Monthly Archives: January 2007

Uncategorized

More on cleaning the Apple not-so-Mighty Mouse

Last week I wrote about problems with my Apple Mighty Mickey Mouse. Then, a couple of days back, it completely stopped right-clicking and scrolling down. To say that I was not happy would be an understatement (it’s not inexpensive and none of my other rodents have died after just 6 months of use) – the only reason I didn’t actually get to an Apple Store to replace it was scheduling the time it would take me to make the 100+ mile round trip to Birmingham or London (somehow, I didn’t think the staff at the Tesco “Apple Store” 10 miles down the road would be any help).

After reading various articles on the ‘net (most notably from Kevin Lim and Shirster), I tried Brendan Fenn’s sticky tape cleaning method, following which the right mouse button jumped back into life (not sure what was going on there). Still left without a working scroll ball (left, right, up, but not down) reading the comments on the Shirster article led me to the realisation that late model Mickey Mice could not be reassembled so I resorted to 70% isopropyl alcohol swabs (£0.10 each from the local pharmacy) and after a few seconds cleaning (with no noticeable dirt removed), I plugged the mouse back in to find that the scroll ball was working again. I’m not sure what the long term effects will be, but not being able to scroll down was extremely annoying and if even I have shortened the life of the mouse then that’s still an improvement on yesterday (when it was just about to head for the trash can).

It still seems to me that the design is fundamentally flawed, but until I can find another mouse that looks good alongside an Apple keyboard I guess I’ll be sticking with it.

Waffle and randomness

Milton Keynes: Roundabout 40

I live in a small market town on the edge of the “Borough and New City of Milton Keynes“, a source of great ridicule to many but actually not a bad place to live (and there are over 200,000 of us living here).

Most (in)famous for the concrete cows (which are not actually made of concrete) and its highly efficient grid road system linked with roundabouts, the “New City” is celebrating its 40th birthday today.

Milton Keynes - Roundabout 40 logo

Even though the development area has huge swathes of green space (as well as rural countryside to the north and east of the Borough), people who have never visited are led to believe that Milton Keynes is a concrete wasteland (as many new towns are). The truth is rather different – the original towns and villages within the Milton Keynes development area have been expanded with new developments and a commercial centre, linked by a grid of (largely uncongested) national speed limit roads passing through parkland and past giant lakes, lined with 40 million trees (meaning that Milton Keynes is probably the only UK town/city of its size which can be traversed between any two points in just 15 minutes). For those who are still unconvinced about Milton Keynes’ green spaces, just a stone’s throw from the city centre shopping centre and Theatre District is Campbell Park, where sheep can often be found grazing.

As for technology (which is, after all, the purpose of this blog), Milton Keynes has had a number of firsts: one of the first cable TV networks in the UK; the UK’s first multiplex cinema; the UK’s first indoor snow slope; Europe’s first purpose-built body-flying tunnel, and now the largest continuous area of high-speed wireless broadband service in the UK as well as the UK’s first WiMAX deployment. It’s also situated next to the UK’s first long-distance motorway (the M1, opened in 1959) and is half way between two significant technology research centres – Oxford and Cambridge (sadly, these two cities have appalling transport links, with the “express” X5 coach service taking 3 and a half hours to cover just 90 miles and no direct rail link since the 1960s, although proposals to reinstate the railway do exist). Continuing the research theme – the Open University is based in Milton Keynes and the Enigma code was cracked at Bletchley Park (now within Milton Keynes) during the second World War.

Let’s hope the next 40 years bring as much prosperity to the region as the last 40 did – in spite of Milton Keynes Partnership‘s best attempts to wreck it with ill-conceived government-backed expansion plans.

Uncategorized

Macworld 2007 – cutting through the hype

Introducing iPhone.  So what?In case you hadn’t noticed, a couple of weeks back it was MacworldApple‘s annual expo – and Apple Inc. (no longer Apple Computer Inc.) announced that they are going to make a phone. Whoopy do. It even made news at the huge Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Except that it won’t be available until Summer 2007 (as it has to get regulatory approval).

