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Dom Mooney's Website... Cybergoths no more.

Technology

Keyboards for iPad

Logitech Folio - iPad Mini
I've used an iPad since they were released in the UK back in 2010, and I am convinced that they are not just consumption devices as some people would suggest. However, if you want to do any serious typing then I would recommend getting hold of a Bluetooth keyboard.

I initially started with the Apple Bluetooth keyboard. This is very nice to type on, but not the lightest of devices. However, it met my needs for over a year. Unfortunately, I then managed to drop it onto a hard surface (a concrete floor), and broke it. Although it is built from Aluminium, the tube around the on/off switch can be bent so it cannot work anymore.

I briefly tried a Zagg Keyboard case, but rapidly found it too much of a compromise for my liking. Fortunately, it was an eBay purchase and I passed it onto a friend. I didn't like the keys and the limited positioning for the iPad in the case. It also gave limited protection, and I preferred the combination of a full case for the tablet and separate keyboard.

My next keyboard was a Logitech Tablet keyboard. This is made of plastic, but has satisfying keys to use, and a good pitch. The first one of these lasted 11 months, and then a bank of the keys stopped working. It was replaced promptly by Logitech under the warrantee. The second is still going strong and is always a good option for longer pieces.

Jill had the next keyboard; this was another Zagg one. I can't remember the exact one, but it was an aluminium keyboard with feel like the Apple one, and it clipped into a full case like a folio. It was very impressive, but died a few days close to the year that we'd had it. After several battles with Zagg's customer support interface we finally got hold of a human on the other end and got a warrantee replacement. Unfortunately, this was pretty cheap and nasty, as the model had been replaced with a plasticky one, and there was no option to upgrade to a more robust unit. To say Jill hated this was an understatement. As she uses her iPad much more than me for work as well as pleasure, this was not good.

However, a solution soon presented itself. After three years, I had my second iPad - an iPad mini - and whilst fully functional, the Logitech Tablet keyboard was far too big. I wanted a solution just like Jill's folio.

Belkin were the early movers here. The keyboard folio case was slim, with a finish not unlike the old-school time manager international organisers. However, within 5 months I changed it. "Why?", you ask. Quite simply, it was the non-standard key positions that required an odd combination of keys to be pressed to get an apostrophe. It drove me mad.

Logitech Folio for iPad Mini - Detail

I switched to a Logitech Keyboard Folio Case which has great keys and good battery life. It's plastic, but well built. Battery life is good. And more importantly, as you can see from the photo above, it has a normal apostrophe key!

This ended up as Jill's solution too - Logitech soon released one for the full size iPad 2/3/4, in shocking pink and white. Lovely keys and typing action.

And that's were we are now.

Belkin Keyboard Case for iPad mini - review

Belkin iPad Mini keyboard case
Yes, it does like a ZX-81 (as pointed out by Neil Ford)!

My new iPad mini was bought with the knowledge that it would be used for work as well as pleasure, so I bought myself a Belkin keyboard case as well as a Smart Cover.

The keyboard case looks very good - the effect is of an old style paper organiser (if you remember those by 'Time Manager' then you'll have a good analogy but it is much thinner). It should give moderate impact protection. There is a micro-USB port for power, plus an on/off switch, a pairing button for bluetooth, and an LED to indicate charge status. Pairing is no different to any other bluetooth keyboard under iOS and I had no difficulties. The keyboard is tailored for iOS: there is a Fn function key to allow keyboard access to search, show/hide keyboard, cut/copy/paste, music and volume and screen lock. The home key is also dedicated on the keyboard.

The keyboard is made of plastic, but quite solid. The build is better than the Zaggmate keyboard cover for my older iPad 1 (which had a habit of loosing keys) but noticeably less solid than Zagg's keyboard folio for the better half's iPad 2, probably as that has an aluminium chassis. The Logitech Tablet keyboard (which is close to full size), feels more solid but is far larger.

The keyboard pitch is tight and needs some getting used to, altogether understandable due the size of a 7.9" tablet like the mini. While typing this, I've repeatedly pressed "/" due to the truncated nature of the spacebar which it is adjacent too. I also find the backspace to be out of position, and keep on hitting the "=" button instead. However, both of these are noticeably becoming less of an issue as I get more familiar with the keyboard layout and action.

However, there is one design flaw, related to apostrophes. These are positioned where you'd expect them (near the enter key) but they both need to be accessed with the Fn button rather than a clean press for the single apostrophe, and a shifted press for the double quotes. This is the biggest let down about the whole device, and I've not yet convinced myself that I will get used to it. It suggests that although the keyboard case was 'designed in California' it was designed by someone that rarely does any extended typing. I would rather have the semi-colon and colon key operated by the function key and have the apostrophes directly accessible.

Overall, I do like the keyboard, but how well that I adjust to the apostrophe design decision will determine if I ever love it.

Updated 13/1 to reinstate missing key names.

Apple Maps

Apple Maps Crewe
The search returns ‘Odeon Crewe’, but not if you search for the Odeon!

I was deeply skeptical about Apple Maps after reading about the issues on the internet. However, the reports don't match with my experience of using it as a SatNav. I've done this three times so far, and it's taken me to the location by the shortest route, and without misdirection. Where I do find it weak is in the search engine side. For example, last night I put in "Odeon Cinema, Crewe" and it couldn't find it, but "Cinema Crewe" worked fine.

The vector tiling for the map sets is very effective for keeping a larger area within the navigation range and scaleable in comparison to Google Maps. This means you can still zoom in and out and track location when you have GPS but no cell connection.

The lack of effective public transport and pedestrian routing is disappointing. The turn-by-turn navigation works well.

Overall, as a product, it needs tweaking, but it's nowhere near as broken as some commentators have made out.

No, I'm not getting an iPhone 5

Several friends have asked me if I want to get the new iPhone 5, and I've told them "No", which seems to be a surprise. It shouldn't be. My iPhone 4S is doing just fine, with a little over 12 months left on its contract. I'm happy with it, and it gets most of the software driven features of the new phone on 19th September when iOS 6 rolls out. I've always viewed smartphones as having a two year upgrade cycle. I don't remember an iOS device that has had a really compelling upgrade argument after just a year (except maybe the iPhone 3G); most people wait for their new contract to come up and the two year technology jump is usually significant.

The iPhone 5 has also pretty much got rid of my urge for an iPad 3 to replace my original iPad. As I'd expect the next tablet I get to last 2-3 years, I'm waiting for one with the new Lightning adaptor so my next phone and iPad will be aligned.

Creation Myths?

On the iPad creation myth
Prompted by a genuine question from a friend on whether the iPad is any good for creation, or is really a consumption device, here are my thoughts. As a starting point, the iPad is a great device for consuming media; the web, films, news, TV streaming, books and social media all work extremely well, and you can definitely pass (waste?) many idle hours with your new found friend. The lack of Flash is not a real issue either, as most sites stream H264 video these days, and it’s not something that I've really missed(*).

(*)And you can get around it for video with Skyfire, which converts the streams on the fly to H264.

But is the iPad a device for creation? There is a commonly held myth out there that you cannot create with a tablet, that you need a full computer. Now, I'm writing this post on the iPad, but must confess that I decided to pull out the bluetooth keyboard after I realised that I could be spending some time typing. But isn't that still creation?

How easy it is to use an iPad creatively will depend to some measure with what you want to do with it. It will also depend on how much you want it to meet those needs. I've no doubt that if I had an 11" MacBook Air then my iPad would definitely see a significant reduction in the amount of work with prose and some photography related activities that I do with it. However, I have a 13" aluminium MacBook which is doing just fine, but is nowhere near as portable.

Evidence of Creativity?
Rather than circle around debating how many angels can creatively dance on the head of my iPad, perhaps I should tell you what I do with my iPad, and you can judge whether it meets your idea of creativity or not?

I write on my iPad using apps like
Drafts, iA Writer and Pages. The first two fill the same niche, the second tends to be used for more formal work like material. Some of the finished product will be used 'as-is' – for example for blog posts – and other material may be tweaked in Word on either my Mac or work PC before it is used. It's fair to say that Pages isn't a favourite, and that I will buy Microsoft Office for iOS if it ever becomes something beyond a rumour.

I've written three gaming scenarios to the point of running at convention and taken one to the first draft of publication on the iPad. I've also experimented with synchronising a more detailed project with
Scrivener on the Mac via Dropbox and PlainText, but haven't had the need to do it again.

I produce mind-maps for work and gaming writing using
Mindnode, which is probably the best mind-mapping tool that I have ever used, anywhere. The touch interface is a joy to use. I produce flow-charts and diagrams using OmniGraffle, which is expensive, but excellent, and provides a portable Visio style tool.

I proofread and annotate drafts of gaming and work material using
iAnnotate, these days in conjunction with the excellent Cosmonaut stylus made by Studio Neat, mainly because it feels like using a highlighter. This is supported with the excellent iOS versions of the Collins Dictionary and Thesaurus for reference.

I sketch, using
Paper and Penultimate, and can produce useable vector images with Inkpad. There are other art tools like Adobe Ideas, ArtRage and Brushes which are all excellent, but not really something that I have had cause to do any more than mess around with. If I was talented this way I could see the interface being a joy to use.

I outline, sometimes with
Carbonfin Outliner, sometimes with OmniOutliner, depending on my mood. Not something I do too often, but it happens.

I've knocked together presentations with
Keynote, and also used it to show PowerPoint slides from work. I've taken meeting minutes with the ever-so-useful ActionNotes, and have moved most of my notes from a Moleskine to DayOne. I dabble with Evernote, but mainly for a capture-system for gaming related material.

I've used
Photogene, Touch Up and Snapseed to edit photos before carrying out batch uploads and other changes using Flickr Studio. I've used Skitch to annotate webpages to explain functions to friends and relatives.

If I needed to edit code on my server, I could use
Diet Coda, from Panic, which seems subtly powerful. Fortunately, I rarely need to do this. I've used the Wordpress application to update websites that I manage when away from access to a full computer and browser.

Concluding Thoughts
I find the iPad a fantastic tool which supports a number of my workflows really well. Many are the times I've sat staring at the iPad screen, capturing ideas and inspiration and working them through for a while. The work may not finish on the iPad, but a lot of the hard slog is done there.

