Monday, September 29, 2008

Nuevasync - detailed configuration

Nuevasync is too raw for me to risk my data there, but once it's fully vetted and commercial I may pay for it.

It emulates an exchange server for the Palm, and syncs to gCal and gContacts.

A user has written a thorough configuration review:
Nuevasync: Over the Air Syncing of Calendar and Contacts for your iPhone or iPod Touch | The iLife

... The first thing you really want to do is sync your current data back to Google. Open up iTunes, plug in your iPhone (or iPod touch) and click on your device and go to the “info tab” and check the sync contacts (make sure you say “Google Contacts” and enter your account info!) and sync calendar tab....
Don't miss the above in the setup.

When you sync an iPhone to Exchange Server, you lose all the data on the phone -- unless it's moved to MobileMe or, through the back door, the the Exchange server source. Fun, eh?

Palm to iPhone - the update

A few weeks ago I wrote a summary of my Palm to iPhone conversion.

Time for an update.

This is really a Geek Odyssey, though, as I mentioned before, Missing Sync for iPhone would probably help.

I won't repeat all the extensive links in my earlier post, please go there to get the details. I've even updated that older post with a link to today's Appigo Notebook/ToodleDo migration.

You can see the current state my "iPhone as PDA' above. Those bottom four links should look familiar. They're a close match to the classic four iPhone buttons: Calendar/Date Book, Contacts/Address Book, Tasks/Todo and Memo/Note.

On my Palm I'd substituted a 'digital ink' app for the Note, I used that to scrawl quick notes. On my iPhone the equivalent is Jott. It captures audio snippets which are then transcribed. In some ways better than being able to scrawl an "ink" note, in other ways not as good.

The Calendar and Contacts are Apple apps. They sync with OS X iCal and Address Book. I wish instead they would sync directly with Google Calendar and Contacts. For now I sync my desktop data to Google using Spanning Sync.

Appigo makes both and (to the right above the main four). Both sync with Toodledo. I wish Google would buy Toodledo and take that over too. The Appigo products are great. Toodledo tasks are spartan but good enough, Toodledo Notes need a lot of work.

The rest of my primary screen consists only of apps I use ALL the time (oops! Looks like Maps got bumped off. It should be there). Other screens are split info games (a real strength of the iPhone), lesser used apps, etc.

The Appigo apps make the iPhone a better competitor to the 1994 Palm III, but in terms of usability and PDA value the Palm III is still a clear winner. The iPhone is only competitive when you start to do geeky and barely possible things with Google Calendar and the like. Of course the iPhone can do far more things than the Palm III could, not the least of which are Safari, and Map.

One more thing. The Palm III had global search. So you could search tasks, notes, address book, etc with one tap. Slow, but global. There's nothing like that for the iPhone. Appigo Task and Note search is very fast but limited to those apps. Calendar has NO search, and Contacts has a feeble search against name alone.

iPhone 2.1 - now with more crashes

The 2.1 update didn't directly fix the miserable "unknown application 0xE800002E" error, but it made a repair possible (see link).

So I'm not ungrateful.

Still, my iPhone is crashier now that it was before the fix. Apple's own is particularly unstable.

I'm following the old Windows 98/Mac Classic practice of rebooting after every crash, and, if I can get in the habit, I'd like to reboot every night. If I crash and don't reboot more cashes come. I suspect iPhone apps run pretty close to the kernel.

Apple still has miles to go to get to their baseline vision, but in the meantime the App Store provides some comfort.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Jott Express requires Adobe AIR. That's bad.

Jott Express doesn't say whether it's an OS X or XP app.

That's because it's neither; it's an Adobe AIR app.

Of course that means installing Adobe AIR on OS X*.

I've installed a few Adobe apps on OS X. Near as I can tell, Adobe is determined to destroy Apple. Adobe's installers routinely screw up OS X permissions, scatter files in illegal place, and generally act like drunken football hooligans.

Jott Express is also supposed to sync directly with an iPhone/iTouch. That's really piling the risk on.

I ain't installing AIR until I read some trusted source who's had a really good experience. I'd sooner invite Hell's Angels to dinner than Adobe products to my OS X box.

* In terms of cross-platform portable virtual environments there aren't a lot of great choices. Desktop Java is walking dead, Silverlight is from Microsoft, and ... well ... I think that's it.

Moving Palm notes to Toodledo via CSV file - what worked. (Hard!)

Why doesn't Toodledo have a $#!#$!$ blog? [Update: A reader gave me the address. It's new, but it exists.]

Can they please join the century of the fruitbat?

I had to visit their web site to learn they've done something that's extremely important to me, one of their paying customers:
Toodledo :: Import To-Do List

This will read in a CSV (comma separated values) file and add the notes to your Toodledo Notebook.

You can use this to import memos from Palm Desktop.
This is what I've been waiting for.

Now I can migrate all my old Palm and Outlook Memos/Notes to Toodledo, and then from Toodledo to Appigo's

Oh happy day.

Now about that Toodledo blog ...

Incidentally, since I use the double push feature to get to the phone, the "permanent" four column row of my iPhone is now a close match to my old Palm devices. From left to right: Calendar (apple), Contacts (apple), Todo (Appigo) and VoiceRecord (quick notes). I'm probably going to switch VoiceRecord to Jott. Appigo Notebook will be on a secondary screen, as a search resource.

Update: They do have a blog, see comments. Now I have to figure out why I couldn't find it!

I'm still figuring out the best way to manage the memo migration. I couldn't find any help screens from toodledo.

The export file uses this structure:
"Create a New Notebook","Tips & Tricks","2008-09-12","2008-09-12","...."
So that might work for import too. At the moment this data lives in 3 places, each with its own complications:
  1. Outlook: best export, but Outlook Memos do not have Titles. So I'd have to parse out the first line of each memo to create a title. I might be able to do that in Access.
  2. Palm Desktop: the export is weird. Just weird. I must be missing something - it doesn't look like it could be reasonably imported. Everything is together.
  3. Palm handheld: I could probably install Palm desktop on our ancient iBook and sync there to the old Mac Palm Desktop, which was a descendant of a Claris product. It has great notes and export.
  4. Carriage returns: In every case Memos have embedded carriage returns (paragraphs). CSV import will eliminate those.
So there won't be any great solutions, just less bad ones.

Update 9/29/08: Every year I tell my students that everything I know about applied health informatics I learned from my Palm. My Notes export experience was no exception. In this one case I'm not sure it would even help to buy Missing Sync for iPhone!

I tried several routes to get my Palm Notes into Toodledo. Only one worked, albeit a bit oddly. Here they are:
  1. Palm Desktop/PC: I sync'd the Tungsten E|2 to Palm Desktop PC, then tried the CSV export. The result looked odd, and Toodledo's notebook import couldn't manage it at all. Just gibberish.
  2. Outlook: Outlook export is pretty good, but Outlook Notes/Memos are very barebones. They don't have a separate title field, the first row of a Note is the title. So you can't export a title field.
  3. Palm Desktop/OS X: This is little change from Claris Organizer, so I'll call it "Organizer". In Organizer tasks, calendar items and contacts are linked to memos. Standalone memos are called 'desktop memos'. The export tool does a good job exporting memos in a tab delimited file. Oddly enough, you can't really export ANYTHING else! So you can export tasks, but they will be missing their related Memo. (This, by the way, is why I like FileMaker Bento. I don't think anyone but me gets why that little app matters. But that's another story.)
So I installed the latest version of Palm Desktop/Organizer on my old G3 10.3.9 iBook and exported the Notes as tab delimited. I then imported them into FileMaker Pro 8.

At this point, interestingly, the notes still have embedded carriage returns (PC character set I think).

I then exported from FM Pro as CSV. I first tried UTF-16 encoding but that was gibberish to Toodledo so I tried Macintosh characters. The import worked and the carriage returns were transformed in '|' characters.

So it worked, in the end -- though I did lose the paragraphs.

I'm hoping I made a simple mistake early on, because I don't think any non-geek would ever get this working.