So why am I so underwhelmed with the iPhone? Firstly, I’m not underwhelmed – I think it sounds like a great device, as long as (when it arrives) it delivers everything that Apple is promising:

“iPhone combines three products – a revolutionary mobile phone, a widescreen iPod with touch controls, and a breakthrough Internet communications device with desktop-class email, web browsing, maps, and searching – into one small and lightweight handheld device.”

[source: Apple]

Except that it will cost a small fortune in the US, isn’t yet complete, is likely to be severely restricted in terms of third party application development, doesn’t yet appear on the Apple UK website (so I can assume it won’t be here for a while yet, if at all) and I can already get a device from a number of manufacturers that does most of that today (and for which I can develop my own mobile applications) running the Windows Mobile operating system (other mobile operating systems are available).

It seems to me that Apple is learning (as Microsoft has been for a few years now) that mobile telecommunications is a cut-throat business. Apple has gone through the pain of negotiating with record labels (and more recently with movie studios) and has made a name in digital media – Microsoft is just learning how hard that is. Now it’s Apple’s turn for hard lessons – to find out that telcos don’t want what consumers want – instead, they want to control the platform, lock down functionality, introduce their own unique selling points, and encourage customers to upgrade to the next greatest device, in the process locking themselves into another lucrative airtime contract, as soon as the current one ends.

Apple also launched a wireless access point/hub/NAS device/print server/NAT firewall – that sounds great except it uses a wireless standard that’s not ratified yet (IEEE 802.11n) and which my 6-month old Intel Core Duo Mac cannot use at full speed (only the Core 2 Duo models can be upgraded via a firmware flash).

They also launched a set top box for streaming media. Except that it works by synchronising with an iTunes library and it only has a 40GB hard disk (my audio collection alone is 40GB and that’s before I download any video content – a feature not yet available from the iTunes Store in the UK). It’s also limited to the formats that Apple offers, so doesn’t support other widely used formats such as DivX (or, of course, any of the competing Windows Media formats). Finally, streaming high definition video needs high bandwidth and the wired Ethernet ports are limited to 100Mbps whilst wireless throughput is likely to be even lower (even with 802.11n)

Cut through the hype and Macworld 2007 was a huge disappointment to me. I would have bought a new 80GB (120GB would be nice) iPod with a wide format touch screen but I don’t want the rest of the iPhone features. I would also have paid for a replacement iSight (as the old one was withdrawn from sale in Europe last summer due to new regulations on the restriction of hazardous substances and has now disappeared from sale in the US too) and if anyone doubts that there is a market for iSights as new MacBooks and iMacs have them built in, Mac Mini and Mac Pro users still want a webcam that works with iChat AV and dedicating a DV camcorder to the task is a huge waste, whilst the original iSights are changing hands on eBay for more than they cost new (I just bought one this evening – so there’s bound to be a new one announced soon…).

Even the Apple fanboys at Mac Break Weekly are talking of “the Steve Jobs reality distortion field” and referring to Macworld 2007 as “This Week in Vapourware”.

Uncategorized

My Mighty Mouse is not so mighty

Mighty MouseMy Apple keyboard looks nice but it shows the dirt and is not the best keyboard in the world (the keys stick a bit). I’ve also got mixed feelings about the buttons on my Apple Mighty Mouse (wired version) although the 360º clickable scroll ball (scrolly nipple thing) is particularly useful as it can be used to scroll left, right, up or down.

