Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Google again using the meta tags?

Common wisdom years ago was that Google had abandoned the meta tag on web pages due to widespread fraud. Perhaps this is no longer so:Google Recommends Using Meta Description Tag.

Monday, November 27, 2006

MIPS then and now

Storage cost has fallen even faster than MIPS cost; even so, Free the MIPS! has some good comparisons for processors. Intel's Core Due (in my MacBook) claims 20,000 MIPS. In 1977 the Cray-1 supercomputer held the record with 150 MIPS.

The Cray-1 would not have liked rendering an 8 megapixel RAW file.

PS. A comment on the GMSV post references this 1989 internal research paper on why perceived performance was not matching CPU improvements. It's a great reference, the article reads sadly well today.

The Backup Market: It's awful

One of my family (call her "Z") members had a nasty laptop drive failure. I've had three in the past year; two on a work laptop. one on a long-abused home laptop. Laptops are hell on hard drives. Annoying for me, since I'm obsessive about backup. Worse for Z, because she wasn't.

Z asked me about backup, especially for images. I started to give her an update on my longtime backup strategy (Backing up a mixed OS X and Windows 2000 Home Network is dated now, but the general approach is unchanged even though Retrospect Pro is now zombie-ware.). Midway through my email I realized I was ranting.

Ranting. That's what blogs are for. So I'll do the email here instead.

Backup solutions really suck today. I used to do tape backup with multiple redundant offsite rotating tapes. A backup took all night, but I didn't care -- I was asleep. Dantz Retrospect was great back then, and even on the PC there were decent home products. Fast forward 10 years and the options are lousy. I use zombie software - the basically abandoned Retrospect Professional for Windows to backup my XP/OS X LAN. When it dies (probably when 10.5 comes out) there will be no automated alternatives.

Instead of multiple redundant off-site tape backups I use two rotating 300GB USB drives. It would be nice if they both had reliable quite fans and powered down when not in use to keep the drives alive. Nice, but not so. Redundancy is limited to Retrospect's incremental backup -- nice, but it only lasts as long as Retrospect.

I've been waiting for a year for Google to deploy an offsite backup product, but nothing has shown up from them. There are several products built around Amazon's S3, but I hear nothing about how well they work. Apple's offsite backup solution is pathetically small and very expensive. I trust Google to get this right and stick around, but not a small startup.

So what's the average person to do? In Z's case she has only to backup a single XP machine. So, although I've not tested the software, I'd suggest this:
  1. Dual rotating USB drives like I use. Every 1-2 weeks carry one offsite. I keep my offsite drive at work. Encrypt the backup, it wouldn't be good to lose an unencrypted backup. Good luck finding one that will spin down when not in use.

  2. Find software that supports the USB drives and encryption. Alas, I don't know a product to support. You want it fully automated; even the push-button solutions aren't automated enough. (Anyone with ideas?). Look for an external drive/enclosure software solution that gets decent reviews and buy two of 'em. Expect to pay at least $500. Real-time backup is nice in theory but it doesn't work with today's machines (RAID excepted, but that's not a real backup). Once a night for everything is enough.

  3. In XP it's almost impossible to backup all your data without backing up the entire hard drive. What can I say, XP sucks too. So plan on backing up EVERYTHING, not just data. You need that to get all the nooks and crannies that XP stuffs data into.

  4. Use a separate, intermittent backup solution for your most precious stuff. Typically burn CDs and DVDs of images and toss them in a drawer at work. Use a photo sharing site that supports full uploads and has a restore service (for a fee send images on DVD). SmugMug does this, Picasa WebAlbums (Google) might.

  5. Test your ability to restore from backup every month or so. Randomly select some files and try the restore. You will be impressed how often this reveals serious problems.

  6. Real geeks also mirror their most important systems every few months. It's easy to restore a mirror then restore data from backup. Even I don't do this religiously however.

  7. Future: If Google ever does offsite backup, I'll switch from the rotating USB drives to a gibabit ethernet network access storage device (NAS) with a RAID array (warm swap). That way one of the backup disks could fail without a problem and I'd have a completely distinct offsite backup solution. Actually, what I really want, is for Google to assemble and sell the NAS device and the software that backs up the NAS to Google's network. They could even lease it as part of a service offering ...
That's the best I can come up with. I'll have more specific backup software solutions when I finally have to replace Retrospect Professional.

Which leaves the interesting questions - why is backup so bad? It's even lousy at the corporate level. If I had to rely on our corporate backup solution those two drive failures would have been much worse than annoyances -- I have my own personal backup at work too. My best guesses as to why it's so bad now are:
  1. Laptops. I'd guesstimate laptops have quadrupled the risk of large scale data loss. We didn't used to keep all our data on them, now we do. This is not a stable situation. We need to migrate to devices with 20GB of solid state storage (never crashes), intelligent caching and synchronization, and remote network accessible primary data stores. Laptops with 200GB hard drives are a tool of Satan.

