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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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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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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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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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0

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 ’09 review

Posted by steve on Feb 3, 2009 in Hardware Reviews, Reviews, Software Reviews, Uncategorized

hero-ilife-200901061After not inconsiderable (and, at the time of writing, ongoing) grief, I’ve finally received my copy of iLife ’09, the latest iteration of Apple’s lifestyle-app suite. It’s slimmed down in interesting ways — the packaging, typical of just about all Apple’s consumer-level software (including Mac OS X, server edition included), is a small, slightly-larger-than-a-CD-sized box, with, intriguingly, a list of all four applications in the suite on the back.

Yes, all four. And they would be, in the order listed, iPhoto, iMovie, GarageBand and iWeb, all of ’09 vintage. iDVD appears to have become Apple’s latest red-headed stepchild, consigned to the software naughty corner along with AppleWorks, OpenDoc and the late, sadly lamented HyperCard. (iTunes, of course, isn’t part of iLife any more; it’s been quietly spun off as an adjunct of Apple’s iPortable line.)

There is, increasingly, a degree of integration between the various members of the ever-shrinking iLife family, but, in the end, they’re four different, individual, stand-along programmes, each with its own focus and purpose. It seems only fitting, then, that Steve’s TechBlog gives each programme its very own review.

iPhoto ’09 Rating: ★★★☆☆

GarageBand ’09 Rating: ★★★★½

iMovie ’09 Rating: ★★★☆☆

iWeb ’09 Rating: ★★★★☆

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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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