Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Dear Apple Mail, log in and stay logged in!

On the whole, Apple Mail does a pretty reasonable job as a GUI-based mail client. It's not great, but then all mail clients suck. I use it to read mail stored remotely on my IMAP server. What I do find inexplicable is the "Go Online" and "Go Offline" pseudo-features found under the "Mailbox" menu. It's not so much that they are there, though I personally can't conceive of a use for them (I want my mail client to log into the server, and stay logged in until I close it down or the network disappears, thanks), it's that Mail seems to log in and out at some very bizarre moments. Here are two common examples, both of which I've seen multiple times today:
  • After the PowerBook wakes from sleep, it will sometimes check for new mail (it should do that every time, in my opinion), and the remaining times I'll hit "Get Mail" to force the issue. I often have the "Activity Viewer" open so I can keep tabs on Mail's odd behaviour, and not infrequently I see this: Mail checks for mail, downloads new messages, applies rules, flashes the new headers in the header list pane, hides them again, and then, as if at the crescendo of its tantrum, goes offline and idles. To reveal the new mail, I need to manually select "Go Online" from the "Mailbox" menu.
  • Mail also falls offline in the middle of operations that ought to be atomic, such as deleting a folder. I've just watched it happen about five times: Ctrl-click a folder, select "Delete", Mail goes offline. Bringing it back online manually completes the delete operation. Mad.
Does anyone have a rational explanation for any of this? Actually, I'll accept irrational.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

iTunes cover art working as expected

I updated to iTunes 7.0.2.16 the other day, and it seems cover art is now working as expected: all the art I downloaded from the iTunes Store for my pre-existing albums has now been transferred to my iPod, and displays when a track is playing. You will recall this wasn't working with the initial release of iTunes 7. It seems to have been fixed silently, though I will admit I haven't gone looking too far for release notes for this latest point-release.

Wednesday, November 1, 2006

X11 on OS X: at least one less bug

Apple released X11 Update 2006 yesterday. Soon after installing X11 on my PowerBook, I noted an annoying bug: when you switched X11 into the foreground using Alt-Tab, none of its actual windows would come with it. That is, you would get the X11 menu bar, but the windows themselves needed to be manually brought to the foreground. X11 Update 2006 has fixed this, albeit 12 months later.

I also noted that Emacs-over-X was disappearing with some obscure X Windows protocol error. I assume this was an issue with Apple's implementation, but I'm not certain. I've certainly never seen it anywhere else. I've had Emacs running over X for about 10 minutes now, and it hasn't died yet. So they may have fixed two bugs.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

iCal ate my Calendars

Actually, it's not quite as bad as it sounds. "Calendars" are what any sane program would call "categories", or something similar—essentially just labels to group events (and tasks). And iCal didn't destroy them, it just stopped showing them to me in the "calendars" list pane. This is how it happened this afternoon:
  • I opened iCal. The list of calendars was blank. There were no events in my week-view. In other words, my calendar looked pretty much blank, and I was concerned. I sync my Palm TX pretty regularly, so there were no tears yet.
  • Progressing to the next level of problem solving (pressing every available button), I swapped to the month view. My events were now visible. I switched back to the week view, and they were visible there too. It looked like the data was intact (good), but the GUI was misbehaving (bad). There were still no calendars in the list.
My most recent iCal backup was about a month old, and I made another one. And then I hit Google.

The Apple forums were semi-helpful: at least they confirmed there were a handful of others seeing a similar problem, and all recently as far as I could tell. Sadly, there were no useful answers. (Not everyone has a spare Mac, or a .Mac account, so I had to skip over those pseudo-solutions, none of which adequately explained the problem anyway.) I tried the usual Mac contortions like deleting (well, moving elsewhere) the iCal preference files, and, yes Dale, even emptying the Trash. Nothing worked.

A helpful guy (could have been a girl I suppose, "Angry Ant") on the #macosx channel on IRC helped me with what he thought might be a workaround. I moved the entire ~/Library/Application Support/iCal folder to the Desktop (that is, effectively deleting it, but keeping it in case I needed to restore it), and then started iCal. It fired up in pretty much the default state: no events, and just the "Home" and "Work" default calendars. Then something really weird happened: without doing anything, about 10 seconds later, all my events and calendars just reappeared. Magic. (I suspect it was reloaded from Sync Services, but I don't know enough about how all that works to be sure.) There were three problems:
  1. My colour scheme for the calendars was gone. Small deal.
  2. My calendar groups (think "parent categories") were gone. Medium deal—I wanted to reorganise anyway.
  3. The size on disk of the contents of the folder I moved out was 2.4M ("du -h ." in the top-level directory for Unix nerds following along), the size of the folder regenerated in its place was 1.8M. Potentially fairly large deal. Where was the rest of the data?
Anyway, I eyeballed a few months worth of events, and couldn't see any holes. It seemed to be intact. I re-organised my calendars, synced with the Palm a couple of times, and as far as I can tell I am back where I started, and better organised. Still, it's about two hours of my life I'll never get back. Thanks iCal.

