edited CSV file.
  7. Transfer the address book to the phone.
(If you're thinking steps 3—6 were easy to deduce by trial and error, you would be wrong.) I may not have stressed this enough: this is a success story. I was happy when I worked all of this out. Can you see how low I've set the bar?

I understand that OS X has an address book that already knows how to talk to mobile phones. I hope it likes my Zire 71.

Wednesday, May 4, 2005

They have software on Macs now?

There is a long-held myth that there is "no software" for the Mac. The other day, I told someone I was going to buy a PowerBook, and his immediate response was, "A Mac? But they're not compatible with anything!" Of course, by "they're not compatible with anything", he meant "they don't run software built for Microsoft Windows." Which is true, within limits. (I explained the idea of native versions of the same applications, and stopped short of the concept of PC emulators.)

Of course, it's a favoured criticism of the non-dominant operating system in any niche. (Microsoft Windows just enjoys a rather large niche.) "There is no software for [the non-dominant operating system] X", with the implication that everything would be alright, "if only X ran applications compiled for [the dominant operating system] Y". For another example, substitute "FreeBSD" for X and "Linux" for Y. There are currently over 12,000 ported applications for FreeBSD, so clearly the first claim is false. And FreeBSD has been able to run Linux binaries since soon after Linus cobbled his juggernaut together, so the second statement isn't actually a criticism at all. But, as usual, I digress.

I want to try and avoid purchasing Microsoft Office 2004 for Mac Professional Edition. Mostly because it's $A 849, but also because it's now 2005, and naming software after a calendar year is bad idea that has to stop, and finally just to see if I can. It may be obvious by now that my primary interest in the PowerBook is curiosity. My wife, however, intends to do actual work with it. Her computing requirements are reasonably modest:
  1. Reading and writing email
  2. Browsing the web
  3. Mostly reading, but occasionally writing, MS Office documents (because it seems, despite pleas to stop, people still consider Word documents to be a universal format for information exchange)
  4. Writing and giving slide-based presentations.
Even with my limited knowledge of MacOS X, I think I can safely assume we will have 1 and 2 covered. Let's skip 3 for now. There's no good reason why 4 should involve PowerPoint, and more than a few good reasons why it shouldn't. I'm open to suggestions here, since as long as the PowerBook can be plugged in to a projector, it shouldn't matter what software is making the slides.

Someone suggested to me that the solution to 3 is to "throw money at the problem
," and by this he meant buy MS Office for Mac. I might do that. Hopefully I won't have to.

Monday, May 2, 2005

I'll have a PowerBook to go, thanks!

Buying a Mac is significantly different to buying a PC. (I don't like the appropriation of generic terms either, but from now on, when I write "PC", I mean a Wintel box. When I write "Windows", I probably mean Microsoft Windows. When I write "Word", I probably mean Microsoft Word. It hurts my brain too.)

I bought a Pentium 4-based PC a couple of month ago, and it was hard. Let me be clear: just buying it was hard work. Trying to find a decent PC hardware dealer is very difficult. It's really easy to become a PC hardware dealer, so lots of people do. You can be a PC hardware dealer from a spare room in your house. Worse, because the profit margins are so tight, there's not a lot of spare money for things like, say, shop fittings, and shelves, and display cases, and assistants who know how to communicate in multi-word sentences. That is, you don't even know if you've found a decent PC hardware dealer, because good ones look and feel the same as bad ones.

What I should have done, and what I almost did, was to bite the bullet and call Compaq or Dell. (As an aside, the only reason I didn't was because their completely unnavigable but very shiny corporate websites lead me to believe that they couldn't supply me with quite what I was looking for. For example, I didn't want a monitor. Now, people who know better than me have subsequently assured me that Dell and Compaq would have sold me a PC without a monitor. But I couldn't get the monitor out of my "shopping basket". No sale. But I digress.) Instead, I used the jaded PC hardware buyer's approach: I went with the recommendation of a friend of a friend—a local store with a website which let me order online.