My laptop and desktop aren't going to go away anytime soon, as they still have unique advantages (higher performance, screen size etc.), but they have a companion with a unique niche. And that niche is getting bigger, as developers continue to push the envelope of what iOS can do as time goes by. The applications that were around when I bought my iPad 1 have nowhere near the sophistication that current generation applications do, and this can only continue to progress with each iteration of iOS and the hardware platform underpinning it.

In conclusion, I think the iPad is a tool for creation as well as consumption. My evidence is above, but it will always be a matter of how it fits your personal workflow.

__
Note:
I started this in Drafts, using the on-screen keyboard. I then shunted it to Phraseology (a longer form writing app I'm trying out) and got my Logitech Tablet bluetooth keyboard out when I realised that this could be a longer post (c.1,000 words if you're counting). This will then be sent to Dropbox (or maybe emailed to myself) and I will import it straight into Rapidweaver on my Mac for upload to my personal blog.

Secondly, there are a lot of apps mentioned here. I haven’t bothered linking, as you can just search for them in iTunes…

Talking to myself

Dragon Express
I've always been deeply sceptical about the utility of voice recognition software. There's always seem to be so much that was a pipe dream about it. The background noise, differences in the user's voices and many other complications such as processing power all combine to make it very difficult thing to do.

My scepticism weakened a little when I tried the free Dragon Dictation application for the iPhone. Although the processing for this was done via the Cloud, the results were deeply impressive when I tried it. Apple's Siri voice detection system and personal assistant also showed great promise. So when I heard that Dragon had released a new application by the App Store, called Dragon Express, which mirrored the iPhone application using local processing I couldn't resist trying it.

I'm dictating this using the internal microphone on my MacBook. There is a stage of about 2 min of training for Dragon Express it adjusts to my voice, the microphone, and the typical background noise. The accuracy of the voice recognition is quite impressive. You do have to speak slowly and clearly, but that actually encourages you to think about what you are saying. If anything, it clarifies your thought processes. There have only been a few stumbles in translating what I've said. An example of that will be the word "free" which could get mistaken for the number "three". Indeed, I did have to manually alter that word to correct it.

The software does suffer from the problem are shown by Isaac Asimov's "Second Foundation" scene involving Arkady where an entire conversation is inadvertently recorded for posterity. If you leave it open and running it will listen to you and assume you're talking to it. However, I could actually see a use for this. Maybe not when the children around, but now it's quite an evening with the kids in bed it means I can be quite lazy in preparing material. All in all, so far I'm impressed. Well done, Nuance, this could change the way I work.

http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/dragon-express/id458613689?mt=12 Requires Lion.

The Dream Could be Alive Again...

NASA Commercial Spaceflight proposals
Seeing things like this makes me feel less bad about the retirement of the Space Shuttle. But I do believe the programme should be extended until the new stuff is ready and proven.

You can see the full presentation here (article via @OpenAerospace on Twitter)



While I mention the Shuttle, you may like the link about to Endeavour’s last launch on YouTube.

(The title to this entry is twisted from an excellent IMAX film on the Space Shuttle).

ActionNotes & Ommwriter Mini-Reviews

ActionNotes
photo 3

ActionNotes is probably one of the best applications that I have bought for the iPad. It rapidly became a tool that I use regularly at work, providing a simple, yet effective, method to improve my workflow in an area of weakness. Weakness, you say? Do tell...

It's quite simple; I'm bad at keeping a record of meeting and the actions associated with them. I'm even worse at sending the outcome out and sharing it. ActionNotes solves this in one fell swoop by providing a simple note and action tracking tool for meetings. The default page looks like an extract from a book, and bears a strong visual resemblance to Behance's Action Method stationary (albeit not incorporating all elements of their process). You simply type notes into the page, and tap a box beside them to highlight them, and a second box to duplicate the note as a check-boxed action.

Once you have completed the meeting, you can send the notes as a beautifully formatted html email or a PDF via email. Job done. Except for tracking the actions.

photo 4
Email Example

What's Good?
The simple, direct and quick method to capture points and actions.
The extensive search and action tracking features.

photo 1
Tracking
photo 2
Search

What's Bad?
Some stability issues related to longer sets of notes when you add points into the middle of a text (but getting better with each release).

What else is needed?
Bullets, Bold formatting.

Recommended?
Hell, yes! At less than ~£2, a superb package.


Ommwriter for iPad.
photo a1

I'm sure that I've raved on before about Ommwriter for MacOS X, but now it has a more portable counterpart: Ommwriter for iPad (£2.99 UK App Store). Naturally, I found it very hard to resist purchasing, so here are some first impressions.

What's Good?
The iPad version lifts the look and feel of the Mac application perfectly, with many of the same sound and musical effects that combine to make a focussed writing environment. It's very easy to lose yourself in the words of your text and just write with this app. Coupled with the Apple Bluetooth keyboard it's nearly perfect. However, it is still plain text only, so don't consider this if you want to have italics, bold, underlining, bullets or tables. (There's definitely a gap in the iPad market for an app other than Pages that does this and syncs to Dropbox).

The software keyboard is adjustable both in size and position, which is something that I've never seen before in an iOS app. It looks quite nice and gave me little in the way of problems at the larger size.

What's Bad?
There are a few bugs and quirks that need to be sorted out, the most important of which is that the beautifully designed unique soft keyboard doesn't work properly with the iOS spellchecker or autocorrect. An external bluetooth keyboard does work with them, which is all the more surprising.

The software keyboard doesn't remember its width if you drop into the in-app settings options, which is annoying. It also doesn't give any visual indication if a character will be typed as a capital (the iOS keyboard will let you know if you have deleted an existing capitalised character and are about to type a replacement). You also have to use the software keyboard to type filenames in the settings menus.

Two of the font selection icons are also reversed, but the function is all there.

What Else is Needed?
It'd be nice to be able to resize the text width for the column of writing that you are doing in a similar manner to the OS X application.

photo a2
The only practical way to share is via email

However, Dropbox integration is the key missing thing in Ommwriter. Even with the small flaws outlined above, it's a superior application. If I could link to a Dropbox folder, and the bugs were fixed, it'd be near-perfect.

Recommended?
I'd give this 4 stars and recommend it for iPad users who like to use their tablet for some creative rising. It doesn't have the features of Pages, but it doesn't need to. However, the lack of Dropbox integration does limit the ease into which it can fit into my workflow.

RIP Flip


Photo by van.brussel - http://flic.kr/p/946LfG -(cc)2011 - Hosted on Flickr

I was sad to hear that Cisco had decided to kill the Flip brand and range of camcorders, which still account for over 25% of the US sales for dedicated video recorders. I feel their rational is flawed; they argue the rise of smartphones that shoot HD will kill the product, but I think they miss the point. The Flip is a superb exercise in single purpose design, focussed and honed to give you 2 hours plus of HD recording in a tiny package. Yes, you & I can, and do, use our iPhones (and other smartphones of choice) to shoot video, but I always grab the Flip if I know I’m planning to shoot video. As a device, it changed the way I used video, as it gave me a camcorder I could carry around and use easily and quickly. Ideal for a growing family to catch the kids up to ‘stuff’.

It’s small, good quality and it doesn’t use up the battery on my cellphone. It’s a shame it’s been murdered. I say murdered, as Cisco have refused to entertain the idea of selling the business to anyone else, despite the fact that they are effectively writing off $500m of investment from only a few years ago.

Anyway, you can benefit from this end of an era. Comet and other retailers are reducing and selling of the Flip range. The svelte and superb Mino HD can be had for £72, but the Ultra HD is also worth a look as it will take external batteries as well as the dedicated ones made for it.

Yes Please.

IMG_0062
Image from NuclearPowerYesPlease.org (Creative Commons 3.0-BY-NC-SA licence)

Hysteria about a 40 year old design that survived a 70% higher than design basis catastrophe and has yet to produce a significant contamination level does not help stopping global warming. Indecision (and using more fossil fuels) will kill, we cannot afford to delay. Even the BBC couldn’t resist getting hysterical, with anchors talking about a ‘nuclear explosion’ at one point.

Check out the IAEA site for facts on the incident at Fukushima.

The new generation reactors are significantly better in design than the 40 year old BWRs, and another generation may see the introduction of Thorium reactors, which have significant safety and non-proliferation advantages.

Bad, Sad Mac

sad-mac

Non-geeks leave now...

IT-wise, it's been a lousy week. I'd upgraded to OS X 10.6.7 when it came out, but decided to leave it a few days before I did a clone back up to mke sure that everything was stable. What I hadn't done, which I should have, was to clone the 10.6.6 build immediately before the update. Stupid, I know.

Anyway, I decided to install XCode 4, Apple's development tools for the Mac and iOS devices, because it allows you to enable the iPad as a development device which allows access to the expanded multitouch gesture set. First mistake - I didn't realise that XCode was so big - 4.5 Gb compressed big, expanding threefold when installed - nor that, unlike other apps from the Mac App Store, it needed further installation when it was downloaded. Duly downloaded, it started to install and then hung up. No CPU activity (so not decompressing anything), no HDD activity, and the task manager reporting that it was "not responding". Never a good sign.

Anyway, long and short is that after a couple of ours I restarted the computer, and was immediately faced with a folder icon adorned with a question mark. For those of you that don't speak Mac OS, that means the computer cannot find a valid operating system folder.

I am prepared for this kind of thing; the clone back up allows me to externally boot the computer up, and Time Machine (the built in operating system back up routine) covers the gaps in between. I realised that the clone backup was the previous OS version and more than two weeks old (bad Dom!) so decided to restore from Time Machine, going back to two hours before it all went pear shaped so I'd be reinstalling OS 10.6.7 not 10.6.6. A scramble to find the Snow Leopard install disk followed so I could do this.

However, every Time Machine recovery I tried (four if I remember correctly, at around 6 hours a piece) failed to produce a computer that would boot. The clone worked, but even restoring back a day before failed.

In the end, thanks to a great suggestion by Neil Ford, I reinstalled the cloned back up, updated to 10.6.7, and then restored the user folder using Time Machine. This had one further problem - the 45Gb space I had left wasn't adequate to do a Time Machine restore, so I was deleting individual folders, for example Music and Video, to make sure there was enough space. It was painful, and reminds me why I really need to back up regularly. I've not lost any data, but it was a pain.

The restore did trigger a complication; I had to resync all the photos on the iPad (at 10 Gb for the last 12 months not a quick thing to do as it includes optimisation of the local copy).