  2. Cheap storage: CPUs have disappointed for years, but hard drives have really lived up to Moore's "law". Honking hard drives have allowed for iPhoto and iMovie, and enormous data stores we can't back up.

  3. Historically most people didn't care about their personal data. They really didn't mind that much if it vanished; in fact, it kind of simplified their computing existence. That's only changed recently with digital photography; not enough time to build a market, especially given #7.

  4. Probability estimations were not very important for our evolutionary success. We just aren't much good at probability. Consider the Iraq War as exhibit A and America's 'no-fly list' as exhibit B. Since we can't deal with probability properly, we underfund backup. Since we underfund backup, there's no market for backup solutions.

  5. Since we don't value backup enough, vendors haven't written backup support into file systems and operating sytems. (Apple may do this with OS X 10.5 -- at last.) That makes backup software harder to write and less reliable - especially in XP.

  6. Since current backup solutions are awful, it's easy for almost everyone to basically do nothing.

  7. The expectation that either Google or Microsoft will take over offsite online backup has blocked any serious capital from going to build a competing solution. Why spend all that money when the big guns will take it all away?
Update 12/22/06: More on online backup solutions.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

The memory could not be read: Anatomy of a complex series of Microsoft defects

This is how it began. A notice on startup from svchost.exe that referenced memory at 0x00000000 could not be read.

Not a very helpful error message. Then I looked into the XP event log, that invaluable and invisible resource that Microsoft hides from users. The only thing worse than an unresponsive fire alarm is a silent fire alarm. Microsoft's technological indictments include hiding fatal errors from users.

There I saw a number of cryptic messages indicating that my automated updates had been failing -- and that this might also have been causing my automated Retrospect Professional backups to fail (that's by far the most serious problem here). That's when the detective work began, a series of probes and explorations powered by Google. The bottom line fixes were, I think:
  • Turn off Windows Automatic Update (aka Microsoft Update)
  • Use Regedit to find "LocalCacheDrive" settings for Office. Notice that the drive letter is "D" when it should be "C". Change it.
  • Repair the Office installation.
  • Manually run Windows Update.
  • Discover Flash update still doesn't work.
  • Download Flash uninstaller from Adobe/Macromedia. Uninstall Flash. Reinstall Flash.
  • Windows Update now has no errors.
  • I also, though I'm not sure it was necessary, did: "net stop WuAuServ", remove "windows\SoftwareDistribution" and "net start WuAuServ"
  • Changed Windows Automatic Update to download but do not install.
It all seems to have resolved. In retrospect I think this all began when I installed Office with the 'remove install file option'. I use that option because I kept my install files on a hard drive. Alas, a separate hard drive in those days. Drive letter "D". Nowadays drive letter D: does not exist. The bug bites when Office looks for its install files using a drive letter that no longer exists. Office doesn't produce a dialog box or a reasonable error message, it just dies. The automated install process persists daily in the futile update. (Update: I've been told this was an ancient bug with Windows update too.)
I've written recently about Microsoft's mess This is a good example. In the process of debugging I ran into:
1. Listool.exe: the app that was supposed to fix this no longer works the way Microsoft thinks it does. My guess was they found a serious bug in it, stripped out the dangerous functionality, and never updated their many references to it.
2. All those critical alerts in the XP Events log that one has to dig down to find.
3. Incredibly obscure hex error messages.
4. Thousands of web pages related to automatic updater problems.
5. XP error messages with embedded URLs that no longer work or redirect.
6. An incredible bug in office where a change to a drive letter causes an incredible pile-up of cascading bugs.
I can't break the repair process down in much more detail because it was an insanely complex process. All I can do below is provide a set of links to web resources and some of the many different error messages I got along the way. I hope the time I spent putting this together will help someone; it's my way to repay those who's work helped debug this.

Here are of the more and less helpful web pages:
Here are a few of the many error message and long entries I worked through:
Faulting application , version, faulting module unknown, version, fault address
For more information, see Help and Support Center at
Product: Microsoft Office Professional Edition 2003 -- Error 1327. Invalid Drive: D:
For more information, see Help and Support Center at

Product: Microsoft Office Professional Edition 2003 - Update 'Security Update for PowerPoint 2003
(KB923091): POWERPNT' could not be installed. Error code 1603. Windows Installer can create logs to help troubleshoot issues with installing software packages. Use the following link for instructions on turning on logging support:

Error Code: 0x52F
Try to install the update again, or request help from one of the following resources.

