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.