From order to pickup was reasonably smooth, though they couldn't get in the CPU I ordered in a timely fashion, so I settled for a slightly slower one. There was another stock availabilty issue on another part, but we got there eventually. For reasons which are no longer clear to me, I elected to assemble the machine myself from parts. This was an idiotic idea, but by no means the dealer's fault. I bought a case from him, which he didn't seem particularly interested in selling me. I needed a graphics card, but seemed unable to force this guy to take my money, so I went elsewhere.

This is a PC hardware purchasing success story. It was a protracted process, involving excruciating interaction with a guy who seemed as though he'd rather be in a different universe. And I'm fairly sure he was the owner of the store.

Evidently, even purchasing an Apple, on the other hand, is meant to be part of the Apple Experience. I toyed for a while with buying the PowerBook from the online store. Now, it might be just because with a PowerBook, there are very few things you can upgrade, but I found the online store to be exceptionally straightforward: select PowerBook, select screen size, upgrade RAM, upgrade disk, done. That's it. There are not multiple millions of different hardware permutations. You don't have to decide whether you're more "Home" or "SOHO". Sure, choice is good, but overwhelming choice is, uh, overwhelming.

In the end, I had a question: If I order a PowerBook now (this was post-April 29), will it ship with Tiger or not? (The answer, by the way, was, "It will either ship with Tiger installed, or with a DVD to do the upgrade." Seemed reasonable.) Given I needed to ask a question, and the guy seemed like a nice guy, I ordered it on the phone. (In actual fact, my wife ordered it on the phone later from the same guy.) So, would anyone like to bet on whether it ships with Tiger?

Full disclosure

A story about a guy buying a PowerBook is only going to be interesting if you know a bit about the guy. So here's the prequel to the current story. (The aim is to make my prejudices and preconceptions obvious, not to hide them.)

I have owned a computer since I was in primary school. The pedigree went like this: Commodore VIC 20, Commodore 64, various Commodore Amigas, and finally various Intel-based PCs since a 486DX-40 was high-end. I currently run a couple of Pentium 4s.

If you can call the interactive BASIC interpreters of the early Commodores an operating system, then that's the first operating system I ever used. From there, I moved to AmigaOS, which I think was underrated, but probably because only me and a handful of other people in the world ever owned or used it. My first Intel-based PC ran MS-DOS 6 and Windows 3.1. From the get-go, I sensed that Windows was a crock. I had already seen the MacOS GUI, and in comparison, this was at best a not-very-funny joke. I stuck with Wintel over many years, as, I'm sure, have many others, because it was just the path of least resistance. Mac-lovers hear this: we know Windows sucks. It does hurt our brains to use it. But when you live in a software monoculture that wasn't your fault, sometimes you've just got to suck it up.

In the early 1990s, I discovered Unix. I installed FreeBSD when doing so still involved downloading several dozen floppies over a 14.4K link. I've run FreeBSD (often in parallel with Windows) ever since. I choose FreeBSD when I need things to work. I choose Windows when I have no other choice. I've never run Linux, and I've used it about twice. I used Solaris during my undergraduate years. (I have a degree in pure mathematics and computer science.) It didn't do much for me, but at least it was Unix.

I've used Macs many times. I am reasonably sure I used one of the original Macintosh 128 or 512K models somewhere in the distant past. I still remember being blown away the first time I wrote an essay in Word on a Mac, and printed it out on a LaserWriter. (Alright—I was young, and easily impressed.) I've used many incarnations of MacOS. In my first undergraduate year, we programmed in Java on iMacs. Some of my best friends own Macs.

To summarise, probably the single biggest reason I've never bought a Mac is this: I just didn't get it. The Macintosh seemed from the outside to be a bizarre cult, and I really don't care much for religion. A few months ago, I received an iPod as a gift. I like it. (I think the user interface is neat, but it's not "genius" as I keep hearing it described.) Maybe I'm just starting to get it.