Except that my scrolly nipple thing frequently refuses to scroll down – and it seems I’m not alone (a quick google turned up “Shall I kill this damn mouse?“, “Mighty Mouse reviewed: Garbage” and “I hate my Mighty Mouse” – if you’re still not convinced then look at the comments on the Apple Store page for the product). Previously, some frantic scrolling has restored action but tonight I rebooted, plugged it into another PC and was just about ready to accept that I need to make a trip to an Apple Store to replace it when I spotted the tiniest piece of detritus on the edge of the case close to the mouse ball. After dislodging what I assume was just a few flakes of dead skin (unpleasant yes, but a simple fact of life), it jumped into life, but I’m a little disappointed as the whole point about optical mice is that they are not supposed to need cleaning – it seems that Apple’s design looks great on the surface but merely replaces a dirty ball on the bottom of the mouse with a similar one on the top.

It gets worse as anecdotal reports suggest that scroll ball issues (even after just a few months) are not covered under warranty as they classified as “wear and tear”. Hmmm. Apple have published advice on how to clean your Mighty Mouse though.

Uncategorized

Relaxing naps with pzizz

If you ask my wife what’s my biggest problem and she’ll probably tell you that I don’t know how to relax. Well, actually I do, but I don’t do it very often and when I finally do stop, I usually find that my body thanks me by catching a cold or something similarly unpleasant.

The trouble is that there is so much to do… digital photos to edit and print for the family album… half a dozen unfinished blog posts… a dozen never-even-started blog posts… website(s) to update/redevelop… office to tidy up find under a mountain of paperwork… analogue music collection to rip… learn to play the guitar (again)… catch up my reading… get my motorbike running again… sell a pile of stuff on eBay (iPAQ, SDLT drive, motorbike)… get rid of the old computers in the garage… you get the picture – and that’s not considering the important stuff like making time for my wife and children, going out to work for a living and catching up with friends.

There’s another side to this – my health. I’m 5 stone overweight (4 stone above what I consider to be realistic) and 35 years of age in April – if I don’t do something soon then I really will start to get ill. I need to make time in my busy schedule to get fit – and I need to relax.

pzizzI was talking over some problems with a good friend a few nights back and he suggested meditation. Now I don’t know anything about meditation, but I am becoming quite interested in the whole idea of keeping my mind, body and spirit in balance (I guess it’s another one of those triangulation things – like I find that you can cope with issues in any one of home, work and love-life but if two of the three start to have problems then it gets really bad) – I even went to a Hatha Yoga class on Friday night (the woman on my wife’s Yoga DVDs still makes me cringe though).

pzizzSo what’s this got to do with a technology blog? Well, quite a lot actually, because my friend’s meditation suggestion got me thinking. It’s not meditation, but I did hear Merlin Mann (writer and consultant on personal productivity, “life hacks”, and simple ways to make your life a little better) talking about pzizz on a podcast (probably MacBreak Weekly, or This Week in Tech).

pzizzOriginally available as hardware but now as software for Windows or the Mac, pzizz is a dynamic relaxation system – kind of like a relaxation CD for energising naps or simply getting to sleep; but actually far more than that as you can customise each track and select how long each nap will last. I wasn’t entirely convinced at first, so I downloaded the sample 15 minute naps and was very impressed (particularly when taking an energizer nap at my desk as I started to flag in the middle of the afternoon). Thinking that might have been a fluke (hey, shutting your eyes and chilling out for 15 minutes is bound to be relaxing isn’t it?), I tried it again today – and felt great. So good in fact that I then went out for a brisk walk (another one of my life hacks – albeit one recommended by my doctor) and it’s true – exercise does make you feel good (various gym memberships over the years have just made the each gym’s bank balance look good – to the detriment of my own)!

pzizzRight, so that’s energising naps and regular exercise sorted… now all I need to do is cut down on the Diet Coke with Cherry intake…

Uncategorized

Gigabit Ethernet for the home office

Until now, my home office network has been centred around my NetGear ProSafe DS108 10/100Mbps Ethernet hub attached to various computers, a D-Link DWL2000-AP+ wireless access point, a Solwise SAR 110 ADSL router and a downstream Gigabyte 5-port 10/100Mbps switch (because my Mac refused to place nicely with the hub). The DS108 was a nice bit of kit in its time, with 8 auto-sensing 10/100Mbps ports, but recently I’ve been carrying out some large file transfers and these have been crippling the network – effectively the high number of collisions was causing a denial of service for all the other connected devices (indeed the ADSL router was blocking its LAN connection as it thought it was being attacked, necessitating a reboot to get back onto the ‘net).