Once everything was back to normal, I decided to install the iOS 4.3.1 update that had just been released. The iPad worked fine, but the iPhone update got messy, as iTunes froze during install and lost the USB connection. This bricked the iPhone, requiring a full installation and restore from backup. As I manually manage my music, it was a pain as I had to add everything back in. On the more positive side, I now have 3Gb of space on the iPhone compared the 800Mb I had before.

I'm hoping that everything will be simple and happy from now on, like it usually is.

Tactile Sword and Sworcery

Audience Calibration Procedure from Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery on Vimeo.


First of all, I'd like to confirm to the many of you that have asked that I haven't bought a new iPad 2. Yes, it'd be really nice - and I recommend it wholeheartedly - but I think I'll wait at least another generation before I replace mine which is still giving me lots of pleasure and utility. I don't have the urge to spend that kind of money when Jill is on maternity leave.

Those of you that follow me on Twitter (@dommooney) or Facebook will know that I recently discovered Sworcery, which is giving lots of enjoyment. If you have an iPad (and soon iPhone / iPod Touch) it's worth having a look at. It's an old style cryptic and fun adventure with a great soundtrack, and integration to Twitter.

I did indulge myself by changing the case for a Scosche FoldIO case, mainly because I was sick of the dirt trap that the Apple case was around the screen. The FoldIO doesn't have that trap and has the feeling the iPad is floating in the case. The only downside I that I now find myself stroking the iPad as the lovely aluminium finish is exposed. So long as I don't start mumbling 'My Precious' then I guess I'll be alright!

No longer in a spin

screenshot_01

Apple is a capricious master. The products that it makes have some of the best industrial design in the world and the best build quality, but sometimes it decides to do something that you really disagree with.

For me, this was the change with the iOS 4.2 update for iPad which disabled 6 months plus of muscle memory and turned a simple button slide into a double click, swipe left, tap, swipe and tap operation. Those of you with iPads will know that I'm talking of the changing of the orientation lock switch into a mute switch.

The accelerometer in the iPad is sensitive to the device's orientation and it will rotate the screen to face what it thinks is the way you are using it. Great normally, but try using the iPad in bed or with the device and an angle and the orientation changing can get really annoying. The lock switch does what it says on the tin, allowing you to choose when this happens. It really annoyed me and spoiled some of my pleasure as a user. So I – and many others – let them know through their own feedback forms and online forums.

Fortunately, they seem to have agreed with the concern (or decided that it was an easy PR win to try and cooperate), and iOS 4.3 brings the option to use the switch for either function. A small niggle is removed and the pleasure of using the device is raised. Dom is a happy boy.

Big Smile (it's Toy Story)
Whilst I’m a happy boy about the lock, Nathan is happier about the Toy Story app.

All would be rosy in the world of interface, except for the fact that the new version of iPhoto (or at least the last one) that I upgraded to in the App Store is now providing a similar issue with muscle memory. The 'ESC' key no longer excites up a menu level when browsing photos and events, something that it has always done until the latest version. Perhaps it's time for a new campaign?

My Daily Penance

Clunky technology

I know that I did something bad in the past as I still have to use a c.2006 Dell Laptop for work. One that has been patched repeatedly over the last five years and feels like (how I imagine) wading through treacle (would be). I’d take my old 12” PowerBook G4 over this any day, and that’s a year older!

Is it February already?

Swinging
Nathan at the Swings, picture using Hipstamatic

The last week or so has been pretty busy to the extent that, although I managed to get the photos on Flickr reasonably up to date, I didn't manage to get the time to put anything meaningful together for the blog. The reason for this was my fourth week (out of six) on my NEBOSH Diploma. It's always been an intense week, as it involves getting to Leeds on the bus (an hour each way) and a raft of homework questions when I get home, but I've always been able to rely on Jill taking Nathan to and from nursery, something that hasn't been possible this time because of the after-effects of the c-section.

The only way around it was for me to drive and drop Nathan off at nursery (aiming to be there just after they open at 0730hrs) and then join the rat race of traffic into Leeds City Centre. This worked well most days, except the one where Nathan decided that a go-slow was the order of the day.

Week 3 #10
Cutie, posing.

Week 3 #9
In my DJ, bouncing. Thanks to Tom & Kat for the romper suit so he can be so stylish!

Jill and Aidan continue to do well, with Aidan continuing to grow faster than his older brother did. He's already heavier than Nathan was at seven weeks. The only dark cloud on the horizon is the fact that he has developed acid reflux like Nathan; however, we're fortunate in the fact that we could recognise the symptoms this time and the Baby Gaviscon he's been prescribed as a result seems to be doing the trick. I've even got to feed him a few times with milk that Jill's expressed with her new Medela Swing pump, which is much better than the manual one that she had last time. Doing that has definitely moved me from the category of 'not being likely to give me food' in Aidan's eyes, which makes him much more amenable to me holding him.

4Up Combined #2
Look, I can hold him without complaints that he has no food!

We've just completed the fourth week at the new Waterbabies sessions. Unfortunately, we missed the first block due to a combination of illness and the baby's arrival, but we've signed up for a final term, which will be Nathan's last due to his age. The new teacher has been superb, much better than the old one, and Nathan has come on in leaps and bounds (sometimes quite literally!) and has started to get much more comfortable again at jumping in, splashing and has also done a little free swimming between me and the wall. It's a shame that we have to change location again; I just hope that the next teacher is as good. I've been really enjoying being in the water with him; we used to love going for a swim when I was off on a Monday with him and this is just the same.

Nathan continues to be obsessed with 'Octonauts', a programme on CBeebies that a lot of the kids his age seem to love. It's quite fun with a group of different animals living underwater in the 'octopod' carrying out science and rescues. It certainly beats the annoying (and dubious) ZingZillas and the weird hippy Waybuloo. If Nathan gets unsure when we're swimming, I start to pretend that he's an octonaut, calling him by the name of his favourite character. You can see his chest puff up when that happens and he generally gets stuck into whatever he wasn't sure about.

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I've also, slowly, been re-reading Ken MacLeod's Fall Revolution sequence of novels, finishing the penultimate one – The Cassini Division – tonight before I wrote this. The novel is pretty gritty SF but does a well executed jump to the epic towards the end without losing the character focus that made it so endearing. I'd recommend the books if you haven't encountered them before and mentioned them in an earlier post.

I also managed to finish the final changes post proofing for Wordplay Core Revised Edition (version 1.3 for those in the know) and it's now available for purchase. We're looking at the possibility of an .EPUB and a hardback edition as well, and I've just commissioned the cover for the first supplement which is 95% ready to go to layout. The second supplement is at the 75% stage, as the core text needs some completion which I may do jointly with Graham Spearing, the game's creator.

Digitally, if you use the Mac, and especially if you can use the Snow Leopard App Store, I recommend OmmWriter (a great text editor that is focussed on composition), Twitterrific 4 (a great Twitter interface) and Sparrow (an IMAP mail application, currently only Gmail but due to expand in coverage in it's next release (which is in private beta). All are pretty inexpensive and examples of focussed and strong programming to achieve a specific aim.

iPad App Mini-Reviews

iPad Screenshot - App Review

I'm finding myself using the iPad more and more as a productivity tool, which is good. I've come across a number of apps recently that that really helped with this.

iPad Screenshot - PlainText
PlainText’s default view with DropBox ‘PlainText’ Folder to the left

The first is PlainText, by Hog Bay Software. This is a really simple writing application with a clean, minimalist, interface with the killer fact that it syncs to DropBox. This means that the text files that I create are available on my iPad, iPhone, Mac and Work XP laptop. Indeed, it's accessible to anyone that I share the DropBox folder with. Later this month, Scrivener will also be able to sync to PlainText via DropBox, so all of a sudden I have a pervasive and portable writing solution. There are two modes to look at the screen; with a sidebar showing all the files – and folders – you have, and a ‘focus’ mode that only shows the document that you are working on. The interesting thing is that the text width doesn’t change on either. At first I was disappointed that the focus mode didn’t increase the amount of text displayed on a line, but then I realised that it approximates your field of focused view when looking at the screen.

iPad Screenshot - PlainText Focus
PlainText’s Focus view

PlainText is v1.0 at the moment, and there are updates already queued at the app store to add functions and improve usability. One thing that I should mention is that although it is free as an application, it has an iAds hook which appears on iOS 4 devices. You can pay to remove this, which costs £2.99 across all instances. I really like this software.

PlainText: http://www.hogbaysoftware.com/
DropBox: http://www.dropbox.com/

iPad Screenshot - iA Writer
iA Writer - good app, but the screen is too cramped for me

An honourable mention should go to iA Writer, which in some ways is very similar. It syncs to DropBox (manually triggered) and has a similar minimalist font, albeit a typewriter style one rather than a serif face. It also has some extra tools for editing which are clever. However, I just feel that it takes up too much of the screen with the keyboard and extra controls and feels constricted like you're watching your typing through a letterbox slot. It's also iPad only, unlike PlainText. It is worth a look, but it wasn't quite the one for me.

iA Writer: http://www.informationarchitects.jp/en/writer-for-ipad/

iPad Screenshot - CarbonFin Outliner
CarbonFin Outliner - a really useful engine for productivity

CarbonFin Outliner is something that I've been using more and more. It is an outlining package, so good for planning structure for projects, doing to do lists and also for taking notes in a lecture. I had been waiting for OmniOutliner to make to the iPad (which is coming) but this already touches all the bases so I can't see a reason to change. It's not universal, but there is an iPhone version.

CarbonFin Outliner:
http://www.carbonfin.com/

iPad Screenshot - Mindnode
Mindnode - the best mind map application I’ve seen, period

Mindnode is another application that I've recently stumbled upon. This is a universal iOS version of a program available on the Mac under OS X (both in freeware and paid versions) which is quite the best mind mapping software I've come across. It's strength is in the simple drag and drop interface and the focus. It also exports nicely in a variety of formats (including OPML which means that you could mind map and drop it into Outliner if you wanted to). I'm really impressed with this and imagine that it will get quite some use. I may try it at work as it supports mirroring vs the VGA out cable.

Mindnode:
http://www.mindnode.com/

iPad Screenshot - Touch Up
Applying the blur filter in Touch Up

The last app to discuss is called Touch Up and is a great little filter tool for editing photos. It's quite different to the more traditional apps like Photogene, as it applies a filter to a whole picture, then you can erase or modify the effects by touch. The header picture for this entry was created in it. It's a screenshot of my home page with a blur filter applied and then removed over the apps I has talked about. You can stack layers one on top of another, which can lead to extra effects. There is also an in-app upgrade which adds tools like dodge and burn, which are probably even more useful for photographers. I think that there is a place for this and the more traditional apps like Photogene in the iPad users arsenal.

