Monday, August 31, 2015

Yosemite Mac Calendar.app travel time feature isn't compatible with Google Calendar

Travel Time for Appointments in Apple Calendar (Yosemite) is a nice feature, but it’s not compatible with Google Calendar. I suspect travel time is an attribute of the appointment, not a separate appointment, and it’s not a standard CalDAV feature.

So if you’re using iOS or OS X Calendar.app with a Google Calendar back end don’t bother with this feature. 

Is kind of nifty I admit.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Parental Controls? Home VPN? Turn abandoned PC into Sophos firewall for free home use.

Via app.net@remus I’ve learned that Sophos has a free for non-commercial (max 50 IP) home edition product:

Free Firewall: Home Edition for the Sophos UTM Firewall

Our Free Home Use Firewall is a fully equipped software version of the Sophos UTM firewall, available at no cost for home users – no strings attached. It features full Network, Web, Mail and Web Application Security with VPN functionality and protects up to 50 IP addresses.

The Sophos UTM Free Home Use firewall contains its own operating system and will overwrite all data on the computer during the installation process. Therefore, a separate, dedicated computer is needed, which will change into a fully functional security appliance. Just right for the spare PC you have sitting in the corner!

… Use Web Filtering to stop sites from infecting you with viruses and spyware, keep your kids from surfing to bad sites, and get full reporting on the activity in your home…

… Dial in using Roadwarrior VPN access to securely use Remote Desktop, transfer files, and even print, from anywhere in the world, even from your iPhone...

The usual installation is on an old PC, but it can be used "within a virtual machine … Virtual appliance can be run directly in any VMware vSphere Edition”. From a quick read however an old PC with two network cards is more practical.

One should proceed with caution however - the download page has a bad link to a “Sophos Community” support forum; the real forum is hidden away at an astaro.org url. I assume this product was acquired from astaro. There is activity on the forum, but you need to be prepared for some pain to make this work.

Other VPN alternatives mentioned in that app.net thread: OpenVPN (easier to setup than OS X Server VPN) and, of course, Synology NAS. I think you’d only want to try this product for the web filtering and monitoring features.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Mac web authoring for non-experts: My choices 2015.

In the beginning we wrote web pages in BBEdit and we FTPd them to a NeXT box.

Things progressed quickly. Almost two decades ago, when Microsoft FrontPage 97 was released and Macromedia created Dreamweaver, there were many powerful Windows applications for creating largely static web pages - with dynamic reflow based on HTML tables [1]. Operating systems, like Windows 95, shipped with a native web server. Netscape added Composer, fulfilling TBL’s original vision of the web as authoring environment. Non-technical users worked with server based systems, ultimately producing millions of web pages on sites like GeoCities [3].

Technology has moved in odd ways. There’s nothing quite like mass market FrontPage today, though Sharepoint Designer/Wiki came close and SeaMonkey survives. Dreamweaver is the strongest survivor of the original era, but it has evolved into a high end tool leased for $20 a month. I don’t think there’s a practical way to move Dreamweaver content to another platform, so adopting Dreamweaver is a deep commitment to the Adobe platform.

At one point I thought the Wiki would fill the vanishing mid-market niche [2], but Wiki solutions seem to have stalled out - much like WebDAV technologies. iWeb/MobileMe came and went quickly - an early sign of Apple’s decade (so far) of dysfunctional application development and fondness for destroying customer data.

Today developers hand code web sites in Coda, a programmer’s tool not so different from the BBEdit we started with. Other experts use Adobe's deep lock-in solutions, from Dreamweaver to Muse ($15/month) or open-source server-based WordPress (Less technical users some might use Blogger in a similar way).

For non-experts Weebly’s small business oriented server side authoring platform is an option, but it’s another deep data lock commitment to one vendor. Google Sites, amazingly, is still around, but focused on intranet solutions.

There are two longlived Mac desktop products both sold for $80 on the Mac App Store: RapidWeaver (presumably inspired by DreamWeaver) and Sandvox. I’ve tried both in the past, Sandvox more frequently than RapidWeaver. Neither product supports wysiwyg table authoring. RapidWeaver was last updated in January of 2014 and has three stars in the Mac App Store; it may be in maintenance mode. SandVox was last updated in April 2015 and has recently added a hosting service (revenue stream!), it has 4-5 star ratings. It’s App Store page still references iPhoto and Aperture however. Of these two I think Sandbox is more likely to make it to 2017.