For these kinds of Palm migration problems I normally recommend OS X users buy Missing Sync for Palm (Palm migration is bundled with Missing Sync for iPhone too), but I don't know what the export capabilities of the Missing Sync Notebook are. I looked at the export from their Blackberry Missing Sync Notebook and it wouldn't work at all.

Incidentally, exporting Notes to Evernote was only marginally better.

In the end, notes were harder than anything else. I'd never have guessed.

PS. the Toodledo interface for Notes is only slighly better than nothing at all. On the other hand, Appigo Notebook is very nice and the search is fast.

OS X 10.5.5: CPU pegging with Firefox

Even after five updates it's not clear that 10.5.5 is a better OS for my iMac G5 than 10.4.11. Leopard is probably optimized for the Intel machines, and I suspect the security measures (memory address changes) have their price.

The biggest problem now is it's slow. In particular Firefox routinely pegs the CPU (activity monitor) on 10.5 whereas it didn't on 10.4. The type lag is very annoying. In general it feels about 10% slower for most of what I do.

So if you have a PPC machine on 10.4.11 you might want to wait until you buy a new machine to switch.

Update 9/27/08: I find a few other people noticing this. Some are disabling the memory cache. I'll try the new google toolbar and look for other extensions to remove.

See also:
Gordon's Tech: OS X 10.5 bug 5: archive and install cross-user startup (login) item application: "In the course of updating my MacBook and iMac to 10.5 I've previously documented four significant bugs (though the last may, after some fixes, have limited impact):

* LaunchDaemons: cannot login from admin account
* Permissions - apps cannot be updated
* Keychain First Aid 10.2 running on OS X 10.5
* The unknown user and group bugs

Now I can add a fifth bug [1].

The Archive and Install form of the update process (this or clean install are the only safe choices, both have big issues) applied login items belonging to my wife's user account to my own account. I suspect it applied them to all accounts, but I haven't dug through the rest yet.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Digital radio - Apple style

Well, that was certainly stealthy.

Suddenly digital radio is upon us - quite unexpectedly.

My first awakening was the excellent Minnnesota Public Radio app for the iPhone -- a joint venture between MPR and CodeMorphic - a Twin Cities Mac dev shop (interesting projects!).

So now I can play digital radio in my car while I drive to work -- through my iPhone. (Yeah, it won't work as well as it does at home, but don't you think Sirius/XM worry about this?)

That reminded me that M has been asking for a radio for the kitchen. There are some excellent radios still on the market, and we'll probably get one, but we also have a pretty nice iTunes/AirTunes/iPhone Remote setup already in place. Didn't iTunes used to play streaming radio?

Turns out they still do, iPhone Remote will find the stations in my playlist, and the choices and quality are better than I remember. Consider CBC Jazz ...
CBC Radio 2 Blog - Tech Q's?: How To Listen To The New R2 New Internet Channels

... Peter kindly walks us through how to listen to R2's new internet radio channels, which include classical, Canadian composers, Canadian songwriters, and jazz.

Over to Dr. Peter:

'Audio on the internet used to be a minor miracle . . . but a really lousy sounding one. Especially for music! Often it still does sound bad. But not when it's coming from CBC Radio 2.

Today we launched our new new Internet Radio Channels and we're pretty proud of the sound quality...

So we've created some 'How to' files to help you make your way.

* How to Listen to CBC Radio 2's New Online Channels
* How to Connect Your Computer to Your Audio System...
The 192kbps Jazz stream sounds as good as my 192 kbps encoded Jazz tunes. In other words, good enough for my ears. There's even a Big Band station I'll try out on my mother.

There's even a "staff picks" list in iTunes now -- new each month.

So now Apple rules digital radio.

Anyone noticing?

Gordon's stuff, now in 35 languages

As if English weren't bad enough, my less unpopular blogs now feature a translation widget. If you try it you can see me in, say, Chinese.

The widget uses Google's statistically based machine translation. It was pretty easy to install and the translation is very quick. Give it a try; ignore the eerie Twilight Zone background music you might imagine.

Yes, more future shock. Not to worry, the translations are probably pretty bad. I suspect to get good results from machine translation you have to use a translation-optimized version of your native language with simple grammar, no homographs, longer words, no abbreviations, less jargon, etc.

I was provoked to experiment when reading of new Google Translator Languages such as "Catalan, Filipino, Hebrew, Indonesian ...Vietnamese". Each can translate to the other, but I read that English is always an intermediary. A double translation is going to be pretty funny, but not terribly useful.

The first part of the embedding process is to go to and visit the tools page. That's where you pick up your JavaScript.

Then go to Blogger Layout and, from the Basic menu, choose the HTML/Javascript widget. Past in your JavaScript and then arrange the widget on you blog template.

I wonder if I'm better in Danish.

iPhone app for listening to Minnesota Public Radio

Apple will never install an FM tuner into the iPhone/iTouch/iPod, so MPR has introduced a streaming iPhone app for them alone ...
MPR: About Us: Mobile Services

... Listen to MPR on your iPhone and iPod Touch with the MPR Radio iPhone application. The Current, Classical MPR, and MPR News are all available to stream on your iPhone or iPod Touch when you install the free MPR Radio application from the iTunes App Store...
Funny to spend all those CPU cycles to do something that was once so very cheap. Digital radio, of a sort.

PS. There's a cute preview of their iPhone oriented news service. Sooner or later will go live.

It will be interesting to compare the quality of classical MPR to, say, Sirius or XM.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Spaces, expose and custom mouse buttons - sweet

Until now 10.5 hasn't really done anything for me. Yeah, I can now share the shared folder, and that's good -- but, on the other hand, Leopard remote desktop is a toy.

Spaces, though, they're nicer than I thought. For example: - 10.5: Drag and drop between Spaces

... If you have two applications in two separate spaces (e.g iPhoto and Keynote), and you would like to drag an item from the first application to drop in the second application, here are two easy ways to do just that.

First, you can drag the item (file, photo, etc..), press F8 and then select the other space, then drop the item into the other application. Or you can drag the file, press Command-Tab, and then drop the dragged icon on the other application. You will then be switched automatically to the other space to drop your stuff, just like in Tiger.
But it gets better. My Microsoft Mouse has four buttons and a clickable scroll wheel. I mapped button 3 Expose - desktop, button 4 to Spaces, and the wheel to Expose - all windows. (To do this I set button 4 to "Mac OS controlled", then in Spaces Preferences set button 4 to show Spaces).

Now, if I'm working on something, I can click button 4, then I can drag windows between spaces (nice). I can also use the expose buttons within any spaces window I click on.

I have 4 spaces now and will probably scale up. You can assign an app to a space, and I might do that for the Finder, but in general I prefer to organize by task. That's why I'm de-emphasizing tabbed browser use -- I prefer to use windows and Spaces to organize my work.

Google Reader now has tagged streams

Google reader shared feeds now inherit the tag of the folder(s) they are assigned to in Google Reader. You can see them in the post footer when you view a post within Reader, and if you click on them you get a filtered version of the shared post list:

For example:

shows only posts from my "SciTech" tagged feeds, or posts to which that tag has been manually added during Sharing.

The above link requires a Google reader account. For heck of it I tried:

but today that gives "permission denied". Likewise I wasn't able to discover a feed for this stream; the feed associated with the filtered page is the general shared item feed.

Still, it's progress. Soon I might be able to share my sci and tech posts without sharing my (very Dem) political posts.

Making your Google custom search the IE and Firefox defaults

I love my Google custom searches, I’ve made a subset of them the “start” page I use on all browsers and platforms.

My favorite search engine includes Google, but I’ve added biases including

  1. everything linked to from links in my Google Reader exported OPML file
  2. my Gordon’s Tech/Notes extended memory [1]
  3. my legacy web pages
  4. everything I like and add via my toolbar embedded Google Marker

Why do I love this search?

Say you search on “In our Time" and “Social Contract” in standard Google. Today you go to the evil iPlayer oriented BBC site, the streaming-centric site that never mentions podcasts. With my custom search engine I go instead to the virtuous original site.

My biased Google is flat out better than straight Google. For me, anyway.