Wednesday, October 4, 2006

Goodbye Audible.com

I'm finished with Audible.com—it's been great, but it's just all too hard, and the content is available directly from iTunes Store anyway. First, here is the combination of factors that has lead to this:
  • Audible's website is just plain slow. It's hideously slow, and I'm on a 24Mbit connection.
  • There is no obvious way to initiate multiple downloads from Audible's hideously slow website. That is, you can't just hit a button and download your entire purchased library—if you've got 70 titles, you're going to be clicking 70 buttons.
  • Audible's DRM is obtrusive. Sure, they've got to have it, but I've never felt beaten about the head by the iTunes DRM like I do by Audible's. Every time I went near an Audible audiobook (after the fiasco I'll describe below), it blathered on about authorising or deauthorising my machine or my iPod or my desktop player or whatever. This just in, Audible: your DRM needs to be smarter.
  • Audible's desktop applications are woeful. There's just no excuse these days for re-writing an operating system's standard look and feel. (Having said that, of course, iTunes does it. But Apple can get away with it.)
  • By default, Audible stores your downloaded audiobooks under the "Program Files" top-level directory rather than somewhere in "My Documents". For Mac OS-only readers, that would be like storing your downloads under "Applications" rather than "Documents".
Here's what happened earlier tonight. I had just run JDiskReport to see if I couldn't free up some space. While removing some unused applications, I figured I could get rid of the Audible applications I never use anymore. Now, here's the bit where I screwed up: reflex-clicking "Yes" on a couple of dialog boxes meant that:
  • I deleted all my downloaded audiobooks along with the applications, because they're stored in the same place.
  • I "de-authorised" my Windows XP machine.
I figured I could just log into Audible.com and re-download my library. Good in theory, but I was bitten by several of the observations above. I downloaded the smaller of the two Audible desktop applications which lets you download your audiobooks into your iTunes library, and I started downloading 70 titles one-click-at-a-time. After the first few had come down, I told iTunes where to find one of them, as up until that point it had been flagged as missing. iTunes asked me to authorise my machine. I typed the exact same username and password I had just used to log into the website, and it was rejected. I did this about three times, always the optimist. Next I figured I would download the other Audible bloatware application and use it to authorise myself—same result. So I stop downloading, and tell the website to email me my password. Instead it emails me a change-your-password page, so I use that to set it to what I'm pretty sure it already was. Freshly authorised, I continue downloading. After 70 titles, I import them into iTunes, and pretty much all of them are now listed in duplicate. I run down the list—again, manually—attempting to start every single file (now 140) so that I can flag the non-existent titles, which I then delete.

I am pretty sure I am back to where I was about an hour or two ago. Thanks, Audible, it's been great. But I'll be buying my audiobooks from iTunes Store from now on.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

iTunes 7 redeemed

OS X informed me this morning that a new version of iTunes was available: 7.0.1. Given the showstoppers I noted previously, I was keen to try it out. I updated the PowerBook, and then headed to my Windows XP machine to update there. The first curiosity was that iTunes 7 informed me (by way of the Help > Check for Updates menu item) that it was already the latest version of iTunes, and there was nothing to upgrade to. Healthy skepticism took over, and I checked with Apple's website. There was, indeed, a corresponding 7.0.1 update for Windows. I downloaded and installed.

After the briefest of testing, I can report that one of the two problems I observed earlier has been fixed: there is no longer any evidence of playback distortion during heavy processor load. My very technical testing involved simultaneously downloading a large file, playing a video on Windows Media Player, running the EVE Online client, and listening to a track in iTunes 7.0.1. I could not detect any problems.


I'm still not getting the newly-downloaded cover art sent to my iPod during a normal update, however. Maybe this is simply working as designed—can anyone tell me?

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Missing Sync 5.1.1

After getting my PowerBook back, Missing Sync alerted me (obtrusively) to the fact that I had not synced my Palm TX for 14 days. So I fired it up. Next, Missing Sync told me an upgrade was available, so I downloaded it. I mounted the disk image, and read the ReadMe file, which contains this warning:
If you are running Mac OS X 10.4 "Tiger" or later and have already been syncing your Palm OS device with this Mac, you must first perform one final sync with your existing setup before installing this version of The Missing Sync for Palm OS to ensure that your Mac contains the most current data.

Now, I am running Mac OS X 10.4 "Tiger" or later, and I have already been syncing my Palm OS device with this Mac. Despite having a reasonably strong suspicion that what the ReadMe meant was "If you ... have already been syncing your Palm OS device with this Mac using some software other than The Missing Sync...", I dutifully synced my Palm. Doing this brought up a warning that I occasionally see to the effect that some conflicts had been found between the PowerBook's and the Palm's calendars, and that they had been "repaired" (as an aside, I'd prefer to hear they'd been "resolved"—"repaired" sounds precarious), but that I would need to sync again. So, I did. And in doing so I learned that the Bluetooth connection between the Palm and the PowerBook has some kind of aversion to being brought back up after a recent use, so the two devices fought each other for a while before they agreed to sync again.

The second sync was just about to finish up, when the Palm end told me that it had lost the Bluetooth connection, and the PowerBook end just wedged and had to be forcibly quit. I am not making this up: I had to sync a third time. I let that complete, and ran the Missing Sync installer. While I don't mind the OS X installer, I much prefer applications that support drag-and-drop installation. But, as if sensing that I wasn't already regretting this upgrade enough, Missing Sync insisted I reboot the machine! Incredulous, I did so. Then I figured I'd sync once more for good measure. Two more problems turn up. Firstly, it seems the upgrade turned off Bluetooth as one of the acceptable syncing methods, so initially I sat there hammering away at the HotSync icon on the Palm, and repeatedly failing. Secondly, some kind of warning about syncing with desktop applications appeared—something I had already said was fine when I first installed Missing Sync. To be fair, the warning may have been issued by OS X assuming this was a brand new application, but losing my preference to use Bluetooth to sync is unacceptable.

The first sync with 5.1.1 just finished, and I have an error in the log:
SyncClient error. Mingling failed.

There's no indication whether this is minor or major. I suppose I'll just sync for a fifth time this afternoon and see if it goes away. I am perilously close to regretting I upgraded.

PowerBook repairs: Day 11

I am posting this entry from the PowerBook: it's back. After being pretty impressed with the customer service back on Day 5, I figured that while the next-day delivery estimate was probably optimistic, the part certainly should have arrived by yesterday, and I really should have heard something before today. So at 9.00am this morning, I called. There was a minimum of fuss: the PowerBook was ready, and, in fact, had been ready yesterday. The person I spoke to apologised that no one called me yesterday, and was surprised I didn't receive an email telling me so.