It’s rarely mentioned anywhere, but TextEdit will export to well formatted HTML, and it even has table support (since 2006 at least). You can embed images and export — but only in single file “webarchive” format. As a simple page editor it’s not too bad, and it’s as standard as anything is these days, but the image limitations are a killer. (I suppose one could similarly author in Pages then view in Pages/web and export the code.)

Similarly one could author in Blogger or WordPress (example: free wordpress.com blog) wysiwyg mode, switch to HTML mode, and paste the HTML into a text editor (Coda?) for FTP upload. Or I could author in MarsEdit (as in this post) and similar export the HTML view as a file. Nisus Express and Pro both include HTML import and export; I don’t know how well their table export works and if embedded images are exported. When I last tried them years ago they weren’t a practical HTML authoring solution.

Google Docs work quite well for sharing and editing online, but they’re not useful for a root (www) web document. Very proprietary of course, but in some ways Google Docs are the closest thing we have today to the original view/edit vision of the www. I haven’t tried sharing iCloud Pages web sharing, but it seems like it would work similarly; it also can’t serve as root page of a web site.

Of the options today, what makes the most sense for me? There aren’t a lot of options on the table, so things should filter quickly with a few constraints:

  • I’d like to avoid dying products.
  • I want to be able to produce a reasonably pretty looking site without a lot of effort (iWeb pretty at least).
  • I’d like a solution that works with Dreamhost and it’s (typical) constraints on www/domain mapping [4]. 
  • I don’t want to sell my soul to Adobe. 
  • I’m not a developer and web authoring isn’t my profession. 
  • I really miss wysiwyg HTML tables and table based layout, but they are clearly gone. Still, I’d love basic table support.
  • I’d prefer to avoid hard data lock.
  • I’d like something that managed a site and updated links when I rearranged web page relationships or renamed pages.
  • I’d like to avoid major malware and security issues. Static sites are very nice that way.
  • Mac (or course) or Safari if server based.

Based on my review of the options, and applying my constraints, it’s easy to see that my best choice is ….  is …. Ok. Nothing survived the constraints. It’s easy to see why I’ve been struggling with this for about 15 years.

If I relax a few constraints I think my least bad options are WordPress (free) and Karelia Sandvox ($80). So I’m going to try both of those — and maybe, if only to close the long loop, Coda too.

Am I missing anything?

See also

- fn -

[1] I think we took the wrong road when we entirely substituted CSS for dynamic tables; no modern tool approaches the table management power of FrontPage 98. Perhaps this happened because it was insanely difficult to manage table authoring by hand, it was really a job computers did better than humans.

[2] Speaking of vanishing mid-market, remember when personal finance software was big? Intuit is trying to find a buyer for Quicken and its future looks quite bleak.

[3] The immolation of GeoCities, echoed on a smaller scale with the 2012 death of MobileMe’s iWeb based web pages, should not be forgotten.

[4] The odd handling of the www domain is, I think, a legacy of early net development. It is a pain in the butt.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

H2O Wireless just redid their prepaid accounts. Might be time to abandon ship.

H2O Wireless has been a rock-bottom ultra-cheap prepaid AT&T MVNO for our kids phones. I’ve used ‘em for years Our #2 son, who never uses his phone, cost us about $40 a year ($10 minimum payment, lasts 3 months). #1 son costs us more, about $150 a year, largely because we use Find Friends to track his cycling. HIs data use on an unlocked iPhone increases costs. #3 (daughter) was costing about $20 a month in texting fees alone; we relented and put her on our AT&T mobile share plan.

Alas, our H2O days may be ending. Today I’m unable to access my H2O account. Sometime in the past 1-3 weeks H2O redid their account system for prepaid users. Each phone must have its own account, and for web access each phone must be registered with a distinct email and password. It’s no longer possible to manage multiple phones from one account. In an extra twist our phones may be orphaned — our account number was my personal AT&T mobile number, and that’s not an H2O number. Their system upgrade didn’t account for that possibility.

Well, I knew that was a risk with a bottom-feeder service. I’ll have to see if I can salvage one of the accounts — it has a fair amount of credit on it (since I had to pay $40 a year to keep #2’s account open, but he rarely used any service). I can setup redirects on one of my domains, so I'll create unique emails of the form 1111111111@domain.com, give each account the same password, and see if I can salvage one or two accounts. I think it’s time to try again (ain’t easy, carriers cheat on portability rules all the time) to port #1’s primary number to AT&T.

Update

On further inspection there’s good news and bad news. 

The bad news is that the chat service rep had no idea how H2O wireless accounts work. I actually called a second time and that chat rep was following the same incorrect script — their documentation doesn’t match the site behavior.