Touch Up:
http://touchup.roguesheep.com/ (And no, that URL is not a dodgy one!)

As a final thought, if you fancy signing up for DropBox, which gives you 2Gb storage for free, then let me know, as if I invite you and you accept we both get extra storage! Win-Win!



Initial Thoughts on iPad

Here are a collection of random jottings on my iPad, which I picked up on the launch weekend in the UK, delayed again by Pipex...

Day 1 (May)
I picked up my iPad today, just a basic WiFi one rather than a 3G model as I thought that it would better align with what I want to do with it. If I want a mobile connection in the future I'll get a 3 mifi to address that need. That's got the added benefit that it will interface with my MacBook etc.

Anyway, the moment I walked through the door of the Liverpool One Apple Store I knew that I was going to be leaving with one. Just looking at the form factor and knowing what my iPhone 3GS does meant that I had a clear application in mind; reading PDFs from my gaming collection and also doing some limited work in place of my laptop.

Firing it up when I got back home to my in-laws was a fantastic experience. Yes, it is effectively an overgrown iPod Touch, but the interface has moved on even further, the size is just perfect, and it feels exquisite. I fully understand the reason that Apple was describing it a "magical" in press releases and demonstration sessions. The Jobs reality distortion field was not running on high; it is a gorgeous device that I am confident will establish its own niche. The build standard is at the high end that Apple excels at producing and it is a gorgeous piece of industrial design.

The next step is to get back home, and connect it to my iMac to sync in my existing apps and settings. Can't wait to do this, as this will really start to show whether I've made the right decision. [And it did, flawlessly syncing...]

A Month later (June)
Since I started to write this, I came across an
article1 in the Guardian citing a recent interview with Steve Jobs that discussed the genesis of the iPad, which shed some interesting light. The original concept shown to Jobs was like a slab of glass (a feel that it has successfully achieved) but the tablet project ended up being delayed when they decided that it would also make an awesome technology platform for what would become the iPhone.

The form factor is a definite winner for me, as is the effortless way of switching between portrait and landscape views. When I'm surfing the net, I find myself in landscape, which feels most natural, using two thumbs and forefingers to navigate. It's a very tactile and rewarding experience, incredibly intimate compared to mousing the net, or even navigating on Safari on the iPhone.

It is perfect for consuming data and the Internet. I'm not a hundred percent certain that it's ideal for more than casual content creation, but – with the right apps – you can certainly write and manipulate data and content. I think that I would miss the feedback of a keyboard, especially in the sense that you can orientate the position of your fingers by touch whereas it is quite easy to drift with the touch interface during extended typing sessions.

The availability of
Dropbox, of Documents to Go (which gives good Word, Excel and Powerpoint compatibility) and of photo-editors such as Photogene certainly hints at possibilities for more in-depth content creation in the future as the applications market matures.

In my case, I am most heavily using the iPad to consume eBooks, mainly game supplements in PDF form using the excellent
Goodreader application. After that, it's casual browsing and social networks plus email. I'm also rediscovering computer games with a few choice examples.

All in all, I'm really satisfied with the iPad. It fills a new niche really well.

Another Month on (July)
One thing I didn't mention before is the fantastic battery life on the iPad. It will happily run all day, on the Internet or doing heavier video tasks, on a single charge. In fact, with my usage, it generally only gets charged twice a week. Really impressive.

The MiFi by Three is excellent. It's a small wifi 3G modem that works like a treat and has really easy set up. I bought a pay-as-you-go version, which is fine for my data consumption. Signal strength seems fine in most places. I haven't connected the laptop to it yet, but it'll work with anything wifi.

App-wise, the main thing I am missing is a killer writing application.
Notes, the built in editor, is fine, but there's only so much Comic Sans/Marker font I can take and landscape is limited to less screen than portrait because of the menu selection. Documents to Go works fine, but isn't pretty and sometimes less than obvious in how to do things. I've not tried Pages yet, but the interface options for file transfer are more limited than I'd like. I'd prefer to be able to link directly to Dropbox more easily. I think that the forthcoming PlainText (from Hog Bay Software, the maker of WriteRoom) may hit the spot if the previews are anything to go by.

The Omni Group applications are fantastic, but expensive.
OmniGraffle is a mini-Visio, OmniGraphSketcher works just like its desktop equivalent and is much more simple for graph production than Excel ever is. OmniFocus is a great implementation of their GTD application which flawlessly syncs wirelessly with the Mac version. OmniOutliner isn’t out yet, but CarbonFin’s Outliner hits most of the same points and is very well done.

Keynote gives the ability to show presentations externally, which is useful for work related usage. The PDF editor, iAnnotatePDF is really good; I'm using it to proof books for friends. Goodreader is a great PDF reader, which I use for a large number of RPGs.

Social media-wise,
Twitterrific has a great interface (although mobile twitter works fine in Safari). Facebook works okay in Safari, but some of the scrolling functions don't work properly, but not enough to kill usability. They do have a dedicated touch version as well, but it didn't seem as featured.  It'll be interesting to see if they update the iPhone app to work with the iPad screen resolution. LinkedIn's app remains at iPhone resolution, so the website is a better option. Flipboard is an interesting take on social media interfaces for multiple platforms, but I'm not yet convinced that it's a stayer for long term, and indeed have subsequently found it becoming less and less something that draws my attention.

If you follow a lot of websites, you'll probably be using RSS. If you aren't you should, as it saves a lot of time!
Reeder is perhaps the best implementation of an RSS reader on iPad, very slick and simple. Pulse is a more magazine style application, but is limited in the number of feeds that it can pick up. Both work well with Google Reader, but if I had to choose one only, it'd be Reeder.    

There’s been a lot of noise recently about forthcoming Android or ChromeOS tablets which will be iPad killers, and even Microsoft is making noises about entering the market in the near future. I think that there is space for a wide range of tablets out there, but anyone entering should take stock on why the iPad has succeeded, whereas the old tablet space was very small. Ars Technica has a good
article2 on why bolting a desktop OS onto a tablet won’t work.

Links
1http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/pda/2010/jun/02/apple-steve-jobs
2http://arstechnica.com/microsoft/news/2010/07/ballmer-and-microsoft-still-doesnt-get-the-ipad.ars

Upgrading the eMac

We spent Boxing Day at Jill's parents, and part of my challenge was to upgrade my Father-in-Law’s eMac. The plans were as follows; install new memory, then clone the hard disk drive to the new external drive, and finally to upgrade to OS X 10.5 Leopard from OS 10.4 Tiger.


An eMac, but not THE eMac in question.

The memory turned out to be more of a challenge than I expected; I'd bought 2Gb of RAM from Crucial, which technically exceeded the maximum supported RAM on the eMac according to Apple. However, this was based upon reports from a number of different internet sites which stated that the eMac model my Father-in-Law has was being able to support 2Gb rather than the 1Gb maximum. Ironically, fitting the RAM itself was not the problem. Rather, we struggled to find the allen key to remove the tilt and swivel stand from the base of the eMac! It took about thirty minutes to find the correct tool, and after that the installation was a dream and the computer booted up and recognised the new memory straight away, a four fold increase from the 512Mb available before.

Cloning the hard drive was a complete failure. For some reason the new HDD wouldn't unmount and hung on both the eMac and MacBook when using Disk Utility. I've changed cables, changed computers and am completely stuck on how to get the drive to work properly. I’m hoping the friend who built the drive for me can help solve this conundrum. However, based on good past experience of upgrading Mac OS X, I decided to press on and upgrade to Leopard anyway.

Booting from the Leopard installation disk went smoothly, but I'd forgot how much of an influence the processor speed was on a OS install. As the eMac has a 1.25 GHz Power PC G4, the dual core Intel machines I've got used to are much faster! Anyway, I went off to be sociable with everyone while the computer did the hard work!

The update worked fine, and Leopard seems quite snappy, even on a G4 processor. I guess the RAM really helps!

So, in terms of the big picture, the upgrade process has been a bit of a failure, as it was all built around being able to back up easily (via Time Machine). I'll have to return to this. However, in theory, I can remotely connect to my Father-in-Law's computer under iChat and help with any issues that he may have, which is a plus from having Leopard installed.

Achieving Serenity



There is something just beautiful about the clean, open and serene screen that I am facing here on the MacBook as I look at OmmWriter and type this. Something restful, but it does make me hyper-aware of the fan noises from the file server and the iMac in the background. Strange, because they usually aren't something that draws my attention at all.


The gorgeous and clean interface, which also has calming music...

More and more, I prefer a simple interface with minimal disturbance, probably because it is so easy to get distracted and drawn away from what I'd like to do. Focus is what I seek, and it's something I find increasingly hard to achieve. If I didn't, then I wouldn't have a roleplaying game adventure that I first wrote in the latter part of 2006 sitting around waiting for me to complete it. The little moments of stillness and concentration seem to be few and far between, especially this year. It's something that I can also see in my reading rate; I think I'll be lucky if I complete 40 books this year, half what I usually achieve.

The only disappointment that I have with this software is that it's Mac OS only; I could really do with something like this for work too!

The only disappointment with the rest of life is that I can't find an easy way to achieve this kind of focus as regularly as I'd like and there is no easy answer to solving that, because there's no one individual cause of the distraction. I suspect discipline will help.

2 Great Apps

I've just finished migrating from my Palm Centro smartphone (itself a replacement for my Palm Treo 650) to an iPhone. Yeah, so I really wanted to get a Palm Pre, but that meant changing carriers, and generally O2 has worse coverage than Orange around here (*).

(*)6 year old experience!

Anyway, rather than talk about the joys of the iPhone (which are many), its advantages over the Blackberry Bold (my work phone, sadly locked down, sweet keyboard) or Palm Centro (lovely for its time), I though I'd mention 2 hero applications which I have just updated from Palm OS to the iPhone.



The first is Splash ID; at its heart, this is just a password manager, but I've used it on Palm OS for maybe 5 years or so, and it's really good. There are also Mac and PC desktop packages that cross link to it. Very useful if you have a lot of passwords etc. Details here.