I picked up the PowerBook. It works. The "top case" was replaced, and that cost $A 309.09 ex-GST, with just under $A 70 of labour. Interestingly, the original $A 75 I paid at drop-off time was deducted from the total, and I left paying less than I was expecting. I didn't stop to ask too many questions.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

iTunes 7 problems

It seems just about everyone is reporting iTunes 7 problems. (That hyperlink is to Google's search results on the string "iTunes 7 problems". When I pulled that up a minute ago, it was just short of 1,000 results.) I installed it a couple of days ago on my Windows XP machine, and while I was initially quite impressed (you've got to admit, the CoverFlow eye candy is nice), I'll add two observations:
  1. You can now download cover art for your existing music from the iTunes Store. (You always got the cover art when you purchased something from the iTunes Store, and you could always manually add it to tracks or albums yourself. By far the bulk of my music is ripped from my own CD collection, so it has no cover art at all.) Firstly, doing this at all is not completely intuitive. You can right click a single track, or group of tracks, and select "Get Album Artwork"—that's straightforward enough. You can also apparently select Advanced > Get Album Artwork from the application menu to download cover art for your entire collection. Doing that gives no feedback, though. It's not at all obvious that iTunes is doing anything at all, and it only became clear later on when a whole lot of new cover art turned up in my collection. Secondly, unless I'm mistaken, the newly downloaded cover art doesn't get transferred to your iPod for display on-screen during track playback. Cover art from iTunes Store-purchased tracks, and manually added art both get transferred to your iPod. If there's a preference or option to achieve this, I can't find it.
  2. iTunes 7 seems acutely sensitive to system load during playback. Last week I was using iTunes 6 to play background music while playing EVE Online with no problems. This week, iTunes 7 chops horrendously through tracks as soon as I fire up EVE. It's unusable. (I'd quote my system specs if I thought they were relevant, but I don't. iTunes 6 didn't have a problem.)
I hope I'm just missing something with the cover art issue. I hope there's an update released real soon now for iTunes 7's inability to keep up under modest system load.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

PowerBook repairs: Day 5

The technician from Next Byte repairing my PowerBook called this morning. (I think it's good that the guy doing the repairs calls me. Actually, I think it's great that anyone calls me.) They did say when I dropped it off that it would be two business days before anyone could even look at it, so this seems about on the mark. The problem, not surprisingly, is due to two things:
  1. The sensor that tells the PowerBook when the lid is closed has died, or is dying.
  2. The sensor that tells the PowerBook it's overheating has died, or is dying.
Naturally, this leads to lots of inappropriate sleeping, which is just what I'd observed. So, some part which I didn't catch the name of needs to be replaced, presumably housing one or both of those sensors. Apparently, Apple doesn't let its service centres keep parts in stock, so naturally this has to be ordered. At least it's in stock at Apple, though, so best case is that it will be at Next Byte tomorrow morning, and I can pick the PowerBook up tomorrow afternoon. Sounds good.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

PowerBook repairs: Day 1

My PowerBook is in for repairs. There was a two or three day history of sleep-wake problems. The first thing I noticed is that it wouldn't wake up one morning after an overnight sleep. I overcame this, but it was by no means simple. None of the usual efforts worked: holding down the Power button, hitting Command-Control-Power, removing and replacing the battery. After a bit of Google work, I discovered Apple's instructions for resetting the Power Management Unit, which, for my model, involved removing the battery, pressing the Power button for five seconds, and replacing the battery. This didn't quite work: it did reset the machine and allow a reboot, but the PowerBook fell asleep again at the login screen every time.

Eventually, I got it up and running for several hours using a very low-tech solution: I shut it down, removed the battery and the mains power, and let it sit for an hour. I plugged it all back in and it worked. Until the next day, at which point I decided it was time for repairs.

I took the PowerBook to the Next Byte Apple Centre on Glen Osmond Road at Glenunga. I had purchased something there before, and I seemed to recall that they did repairs on-site, rather than sending items away. That, coupled with the fact that I didn't want to drive into the city on a Saturday morning, sealed the deal. The guy who served me was great—very efficient, and understood the problem. (The PowerBook itself was kind enough to demonstrate the problem first time—I was fully expecting to get there and have it wake from sleep as normal.) This helped to offset the fact that they were charging me $A 75 just to get someone to look at the problem. Somehow, I don't think this is going to be cheap.

Friday, September 8, 2006

Copy and Paste: slightly too intelligent

Here's the setup: I have a web form somewhere which has a field for a user's email address as one of its inputs. After the user hits Submit, the data is mailed to me. I sanity-check the data in the mail, and then select the email address and hit Command-C for copy. The address is added to a mailing list I maintain, and when I'm doing it manually in this way, the next step is to paste this address on the end of a command line in a Terminal window. (Why am I going into excruciating detail? Just to make it clear that the observation coming up is something that affects me just about every day.)

And here's the observation: it doesn't matter whether I select the address and hit Command-C, Control-click on the address and select Copy Link, or Control-click on the address and select Copy, I always get mailto: prepended to the address when I paste it. It's at least mildly irritating, and it seems to me that surely one of those three options for selecting the address could be expected to drop the mailto: prefix.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Mac Pro shipping

The Intel-based Mac Pro desktop machines are shipping. There's a review at MacInTouch.

It sounds great, but, in my humble opinion, there are some disappointments:
  1. ...it requires special FB-DIMM memory that costs twice as much as the standard types of RAM used in the iMac Core Duo and MacBooks – and not many memory vendors carry these FB-DIMMs yet.
    [The hyperlink is mine.] And that's in the US, so I assume they're non-existent in Australia. The article seemed to suggest this was tied to Intel Xeons in particular, rather than being a design decision made by Apple.
  2. The Mac Pro's standard display card is a GeForce 7300 GT. This is an entry-level card, designed by nVidia for undemanding users of older games and basic multimedia. Walk into CompUSA or Best Buy and you can find it for about $80.
    [The hyperlink is mine.] This is almost inexplicable. (Actually, it's entirely explicable—it reduces the cost. But a $US 80 card in a machine that starts at $A 4,000?) On the Australian Apple Store site, it notes that "Selecting the ATI Radeon X1900 XT or NVIDIA Quadro FX 4500 may delay the shipment of your Mac Pro." Great!
    We're curious to see if retail, non-Mac specific ATI and nVidia video cards will work on Mac Pros with Apple's built-in Mac OS X drivers.
    I'd be curious, too. Second-tier graphics cards for PC systems usually only cost a couple of hundred dollars.
  3. On performance:
    One exception is gaming. The Mac Pro lags far behind Windows PCs, turning in Doom3 timedemo frame rates half that of PCs running the same video hardware and slower processors.
    It's not like I play many games, but I play a couple. And it's not like their graphics requirements are monumental, either, but I am hoping I can make a Mac Pro my next desktop system, and dual-boot into Windows XP for any residual Windows-bound tasks. This will include playing EVE Online.
  4. We haven't yet tested Boot Camp. Apple hasn't finished preparing all the drivers for Windows XP yet, but field reports indicate that most can be gathered on the Internet from the original suppliers and work reasonably well.
    Yikes. I think I'll sit it out until they get that sorted, then.
I had a really quick look at customising the base system at the Australian Apple Store online. With a few modest upgrades and a monitor, I quickly hit about $A 5,700. Macs: still not cheap by a long stretch. (And that was prior to reading that the base graphics card is junk—putting either of their upgrade cards in easily cracks the $6,000 barrier.)