The good news is that in reality the system hasn’t changed that dramatically. The contact number on the account doesn’t have to be an H2O number. You add H2O numbers to the account one at a time, entering a passcode (seems to make it rather easy to steal numbers, but there you go). Since I only learned this by experimenting with a new email address I seem to have moved the numbers from my old account to the new one, with balances intake.

The really bad news is even the 800 support number people have no idea how the web site works.

Oh, and one number won’t transfer. I think I just need to port that one to AT&T and live with the other two...

Friday, August 14, 2015

Deleting a sparsebundle: Disk Utility Erase doesn't work either. Or does it?

Years ago OS X Mountain Lion could not delete sparse bundles containing over 262,144 bands (2TB+). I don’t know if that’s still true, but when I had to remove a 1.7TB disk image today I first tried doing an Erase using Disk Utility.

Alas, this didn’t work. When I opened the image it was indeed empty. However First Aid on the volume reported it was corrupt. When I tried deleting it I got the usual OS X hang. 

So this problem is still around…

Update: on the other hand deleting the sparse bundle in Finder took 2-3 minutes rather than 12 hours. So maybe there’s something to this. 

Mac - how do I share images to Facebook?

There should be a word for AmITheLastPersonOnEarthToKnowThis?

It’s a weird feeling. 

For years I’ve been puzzled by a lack of Mac tools for uploading to Facebook. Around 2013 or so Apple’s photo applications got that ability, but both Aperture and iPhoto have been axed (I still use Aperture, though I now avoid its native Facebook integration and iTunes photo sync). So it seems we’re back to where we started from; Photos.app doesn’t seem to have a native share option.

Except I missed this: Share on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and more — probably because by the time I adopt an Apple OS update my geek sources have moved on to the next one.

From the Finder, Photos.app, and newer apps there is a context menu share sheet extension similar to iOS, and it includes Facebook sharing. You can select multiple items and you can share to Timeline or a Facebook album. You can’t create a new album, you have to do that from Facebook. There’s no synchronization/album management (was problematic for me in Aperture anyway), it’s just an uploader.

Screen Shot 2015 08 14 at 2 08 58 PM

An appreciated uploader, because I’ve never gotten Facebook’s album uploader to work for me on a Mac.

In Photos.app you can’t share directly from a Shared photo stream, but you can create an album from the photo stream images an share from that. You edit your share options (Extensions) in Preferences.

Update: BEWARE - i thought I uploaded a test album as “only me” (as above) but on Facebook it was Public. Maybe I clicked the wrong target, but be careful… 

 

Thursday, August 13, 2015

iTunes 12 and iOS 8.4 photo sync bug with Aperture (and iPhoto?) causes silent sync failure for my Audiobooks

Props to app.net@clarkgoble for clueing me into this bug. I’d been seeing iTunes/iPhone sync hangs with my device, but when I returned iTunes seemed to have completed. I forgot, probably because I’m tired of tracking Apple’s issues [1], that iTunes “swallows” fatal errors during device synchronization. In retrospect it wasn’t completing sync.

The clue that I had a real problem was that I couldn’t get new Audiobooks, which must be transferred by old-time iTunes sync because they’re stuck in the 00s, to show up on my iPhone. Clark’s app.net note gave me the idea to turn off photo sync. With photo sync disabled iTunes put the Audiobooks on properly.

There are two Apple issues here. One is an iTunes/iOS bug with Aperture (and probably iPhoto), the other is that iTunes hides serious failures from its users. There’s not much hope for either bug. Aperture/iPhoto have been abandoned (as best I can tell nobody uses Photos.app) and the iTunes error-handling problem is quite old.

I’m going to also disable my Aperture screen saver module to further isolate Aperture for OS problems. Now that I have a workaround for Apple’s ancient network share photo slideshow bug I’ll just export our slideshow images to a thumb drive hanging off our Time Capsule.

[1] Apple’s software engineering issues are impressive. At this point Tim Cook has full responsibility — failure of a major organizational function is always the CEO’s responsibility.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Aperture - I think the Facebook integration may be bad news.

I ran into some Aperture issues lately, and in the process of debugging I created a new instance of my @40,000 image 300GB Library.

After the rebuild one Facebook album was empty, an album that showed with the number ’84’ in its title …

Screen Shot 2015 08 12 at 8 21 12 PM

It’s not the only empty Facebook album, there’ve been a few over the years. There was also this:

Screen Shot 2015 08 12 at 8 20 28 PM

Yeah, that’s weird.

