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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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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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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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Upgrading to WordPress

Posted by steve on Jan 11, 2010 in News, Personal, Software, Uncategorized

One of the biggest dangers associated with having as many websites as I do — a good half-dozen, at the last count, including this one, this one and this one — is that it’s hard to keep generating content for all of them. And, while I’ve been busy writing about all manner of other things, I’ve been sadly neglecting my very own site. I looked at it recently and realised that I hadn’t updated the content in over a year and a half.

My website, before rebuilding in WordPress

My website, before rebuilding in WordPress

The irony, of course, was that I’ve been working on plenty of other sites about, and for, other people and other things. I’ve been using WordPress as my new primary web-design tool; it’s gone way beyond the blogging engine it used to be and has become a fully-featured and quite mature content-management system. I’ve been taking advantage of its flexibility for my other concerns and clients, so I decided it was time to rebuild my own site in WordPress.

The problem was, I built my site a couple of years ago in DreamWeaver, and I quite liked the look of it. It wasn’t, I’ll admit, the absolute last word in design — I’m much more the writer and technician; the lovely and talented Mrs. McCabe is very much the designer of the operation — but I was fond of it. The challenge was how to re-purpose the design I’d created in DreamWeaver as a WordPress theme.

In the end, it turned out to be quite remarkably easy. I’ll post a complete blow-by-blow one of these days; for the time being, here are the basic steps:

The same site, rebuilt in WordPress
The same site, rebuilt in WordPress

  • Install WordPress on my hosting service. This was quite straightforward — my hosting service use Fantastico De Luxe, a very simple couple-of-clicks installation system. Once it was set up, it was time to
  • Create a new theme. This basically required two files in a folder in the Themes directory of my WordPress installation. Despite what I’ve read elsewhere, it looks like all that’s required is a basic template file, index.php, and a stylesheet, stylesheet.css — so long as those two are there, you’re in business. The next step was to
  • Upload the stylesheet. A little bit of tweaking of the .css file and it was ready to upload to the server. This contained all the designy goodness of the site; all that was left, now, was to
  • Replace verbiage in the home page to WordPress .php code. This was the tricky bit, but, with a fair old bit of trying, reloading, re-trying, re-reloading and so forth, it turned out to be a fairly straightforward process.

So there it is. SteveMcCabe.net is now live again. It’s all but indistinguishable from the old version. I did make a couple of very small adjustments that I’ve been meaning to make for a while, but otherwise the site’s where I wanted it to be.

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The sincerest form of flattery

Posted by steve on Oct 20, 2009 in Hardware, News, Personal, Reviews

Among their fanboys at least, Apple are particularly lauded for their innovation, for their uncanny ability to create new and creative solutions and ideas, the newly-announced Magic Mouse being a case in point — it’s still a mouse, still does the usual point-and-click stuff that any old mouse should be able to accomplish, but at the same time, it’s also a multi-touch surface capable of all manner of gesturey goodness.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I happened across this latest bit of Apple brilliance. Yes, Apple have suddenly realised that their Mac mini is the ideal machine to use as a headless server if you’re not quite willing to fork over the monstrous sums required for an Xserve.

The idea, of course, is simplicity itself. The Mac mini is a perfectly capable computing engine, but one that, out of the box, lacks the human-interface bits and bobs that would be required to make it a fully-configured end-user machine, but which are entirely unnecessary for a server. Brilliant.

In fact, so brilliant is the idea that I’m glad I thought of it myself. In fact, not only did I think of it myself, I even wrote about it, back in January of this year.

I’m torn. On the one hand, I should be indignant that my brilliance, my sheer genius, my thinking-different-ness, has been appropriated by The Other Steve. But on the other, imitation is, as they say, the sincerest form of flattery, and, magnanimous creature that I undeniably am, I’m willing to sit back and enjoy the fact that this latest [ahem] innovation has driven Apple’s share price up a healthy additional nine dollars.