It’s annoying to have to go to my special page to run it though. I’d like to replace my browser search in Firefox and IE with the Google-Gordon search. In the old days that was easy – just run a search, extract the URL, add a wild card, and paste it into the browser like so:

Now it’s harder, but not terribly harder. It’s just terribly hard to find out how to do it.

For Internet Explorer 7 it’s very easy. From the search drop down choose “find more providers” and follow the simple directions to “create your own”:


So I just pasted in:

and it works:


You can also create a Google Toolbar 5 custom button and in Windows Live toolbar search you just enter this URL:$w

I don’t know how to create a custom search to over-ride the Firefox default search, but, and this was surprisingly hard to find, it’s not hard to create a custom Google/Firefox toolbar button:

The Google Toolbar's Custom Buttons feature makes it possible for you to create buttons and share them with other Google Toolbar users via our Custom Buttons download page at
To create a search button for your favorite site, please follow the instructions below:
1. Open Mozilla Firefox and visit the search page for which you'd like to create a custom button.
2. Place your cursor inside a search box on that site and right-click your mouse to view the context menu.
3. Select "Generate Custom Search" and click "Add."

Holy cow. These bizarre directions actually work. I added my button and made it my new default. A couple of caveats:

  1. The directions are all for XP. It does work in Firefox 3/OS X, but some of the directions don't apply (ex: where xml is stored)
  2. This wouldn't work from the Gadget form on my search page, I had to go the google hosted page directly.
  3. To get the XML, so you can host the button, you use Google FirefoxToolbar:Manage:Select Button:Edit:Advanced Edit.

I put my search button XML file on one of my personal sites. This link is supposed to add it to a Google toolbar:

Buttons can be submitted it to the Google Button Gallery, but I don't have delusions of grandeur.

[1] Damnit Blogger, give me backlinks! BTW, I remember when “extended memory” had a different meaning, as in “QEMM”.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Google Contacts is now a standalone page

I'd not realized that Google contacts was actually a standalone web page rendered within Gmail. In retrospect that explains why it seems so different from the rest of Gmail, and why Gmail integration is incomplete.

Personally I don't like Google's contact manager -- I preferred the prior approach. Still, it really does make sense for Google to have Contacts as a distinct service. They're used for more than email.

Here's how to see your contacts in their own page. This would look particularly good in chrome-less Chrome:
Google Contacts

Google has recently updated the stand-alone contacts page by adding a logo and a more prominent search box. Unfortunately, the URL is not user-friendly:

Recent updates to my iPhone notes post

I keep finding more good and bad iPhone features.

Other than the missing cut and paste (I'm sure it's hung up by patent fights), the current bizarre problems are search and long launch times ...
Gordon's Tech: iPhone notes you won't read elsewhere:

...The Address Book was very slow to launch with 2.0 (4 secs on my phone), but Google Mobile search also searches the Address Book -- and it's fast. Apple 'improved' the launch time with version 2.1 by speeding address book launch and slowing down the launch time of every other iPhone app.

Search on the Address book is first and last name only. If you define a company name, search is on the company name only....

BBC mobile page for all and iPhone iPlayer for the UK

The BBC has a mobile page. Using the preferences link at page bottom you can experiment with various versions and bookmark the one you like. I have a version on my iPhone "home page" as an icon -- next to Google News mobile, the disappointing NYT reader, and the excellent Google Reader Mobile.

The BBC has also announced streaming audio support for the iPhone over WiFi only using their evil iPlayer service. This service allows only 7 days of access, in contrast to a far superior podcast alternatives that allows unlimited access after download. Evil, definitely.

Earlier versions of iPlayer were Flash based and wouldn't work on an iPhone, so they've had to concede to Apple's non-Flash policy.

The BBC announced this, but they don't say how to access iPlayer. If you go to via a 3G connection from the US you get the Flash version -- it won't work. Comments point out that iPlayer service is UK only, so US users would need some kind of proxy service to test.

gPhone oops

On the one hand, Apple is giving geeks The Fear.

So we feel forbidden love. On the other hand ...
T-mobile G1: Android and T-Mobile G1's Five Most Obnoxious Flaws

Topping the list, it's tightly integrated with your Google account—so tightly that you can only use one Google account with the phone.
Last time I looked I had about six Google App accounts, two of which I use pretty regularly -- including on my iPhone.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Forbidden love - the open G1 gPhone

Apple's rejections of iPhone apps that "confuse" users by "duplicating" Apple functionality are now top secret.

So it's not surprising that we geek iPhone users feel the love that dare not speak its name ...
A First Look at Googles New Phone - Pogue’s Posts - New York Times Blog

... Android, and the G1, are open. Open, open, open, in ways that would make Steve Jobs cringe. You can unlock this phone after 90 days—that is, use any SIM card from any carrier in it. The operating system is free and open-source, meaning that any company can make changes without consulting or paying Google. The App store is completely open, too; T-Mobile and Google say they won’t censor programs that they don’t approve of, as Apple does with the iPhone store. Yes, even if someone writes a Skype-like program that lets people avoid using up T-Mobile cellular voice minutes.

Android is not as beautiful or engaging as the iPhone’s software, but it’s infinitely superior to Windows Mobile—and it’s open. The G1 is only the first phone to use it, the first of many; it’s going to be an exciting ride.

T-Mobile already supports VOIP over WiFi, so the Skype-like option isn't appealing. It comes with the phone.

T-Mobile and AT&T are both SIM based. The no-contract cost of the G1 is about the same as the contract-extension cost of the iPhone. So it might be iPhone-price competitive for a current AT&T customer to buy a G1 with T-Mobile, plug in the AT&T SIM card, and cancel the T-Mobile service.

Gee, you don't imagine they thought of that?

Go Google, Go.

(Alas, I wish I could say Apple will pay for their closed shop strategy, but I'm not prepared to bet against the tyranny of the mean.)

Sharepoint list or library corruption bug: Do not set the “required” value on any Sharepoint column

I don’t generally post on Sharepoint bugs, though I run into a lot of them at work. I’ll make an exception here because this is a nasty bug, and I wasn’t able to locate any descriptions of via Google. So if anyone else runs into it, this post might be helpful.

This bug manifested with a Sharepoint 2007 document library. This library had custom fields (columns, attributes, metadata, etc) like “group”, “tags”, “author” etc.

One day we were unable to see or edit those custom columns in the standard (web) view. It was as though they had vanished. We could see them in the Access/Excel-like “data sheet” view, so the data was there. We could even edit the values in that view.

It wasn't easy for our IT group to figure out what had happened. It seems that under some circumstances setting a field as "required", when rows already exist with null values for the field, will corrupt a Sharepoint list.

It can only be repaired, with difficulty using, Sharepoint Designer.

There is no fix date from Microsoft this bug. For the time being the required attribute value should not be used in a Sharepoint list.

There are worse things about Sharepoint (the world’s most inane file share and document management system) but they’re design flaws, not bugs. Up to now this is the nastiest SP 2007 bug I’ve personally experienced.

Jacob uses Dappit to create a public RSS feed from my Google Shared Feed web page

Jacob takes pity on my frustrations with the unsharable Google Reader shared items feed.

He creates a Dappit feed from the shareable shared items web page version of the shared items.
Family Medicine Notes

... Poor John. He couldn't get an RSS feed out of google reader without a COOKIE. Enter Dappit Kinda nuts to get the RSS from what is essentially a screen-scrape of the HTML. Oh well .. in desperate times, we take desperate measures."
Lord, what a hack! My brain recoils from the horror.

I couldn't get the Dappit link to load on first test, but I'll try again tonight. Maybe this will embarrass Google?

At the least I'll have another Feed generator service to compare to the 2-3 like services I use to monitor Dyer's feedless page (version 2).

Let loose the geeks of tech war: Google on Android vs. Google on iPhone

I use my iPhone with Google Apps - not MobileMe.

I'd love to use MobileMe -- I'm not deterred by the cost. The problem is that MobileMe sucks. No public APIs. No calendar sharing. Exactly the same Notes and Tasks functionality as Google Apps (none).