I think I know what happened to the “Kayak” album — I think those were the images that behaved oddly. I exported them, deleted them in Aperture, and reimported. They were never 84 though — that’s weird enough that I’m going to dig through old backups to inspect older versions of Aperture. I suspect the count is a bug of some kind.

I don’t need this kind of risk. I loved being able to export albums to Facebook, but synchronization is hard, I don’t have much faith in Apple’s software engineering at the best of times, and Aperture is a dead product. 

So I went to remove my Facebook credentials from Aperture and I got this…

Screen Shot 2015 08 12 at 8 31 20 PM

3996? 25 maybe. Yeah, this thing is really buggy. Since I was working from a reconstruction of my still existing Library I went ahead and removed. Here are the before and after image counts:

Screen Shot 2015 08 12 at 8 34 13 PM

Yep, no change.

Now to try rsync -avnc $SOURCE $TARGET to see if I can figure out what did or didn’t make it to the reconstructed Library.

Update:

Tonight I started using Photos.app as an adjunct to managing my iCloud shared albums. I noticed it does not have Facebook integration. Pretty strong hint there.

I’ve setup a completely separate Library for interacting with Facebook — if nothing else it can be a convenient uploader and album manager. That way there’s no risk to my core Library. I’ll have to figure out some automation for moving images between the Libraries and up to Facebook.

Update 8/13/2015

I clearly don’t know how to use rsync. My attempt just returned a list of all the files in my original Library. Diff took overnight, but returned a list of files only in the original. I opened up the Library with Finder’s ‘Show Package Contents’, navigated to the Masters (what I really care about) and then drag-dropped the folder into terminal diff -rq to get:

diff -rq /Volumes/Media/Backup/Current.aplibrary/Masters /Users/jgordon/Pictures/Current.aplibrary/Masters

This returned a list of 50 files. Which was kind of worrisome, but on inspection they were all thumbnails that I’d found and purged; under some conditions, perhaps related to buggy/dangerous Facebook synchronization, Aperture misfiles lost thumbnails as Masters.

Audiobooks not showing in iOS 8.4 iBooks? That's because they're still like Movies used to be. Also, The Great Courses.

Decades ago I talked about a personal dementia prevention solution. A dementia test application would be hidden in the OS, but about once a year it would randomly launch. Once it appeared I’d have to complete it — or a lethal shock would be administered. Fail the test — get the shock. The shock would look like an accidental short-circuit, so life insurance would pay out.

I like to think ahead.

I’m pleased to report that today we do have a dementia test, though we’re still working on the electric shock. The test, of course, is Apple’s iTunes and related iOS apps. If you can make them behave then you’re still a potentially viable worker; not yet ready for the Soylent factory.

I gotta admit, things are getting a bit worrisome. For example, today’s audiobooks adventure. It started when Emily decided to pick up some lectures from “The Great Courses” (which we once new as the “Teaching Company”, indeed that’s still the corporate name). We started listening to these about 25 years ago, playing cassette tapes while driving our Mazda 323 cross-country and spritzing ourselves with water spray (no air conditioning).

It’s been a year or so since we bought from them — these days I mostly listen to In Our Time Podcasts [1]. We got one of their 80% off flyers [2] though, and it was hard to resist tormenting the kids with automotive education. So we bought a few. The distribution is a bit complex — DVD or CD (for most lectures you really only want audio, but we did DVD for the $40 photography class) or “Windows” / “Mac” files [3] and (usually) supplemental streaming.

What they don’t mention is that many of their lectures can be purchased from iTunes for less than the CD or audio file download costs in iOS friendly Audiobook format. That’s a lot more convenient than their other options, and cheaper too. So I bought two lectures that way, a short history of London (#3 and I are visiting in October) and Daily Life in the Ancient World [4].

That’s when the dementia test showed up. It’s been years since our last audiobook purchase (viz: In Our Time) and everything has changed [7]. It took a couple of Google searches to figure out that Audiobooks were now tucked away in an obscure corner of Apple’s brutally neglected iBooks.app. Some dungeon-chained Apple product manager decided they could be considered a kind of “Collection”. [5]

Okay, but I’d purchased them and they didn’t show up. Why was that? My Movies and Music and book-book purchases show up in iCloud. Why not these audiobooks? Google found me some documentation, the same team that decided an audiobook was a kind of “Collection” introduced an obscure control as an attribute of a particular Collection called “Hide iCloud Books” (even though these aren’t, you know, Books. Do you see a trend here?)

So I turned that Off, so they wouldn’t hide. That’s a double negative I guess.

Except they still didn’t show up.