Of course, now that I’m in New Zealand, I find myself less than impressed by Apple’s stock going up; gains in APPL are barely offsetting the nosedive of the US dollar against real currencies such as the kiwi dollar. But still, maybe I’ll make enough to buy me a new Magic Mouse.

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On being assimilated

Posted by steve on Jul 19, 2009 in Hardware, Hardware Reviews, Personal

When Real Steve Jobs announced the iPhone, two years and a half ago, I knew I needed (not wanted; I needed) one. When Steve again walked the stage of the WWDC, last year, and told us of the goodness of the iPhone 3G, I was convinced to the degree that I queued up for nearly six hours (yes, I know…) outside Tampa’s Apple Store to secure a brace for myself and the missus.

And so, when this year’s iteration was to be unveiled, I dutifully chewed my fingernails in anticipation of spiffy new features. But they failed, almost entirely, to materialise. A compass? Meh. A better battery? About bloody time. An oleophobic screen? Be still, be still, my beating heart. All in all, I was utterly, comprehensively and thoroughly whelmed. Not overwhelmed, mark you, but whelmed — here was an iPhone that failed to set my young heart aflame.

Had my life continued down the path I’d been anticipating a year ago, I would have been somewhat torn — it was a new iPhone, and I knew I’d want it, but there wasn’t quite enough in the new release to justify the many more hundreds of dollars it would inevitably cost. But fate, as it has a habit of doing, intervened, and I recently decamped to New Zealand, a move that rather changed things. Around the time that the latest iPhone was released in New Zealand, I found myself looking to sign up for an antipodean cellphone, and so on Friday I found myself making for my local Vodafone shop. I bought one (I’ll get another for the lovely and talented when she arrives next month), and brought it home to start playing with. And here’s what I discovered.

Superficially, it’s all but identical to the iPhone 3G. The lettering on the back is glossy, rather than the matte of the last edition, but otherwise, you’d be hard pushed to know that you’re holding a 3G S (a somewhat less than brilliant naming system). The same glossy plastic forms the back, the same shiny metal covers the external switches. So what is new?

Well, there is the speed. Apparently, the internal circuitry of the new iPhone supports the much-vaunted 3.5G network that AT&T (of whom more later) will, sooner or later, be rolling out. But said technology has yet to trouble New Zealand either, and so I have no way of testing this new feature. But overall, the device does seem that little nippier. Applications do seem to open a little more quickly, and animation and graphics feel a tad more fluid. This is, of course, a highly subjective impression; it might be simply down to the fact that I’m chuffed with my new toy.

Most of the features of the new phone are also to be found in iPhone OS version 3, which I installed on my old 3G iPhone the day it was released. Cut, copy and paste have finally been implemented, finally putting an end to complainers who likened their absence to the Dark Ages. Oddly, though, I’ve not actually used any of these features yet — I can only assume that I’ve become so thoroughly used to using my iPhone without them that, now that they’ve finally arrived, I simply forget that they’re there. The new landscape keyboard that, again, people have been clamouring for as though its absence were a scourge against humanity is a little disappointing — I tried it and, frankly, found that I much preferred typing on the regular portrait-orientation keyboard. The keys felt more comfortably spaced that way.

The compass has proven to be a bit of a one-day wonder. It’s ever so impressive that Apple have managed to shoehorn a magnetometer into this device, but, frankly, what is the point? I appreciate the integration with Google Maps — having a map face in the same direction that I’m facing is clever, but hardly earth-shattering.

Voice activation has been added, one more of those catch-up features that Apple pretty much had to add. I confess to being impressed with its accuracy — my experience with American voice-recognition software is that it is hobbled by its assumption that everyone who ever uses it must be from the American midwest, and my Coronation Street vowels routinely confound such systems, but my iPhone makes a decent fist of decoding me. I’m still not sure how much I’ll use it, but it’s certainly an interesting novelty.

