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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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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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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

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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