Product: Microsoft Office Professional Edition 2003 -- Error 1327. Invalid Drive: D:
Product: Microsoft Office Professional Edition 2003 - Update 'Security Update for Excel 2003 (KB923088): EXCEL' could not be installed. Error code 1603. Windows Installer can create logs to help troubleshoot issues with installing software packages.

Faulting application svchost.exe, version, faulting module unknown, version, fault address 0x00000000.
Update 3/27/07: I think this bug with Windows update scattering files across external drives may be a related flaw. Microsoft might have cleaned up the offending updater, but you need to delete the junk folders. I found I could not delete "updspapi.dll" from the update folder until I assigned full control permissions to myself as administrator.

Update 4/11/07: Another windows update (five fixes) again broke XP with the same error message, but the LocalCacheDrive setting was unchanged. I've disabled Microsoft Update for now. I really need to get rid of my last XP machine.

keywords: drive mapping, drive letter, windows update.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

OS X blogging tools:

Five blogging apps I'm thankful for - The Unofficial Apple Weblog (TUAW)

It's a good read. I'm going to try MarsEdit again with Blogger.

CompanionLink: another sync vendor

A correspondent, Joseph, tells me the professional version of CompanionLink 2.0 supports selective synchronization to a Palm device. (Sync only part of the database while at work, all of it at home).

They claim to support a wide range of devices and sync targets, including Act, GoldMine, Notes and Google Calendar. That makes me nervous; it's hard to see how they can manage all of the data model conflicts between so many different devices and platforms. A free evaluation copy is available, but this is not easy software to evaluate. When things go wrong with synchronization they can wreak havoc on irreplaceable data that may be difficult to restore (such as Exchange server data). The vendor does not have any open support forums; that's another sign that this software may not be trouble-free.

I'll ask Joseph to share his experiences.

MacBook Core 2 Duo: My Amazon Review

Below is an edited and updated version of my Amazon review of the Core 2 Duo MacBook. In brief: good product, some odd choices, I'm not all that impressed with Intel, and I had a mediocre experience with Parallels. Apple MacBook MA701LL/A 13.3" Notebook PC (2.0 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo, 1 GB RAM, 120 GB Hard Drive, DVD/CD SuperDrive) - Black: Computers & PC Hardware

I bought a build-to-order version of this machine from Apple educational with 2GB of RAM. If one uses the Macintouch link to purchase this from Amazon you get a better deal and help out a web site that provides great Mac tech support.

Thus far I've gone through user migration, several days of light use, and one test of Parallels (which was disappointing). It's worth the money and it's one of the best laptops I've bought (I do miss my 1990 vintage PowerBook 165 though!). I've been nursing my broken-hinges G3 iBook so I could get the 2nd rev of the MacBook, it was worth the wait. I don't see any evidence of the serious heat problems that afflicted the first MacBook and I assume they've mostly fixed the abrupt shutdown problem. The odd looking keyboard is fine and the large trackpad works well -- though I'm not sure the tap-to-click is worth the occasional errant clicks. The accompanying documentation is extremely minimal but very well done and sufficient for most users. Those who need more probably wouldn't read a bigger manual anyway.

You should be happy, especially since the rest of my review will prepare you for the minor annoyances.

Now that I'm done saying nice things, here are the nits. Firstly, it's too sharp. Some whacko at Apple design figured 'sharp' was in this year, and the edges of the case annoy wrists when typing and fingers when carrying by the base. This is not all bad; it ensures good wrist position because it's uncomfortable to type wresting your wrists on the front edge. Overall though, dumb.

The screen is the DVD-friendly widescreen form factor, so the 13.3" is less useable for computing work (photos, etc) than one would wish. Annoying, but hard to escape these days. It comes with a remote for watching DVDs and listening to music, but really I'd rather have had the original iBook form factor. Compared to my older 12" iBook the machine is thinner, longer, wider and about the same weight. The fans run often, are very audible, and can be very noisy, but the base is not excessively hot. PowerPC (legacy applications that invoke Rosetta when used) cause fans to run and the battery to decline quickly.

The battery is twice the size of the G4's and yields comparable or less battery life. I'm unimpressed with the power/heat/performance ratio of Intel's hyped architecture; I had to significantly drop the screen brightness to get a reasonable battery life. The conversion from PowerPC to Intel has thus far underwhelmed me, especially since I was disappointed with Parallels (see below). The machine, for example, takes longer to sleep -- making it much too easy to run off with with a spinning hard drive. You have to shut the case and look for the cycling sleep light.

In terms of connectors I don't miss the modem. The video connector seems proprietary, but I'm used to that from Apple. The VGA and DVI cables are reasonably priced and I bought both (check what comes with this machine). The ability to support two desktops is the one really big improvement over the G4 iBook.