The iPhone 3G S’s new camera is the most visible hardware enhancement. I’ve long wondered why cellphones have to have cameras; I’ve finally come to the conclusion that as soon as one company added the feature, every other manufacturer had to, even though the two concepts have relatively little connection. I don’t, after all, insist that my toaster has a microphone, or that my dog is Bluetooth-enabled. But mobile phones, it has been decreed, will henceforth have cameras. And still cameras are no longer enough — they must now be video-capable. Much has been made of the quality or otherwise of the camera in the iPhone 3G S; most of it is pretty fair. It’s a phone, not a bloody Hasselblad medium-format camera, so I really don’t quite know what people expect. It takes pictures, and they’re perfectly functional. And it also takes highly serviceable video. I don’t see Martin Scorcese throwing away his Panaflex kit just yet, but if you want to make a lasting record of little Suzy turning her first cartwheel, you could do a fair bit worse. The integration with the rest of the OS is useful, though — on-phone trimming followed by the ability to email the video is rather convenient. I still don’t see cameras as a core feature of a phone, though, so I’m yet to be convinced that this is an area that Apple really need to be spending too much time.

The feature I’m most impressed with so far, though, is the oleophobic coating on the screen. In the days before we knew of the iPhone, I was highly sceptical of the idea of a touch-screen iPod. Surely, I would find myself thinking, my greasy fingers would smear across the screen and render it barely watchable. And, much as I enjoyed using my original iPhone, I found my prediction disappointingly correct. With last year’s iPhone 3G, I took to using a screen-protector sheet, but somehow it felt wrong, almost as though I was putting a barrier between myself and my toy. The 3G S’s screen, though, simply does not need a protector. I bought, as I mentioned my phone on Friday morning, and on Friday evening, as is customary, I found myself in the Warkworth RSA with Neil and Alex, who took a modicum of polite interest in my new gadget. I mentioned the screen; Neil reached across the table, took a hot, freshly-fried chip, and smeared it across the surface of the phone. “There, it looks pretty greasy now!” I liberated my iPhone from his Welsh clutches, gave it a quick wipe across my All Blacks rugby shirt, and handed it back to him. Spotless.

I’ve had my iPhone 3G S for barely a weekend. So far I’m less incrementally impressed than I was this time last year with my iPhone 3G, but then, I was less blown away with it than I was with my original iPhone a year earlier. Apple will have to pull something quite spectacular out this time next year if they hope to make even more money out of me; in the meantime, I’m enjoying being wired wirelessly again. I guess I’m powerless to resist a new iPhone. Resistance, clearly, is futile.

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iLife Up-To-Date needs up-to-dating.

Posted by steve on Jan 26, 2009 in Personal, Software

I recently took myself across Tampa Bay to my local Apple Store, there to buy a new iMac. While I was there, I happened to mention to the manager that I was interested in iLife 09, and he assured me that, even though the machine I was buying didn’t have the latest version of iLife installed, it was eligible for Apple’s Up-To-Date programme. 

That evening, I visited the Apple website, and made my way to the iLife Up-To-Date page. I input the iMac’s serial number, and all the other relevant information, and was told 

Sorry, we can’t find the serial number you provided. Please recheck your serial number and enter it again.
 

I clicked on the “chat now” button at the top of the page, and had a lovely conversation with a young Apple lady, who assured me that the serial number in question simply wasn’t in the system yet, and that I should look again the next day.

The very next day I looked again, and saw the same message. I chatted again, this time with a young man who actually managed to convey the shrugging of his shoulders via text message as he suggested that I try printing out an application form and posting it. Quite horrendously last-century, I thought, but I did just that. 

And that brings us to today, fully a fortnight after I bought this machine. Its serial number still isn’t “in the system,” which makes me wonder what “system” Apple are using. The makers of WebObjects and the owners of FileMaker aren’t impressing me overly here. I’ve also tried clicking the “check the status of your order form” link, but that’s not much more helpful. Apparently that system doesn’t know me either. 