Google Apps are simply vastly better than the MobileMe alternatives.

So my iPhone syncs with Gmail. iPhone syncs, via my iCal/Spanning Sync desktop, with Google Calendar. My Notes and Tasks (Appigo Notebook and sync with Toodledo). Of course works with Google Maps, Google Reader Mobile works with Google Reader, and search works with ...

You get the picture, as my son Ben would say.

Apple either doesn't get the picture, or they can't execute on the server.

Problem is, the picture's not complete. I can't, say, sync iPhone directly with Google Calendar. My wife's Blackberry Pearl can do that, thanks to Google software, but my iPhone can't. This is a big problem, and it's a problem owned by ... Apple.

Not good.

On the other hand, that won't be a problem for the Android ... (emphases mine):
Official Google Mobile Blog: Google on Android

At Google, we develop products that we love to use ourselves. For example, we're avid users of Search, Gmail, Maps, and many others. But for those of us in mobile, it's tough. Not all products work the same on all devices, and although we try and optimize for each device, we often run into challenges specific to certain mobile phone platforms. I, for one, used to carry three devices with me all day. I love my iPhone for its powerful browser and music player. I use my BlackBerry for Gmail and Calendar (and occasionally Brick Breaker), and I carry a Nokia N-series phone because of its camera and YouTube application.

The first Android-powered phone, announced today by T-Mobile, comes 'with Google'. The following Google applications are preloaded on the device: Search, Maps, Gmail with Contacts, Calendar, Google Talk, and YouTube. There are a few things I'm particularly excited about:

  • Easy to use. It's never been easier to use Google on your phone. With single sign-in, you can log in to your Google account and have instant access to all your favorite Google products. No messing around with settings, your login never expires, and everything just works. If you don't have a Google account yet, you can set one up on your phone and be up and running in seconds.
  • Fully synchronized. Your emails, contacts, calendar entries, Google Talk chats are fully synchronized with Gmail and Calendar on the web. New events are pushed in real-time to your phone and any changes you make on-the-go are immediately available on the web. If you ever lose or break your phone, all your data is safe and secure in the cloud.
  • Designed to work together. Search is now available as a feature in many applications, including non-Google ones, such as the music player. While you're listening to a song -- like something from Depeche Mode -- just 'long-press' the artist's name. You'll see a menu pop up that let's you search Google for the Depeche Mode Wikipedia entry, or search YouTube for the music video. The contact application lets you see your friend's IM status, view his address on a map, and communicate with him using Gmail or Google Talk. And, of course, you can call or text him as well.
Depeche Mode? Shades of my ancient Quebecer (eng) past.

Emily's Blackberry isn't the greatest. I'd like to get something better. It has to work well with our family Google Apps. Could be she'll be getting an Android.

Apple needs to get their *** in sync. They need to either match Google on the server side (impossible) or fully support Google Apps as competitors to Mobile Me.

Or my next phone, won't be an iPhone. I may not be the only one ...

Thanks Google. I love these bloodless tech wars.

Monday, September 22, 2008

How do I share my Google Reader Shared Items Feed and process it via Yahoo Pipes?

Google Reader provides all kinds of nice feeds from your "folders" (tags) and your shared items. Most of 'em can be managed by any feed reader, including Yahoo Pipes.

Except for the Shared Items Feed. That one requires a cookie corresponding to a Google Gmail account. I'd like to be able to share manipulate that feed, so I've posted a question on the Google Reader Group:

Share my Google Reader Shared Items Feed and process in Yahoo Pipes - How Do I? | Google Groups

Public Google Reader folders (tags) have feeds. They don't require authentication; I can manage them in Yahoo Pipes, anyone can see them.

Things are different from the Google Reader Shared Items (and probably starred items too). They have a feed, but it requires a Google (Gmail?) account to be read.

For example, here's the Atom feed for my shared items:

I think anyone with a Google account can view it (may have to log in) this feed using Google Reader.

I can't add it to Bloglines though, and Yahoo Pipes can't process it.

I do realize that anyone can view the web version of this:

but that's not what I want to share. I want to be able to publicly share and process the shared items feed including sharing it with people who don't have a Gmail account.

Is there a way to do this (short of using a feed proxy)?

I doubt there's a solution today, but maybe Google will rethink this requirement ...

Update 2/2/09: I find a fix from a different angle.

Don't throw out those OS 9 apps just yet ...

Sooner or later I suspect there will be an OS 9 emulator that can run some of those Classic apps. So keep the CDs around, and a copy of Classic too ...
MacWindows: The web site for Macintosh-Windows integration:

... the development of both of those emulators has veered in that direction [running OS 9 in Leopard]. I think that Mac users have more interest in the emulators now....

Appigo and Toodledo: running into sync problems

Synchronization, which includes messages between distinct data models [1], is heck.

I really appreciate my iPhone's and my Firefox-rendered ToodleDo task list. Problem is, they've stopped playing nice together. From a post I wrote to the Appigo Todo Google Group:
I sync Appigo with Toodledo.

Recently, I'm having problems. They're nasty because I can tolerate a lot of bugs, but I can't tolerate sync bugs that cost me data.

The details of my current problems aren't all that important to this post. I'm seeing items on fail to move to Toodledo, and I'm seeing changes made to Toodledo be reversed on sync with

That's bad, but the real problem is -- who owns these problems?

They could be Appigo bugs, Toodledo bugs, or emergent bugs shared between the two. I wouldn't be surprised if the problems I'm seeing are all three!

I'm a paying customer for both Appigo and Toodledo -- but I don't want to file two bug reports.

My gut sense, and I have some experience in my real job to support this, that sync is very hard when one vendor controls both ends of the transaction. It's damned near impossible when two vendors are involved.

Real soon now we're going to have to get to a situation where one vendor is responsible for the end-to-end transaction -- or Appigo is going to have to get extremely close to either ToodleDo or RTM.

In the meantime, who will own these problems?
This is what could kill Appigo's superb iPhone apps. If Apple ever produces a task tool, even if it's much inferior to Appigo's product, they'll have the huge advantage of controlling the MobileMe, iCal and iPhone data models and the message model.

I'm hoping Appigo finds a solution, but it's a damned tough problem. This has broken many a company.

[1] See HL-7.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Lessons from the messages of hapdaniel

I've been trying to use Yahoo Pipes to create new streams from my Google Reader feeds.

I've run into a parsing problem (Pipes may not support parsing feeds that require cookies) and a limitation of Pipes' Boolean logic (All A not In B).

I both cases "hapdaniel" answered my questions, though my problems are not yet solved.

Which led me to look at all messages by hapdaniel.

I've looked at the Pipes documentation. This message stream is more useful.

There's a lesson here, that I'm slowly learning. Whenever you receive a useful response on a message board, you ought to mine all related messages. Most forums allow one to see all messages of a member, almost all allow one to search for a string. These are valuable information streams.

So who is hapdaniel? A hobbyist with deep technical knowledge? A Pipes developer moonlighting in the forums? A covert tech support person? I think we see all 3 in these settings.

In some cases, it might be worth adding these information streams to a Google Custom Search engine.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

iPhone app bypasses phone trees

via a Jacob Reider share:
Direct Line Saves iPhone Users From Automated Call Hell

... Add this to your list of must have iPhone applications. Direct Line (iTunes link) is a service that helps you automatically navigate phone trees to get right to an operator (exactly what companies don’t want you to do).

Install the application, browse of search the included companies, and select the one you want. Direct Line then calls the number and preselects the appropriate choices to get you to an actual person...
Costs $1. I'll try it. Jacob also links to Fonolo, a web site that does even more.

I don't mind smart, fast, well structured phone trees. It's just that they're quite rare...

Filtering my Google Reader Share with Yahoo Pipes

[Update: I thought this was working, but it turned out I was using the wrong feed. When I substituted my true Shared Item feeds Yahoo Pipes was unable to parse it. I'll see if i can fix things up, but I'll leave the post as an example of what I'd like to do with Pipes.]

I love my Google Reader shares, as can be seen on our family news page. I particularly appreciate being able to "star" and "share" items using Google Reader Mobile.

 Of course there's always room for improvement. Google lets me tag blogs and share by tag ("folder"), but I can't sum blogs and I can't filter, for example, all my shared items save those that belong to the tag "politics".

The politics is the problem. I am, shall we say, not enthused with the GOP. Now it is true that all my friends feel pretty much the same way, but that is not true of my colleagues. If I give them my Google shared items feed address they'll find it a mixed blessing.

 That's where Yahoo Pipes come in. Yahoo Pipes can be used to filter out, say, iPhone posts. Pipe are cool, even Googlers like 'em. I was hoping I could create a Pipe of form [All A not in B] where A is my Google Reader shared item feed and B is my Google Reader politics feed, but I don't think that's supported. On other hand I can filter out posts containing Cheney, Bush, McCain, Palin and even Obama.

That's not optimal of course. It will eliminate many news stories, and some horticulture. I'll see what else I can do, but in the meantime I'll test I've added it to my Google Reader shares, so I suppose I can now create recursive shares ..

Update 2/2/09: I find a fix from a different angle.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Apple's ads lie. Who knew?

I don't watch TV, so I never saw Apple's iPhone ads until I watched this hilarious video comparing real world performance to Apple's iPhone ads
iPhone 3G Owners Are Using Less Internet Than AT&T Expected: Blame Crappy Service (AAPL, T)

... In the meantime, we remind you of this video, which accurately shows the difference between Apple's pretend 3G iPhone experience and the real thing."
The ads are ridiculous -- a quad core desktop with a GB/sec fiber connection doesn't surf that quickly -- the servers aren't that responsive.

I enjoy using my 3G iPhone to surf the web, but it ain't nothin' like the commercials. Just as well I never saw them.

So are there are any legal limits to this sort of thing?

Web site for swap of defective 3G iPhone USB power supply

If your tiny 3G iPhone USB power supply doesn't have a green dot, you need to go to this web site to order a replacement: Apple - Support - Apple Ultracompact USB Power Adapter Exchange Program.

It takes just a minute, you need to know your Apple store account and you need your phone to look up the serial number.

Apple will send a replacement - same size and form, but with a green dot. We're supposed to return the defective unit, rather than, say, keep it and have two.

Tough call, but honesty will doubtless force me to return mine in the prepaid mailer.

App store innards - handy knowledge for basic maintenance

Excellent review, includes a few that are new to me. Read the entire article for the full story, I'll be checking for leftover app versions in my iTunes app folder.
iPhone Atlas - Ted Landau - Five “under-the-hood” things you should know about App Store apps

1. Where are iPhone apps actually stored on a Mac ...

2. I opened the Mobile Applications folder. All the files there end in .ipa. What’s with that?

Consider ipa an abbreviation for “iPhone application.” ... use the shareware program Pacifist. Specifically:

1. Make a copy of the app that you want to check (say Koi Pond.ipa).
2. Change the name of the copied file to Koi Pond.ipa.pkg.
3. Click “Use .pkg” when the dialog appears asking what you want to do.
4. Open Koi Pond.ipa.pkg in Pacifist.

1. Via Pacifist, navigate to Payload > >Info.plist. Extract this file.
2. Open the file using Property List Editor (or any other utility you have for opening .plist files).

From here, you can confirm the version number (CFBundleVersion) of the app. This should be the same number you’ll find in the Version item of the Summary tab, if you select Get Info for an app in iTunes.

Also in the .plist file, note the line that reads UIStatusBarHidden Boolean Yes...

3. There are several copies of some apps in the Mobile Applications folder (with names like Koi Pond.ipa, Koi Pond 1.ipa, Koi Pond 2.ipa etc.) What gives with that?

First the good news: If you’ve updated to iTunes 8, this should no longer happen.

Prior to iTunes 8, these duplicates accumulated each time you updated to a newer version of an app (or even redownloaded the same version). All downloads were retained, even though only the latest copy was used.

... If you still have duplicates hanging around, drag them to the Trash and delete them. You only need to retain the copy with the most recent modification date. If there is any doubt as to which copy to keep, go to Applications in iTunes and select Show in Finder from any app’s contextual menu. This will take you to the Mobile Applications folder with the active copy highlighted. That’s the one you want to keep.

Although they are usually harmless, these duplicates can occasionally cause problems...

4. Can I run apps on my iPhone that other people have purchased?

No and Yes. The system for apps works the same way as for music and video purchased from the iTunes Store. By default, App Store apps can only be run on iPhones and iPod touches synced to the computer used to purchase the software. However, a user can authorize up to 5 computers to have access to their iTunes Store purchases. Thus, to use an app purchased by a friend...

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Password twilight: bad from Gmail, not so bad from OpenID.

Bad news, then not-so-bad news, in the twilight of the password.

From Google, another scary installment in their online safety series:
When it comes to Gmail specifically, there are a couple of things that might cause account-related interruptions in access: a lost or forgotten password, unusual activity that triggers the safety measures designed to keep accounts from being compromised, or, in the worst case, someone has stolen your login info and changed it...

... we don't ask for much personal information when you sign up for Gmail, which can sometimes make it difficult to prove ownership of an account and trigger the recovery process.

Still, there are some simple steps you can take to ensure that your account stays in your hands, and to greatly improve the chances of regaining access if you have any problems...
  • Always keep the verification number you get when you sign up for Gmail. When you sign up for Gmail, we'll ask you for a secondary email address and then email a verification number to that account. This number is the best way to prove ownership of your account, so be sure to hang on to it.
  • If you aren't able to access your account, try resetting your password. As mentioned above, most of the support requests we get turn out to be lost or forgotten passwords, rather than something more serious. Resetting your password usually gets the job done.
  • If resetting your password doesn't work, try our account-recovery process. We recently launched an account-recovery form in our help center that can drastically reduce the amount of time it takes to verify ownership of an account and restore access. If you have the information necessary to prove ownership -- such as the verification code for the account -- this new process can help our support team restore access within a matter of hours.
The $%!%!#$% verification code for my Gmail account?!! The account I opened the month they launched? Did they even do verification codes back then? What's the chance I could find that now? At least I know it's not in my Gmail respository?

And, of course we know about Google's brilliant mafia-funded password reset approach.

I was on the verge of having nightmares about losing control of my Google account, but their "reassuring" message is giving me night terrors instead.

On the bright side, there's optional two factor identification for my myOpenID account.
About CallVerifID

... CallVerifID™ provides the most convenient and cost-effective strong security measure available for OpenID users. An individual can enable CallVerifID™ within seconds to add an additional authentication factor.

* Easy two-factor authentication for myOpenID
* Instantly receive a call when signing into myOpenID. Simply answer and press # to authenticate.
* No extra phone capabilities or text messages. Use any phone.
The basics of OpenID are pretty simple. From a user perspective it's like the old Microsoft Hailstorm/Passport scheme -- a single un/pw sign-on. So when I use my OpenID to sign on to a web service, I'm redirected to enter my password into the myOpenID site then return to my true destination. I can stay authenticated with myOpenID provider, then I don't have to keep entering my password as I move from site to site.

The big difference from Hailstorm/Passport is it's not controlled by Microsoft, Apple, Amazon, IBM or your cellphone company. All kinds of places can, and do, offer OpenID services -- including my many Blogger blogs.

Of course these services are only as good as the associated security, and Google hasn't been wining any prizes for their security measures.

Even MyOpenID is vulnerable, like anyone else, to password theft. It's a "one factor identification" service -- a "what I know" factor. If I add CallVerifID though it's a "two factor" service -- "what I know" and "what I have". A thief would have to steal both.

So what happens if I lose my phone?

Well, that's kind of where the good news ends:
What happens if I lose my phone?

An alternate number can be set up by calling the support staff, once your identity is strongly established.

What happens if I lose cell phone coverage in a certain area?

Call the support staff from any phone to request a one time bypass. Once your identity is strongly established, they can allow you to authenticate one time without receiving a PhoneFactor call. They can also change your account to point to an alternate phone number, such as a land line.

Ooookkkkaaayy. What do they mean by "strongly established"? There's no detail on what that is, it sure sounds vulnerable to social engineering.

Still, it's a measure of progress.

What I think I need is some combination of two factor identification and a digital certificate stored on secured machines. Then if I lose the phone I could at least fix things from a secure machine with a digital certificate (eg. home computer, not a laptop) stored on an encrypted disk image.

I think it might be possible to do that with MyOpenID; I'm going to give it a try. The combination of digital cert access from secured machines with two factor phone id when in other locations is interesting. I do want to be able to secure the cert on an encrypted disk image, I'll have to research how to do that, I'd prefer not to encrypt my entire user account directory (the default OS X approach). The cert can be revoked, so if I knew the machine had been stolen I could revoke the cert. [ps. The digital cert is browser specific, not user account specific. So if you use more than one browser you need a cert for each one on the user account.]

Now if only Google would enroll itself in a remedial security training program. At least they could use some loose change to pay Schneier for a consultation ...

PS. It looks like I can create MyOpenIDs for my domains, such as or That could help with securing Emily and the children's accounts.

Update: Too bad! myOpenID missed the brass ring.

If you active the two factor identification, you still need the cell phone call even when signing in with the digital certificate. So there's no good fallback if you lose cell phone access. Arghh!! They should have had two different two factor identification schemes:
  • password + digital cert (secure browser)
  • password + phone ID
Then if you lose the phone, you could go to the secure machine and get access.

Oh well, maybe they'll read this blog and fix it.

Update 3/8/09: Sign. never did get a clue. BTW, more the horror of losing Gmail account access.

iPhone - layers of integrated functionality

It's easy to make a list of what my iPhone can't do. No cut, copy paste -- which I miss all the time. No cross-application search (I can imagine why not, but I sure miss it). No tethering - yet. No standard sync infrastructure, so every vendor has to roll their own.

I'll omit "no tasks, no notes sync" because I love Appigo's solutions and they wouldn't exist if Apple had done these things.

What gets missed is how much deep and integrated functionality there is ...
Gordon's Tech: iPhone notes you won't read elsewhere

... The silver on/off button has context dependent behavior. In standard mode it locks the phone and turns off the display. When a call comes in one push silences the ring, two sends it directly to voice mail. When you're on a call, one push locks the phone, preventing errant touches from messing up your call. (I lost a lot of calls until I learned this.)

... When you search for a business on the Map and select a pin, you get a pop-up with an arrow. Touch the arrow to see the contact. What's not obvious at that point is that if you scroll down, you can add this to your address book (you cannot, however, specify to which group). I do this all the time. The form of contact that's created is very complete, including a map link.
And, of course, there's the App Store, which gets more amazing every day.

It's the deep integration though that really impresses me. Very elegant, very, I must admit, Apple.

Update: Oops. Looks like a minor iPhone glitch led me to think pushing the wake/sleep button when on a call would lock the screen. In truth it's supposed to disconnect the call. I do wish there was a way to lock the screen during calls. I switch to another app to avoid pressing keys that will interrupt the call.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Clarifi iPhone case - must buy now ... cannot resist ...

This is just painfully brilliant ...
Griffin Technology: Clarifi

... Slide the Clarifi lens into place over the built-in lens of your iPhone.... ... With Clarifi's lens, your iPhone can image an entire business card with astounding clarity.... you can move in to 4 inches for crisp detail and great pictures.

And, of course, Clarifi is also a super-protective case, constructed of durable polycarbonate, with cutaways for access to power switch, headphone jack, volume controls, and dock connector. For use with Apple Universal Dock wells, Clarifi features Griffin's trademark EasyDock™ design: the bottom third of the case slides down and off to fit in standard dock wells.

I cannot resist. It's not on sale yet, but now I'm glad I haven't found a case I really like.

Evernote will do offline OCR of scanned and uploaded images. I assume they do something special for business cards especially if you pay for their enhanced service. I assume an OCR app for the iPhone is on the way ...

The Devil's Due: Qwest has been good

I've had a few nasty things to say about Sprint and AT&T.

So I was surprised when I recently realized that I've gotten quite good service from Qwest. It's been a year since I switched ISPs ...
Gordon's Tech: I switch to Qwest DSL Platinum

... The tech person was, again, very good. She promptly gave me my Qwest un/pw and, for what it's worth, my MSN un/pw (guess I need a mail forwarder there [1]).

So far it's been fine. I'll update with this post as I learn how well it works, and, most of all, learn how much it will really cost....
My DSL works, speed seems adequate, I pay my bills. Qwest doesn't even spy on me. They don't even spam me.


Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Simple iPhone web app directory

iPhone Web Apps. A very simple list that renders well on the iPhone, from I had no idea Amazon had a web app interface.

Air Sharing: turn your iPhone into a file and web server

I have my copy:
Avatron Software: "Air Sharing's regular price is US$6.99. But don't miss this special introductory offer: For the first two weeks, Avatron Software will be giving Air Sharing away for FREE!"
So now my iPhone is a file server and and a web server. If you knew my IP address I suppose I could run my old web site off it.

Comes with a file viewer which did a fine job rendering a word doc.

This is a bit insane. Today I bought an HP41C emulator, got Air Sharing for free, and got a free upgrade to Apple's Remote app.

Ever since I found a fix for the "unknown error" on update bug the App Store has been my candy store. I'm already forgetting the suffering of switching from Palm to the iPhone...

The iPhone HP 41C emulator (i41CX) - because sometimes madness must be honored

An obsessed madman has created a full emulation of a legendary scientific calculator ...

Advanced programmable and expandable RPN scientific calculator with virtual thermal printer/plotter suitable for a wide variety of scientific, engineering, mathematical, financial, and academic applications.

  • RPN logic with 4 element stack
  • Powerful rich set of numeric and mathematical functions
  • Time, calendar, alarm, and stopwatch functions
  • 12 character display with alphanumeric capability
  • User definable keyboard with support for overlays
  • Expandability: four module ports provide access to additional functions (e.g. matrix operations, programmer functions, equation solvers, etc.) beyond the standard built-in functions
  • Ability to download module files from the internet
  • Program features: automatic line numbering, labels, branching, subroutines, interactive alphanumeric input/output, loop operations, indirect addressing, flag operations, and synthetic operations...
Note the word "HP" does not appear anywhere on this page or on the screens. It's just an "scientific calculator". Nudge-nudge.

It cost me $8 to buy this. I might use the timer, and I might use the calculator every few weeks.

I bought it because sometimes glorious madness must be honored.

Update 12/23/09: There's a comprehensive (of course) FAQ on the AL Software site and a mini-manual. The original HP 41C manual is probably a bit hard to come buy, but, inevitably, another wonderfully insane geek has an online version and the i41CX manual points to PDF scans of the original manuals (252 pages!). Yes, and there's domain.

The only mystery remaining is who wrote this incredible application. The answer can be found on the HP-41 archive website emulation page. (Or you could just look at the author credits on the "mini manual").

I must add that I've recently scanned the "mini-manual" and "staggering" comes to mind. For example:
... Need to solve first- or second-order differential equations? Need to perform complex number operations and functions? Need to perform vector operations? Coordinate transformations? Number conversions and Boolean logic? Curve fitting? Solve time value of money problems? These are essentially the problems for which the HP-15C and HP-16C were developed. The Advantage Pac provides these capabilities to the HP-41CX. Thus, by loading the Advantage Pac and creating the appropriate key assignments, you can turn the i41CX+ into a virtual HP-15C or HP-16C!...
Oookaay. And let's not mention the GPS tools.

Wow, Safari for Windows is bad ..

In the course of closing out the last remaining RSS reader options for an unusual setting, I put Safari for Windows through some simple tests as an RSS reader.

Wow, it's bad.

No, the RSS stuff is pretty good. Much better than Firefox 3, and probably comparable to IE 7.

Problem is, the was very flaky and slow to process the Sharepoint and Community Server feeds I gave it. If it clicked too many times during operations on the bookmarks and feeds it would crash.

I can see why Safari gets so little attention on XP. On OS X it's a reasonably competitive browser (I prefer Firefox because Google builds for FF), but on XP it's kind of bad.

Really, Apple should kill Safari on XP and focus on getting Webkit based Chrome working with Apple products.

RIP Onfolio - the last of the standalone XP feed readers

In my workplace we live in a time warp of Office 2003 and IE 6 running on XP. I doubt we're the only ones.

So we need older solutions for Sharepoint 2007 RSS subscriptions; solutions with integrated Windows authentication. Products like Newsgator Inbox, Omea Pro, and Onfolio.

These are products that have been ground into the dust by Outlook 2007 and IE 7. (Neither of which are comparable to Google Reader, but we're talking corporate settings here. The IE 7 reader, by the way, is much better than the Firefox native reader.)

Newsgator Inbox recently failed my personal quality tests. Not their problem necessarily, Outlook 2003 is a terrible place to operate in.

Omea Pro is way too big and complicated to contemplate for our users and environment. It would be like using an aircraft carrier for water skiing.

That leaves old Onfolio

I have used Onfolio at work for years, and I've been happy with it ... but it was clear Microsoft didn't want a 3rd feed reader (after IE 7 and Outlook 2007).

Now it's gone entirely ...
Windows Live Gallery

... Sorry, there's nothing that matches your search in any item's title, description, or tags. Try using different or fewer search terms to get more results. If you still can't find what you need, share your ideas in Gallery forums so others can create it....
Here's the death warrant. Even the old Onfolio domain,, redirects there.

RIP Onfolio. Sniff. You were good software.

So that leaves ... nothing at all.

Update 9/17/08: Not quite nothing. Peter C, a colleague of mine, reminded me of Sage RSS reader for Firefox. I used Sage four years ago (Google custom search, my memory lives upon you) but had forgotten about it. It's come a long way, and is still actively maintained. Firefox does not use the Windows authentication framework, so users will be asked for their passwords the first time authentication fails on a domain. The password is stored for the domain. So with each password change our users will see this dialog once for our Sharepoint sites. Not too bad as a holding measure until we get to IE 7 or Outlook 2007.

Update 3/12/09: Sage really didn't work for us, far too weak a feed reader. I tried Omea Reader, but it's also abandoned. So there's still nothing out there ...

Monday, September 15, 2008

Does our family really need an OS X spreadsheet?

We don't have a spreadsheet for our OS X machines. Sure, I could install Microsoft Office, but I'm not all that fond of Excel - and it's overkill for most of our family. Besides, it includes Word which I despise, and PowerPoint which I prefer to forget.

Running office is why I have VMWare Fusion -- I'd rather keep it off our Macs.

That leaves Google Spreadsheets, which we use extensively. That works for most things, but, for some odd reason unconnected to echoes of 1929, Emily wanted a way to review our investments. We're not quite ready to expose them to Google (which was recently found guilty of an astoundingly bone-headed security screw-up).

The data lived in a spreadsheet in our old XP box [1], so at first I thought it was time to get a Mac spreadsheet. There are a few options in addition to Excel ...
Pure Mac: Spreadsheets - Software for Macintosh

Mariner Calc
I don't have the time to mess with anything but very reliable products, so based on my personal experience that ruled out most of the open source options. We already have AppleWorks (works on 10.5), but the fonts look ugly with 10.5 and it is pretty darned old.

That left Mariner Calc, Numbers, and maybe Tables. Of these I'd probably opt for either Numbers (get Pages and Keynote for free) or Mariner Calc (simplest, fastest, most tested, great vendor). If they save as .xls I could still use Excel from the XP box for editing of the iMac served file.

Still, it's a lot of bother to buy and install a desktop app given that we use Google Spreadsheets so much and that we so rarely need one.

That's when I remembered FileMaker Pro - version 8 (!). Yes, old version. Still works on 10.5, though if you don't have web sharing disabled the first startup is very long. I have it on my XP machine and our Macs, so it's cross-platform. It's easy to create a mini-app with running totals, filters, search, links to our FileMaker password file, security, simplified menus, etc.

I don't have to do it all at once, the beauty of FileMaker is I can import the spreadsheet, make a few tweaks, and evolve from there. Bento can probably do something simpler in a similar way.

Between FileMaker Pro (Bento?) and Google Spreadsheet we might be able to go a very long time without a true OS X spreadsheet. In the unlikely event that my daughters early enthusiasm for math persists, we might end up with Mathematica or MathCad rather than Excel ...

[1] I used Quicken 2.0 -- and almost every Windows version since - as well as 4 years on Mac Classic versions. Somewhere between 1997 and 2005 Intuit's quality hit rock bottom. I still use Quicken and the quality may be improved now, but really I don't have time for it anymore. Intuit killed my enthusiasm some years ago.

It was never all that friendly for anyone but a regular user anyway. We make do with the simplest possible approach -- we have too much complexity everywhere else.

Stack Overflow: a brave new take on supporting software developers

I don’t code, but I’m a frequent customer of sites that claim to support software developers. I can vouch for Joel Spolsky’s critique of existing sites – and it’s a critique that applies to technical support sites in general. Lots of options, quality low, extinction rate high, spam attacks severe.

Between Jeff Atwood and Joel Spolsky and their friends and supporters, this one has a chance to be different. It uses a combination of private funding with a community wiki and voting/reputation management infrastructure.

I’ll be adding it to the top of my custom search engines (every software person needs a custom search engine). Here’s Joel on the service (emphases mine) …

Stack Overflow Launches - Joel on Software

You know what drives me crazy? Programmer Q&A websites. You know what I’m talking about. You type a very specific programming question into Google and you get back:

  • A bunch of links to discussion forums where very unknowledgeable people are struggling with the same problem and getting nowhere,
  • A link to a Q&A site that purports to have the answer, but when you get there, the answer is all encrypted, and you’re being asked to sign up for a paid subscription plan,
  • An old Usenet post with the exact right answer—for Windows 3.1—but it just doesn’t work anymore,
  • And something in Japanese.

If you’re very lucky, on the fourth page of the search results, if you have the patience, you find a seven-page discussion with hundreds of replies, of which 25% are spam advertisements posted by bots trying to get googlejuice for timeshares in St. Maarten, yet some of the replies are actually useful, and someone whose name is “Anon Y. Moose” has posted a decent answer, grammatically incorrect though it may be, and which contains a devastating security bug, but this little gem is buried amongst a lot of dreck….

Well, technology has gotten better since those discussion forums were set up. I thought that the programming community could do better by combining the idea of a Q&A site with voting and editing.

Would it work? I had no idea. And it looked like there was no way to find out, because everyone at Fog Creek was really busy so nobody had any time to build this.

Then, out of the blue, Jeff Atwood called me up. His own blog, Coding Horror, was starting to rack in the dough, and he was trying to figure out if that meant he could quit his day job and just blog.

Pattern-matching rules fired in my brain. The hardest thing about making a new Q&A site is not the programming—it’s the community. You need a large audience of great developers so you have the critical mass it takes to get started. Without critical mass, questions go unanswered and the site becomes a ghost town. I thought the combination of my audience (#15 on Bloglines) and Jeff’s (#89) would bring enough great developers into the site to reach critical mass on day one. So Jeff and I decided to go in together on this.

… After a very short, five-week private beta, we’re opening Stack Overflow to the public today…

… Every question in Stack Overflow is like the Wikipedia article for some extremely narrow, specific programming question. How do I enlarge a fizzbar without overwriting the user’s snibbit? This question should only appear once in the site. Duplicates should be cleaned up quickly and redirected to the original question.

Some people propose answers. Others vote on those answers. If you see the right answer, vote it up. If an answer is obviously wrong (or inferior in some way), you vote it down. Very quickly, the best answers bubble to the top. The person who asked the question in the first place also has the ability to designate one answer as the “accepted” answer, but this isn’t required. The accepted answer floats above all the other answers.

Already, it’s better than other Q&A sites, because you don’t have to read through a lot of discussion to find the right answer, if it’s in there somewhere.

Indeed, you can’t even have a discussion. A lot of people come to Stack Overflow, not knowing what to expect, and try to conduct a discussion when they should be answering the question. The trouble here is that answers are always listed in order of votes, not chronologically, so the discussion instantly becomes scrambled when the votes start coming in.

Instead, we have editing. Once you’ve earned a little bit of reputation in the system (and there are all kinds of ways to earn reputation), you can edit questions and answers….

… There are lots of good ways to edit things. You can improve spelling, grammar, and even copy edit any question or answer to make it better. After all, for the next 20 years, this question will be the canonical place on the web where programmers will come to find out about enlarging fizzbars without overwriting snibbits. Anything you can do to clarify, explain, or improve the question or the answer will be a public service. If there’s code in the answer, you can debug it, refactor it, or tweak it to make it better.

You can also improve on the answers. If an answer is incomplete, expand on it. If an answer has a bug in it or is obsolete, you can edit it and fix it. Because Q&A in Stack Overflow are editable, you can safely link to a Stack Overflow permalink knowing it will always have a good answer. Stack Overflow won’t have the problem of other sites where obsolete or incorrect answers have high Google PageRank simply because they’ve been on the Internet for so long. If someone finds a security bug in an answer, it can be fixed… it won’t keep coming up in Google’s results for years and years poisoning future code.

Want to know an easy way to earn reputation? Find a question somewhere with several good, but incomplete, answers. Steal all the answers and write one long, complete, detailed answer which is better than the incomplete ones. Sit back and earn points while people vote up your comprehensive answer.

In addition to voting on answers, you can vote on questions. Vote up a question if you think it’s interesting, if you’d like to know the answer, or if you think it’s important. The hot tab on the home page will show some of the highest-ranked recent questions using an algorithm similar to digg or Reddit. If you’re generally interested in programming and want to learn something new every day, visit the hot tab frequently.

Want to test your knowledge? Visit the Unanswered tab. Right now, you just see a list of questions with no answers (and there are very few), but in the near future, we’ll actually tailor the list to show you questions that we think you have a chance of answering, based on questions you’ve successfully answered in the past.

We have tags. Every question is tagged so, for example, if you’re a Ruby guru, you can ignore everything but Ruby and just treat Stack Overflow as a great Ruby Q&A site. A single question can have multiple tags, so you don’t have to figure out which single category it fits in best. Like everything else, the tags can be edited by good-natured individuals to help keep things sorted out neatly. And you can have a little fun: stick a homework tag on those questions where someone seems to be asking how to delete an item from a linked list…

… What kind of questions are appropriate? Well, thanks to the tagging system, we can be rather broad with that. As long as questions are appropriately tagged, I think it’s okay to be off topic as long as what you’re asking about is of interest to people who make software. But it does have to be a question. Stack Overflow isn’t a good place for imponderables, or public service announcements, or vague complaints, or storytelling.

I’m extremely excited about Stack Overflow. It’s fast and clean. It costs us practically nothing to operate, so we won’t need to plaster it with punch-the-monkey ads; we plan to keep it free and open to the public forever. And it might make it a little bit easier to be a programmer.

Think you know how to update OS X?

You only think you know how.

I thought I knew too, but I've learned better. Not even Daring Fireball's update process mentions removing the network cable, but I now know that's essential:
Gordon's Tech: OS X major version updates - my approach

.... Pull the network cable (see below). You can plug it in when you need to get software updates. Nowadays there are all sorts of things a partly updated machine can destroy if it can get a the net....
An old version of MobileMe, launched on startup, can destroy your cloud data. Not to mention Spanning Sync, Missing Sync, etc, etc.

Pull the ethernet cable, disable the wireless -- heck, pull your home net connection!

I'll keep updating my post on OS X upgrades as I learn and see more. I'm right to approach this process the way I'd approach a rabid wolf ...

OS X 10.5 bug 5: archive and install cross-user startup (login) item application

In the course of updating my MacBook and iMac to 10.5 I've previously documented four significant bugs (though the last may, after some fixes, have limited impact):
Now I can add a fifth bug [1].

The Archive and Install form of the update process (this or clean install are the only safe choices, both have big issues) applied login items belonging to my wife's user account to my own account. I suspect it applied them to all accounts, but I haven't dug through the rest yet.

So her Missing Sync for Blackberry was running in my account -- at the same time as my instance of Spanning Sync was running (both products come from two unrelated and very good vendors).

Now I'm not a registered user of Missing Sync for Blackberry, so it shouldn't have run. But I am a registered user of a recently uninstalled verison of Missing Sync for Palm. Somehow remnants of both, whch both use the OS X sync services, interacted with an old Mark/Space data file that the Mark/Space uninstaller left in my library (I wish uninstallers were better at removing Library data folders, though this remnant might have been living in a Sync Services folder.)

This all caused a sync storm, with lots of reconciliation tasks. Unfortunately the current version of Spanning Sync doesn't give users much feedback about what it's doing, but that will change with version 2.0 (in beta).

I removed the errant login items and hunted down old Missing Sync data folders in my Library. The Sync Storm seems to be over, now I just have to clean up the wreckage.

Sync is hard. Bugs are bad. Sync bugs are the worst.

There's a broader lesson here, beyond my oft-expressed hope that Apple will concentrate on quality and bug fixes for 10.6.

Today's computers (I use XP at least as much as OS X, it's at least as bad) are absolutely not suited for non-geeks. I think my original DOS 2.1 computer was more non-geek friendly -- if only because it was so limited. The original Apple or Commodore GEOS systems were probably the best non-geek machines.

In some ways browser-based single vendor solutions are a move back to the limited power and relative simplicity of those days.

[1] Many of these bugs were fixed in 10.5.4 -- but as of a few months ago Apple still shipped 10.5.2 on their update/install DVD. So even those of us smart enough to avoid 10.5 until now are bit by these bugs. Bad choice Apple.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Screen Sharing in Leopard is a toy feature

When Leopard came out, I was very excited about the screen sharing feature. I thought I'd buy the OS in Jan 2008 for that feature alone, but there were so many bugs I waited until Sept 2008 to update my main machine.

During that long wait there was great excitement about how useful Screen Sharing in Leopard 10.5 was.


Actually, there was total silence. A very suspicious total silence.

Which made it easier for me to wait until 10.5 was halfway decent; I knew my original expectations wouldn't be met.

Today, with both the MacBook and iMac running 10.5, I launched my long delayed test. It took about five minutes to make the call.

I'll keep it short. Leopard's VNC-based screen sharing is a toy compared to Citrix or Microsoft Remote Desktop.

Yes, it's marginally better than the worthless VNC tools I've previously used on OS X, but only someone who'd never used Citrix or Remote Desktop could think this imagine this VNC based solution was in any way comparable.

It is suitable only for use with iChat to do remote debugging, or with 'back to your desktop' to retrieve little fragments of data.

Typing lag is intolerable. The "scaling" is bitmap, not vector. There's no automatic vector resolution matches to the current display (which Microsoft has done for about 10 years).

The remote window is hemmed by the usual OS X chrome, so the usable screen space is very small. Keystrokes are not adequately captured; for example, I can't run LaunchBar on the remote display as the the local app captures my keystrokes.

Apple once marketed screen sharing as the #4 feature in Leopard, a few steps behind Time Machine (which has so far been of no use to me). Clearly Leopard was not about providing new features to users -- it was really about moving the development platform along.

OS X 10.5 was originally supposed to have a scalable Quartz-based UI with (screen) resolution independence. I can imagine that there was a screen sharing solution that went with that scalable UI, and that it was a serious Citrix/RDP competitor. Apple pulled the scalable UI before 10.5 was released; given how troubled 10.5 was, we know they made the right decision. Maybe, after the scalable UI was lost, Apple jammed this VNC solution in to fill the hole.

I'm sure I'll find a few uses for it, but nothing like what I was hoping for.

Update 9/27/08: BTW, you can only connect to the current user session. If it were possible to connect to a background session I'd have given screen sharing some points. It's obvious by the lack of objection to Apple's marketing that this is one of those capabilities that the vast majority of users really don't need or want!