I knew the answer was to replace the (layer 1) hub with a (layer 2) switch but I needed at least 8 ports and the 24-port 3Com SuperStack 3300 that I use on the basement network has a very noisy fan. After seeking advice from a former colleague who is the best network guy that I know, it seemed that finding a managed switch (ideally, I would like to implement some VLANs) was going to be expensive, so I set about finding a decent unmanaged and fanless switch. Power over Ethernet (PoE) would have been another nice-to-have but is by no means essential.

NetGear GS108After some shopping around, I found the NetGear ProSafe GS108, which is an 8-port auto-sensing 10/100/1000Mbps full-duplex switch with automatic uplink and most importantly is fanless, so completely silent (if a bit on the warm side!). In common with a lot of my hardware purchases, I got mine from RL Supplies but it appears to be the North American model with the power, link, speed and activity LEDs built into each port, rather than in a separate power, activity, collision and duplex display as shown in the UK product documentation. Alternatively (and for a similar price by the time shipping is factored into the cost) the NetGear GS108 is available from Amazon.

I swapped the old hub out for the new switch in just a few seconds – now my LAN-based file transfers are noticeably faster and, because the collision domain is eliminated on a full-duplex switched connection, the other connected devices are still able to communicate whilst the file transfer takes place.

Uncategorized

VMware Fusion does not play well with a Wacom tablet

VMware FusionI’ve spent a good chunk of this evening trying to build a Windows XP virtual machine within VMware Fusion and struggling to direct any keyboard input to the VM. Eventually I found the answer on a VMware forum thread but, as you need to be logged in to view it, I’m reposting the solution here…

Quoting from the forum thread:

“It transpires that Fusion really doesn’t cope well with my having a Wacom device attached to the system. Unplug that – and everything starts working fine!”

Thanks to leE_b for that fix.

Uncategorized

Flash Earth

Many people are familiar with Google Earth and others may use Microsoft Virtual Earth but Paul Neave (who describes himself as a “serial flash fettler and interactive designer”) has produced a great mash-up of zoomable images from all the major aerial and satellite photograph providers called Flash Earth (alongside some other cool stuff on his website).

Flash Earth

One of Flash Earth’s strengths is the ability to switch between services on the fly as I’ve found that some services have better images than others (e.g. Microsoft gets closer to my home, but Google has higher resolution images of some neighbouring towns). Best of all, although Google Earth and competing products have additional functionality (for example, 3D viewpoints), Flash Earth doesn’t require any client software (aside from the Adobe Flash Player, which is a common browser plug-in) – of course, Windows Live Local offers a similar service, without using Flash and including additional functionality, but it is limited to the Microsoft mapping and imaging data.

It’s also worth noting that the images served by these services are not completely up-to-date. Based on new developments where I live and work, I’m guessing that the aerial data which Ask, Google, Microsoft and Yahoo! serve is approximately 4-7 years old (which service is more recent does vary though, according to the area being viewed) but Microsoft’s mapping data is more current than their images, which results in some interesting roads shown across fields in the hybrid view!

I should add that this blog post comes with a warning – browsing the planet looking at aerial photographs can lead to many wasted hours (and much lost sleep)… as I found to my own detriment last night!

Uncategorized

Will VMware achieve fusion?

VMware Fusion bannerOver the Christmas break, one of the things I began to look at was VMware’s virtualisation for Mac beta product (codenamed Fusion).