This began to remind me of the old days, when we’d have one chance to buy music or videos and everything was managed and backed up using iTunes. Yep, it’s just like that, unchanged from 2013. Download to your phone, and it stays on your phone [6]. No iCloud joy, no freedom from iTunes, you need the old beast still.

Just audiobooks mind you. And, of course, it’s not documented.

Apple must be a desperate place to work these days…

- fn -

[1] Still using Apple’s awful Podcasts.app. Podcasts.app and iBooks.app should chasten those who clamor for iTunes to be be divided into separate apps. Be afraid.

[2] Their pricing is a bit nuts — high list prices and large discounts. Do look for discount codes and the like before purchasing, though the iTunes audiobook prices are often quite reasonable

[3] Their audio/video file format recommendations are bit odd, but I didn’t have time to dig into it. Does Windows 10 still prefer wmv?

[4] I’ve chatted on app.net about writing a book that would describe a ‘day in the life’, from pooping to earning money to playing with kids across history and geography. So I’m looking forward to this one.

[5] Collections used to be sort of meaningful in iBooks, but that ended a year ago.

[6] Well, not quite. If you go to your iTunes purchase record, click on problem and say you had trouble downloading, the purchases are added again to the download list. I had my original purchases, but tried that as an experiment.

[7] Very much for the worse. Audiobooks had a large regression with iOS 7. iOS 8.4 is, in some ways, a partial improvement on iOS 7. Which mostly shows how bad iOS 7 was. Tim Cook has failed to rescue Apple’s long ailing software engineering.

[8] It no longer works to manage iPhone content from both iTunes and iOS. It never worked well, but these days it doesn’t work at all. iTunes can’t synchronize device and desktop states. So if you use Audiobooks, and you have any hope of sensible software behavior, you probably need to go all iTunes for media management.

Update 8/13/2015: Audiobooks not being synchronized to iPhone

I thought I was done, but the Audiobooks wouldn’t sync to my iPhone. That turned out to be a side-effect of an iOS/iTunes bug with photo sync from Aperture. The Aperture photo sync bug causes iTunes sync to silently fail (no UI indication) prior to Audiobook transfer. Removing photo sync let the process complete.

 

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Aperture misbehaves: images that can't be moved between projects

I have a  set of images in Aperture that cannot be moved between projects. If I try to move them they are copied.

I’ve repaired permissions and done the standard database repair to no effect.

I’ve inspected the images in the Finder by exploring the Package contents and searching on the Aperture provided file names — they appear unremarkable. 

I’m afraid something in my Aperture database is broken, but I’m reluctant to do a full database restoration. I don’t know how much data will be lost. 

I fear multiple backups and a full database rebuild are in my future…

Update 

I researched this a bit, glad that a few old Aperture sites are still around. Two useful references:

I think I’ll try importing into a new project. I have a 500 GB Library on a 1TB SSD, but I can start the import into a peripheral drive tonight.

Remember when database/file system corruption was a solved problem?

Friday, August 07, 2015

Porting a landline number to a prepaid account with Google Voicemail -- then turning off the phone. Would that work?

As of today we are almost free of CenturyLink, the latest telecomm Titanic. Our final connection is a minimal (no features, no long distance) $17-20/month landline service that should theoretically support our old security system and keep our longstanding home phone number for incoming calls [1].

That’s not as good as it sounds however, since for much of the past 14 days we’ve had no phone service at all; we’ve been forwarding the home number to a cell number while we wait for CenturyLink’s second attempt to restore basic service. Even in the near term CenturyLink landline service is probably not a viable option.

There are 3 obvious alternatives excluding Comcast and simple mobile port. [3]

  1. AT&T Home Phone: $20/month add-on to our AT&T family plan, and if anyone can port from CenturyLink it’s AT&T. On the other hand, we may want to leave AT&T for Ting or T-mobile sometime in the next few months.
  2. Obihai SIP/VOIP devices with integrated Google Voice. (see also: porting to Obihai/GV by way to AT&T burner)
  3. Port to Googe Voice via AT&T burner.
I wonder if there’s a fourth alternative. This would be a prepaid plan that is compatible with Google Voicemail. I know H2O wireless can do this and it’s very cheap, but their service level is fairly spartan. Ting might be good at $9/month with an old GSM iPhone 4, but it’s not clear they support Google Voicemail (maybe on GSM but not CDMA?).
 
With a prepaid plan that had a low monthly minimum fee, we could setup Google Voicemail then power off the phone. All messages would then go to voicemail, but not use any minutes. We’d just be paying for routing to Google Voice, but we’d have the option of powering up the phone.
 
Anyone try that?
 