And Apple, in their typically Trappist fashion, aren’t giving anything away. The Store section of Apple’s website gnomically states that the software “ships: January.” Well, January’s not long for this world. February is nearly upon us, and there are arses in Cupertino that quite clearly need to be got in gear. 

In the meantime, all I can do is grit my teeth and wish that Apple would refrain from using the expression “pre-order.” Until they figure out how we can post-order, then that prefix is just a tad redundant…

Update

It’s 26th January, and the Mac-centric InterWeb is reporting that that iLife ’09 is to ship tomorrow. I tried again ordering my update online, and got the same lack of results. I again tried the online chat system, and this time Deborah L seemed more interested in selling me AppleCare than in trying to solve my problem.

Twenty minutes on the phone to Apple later, I’ve been assured that I’ll be getting a copy of iLife ’09 in the post as soon as Apple can get it to me. I’ll be posting a review as soon as it arrives and I get chance to have a good play with it.

Another Update

I’ve just had an email from AppleCare, telling me that my software will ship on the 30th, sans shipping and handling charges. Thanks, Scott!

Yet Another Update

A FedEx knock at my door yesterday morning — my copy of iLife ’09 was here. It’s rather good, too. I’ll be writing a full write-up as soon as a handful of outstanding projects are wrapped up. Thanks again, Scott!

Update The Fourth

It would be so lovely just to put this post to bed, but it simply refuses to give up. I was checking my online banking records this morning, as one does, and I noticed a charge from Apple for a little over ten dollars. The only thing I’ve bought lately — or indeed attempted to buy — from Apple has been iLife. It’s odd, though, that the status enquiry function of the iLife Up-To-Date page at the Apple website still has no record of having received an order from me. 

I’ve put in a call to Scott at Apple Customer Care. I’ll be updating once again as soon as he gets back to me.

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Time to write about Time Machine

Posted by steve on Jan 21, 2009 in Hardware, Personal

One of the most highly touted features of Mac OS X 1
0.5 Leopard was Time Machine, but when the OS was first offered, it was clear that Time Machine was an imperfect technology. Many users reported frustration, more than a little bit tinged with irony, when they discovered that hard discs connected to Airport base stations — seemingly an ideal solution — didn’t actually work with Time Machine. 

Apple’s solution was the Time Capsule. In a somewhat bitterly ironic echo of the irony of the problem we’ve just recalled, Time Capsule was, at its core, an Airport base station with a hard disc. But onward. I toyed with the idea of buying one, but was put off by the price tag. But then the lovely and talented Mrs. McCabe’s PowerMac G5 started to make somewhat disconcerting noises, and for a brief, slightly trouser-soiling moment, we thought her primary hard disc, the one with all her working files on, had finally decided to curl up its electronic toes. 

That’s when I nipped over to the Apple Store in Tampa, where I once wore the black T-shirt of the Mac Specialist, and bought a one-terabyte Time Capsule. And began to back up religiously. Or at least automatically. Both our Macs now back up every hour. And last September, I found myself writing this post to the Tidbits mailing list:

I feel moved to share a personal experience with the assembled masses. On Monday evening, as I sat at my computer — a first-generation Intel iMac — wrapping up the day’s work, I was dismayed to witness the latest in what was becoming a disturbingly frequent chain of kernel panics.

I pushed the restart button, and waited. My screens remained grey; instead of the satisfying whirrs and clicks of a well-running computer, I heard a quite disconcerting series of “tok” sounds coming from behind my main monitor.

But wait — what’s this? Why the utter absence of panic? Why the lack of dread, why no puckering, no clenching of the bowels? The answer is simple. I own — and use — a Time Machine.

I went down to CompUSA (the least pleasant aspect of the entire process) yesterday morning, and bought a new 500GB internal hard disc. I came home and stripped down my iMac, and slipped the bugger in. Restarted from my Leopard DVD, reformatted my new half-terabyte, and installed my system. Fired up Time Machine, and there it was — 167GB of data, just waiting to be restored. I restored. I’m happy.