The second is Tube London, which comes in two different versions; one which has the traditional Tube Map, and the other which has a geographical map of the centre of London. Both are £2.99. I had this on my Palm, and as an occasional visitor to London found it really useful. I tried the free TfL app, but that doesn't seem to give the most optimum routes. This supports the over the air tube status updates as well, and doesn't need to connected to a network (mobile or wifi) to work. So I upgraded to a souped up version of an old friend. It also has popular locations linked in with details, and you can get the A to Z map to match. Lovely stuff, which has apparently been on an iPhone ad. Details here.

Enjoy.

Snow Kitty (slight update)




I've just upgraded my MacBook to OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard. So far, everything seems to have gone smoothly, but I'm writing this blog post as a tester, as Rapidweaver is still a beta release candidate rather than a final update. I'm going to wait a little longer with the iMac, maybe a week or so to let some more beta stuff become full releases.

First impressions; it does feel a bit faster, and the Expose Integration into the dock is pretty good stuff. I do like Neil Ford's reference to the new OS as "Snow Kitty"; it's struck a note and that's how I mentally think of it now.

There is a really good techie review of Snow Leopard at Ars Technica.

On other techie news, the iMac is now using Time Machine (hooked to a Western Digital My Book External HDD connetced to the unused FW800 port) for standard back up, rather than Chronosync. The latter had started taking over 10 hours to do the nightly back up to the NAS which was getting silly. I'm going to use the NAS as an archive drive for installers and media instead. The SuperDuper boot drive clones will continue to be made every one to two weeks as the ultimate back up.

Update: As the MacBook has been behaving so well, and the beta software has no issues visible, I took the plunge and ugraded to Snow Leopard on the iMac as well on Saturday night.

Adobe's Brave New World



I’ve just upgraded from Adobe Creative Suite 2 to Creative Suite 4, and I cannot believe how changed the interface is, yet still the same, and how improved it is. Plus, it’s faster than CS2 was under Leopard! Nice one Adobe; this is more what I expect from an upgrade!

Spun and rotated image by Picturesque, which was part of the MacHeist bundle!

PS Some personal posts soon, I promise...

Accidentally Touching Up!


The MacBook Trackpad, image from Apple.com

So, I’m slowly adapting to the world of OS X Leopard and much faster processors with the new MacBook that I’ve been fortunate enough to be given. The only thing that really throws me at the moment is overcoming 13 years of muscle memory which makes me constantly leave my thumb at the base of the Multi-touch trackpad where the button used to be.

Unfortunately, multi-touch means that as a result I find myself accidentally zooming in and out in Safari when I am actually trying to move the mouse around. Most of the time, I avoid it, but every now and again older instincts prevail. I wonder how long it will take me to adapt?

If Multi-Touch means nothing to you then Watch the video found on Apple’s site.

Apologies for the second geek post in a row, but I don’t feel much inspired to post on the last few day’s events.

Casual (Computer) Gaming

Tom Zunder has posted an interesting article on his blog about what the games are that he like to play casually to loose some time. At the end, he challenged us to respond with our equivalents, so here goes.



1. Brainpipe.
Currently top of my pops, Shrapnel Games’ Brainpipe is very strangely addictive. The blurb in the link describes it as “an addictive endurance run” game. It has no violence, except if you crash as you travel through the pipes in the game which will eventually finish you off. It reminds me very much of Tempest 2000 without the shooting, and much more trippy music rather than thundering techno-beats. It is available for Windows and Mac OS X, and has a playable demo. It’s only $15 if you do get hooked.


2. Defcon.
If you grew up at the end of the Cold War in the 1980s and early 1990s, then Defcon will have a strange attraction to you. Ambrosia software have produced a game of mutually assured destruction which is strangely hypnotic and addictive. It supports network play if you register the game, but I quite like the demo version which lets you play against the AI. You build and position your forces, and then decide when and if to attack. Obviously, a multiplayer game allows for alliances and doublecrossing. It’s Mac only, and $25 if you want to register for the full game.



3. Weird Worlds: Return to Infinite Space
For my third choice, I return to Shrapnel Games and the Digital Eel team. Weird Worlds lets you play out a complete space quest in around 30 minutes, and is wonderfully addictive. You are either a merchant, an explorer or a military commander on a mission to explore space and find as many treasures as possible. The only part which doesn’t seem to be very survivable – aside from flying into a black hole – is combat, but if you’re smart you’ll avoid this. Great fun. Again, there is a playable demo you can download, but it’ll cost $25 for the full version.

That’s my three, what are yours?


New Beginnings

Well, here we are well into 2009 already, and me without any updates. The first excuse which I have is that the active FTP that Pipex foisted on us when they moved to M$ boxes for their servers doesn't communicate well through my parent's firewall, but that doesn't excuse the silence since. The main reason for that is the fact that most of my geek time has been spent building a new iMac up to replace the one that died. That's all done now, so normality starts to return.

Mummy and Nathan
Walking at Tatton Park

Christmas
Christmas was lovely, as we spent a relaxing few days with my mum and dad. Nathan was really aware of the whole thing this year, and – to be frank – some of it nearly overwhelmed him. We ended up on a present break as he just wasn't interested by Christmas Day afternoon. Too much choice and noise.

Whilst there, I got to read some, play with the computer writing a short book review, watch and curse at clumsiness inherent in Russell T Davies' Doctor Who Christmas Special, eat too much and generally chill out. We had a great time. Jill and I also watched The Clone Wars and The Revenge of the Sith for a Sci-Fi fix.

We spent a great day with the in-laws and Jill's sister and fiancé, whom Nathan charmed as ever! All 4 of his grandparents now have names – Ma-Ma, Poppy, Nanna and Dad-Dad. Lovely stuff! Also went out with the dog and got some nice pictures.

Sunset in Winter
Sunset at Shakerley Mere

New Year
New Year was quiet, as we were home with Nathan, so we passed part of it with Jools Holland and some Champagne. Much better than last year when we were all very ill with the vomiting virus which was going around. Spent a lot of time from 31st building the new iMac and making myself feel somewhat unclean by installing a virtualised version of XP on it so I could run some PC-specific star-mapping software.

Work
Been back a week, and it's already starting to feel longer. However, at least I feel like we're moving forward rather than on the back-foot.

Music - been listening to The Killers, Marillion, Matinee Club (aka The Modern) and the theme from Stardust on the iPod a lot recently, especially now it talks to my car speakers!

So, to conclude: We hope you all had a happy New Year, and that this year is prosperous and better than the last!

Architecture Revisited

In retrospect, the post about how I can link my PDAs and computers together was a little complicated and unclear, so here is another attempt using pictures!

The old way.

As you can see, the original way I did this needed lots and lots of manual syncs to keep everything together. Now, thanks to BusySync and the Google Outlook Calendar link, life is a lot more simple as the Outlook and iCal calendars sync with gCal on Google automatically (and Jill can see this offsite).

The new, better, way.

The only risk is that a glitch in one will propagate across them all very, very quickly. But we're not going to let that happen, are we!? With only two manual operations needed, life becomes much more simple...

Tech-lust, in a long term way

Well, for the first time in a long time Apple has managed to produce a new laptop that actually leaves me in tech-lust. I've been fortunate enough to have PowerBook G4 12" since for the last three years, and it has been the most gorgeous laptop that I've ever had or seen. The form factor hits my sweet spot, and the keyboard is just delicious to use, with a great tactile response. I'm typing this on it now.

The MacBook Pro came, even though it's 3 to 4 times faster, held no attractions because it was too big. The MacBook arrived, and although the size was a little different, but liveable with, it was too iBook, plasticky, and the integrated graphics chipset was a big step back.

Enter the new MacBook.

New MacBook, on Engadget
The new MacBook, on Engadget, all rights reserved, click image to see original

The engineering is gorgeous, and it has the small form factor and separate graphics chip is present. The only downside is the glossy screen.

It's not something I want
now or even in the foreseeable future, but I'm glad to know that there is something there to replace the PowerBook when it gives up the ghost.

Architectural Efficiencies?

I've been pondering the best way to address some architectural inefficiencies in how I interface my PDAs together with the computers, as it can get somewhat confusing, needing triple syncs at some points.

I currently have two master calendars - one on Outlook Exchange at work, which I sync to my (hazardous area rated) Palm T|x. The second is on my iMac G4 under iCal, and I sync this to the T|x and also to my Centro. Keeping this together is somewhat awkward.

Anyway, my musings are as follows; Sync my work calendar and my iMac iCal to Google Calendar (gCal hereafter) automatically (which can be done, although the OS X 10.4 way is a little more awkward AFAIK). My gCal becomes the master calendar, which is good, as Jill needs access to this from outside work now she has moved on. I then only sync the T|x to the work calendar (except for perhaps occasional backup sync) and the Centro to iCal. The rest is handled by gCal, which in theory should simplify things... Be interesting to see if it's better.

The Centro was annoying today - it glitched and got caught in a 'boot reset loop', which was a pain. I suspect that it was caused by an error related to an SMS and voicemail arriving simultaneously and corrupting a database, but after a hard reset and selective re-install of databases and preferences it's happy again.

Nathan is pretty much over his chicken pox, and scarily full of energy!

Currently feeling: Tired
Currently listening to: Nothing (about to go to bed!)
Currently reading: The Second Book of Lankhmar (Fritz Leiber, taking so long I almost can't be Fafhd!)

Phone Fun

Why did I change phones?

Treo 650 vs Motorola Z8 vs Centro
The Three Contenders!

I loved my Treo 650, which I've had for over three years, but it was starting to bug me because of its size. It just felt too big when I took it out and about, expecially for more social does. I wanted something smaller, ideally with a touch screen, and with an intuitive OS. The iPhone was out – even through I'm a Mac fan – as it was locked into O2 and I'm still happy with Orange. In the end, I decided to go for the sleek and svelte and bendy Motorola Z8. This is a consumer smartphone, with Symbian and UIQ as the interface. And it's bendy. I had a bad case of tech lust for it.

However, we've split up now, and I went back to the Treo! Why, I hear you ask? Well, a number of reasons. The Z8 crashes more than the Treo. The keypad is very small. But these are minor quibbles, something that any geek with a taste for stylish tech will happily ignore. The real reason I decided to change was the battery life, or lack thereof. I was lucky if I got a day and a half if I used the phone, and even a new battery didn't change things. The Treo did 5 days happily at a similar usage rate. Ok, so it's built like a brick and 2.5G not 3G, but I preferred it. The other thing about the Z8 was that even though it was unlocked, I couldn't ever get MMS to work. So it'll go on eBay shortly. It's a good phone, but not for me.

Z8 v Centro Side view
Banana Bendy Z8 vs the Centro Candybar

That left me with the Treo, which still irked for the same reason - size! And then I discovered the Palm Centro. Now, Palm have lost their way recently, embracing WinCE, sorry, Windows Mobile as a stop gap until they get their new OS ready. The Centro is probably their last PalmOS machine in it's current form. Spec wise, it's not a million miles different to the Treo 650. OS 5.4.9 vs OS 5.4.7, 4 days life vs 5 days, 320x320 touchscreen, but oh-so-small by comparison. I was sold, and I got an unlocked one for my birthday. And it is gorgeous. Hits all the spots the Z8 was supposed to and more - it is a 'small Treo'. Huzzah!

Treo 650 vs Z8 vs Centro
The waistline challenge
Centro vs Z8 vs Treo 650
The waistline challenge from another side

Z8 sliding vs Centro
Not really that small, Mr Z8...

Needless to say, my phone tech-lust is now sated!

Getting into InDesign CS2

Well, my meanderings with InDesign are progressing, albeit more slowly than I really would like. I've now completed the 3rd lesson in the Adobe Classroom-in-a-Book series, catching up to where I was when I started this last year. Fortunately, this time I've got a target, which is to be able to layout Graham Spearing's excellent Wordplay RPG before the end of November 2008 so it will be ready for Dragonmeet.

I'm starting to get to a point where I could do it now, but the rest of the course is about raising the skill levels to improve the workflow. Which is worthwhile, of course, as time is at a premium!

Faster, Faster, PowerPoint!


It's been an evening of updates on the computers - some OS X patches, and then two wacking great Microsoft Office updates. These are 11.5.0 for Office 2004 (which I still have on the machine for speed for Powerpoint, and for VBA compatibility on Excel) and 12.1.1 for Office 2008. Although the latter was only flagged in passing as having some minor performance gains, it has made a really significant difference to the speed of PowerPoint 2008 on the G4 processor, moving it to the point of being usable, which was quite a shock. Word seems to have got nippier too, although that is more subjective, as it could always update faster than I could type.

Thank you Microsoft, this moves in the right direction. Now, restore the access to VBA macros in Excel and I'll be very very happy! Of course, Scrivener still meets my writing needs!

Happy

Currently feeling: Surprised
Currently listening to: Nothing.
Currently reading: Lost in Transmission (Wil McCarthy).

iPod a-go-go

Gadgets are one of my weaknesses, but also one of those things that Jill says that to get me one every now and again keeps me quiet. However, with a young Nathan around, it doesn't always make sense to be chasing the newest and best (hence my computers are still G4 PPCs and so on).

Anyway, I was a reasonably early adopter of the iPod (with a 30Gb 3rd Gen model) thanks to my gorgeous wife buying me one back in 2003 when I became a chartered engineer, and despite having travelled several times around the world, it's still going strong. About the only thing that disappoints is the 6-8 hour battery life, which seems low against the 14+ hours that Jill's 5.5G 80Gb iPod manages. If you're on a long flight, or train journey, with no scope to recharge then it's a pain. We did have a Belkin external battery pack, but haven't seen it since we came back from Australia in 2005 (!).

Anyway, I idly googled iPod batteries and now have a significantly higher powered one from
iPodjuice.com, which I fitted and charged last night. It cost a very reasonable $36, or around £18 at the time I ordered, so slipped under the import tax limits. The fitting was a challenge, but the kit that came with it was spot on, as were the instructions. The internals of the iPod are something to behold with lots crammed in. Anyway, in theory I've about 80% more power, so I'm hoping for a battery life much closer to Jill's unit.

The only other thing that could do with improving is the HDD space, but I'm managing that by being selective as to what I sync from iTunes.

Happy Winking

Why?

I've been pondering something over the last few days; why do I prefer writing stuff on the PowerBook, when I have a gorgeous 20" screen on the iMac G4 coupled with a very nice keyboard? I don't know what it is, but nothing has come close to the tactical feel and focus I get tapping away on either of my PowerBooks over the last decade. The iBook didn't quite match either of them for the same urge to type away.

I've also realise how much little tweaks to your user interface can significantly improve your workflow. I was helping my Dad out with his iMac G5 to try and resolve an email related issue, and although he's on the exactly the same version of the OS as me, I kept on getting frustrated. The big differences were little things – I have Exposé set to my top screen corners to either clear the screen, or drop to all windows available, and the mouse I have (a gorgeous Micro$oft Intellimouse 5) has different set ups with the extra buttons. It's amazing how much difference it makes. Anyway, we fixed the issue, and started the process that will allow him to break free from his current ISP if he needs to.

****** Hackers!

Pretty annoyed, as I've just found out that some bugger has hacked one of the websites that I maintain, and put in a link to a trojan etc. Not seen it myself, as the Mac tends to be blasé about PC viruses and as I've not been asked to do any updates I've had very little reason to visit the site. I do have anti-virus installed, but if the attack doesn't break the firewall, or affect a Mac it doesn't alarm by default. Anyway, I've replaced the corrupted files, and also gone and hardened the site password significantly (not that it was that weak in the first place), but it's still annoying!

As an aside,
Rapidweaver has been upgraded to v3.6.7, which is the last non-bugfix version for Tiger. It's improved the export times somewhat, especially with the bigger sites I have. I'm still mulling over whether it's worth switching to OS X 10.5 Leopard or staying with Tiger (OS X 10.4). I never rush to new versions of the OS (because it often takes 2 or 3 patches to get everything to a stable enough level), but there are a couple of big questions I need to answer:

1) Is there a significant speed hit with a G4 processor (1.25GHz+ and 1GB RAM+)?
2) Does Creative Suite CS2 work with Leopard (or it's a £500 premium to upgrade to CS3!)?

Pretty much everything else is clear. Most of my other apps are all Leopard compatible, and those that aren't won't be a big loss. It'd have been nice if the various Mac publications actually covered these kind of questions!

We had a great day today – Nathan was on form, and we took him to
the local fish and chip restaurant in Wetherby where he had fish (no batter) and some chips, and stole bread and butter. He really likes the fish! After that, he entertained the shop assistants for 30 mins in one shop (opening every cupboard he could find and generally being cuite) before we went to Harrogate and had more fun in Mothercare.

Currently feeling: Annoyed.
Currently listening to: Suits (Fish)
Currently reading: Yvgenie (CJ Cherryh) (resisting Asher's Hilldiggers!).

Jules Verne docks with the ISS

Jules Verne ATV
ATV picture by NASA from the BBC news website.

The Jules Verne ATV has successfully docked with the International Space Station. It's a kind of fitting tribute to Sir Arthur C. Clarke's passing - a fully automatic orbital docking of a new spacecraft that adds a significant capability to Europe's space programme.

Currently feeling: Relaxed.
Currently listening to: Our Earthly Pleasures (Maximo Park)
Currently reading: Yvgenie (CJ Cherryh).

Firewire vs USB2

Had to do a lot of disk to disk copies the last two days. Firewire 400 gets me 18 MB/s, USB2 gets 2 MB/s, same drive.

'nuff said. I know which I'm using if I get a choice!

Happy

Jules Verne about to fly

I'm pretty excited about the imminent launch of the Jules Verne ATV, the European Space Agencies contribution to the International Space Station. Admittedly, it owes more to the technology of Apollo and the disposable space craft concept than the re-useable Space Shuttle, but this is just a first step.

Jules Verne ATV
ATV diagram from the BBC news website - click through to see the original.

Of course, the media talks up the fact that this could be adapted for passenger transfer, and even to become recoverable rather than burning up sacrificially, but I still think that it's a big step forward for Europe, moving us to catch up with the premier space power, Russia. I mean that with all seriousness. NASA dominates in remote technologies against Russia, but the Russians dominate manned flight.

The ISS keeps the dream alive, that there is somewhere to go and explore, a voyage of discovery.

Currently feeling: Happy.
Currently listening to: BBC News 24 in the background.
Currently reading: The Execution Channel (Ken MacLeod).

Evolutionary Dead End?

Since I posted on Office 2008 at the weekend, I've had a chance to use PowerPoint 2008 seriously. The upshot of this usage is, if you have a G4, don't bother, it's a laggard. On either of the G4's (1.5GHz and 1.25GHz with 1.25Gb and 1Gb RAM respectively, both running Tiger) it's significantly slower than PowerPoint 2004, and it gets worse the more graphics you have in the presentation. Interface-wise, it is a lot better and much more Mac-like. I guess the newer Intel based Macs will be more than happy with it, performance wise.

Of course, I'd prefer to be using Keynote, but PowerPoint is what I need to talk work.

Feeling pretty tired now, as I'm doing a lot of juggling at work (no, I'm not really employed as a clown, it just feels like it sometimes), and I'm looking forward to a few days off that I've booked this week! Need to confirm I can make TravCon 08, and sort out some stuff around the house. I guess it's time to end this now!

Evolution by Microsoft

I've recently upgraded my copy of Microsoft Office from v.X through Office 2004 to Office 2008, and I've been pretty surprised at the steps forward that have been made, especially in the last step.

Here's Office 2004, as exemplified by Word 2004. This was the second version of Office written for Mac OS X, and cleaned up a lot of the glitches in v.X (things like long file name support, and slightly improved stability). The application was a Carbon one, which means that it was built with tools developed for compatibility with OS 9 originally.

Word 2004
Click Through for Larger Image.

Now, I like this version, as it pretty much mirrors the Windows XP version of Office 2003 (which I have at work), but is still slightly easier to use.

And here's Office 2008, as exemplified by Word 2008.

Word 2008
Click Through for Larger Image.

Under the hood, there are a lot of changes here. The application is a universal binary (supporting Intel and PPC chips) and it has been recoded in Cocoa, which is the native OS X way to build apps. However, the bit that has really surprised me is the fact that the interface has been cleaned up so much. All of a sudden, it feels like a Mac application, rather than something that was cloned from the PC version. The clutter has gone, and it feels a lot more enjoyable to use. Ok, so you can't quantify this easily, but I'm really impressed. It looks like the twin pressures of OpenOffice/NeoOffice(*) and iWork 08 have forced an evolution on Microsoft.

Wow! And they dropped the home user price below £100 for 3 licenses! For once I'm impressed with Microsoft!

*Okay, I know that many of my techy-friends would prefer to see me with Ubuntu Linux and OpenOffice, but my only defence is I love the Mac interface, and if the commenting tools were better on OpenOffice, I'd use it happily. But they didn't cut the mustard when I tried them a month or two back.