Regardless of the somewhat dubious choice of codename (some might say unimaginative – why is it that every company seems to have a product or project about joining things up called fusion?) this is an exciting new product because it brings cross-platform virtualisation to the Mac (previously VMware products either used a proprietary kernel or were hosted on either a Windows or Linux platform). Until recently, Mac users had a choice of Microsoft Virtual PC, Parallels Desktop, or the open source QEMU (with the QemuX front end) but the product of choice for many seems to be Parallels Desktop and Microsoft’s departure from the Mac virtualisation marketplace (combined with a surge in Mac sales since Apple’s switch to an Intel processor platform) seems to have spurred VMware into taking their place and so far the results seem impressive.

Although many cite Parallels as the virtualisation product of choice on the Mac, many of the comparisons I’ve seen have been centred around two totally different technologies for running Windows on a Mac, comparing Parallels Desktop (virtualisation) with Apple Boot Camp (dual-booting). Even though the recent Parallels beta has taken a huge step with a feature called coherence, that allows the Windows desktop to be hidden so that Windows applications appear to be running within Mac OS X (yes, really!), the major advantage to me of using a VMware product is being able to take a virtual machine and run it on any platform.

I’m not sure how VMware are planning to position this product – it offers far more than VMware Player, and seems to have a lot in common with VMware Workstation (although as it’s a beta product, it’s too soon to see how closely matched the feature sets are); they’ve also yet to confirm whether or not this will be a free virtualisation product (I suspect not). I’ll be watching this space and once I can provide full VM portability between the Linux notebook I use for work and my Mac at home (the release notes for the current beta download state that “Virtual Machines created with this beta release of VMware Fusion for Mac should not be used in production, and should not be shared for use in other VMware products”), I’ll be able to work on my 20″ monitor from the Mac and free up some more desk space where the laptop currently sits. If VMware can also provide an equivalent of Parallel’s coherence functionality then they truly will achieve fusion.

Uncategorized

Free backup software for Mac OS X

A couple of years ago I suffered a hard disk failure and I was very lucky to retrieve most of my data from other sources. That should have taught me to keep backups but I’m still not as good as I should be. My work laptop is hardly ever backed up (but most important items are also available in my e-mail) and I should really do a better job with my server at home (although most of the data is software that could be downloaded again). What really worries me is having to re-rip my iTunes library (and re-purchase tracks bought from the iTunes store) or, even worse, losing my digital photos (some of which are irreplaceable images of my family) and so I really must make backups of the data on my Mac.

One of the failings of Mac OS X is a lack of built-in backup software. Actually, that’s not true – there are standard Unix utilities such as rsync and Apple does provide advice for how to back up and restore your files but if you want to use Apple Backup, then you need a .Mac subscription (I believe that software like this should really be included with the operating system).

Thinking that there must be plenty of people who have experienced this issue previously, I went googling for free backup software for the Mac and found a list of backup programs courtesy of Pure Mac. First of all, I tried SmartBackup, which looks great, but it also costs $19.50, and whilst I’d be happy to part with cash for something if it really hits the mark, as I mentioned previously, I could script something from the command line for free. Another option was RsyncX, but this will not run on Intel Macs, so I got looking at automated backups using rsync. Although rsync is incredibly powerful , it was looking as though it would take me some time to work out exactly what I would need to back up (although Pete Freitag’s article on how to backup your Mac incrementally over ssh looked useful), until I stumbled across rsyncbackup – a set of scripts with documentation, designed to simplify setting up an rsync-based backup routine.

In the end, I settled on the easy option – using a program called iBackup, which is free for personal and non-commercial use and seems to do everything that I need it to. It’s pretty basic but all I really need is to make regular copies of my data to a second external hard disk. iBackup supports scheduled backups using multiple backup profiles and features a system of plugins to back up application settings. Above all, it’s easy to use (although it doesn’t run as a service so needs to be running for anything to happen, although it can be minimised).

Of course, I still need to back my photos up to DVD from time to time and store the media off-site (in case I have a fire or something else that wipes out the Mac and both my hard drives) but at least I now have some protection against losing those essential family photos.

%d bloggers like this: