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Telecom: New Zealand’s leading Internet Service Preventer

Posted by steve on Jan 11, 2013 in international, internet, New Zealand

You don’t know, it is indeed true, what you’ve got ’til it’s gone. My family and I were reminded rather rudely over the last couple of days how much we rely on our Internet connection — the lovely and talented Mrs. McCabe is a telecommuting web and print designer, and Teenage Daughter’s social life is mediated almost entirely via Twitter and Skype; I have been known, occasionally, to use the Internet too — when our ISP here in New Zealand, Telecom, suffered a series of rather catastrophic outages.

The first signs, for me, came when I tried to check my email. I opened up my MacBook Pro, only to find, by the names of mailboxes in my inbox, exclamation-mark-inside-triangle warning signs. Next stop was Safari, but attempts to view Web pages returned nothing more than an error message telling me “You are not connected to the Internet. This page cannot be displayed because you are currently offline.” Something, then, was wrong; it was time to figure out what.

This was clearly something a little more troubling than a Web page not wanting to load. If I find a page, especially a page from a site that I know is usually reliable, simply will not show itself, then I try surfing to the New Zealand Herald’s Web site. This isn’t because I expect news of my potential Internet outage to make headline news — even New Zealand rarely has slow news days that slow. No, I visit that site because I know that it is, typically, a snappy and reliable site. If the Herald’s front page shows itself, I know that the problem is likely with a sluggish server at the site I had originally wanted to visit; if the Herald similarly fails to show, then it’s time to start looking at my connection. When I lived in Florida, I used the BBC’s news site — it, similarly, tended to be quite responsive. Google, or Apple, or any other well-resourced, well-equipped site can serve as an effective test site; I’d avoid Facebook, though, simply because, in my experience at least, it tends not to be the absolute last word in speed and performance; at any rate, it is a good idea to have a mental list of reliable sites that can be used as a first step in trying to diagnose a problem.

Last week’s problem, though, was clearly much more widespread. My first step, then, was to check my local network connection. I have a WiFi network at home, powered by a couple of Airport base stations, and shared with the rest of the family. Teenage Daughter saved me the trouble of having to ask her if she was also offline — a cry from her room that “The Internet’s broken!” let me know quite unequivocally. Evidence was now pointing to the problem being outside my laptop.

In my home network, and likely in many similar setups, the next item upstream, and the first shared element, is an Airport base station. Rather than try to troubleshoot it, my next step was to eliminate it altogether. My thinking here was simple — if I connect my MacBook Pro directly to my DSL modem, and if I can then connect to the Internet, then the problem lies with my base station; if I can’t, then the problem is further upstream. So I unplugged the Ethernet cable connecting modem and base station from the base station, and connected it directly to the Ethernet port on the side of my laptop — still no joy. I opened System Preferences on my laptop, and selected the Network pane. My Ethernet connection had, apparently, an IP address, suggesting that my DSL modem was behaving itself.

The next step was one that I don’t enjoy having to take, for the simple reason that, due to constraints of space, my DSL modem is located in a rather inaccessible spot. As a result, I can’t easily see the state of the lights on the top of the modem. But, because it was now looking necessary, I reached the thing out from its cranny and saw that one of the four lights was out. Getting to know the standard state of your modem, be it DSL or cable — or, if you’re lucky enough, as we hope to be in a year or so, to have it, fibre — modem might seem unnecessary, but at times like this, it’s a useful little piece of knowledge.

The light that wasn’t lit was the one labelled PPPoE; this told me that all my hardware was doing its best to connect, but that the problem appeared to be not at my end but with Telecom, my ISP, an abbreviation which, in Telecom’s case at least, appeared to stand for Internet Service Preventer. “Have you turned it off and back on again?” is the usual question at this point. But there is a better step to take than that. Most modems such as this one have an embedded Web server for device management, and so I plugged the address of the device into a browser window in Safari. Typically this address will be something like 10.0.0.1 or 192.168.1.1. Again, it’s worth having this information, likely to be found in the instructions that came with the modem — you won’t be looking it up online, will you, now?

My modem’s configuration page confirmed that the thing was disconnected; attempts to reconnect failed. At this point, I was absolutely confident that the problem lay with Telecom. But how to find their phone number? This was not a problem, for I have an iPhone. A call to Telecom’s helpline confirmed that their network was down, not just for me but for the vast majority of their customers across New Zealand — a pretty major outage.

It was late, and work for the day was largely complete, so we decided to trust Telecom’s technicians to resolve the issue overnight. The next morning, though, as Mrs. McCabe fried eggs, a quick check revealed that maybe I had given Telecom’s engineers just a little too much credit. We still had no connection.

Neither, as we soon found out, did most of Telecom’s customers. In the cruellest of ironies, but one that is almost a commonplace in the tech world, an attempted upgrade to one of Telecom’s servers in Christchurch had, in fact, hobbled almost their entire national network.

This, of course, was bad. Mrs. McCabe, as I mentioned earlier, is a web designer; not too great a leap of logic is required to see that a sturdy Internet connection is somewhat crucial to her line of work. I would have taken this as a sign that I was meant to take a day off, that the Universe wanted me to spend a day on the sofa with a pot of coffee and a good book, but Mrs. McCabe, being infinitely more diligent and conscientious than I, wanted to be able to get some work done. So how to reconnect her?

When Steve Jobs unveiled the iPhone in 2007, he described it as, inter alia, a “breakthrough Internet communications device.” Its first two aspects, touchscreen iPod and mobile phone, elicited near-orgasmic applause from the assembled geekery, but his reference to this third element, the ability to access the Internet from a pocket device, was met with — if we’re being generous — a polite smattering of claps and somewhat bewildered cheers. Six years ago, nobody really understood how “breakthrough” the iPhone’s Internettery would prove to be.

But when her Internet connection failed her, the Lovely and Talented Mrs. McCabe knew that all was not lost, because she knew how empowering her Breakthrough Internet Communicator 4S could be. She could, I suppose, have taken herself off to the McDonald’s down the road in Pukekohe and taken advantage of their free WiFi network, but this was less than ideal on a number of levels. Firstly, while she has a laptop, her serious working files, including those for the project that was engaging her at the moment, were all on her desktop computer, her primary working environment. Add to that the fact that many free WiFi networks are only free if you’re buying something else (I’m not entirely sure how true this is McDonald’s, but I’m not willing to go and do the research), and, at least here in New Zealand, are often limited in terms of how many minutes or megabytes are free. Additionally, not all protocols are enabled — fair enough, really, this one, since the operators of such networks don’t, for a number of reasons, don’t want punters bit-torrenting down their pipes. And, let’s face it, it’s bloody McDonald’s — hardly the atmosphere most conducive to Mrs. McCabe’s design brilliance. Free WiFi networks have their uses — a quick email check, say, or a lazy surf, but not serious work, or a Skype call to a client back in the US.

So let us return to the iPhone. Since early 2011, and the release of version 4.3 of the iOS, iPhones 4, 4S and now 5 have been able to share their 3G connections (and, presumably, their LTE, but, living in New Zealand, I wouldn’t know about such things) via the Personal Hotspot feature, which combines the iPhone’s cellular and WiFi components to make, well, a personal hotspot. And so it was that Mrs. McCabe was able to get back online.

This, of course, is far from an ideal solution. Our home office is in the very middle of the house, and cellular connectivity, when it happens, is spoggly at best. So Mrs. Mc’s iPhone had to be put on a coffee table in the lounge, where it could establish and maintain a reliable connection to Vodafone’s cellular network. But it also had to be put in such a place as would allow its WiFi output to reach her iMac in the office. Occasional signal drop were inevitable, but more an occasional nuisance than an actual work-disrupting problem. The simple task of tapping on Settings, then on Personal Hotspot — conveniently located in the middle of the screen — enabled her to connect to the Internet, and finish those bits of her current project that needed to be completed that day.

But no more than that, mark you. Every single byte that went through the iPhone — to her iMac or from — counted against her iPhone’s data allowance, the 250MB for which we pay NZ$65 every month. Fortunate, then, that Telecom had their network back up and running that evening.

And so, despite Telecom’s best efforts to give Mrs. McCabe some downtime, and to get Teenage Daughter out of her room and off her computer, all was not lost. Projects were finished, work was done. What started out as a simple Internet outage, and rapidly grew into a potentially quite compromising problem, was quickly diagnosed and very simply addressed.

Just as well, really, because Telecom’s network failed again the very next day.

 

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More of the Same: the iPhone 5 review

Posted by steve on Oct 21, 2012 in Hardware, Hardware Reviews, New Zealand, Reviews

The Web site of Telecom, one of the two cellphone networks in New Zealand offering Apple’s new iPhone 5, advertises the device as “the thinnest, lightest iPhone yet.” Could this really be the best they could manage to say about the latest release of the most successful smartphone in the short history of smartphones? I had to find out.

My iPhone 5 arrived yesterday. I wanted so badly to be impressed by it; I remember well — it was only five years ago, after all — the excitement that surrounded the unveiling, and eventually the release, of the original iPhone. I remember bringing mine home from the [Apple Store where I used to work, in Tampa's International Plaza; the unwrapping, the anticipation as I opened the box to reveal the elegant packaging — the entire process was almost sacramental.

The iPhone 5 Apple NZ sent me to review arrived by courier yesterday. The packaging, I noted, is still as elegant as ever, even if the contents of the box are a little light compared to the original's — I suppose Apple have realised they can still sell incomprehensible quantities of iPhones without giving away free docks, and so that particular extra has been missing since the first iPhone was replaced by the iPhone 3G. And now Tim Cook has said that Apple have no plans even to offer an iPhone 5 dock for sale.

One look at the device suggests a possible reason. It's big. Well, it's tall. Placed next to my iPhone 4S, it looks quite noticeably longer; it also manages to look narrower, despite having the same width. Perhaps mounting this new device vertically simply doesn't look right; perhaps its height leaves it unstable. At any rate, its appearance is something of a departure from its predecessor's. From the front, it is quite similar, dimensions notwithstanding, but from the side the differences start to show up. The metal bezel that surrounds the iPhone 4 and 4S models has been, at least in the black model Apple sent me, coated with black powder; there have been reports of iPhone 5s looking scuffed and with powder missing out of the box, but my sample has no such flaws, and looks, and feels in the hand, rather elegant. The iPhone 4S's glass back is replaced with an aluminium back, again quite stylishly powder-coated, with two black glass strips, one at the top and another at the bottom, to provide radio transparency for the iPhone 5's antennae; it is, after all, easy to forget that this thing is, among other things, a telephone.

Apple's new Lightning connector

Apple's new Lightning connector

Next out of the box is the dock connector, and here again is a major change. Since 2003 and the third generation of iPod, a proprietary 30-pin dock connector has become not merely standard across Apple’s range of iDevices, but also across an entire universe of third-party accessories. Apple’s decision, then, to abandon this established, indeed entrenched, technology in favour of a new eight-pin connector they call Lightning has upset a large number of people who have plenty invested in docking stations, speaker solutions and cradles that use the old-style connector. Quite why Apple have chosen to jetison the 30-pin connector isn’t entirely clear; it was entirely functional, although, presumably, many of the pins on the connector were not being used. The new Lightning connector is surprisingly small, comparable in width to a micro-USB plug, but rather thinner and flatter. Its primary benefit to the end-user, apparently, is reversibility — apparently, users of 30-pin connectors were having enormous difficulty figuring out which way round their connectors mated with their iPhones, despite there being a little icon on the front side, and so Apple have kindly redesigned the connector so it can be inserted either way round.

But, and let’s be really honest here, there was no pressing need to make this change. Other than enlarging the iPhone’s speaker — it is a little, but not massively, louder than the 4S’s — and allowing the headphone jack to be relocated to the bottom of the device (of which change more later), there is no noticeable functional change, for better or worse, that results from this change.

There is, of course, a major change for Apple. Anyone who has already bought a speaker system, or a dock, or even a charging cable, for an existing iPhone and who hopes to use this kit with their new iPhone 5 will either have to buy an adaptor from Apple (useful for chargers, perhaps; less useful, presumably, for cradle-type devices), or replace said kit, at which point, the Lightning connector being proprietary, Apple will be scoring a licensing fee. A possible own-goal for Apple, this one, and not a move that appears to have much meaningful end-user advantage.

Also changed, as has been mentioned, is the location of the headphone jack, now at the bottom of the phone. I have yet to see an explanation of this change, beyond a justification for making the dock connector smaller; this seems to be as gratuitous a change as has been made in this updating. Having the headphone jack in the top of the phone made sense, to me at least — when my iPhone is in my shirt pocket, its usual out-and-about home, I can plug in a headset and still have the phone right-way-up in my pocket, and when an alert calls for my attention, reading the display is quite easy. Similarly, when I’m driving, my iPhone sits in a cupholder, with an audio-out connection to my car stereo coming out of the top of the phone. The relocation of the audio jack to the bottom of the phone now means that the iPhone sits inverted in the holder, which isn’t quite as convenient as I’d like.

So let’s turn the thing on, and see how it works. Well, it’s an iPhone. All the traditional iPhone features I’ve come to expect from my previous iPhones are present and correct. The screen, of course, is the first major difference, and it looks good. The colours are richer, more saturated, than even they were on the iPhone 4S’s screen, a screen that, still, looks very, very good. But the major draw is the size of the screen. Apple have extended it vertically, enough to add an extra row of app icons on the iOS home screen. This is, well, nice, but is it entirely necessary? I don’t know that it makes that much difference to my user experience that I can see an extra email in a list, or that I can read a little bit more of an ebook before I have to turn a page. Watching video is a more significant detail — the screen’s proportions now match HD video, and videos can be viewed full-screen, without letterboxing.

Unfortunately, letterboxing is precisely what happens when an app’s developer hasn’t caught up with the new hardware. Many apps have already been updated to take advantage of the larger screen, but there are plenty, such as TomTom’s rather excellent GPS software, or Skype’s official iPhone client, that still think they’re running on a 4S; the iPhone 5 simply displays these apps in the centre of the screen, with black bars above and below. The black bars are black enough that it’s not always easy to see that this is, in fact, the case; at any rate, the App Store app is reporting updates to apps at a fair rate, and many of these updates include references to the larger screen in their release notes.

The larger hardware, for me at least, is quite comfortable to use. I tend to use my iPhone two-handed, supporting the thing in my left hand while operating it with the fingers of my right; for me, then, there is no significant difference between this iPhone and the last.

By the time I had charged and synced the phone, the weather had cleared up, and so I went outside for a play with the camera. The cameras on the iPhone 4 and 4S have been very well-received, and Apple have wisely refrained from tampering with the 4S’s camera; the iPhone 5 sports the same camera as the 4S. I took a couple of photos of my wife’s cat, holding my own iPhone 4S in one hand and Apple’s loaner 5 in the other, for, quite literally, a side-by-side comparison. On the iPhones’ screens, the iPhone 5′s images were noticeably richer, but when I imported photos from both devices into iPhoto on my laptop and compared them, there was little to no appreciable difference. The iPhone 4S’s camera was very good; the iPhone 5′s camera, essentially identical, is, not surprisingly, every bit as good. Video, similarly, is comparable in quality, with the addition of somewhat improved stabilisation.

Oliver The Cat, taken with my iPhone 4S

Oliver The Cat, taken with my iPhone 4S

Oliver The Cat, shot with an iPhone 5 camera

Oliver The Cat, shot with an iPhone 5 camera

The more perceptive and insightful readers will have noticed that, so far, I have avoided any reference of Long-Term Evolution, or LTE — that’s 4G, to its friends, the absurdly-fast cellular-data connectivity protocol that Apple have finally incorporated into the iPhone 5. Or so I’m told. I have, sadly, no way of confirming this. I have, as I tell anyone who’ll listen, the enormous good fortune to live in New Zealand, but paradise is not perfect. As I have whinged about at length previously (I am a pom, after all), internet connectivity in New Zealand is, well, not all it might be, and LTE is no exception. Neither Telecom nor Vodafone, the Apple’s two resale partners and the two main cellphone networks in NZ, nor indeed 2 Degrees, their only rival, have, or have plans to build, a 4G network in New Zealand, and so fast networking remains a feature only available to those users who happen to live in markets — the USA, the UK, even Australia! — that happen to have 4G connectivity.

Instead, I tested connectivity speeds by both WiFi and 3G, again through a side-by-side comparison, and found that the two editions of iPhone load Web pages at almost identical speeds, either phone occasionally being faster or slower, slightly, than the other. British users, and Americans, and Kiwis who happen to find themselves on the wrong side of the Tasman, will, I’m sure, have a great time enjoying their astonishingly fast (apparently) 4G-enabled iPhone 5s, but many of us can only imagine, only dream, of such an experience, and here Apple have something of a marketing quandary. As I mentioned at the beginning of the review, Telecom are flogging this new iPhone on the strength of its dimensions because, in the New Zealand market at least, it lacks any truly compelling new features, its standout upgrade being redundant here. Apple’s NZ Web site talks in terms of size, and design, but ultimately has to fudge its copy, talking about connecting to fast networks “the world over,” without actually, explicitly, referring to 4G or LTE.

At the end of all this testing, there was one more thing to look at. My iPhone 4S has, for all its many wonderfulnesses, had one serious weakness — its battery life. This, also, has been the subject of a good, long whinge , and I was hopeful that the iPhone 5 might have the solution. So far today, with reasonable, but not excessive, usage, it reports 6 hours and 14 minutes of use since last full charge, a figure I question — when I factor in three hours in the car driving to, from and around Auckland, during which I was listening to the radio, and a half-hour when the phone was turned off while I was in a radio studio, I’ve not even been awake that long today! But at mid-afternoon, the battery has 28% of its capacity remaining. I have WiFe enabled at home, and location services are on for some, but not all, apps, but Bluetooth is off. This is only my second day using the iPhone 5, but I remain unconvinced of Apple’s claims of “battery life to spare.”

If I sound rather negative in this review, then maybe I should find something I can unreservedly endorse about the iPhone 5. There is one outstanding enhancement that I can whole-heartedly praise, and that’s the new EarPods. They are, at least in my ears, quite considerably more comfortable than previous iPhone and iPod earbuds — I’ve had them in for the last couple of thousand words, and I hardly notice their presence. Their sound, too, is a quite marked improvement on what we’ve come to expect. While they’re not quite up to the quality of my favourite Sony studio monitor headphones, they do reproduce a degree of detail and range that I have never heard — I have never even expected — from iPhone earbuds. As we speak, I’m listening to the Rolling Stones’ “Stupid Girl,” from the 1966 album Aftermath, and I’m hearing details of Brian Jones’ acoustic guitar in my right ear that I don’t remember hearing before. The EarPods come in their own little plastic carrying case inside the iPhone 5′s box, although I suspect that few users will have the patience to wrap them careful back into the case after each use. The case is also the retail packaging for the EarPods; yes, the most attractive and appealing part of the new iPhone isn’t even part of the iPhone, but an accessory that can be bought separately for US$29.

I’ll be sending my iPhone 5 back to Apple — they want it back, sadly — in a couple of weeks. I’ll miss it — it’s always fun to have the latest, shiniest kit — but I doubt that I’ll find anything lacking when I go back to my own iPhone 4S. If I didn’t have another year left on my Vodafone NZ service contract, I might consider upgrading, but I simply don’t find enough in this new release to make it a compelling upgrade at this stage. It’s a very, very good smartphone, of course, but it offers nothing, at least to a Kiwi user, that warrants the major outlay of funds that it would require. Were I in the market for a new smartphone, I don’t know I could beat this one, but I simply don’t see enough in it to warrant a discretionary upgrade.

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iBooks Textbooks: Not Exactly Innovation in Education

Posted by steve on Jan 23, 2012 in international, New Zealand, News, Reviews, Software, Software Reviews

No iPhone 5, no iPad 3, no update to the Mac Pro range, at Thursday’s Apple education event in New York. No, the innovations Apple were unwrapping at the Guggenheim were altogether more surprising.

Claiming to “re-invent the textbook,” Phil Schiller, Apple’s senior vice president for Worldwide Marketing, portrayed Apple as a crusader for educational innovation, and announced a new product range that, according to one of the talking-head teachers roped in to shill for iBooks textbooks, would “change my students’ lives for the better.”

This was intended to be, clearly, a spectacular advance, a leap forward in educational technology that would disrupt, innovate, surprise, delight; certainly, for me, a technology commentator, and a teacher since 1991, this should have been a revolutionary innovation. But it didn’t, and it wasn’t.

A company such as Apple should, surely, have the potential not simply to embellish and enhance the textbook as it exists in its current paradigm; they should have it in them, especially if they are to have the hubris to claim that they are “reinventing” the textbook, to introduce something utterly radical, something that turns the current understanding of the textbook utterly on its head.

Instead, Apple’s presentation should have been fronted by Rod Serling. I was watching the thing on a fast, powerful, modern laptop computer — an Apple MacBook Pro with a quad-core Intel processor, accessing fast Internet over a wireless connection, and downloading the new product as it was announced onto an Apple iPad — a tablet computer! — at the same time. And yet, and yet… what was being shown off, what was touted as a reinvention of the textbook, belonged back in the mid 1990s.

An iBooks textbook, we were promised, would be interactive. Interactivity in content has been a fundamental aspect of computer-aided delivery for as long as we’ve had CD-ROMs — I updated my Mac IIsi to a IIvx back in 1995 because I really wanted the CD-ROM drive, and immediately started playing with multimedia titles that were starting to appear. And what made these titles attractive was the fact that they could build on simple static text, offering, as it was known then, a multimedia experience — video, animation, audio.

This was, as I say, seventeen years ago — around the time some of the target audience of the iBooks textbooks were born. In those seventeen years, computer-mediated instructional materials (“textbook” is such an old-fashioned word) should, surely, have moved on. But what I find on my iPad today, in 2012 (for, at least, as long as iBooks 2 is usable; my experience so far is that it’s as unstable as a hippo on rollerskates) is an experience that, other than being on my ever-so-modern tablet computer, is, essentially, the same as that offered by multimedia CD-ROMs back in the early 90s.

It is true that iBooks textbooks offer a level of engagement that paper books are unable to match, and there is definitely evidence to suggest that novelty in presentation, especially when that novelty involves computers, will, at least temporarily, reduce affective barriers to learning. I know — I did some of the research as a graduate student, again back in the mid 1990s. But those years also saw an incipient movement to take the possibilities offered by computers to personalise and individualise the learning experience offered by technology and exploit the platforms available even fifteen years ago.

At a language-teaching conference in Japan in, I believe, 1999 or 2000, I listened to a presentation on adaptive language testing, a system that tested, observed student performance, and then selected the next instruction-testing sequence based on that performance. While this was, at that point, a somewhat rudimentary application of the principles involved, it at least showed that computers were able to make decisions on what to do next based on what had preceded that decision. iBooks 2 offers no such flexibility, as far as I can tell so far.

Partly this is due to the fact that iBooks textbooks are a product of iBooks Author, itself essentially the love child of of iWork’s Pages and Keynote. Absent, so far, are any programming tools, even simple ones, that can allow any form of data-storing scripting, which is a shame, since programs such as FileMaker Pro, SuperCard, even HyperCard (of sainted memory) allow solutions to be created that allow a degree of decision-based scripting. Had Apple incorporated such elements into iBooks Author, a whole new level of interactivity and personalised learning could have been generated: “Steve, I see you’re spending a lot of time on simple harmonic motion, but you’re not doing very well on the end-of-topic quiz. Would you like some extra help with this topic?” But while the student can interact with the content, the content remains unable to interact with the student, and this seems to be an opportunity badly missed; I can only hope that scripting will feature strongly in a future version of iBooks Author.

As it stands, iBooks textbooks offers very little that hasn’t been on offer for nearly twenty years. Far from reinventing the textbook, Apple have simply taken an existing concept and applied it to a new medium, with, it appears, relatively little in the way of points of difference due to the particular nature of the iPad platform. And so, instead of static text and static images on a page, we are now presented with static text and some moving images on a page. This is a small step forward in terms of paper textbooks, but, in terms of the state of the art with regard to multimedia presentation, it is, absent scripting, possibly even a retrograde step.

In terms of the pedagogy, too, advances are lacking. Beginning with Gardner’s work on multiple intelligences back in the 1980s, educational theory has emphasised learning modalities; it is impossible to escape a teacher-training programme in, at the very least, the United States or New Zealand, without having the concept of visual, auditory, kinesthetic, and tactile learners pounded deep into one’s brain; it is equally impossible to survive a lesson observation without some questioning of how much a teacher has addressed all of his students’ learning styles.

Textbooks, of course, by their very nature are limited to the visual modality; that is an inescapable constraint of paper. But this constraint, by and large, remains intact in an iBooks textbook, even though the technology no longer imposes it. The essence of an iBooks textbook is written text — everything else is an adjunct to that written text. Indeed, even though text-to-speech conversion is a global function of iOS 5, enabled through the General pane of the Settings app, there appears to be no easy way to use it in an iBooks textbook — this is as wasted an opportunity as exists in iBooks 2.

Being a physics teacher, I naturally downloaded a sample of McGraw Hill’s physics textbook, and played with the chapters on waves and vibration. This has never been the easiest topic in the world to teach in the classroom; springs, ropes and waveform generators can be rather temperamental, and while on a good day a standing waves can be fun, I’ve yet to see a teacher actually manage a third harmonic in a rope on demand. This is where the potential of iBooks 2 is teased to teachers, but even then not entirely brilliantly implemented, and this is a function of the file-size limitation set by Apple.

iBooks textbooks, we have been told, can be up to 2 GB in size if they are to be distributed through the iBookstore. This is reasonable — Apple is hoping to sell a lot of these books, of course, and so they need to make sure that their datacentres, already serving up iTunes, iCloud, and two App Stores, don’t suddenly start laboring under 15 GB behemoths. (This limitation, though, appears not to apply, for example, to the 2.77 GB of biology currently on offer from Pearson.)

I would like to see every photograph in my physics textbook link to a video of a dynamic experiment. But while videos of projectiles, and animations of graphs of their motion, would be a valuable enhancement to a textbook, their creation will inevitably increase production costs for the book, and slow down the editorial cycle somewhat. I already use YouTube to demonstrate things I can’t readily demonstrate in the classroom, such as the brick-on-a-rope-not-hitting-your-face illustration of conservation of energy, but I spend a lot of time doing quality control on YouTube videos; having a ready-made bundle of content on an iPad would be enormously beneficial. Similarly, trying to draw, on a flat, two-dimensional whiteboard, a diagram of the three-dimensional vectors of Maxwell’s Laws is guaranteed to give headaches — so much easier simply to call up the relevant page on an iPad. But the more content you include in your book, the bigger the file will be, and the longer it will take to download.

And downloading is an issue for many people. As I have written about in “Paying by the Bit: Internet Access in New Zealand” (15 January 2010), outside the United States not everyone, including schools, has access to unlimited Internet connections. If my students were issued iPads next month, for the start of the new school year, they would then need to download their textbooks. Would they do this at home? Given that a typical home Internet connection in New Zealand, assuming it even has broadband (dialup is still quite widespread here), has a data cap of 5–10 GB per month, it’s fair to assume that most of my students will want to download their books at school. Perhaps the school would download one instance of each book, and syncing could happen centrally; this would, of course, require that all students sync their iPads with the school’s computers, of which there are not that many; the headaches are multi-layered. Or my school would have to set up and maintain a Wi-FI network for this purpose; that simply become another associated expense.

This is before the school has even provided the iPads. Given the uproar over plans by Orewa College, a moderately well-off secondary school north of Auckland, to require that all incoming students buy iPads or similar, I very much doubt that my school, in the poorer end of south Auckland, would fare terribly well in requiring that parents purchase. This would then leave the school having to buy the devices themselves, which would be difficult. My school, with its socio-economic decile rating of 2, receives almost no funding from the “voluntary” contributions that other schools raise from parents. As a result, it is dependent almost solely on its operating budget of around $1,000 per student from the Ministry of Education. Given that iPads start at $799 here in New Zealand, a very generous educational bulk-purchase discount from Apple would be required in order to make this an even remotely feasible purchase.

In American schools, too, where budget crunches are hurting badly, I question how many schools will be able to afford this technology. Pinellas County in Florida, where I once taught, is facing a budget crisissuch that teacher layoffs and furloughs are being proposed to try to make the books balance. Last year’s budget allowed for a per-student spend of $7,845; a $499 iPad would represent 6 percent of the entire funding allocation for each of the 103,000 students in the county. But while the per-student budget in Pinellas may seem significantly more generous than a New Zealand school’s funding, remember that out of that money must come teacher salaries, which make up 85 percent of the district’s budget; of the remaining $1,177, a $499 iPad is still a very big ask, and when teachers’ salaries are being considered fair game for budget reduction cuts, a five-million-dollar expenditure on iPads would not sit well.

So, in the end, is it worth it? Will students benefit from iPads with textbooks on them? Will they, indeed, benefit sufficiently to warrant the funds outlays involved? Yes, paper textbooks are expensive, and yes, they involve a buy-in that locks schools into using them for maybe five years. But, in physics, for example, the content being taught is not changing so rapidly that we need to replace our textbooks that often, even if wear and tear make it advisable. We can make do for another year; lock-in is not as terrible as it might seem.

But while iPads make it easy and relatively affordable to update content readily, how often will publishers offer free updates? By the time a publisher has updated a textbook to the extent that it actually exploits iBooks 2 and the iPad fully, will that then be a free update? In the meantime, the hardware costs of iPads is not one-off; once the up-front purchase has been made, there will be service costs. Do schools buy AppleCare? What happens to out-of-warranty repairs, in particular batteries wearing out? Will school insurance cover accidental loss, damage, theft?

Had iBooks 2 and iBooks Author been released back in 1996, when CD-ROMs were still a pretty neat idea, I would be writing a very different article. But today, when Apple are trying to claim that twenty-year-old ideas represent a “reinvention” of the textbook, I am less impressed. Schiller, see me after school. Grade: C-. Really must try harder.

[This article first appeared in TidBITS]

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0

Served: the Mac OS X Lion Server review

Posted by steve on Jan 16, 2012 in internet, network, Reviews, Software Reviews

I’ve been running Mac OS X Server in various incarnations for about six years. I’m reluctant to be terribly specific, since I don’t remember with a good deal of precision when I first installed Apple’s server operating system on the old eMac that I’d repurposed for my daughter’s use, Debbie having finally upgraded to a PowerMac G5.

Most recently I’ve had Mac OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard Server (a clunkily-named piece of software, to be sure, but then Apple are not know for their elegance in nomenclature), running on a headless Mac mini, a system I wrote about a handful of years ago and which Apple clearly used as inspiration for their min server product.

I’ve been happy with this setup for quite some time. A batch of websites have been dished up from my server, reliably and consistently, for years, including this very blog, as well as New Life: New Zealand, my Moving to New Zealand blog. It was, for the most part, a set-and-forget system, needing only the most occasional of tweaks. But lately I’d noticed that the overall performance of my mini was becoming quite unacceptable. In addition to web- and mail-serving tasks, my mini also did light duties as a home media centre, and also hosted my iPhone, and so I use Screen Sharing to administer the thing, hidden as it is under a coffee table in the family room. Increasingly, this was becoming intolerable.

My lovely wife had recently returned from her annual visit to the US, and had brought home with her for me a new 2TB external hard disc; given that they retail over there for around half the price you can find them here in New Zealand, this was very much appreciated. Although I couldn’t be sure, I strongly suspected that the original internal hard disc of my mini, all 80GB of it, might have started to see the end of its useful life, and so I decided to install an operating system on the new external disc, and run my mini from there.

But which version to run? I had an installer disc for version 10.6, Snow Leopard Server, but I was sorely tempted by version 10.7, Lion Server. I particularly was tempted by the joys of wireless syncing that my iPhone, now running iOS 5, would now experience, and, well, why would I want to re-install an obsolescing system? Reading up on Lion Server gave me pause, though. Reviews such as this one concerned me, other sites had implied that multiple sites wouldn’t be possible, and I also got the impression that mail services would be hobbled.

In the end, I took a deep breath and installed. The software was surprisingly easy to install: once the standard client edition of Mac OS X Lion was up and running — and that was quite effortless, given that I already had made an installer DVD when I installed Lion on my laptop — a quick trip to the Mac App Store and a fifty-dollar spend later, and I had a new server. (Pricing, by the way, finally seems to be a bit clearer than it was before release.)

Lion Server's Server app

Server: Lion Server's part-replacement for Server Admin

All I could see, though, that was new for my $49.99 was a new application in the dock, Server. That, it would appear, was that, and it was, as far as I could tell, a rather severely hobbled version of the Server Admin application that used to power earlier editions of Mac OS X Server. Web services, for example, no longer had the flexible options that Snow Leopard Server used to make available; while multiple domains could quite easily be set up, there was a degree of inconvenience in the new simplification — instead of adding, say, domain.com and then configuring www.domain.com within that domain’s settings, each domain had to be set up separately to point to the same folder of web pages. Aliases and redirects can, of course, be set up — Apache still powers the web server, with Server only a graphical front-end — but now they need hand-to-hand combat between user and config files in the Terminal. While this still enables full access to everything you’d want to be able to do in Apache, it’s the very antithesis of Apple’s claim that Lion Server is The Server For Everyone, unless the only option Everyone wants is the choice of turning PHP on or off.

Not that turning PHP on is as helpful as it might be. PHP, for many people, me included, is useful only as long as it’s interacting with a MySQL database or two. The only reason I run PHP on my web server is to enable WordPress, my blogging and CMS platform of choice and one which is utterly dependent upon PHP being able to talk to MySQL. And maybe I’m being a bit too literal, a little rigid in my thinking, here, but I find that MySQL works so very much better when it’s actually installed. Which, oddly, it isn’t under Lion Server. MySQL was part of Mac OS X Server as recently as version 10.6.x, but it has now disappeared, with, typically, no explanation beyond the bare statement that ” Lion Server replaces MySQL with PostgreSQL.” There is speculation that the change is related to Apple’s dislike of GPL licences and Oracle’s acquisition of the product, and certainly it has resulted in plenty of unhappiness among users; at any rate, Apple’s documentation goes on to state that upgrades from Mac OS X Server 10.5.8 — that would be Leopard Server — and later will keep their functioning installations of MySQL, but, of course, this didn’t help me too much, given that I was performing a clean install.

A download of MySQL, which I then had to install, and configure, manually, was the workaround, but it did involve manual manipulation of a number of configuration files — again, not entirely what one might expect from The Server For Everyone, which now appeared to need renaming The Server For Everyone Who Only Wants to Configure PHP In Their Web Server And Not Run MySQL. Much time was spent searching the Web for help, and credit is definitely due to Tasman Hayes and Rob Allen. But I had my web server serving again, so onward.

Mail options in Mac OS X Lion Server

Lion Server's limited mail options

Next came mail, the other primary job of my server. The Server application was the obvious first place to look for settings, but options were quite limited. How, for example, could I specify the various different domains for which I wanted to provide service? Again, I could, if I felt like it, get my hands dirty tinkering with configuration files, but why should I? This functionality was provided in the Server Admin programme that was part of earlier iterations of Mac OS X Server — and there was my answer. Server Admin, however, was not part of the standard installation of Lion Server, but had to be downloaded separately from the Apple website. Once downloaded, it allowed me to set up mail service for the several domains I host, but, curiously, not webmail, despite that being one of the very few options actually offered by Server. (I eventually realized that, at least as I have my system set up, webmail is an intranet-only feature. Hmmm.)

Mail duly configured, I decided to tackle an issue I’d always struggled with in earlier versions of Mac OS X Server — virtual mail hosting. I host websites for both threelionstech.com and threelionsphoto.com (both seriously under re-construction at time of writing; you’re welcome to visit right now, but you might not be impressed), and also receive email sent to both domains. The problem I’ve had until now has been configuring my mail server so that mail to steve@threelionstech.com and steve@threelionsphoto.com can be picket up and dealt with by two separate IMAP accounts in my mail client. This can, I know, be done — I had it working, briefly, a couple of years ago. But the setting up of this feature is messy and not a little convoluted. My joy was unbounded, then, when I discovered that Server’s “Users” panel enables this feature effortlessly — simply set up a new account and specify the email address you want it to receive mail for, and you’re done. I was, at this point, almost (but not entirely — it still rankles) willing to forgive the hours of gaffing around that I’d had to deal with in setting up MySQL.

So now my server is happy again. If you’re reading this, then it’s still working. Much has changed, some things have been taken away, and the target market for Apple’s server software, especially since the demise of the XServe, is clearly home users. I’ll explore Wikis next — Apple are pushing them quite strongly, but since I run my own business I don’t know how much mileage I’ll get. I’ll tinker with calendar services. I’ll leave the “Next Steps” box (see the screenshot above) alone; it seems a little simplistic and facile. For now, my server is serving again.

Rating: ★★★★☆

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1

The S stands for…same? The iPhone 4S review

Posted by steve on Jan 9, 2012 in Hardware, Hardware Reviews, international, New Zealand, Reviews

The iPhone 4S was never going to be an easy piece of kit to review. Rarely has there been a more anticipated, and then more disparaged, hardware release from Apple. The original iPhone, unveiled five years ago today by Steve Jobs in a presentation now hailed as his finest on-stage hour, spoken of as though it were a sacrament and not a trade announcement, was Apple’s response to years of pleas from the company’s devotees (odd, really, to think of a company — a business, a for-profit entity — having devotees, but there you go…), and was hailed as little short of miraculous when it was finally handed down from on high. By way of contrast, the Motorola ROKR was pointlessness embodied in silicon — a device longed for by nobody, and loved by fewer; I’m simply not willing to do the research, but I strongly suspect that even the Zune, Microsoft’s turd-brown adventure in futility, sold better than the ROKR. Even Steve Jobs struggled to find anything beyond “It’s really nice.”

My new iPhone 4S | Steve's TechBlog

My new iPhone 4S | Steve's TechBlog

The iPhone 4S, on the other hand, threatened to be little more than a small-to-medium-sized bucketful of meh. The iPhone 4, its immediate predecessor, was an almost obnoxiously successful device, and so the Apple rumour mill (an actual mill, by the way — when it’s not cranking out rumours, it grinds the flour that goes into the artisanal breads used for the unicorn-burger sandwiches upon which senior Apple executives lunch), obviously, decided that it had to be replaced. And it had to be replaced by an iPhone 5. For reasons that were never even remotely apparent, there was something frankly totemic about the number 5. The new iPhone simply had to be the iPhone 5. What, exactly, the iPhone 5 would be, or do, or look like, was secondary. Features? 5. Appearance? 5. Spec? 5. So long as the new phone had the magic digit in its name, it could be a rotary-dial device with a ten-foot spiral cord coming out of the kitchen wall.

And so, on October 4th, Tim Cook announced the iPhone 4S. It would have any number of very, very impressive features. The new camera, for example, would have an eight-megapixel resolution, up from the previous model’s five, with a five-element lens instead of four. The processor would be a dual-core A5 chip, not a single-core A4. Bluetooth would be the new, exciting version 4.0, not the 2.1+EDR of the iPhone 4. And, of course, there would be Siri, the little person inside the phone.

But it wasn’t an iPhone 5. The magic number was simply nowhere to be seen. 4S? What did the S stand for? Since the 4S looked all but identical to the 4 (the giveaway, by the way, is the absence, on the 4S, of a black line by the headphone jack), how could a fanboy show off his new toy? What, after all, is the sense in paying hundreds of upgrade dollars if your new gadget doesn’t scream “I’m new, I’m expensive and my owner is, ipso facto, better than you?” The iPhone 4S is an upgrade to the iPhone 4 — a compelling and persuasive upgrade, to be sure, but an upgrade, not a new model.

There was, as was repeatedly pointed out during the fallout from Apple’s failure to deliver something called the iPhone 5, a precedent to this naming scheme. The third iteration of the iPhone, the 3GS, looked essentially identical to its predecessor, the 3G, and nobody, at the time, used the 3GS as evidence that the world was about to come to an end. But the iPhone 4S, not being the iPhone 5, was destined to fail, apparently — and promptly turned out to be one of the fastest-selling smartphones in the admittedly rather short history of the class.

So I bought one. Apple released the 4S on 11th November last year, and I picked mine up that morning from the Vodafone shop in Papakura. I was ready for a new phone — I had considered an iPhone 4 until I discovered the contract-breaking fee Vodafone wanted from me for upgrading, and my 3GS was starting to show its age slightly. Despite the disappointing plans available in New Zealand, I signed up for a 24-month contract and took my new toy home.

I like the design. I was never overly enamoured of the styling of the 3G/3GS models, which always felt, to my sensibilities, just a little plasticky. There is clearly a reason why Apple decided to retain the 4′s design for the 4S — it looks right. It doesn’t always feel that right, mind — it’s a thoroughly beautiful device, but it feels rather thin in the hand, and so, while I very much like the look of the thing, it feels better in the rather natty case my daughter bought for me.

The screen, of course, is stunning. It is bright, and sharp, and clear, and lovely. It features the 960×640-pixel resolution of the iPhone 4, double the resolution of earlier models and so utterly crisp that, living up to its “retina” tag, it renders images and, in particular, text so smoothly and clearly that individual pixels are simply invisible. Combined with the faster dual-core A5 processor, it offers a graphical experience unlike anything else Apple sell.

Venus flytrap — iPhone 4S camera closeup | Steve's Techblog

Venus flytrap — iPhone 4S camera closeup | Steve's TechBlog

The camera does the screen justice. Photos taken on the iPhone 4s’s rear-facing camera are consistently of a high standard, with the possible exception of lower-light photos, in which graininess starts to become a little more visible. But increasingly the iPhone’s camera, once dismissed as an afterthought bolted on to the original iPhone, has now become a realistic alternative to a separate point-and-shoot.

The real fun of the iPhone 4S starts when you fire up Siri. Once all the silly games like telling your phone to beam you up (“WiFi or 3G?”) or to close the pod-bay doors (“Really? Again?”) are out of the way, actually using voice activation suddenly becomes something more than just a gimmick. The iPhone has supported voice commands for years, but only with Siri has this become meaningly useful. I’ve always been leery of claims of voice recognition on computers — it tends to work tolerably if you’re a TV news anchorman from Nebraska, or possibly a continuity announcer on Radio 4, but my northern vowels have always confounded such systems. But I’ve been extensively impressed with Siri. With rare exceptions, it understands not only the words I say (it’s clearly been watching Coronation Street), but also the meaning behind them, and so simple tasks like sending my wife a text message (“Tell my wife that…” is all the syntax I need) or setting a reminder (“Remind me to…”) become part of what I’m doing rather than something that requires me to stop what I’m doing, mess with my phone, and then carry on.

Siri on the iPhone 4S | Steve's TechBlog

Siri on the iPhone 4S — Oh, will the hilarity never end?

Siri’s anthropomorphising of the iPhone raises an interesting philosophicolinguistic question. My wife, being American, uses the American English setting for Siri, and so her phone answers her using an American woman’s voice. I, having had the enormous good fortune to have been born in the northwest of England, use the tautologically- and somewhat meaninglessly-named British English setting, and so my iPhone talks to me with the voice of a bloke from the home counties of England. (There is a third English option, Australian English; the default setting for an iPhone 4S bought in New Zealand is British. Of course.) So is Siri a he or a she? Such are the things that keep a technopundit awake at night.

So all is right with the iPhone 4S, then? Well, no. There is a flaw, a very major flaw, with the phone. Its battery life is, frankly, dreadful. And this is odd, since even better battery life than the iPhone 4 was touted by Tim Cook as one of the 4S’s big selling points. But I struggle to get a single day of moderate usage out of mine. I’ve had it replaced once (and that was a struggle), and my replacement phone isn’t a massive amount better. I’ve never managed the 7 hours of video, or 8 hours of talk time, that Apple advertise; I certainly don’t see the “truly better battery life” advertised on the Vodafone website. Apple’s release of iOS5.0.1 (featuring both interCaps and multiple decimal points) was supposed to address this issue, but, on my phone at least, hasn’t. A complete restore to factory defaults improved battery life somewhat, but neither completely alleviated the problem nor actually allowed me to use the features I paid for on my new iPhone — hardly a success on either count, then.

But I’ll stick with my iPhone 4S. I’m happy with it. There will be an iPhone 5 released one day, I’m sure. But until then, the iPhone 4S, despite its lack of the magic number 5, is a strong update to an inordinately successful product.

Rating: ★★★★★

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3

Making power while the sun shines

Posted by steve on Aug 26, 2011 in Hardware, international, network, New Zealand, Personal

Tech, let us not forget, is not simply limited to Apple and the internet. You could be forgiven, to be fair, from reading this blog, for thinking that the world of technology begins in Cupertino and ends with the ‘net. But my most recent tech project is possibly the most spectacularly techie I’ve ever done. And it has no specifically Apple element in it, although it does involve the Web.

As has been documented quite extensively elsewhere, I moved a couple of years ago to New Zealand, where I find life to be, in so very many ways, a thoroughly pleasant experience. One of the few entries, however, in the debit column is the cost of living, and one of the most significant aspects of this headache is the price of electricity. While I’d never wish to return to living in Florida, among the few aspects of life there that I miss is the low, low cost of electricity.

As I said, we’re not going back, and so we — the lovely and talented Mrs. McCabe and I — decided that we needed to find a way of reducing our monthly spend on electricity. Back there, a unit — a  kilowatt-hour or KWh — cost, typically, around 8¢. Here, it’s more like 23¢. This does not, of course, please us, particularly when we were paying for electricity to heat our home. But what does please us is the abundance of sunlight that streams down on New Zealand much of the year, and so we have, finally, commissioned our very own solar-power installation.

The system is fairly straightforward. On our north-facing roof (this being the southern hemisphere), we have sixteen 190-watt solar panels. What this means, then, is that when the sun shines, and especially when the sun shines directly on the panels, we can expect to see up to 3KW of electricity being generated. Of course, we don’t expect to be getting that much power constantly, and, of course, we only get peak output when the sun is high in the sky, but we’re still optimistic that we’ll see plenty of power being generated.

The panels feed a 3KW grid-tied inverter, which takes the DC output from the photovoltaic panels and converts it to AC. This is essential for two rather critical reasons. Firstly, our home is, like most homes, an AC installation, full of appliances that are designed to take a 240V AC input. Secondly, and this is a rather cool and groovy consideration, the national grid in New Zealand is also a 240V AC system.

The practical upshot is simple. During the day, when our panels are generating a stream of as much as 3KW of power, whatever we need is used to power the house. Any surplus is sent off to the grid. When the sun either goes down or hides behind a cloud or two, then any shortfall is supplied by the grid. Meridian Energy, our new power supplier, will give us 23¢ for each unit we sell them — the same price they charge us for electricity they generate. In effect, we’re using the grid as our battery, storing any surplus we crank out during the day so that we can then use it back up at night.

So far we’ve had the system running for three days, and we’ve liked what we’ve seen. It’s late winter, or, if today is any measure, very early spring in northern New Zealand. We’ve bought about fifteen units from the grid, generated a dozen, and of that dozen sold five back. In other words, we’ve used, in total, about 22 units today, but only actually paid for ten. That’s a positive step; when the months and months of golden sunshine that characterise a New Zealand summer roll around, we expect to be, on a daily basis, net exporters, and, if we’ve done our calculations right, we expect that, over a year, what we buy from the grid should be, within a significant figure or two, pretty much what we sell back.

And let’s not forget the Web aspect. The inverter that converts our solar array’s DC output to an appliance-and-grid-friendly AC also contains a monitoring system and a web server, which, as soon as it was up and running, I patched into my own home server system, so it can be monitored worldwide. My very own personal power station is now online at threelionstech.com:81 — take a look at how much electricity we’re not paying for!

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0

Junked!

Posted by steve on Jun 11, 2011 in Personal, Software

My junk mail comes in waves, offering me a plethora of services and products whose variety is matched only by an utter lack of utility. There was a month of adverts for imitation Rolex watches (already got a real one), followed by a few weeks of offers of degrees from places like the University of Outer Kazakhstan (already got a real one), then a batch of promotions for Russian mail-order brides (already got a real wife), and a slew of advertisements for penis enlargers (they don’t work). The constant, of course, is the Nigerian Scam, so utterly standard that if I don’t get one for more than a couple of hours, I check my internet connection

But this morning’s email contained something more surprising than scary. Amid the usual “Visit my webcam” invites and assurances that hot teens are standing by at their computers waiting to hear from me despite never having met me or spoken to me before (or indeed realise that I’m old enough to be, if not their father, then certainly their slightly creepy uncle), I saw a message that my email programme labelled as “junk mail.” It was an iTunes Store receipt.

This was, on the face of it, odd. The message came from Apple, with none of the obvious hallmarks of spam — there was a legitimate reply address, one that matched up to the “from” address, and there was none of the drunk-kitten-walking-across-the-keyboard random typing that’s supposed to fool spam filters but now screams “spam” louder than a peroxide-blonde teenaged girl in a 1950s horror film called “Attack of the Killer Spam,” or .gif images containing a bitmap of the text of an advert for prescription drugs from highly legitimate and reliable sources. As far as I could tell, this message was utterly, entirely on the level.
What was singularly baffling about the entire episode was the fact that the message was flagged as possible spam by Mail. Apple’s very own email client was telling me that “Mail thinks this message is Junk Mail.” I was willing to overlook the capital letters (although I still fail to see how junk mail might be considered a proper noun), but I’m still at a loss. Apple’s email programme thinks that Apple’s email is Junk Mail (not just junk mail, mark you, but Junk Mail). Only a receipt, I realise, but where will this end? Will Safari start flagging the Apple Store website as a phishing site? It has all the indicators — flashy products, places to enter credit card numbers — but I don’t see any alerts warning me that I might want to be on my guard.

There is, quite clearly, a breakdown in communications of the most alarming order here. I have changed no settings in my installation of Mail; my spam filter is no more or less aggressive than Apple want it to be.  Apple, it would appear, considers its own email to be Junk Mail. This is a rather bizarre corporate logic. Is there inter-departmental conflict within Apple, with end users becoming little more than pawns? What next? I’m becoming afraid to connect my iPhone to my Mac, in case there’s been a spat between iTunes and iPhone developers, and iTunes suddenly decides that my phone is a Junk Device that needs erasing and reformatting. If I connect to the Internet via my Airport Extreme, will it refuse to visit the apple.com website because of a power struggle between hardware and software?

Or maybe something slightly more sinister is at play here. Apple can, having sent me a receipt, claim to have done everything required to keep me notified of my purchases at the iTunes Store. But Apple’s very own software then does its best to prevent me from actually reading and reviewing this receipt, thus preventing me from making an informed decision on my spends, and hiding from me my daughter’s latest Mary-Kate and Ashley download. I blithely carry on downloading, unaware (because Apple, while not actually hiding the information from me, has done little actually to make it easy for me to keep track of what I’m spending. I’m not at all happy about this, not entirely unreasonably. My tech budget is already out of control — I’m not a tech addict, honestly; I just like my tech, I could stop any time I want, it’s just that that new iPhone was particularly enticing, but I didn’t have to buy it, I chose to; I’m not addicted — and the last thing I need is an Apple-wide conspiracy to seduce me to channel even more of my hard-earned (and, trust me, it’s very, very hard earned — when I’m not sharing my wisdom with the world in a magazine column, I’m sharing it in a classroom, for I, against all better judgment, am a high-school teacher; what specific sins I’m atoning for I’m not entirely sure, but, after twelve years at the chalk face, I’ve done enough penance that I’m pretty certain I’m owed a few sins by now) cash on downloads from the iTunes Store.

Of course, if I’m going to complain and criticise, I really ought to offer an alternative, and then answer is simple. Every time you want to buy something from iTunes, a voice should, regardless of your computer’s volume settings, ask in a very firm and determined voice, “Are you quite sure you need this? I mean need, not just want. I mean, come on, you’ve already bought five talking-monkeys apps this month. Do you really need a sixth? And Desperate Housewives? Really. You should know better, shouldn’t you? You’ve not even finished watching the last season of Entourage yet — I don’t really think you should be buying more shows until you’ve watched the last lot. And Lady Gaga? Honestly! A grown man? Come on!” Actually, I already have that feature. It’s called my wife.

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2

The Hidden Cost of OS X Lion Server: Apple and misleading comments

Posted by steve on Jun 9, 2011 in News

We all know, those of us who care about such things, that Apple will release Mac OS X 10.7 Lion next month. As has been widely discussed, by me and others, Other Steve and his mates went into quite some detail on Monday, dwelling in particular upon the price. Said price — $29 — was, it was widely agreed among pundits, was quite a bargain. What was a tad disappointing was the fact that Lion Server, an integral part of developer preview releases of 10.7, was no longer bundled with the basic software install, requiring a $49 additional purchase from the App Store.

This was a touch disappointing, but $49 for a server package that had previously cost five hundred dollars still seemed quite reasonable. After all, for the money we would be getting “the server for everyone,” to quote the banner on Apple’s website plugging Lion Server. The banner is subtitled:

Now you can quickly and easily turn just about any Mac into a powerful server that’s perfect for home offices, businesses, schools, and hobbyists alike. Lion Server is coming to the Mac App Store in July for $49.99.

“Just about any Mac.” “Perfect for hobbyists.” Under fifty dollars. Sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it? Sadly, it is. Clicking on the “How to buy” button in the top right-hand corner of that page leads a rather more distressing page, one listing three steps to turning “just about any Mac” into a server that’s “perfect for hobbyists” “for $49.99.”

Step one is fair enough: make sure your “just about any Mac” has the requisite processing oomph. Can’t argue too much with that, even though “Your Mac must have an Intel Core 2 Duo, Core i3, Core i5, Core i7, or Xeon processor to run Lion” isn’t quite the same as “just about any Mac;” in fact, of my three Macs — iMac, mini and MacBook Pro — only the last two fit the bill, meaning that, for me at least, “just about any” equates to “less than 67%.” But let’s not dwell. Onward.

Step three (yes, I know…) is — fortunately — pretty hard to take issue with: “simply open the Mac App Store from your Dock to buy and download Lion and Lion Server.” Can’t argue with that one, can one? Just as well, really, since it’s step two, the one we’ve saved until the end, that really chafes.

Step two: “Get the latest version of Snow Leopard Server.You’ll need Snow Leopard Server v10.6.6 or later to purchase Lion and Lion Server from the Mac App Store. If you have Snow Leopard Server, click the Apple icon and choose Software Update to install the latest version.”

I’m sorry, but this is very, very, very different from “just about any Mac” for “$49.99.” The reality is that you simply can’t install Lion Server on any Mac for $49.99 unless it’s already running Snow Leopard Server.

I have no problem with Apple charging five hundred dollars for Lion Server. Actually, that’s not entirely true. It does bother me that, having abandoned the X-Serve, and with it much real chance of being taken seriously in the future as a viable server option for anything bigger than home offices and hobbyists, they still want to charge the same price for what they now appear to consider a hobby.

Apple can charge howsoever much they see fit. They’re not bound, even, by hints and suggestions, promises inferred from preview releases never meant for public consumption or analysis. But what they shouldn’t do, what they’re better than, is advertising as misleading as this. Lion Server is not available for $49.99, not available for “just about any Mac.”

Apple are — I believed Apple are — better than this. I’m disappointed.

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Fail wail: trying to get Steve’s TechBlog active on Twitter

Posted by steve on Jan 22, 2011 in Facebook, internet, network, News, Personal, Social media, Twitter

I think I may have tweeted prematurely. Last week, I posted the following bit of hubris on the Three Lions Tech Twitter feed:

Three Lions Tech is finally broadcasting on Twitter, Facebook and across the sub-etha network.

Three Lions Technologies, the corporate monolith for which Steve’s TechBlog is the warm, fuzzy and human face, finally had a Facebook page (be the first among your friends to like it!), to which I was now posting via TweetDeck, of which much — oh, so very, very much — to come forthwith, or at least after a few more cups of coffee. As part of a massive social media push that saw me posting like a madman to my moving to New Zealand blog, I also decided that I would also expand the online presences of my other online personae, and so I set about setting up Facebook and Twitter presences for Auckland’s premier Mac consultancy service. The Facebook experience was streamlined enough; all that’s required now is a little content, and all that’s required there is a little more coffee.

Twitter, on the other hand, has been an experience that can only be described as other. To be utterly blunt, I’ve never really got Twitter. From its beginnings in the late mesonettic period, I’ve been sceptical. Even more than blogs (to which I confess to being a late convert; viz this very blog, and this one), Twitter has long struck me as being as narcissistic, as vain, as woefully and dismally self-indulgent as any use yet found for the Internet. I have little interest in the colour of Lady Gaga’s underpants, or indeed whether she’s wearing any, and so a live feed of updates on the colour and deployment status of same seemed fabulously unnecessary. And yet, and yet…I saw a need to be using Twitter. Eventually, after much soul-searching, contemplation and beer, I did the only smart thing a man can do — I asked my wife.

My wife, among her many talents and wonderfulnesses, is the webmaster and social-media specialist for a major American corporation that, in the interests of national security, I should probably refrain from naming. Fortunately, however, she is willing to discuss her work with me, and so I grilled and interrogated her about the merits of social media networking; now, I believe, I start to see the point. And the point, put simply, is this — if everyone else is doing it, then I pretty much have to. Even North Bloody Korea’s got a Twitter feed. Yes, I know, this runs utterly counter to my mother’s “And I suppose if everyone else jumped off a bridge, you’d want to do that, too?” logic that I came to love so very dearly as a teenager, but I see the merit of it, which is why my various online presences are sprouting social-media badges like so many toadstools after a mid-summer downpour such as the one that has deluged much of the top end of the North Island this afternoon.

And so, duly put straight by my wife, yet again, I decided to set up a Twitter account for Three Lions Technologies. The setup started as smoothly as one would expect when dealing with one of the largest and most inescapable services in all of Netdom, one which has had five internet years — centuries in human years — to get things right. I followed the steps required of me on the Twitter website, and all went well, but as soon as action was required from the other end, it all went to custard.

In order for a Twitter account to become fully activated, to emerge from its shell so to speak (see what I did there? Shell, birds, tweet….get it?), a new user must respond to an activation email from Twitter. And in order for a new user to respond to an email from Twitter, Twitter must first send that email. And…well, that’s rather where it all broke down. I entered my super-secret private and personal email address, clicked “save,” and then looked in Mail for an incoming message. Nothing there, so I refreshed my mail — still nothing. I returned to the Twitter website, asked for a resend, and checked again. And again.

I run my own mailserver, and so I thought that maybe that was where the problem could be found. I tried using a different email address, at a different domain, but still Twitter failed to send a confirmation email. In sheer, utter desperation, I turned to The Google, who in turn referred me to Twitter’s help pages, where I found this remarkably helpful advice:

Use an email from a large domain.

Setting aside the fact that they clearly, clearly need a new tech writer, I looked further and came to the opinion that, no matter the size of the domain from which I used an email (I tried everything from the oddly small threelionstech.com to the paradoxically huge me.com; size clearly didn’t matter to Twitter), it wasn’t Twitter’s fault. Delivery to small domains is inconsistent. Spam filters are over-aggressive. Changes in the Earth’s magnetic field. The dog ate your email. Vint Cerf ate your email. A litany of excuses that all lead back to the basic problem: my Twitter account remains un-activated.

I do remain, however, unclear as to what that means. I can be searched for and found; I can tweet; I can follow and be followed. Still, don’t you expect better from Twitter?

(If you liked this post, then feel free to Like it or retweet it using the buttons at the bottom of the post, and, if you’re really interested to find out what happens next, then be sure to follow Three Lions Technologies on Facebook and Twitter.)

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Paying by the Bit: Internet access in New Zealand

Posted by steve on Jan 17, 2010 in international, internet, network, New Zealand, Personal

For reasons that would take too long to explain here, I moved to New Zealand about six months ago. I brought my life with me, including, among goods and chattels more varied than I had realized, my trusty Mac mini, which has been doing sterling duty as a Web and mail server for a year or more. My life also includes a wife and daughter, and they, not surprisingly, came with me too.

This has been an almost entirely unqualified success. The people in New Zealand are friendly, the food is astonishing, and the wine is spectacular. But, even in God’s Own Country, nothing is perfect. New Zealand is a truly splendid place to live in many, indeed almost all, regards. But for a techie – and I am, quite unashamedly and unabashedly, one of that number – there are definite quibbles, of which by far the largest is bandwidth, or the lack thereof.

When I lived in America, I was undeniably spoiled, as many Americans tend to be. Life, however shallow it may have been in other regards when one lives in Florida, was certainly easy from a connectivity point of view. My home office had a broadband connection with, as I simply took for granted, took for my birthright, unlimited data. I could slurp down, and throw up, all the data I wanted. The Internet was mine, all of the time.

But when we signed up for our New Zealand connection, we were stunned – stunned, I say! – to discover that the Internet, in New Zealand, is a highly limited and finite resource. We went from “all you can download” to “you get 20 GB a month, you’ll pay $100 a month, and you’ll be grateful for it” in the time it takes to fly from Los Angeles to Auckland (which is, now I come to think about it, a horrendously long time). This was a most atrocious imposition for the Internet junkies that my wife and daughter had become (not me, though, of course – I was far too virtuous, too self-restrained). For all that New Zealand had to offer, the narrowness of its Internet pipes was simply intolerable.

We opted for the “double your data” option (and the additional $30 per month that wasn’t optional), but we still find ourselves limited by 40 GB per month. I check the online usage-meter every few days (using, in the process, a few more precious bytes; oh, the cruel, vicious, bitter irony!), and issue imprecations to Wife and Daughter, reminding them that Facebook is a luxury, not an absolute necessity; they, as addicts always do, try to justify their endless status-checking as being entirely reasonable, indeed essential. I calculate the bandwidth usage of Skype and of YouTube; I flinch when I see Daughter download another Mary-Kate and Ashley movie from iTunes (that’s not really a bandwidth issue; that’s just on general principles – I’d cringe if that were happening if we had a free and entirely unlimited T3 connection direct to the trans-Pacific backbone). I have developed new and careful Internet habits: I use the “Open link in new window” option if I think there’s any possibility that I might want to visit a second link from the same page, to avoid potentially having to load the original page a second time, and Apple Mail no longer checks automatically every minute – each check uses several dozens of bytes, I’m sure, and they all add up. I even avoid visiting Japanese or Chinese sites, conscious of two-byte character sets using more than their fair share of bandwidth.

I check my Google Analytics numbers with conflicted emotions: every page view for our various blogs and online presences is, on the one hand, a cause for celebration – more visits, more revenue, more Internet fame and glory. On the other hand, those page views are also an occasion for more hand-wringing, since they were served up from my Mac mini, over my desperately and mercilessly limited Internet connection. I post photography from the beautiful country we now call home, but wince when I see that I’ve had visits to my site. Even the very act of visiting the Google Analytics Web site eats up a handful of kilobytes that I can scarce afford. Even writing this article is a painful experience; while the catharsis of venting about the primitivity of our connection is undeniably therapeutic, every adjective, every atom of invective, every single character I devote to letting the world know how abjectly deprived we are is one fewer byte that can be used elsewhere.

The reason for this caution is simple. As soon as we reach our allocated 40 GB – think about that for a second; it’s only a gig and a third per day, and the lovely and talented Mrs. McCabe, with whom I share everything, including my bandwidth, is a Web designer – a Gollum-like finger, somewhere in a dungeon buried deep in darkest Auckland, reaches out in the gloom, flicks a switch, and says “It’s dial-up for you. Your bandwidth is mine, it’s mine, my precioussss.” And that’s it. We’re reduced to an Amish connection, one so slow it would be more efficient to hand-write packets of data and strap them to the legs of carrier pigeons. Web pages load – if they load – in minutes, rather than seconds. YouTube is a pipe dream. Downloads, well, downloads don’t. There has been much discussion around the blogosphere in the last month about when the first decade of the 21st century will end. Here in New Zealand that discussion is academic – we’re still, at least in terms of Internettery, stuck back in the 1990s. My connection today is so slow that I half-expect to hear the dolphin-screech of a modem actually dialing in to Vodafone as I try to connect, and I’m grateful that I’m not on deadline for this article. Looking at the cave paintings of Lascaux would represent a faster data transfer than the one I’m hobbled with right now.

I have, I would like to stress, been more than diligent in my attempts to figure out where our precious data might be going. My first thought was Skype, given that Daughter spends much of her time video-chatting with friends back in the Northern Hemisphere. I installed iStat Menus; as far as I could tell, a two-way video conference was using only around 120 KBps. But Vodafone’s (for they are our current Internet provider) online “check your usage” tool was reporting that there were days when we used as much as 6.5 GB of data. The day we reached this number (our record so far, by the way) was a school day – I doubt, then, that Daughter’s Skyping can be the culprit (she would have needed 15 hours of non-stop chatting, and while she’s good, even she’s not that good).

I suspected that it might be my server. I was reluctant to give up running my own server after moving to New Zealand because I’ve localized a handful of my domains – mccabe.net.nz, threelions.co.nz, astralgraphics.co.nz – and it’s hard to find U.S.-based hosting services that handle .nz domains. I host my personal site, stevemccabe.net, as well as my clients’ sites, through a European hosting-and-reselling service, but they don’t offer anything in the Kiwi domain space, so I’ve bought my domains through GoDaddy. I’ve become familiar with GoDaddy’s DNS setup system, and so, frankly, it’s just convenient to register with them and then host myself. That said, GoDaddy’s pricing structure for hosting is Byzantine beyond belief (I’ve had clients in the past want me to set up their sites on GoDaddy – oh, the power of advertising, especially if it involves scantily clad ladies with large chests – and I now make it a condition of service that I provide hosting as well as design) and life was so much easier when I knew that I had all the Internet connectivity I wanted.

So I looked at the traffic stats on my server. This was a bittersweet experience because on the one hand, no, I wasn’t ploughing through my data, which was good, but on the other hand, this meant that my sites weren’t getting the traffic I would have liked. Still, at least that was another possible culprit struck from the list.

I issued the sternest of imprecations to my girls, and, to all intents and purposes, stopped using the InterWebs. But no matter how much we cranked back our usage, we still found that we were using – or, at the very least, we were being reported as using – at least several hundred megabytes a day.

It was time to talk to Vodafone. I contacted them several times, and received several different bogus explanations: I had viruses (_ahem_, my network is Apple-only), I had moochers (WPA2 password, a house built of brick, a large garden) – basically, it was my fault, one way or another. It certainly couldn’t be Vodafone’s fault. I pushed a little further. I was told to install a data tracker – I was even sent Vodafone’s recommended monitor, SurplusMeter. I installed it across my network, and it reported, of course, that I was using monstrous amounts of data. The reason was simple – it meters not only wide-area, but also local-area network traffic. My iMac, for example, was pushing through megabyte after megabyte, even though I had no applications open at all. Well, none that would use the Internet.

Except iTunes. But I wasn’t downloading anything. What I was doing was streaming music to my AirPort Express. SurplusMeter was recording every last packet that went out of the data port it was charged with monitoring – in this case, my AirPort card. I called Vodafone again, and explained that the numbers SurplusMeter was reporting were meaningless. They said I should shut down my local network for a day and see what my numbers were like. I did – and on that day my wife’s iMac managed not to report a single bit going in or out. Not bad for a Web designer who telecommutes between New Zealand and Florida.

Vodafone’s next suggestion was that we had a line fault. This was a possibility – I live in a very old house (we think it’s pre-war, but we’re not sure which war; my money’s on the Boer War) – and one of the call-centre people I spoke to noticed that, while a DSL modem typically reconnects four or five times a day, mine had already reconnected over a dozen times – and I still hadn’t finished my first cup of coffee. They assured me that they would look into this, but in the meantime I’d need to disconnect my phone line (a service, mind you, that I pay for) for a day in case there was a problem with my DSL filters. This may, or may not, have been the problem; I have no way of knowing. Maybe they’re still running tests. At the very least, they haven’t replied.

Finally, I wrote to Russell Stanners, CEO of Vodafone NZ, at the end of last month. A week or so later, I got a phone call from Vodafone, and, after a long chat, the rep who called me (also called Russell; hmm…) agreed to waive the $199 early termination fee and release me from the one-year contract that we would have been bound to until June 2010.

We’re switching to TelstraClear. I’m not doing this because they’re particularly brilliant, but because they do one thing that Vodafone don’t – instead of dialing us back to pecking-out-bits-on-a-Morse-Code-tapper speeds, they’ll keep on selling us more gigabytes. I’m willing to pay for a service (especially a service that I actually receive), but the idea that I only get my 40 gigabytes, and, regardless of whose fault it is, that’s it, I’m cut off like a naughty schoolboy, well, that really chafes.

So now we’re waiting. Our Internet connection went back to last-millennium speeds after only a fortnight this month, so we’re struggling – some evenings we can’t tell whether we’re offline, or just really slow. And although I signed up to TelstraClear over a week ago, I just had a phone call from one of their reps letting me know that, because of the Christmas and midsummer holiday backlog, they won’t flip our switch for another week.

I’ll be emailing this article off to TidBITS World HQ shortly. I have no idea when they may get it. The Word document that contains this piece is 41 KB, which, at my current Internet speeds, could take until March to send. It might be quicker for me to save it to a CD, swim to California with the disc between my teeth, walk across the country, and hand it to Adam Engst personally.

[This article first appeared in TidBITS]

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