The built in camera is silly. It's low resolution with a tiny lens and awful performance with ambient indoor light. The MagSafe power connector is impressive, even though it means there won't be non-Apple licensed chargers for this machine. Apple has retained the rest of their power adapter design, which has been the best in the industry. (I'm big on power adapters as a leading indicator of product excellence).

The MacBook comes with much less bundled than my G5 iMac. In part that may be because Apple probably wants to avoid non-"universal" (intel-compatible) apps and in part to reduce support costs and product cost. You get Apple's superb iLife apps, some simple games, OmniOutliner, and a "comic" generator. No encyclopedia, etc.

I used Apple's user migration to move 3 user accounts, software, files, etc from an old, old iBook. This requires a firewire cable, so IF YOU WANT TO DO USER MIGRATION BUY OR BORROW A FIREWIRE CABLE. The firewire cable is not included with this MacBook. The migration process is well integrated into initial setup and, all by itself, probably pays for any price difference between the bottom-of-the-barrel Dell laptop and the MacBook. I did run across some minor cleanup tasks, but the iBook had very old stuff. Migration takes longer than you expect and periodically pauses for long minutes; it's not frozen, just thinking. Start it and come back in a few hours.

I bought the InCase neoprene sleeve to protect the MacBook when it's carried in a bag or backpack. It's a handsome, well made case, but it desperately needs some thin, lightweight strap-type nylon carrying handles. Sigh. I guess they omitted them for price and aesthetic reasons, but I recommend looking for something with straps. Not recommended.

Also not-yet-recommended is the famous Parallels Windows emulation environment. I downloaded the trial version and attempted to install Windows 98. Ugh. Awful. Wasted hours. I don't know if it's this bad with every machine or if they've not tuned it to the new MacBook. Flawed documentation, flawed auto-configuration. slow, huge power drain, didn't work, etc. I may try XP with Parallels once I recover. I recommend testing Parallels before you buy. If you do install XP and enable network access you are paying for XP, Parallels, and an antivirus solution.

The bottom line is that this looks like a good OS X laptop without some of the flaws of the first MacBook. Since any OS X laptop is an improvement over an XP laptop it's an excellent choice for everyone. If you intend to run Windows software I think Apple's Boot Camp (separate download) may be more reliable and elegant than Parallels.
Update 11/25/06: The MacBook is almost fast enough to run Aperture. If Apple ever fixes Aperture, it might be a decent platform for smaller projects. It takes longer to go to sleep than my G3 iBook -- it's easy to pick it up and start moving before the lazy blinking light begins.
Update 11/26/06: Adobe/Macromedia Shockwave doesn't run natively on Intel. Since it uses Rosetta, the browser has to use Rosetta too. This rules out most kids game sites.

Parallels Desktop for Mac: Bloody awful

Update 12/2/06: Ahh. The Windows 2000 story is much nicer.

Update 11/23/06: Boot Camp feels kind of crude as well, it uses up more drive space, and it doesn't do as good a job as a VM does controlling nasties. I think I'll wait a month and then try Parallels and XP again with the kids games. If they do better, then I'll go that way.

Update 11/23
: I tried again with XP Pro. (I disabled network services for the Mac user because I was reusing my XP serial number for the test -- XP allows 30 days of use this way). This worked far better and took a fraction of the time to install. It didn't, however, manage the kids games. It through range errors, had trouble with resolution switches, etc. Since the kids games are a big part of my interest in running XP on this machine I'm going to try Boot Camp first. I can see how Parallels could be worth it when running a small number of well behaved business applications strictly with XP. They should never, however, have claimed to provide Windows 98 support! (See below.)

Parallels Desktop for Mac has been the toast of the Mac world for months. It's supposed to allow one to host a windows VM on an Intel Mac. I gave the free demo a try on my Mac Book Core-2 Duo with 2GM of RAM.


That was really bad. Maybe all those reviews I read came from a parallel universe. I tried configuring it with Windows 98. I don't know where to begin with all the bugs I came across -- before I gave up. Briefly:
1. The documentation is wrong about where the device drivers are stored.

2. The default VM configuration had about 3 errors I had to correct to get things most of the way to working.

3. The necessary device drivers are buried on an image that has to be loaded via the VM configuration panel.

4. It was slow, slow, slow --- and it sucked power.

5. The widespread simple grammatical errors turned out to predict the entire user experience.
Perhaps the problem is it really only supports XP, but I thought Win 98 was a reasonable test. What a waste of time!

Looks like I'll give boot camp a try. I'm only glad I didn't pay money for this hunk of junk.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

BlogJet This! for Firefox 2.0

BlogJet is an excellent XP blogging tool, but the author should have done a better job of pointing users to the Firefox 2.0 plugin: BlogJet - Blog - BlogJet This! for Firefox 2.0.