- fn - 

[1] It is notoriously hard to port a number from CenturyLink. As of 2011 they had a waiver for violating local number portability mandates. I think they are technically obligated to port, but few people seem to succeed.
[2] H2O wireless is even cheaper, at $40/year for a similar level of service. But H2O is a true bottom-feeder — ok for a kid phone but not quality enough for our home number. Porting from H2O, for example, is quite chancy. Other alternatives would be a Sprint or T-Mobile or AT&T burner phone, but their minimal per-month costs are likely higher.
[3] Comcast is our new internet provider. They are also universally hated. We’d prefer to keep them as the dumbest pipe possible and minimize dependencies on them. A simple port to a mobile number is higher cost as AT&T home phone without the AT&T benefits. We don’t want to change our existing mobile numbers and we don’t want to lose the home phone number (yet).

Tuesday, August 04, 2015

Switching from CenturyLink to Comcast: last rats off the sinking ship

I was on hold with CenturyLink's “retention” service. That’s where support sends customers who request escape. The first 8 minutes of hold sounded like this ...

MMMMMMMMMMMMM (music) MMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMM (music) RMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMM…. (silence) … (music) MMMMMMMMMMMMMMMM

I heard it on my iPhone because our CenturyLink landline is dead. Again. It’s been dead for about 5 of the past 10 days, despite a technician visit.

After 8 minutes of hum-buzz the line switched to classical music and, at 17 minutes, a woman answered. I told her I was calling to turn off my internet service. She said she couldn’t hear me, and a few seconds later she hung up.

I'm filling out the MN State Attorney General Consumer Complaint form and I’ll see if switching our landline number to a burner phone forces a service kill [1]. Not coincidentally, here’s the past year of CenturyLink share prices compared to S&P and Comcast.

Screen Shot 2015 08 06 at 6 04 41 PM

Yeah, they’re dying.

Happily I switched to Comcast for Internet services today. Yes, Satan, but a Satan harried by millions of angry customers. So we have allies. On the other hand, we may be among CenturyLink’s last 10 customers. Not much help there.

For the sake of those still stuck in the DSL era, here’s are the things I didn’t know about switching to Comcast:

  • You have to browse Comcast’s site carefully to find the listing of all internet-only services available in your area. We’re in the backwoods of St Paul, our faster sister city of Minneapolis pays about 20% less for faster services. Here we have two choices, and one of them is dying. Comcast ain’t exactly sweating.
  • There’s no contract.
  • I wanted good upload speeds, so I went for the St Paul 50/10 “boost" option. I was never able to find the upload speed on Comcast’s site, but that’s where it helps to have a geeky customer base. Google found the numbers for me. My speed test is indeed showing 50+ Mbps and 10+ Mbps. It’s listed as $45/m for 12 months plus $5 in taxes/fees, then jumps to $76/month + more tax/fees (unless competition shows up here, which is damned unlikely). Installation is $50 for the minimal install, $40 for a “wall drop”. We went for a very simple closet jack.
  • Modem rental is $10/month. I needed the initial setup to work so I went with the rental for now. In 4-6 weeks I’ll order something like the ARRIS SURFboard and bring the rental unit to our local Xfinity store. Be interesting to see if/when the rental fee stops. My DSL modem was a router with NAT services, but the rental unit is a bridge. My AirPort Extreme now has a pingable net facing IP address. Feels a bit naked. 
  • I have no access to the rental modem — it’s a black box. I assume Comcast can configure it.
  • Don’t try to get any Comcast rep on the phone. It might not be as bad as calling CenturyLink, but it’s still very bad. Chat is likewise awful — they are forced to divert to a sales script and slow to answer real questions.
  • The Comcast web site is an antique. It works better on Chrome than Safari, I suspect it’s made for IE 7. Contrary to a misdirecting prompt the 1990s email client does support forwarding. It also supports RSS feeds, which would be a great trivia question answer.
  • The process of scheduling an installation is pretty good including multiple reminders. No problem there. The post-install phone satisfaction survey is too long — don’t even start it.
  • There were several things that didn’t work on the Comcast registration site. SMS authentication didn’t get through to Google Voice (spam block?) and I couldn’t add a Yahoo address as secondary email. 
  • The xfinity Connect app for iOS is probably worthwhile, I didn’t let it access contacts.
  • There are WiFi hotspots for Comcast customers but they aren’t very interesting.
  • Password (in)security involves 3 painful SecretToYouButNotToHackers questions that can’t be avoided.
  • Comcast is supposed to be able to test a modem post install for signal strength. In Saint Paul this can take an hour to work, our installer called after he left to say the signal strength was too high (we have no splitters, new cable, etc) and the modem would disconnect. So he returned and added a filter. I tried Comcast’s SpeedExperience modem test tool but it couldn’t retrieve any modem data. 