RSS Enabled

After a request from one of my friends, Tom, I have enabled the RSS feeds on the site. You should find a link at the bottom of the page on the right hand side so you can link up via your favourite feed aggregator!

A Way Forward?

I've been musing what to do following the messing around with the connection to Pipex (which still isn't perfect) and I think that my next route will be to look at getting my own domain name and moving the email addresses and accounts over to it over the next six to nine months (the period I need to stay with Pipex to avoid any extra charges). After that, things become more portable and I can move at will, depending upon service. But what domain name do I go for? Do I go for a variation on cybergoths, which is an old nickname from University and has ties back to my past (thanks Jon!), or do I go for something completely different? I think I need to think about this before rushing in!

I'm also musing with switching this blog to Livejournal for the main blog here. That would mean that I would have been able to update this blog even if I couldn't connect at home. Decisions, decisions, but none that need to be rushed.

Happy

Connection back, fingers crossed!

The phone call to Pipex at least established that I'd been looking at the right things but left me with the recommendation that I borrow another router and try it before we got BT involved (as they'd charge me £150 if the issue was with my hardware).

Sorry the troubleshooting continued. I took the existing hardware downstairs and plugged it into the original phone socket that I had been using. It still dropped out, but noticeably less over the next few days. Of course, this could just be Pipex fixing its issues. I decided to get a new router (another Netgear, the DG834G) and upgrade the wireless base-station to 54Mbs at the same time. This arrived today, and I've installed it and it is working like a dream!

Interesting points which I haven't resolved:

1. The service has got more reliable as the week progressed, which could be at Pipex's end.
2. I installed the 3rd and final DSL filter replacement this afternoon, a nightmare job as I needed to take the fitted furnishings in our bedroom apart to get to the telephone socket.
3. The new router wouldn't talk to the internet from the socket which is in the study. It was fine downstairs.

I'm thinking I probably have an issue on the new study telephone extension combined with a glitch at the ISP end. However, I'll never really know.

No news...

No news for a bit because of Pipex. At the moment I can't keep a sustained internet connection up at home, as the server connection at Pipex's end keeps on dropping out. I'm buying 3 new DSL filters tomorrow in a final attempt to make sure it isn't my line that's the issue. This is heading towards the last straw with Pipex - certainly, I'm getting tempted to get my own server set up to handle my email and webspace, and after that's in play then I may well look at a new ISP.

Sad

Otherwise, life is pretty good.

UPDATE (Sunday): The new DSL filters haven't changed a thing. I can see the BT side of the connection is holding up, as I've been monitoring the PPPoA. I was going to call Pipex today to chase this up, but I've just discovered that their former '24/7' support line is now 6 days a week, for less than 24 hours. At least it's only a local rate call. I'll have to try on Monday.

Rant: Customer Service

I use Pipex as my ISP (indeed, this site is hosted by them) and generally have found them pretty good, except that they seem to have a somewhat surreal idea of customer service. We've been without an internet connection for two days because of their latest farce.

Apparently, they ran maintenance on their servers which resulted in the PPPoE connection being changed to a PPPoA connection (or at least the settings significantly changing from what there was before). Of course, they didn't communicate this before it happened and it took two days for me to find out what the issue was (I'd pretty quickly diagnosed it to either BT or Pipex, with Pipex looking more likely). Anyway, phoned up and got told how to log back in, and it works, but I think that the load over Christmas as the kids are home is a bit of an issue. My line speed is now down around 2Mbs rather than 4Mbs, and larger downloads are dropping out (which is a pain when you're trying to install system updates).

I just wish they'd sent an email out before they killed my access so I could know what to do. It's identical to the lack of communication over the changes to the FTP servers 18 months ago, which I described here. Basic, poor customer service.

Hrumph! Sad

Productivity?

I'm going through one of those phases at the moment where I'm getting slightly obsessive about organising things. It's something that has happened over the last few years, mainly as I get busier and have ended up spinning more plates. A number of different things have caught my eye - a combination of articles, software and solutions. I really enjoyed one of the articles on 43folders on managing a paperless office, which resonated with me because I'd previously (about 10 years ago) tried something similar with the then new and trendy Visioneer Paperport scanner. That failed, mainly as the scanner was pretty limited in what and how it handled, and the OCR capabilities around at the time were pretty bad. However, I'm wondering if it may be the time to revisit this, as the filing cabinet is getting far to full.

Kinkless Desktop!
If your desktop looks like this, then have a look at the article on Kinkless.com linked below.

I also really liked the article on Kinkless.com on ways to avoid a massively cluttered desktop. I just wish that there was a way that I could establish this easily on the work PC (but I guess that I should just be grateful that it's finally working normally again), but the tools beyond the basics are all for OS X. However, i went some way towards this over the weekend with a general clean up of the iMac HDD.

One of my friends refers to this kind of stuff as 'productivity pr0n', as you need to be very careful that you don't just get obsessed with fiddling with new systems. I agree with this up to a point, but I do think you need to try out the various options to see what works for you. I'll probably post some more links and software notes over the next few weeks.


Geek-Chic


Exit to Nowhere is a great place to get your Geek-Chic T-Shirts from. They specialise in one off prints of logos and pictures to tie in with famous cult and horror movies. Personally, it's the sci-fi ones that float my boat, but if you fancy a T Shirt promoting Amity Island (Jaws), Summerisle (The Wicker Man), Tyrell Corporation (Blade Runner) or even the ED-209 Law Enforcement Droid (Robocop) then click on through. I went for the Weyland-Yutani Corp from the Alien films, which was kind of fun. Got stopped when I was out in town wearing it and asked where I got it from as well!


Happy

Heart vs Head Revisited

The Corolla won.


A slightly older model Corolla than the one we bought.

In the end, the Corolla won because we could get one with 40,000 miles and 3 years less than the Lexus IS200. It's also more practical. So, I am now a car owner again for the first time in nearly 3 years, with a lovely 54 reg T-Spirit in the silver shown in the picture above. It fits the car seat as it has iso-fix, and is nicely built. It's also less hungry for fuel than the Lexus would have been. But my heart still misses the idea of the IS200. Some other time, perhaps.

Heart vs Head

At the moment, we're starting to look at getting a second car again as life is somewhat more complex with Nathan around. It's going to get more so when Jill returns to work in November. We've been narrowing down what we're after based on past experience and what we both like.

VS

We've got to a position where there is a choice from the heart (a Lexus IS200 March 2004 latest because after that the sunroof becomes mandatory and I can't fit in it!) and a choice for the head (a Toyota Corolla, based on the experience of Jill's previous Corolla's and our Avensis, and it's made in the UK). Which will win? More on that later!

Don't go on the new Safari!

Link to Apple's Safari pages.
I stopped using Apple's Safari Web-browser some time ago, not because it performed poorly but because, after a particular security update, it refused to hold the log in details for one of the BBSes that I visit regularly (The Tavern, FWIW). I switched to Camino, which is the Mac-ified version of Firefox that I've mentioned previously. Camino is great, but can be a little sluggish compared to Safari. Anyway, when Apple rolled out Safari 3's beta, I decided to try it again (if only because Jill uses it regularly as well). The package itself is great, but the new version of Webkit knackers a lot of things. If you have any programs that call on web-kit (ie those that have pseudo browser behaviours) avoid this beta. It makes programs hang for no apparent reason. But I guess that's why it's a beta, and why it's confirmed my using Camino as my browser of choice.

Optical Resolutions

I'm having fun with optical media. Well, maybe fun isn't the best way to describe it. I'm rediscovering the joys of optical media. It's been too long since I experienced the pain of just how finicky optical media can be when you're burning it.

I've always tended to buy decent CD-ROMs, on the basis that the cheap and nasty ones tend to become coasters (Yes, Tesco, that's you I'm talking about with a 100% failure rate). As a result, I've tended to use Memorex (which have always worked well) and Verbatim in more recent times. Now, I'm discovering the same issues with DVDs. Memorex and TDK work fine, but I've just tried 3 DVD-R Verbatim disks and they all give error messages. Slot a TDK, the same spec, and the problem returns. I've no idea why, but it's really frustrating, especially when you've got 8 copies of a presentation made and video-ed at work to get done for tomorrow and it takes 9 min per disk to burn...

I've been watching the iPhone bru-ha-hah with interest. Yes, it looks excellent, but it seems to be somewhat limited for my needs. Firstly, all the reports I've seen say it needs iTunes to sync (and I can't have that at work), and secondly, it seems to have some interface quirks that need to be ironed out before it could give any true advantage over my Palm Treo. Silly things like no one-touch dialing, and no full-stop on the basic keyboard page for email and SMS. The touch screen is the way to go (and is why I've rejected getting something sexier to replace my Treo 650), but the whole package matters. I'm guessing I can hang on until 2008 and see what Apple and Palm deliver (as the new Linux based Palm OS is due in 2008). And at that point I'm guessing justifying a £300 phone may be a challenge anyway!

Camino Updated to v1.5


I've just updated Camino, my browser of choice on the Mac, to version 1.5. It's Mozilla Firefox done with an Apple style GUI. Fast, stable and simple, it's long since displaced Safari as my favourite browser on the Mac. However, if you're on a Windows or Linux machine you'll need to stick with Firefox (same rendering engine, more clunk on the interface, but still excellent).

It certainly feels a lot faster, and adds the ability to add RSS feeds directly to my preferred RSS Reader, Newsfire, which is very useful.

RapidWeaver 3.6

Well, Realmac Software have just released RapidWeaver 3.6, which sees a significant number of upgrades. I've upgraded one license to play with it first on my own blog before trying the BITS and Birkenhead History Society ones. The upgrade isn't too painful at £19, and as it's the first one that I've had to pay for in two years it's not bad at all!

I've tried a new theme here just for an experiment! No glitches so far! Happy

First Thoughts, Creative Suite 2


I had a bit of a surprise today, as the copy of CS2 Standard that I ordered earlier in the week was at home when I got in today. It wasn't meant to arrive until 6th April at the vendors, let alone be on my doorstep. Naturally, I installed it this evening. The initial installation took about 25 mins, with a further hour nearly to download and install all the updaters. It's times like this when I whistfully consider whether I should upgrade my DSL connection beyond 1M/sec. 160 Mb data still takes a while. Considering the installation is all run from within an update program, it was a disappointment that I had to enter the admin authorisation for every updater, but I guess that's the price of security and it should only be a single hit.