Monday, July 10, 2006

Close or quit?

Something that has always intrigued† me about the MacOS user interface is the standard window closing behaviour. I assume it arises from a more rigid distinction between ‘application’ and ‘document’ than exists in Microsoft Windows, but to demonstrate it, try this:
  1. Open Safari.
  2. Close Safari's window using the red close button.
  3. Observe that Safari the application is still running—it just happens not to have any windows open at the moment.
Then, compare it with this (if you can):
  1. Open Microsoft Internet Explorer under some flavour of Windows.
  2. Close Internet Explorer's window using the close button.
  3. Observe that Internet Explorer has terminated.
Initially, I found the difference confronting, but probably only because I wasn't used to it. (I also think it's probably a little counterintuitive. Try explaining to a novice that Pages is still running even though they've saved and closed all their documents.) Of course, sometimes the MacOS behaviour is exactly the behaviour you want, and, after all, if you mean quit, hit Command-Q. Anyway, all of this is by way of introduction to something I just observed. I found an application that doesn't work the MacOS way, in that it quits when you close its window. Which application? Why, Microsoft Windows Media Player, of course.

† And, to be honest, by "intrigued" I mean "irritated".

Saturday, June 17, 2006

WEP is working

If my Billion 7402VGP-based WLAN had been up for seven days in my last post, it's now been up for 21. That's by far the longest uptime my WLAN has achieved—good news in the sense that I have not had to power-cycle my router in three weeks, but bad news in the sense that WEP is an inferior security protocol to WPA, and the router claims to support WPA, but clearly doesn't.

Sunday, June 4, 2006

WEP is in the house

Having purchased a new Palm TX last week, I wrote that "wireless worked without a hitch." As I noted at the time, though, that's not the whole truth. The true part is this: with no setting up required beyond selecting the appropriate SSID, and entering the password, the Palm TX was on the WLAN, and I was surfing with Blazer, and checking email with VersaMail. The bit where I kind of lied, because I was in denial, was this: my household WLAN (based on my Billion 7402 VGP ADSL router), which has given me no end of trouble, became even less stable. On the first afternoon with the Palm TX and the PowerBook G4 both using the WLAN, I had to power-cycle the router two or three times. This was unprecedented instability, and it made me sad.

A day later, I had an idea. I changed the WLAN from WPA2 to 128-bit WEP. Now, technically this makes my WLAN less secure, as there are known attacks against WEP. I think the risk is acceptable, though. The traffic on my WLAN is generally not particularly sensitive, since I use SSH for most inter-machine communication anyway. I guess my web-browsing habits are at risk of leaking. And if you happen to be war driving down my street and just want to steal some bandwidth, go nuts. (In fact, if you sweep some leaves off my footpath while you're out there, I'll give you the 128-bit key.)

Anyway, the WLAN has been up for seven days. It's certainly stayed up for seven days before, but I'm reasonably confident now, given how many times it went down when the Palm TX joined the network. It looks like I can finally blame the Billion, too. So, flimsy risk analyses and jokes aside, does anyone think I'm crazy for using WEP on the WLAN?

Saturday, June 3, 2006

Don't steal my focus!

Craig Turner mentioned to me elsewhere that he's been using Missing Sync to synchronise his Sony PDA. Craig noted that if you tell Missing Sync to remind you to synchronise your devices, "it randomly pops up a box that steals focus from everything else telling you that you haven't synced recently." I noticed this yesterday when I got my first three-day reminder. I was typing away, eyes off-screen, only to realise about half a sentence had been dropped on the floor because Missing Sync stole my focus. For the love of god, software authors, don't steal my focus! Craig wondered why it couldn't just put an alert in, say, the menu bar at the top of the screen. Or wherever it would be most Macintosh to put one. I mentioned recently that the OS X Address Book has a habit of losing focus as well. Try this:
  • Add an address record somewhere alphabetically in the middle of your existing list.
  • Start entering information. Try to be constantly typing for a few seconds.
  • When Address Book decides it's time to re-sort the list, and your new record moves, you'll notice that the cursor suddenly jumps to the Notes field.
In the case of Address Book, it's clearly a bug. With Missing Sync, it's apparently a feature. A really annoying feature.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Palm TX

(Or is that Palm T|X? I'm not getting into it. TX will do.)

About six months ago, I set out to buy a new PDA. The strangest thing happened: despite money being essentially no object for this particular project, I came home without one. I simply couldn't buy a new PDA. Not a single product fit my criteria, and I didn't think they were particularly restrictive:
  • It was reasonably important that the PDA be PalmOS-based. All my PDAs have been Palms: a IIIx, and most recently a Zire 71. PalmOS Just Works. It is lightweight and it is fast. It doesn't try to do everything, it just tries to do a few things the Right Way. Still, this wasn't going to a be a show-stopper: I was willing to change camps if and only if it could be shown that another candidate would behave correctly with OS X. And by "correctly", I mean natively, and if not natively, then with some low-cost, third party tool.
  • I almost definitely didn't want a GSM phone in my PDA. My Motorola V3 is still under contract, and I wasn't signing up for a separate phone account just for the novelty of a phone in my PDA.
  • I didn't really want a camera, but this was a soft requirement. (I've only ever taken novelty shots with my Zire 71. I like having devices that do one thing well, and my Canon EOS 20D takes pretty good photographs.)
  • I wanted Bluetooth and wireless networking. Bluetooth was a hard requirement, as conventional Palm cradles are just too bulky to carry around, and I frequently want to sync with the PowerBook while away from home. Wireless would be great, but not a necessity.
Now, I would have thought this was not a particularly ambitious wish-list. Apparently I was wrong. The obvious first stop was the Palm range. The flagship product at the time was the Palm TX (or it may have been the Life Drive—I don't know which one was supposed to be the top of their range, but the Life Drive was (and still is) just way too bulky to be in the running). I checked the features of the TX, and it nailed most, if not all, of the criteria above. But I didn't buy it, and here's why. Check the comparison chart of Palm models, which is the same today as it was then. In particular, compare the TX to the much older Tungsten T5, which it was supposedly replacing, or at least stealing the top-of-range designation from. Yes, the TX is $A 100 cheaper, but it has less memory (128M vs 256M), and a slower CPU (312MHz vs 416MHz). Sure, it had wireless, but this just wasn't making sense. Someone else was paying for my PDA, and I wanted the best model in Palm's range, but it wasn't even clear what they thought the top of their range was, let alone what the specifications implied. In a last ditch effort to buy something, I tried to purchase a Tungsten T5 with a wireless network adapter card, which Palm was marketing as a bundle at the time. The store was out. I gave up.

Six months passed, and by the weekend just past, it was becoming critical that I spend the money on a new PDA. I re-checked Palm's range: no movement there. I settled on the TX from the unchanged comparison chart, deciding that wireless really was worth a cut in speed and memory. (Remember, PalmOS is lightweight. It's not like my old IIIx was even slow.) Between my previous expedition and last weekend, an article went up at O'Reilly's Mac Dev Center: New Palm TX Forced Me to Address Mac Sync Options by Giles Turnbull. This article basically sealed the deal for me, though it was obvious I would be forking out a further $US 39.95 for The Missing Sync from Mark/Space. The take-home message from Turnbull's article was that iSync could handle the basics (and I knew that—I've been syncing my Zire 71 since I bought the PowerBook), but that The Missing Sync fills in all the gaps.

The TX is working well so far. It's hard to be super-enthusiastic about getting a new Palm, for several reasons:
  • New models are usually just evolutionary upgrades on old models, as opposed to revolutionary. PalmOS hasn't changed in any jaw-dropping ways since my old IIIx. It's in colour now, and the calendar application can finally handle events that span midnight, but other than that level of change, it's all pretty familiar. Which is good.
  • Upgrading old third party applications can be tough. For example, I have used CryptInfo for a few years to store passwords. That's great, except you'll see that CryptInfo is no longer being developed, and it's a crusty, old PalmOS 2.0 application. I'm going to check out Keyring for Palm OS, mostly because it's free software, and there's not enough free software for the Palm. Now the bad bit: I'm going to have to transfer the data between these applications by hand.
  • If you're an old Palm user, your new Palm Just Works like your old Palm Just Worked. You wouldn't expect any less, and it's nothing to get excited about.
Having said that, here are some initial observations, mostly positive:
  • There's no cradle. I might be in a minority here, but I think that's good. Palm cradles are chunky, and a pain to travel with. There's a connector for a wall charger, and a connector for a USB cable. Even better, the TX charges from USB, so if you're travelling with a laptop, you only need to take a single cable, no wall adapter, and no cradle. I do, however, completely agree with Turnbull's observation on the USB connector:
    On the downside, the USB connector cable that came with the Palm TX is difficult to plug into the Palm--it almost feels like you've got the wrong cable. It's more a case of jamming it into place, rather than it plugging in neatly with a satisfying click.
  • The supplied flip cover is junk. The slide-on connector is flimsy, it barely covers the screen, and there's nothing to stop it from flipping back open. You couldn't throw it into a bag or briefcase, for example, with just this cover protecting it.
  • Wireless worked without a hitch. (That's not the complete truth. More on my ongoing WLAN saga later.)
  • The supplied email client (VersaMail) is quite satisfactory. I entered a few details relating to my IMAP server, and it downloaded unread messages from my Inbox over wireless.
  • Bluetooth worked without a hitch. I paired it with my PowerBook and my Motorola V3, the latter just to see if I could.
  • There's no longer a dedicated text-entry pad taking up potential screen real estate. Instead, I can now enter text as Graffiti 2 anywhere on the screen. (For old-timers for whom that sounds scary, a "classic" text-entry area can be displayed at the bottom of the screen where it used to sit on older models.)
  • Portrait-landscape switiching is now a feature native to the OS. (Older models could do this if the application implemented it.) Any application can be run in landscape mode. This makes the built-in web browser (Blazer) just about feasible for, well, web browsing.
Based on Turnbull's article, I didn't even bother trying to sync with iSync. I purchased The Missing Sync and installed it straight away. It's pretty much the Palm syncing solution that iSync wants to be (and that Palm should be providing for free). I could praise it at length, but you may as well just check out the feature list. It does all that. If I'd ever heard of it prior to last weekend, I would have bought it for my Zire 71. I've synced my TX over USB, Bluetooth and wireless. The single problem I encountered was a conduit conflict—it seems two of the original Palm conduits were left in place after The Missing Sync installed (related to the Memo Pad application), and I had to manually move them into a Disabled Conduits folder. This was disappointing, because other than that it all proceeded flawlessly.

I think it's a shame that the Palm range has kind of stagnated. Unless there's some particular reason you need the memory and processor speed, though, the TX is a good buy for OS X users. I wouldn't even consider not budgeting the extra $US 39.95 for The Missing Sync, though.

Friday, May 26, 2006

One-to-one binding of iPod to iTunes is restrictive

While I am far from an iPod or iTunes expert, my understanding is that there is basically a one-to-one binding of an iPod to an iTunes instance. My music collection is stored on my Windows XP PC's disk, and this is synced to my iPod. When I first bought the PowerBook, I downloaded some podcasts to iTunes, and assumed that I could add this to my iPod. I was wrong—iTunes informed me that the only way to do so was to erase the content on my iPod. That is, one iPod, one iTunes. (Actually, I'm not sure it's strictly one-to-one—when I had my iPod replaced, iTunes made no complaints about syncing my collection to the new iPod. But the relationship in the iPod→iTunes direction is certainly one-to-one.)

I don't think this is ideal. I spend a lot more time on my PowerBook, and, for one thing, I like downloading podcasts to its iTunes instance. Basically I would like to be able to push content from my PowerBook's iTunes to the iPod as well as from the PC's. It's painful enough to transfer material over to the PC's iTunes as it is, and with DRM-protected tracks, (I assume) it's essentially impossible. That is, if I use iTunes on the PowerBook to purchase music from iTunes Music Store, it's stuck on the PowerBook unless I erase my iPod. Please, correct me if I'm wrong here.

Are my observations correct? Are there any workarounds?

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Post-it notes on the OS X desktop

Here's a quick question: is there an OS X equivalent of something like XPostIt for X Windows? Note that:
  • Yes, I had thought of trying to build XPostIt from sources and then running it under X11. Firstly, it simply may not build, and I can't be bothered finding out. Secondly, I want something a little lighter weight than firing up X11 to place post-it notes on the screen.
  • Yes, I know there is a post-it note widget for the Dashboard, and I do use it. Occasionally. To be perfectly honest, I don't use the Dashboard very often. About once a week if I'm curious, I'll look at the local weather forecast. I've got a couple of post-its with things people have borrowed from me. But I just don't hit F12 very often, and I would like to have post-its on the standard desktop.
Update: No more than 10 seconds of Googling lead me straight to /Applications/Stickies.app. Twelve months on, and I'm still a novice.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Bluetooth broke

And then it fixed itself.

I was just using iSync to synchronise to my Palm Zire 71 and Motorola V3, as previously detailed elsewhere. The Palm synced as expected. For no apparent reason, the V3 sync over Bluetooth failed. The PowerBook had Bluetooth turned on, and so did the phone. They simply failed to talk. And, in typical Apple fashion, the error reporting in the iSync log failed to shed any light on the problem whatsoever.

Turning Bluetooth off and back on failed to help at both ends of the link. Unfortunately, rebooting the PowerBook did help. How very Windows.

Friday, May 12, 2006

iCal may suck less than first thought: John Gruber

John Gruber responded to Tim Bray's criticisms of iCal at Daring Fireball. (Whereas my commentary was pretty much a prolonged "Right on!", Gruber actually, well, knows stuff about iCal for a start, and then tested out some other stuff he wasn't sure about.) I still think iCal could be a better application.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

iCal sucks hugely: Tim Bray

Over at his blog ongoing, Tim Bray describes an encounter with iCal which nearly ended in disaster.
Today for some reason my PowerBook locked up (no big gripe, this hardly ever happens) and when it came back up, iCal showed a little red splodge next to my calendar which when clicked said “iCal was unable to load the calendar. The file might be corrupted or temporarly (sic) unreadable. you can try again later or reset this calendar. Resetting the calendar will remove all calendar content.” There are not words to express how much this sucks.
He's certainly right on that last point—I can't think of any words either.

iCal was one of the first applications I put to the test after taking the Mac plunge. Indeed, I recall being pretty excited about the potential for desktop-PDA-phone syncing. I still use iCal to much the same extent as described in that post from last year, and I've recently started testing out Google Calendar as a potential method for archiving and sharing calendar data. With 12 months of iCal use under my belt, then, I find that I agree with all of Tim's criticisms.
Of course, in a sane world iCal would store a calendar named “Tim” in Library/Calendars/Tim, but they’re off in Library/Application Support/iCal/Sources/. And mine contained eight hundred thousand null bytes.
iCal's data storage is obfuscated. I, too, would prefer that my data was stored somewhere sensible.
I don’t want to be rude. But a personal-productivity application that updates crucial high-value information files in place is Broken As Designed, and evidence of an extreme lack of professionalism.
Roger that.
While [iCal's] UI is good, it’s still kind of sluggish.
It takes nigh on 3.5 seconds on my PowerBook G4 to duplicate an appointment in place.

iCal does look nice, but when you get down and use it, it seems like a beta release of some kind. Come to think of it, so does Address Book—is it just me, or is the whole cursor-just-randomly-jumps-between-fields phenomenon widespread in that application?

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

NetNewsWire 2.1

I started using NetNewsWire 2.0 a few months ago. I've tried a few news aggregators on both Windows and OS X, so I know what I like. NetNewsWire is, by far, the best on either platform. Version 2.1 has just been released, and here are some comments:
  • 2.1 is a free upgrade to owners of previous versions. I was not expecting this—in fact, I had put off even inspecting the web site for the past few days on the basis that I didn't feel like paying for a point upgrade.
  • Ranchero Software has apparently been bought out by NewsGator. I have no idea who or what NewsGator is, and no interest in finding out right now. The upgrade, although free, cost me some personal information—I had to register with NewsGator, whoever they are, despite having already registered with Ranchero. I guess that's what disposable email accounts are made for.
  • The upgrade was smooth, just as I've been coming to expect with OS X software distributions. Download and open disk image, click a couple of buttons, confirm that I'm overwriting an existing application, done. My feed list is preserved, as were the browser tabs I had open when I closed the old version. That is attention to detail.
  • I'm testing a new feature: sorting feeds based on "attention". I had previously sorted based on unread article count, but this new feature grabbed my eye. From the documentation:
    How does NetNewsWire figure out attention? It watches what you do with the items in each feed. If you flag items in a feed, send items via email, post to del.icio.us, or post to your weblog, it figures this feed is pretty important to you. The more you do those things, the more important is the feed.
    I'll let you know how this works out.


Tuesday, April 25, 2006

TWAIN SANE for OS X

In a recent post, I complained that, despite a significant amount of effort, I could not get my HP ScanJet 2300c to work with my PowerBook G4. In the comments, a certain fever606 suggested looking at the TWAIN SANE Interface for MacOS X. I downloaded the various component packages and installed them. It's all quite slick, but the bottom line is this: my HP ScanJet 2300c still doesn't work with my PowerBook. For the details, read on.