That’s it. For today, I’m happy in Satan’s kingdom.

[1] We’d wanted to keep the wired landline because we’re on a cheap home security plan. I think that’s not an option any more...

Update 8/7/2015

  • As of August 2015 this is the direct number to change service or close an CenturyLink account: 800-244-1111. My spouse, E, has magical powers honed through years of working with health insurers and schools. She called that number and had us on CenturyLink’s $20/month minimal landline service in under 20 minutes. Pure magic.
  • CenturyLink has a customer relations page to use when "you are not satisfied with the resolution of your issue after contacting one of our Customer Service Centers or one of our Customer Experience Centers”.  That page has a link to an "email form”. The link no longer works, instead you go the page for revising feature sets. Shocking :-).

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Building and sharing Google bike (and other) route maps using waypoint defined computed routes

I used to do bicycle maps using Google’s Map Creator / “My Maps” tools, but for me it was a frustrating process. I never quite got the hang of the building, and sharing never seemed to work well.

Now I create bike route maps by entering sequential waypoints, and letting Google handle the routing between them. It takes only a few minutes and I can share the results as a short Google URL. I can send the maps to Google Maps.app on my iPhone, put them in a blog, create a document of my routes, save them as bookmarks, etc.

Here’s a sample of the process, with a map that starts at locally famous bike spot - Angry Catfish Bicycle and Coffee Bar. (You should figure out your general route before you do this process).

1. Search for your starting point, then use the “three line” Google menu to turn on Bicycling. (you may need to turn it on more than once)

 Screen Shot 2015 07 22 at 9 47 00 PM

2. Click Directions and put it into bicycle mode. Notice the choose destination field. Click in that field to be sure Google is in the right mode, now click on your next waypoint.

Screen Shot 2015 07 22 at 9 51 36 PM

Screen Shot 2015 07 22 at 9 52 39 PM

Notice you’ve go two map destinations and that Google has figured out a route using the bike trail.

3. Keep building your route by adding way points. You do have to click back into the ‘choose destination’ field so Google understands the context. Once you click a point then hold (don’t release) you can drag the waypoint and watch Google add your route. Release when you get to a key turning point or point of interest. For example:

Screen Shot 2015 07 22 at 9 58 23 PM

4. Here’s the complete loop (1h, 6min). It has a wiggle in the top right I don’t like, I’d rather stay on the trail. I could have redone the route by adding a waypoint on the trail, that would prevent the diversion. Or I could just do a custom route by clicking on handles and moving them as below:

Screen Shot 2015 07 22 at 10 02 13 PM

Screen Shot 2015 07 22 at 10 04 21 PM

5. It really only takes a few minutes to get to this point. Now tap Google’s 3 bar (hamburger?) menu and choose share. The URL looks like this:

https://www.google.com/maps/dir/Angry+Catfish+Bicycle+and+Coffee+Bar,+4208+S+28th+Ave,+Minneapolis,+MN+55406/Minnehaha+Creek/44.9240882,-93.1976693/44.9417637,-93.198409/44.9504289,-93.2486649/44.9318804,-93.2501599/44.9271569,-93.2322561/@44.9285992,-93.2165955,14z/data=!4m24!4m23!1m5!1m1!1s0x87f62844b2ef9ac1:0x238cfef7316e9d8b!2m2!1d-93.2325294!2d44.92653!1m5!1m1!1s0x0:0x2d1439632b6ee239!2m2!1d-93.2247432!2d44.9175766!1m0!1m5!3m4!1m2!1d-93.1994777!2d44.9467264!3s0x87f629dd3802980d:0xad4046ce8178a45c!1m0!1m0!1m0!3e1

but it also offers a short form:

https://goo.gl/maps/9Kwhf

Sure beats using Map Creator. 

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Airmail 2, Postbox and Mailbox for OS X access to Gmail -> I'm back to mail.app

I think OS X Mail.app for Yosemite is a pretty good Gmail client. The one big problem is that one must download the entire archive, though there is an option to omit automatic attachment download. That’s fine for my primary machine, but I don’t want to burden my 256GB SSD with 20+ GB of Gmail archive. So I went looking for a Gmail client.

I used Sparrow years ago and liked most of it — except the obligatory threading and conversation views. If an app is going to do that, it has to let me quickly delete all the emails I no longer care about. Sparrow didn’t.

