Thursday, April 30, 2009

Testing Firefox 3.5b4

Firefox 3 has been very slow on a single CPU PPC G5 iMac. It quickly pegs my CPU.

Happily Safari 4beta has been a great improvement over Safari 3, and Google's Safari (4) support is finally respectable. So I've been using Safari -- really for the first time. (Camino runs into too many Google oddities, otherwise I'd use it over FF 3. We do use Camino on an ancient G3 iBook running 10.3 -- and it's marvelous there.)

Now, however, James Fallows reminds me that FF 3.5b4 is a real option. I've started testing ...
Welcome to Firefox 3.5 Beta 4

... This release is being made available for testing purposes only. You should read the release notes before getting started.

We want to hear all of your thoughts about this beta, especially if you encounter broken sites or other web weirdness. Drag this feedback button onto your bookmarks toolbar and click on it when you have something to tell us...
I know how to test it.

First impressions? It's fast and responsive so far, and my CPU is running at about 35-50% -- which is about the same as Safari. The mouse wheel scrolling is particularly smooth, and Macintosh copy/cut shortcuts work in the rich text editor (not sure that's new, I switch platforms so often it's all a bit automatic).

The release notes mention ...
  • There are Gmail oddities, fix by refresh
  • Uses Tracemonkey - so faster Javascript, maybe fewer memory leaks
  • Location aware browsing (I'll turn it on of course)
  • HTML 5 offline storage (like webkit and chrome)
Updates to come, but this feels like a good one.

Update: Google Gears is not compatible with the beta (unsurprisingly). So you'll lose offline Gmail if you install. Also I found one bug. In a multi-user OS X machine the install reports a privileges error if another user is active, even if FF is not in use in the the other session.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

OS X parental controls - bug?

Yes, my eldest is of that age.

So I'm checking out the Parental Controls ... and I discover they only go back a month. When I change the date range to anything over a month no information is displayed at all!

Since you can't export or otherwise analyze the logs they're not terribly useful anyway -- but they also don't work.

Apple really doesn't take children seriously -- I'm not sure they believe in them! This didn't used to be true -- parental features in Classic were excellent, as was Simple Finder.

None of that survived OS X, and it's clear Apple doesn't really test this stuff. I figure they put it in to keep regulators of their backs.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

FMTouch – the closest thing to FileMaker for iPhone?

I’d been hoping FileMaker would do an iPhone version, like the one they did for the Palm.

They haven’t. This morning I decided on a whim to look if there was any rumor in the blogs I read. Google Reader search turned up an older post that led me to FMTouch - FileMaker Mobile Software for the iPhone and iPod touch.

They’re at version 1.35 now; it is supposed to work with FileMaker 8 – 10 (I’m on version 8; FM Inc hasn’t done anything of interest to me for a while – I’m only on v8 because OS X required an update).

Problem is, it’s $70, and there’s no “LITE” version to test with.

Other signs are not incredibly encouraging.

The App Store reviews are marginal; some of the more positive ones smell suspicious. The app is reasonably popular, but the vendor’s blog has been pretty quiet and the web site has been poorly maintained (ex. “A new updated user Guide will be available 9/12” and I don’t think they mean 9/12/09). The “tutorial” on sync is a screencast only. I can’t find any reviews from my usual trusted sources.

I’m tempted ... but it smells wrong. I’m going to see if FileMaker does anything when version 3.0 comes out.

Update 4/27/09: An FMTouch developer wrote in with a detailed response to this post. I'll update with an excerpt later, but for now see also an unrelated comment below.

So FMTouch is not "smelly" to me any more, and I'm even more tempted. They'd benefit enormously from a web site refresh and a "LITE" version that would serve as a "trial" app (since the app store doesn't support trial versions). I'm going to review the app store money-back guarantee procedure; maybe that will make it easier for me to pull the trigger.