I downloaded four packages: TWAIN SANE Interface, SANE Preference Pane, SANE backends and libusb. They all unpacked and installed without a hitch. Hoping that it would all Just Work, I fired up Image Capture and tried to scan. Nothing. (Well, nothing except an error dialog which wouldn't dismiss until I killed the process from the Terminal.) So, I started working my way through the FAQ.

Running sane-find-scanner found the scanner. Excellent. Running scanimage > test.pnm did nothing detectable. (Running that with full debugging to a log file generated 11M of output before I killed it, so it was doing something. Scouring that log didn't help me much.) I looked at the (genesys) backend's configuration file using the Preference Pane, but I didn't really know what I was doing.

At this point I stopped. I unplugged the scanner, and plugged it back into the Windows box from where it came. TWAIN SANE didn't make my scanner Just Work. I certainly could have put some more time into it, but then I may as well have spent that time getting it to work on my FreeBSD box. The point, as I have emphasised several times over the months, of buying this PowerBook was to drink the Apple kool-aid. I doubt my HP ScanJet will ever Just Work. I might look into buying a supported scanner.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Best. Dialog. Ever.

Testing out Google Calendar, I decided to upload my work schedule from an iCal export. Google made Safari do this:
safari-dialog
Apparently the upload still worked, though.

Thursday, April 6, 2006

Thrashing Apple Mail

After running JDiskReport, I discovered an enormous wad of mail waiting in mailing lists I have not read for some time. I like the fact that Apple Mail provides the Activity Viewer window, in which you can track what the application is doing—especially useful when it otherwise looks like it has stalled. Here is the result of trying to delete 10,000 unread mails using IMAP over a pretty slow uplink:
mail-progress
It has been churning away for at least 20 minutes. I'm sure it will get there eventually, but I really wish I had done this server-side using Mutt.

JDiskReport

I downloaded JDiskReport after seeing the write-up on Tim Bray's blog, ongoing. While it's not a unique idea (for example, see File System Visualizer), it's a nice implementation. Notice that the hyperlink to JDiskReport there points at a ‘.jnlp’ (Java Network Launching Protocol) file—that is, the application is distributed by Sun's Java Web Start framework. Mac OS X had no trouble with this. Mike Gratton reported that he tried it on one of the 4 billion flavours of Linux, and that it didn't work. So your mileage may vary.

Saturday, April 1, 2006

HP Scanjet 2300c: too old for OS X?

I've had a HP Scanjet 2300c for a few years, and it's a nice enough scanner. (It's not super-fast, but I don't do a lot of scanning.) Today I wanted to connect it to my PowerBook G4 and scan in some documents to send by email. I tried. I failed. It seems the 2300c is not supported natively by OS X. What I very definitely don't want to do is download and install some multi-megabyte, proprietary "scanning and imaging suite" of applications from HP. Assuming one exists. All I want is a driver, or whatever it takes to let me use something simple like OS X's Image Capture application. That's it.

Following a link from Apple's website, I downloaded VueScan from Hamrick Software. It didn't see the Scanjet, but the best bit was being able to test it out using the Mac approach to software installation: download and mount a disk image, drag and drop to install, drag to Trash when it doesn't work. Done. There's no crap scattered about various system directories on my disk and there's no "Registry" to corrupt. I tried VueScan, it didn't work, and now it's gone. (In comparison, I probably have the assorted detritus of dozens of applications scattered about my PC's disk. Applications which mysteriously "couldn't completely uninstall" are the norm in the Windows universe.)

So, it's back to the PC to use HP's monolithic suite of bloatware to do a couple of pages of scanning. That's disappointing, but kind of countered by the fact I got to test out VueScan without pain because Mac OS X does things the Right Way.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Apple Mail and spam

I get a lot of spam. Not counting the spam that is addressed to non-existent recipients within my domain (which numbers in the order of 10 to 20,000 per day, all piped to /dev/null), I get probably 2 to 300 spams every 24 hours. For some time, Bogofilter has been working hard to keep the proportion of those spams reaching my inbox as low as possible.

Since becoming a Mac user, I've moved the bulk of my email receiving and sending from Mutt to Apple Mail. This has had two consequences: I no longer train Bogofilter anywhere near as actively as I was doing 12 months ago, and I now rely on the spam (or "Junk") filtering capabilities of Apple Mail. (I suspect I am also sending a lot more HTML mail, which does bother me.) This morning, for example, Apple Mail downloaded 77 emails from the IMAP server, and presented only 5 of them. In other words, it filtered out 72 spams that Bogofilter missed. Now, this is less an indictment of Bogofilter than it is praise for Apple Mail—since I am rarely providing Bogofilter with ongoing training, its effectiveness is just decaying over time as would be expected as spam evolves. I would estimate that I see less than five false negatives (spam in my inbox) per day, and I can't remember the last time I saw a false positive, though I don't check for those as often as I probably should. Apple Mail has good spam filtering.

Random iPod resets

I just turned on my iPod after three days of no use. It did what I'd probably call a "partial reset"—that is, it wasn't a full reset where the disk is cleared, and we start from scratch by choosing the language of operation. But I did get the white-on-black Apple logo screen for about five seconds. What does this mean? Is it normal?

Tuesday, March 7, 2006

Uptime

It occurred to me this evening that I basically never shut my PowerBook down. It goes from home to work and back, changing from a WLAN to Ethernet to occasionally network-free, just sleeping during the journies. So, before I need to reboot for a software update, here's the current uptime:
> uptime
19:44 up 15 days, 43 secs, 3 users, load averages: 0.58 0.36 0.36
Sure, my FreeBSD workstation stays up for months on end, but I can't recall the last time my Windows XP box remained functional for two consecutive days, let alone fifteen.