I'm disappointed that he seems to have been planning to charge for the Firefox 2.0 extension update, or even to require an update to a new BlogJet version to get the extension update. It's a great product, but ...

Migrating to an Intel Mac: workflow tip

I'm migrating a G3 iBook (started out running OS 9) to a MacBook Core-2 Duo. The tip in bold below will be most useful. I've already deleted all my classic apps (they hadn't been used for years and were all in one folder) and the children's classic games, this will help with minimizing emulation:
Bagelturf - Home Page

... Next I went through all my applications and utilities checking to see what was PowerPC and what was Intel or Universal. I did this quickly by bringing up the file inspector with option command I. It looks just like the file information window (command I), but updates as I click on different files. So this cuts out all the opening and closing of windows I would have had to do. Each time I found a PowerPC only application that I still wanted I made an alias of it on my desktop with option command drag, and when complete, I put all of those into a folder. This gives me a list of applications to go seek out Intel versions later. Pretty much everything I care about is now Intel. A few lingering Classic applications will no longer run (Intel Macs have no Classic support), so those were deleted. I found out later that another way to find all of my PowerPC applications is to use System Profiler. The Applications section finds them all and they can be sorted by CPU.
I think I'll be trying XP on this box as a game platform for the kid's games ...

Parallels and multiuser OS X

I'm setting up the new MacBook (I'll have commentary on the machine later). I was able to rapidly configure the users with Apple's migration tools, but now I wonder how to give each user access to Parallels. Coincidentally, Mac OS X Hints just addressed this (thanks Andrew): - 10.4: How to share Parallels Desktop with multiple users.

They don't talk about licensing rules and XP, but I think the basic solution for us will be to have a special user for Parallels, and that user will need to log into an XP account. If the special user has a managed account I can leave it without a password, that should help the switch process for the kids and for me (main users). I do wonder how well Parallels will work for the kids games, and whether I should just go the Boot Camp route.

The RDC options is also interesting, note it requires XP Pro.

Ideally I'd like to "borrow" a copy of Parallels and figure out whether this will really work for us.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Very odd OS X bug: Cannot delete Finder Extensions Enabler

This is a truly weird bug.

I used the OS X system migration tool to configure my MacBook. The donor system was my old G3 iBook, with an old version of Classic. That version of Classic contained a file called "Finder Extensions Enabler".

OS X can't delete that file, nor can it delete an accompanying text file.

Why not? I don't know, but the Version string has an oddity. It contains the string [Nevin ":-)" Liber]. I'm betting the embedded quotes in the Version string has messed up OS X.

Update: I tried Onyx, but it couldn't get rid of these suckers. OS X Hints suggested Secure Delete, but that hung. Then I tried OS X Help -- it had quite a few tips. I noticed the file owners were another account, so, while they were in the trash, I changed ownership. Delete didn't work, but now Secure Delete did the trick. (Finder, File menu)

Update 2/5/07: Read the comments. The author of the version string responds! The limitations of ASCII are embedded everywhere, but Asian character sets will, one day, clean things up. This bug struck me again when I migrated from an iBook (that can run Classic) to my new MacBook. Secure Delete saved me again.

XML import into Access - Workaround for truncation

I recently had to import some XML files into Access. It worked well, save for text truncation. Here's the process, the workaround is below:
Import or link data and objects - Access - Microsoft Office Online

1. Open a database, or switch to the Database window
2. On the File menu, point to Get External Data, and then click Import.
3. In the Import dialog box, in the Files Of Type box, select XML Documents (*.xml;*.xsd)...
6. To start importing the file, click OK . This completes the import procedure.

Note For most records that cause an error, Microsoft Access creates and adds a row to a table called Import Errors. To view the list of errors that were encountered, open the Import Errors table from the Database window.

7. To set options for importing, select one of the following under Import Options:
* To import just the structure of the table, click Structure Only.
* To import the structure of the table and the data, click Structure and Data.
* To append the data to an existing table, click Append Data To Existing Table(s).
The trick is to first import just the structure, then change the datatype from text to Memo where truncation is occurring, then use the append feature.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

VMware Converter: Move to VM in one swoop

I don't yet have a good use for VM technology, but one day ...
VMware Converter: Turn your computer into a virtual machine - Download Squad

VMware Converter ... a free beta app from VMware that makes it supremely easy to take your current system and turn it into a virtual machine.. [and also] virtual machines to a newer version of VMware and converting images from other software like Microsoft Virtual PC.

