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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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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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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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iPhoto ’09

Posted by steve on Feb 4, 2009 in Reviews, Software, Software Reviews

iPhoto was the second programme in Apple’s iLife suite to be introduced, and therein lies the problem that Apple face with iPhoto. It’s a mature programme, one that has settled into a useful — valuable, even — tool for many users. It provides, and has done for several versions — a decent, and quite capable, array of organisational tools for amateur snapsters, and even has a thing or two to offer to professional photographers. The problem, then, is this — what do Apple do next?

Unfortunately, Apple have set foot on the path, the long, slippery path, toward feature bloat with iPhoto ’09. The good news is that the things that really matter — the basic functionality, the interface — are essentially unchanged. What Apple have chosen to do is add features that don’t really, well, do very much, no matter how excited Phil Schiller may have been when he introduced them last month at Apple’s Macworld swansong.

Facial recognition

Call it arrogance, call it utterly overarching hubris, but I like to think that I’m better at recognising my wife’s face than my computer is. Even a Mac isn’t going to know Debbie any better than I do; I’m not entirely sure, then, why I need a computer programme to help me identify pictures of the lady I’ve spent the last seven years married to. Yes, it’s an interesting novelty, but the fact remains that the Faces feature of iPhoto ’09 takes so much training that it’s not actually useful. Were it simply a matter of clicking once on a photo and saying “Here — that’s the missus. Go fetch!” then I might be singing a different song right now, but a programme that can’t accurately and reliably differentiate between my wife, my father-in-law and my daughter, or indeed one that thinks that I’m a ballet dancer, doesn’t impress. Maybe in future the software will be able to do a better job of picking out people’s faces, but it’s simply not there yet.

Mapping

A keen traveller, I was excited to see support for geotagging added to iPhoto. I travel, I shoot, I upload to Panoramio, which website offers a decently functional mapping feature. I had long wished for a way of tagging my photos’ EXIF data with latitude and longitude information, but my camera doesn’t have a built-in GPS, so I’ve had to rely on manually tagging my images. iPhoto, then, should have been a boon. It’s not. It does, to be sure, offer a way of adding lat-long data to photos. It also, helpfully, now includes one-click uploading to Flickr and Facebook. Neither of these sites, however, is a geographically-oriented venture; I’ve tried placing my photos in iPhoto’s admittedly elegantly-designed and well-implemented mapping interface, but when I upload tagged images to Panoramio, the geographic data simply isn’t recognised. Once again, a marquee feature that simply disappoints.

Otherwise, little is significantly different in this latest version of iPhoto. Photos are still organised into events, but now each event’s information, including description and, of course, location, can be accessed from a little “i” that appears as you mouse over the event in the Events browser. This would be more useful if it weren’t so glacially slow; as it stands, once again we have a new feature that doesn’t actually work terribly well. The same is true of information for individual photos — more than once I’ve found the animation that accompanies the revealing and hiding of a photo’s or event’s information window has been so slow as to leave me wondering if perhaps the entire application had frozen.

I’m disappointed with the latest version of iPhoto. I was curious about Faces, but couldn’t really describe my reaction as disappointment since I had few real expectations of the feature. Places, on the other hand, was something I’d been wanting in iPhoto for quite some time, and I am very unimpressed with its lack of integration with possible the major online use for it. Had nothing else changed, I would simply have dismissed these features as something that maybe I just didn’t get, but that others would find helpful. But when they start to get in the way of my actual work, then I find myself looking on my shelf for my iLife ’08 installer.

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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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7

Size isn’t everything.

Posted by steve on Jan 22, 2009 in Hardware, Software

Most companies manage to go years — their entire existences even — without ever producing an utterly iconic product. Apple, however, have cranked them out with an almost indecent frequency; pretty much anything beginning with “i” has proven to be noteworthy, with the -Phone and -Pod being positively paradigm-shifting. 

And thus have Apple created a rod for their own corporate back. 

For most companies, it’s the absence of a market-defining product that represents business as usual. But for Apple, there’s a very real expectation that anything they create should be so utterly earth-shattering that even as-yet-undiscovered tribes in the highlands of Papua New Guinea will know about it within three, or at the very most four, days. 

Pity, then, the poor Mac mini, the red-headed stepchild of the Apple product range. When commentators gush over Apple’s creations, the mini sees very little love. Which is sad, really, because the mini’s a cracking little machine. I bought my mini a year or so ago; I put the rebate Apple sent me for buying two rather overpriced first-generation iPhones toward it, and set it to work in what would seem to me to be the obvious, but rather overlooked, role. 

The first thing I did with my new mini was install Mac OS X Server on it. Prior to that, my iMac had been doing double duty as my main “work” (I, at least, like to think of what I do as work; my lovely wife occasionally expresses doubts) computer and as my server; while OS X Server can be used as a regular desktop OS, I always had it in mind that a dedicated server would make more sense. Before the iMac, it was an old PowerBook on which my daughter played Club Penguin until she dropped it on the floor, forever crippling the T key and putting a significant dent in the side; and before that, an eMac of sainted memory. 

But, when, finally, last year I had a little discretionary tech cash, I invested in what Apple really ought to consider rebranding the iServe — the home-office answer to the XServe. It could be to the rack-mounted server behemoth what the iMac is to the Mac Pro — a bonsai server. 

My mini’s been running like a champ for well over a year now. It runs, as I’ve said, Leopard server, and it currently hosts eight or nine domains, dishing up websites and email with barely a second thought from me. Installation was a snap — it’s a Mac, after all, and, say what you will about Apple, at least they make the trains run on time. No, wait, that was Benito Mussolini. No, at least things work well together — there’s no denying that they’re among the great corporate control freaks of this world, but the payoff for us is that things work consistently. As long as your hardware meets the software’s basic requirements, you’re all set. 

And let’s not forget, the mini isn’t half as hobbled as folk like to paint it. Its big weakness, its lack of a decent graphics card, is absolutely no handicap to a server — my mini has no monitor (or keyboard, or mouse, or anything else, for that matter, except an ethernet cable to hook it into my office intranet) connected, and it’s not a machine I’ll be trying to run Doom on any time soon. It’s just the Anne Boleyn of my network, headlessly chugging away. 

My mini treats me just fine. I don’t use it as a work machine; instead, it doles out web pages (such as this one, or this one, or this one, or, indeed, the very page you’re reading right now), delivers emails, serves files and hosts FileMaker Pro databases around the InterWeb. It’s not perfect; I’m sure that one day, when my Internet Empire finally approaches SkyNet dimensions, it might be time to scale up to an actual, grown-up XServe, but I’m hoping that by then I’ll have a team of lackeys who’ll be making those decisions for me while I sip cocktails and enjoy the ministrations of teams of professional sycophants, and I’ll not have to become personally embroiled in such considerations. In the meantime, about the only thing I miss out on is the ability to monitor my server using the programme named, with all of Apple’s typical ingenuity and creativity, Server Monitor (you just know someone scored a corner office for coming up with that name. Not that I’m in any way resentful. Or bitter. No, not at all. Of course not. It just seems that way when I cry bitter tears of jealousy…). I don’t know what temperature my server’s cores are running at, but every time I open a new browser window, I see one of my hosted sites’ home pages, and I know that my trusted mini is serving still.

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0

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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