Sunday, March 5, 2006

HDV editing: Mac vs Wintel

A few months ago, I purchased a Sony HDR-HC1 camcorder. (In case you're interested, that's a consumer-level camcorder that shoots HDV onto standard MiniDV tapes. It wasn't cheap, but at 1440 x 1080 pixels, it blows standard DV camcorders away.) Naturally, I did a pretty minimal amount of research before buying this, pretty much limited to Sony's Australian website, and some product reviews, so I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the 'HD' in 'iMovie HD' stands for 'edits HDV footage as shipped'. So, I was editing HDV on my PowerBook from the day I bought the camcorder.

Now, it's not as though I'm a professional film maker, but it's reasonably obvious, once you've put a few hours in, that iMovie HD is a low-end video editing application. So I figured I would fire up Premiere Pro 1.5 on a Wintel box. After patching it to 1.5.1 to enable HDV capture and editing, I started downloading some footage from tape. And that's as far as I got—a 2.5GHz Pentium 4 with 1G of RAM could not even capture the 25Mbit/s HDV stream. There were frames lost and mangled all over the place. Completely unusable.

Let me be clear: a 2.5GHz Pentium 4 is below the minimum specification recommended by Adobe for HDV editing. My question is why? My comparably modest PowerBook G4 can capture and edit HDV without breaking a sweat. What's wrong with Adobe's code such that it can't keep up?

Thursday, March 2, 2006

Microsoft iPod

This has been linked on no small number of blogs, but just in case you haven't seen it: Microsoft designs the iPod package. Personally, I'd like to see the follow-up: Microsoft designs the iPod.

Wednesday, March 1, 2006

Safari tooltip bug

I was reading a post by Craig Turner about a tiny but neat feature of Safari, and I was checking out the tabs in a window I had open right now. Safari certainly does seem to be picking words of interest for the tab titles, but in the process of investigating this, I discovered a tiny but amusing bug of Safari: it gets some of the tooltips just plain wrong.
safari-tooltip-bug
There certainly is a Gmail tab open, but it's not the tab under the pointer.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Safari shell script exploit

To be honest, I almost never read past the headline of any news item about malware. Of any kind. On any system. Essentially because one or more of the following are always true:
  • The author is very obviously completely clueless.
  • The target system is Microsoft Windows, and hence it's not even news. Closely related is that the exploit requires the user to be using Outlook Express to read email, is vectored over a peer-to-peer filesharing network, or requires a Windows box directly connected to the Internet. (None of these can possibly affect me.)
  • The malware requires the manual intervention of a novice-level user, such as falling for a phishing scam by clicking on a malicious hyperlink. (I'd like to think I'd never do that.)
Today I found an exception, and I read the whole article on the "Safari shell script execution exploit" over at Daring Fireball. The one line summary is this: By default, Safari will open "safe" files after downloading, and the application it uses to do so is determined by a particular resource in the file's resource fork. So, for example (and this is the example used in the demonstration by Heise Online), you can dress a shell script up as a JPEG by adding a ".jpg" extension, yet it will be opened by the Terminal and executed.

It's really easy to turn this behaviour off in Safari: untick "Open 'safe' files after downloading" in the General pane of Safari's preferences. Of course, this doesn't solve the entire problem, since the Finder will also feed the "JPEG" shell script to the Terminal. As Gruber points out, it's also not a new problem: "you can’t safely double-click files from untrusted sources, and you never could."

Thursday, February 9, 2006

Even more on PowerBook on a Billion WLAN

Here are some more observations on the ongoing problem:
  • The interval between WLAN failures seems completely random. It failed about an hour ago, just under 24 hours ago, and prior to that was up for well over a week.
  • It's definitely only the WLAN that fails. The Ethernet LAN works, as does the WAN. Full speed, no problems.
  • Rebooting the PowerBook does not help. Rebooting the router helps. In fact, the PowerBook will reconnect to the WLAN without intervention as soon as the Billion has rebooted.
I'm stumped. And disappointed.

Friday, January 13, 2006

More Brushed Metal hilarity

iLife ’06 From the Perspective of an Anthropomorphized Brushed Metal Interface.

Drag and drop meets text mode

No doubt I'm the last Mac OS X user on the planet to realise this, but Terminal windows will accept files dropped onto them, and the result is the full pathname of the file:
terminal-drag
terminal-drop
That's quite neat. I can't imagine ever using it, but it's neat.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

More on PowerBook on a Billion WLAN

The wireless LAN issues I described last month re-appeared two days ago. Firstly, I'll just recap the issue, since now I have some screenshots.

The initial symptom is straightforward: the PowerBook drops its connection to the Billion 7402 VGP's WLAN. The AirPort signal strength icon in the menu bar shows no signal, and the PowerBook has no network connection. As far as I have observed, this occurs when the PowerBook awakens from some period of sleep. Selecting "Sesame Street" (the SSID of the Billion's WLAN) from the drop-down menu causes the following dialog to be displayed:
AirPort failure
For the love of god, Apple, that is not helpful to anyone. I have written several times about Apple's consistently woeful error reporting, but this dialog seems to be aiming for some kind of prize—there's not even a hint of an indication of whether the PowerBook thinks the problem is local or remote. I'd be satisfied with a negative error number that I could at least type into Google.

As I reported last time, manually choosing an "Other..." network from the AirPort drop-down menu inexplicably does work.
Manual network choice
This time, however, it would only stay up for a few seconds at most. This symptom was new. And disappointing. A reboot of the PowerBook did not help.

After some intense Googling (not to mention some trawling through /var/log/system.log—thank god it's Unix), I believe I did solve half of the problem. The inability to re-connect by selecting the SSID from the AirPort drop-down seemed to be related to having a stale password in my "Keychain". Now, despite being a Mac proto-guru for all of eight months, I must admit that I do not really know what my Keychain is or what function it serves. Clearly, though, it stores some passwords. And ever more clearly, it wasn't updated when I changed the password for the WLAN in the Network Preferences dialog. After changing the password in the Keychain, I could get a five second connection to the WLAN. I'm prepared to let this one slide—maybe it was my fault. (But don't think that excuses utterly woeful error reporting, Apple!)

Desparate to get the wireless network working again, I opted for a quick round of the Microsoft Windows Problem Solving Technique. That is, I power-cycled everything in sight—the PowerBook and the Billion 7402. It worked. I am not at all happy about it (the problem or that particular solution), but it worked.