Sparrow’s gone of course. More recently i used Airmail with some success, so I tried Airmail 2. That was … frustrating. I ran into multiple bugs and UI issues when I migrated from Airmail 1, so I tried again with a fresh start. This time while sending an email I got an authentication failure. No problem — I quit and fixed the error (I think). I then went looking for the stalled email and … it was nowhere to be found.

I deleted Airmail 2. (That was money wasted.) I then tried Mailbox.app — forever in beta, mostly abandoned, and you can’t delete individual messages, you can only delete an entire conversation. Deleted Mailbox.app. Next up - Postbox.

Postbox doesn’t support Google OAUTH2. I read the documentation on enabling “Access for less secure apps” and … I deleted Postbox.

So I’m back to Mail.app. I disabled automatic download of attachments in preferences, but I guess I’ll just sacrifice the disk storage. I considered enabling Google’s IMAP folder message visibility limits, but of course that would apply to my server too. I think in past Mail.app had some control over message downloads, but that’s gone now.

The bright side is I don’t mind Mail.app. Just hate the lose the storage...

Update 7/18/15: With ‘automatically download attachments’ off, selecting Inbox and choosing Account Info from the Context menu tells me that 80,309 messages are using 4.35GB. I can live with that.

Friday, July 17, 2015

So you want to actually restore from that Time Capsule backup? Do you feel lucky punk?

Yeah, I know he actually said “Do I feel lucky?”. But you get the point.

By now even the most hard core Apple apologist must have moments of existential doubt. Waking at 3am thinking, if only for a moment, that maybe Tim Cook really is the antichrist. 

The rest of us are moodily throwing darts at Apple stickers, wondering if Atari [3] might reconsider the personal computer market.

Time Capsule is typical of the 2015 Mac. The problems have been around for years, hope has all but vanished, and it’s possible things are even getting worse. On the other hand, there aren’t a lot of great choices for network Mac backup. Retrospect, which I loved in the days of DAT tapes and SCSI drives [1], effectively died years ago [2]. The best alternative may be Code 42’s Crashplan cloud backup, but that requires serious bandwidth (up and down) and a lot of confidence in a remote corporation. Also … java (ugh).

So I use Time Capsule for most of the machines in the house, but keep data on a server that’s also Carbon Copy Cloner cloned nightly [4]. 

This is what I do when I need to actually restore from Time Capsule [5]. If I don’t follow these steps restores will often hang and fail.

  1. Shut down every machine on my network.
  2. Power cycle my Time Capsule.
  3. Gbit ethernet connect the target machine to the Time Capsule and restart that machine.
  4. Log into my Admin account and start Time Machine.
  5. Choose a date/time as needed. Set an 5 minute time and walk away. (Trying to interact immediately will be immensely frustrating.)
  6. Navigate as desired until UI stops responding. Set an 8 minute timer and walk away.
  7. Return, select a file, and complete the Restore.

Yeah, Time Capsule has a scaling problem — restore times seem to have a non-linear relationship to the number of files on the source machine and the number of backup versions.

It’s good to have a way to proceed though. Just in case Carbon Copy Cloner isn’t enough.

Update 7/19/2015

app.net@martinsteiger writes: “Time Capsule NAS is slow and unreliable, it shouldn't be used for backup. With a NAS up to par, even with a 2-drive model from Synology like the DS21n+ models, Time Machine works fairly well.” Installing and configuring a Synology NAS isn’t terribly hard, but it’s definitely geek-realm. I agree that whatever scaling and reliability issues Time Machine has, the root problem here is mostly likely that Time Capsule is grossly underpowered for its primary function.

- fn -

[1] Ok, so SCSI is a good reminder that the golden age had nightmares too.

[2] I tried Retrospect again a few months ago. Wasn’t pleased. My guess is that it’s architecturally a poor fit to OS X.

[3] Atari died in 1983. They were an early competitor to the Mac and Amiga, pre-Windows.

[4] With CCC versions are archived separately. A pain to recover but it can be done. CCC can backup to a network image, but OS X Mavericks and beyond use SMB2, and SMB2 doesn’t support sparsebundle mounts. You have go through some gyrations to do an AFP mount instead. I am trying this out. I rotate my CCC backups off site across 4 encrypted drives, so I always have at least 5 backups of my data using two different technologies.

Actually, I also do Aperture backups to a local high capacity drive using Aperture’s build in backup tech. So for Aperture images I have 6 backups using three different technologies. And I know that won’t be enough ...

[5] I’ve never had to use Time Capsule for a real emergency. I’ve always been able to use my CCC clone, but I periodically test Time Capsule to see if I can make it work.