Update 4/27/09b: The FMTouch developer posted a response in comments, and also wrote a less diplomatic response on the FMTouch blog (subsequently amended so it's quite diplomatic now). This is a passionate group of developers, and that's a good thing.

Update 4/27/09c: Six more passionate comments from happy users. Ok, Ok, I'll buy the damned thing tonight! Sheesh. Review to come in future. This was not one of my better posts!

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Firefox for OS X bug: non-admin user and auto-update

With Firefox 3 a non-admin OS X user cannot uncheck the "update Firefox" advanced option. The checkbox is grayed out.

Only admin users can uncheck "update Firefox".

This is wrong.

Video Chat for elder parents over OS X: Google Video/Gmail, Google Notifier, Firefox and LogMeIn

This is a bit complex to describe fully, but I hope these hints will be of use.

Briefly, I wanted to be able to establish a video chat connection to my elderly parents. Since we both use OS X and both have at least one Intel machine I considered iChat and Google Video Chat. I didn’t consider Skype or Yahoo because that would introduce new account issues and because, as best I can tell, Google has the best technology and no worse reliability than Skype or Yahoo.

I was unimpressed with iChat; it needs to be shot (see also). That left Google Video Chat, but it has a hellacious user interface. In fact, it has the lowest usability of just about any app I routinely use. Not well suited for my 80% blind and very arthritic mother. (I’m sure that will change when Google integrates GVC with Google Voice, but really Google needs all those usability people who’ve recently quite in disgust.)

At the same time I was exploring remote maintenance options and finally settled on LogMeIn Free.

This is the combination of technologies I’ve now cobbled together:

  • Gmail/Google Video Chat: My mother’s email is managed via a Google account, even though she reads it using OS X Mail (IMAP). So she had an account.
  • Google Notifier: In theory this keeps my mother logged in to Gmail so she doesn’t have to know her username and password. In practice I’m not sure this works; these day’s I might try FF with local caching instead.
  • Logitech QuickCam Pro
  • Firefox: For better or worse this is what my mother is accustomed to
  • LogMeIn Free.
  • I created a deskbar shortcut with is simple a Gmail desktop shortcut with the iChat icon pasted into it. So it looks like a Chat app.

Here’s how it works

  1. I initiate the call from my Macbook using Firefox
  2. I use LogMeIn to take control of my mother’s machine using Safari. Then I “answer” my own call (not hard).
  3. I resize the window for my mother then drop the remote control connection.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Best ever subscription page

Kevin Kelly -- KK* Lifestream is too energetic. He's a one person blogging machine, with an exotic seeming blog platform all his own.

I particularly appreciated his subscription page, including feedburner email notifications.

Best I've ever seen. I'll have to give him a try.

Submit your product ideas for Blogger

Google is now soliciting product ideas for Blogger.

Be sure to vote for any BlogThis! suggestion and take a look at all my suggestions.

Update: I'm not impressed with the popular requests, and I'm surprised how many voted against my (flawless) suggestions! In fact none of the suggests I liked are getting much traction.

FreeMyFeed - Getting Twitter feed to Google Reader

I've been using Facebook's Twitter Application so that my "tweets" (hate that word, not that "blog" is a fave either) go to Facebook. That's handy since there are lots of convenient apps on various platform for creating twitter updates -- and it lets me simultaneously communicate with my very few friends who are Twitter-centric.

 I don't want to have monitor Twitter and Facebook for updates however. So I've turned off all the FB email notices and I've added the wall and notification Facebook feeds to Google Reader.

That does a great job for FB -- better than the native app really. Unfortunately Twitter uses authentication rather than unique URLs, and Google Reader doesn't support authentication.

Which is where FreeMyFeed (Free Your Feed From Authentication) comes in. You provide the service with your Twitter credentials, then it encrypts them into a Feed URL that you keep. When requested FreeMyFeed decrypts the URL and logs in. Yes, there are obvious trust issues here.

FreeMyFeed claims they don't store the Twitter credentials, but of course they could cheat. So if you go down this route use a unique pw with Twitter that's not tied to anything important -- that way only your Twitter account is at risk. With this method I can monitor both Twitter and FB from Google Reader.

Oh, and Twitter needs to adopt the same "secret URL" approach everyone else uses. The authentication requirement for Twitter feeds is extremely annoying.

Update: You can also use Yahoo Pipes to make an authenticated feed accessible to Google Reader and FeedBurner. I might try the latter.

Update 2: I switched to the FeedBurner technique because it turns out (who knew) my Gmail authentication also gives me FeedBurner authentication ( The way you encode the authentication credentials is a bit gross (see the link) but it works quite well: "you now need to add your twitter username and password into the link as follows"

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Brother MFC machine scan to USB features

I've long wanted a home scanner that would scan to local or network storage without intervention. In the 1990s I thought about ways to add such a facility to an existing scanner, but it didn't make business case. About 3-4 years ago scan PDF to network shares appeared in our office machines and my Brother MFC -7820N, and now our office scanners store PDF scans on an internal drive.

It's a fantastic feature, but the 7820N implementation is quirky. It doesn't work well with multi-user machines and it requires an oddball embedded server run on the recipient machine.

Today I discovered that the Brother MFC-9440CN will scan to a local USB store. Based on the Scan to USB documentation this is now available for 3 networked multi-function machines


The MFC-9440CN was first introduced in 2007 (and is probably about to be replaced, so it's on sale now) and I'm writing about this now. Since this is a feature I'm extremely interested in I think there's a bit of a marketing failure here.

Brother's web site has some additional documentation ...

Scan | Brother

  1. Scan to USB
    Brother’s Scan to USB enables you to scan documents direct to a USB memory device without the need to start up your PC. This means you can make digitised copies of documents immediately, including handwritten meeting notes, certificates, business cards, and drawings so you can be sure everything has been captured on the USB memory drive for later use.
  2. Scan to file
    Save scanned data into a selected folder for easy information sharing.
  3. Scan to FTP ...

Both options 1 and 3 are great for us. I could easily setup an FTP server on my OS X machine that would work in a multi-user environment, and of course the USB function is very simple. The Amazon reviews suggests this feature works, though they also point out that the replacement toner cartridges are fantastically expensive and that B&W printing drains the color toner [1]

I'm going to have to look into these capabilities. The fact that they're not marketed more widely does emphasize what a weird bird I am ...

[1] Every vendor I know of is guilty of some form of toner scam. It's an instance of irresistible emergent fraud. In the case of my Brother MFC -7820N the cartridge stops working even when it has ample residual toner. You cover up a transparent port to get a few more months of light duty printing. The scams for these color printers are substantially nastier.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Google Reader share broken? Check your Friends list

Google has been flailing about with their Profile / Social graph strategy.

Recently they refactored Gmail/Google Contacts, and created a new classification of contacts: "Friends", "Family" and "Coworkers". The result broke some of my Google Reader shared feeds.

More details here:
Gordon's Notes: Google's confusing social graph strategy: Google reader friends via Google Chat

... Jacob R is seeing my shares, we have a [Google] chat relationship, but I'm not seeing his shares. I added his share stream as a distinct feed for now. ... turns out when Google switched to their even more befuddled social strategy I wasn't in Jacob's "Friends" group, so his sharing feed went away. He added me in and it reappeared....

...Google has things set up so you do the feed stream share thingie with ONE of (not both of)
  • Your chat contacts
  • "Friends" as defined by Gmail - "Friends, Family, and Coworkers are groups to help you organize your contacts. You can move contacts in and out of these groups at any time. Various Google products let you share information with people in these groups.
    In addition, you can create a Google profile to help people in these groups keep in touch with you. They will be able to easily find your profile from various Google products."
In both cases of course the Chat contact or Gmail Friend must have as an email address the Gmail address associated with their Google Reader shares....
Just imagine how this hairball plays out when you introduce synchronization of Google Contacts with external contact stores.

It's a Googlicious screw-up.

Now waiting for version 3 ...

Google Voice iPhone apps coming out

The first entry I know of is GVdialer from MobileMax (these are being filed under "Productivity" in the App Store directory). Unfortunately the early reviews are devastating; happily reviewers are getting their money back.

GVdialer is being relaunched at a lower price point, but I can wait.

iPhonefreak has a very encouraging review of GV Mobile that mentions a few others ...
Aside from GV Mobile, there are also three other Google Voice apps for the iPhone that I am aware of. They include VoiceCentral, GVdialer and a third that I cannot name just yet..
I've read that there's no Google Voice API yet, so all apps need to do the modern equivalent of "screen scraping". Even so they're able to offer some great features like Contacts integration, SMS integration (no charge for sending!) and outgoing calls showing one's GV number rather than the mobile phone number.

Of course Google has a "mobile" web client for GV, but it's miserable. I prefer to simply call my GV number from my phone, tap '2', then tap in the number I'm dialing, tap # and go. Since I'm really only calling one number from GV that's tolerable for now. I assume they'll deliver something better in time but I bet they're currently focusing on the GV API (that's where things get even more fun).

Unless the initial reviews are as bad as those for GVdialer, I'll be reporting on my GV Mobile experiences once that app is available. It will launch with a free "lite" version as well as the pay version -- that's a good sign of a quality product in the rapidly evolving App store scene.

Geek joy.

PS. I'm so impressed by the iPhoneFreak review I'm adding them to my bloglist for a test.

TripIt - trying them out

I don't see how they can possibly build the "TripIt" communities they want, but with some reservations I'm giving TripIt | Online travel itinerary and trip planner a try.

The trick is that once your email addresses are registered (and I assume you need to register them for work, home, etc), you can email itineraries of various forms and TripIt managers them and also organizes them into calendars that have .ICS feeds.

Then you add the .ICS feed to Google Calendar and you can view them there. Presumably you can also copy appointments into Google Calendar.

Since I sync Google Calendars to my iPhone this is appealing.

More when I have some experience to report. They also have some LinkedIn support ...

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Facebook - getting your photos

Most sites tip toe around data lock. They wanna own you, but they try to be nice about it.

Google is different. Not perfect, but they really have a data liberation front.

Facebook is different too. They don't pretend to be nice. They'd take their users' ovaries if they could get 'em.

I was struck by that when I decided I'd try to download a photo I'd put on FB. Right. No export option.

There's a way to do it though. - Photo Download is a free OS X and Win app for retrieving images from Facebook.

So Facebook could be even nastier than they are. Still, they're bad.

Update: When you retrieve your images this way you still lose the image metadata, such as date and location.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Apple idiocy: iPhoto '09's biggest feature is not documented: sharing

What the #$!$!@% is Apple thinking?!

Would it kill them to document this kind of feature?!
TidBITS Media Creation: 10 Undocumented Changes in iPhoto '09 8.0.2
Sharing via the Shared Folder -- Another major annoyance with versions of iPhoto prior to iPhoto '09 was that you couldn't just put your iPhoto Library in the /Users/Shared folder to share it among multiple accounts on the same Mac, since iPhoto always set the permissions on thumbnails to the account that imported the photos, preventing other accounts from editing those photos and having the edits reflected in the thumbnails.

That limitation has now been fixed in iPhoto '09, so you can share an iPhoto library merely by moving it to /Users/Shared and then double-clicking it to open in iPhoto from each account. You may be prompted to repair permissions on the first access - click the Repair button to do that. Note that this also works for storing an iPhoto library on an external hard disk that's shared among users or on a network volume for access across a fast network.

Only one person may access a shared iPhoto library at a time...
Hell's bells, this is huge for us. This means that I now have to think about either buying iLife '09 or buying a bloody new machine and getting it for free.

The only things they could fix that would be comparable would be if they came up with a viable approach to managing video fragments in iPhoto or if Apple were to trigger the end of time by supporting iPhoto Library import/merging. (Yes, I know about IPLM, I've been a customer for about four years.)

Does Apple not want to sell anything?!

The only reason I can think of for this being undocumented is that there's a catch somewhere -- something that doesn't work quite right. I'll add a comment to that effect to the Tidbits article.

Facebook, Twitter, iPhone, Google Reader: Update with FB feed information

I've been experimenting with Facebook and Twitter again.

The net result is I find Facebook oddly interesting and Twitter still puzzling. Facebook in particualr is proof that usability is not a requirement for critical success. I see the point of this NYT Magazine article:

... Facebook users didn’t think they wanted constant, up-to-the-minute updates on what other people are doing. Yet when they experienced this sort of omnipresent knowledge, they found it intriguing and addictive...

I suspect the Lesser Depression is a powerful tonic for social networking sites. In my case the Twitter retry was triggered by a (voluntarily) departed colleague who does Twitter and the FB reboot was motivated by a critical mass of friends and acquaintances on FB. Both experiments have been aided by solid iPhone app clients.

Some quick comments and potentially useful references ...
  • Tech for Luddites: Read, Send, and Share Tweets on Facebook: showed me how to get Twitter posts to show up on my FB wall. My impression was that it would also enable FB to Twitter posts but that hasn't worked (either my error or a security setting or a bug). The author of this blog is a few steps ahead of me so I'm learning a lot from her current and past posts.
  • I added the Google Reader Share app to my FB page, but it was posting unpredictably. Sometimes it would concatenate my shared items into a paragraph of many links (good), sometimes it woudl create individual wall posts (bad, too much volume). I had to remove it.
  • I experimented with the RSS app, but it generated "notes" which don't seem to fit the current FB sharing model
  • I turned off the majority of the FB email notifications, instead I subscribe by feed to Events and Friends updates [1 - the friends updates subscription is gone]. So my mail is not interrupted, and I pick up FB activity when I use Google Reader. (I found a FB bug -- if I turn off too many email notifications at once FB doesn't save my preferences. I had to turn them off in 3-4 sets.)
  • I've reviewed and played with the copious privacy configuration options, but I treat anything I post to FB as though it were going to my kids, my friends, the FBI, my parents, my boss, my company's customers, etc. So not super bland, but my pseudonymous blogs are much more interesting.
  • LinkedIn is my corporate identity, Facebook is my personal "face", and the blogs are my alternative identity. So far, a reasonable balance and an interesting experiment.
  • Facebook is very big on "data lock". So I don't put anything there I want to keep. So I won't be putting photo albums, etc on FB. I treat FB as an information black hole -- data goes in, but can't be extracted. (Yeah, I know this is bad physics, it's a metaphor!)
  • I don't get the groups and events features on FB, it feels like they've been deprecated.
Update 8/26/09: Facebook has removed the status update feed. The feed I have in Google Reader still works, but it's no longer possible to create a new status update feed. The notification feed is still available (see bottom of the All Notifications screen). Yelvington has published a workaround to reproduce the old status update feed URL. Like him I wonder how long this will work ...
Here's how to get your status as an RSS feed.

1. Log into facebook.
2. Click on "Inbox."
3. Click on the "Notifications" tab.
4. Find the RSS link under "Subscribe to notifications" and copy it. THIS IS NOT THE RIGHT LINK but it contains essential information.
5. COPY the link URL arguments -- everything to the right of the "?" in the URL. This should looks something like id=563407515&viewer=563407515&key=1234aa32e7&format=rss20.
6. Attach the string you copied above this URL:

You now have a feed URL that will deliver YOUR status updates. You should TEST THIS URL using a browser that is NOT logged into Facebook. If you get an RSS feed containing your updates, this is valid...
I assume FB removed this to keep Facebook as closed as possible, and, importantly, this feed bypassed FB's access controls. I really miss it though and I'm glad it still works.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Nisus Writer Professional: the undocumented but critical improvement

A year ago I was disappointed to learn that Nisus Writer Professional didn't handle inserted images very well ...
Gordon's Tech: Nisus Writer Professional - the manual is a work of love

... NWP doesn't do image compression! Word has fabulous image compression, so a 2MB Word document can balloon into a 32MB NWP/NWE document....
I'm now on version 1.2, but there's been no reference to any change in how NWP handles images.

Today I retested with a 2.5MB JPEG (high quality compression). An uncompressed TIFF version of this image is 20MB and a compressed PNG is 10MB

Prior to testing an empty Nisus RTF document was 32K. After insertion it was 5MB.

So Nisus is now doing some form of image compression when documents are saved.

This is a big deal for me, but obviously not for most buyers!

I'm glad they made the fix, I feel better now about sticking with NWP.

Google Gmail voice and video chat - soon interoperable with other video chat?

GVC 1.0.8 is out. This is very interesting (emphases mine) ...

juberjabber: Gmail voice and video v1.0.8

... Added support for the H.264/AVC video codec, in addition to the H.264/SVC codec that we typically use. This allows us to be compatible with video software that does not yet support SVC. When using H.264/AVC, Gmail video chat will send and expect in-band parameter sets, and send using a single-NAL RTP packetization....

I'm not aware of any form of publicly available video chat that interoperates. The Apple article on QuickTime H.264 is illuminating ...

... Ratified as part of the MPEG-4 standard (MPEG-4 Part 10), this ultra-efficient technology gives you excellent results across a broad range of bandwidths, from 3G for mobile devices to iChat AV for video conferencing to HD for broadcast and DVD

So will Google Video Chat interoperate with OS X iChat? And what about that new iPhone ...

Update: A paste typo messed up the previous edition

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Great set of iPhone apps to investigate

What's On (My) iPhone includes a Flash widget for that justifies the "First Screen" application set of an iPhone power user. Both the apps and the justifications are interesting.

I can see there will come a day when I might consider paying AT&T their SMS tax. (Though I'm hoping iPhone 3 may avert that.)

iPhone car charger solutions

There were a lot of things about my iPhone that bugged me 6 months ago. Some of them will persist, others have been fixed, or I've found workarounds, or they should be fixed with version 3.

There's one in particular, however, that still burns. Apple stopped supporting 12V (firewire, automotive adapter) charging for iPods and iPhones.

This meant that a large number of integrated automotive solutions, from low end car chargers to high end automotive sound systems, including my SONY radio and my Griffin FM transmitter stopped, working.

Apple never explained - of course.

This one decision earned Apple a lot of customer ire, and affirmed my desire for more Fear in Apple's future.

I've purchased a number of cheap USB chargers car chargers, but they've been very unreliable and many don't work with my iPhone. Meanwhile my reliable firewire/12V car adapters go unused. I've spitefully refused to purchase a new adapter, but our latest family trip convinced me I need to give in. My phone kept running out of juice about 3 pm. After six months of use the iPhone can't make it through the day. Map use, email, gaming, GPS, entertainment, push calendar sync, occasional conversation -- it's too much for a middle-aged battery.

I need regular power for the computer.

So I had to look at what's available. I know from past experience that unbranded chargers/adapters are worthless. The device has to have a good name and the negative Amazon reviews can't be too bad. Kensington devices look like they have some quality issues, so that leaves one of my favorite vendors - Griffin.

From Griffin we have:
The latter two are good options. On balance I think I'll take a try on the firewire to USB converter, even though there are no Amazon reviews yet. That would allow me to use several devices I already own. Griffin has a 30 day return policy so if it doesn't work out I can send it back. I may also buy the PowerJolt separately.

Update 5/5/09: The PowerJolt for iPhone is perfect, I asked Amazon to correct the listing. Even better, the Firewire to USB converter also works!