In related news, LiveCD aficionados should check out this LiveCD Player Virtual Machine from, which lets you create a virtual machine for VMware from any LiveCD ISO with just one click.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

NAS at home, Google backup remote? $1700: Infrant ReadyNAS NV, 1.6TB (4x 400GB Seagate Disks), RAID 5, 256MB memory
isn't cheap, but it's the first network addressable storage device to make an impact on the high end home market. With RAID 5 you get 1TB of storage, and one of the four drives can die without disrupting your work. Video editors, photo geeks, and hardcore home media zealots need this now.

I'd like to see Google sell something like this with built-in automated off-site backup. Buy the device from Google and it comes preconfigured with software and encryption services designed for Google off-site backup. Google makes money on the hardware and on the services. Users get reliable local storage (one drive can die without data loss) and offsite robust integrated backup services

Yojimbo: the fatal flaw

Bare Bones Software's Yojimbo is one of many snippet/fragment/knowledge management tools for OS X. It's produced by a great software firm and has many keen fans. Alas, it fails the first acid test for a knowledge store -- it uses a proprietary back end data store. Yojimbo suffers from data lock. Here's the note I received when I asked about their data store (quick response btw):
...You can export all your Yojimbo info at any time by going to the Library, doing a "Select All" and then using File -> Export...

Yojimbo takes all reasonable measures to preserve info on export, e.g. PDFs and web archives export as the corresponding files, notes which contain images will be exported as .rtfd documents, etc., although exporting does not/cannot preserve Yojimbo-specific metadata such as collection
membership, tags, or labels

Friday, November 17, 2006

Cringely's Thai-build Linux powered auto video server

Cringely is a true hacker. I've no idea how he learns This stuff. The Thai Linux box is driveless, which is why he chose it. Now every auto stereo installer will know how to put in a 50-tv show capacity auto video server (emphasis mine):
I, Cringely . The Pulpit . Keeping the Peace | PBS

...Cars are hostile environments for computers. I wrote an entire column once on why we don't have hard drives in cars (it's in this week's links), so I knew that for a server I'd need a hardened, yet cheap, box, which I found in the Norhtec MicroClient Jr. from Thailand. Because of enlightened government computing policy, Thailand has the cheapest non-Microsoft PCs in the world and the MicroClient Jr. is among the least expensive. [jf: Thailand also has a government at least as corrupt as ours, their attitude to open source has recently changed.] In volume it sells for $90, but I paid $120 plus an extra $70 for WiFi capability. I might have saved the $70 and used a USB WiFi adapter I had lying around, but the box has only one USB port and I wanted that for storage.

For $190 I had a diskless, fanless, completely silent PC with a Via processor and 128 megs of RAM. To this I added a copy of Puppy Linux, which is a very good lightweight distribution you can boot from a CD, though in the MicroClient Jr. I used a CompactFlash card from an old digital camera as the boot drive. For the data drive I used a huge four-gig USB flash drive that came from who knows where: I don't recall buying it, but it was sitting on the shelf.

This is not a very ambitious project, really. The MicroClient Jr. is a little smaller than a Mac Mini and can run on 12 volt DC, so I mounted it under the driver's seat, stealing power from the seat motors. The USB flash drive is about the size of a pack of cigarettes, if you remember what that looks like, and I used Velcro to stick it to the side of the MicroClient Jr. The little PC runs fine as a server, and there are many open source programs for transcoding almost any video into the H.264 or MPEG-4 formats preferred by the PSP. The PSP already has WiFi capability and the components are never more than four feet apart. Best of all, I was able to put 53 shows on the data drive.
I want one. Of course the PSP is not cheap ...

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Click to call in Google Maps

Official Google Blog: Click to call in Google Maps

...Search for a business, like a hardware store, on Google Maps, and click the 'call' link next to its phone number. Then, enter your phone number and click 'Connect For free.' Google calls your phone number and automatically connects you to the hardware store.

There are two things that I really like about this. The business's phone number is automatically stored in your caller ID so you can easily call back in the future. And by checking the box to remember your phone number, you can make future calls from Google Maps with just two mouse clicks (and picking up your phone, of course).
This is neat on so many levels. Great solution to the old phone/net connection problem. Expect more in this vein.

Google web toolkit: now with Safari

Google's AJAX development toolkit now supports Safari. Can Gmail support be far away?
Google Web Toolkit - Build AJAX apps in the Java language

... Your GWT applications automatically support IE, Firefox, Mozilla, Safari, and Opera with no browser detection or special-casing within your code in most cases.
A GWT app will run on multiple platforms and browsers. I'd love to know how many people are developing real products with this free tool.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

MacInTouch: all kinds of updates

MacInTouch: timely news and tips about the Apple Macintosh notified us of several updates today -- all of interest. It's a shame MacInTouch doesn't support permalinks. On the list:
firmware updates for Intel Macs
a firmware recovery utility you should run before the firmware updates
x11 update fixing the bugs in the lasts one
another RAW update including DNG support on Intel Macs, probably fixes bugs in the last one too.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Friday, November 10, 2006

More desperate drive recovery hints - mount the drive vertically.