I’ve helped clients who’ve lost data before. But I’ve never lost a hard disc myself. I can barely believe how glad I am that I have a Time Machine. One of the most valuable devices I’ve ever hooked up to my network, without a doubt — my rump was well and truly hauled out of the fire yesterday.

I have little or no doubt that there will be discussions shortly about the value of off-site backup, and I have even less doubt about the validity of such strategies. Right now, though, all I know is that my Time Machine is worth *every* penny….

I was already convinced of the value and utility of the thing, but that episode simply cemented my belief that it was a very valuable device. I’ve been finding again this week how useful it is. I have, as has been mentioned elsepost, that I have a multitude of hard discs attached to the iMac that is my main work computer. In an attempt to rationalise them and re-organise them a little, I started moving files earlier this week. Of course, fool that I am, I allowed myself to get distracted, and ended up deleting, of all things, all of the applications I’d downloaded for my iPhone. So when next I synced (sanc?) my phone, all of my apps promptly removed themselves. Oops. But no worry, for I have a Time Capsule. Ten minutes later, they were all back on my phone. 

I realise that this article must make me sound quite sadly and pathetically fanboyish, but so be it. I’ll be the first to admit that the Time Capsule is anything but perfect — for some reason, attempting to back up my Mac Mini server causes the little thing to crash and require a restart — but right now I’m of the opinion that it’s about the most critical component of my network.

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Taking stock

Posted by admin on Jan 13, 2009 in Hardware, Personal, Software

Since this blog is quite heavily slanted toward technology, I thought I’d get the ball rolling by making up an inventory, taking stock so to speak, of the gadgets that I use to help me run my life. 
My laptop
A MacBook Pro , of course. I’ve had it for about nearly two years now, which means it’s a relic, verging on a fossil, by computer standards, but it serves me well. It’s in great shape, despite having been toted around the world in a backpack, most recently to Australia and New Zealand.

My desktop computer

An iMac. It’s another old computer, this time nearly three years old. But it’s a trooper. It’s one of the original Intel iMacs, and it’s my main work machine. I’ve replaced the hard disk, after the old one went south (and how grateful was I that my Time Capsule
was there to save my hide?), and I’ve connected about half a dozen external hard discs, adding a couple of terabytes of additional storage, as well as a second DVD burner and — and this is my favourite bit — a second monitor.

My phone

And, not entirely shockingly, it’s an iPhone. I don’t know I should even bother writing anything here — there’s been plenty of electrons spilt over the last year and a half about the iPhone, much of it by more incisive and wittier writers than I. 

But I like my iPhone. It’s as cool and groovy a gadget as any I’ve owned. And while that’s a pretty obvious remark, it represents a huger leap up from its predecessor (in this case, a Motorola RAZR (what a vile and loathsome name that is)) than was the case with any other piece of kit I think I’ve ever had.

My server

A surprisingly tiny fellow, my Mac Mini, sitting on my desk between a semi-active Airport base station and a Seagate hard disc, is a low-profile workhorse. It’s connected to my network by ethernet, and to the wall by a power strip, but otherwise it’s all alone. No keyboard, no mouse, not even a monitor. But this headless server is the hub of my online empire, the nerve centre if you will (or, quite frankly, even if you won’t) of nearly everything I do online. It hosts this site, as well as my photography site, the blog that plots my escape plans and a side project that I might even get off the ground one day.

My software

Not technically gadgetry per se, but the programmes, systems and applications I run provide so much functionality that they might as well be. My computers, of course, run Mac OS X Leopard, with my server, obviously, operating under the server edition — a quite remarkably flexible and powerful piece of ‘ware, if you ask me. 

That’s the bulk of what I use on a daily basis. With these few devices, and the bits and bobs that I have plugged in or connected to them, I keep myself connected and run a couple of modestly successful businesses. Doesn’t take much, does it?

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