More ways to get outlook data into - Import Outlook Express (PC) emails into Mail

Mac OSX Hints has lots of posts on this topic.

LaunchBar - There's so much more

I've used LaunchBar for years. It's astonishing. I'm disappointed they never did a Windows version; even today the Windows imitators I've seen are worthless fakes.

Despite all my use, I've never tweaked the default configuration, nor explored all the advanced options. In part this is because my wife has first dibs on the iMac, and I make do with a pathetic XP box (sniff).

Today though, I became fed up with a longstanding annoynace. I want to use Launchbar to quickly navigate to folders, but the default setup indexes file names that clutter my search results. I prefer other methods to find files (Spotlight for example), LaunchBar works as my app launcher.

It turns out that it's only a moment's work to reconfigure Launchbar to ignore files and only index folders. Nirvana! I index applications, folders, and the address book -- nothing else. Works great.

I'm even experiencing with indexing the folder structure of my XP box, and scheduling an index update each night. I have a hunch that will work exceedingly well. I really do need to get my hands on a new MacBook.

If you don't use Launchbar you should, and if you do use it, browse the excellent web site. There are capabilities you don't know about ...

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

The NHL on Google Video

Hockey is hard to find on TV -- outside of Canada. Now you can get it on Google. They have the MN Wild game from November 2nd, the games come with ratings.

On my iMac the sound is very good, but the picture is pixelated. Even so, it's watchable and didn't hang.. (The fan on my iMac spins up when doing this -- highly annoying.)

The game can be downloaded as an mp4 file for the iPod or PSP. A 1 hour game is 270MB. I'm going to give it a try.

This could be a very handy tool for when I have a restless 8 year old.

The choice of hockey for this initial deployment is very interesting. I bet this will be quite popular. The game I'm watching now has had 869 views -- and it's the Wild vs. Canucks ...

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Travel router and access point

I'm shopping for a travel router/hub/access point. I'd actually prefer a very compact 4-5 port wired switch to a wireless access point, if only to reduce security concerns and wireless interference options.

I'll post on what I buy here, but credit first to bloglines search. Google searches turned up nothing readily, but a bloglines sesarch on travel router got great hits, including this one: Tablet PC Thoughts: Travellers Wireless Solution ... Access Point and Router.

Blogs rule.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Exif, not EXIF: a Wikipedia primer

Exif is the main way digital cameras store date and other information. Capturing date information is hugely valuable for most home shooters, so you'd think there'd be a robust standard around this type of metadata.


The Wikipedia article is excellent. Read it, understand why image editors routinely wreck Exif metadata, and weep. The article could be improved by mentioning Adobe's XMP, I'll add a comment to that effect.

The modern hard drive: Apple tech note is geekily interesting

Apple is implementing Intel's specification for the organization of data on hard drives. This will take OS X beyond the 2TB limit. The Technical Note (TN2166: Secrets of the GPT) is surprisingly readable and, for a geek, is a neat introduction on how very large storage systems work.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Monitors for adults with poor vision

In the old days it was easy to put a decent display together for someone with poor vision. You'd buy a CRT and run it at a low resolution, something that gave 64 pixels/inch. (You could try using XP's option to change how those pixels are used, but it really doesn't work. OS X 10.4 doesn't have that option, 10.5 is supposed to be scalable -- so more pixels/inch can just mean better display of objects of unchanged size.)

With LCDs things don't work that well. Dan's Data has ideas. The one I favor is bolded.
Dan's Data letters #178

1: Get a good-sized CRT monitor, like a 19 or 21 incher, and run it at a suitably low resolution. 1024 by 768 on a '21 inch' screen with a 20 inch real viewable diagonal gives about 64 pixels per inch.

2: Get a big LCD monitor and run it at less than its rated resolution. That'll give you a fuzzy picture as the monitor spreads displayed pixels around its physical pixels, but you should get sharp results if you can run at exactly half (or even a quarter) of the rated resolution.

The advantage of this strategy is that if someone with 20:20 vision wants to use the computer, they can crank the resolution back up. And some large LCD monitors actually cost about the same as similar-sized LCD TVs with much lower resolution. Dell's popular (jf: 24") 2407WFP is the best example; it currently lists for $US720 or something, has a rated resolution of 1920 by 1200, and should be easy to run and good-looking at 960 by 600. That'd give about 47 pixels per inch.

3: Use an LCD TV that does fit on the desk. There are plenty of mid-sized options, and a lot of them have 'RGB' inputs suitable for computers - many have a plain old 'VGA socket' on the back, and that usually means they can sync to normal computer output scan rates (you can't bet on a TV with a DVI socket on the back being able to take input at various resolutions or refresh rates)...
Dan likes the TVs because they're ppi are low compared to a computer display. I like the LCD option, but it's expensive. You have to pay a LOT to end up with something that's a bit better than an 800x600 display. Maybe an old CRT is really the best option.

PS. I checked my iMac. It has a 21" display and the resolutions are 1680x1050 (what I use) and half that is 840x524. I didn't think 840x524 was any better than 1024x768.

Aperture 1.5: my emergent review

My one month free trial of Aperture 1.5 began yesterday. Note that after installing the free trial Software Update offers a 128MB 1.5.1 update download. Don't accept the update -- it will terminate the trial.

Alas, it's hard to evaluate this produce without the update; I ran into many nasty bugs, some of which are said to have been fixed in 1.5.1. Aperture crashed 3 times-- don't think I lost any photos). Aperture displayed unpredictable white lines and black lines on RAW images -- a known bug. Apple made a mistake by not supporting the 1.5.1 update; it's not like Aperture is a polished application. It was train wreck on release, and it's only now been promoted to a pile-up.

I won't bother reporting what everyone else reports. I'll sequentially update this blog posting with brief comments. Newest on top for a change. I'll focus on date issues and what odd things strike me (See also Timeature 1.0: adjust image date field in Aperture). I tested Aperture on two low end machine by Aperture standards:
  • a 2GHz G5 iMac with 1.5GB SDRAM and an ATI Radeon 9600 with 128MB VRAM.
  • a 2GHz MacBook with 2GB SDRAM and an integrated video card
The G5 mostly worked with JPEGs. I moved a project to the MacBook and imported a few hundred RAW files. The MacBook felt about as fast as the G5, maybe a bit faster. It would do for small Aperture projects. The MacBook handled both the internal display and an external Dell 20" LCD panel without a hiccup (ok, one crash). Pretty impressive.

Aperture performance was unpredictable. Sometimes it felt fast on the MacBook (only a few hundred RAW images though), sometimes it felt slow. If I restarted it seemed faster -- maybe memory leaks?

There are some things Aperture does well, but in general it's a less polished application that iPhoto 6. Despite Aperture's pro orientation, there are parts of the iPhoto workflow and image review toolset that spank Aperture. If iPhoto could manage importing and exporting "projects" or Libraries there'd be little reason for the non-pro to look at the current version of Aperture.
  • It doesn't feel like a Mac application. The UI is cramped and murky; it's full of pointless, even gratuitous, non-Mac UI elements.
  • There's no OS X help file; the "Help" menu references the PDF manuals. They're pretty well done, but I really missed the Help function. There are two main manuals, it's not obvious sometimes which one to look in. Neither manual described the baseline RAW tuning tool.
  • Performance on these machines was often acceptable and sometimes surprisingly quick, but I didn't try a Library with thousands of RAW files. My large library test was JPEG. Periodically, however, Aperture would slow down mysteriously.
  • An iPhoto Library of 1.94 GB is 2.88 GB in Aperture (ugh).
  • The number of options to set seem way too small. I think they're scattered in other parts of the app. Did I mention this doesn't seem to be a Mac application?
  • Dates are really messed up. I have a scanned image in an iPhoto Library with a date of 1890. Aperture actually sets the date correctly internally (I can see this by sort order), but the date displayed in the UI omits the first two years, so it appears to be 1990 (or 1690, whatever). Yes, Aperture has Y2K problems.
  • Aperture won't let users set an IPTC date prior to 1972 (known bug).
  • Aperture iPhoto install stupidly ignores files it cannot import -- without a warning or report. One might delete an iPhoto Library after initial testing, only to discover all the videos were lost.[Update: It says a file format could not be recognized, but it doesn't identify the file.]
  • The install is about 220MB.
  • The iPhoto "phantom edit" bug that's afflicted many of my iPhoto Libraries does not seem to affect Aperture import. My test Library imported correctly. Images that had been edited stacked as two images, images that had not been edited appeared as one image -- even when iPhoto "thinks" there's been an edit.
I really wanted to like Aperture. Sometimes I did, but at other times it just gave me a headache. It's not a train-wreck any more, but it needs a LOT more work on performance, stability, date management, import/export, user interface before it will be an excellent solution. I'm going to wait and see what iPhoto 7 brings (Library import mayhap?). Perhaps by then another maintenance release of Aperture with some performance improvements will have come out.

Update 12/19/06: I'm back at it again, this time with Aperture 1.52 trial. Within 10 minutes of first launching it cratered. The crash left junk in an OS X cache folder, so that even iPhoto didn't work. A 'safe boot' clean-up (hold shift on startup then restart normally) purged the caches and fixed everything. Aperture is still a work in progress ...