The initial impression I have of the software – Photoshop CS2, Illustrator CS2, InDesign CS2 plus the Bridge and Version Cue systems – is that although it takes longer (maybe two or three times as long?) to load, it seems pretty fast once you're in it. However, this should be taken with a pinch of salt as I haven't done any serious manipulation here. If the impression is correct, then I've made the right call and a fast G4 with a bucket of RAM is a fine machine for the package. However, only time will tell.

InDesign will take some learning; I think I may go and see if there are any night school classes in Harrogate again like the ones I did for Photoshop and Illustrator some time ago. However, It's probably a lot better for BITS and other writings than iCalamus is (as it's pretty much one of the two industry standards and integrates so well). I seem to be getting all the materials together for a workflow to restart writing - Scrivener for the text smithing, Word/InDesign for layout, and Photoshop/Illustrator/OmniGraffle for illustrations.

I guess the ending point to this is a tip. If you have an old version of Photoshop, be sure to check out the Jigsaw website. They appear to be offering an upgrade to CS3 Design Premium for £616 inc VAT. As the list price is £1385 inc VAT that's a great deal. Wish I'd seen it first (although, I'm guessing that I'd have resisted because it's somewhat more than I paid for CS2)!

Feeling gouged

I've long used the various Adobe products (Photoshop, Illustration, GoLive and Acrobat) but resisted buying the Creative Suite once that became available because of cost. Anyway, I've reached the end of the line for my current versions (Photoshop 7, Illustrator 10) so had to make a call to upgrade to avoid falling off the upgrade ladder (Adobe keep the number of back versions you can upgrade fron a lot tighter than they used to).

I'm feeling a bit gouged by it because you can upgrade from Photoshop (or an equivalent product) or from the earlier versions of the Creative Suite. You don't (in any way) have a way to get other versions of the software considered (so I can only take 1 product into consideration when I upgrade). Sad

Anyway, I decided that the £700+ that was wanted for a full upgrade to the soon to be released Creative Suite 3, and bought an upgrade to CS2 in clearance for substantially less! Happy

Revamp

I got really fed up of using my work laptop with an ethernet cable in the back on Thursday, as it means that I have to sit on the sofa with the laptop on my lap. I don't really find this very conducive to working at home (but then again, having a 9 week old in the house is probably far more of a challenge). Anyhow, I'd previously had the home network set up so that I could see the internet with the work Dell, but I couldn't connect to the servers at work via VPN.

I believe (according to a more techy friend) that this is a side effect of the way that I had the network configured so it had a double NAT set up. Now, this was really an accident, so I spent a little time with the network admin utility to fix the problem. Now I can sit at my desk upstairs if I need to do any work from home. OK..... when I need to do some work from home. Beats the sofa any day. Just need to find the desk surface!

I guess it ended up being a lot easier than I expected once I'd worked out exactly how I'd configured the network (and also once I'd saved the configuration file).

Happy

PIPEX Pains

When I went for DSL and dropped my 56k connection, I was pretty careful about who I selected. I wanted reliability and decent customer service, something that my previous ISP had provided for most of the eight or more years that I used them. Pipex have a lot of the backbone in the UK, and a good reputation. I've only really had two issues with them since I signed up, but both are pretty annoying. Sad

Firstly, they changed the FTP servers they used from UNIX boxes to some kind of Windows box (it says NT on the connection) that demanded active FTP rather than passive FTP. No big thing, as the apps I generally FTP (to upload the website) – Cyberduck, Rapidweaver's Publisher module and Fetch – can all handle this if necessary. However, the first pain of this is that I have to compromise the security of my system or reorganise my network to upload. I've gone for the simpler security compromise route, based on the fact I'm running OS X with anti-virus software. However, the need to do this annoys me a lot. The second pain from this change is the fact that they have yet to update their technical documentation to reflect this over a year later. The third pain was the fact their tech support couldn't explain what the changes were, and didn't bother noting the entry on their customer database or the info in email that I sent (describing the problem) that confirmed I was using OS X and sent me an XP solution.

Frustrating. Sad

On an ongoing basis, I've worked around this, but the FTP side is getting increasingly flaky. I'm regularly loosing the connection to the server, which I know isn't an issue at this end because the two commercial servers which I use don't suffer the same problem. At some point I'm going to get a separate server package, or change ISP, or both.

The second big issue is the fact that every now and again I loose the service completely. It's just happened tonight, which has scuppered some work that I was planning to do tonight. I've checked the connection via the router, and it's the login to Pipex which is failing.

Doubly frustrating. Sad Sad

Overall, I like Pipex, but their customer service is starting to slide. It's getting tempting to jump ship.

As an aside, I'm enjoying typing this on the PowerBook now that it has 1.25 Gb RAM. It certainly makes are real speed difference. Hurrah! Happy The old RAM will go on eBay in a week or two when the rest of my 'for eBay' pile comes home from storage at my parents.

As you may have guessed from the fact this is posted, normal service has been restored!

The Real World Always Wins

I bought a gigabyte of RAM off Crucial for the PowerBook, mainly driven by the slowdown in RapidWeaver now that I've been throwing the bigger photo files into the blog. You don't see these when the site is uploaded, as RW scales them to something far more reasonable, but the master files are held in the binding file which means that RW is handling them. As the recent photos I've been taking with the Lumix FZ-50 are around 4-5 Mb, that rapidly adds up.

Anyway, the real world has won, as I'm still stuck with 512 Mb rather than 1.25 Gb until tomorrow, because I've been defeated by the memory bay door as the screws are a size 00 Philips fitting that I don't have. It's a trip to the hardware store tomorrow to get a driver to solve this slight mechanical problem. Defeated by the real world! It'll be interesting to compare the speed of the laptop with the desktop (iMac). It'll have 256Mb more RAM and 250 MHz more speed on the processor, so how will the architectures play out.

As an aside, I actually got 6 hours sleep last night, as Nathan is seeming to be recovered from his cold. Amazing how much better I feel for it. Jill only got four hours sleep (but got several blocks of this!), as he woke, but he seems to be getting more regular in his sleep patterns so perhaps there is hope! Happy

Fiddling while Nathan Cries...

Look above if you want the latest baby update - this entry addresses my inner geek! In spite of the recent spate of sleepless nights (the joy of Nathan's cold!) I've been playing with some computery related things. The first is the complete rebuild of the Power Projection website. In reality, it was done before Christmas, but the domain name registrar took far too long to redirect to the new server.

I'm pretty pleased with the site. Ever since I created the Power Projection site way back, it's never been quite what I wanted. I was surfing BlueBall Design's website and saw their MaxLight theme for Rapidweaver. The moment I saw it, I knew I wanted it for PowerProjection.net, because it was so, well, Star Trek like. Something just made me think of space. Anyway, I bought it, and started to build the site while we were waiting for Nathan's arrival. It needed a little bit of hacking to get exactly what I wanted (some tweaks to the theme) but I got there. I should also mention Charlie Lockhart from BlueBall, who was incredibly helpful when there were some code issues. Anyway, I'm pleased with the site, and happy that it is finally off the Pipex webspace which this blog is on, because it is a real pain to update.

The other big IT related find is Scrivener. Writing Power Projection on the Mac taught me the limitations of Word for creative writing projects, in much the same way that writing Delta 3 is Down taught me the limitations of Windows (NT 4 in this case) as a stable OS you can rely on. The problem is, Word really stops you seeing the wood for the trees, and you end up spending a lot of time thinking about the programme rather than the words.

I tried a number of solutions to address this issue with the workflow before layout, but none of them have been entirely satisfactory. My first attempt was a program called Copywrite, which promised a lot but seemed to be unstable as hell on my G3 iBook and G4 iMac. (It may be better now, but I have no burning desire to check it out again!) I eventually gave up on it and went back to Word. My most recent solution was to use Circus Ponies' Notebook to capture notes on projects, and then drive the projects themselves through the excellent OmniOutliner using an outline with embedded documents and files. This worked reasonably well, but didn't quite click. Then I happened upon a reference and review of Scrivener on 43folders.com, which instantly peaked my interest.

Scrivener screen
Scrivener takes what I was using Word and OmniOutliner for and merges them with some really intuitive tools. The full screen editing and structuring tools are excellent and it is very 'Mac'. It hangs together beautifully and after a few days playing convinced me it was a must have. I've registered a copy, and will be using it for my next two writing projects; Power Projection: Reinforcements, and a Traveller scenario called This Fear of Gods. I recommend you take it for a test drive and have a look. You can use it for 30 days before it locks down.

Goodbye Calamus, Hello iCalamus

My first real introduction to modern computing was with an Atari ST, which I was given by my parents as a birthday present when I was 18. The first ST I had was a 1Mb STFM hooked to a 12" portable TV, which I eventually replaced with a 4Mb STE with twin floppy drives and a 'high res' (600x400) mono monitor. This served me all the way through University, but fell by the wayside after Atari went under and I changed to Apple to get a similar look and feel.

Anyway, I used to do some DTP for a number of newsletters and such using a powerful little package called 'Calamus'. Even in its initial iteration (v1.09n) it was a match for the likes of Pagemaker (which was admittedly in the process of being trounced by Quark at that time). It was one of the packages I was sad to loose, and I've never really been able to justify purchasing a copy of InDesign or Pagemaker to replace it.

This position stands even more at the moment because neither Adobe's Creative Suite or Microsoft's Office Suite are Universal Binaries. I'm not going to buy any software that will need to run under Rosetta emulation on a future Mac because the code hasn't been prepared for the Intel Processors. Why buy obsolescence deliberately?

Anyway, in MacWorld's last issue, there was a reference to iCalamus on the cover disk. I followed this up, and found a website with a new iteration of Calamus, built in Cocoa (one of the programming frameworks that Apple provides). I downloaded the demo, and instantly fell in love with it, as it was a new shiny version of what I loved on the Atari. Needless to say, I've licensed it and now have a tool that means perhaps I can do some of the layout stuff that I've been meaning to for a long time. Child permitting, of course....

A return to CAD

Ever since I first got a Mac back in 1996, there have been a number of PC programs I've really wanted to get hold of to try and match the stuff I use at work. The key ones I wanted to replace were CAD, Visio and MS Project.

OmniGraffle has solved the Visio demand - in the latest 'Professional' edition it can export and import Visio XML. The only area it gets let down with is the way Vision handles drop shadows. i did some work for work the other week, and I need to modify it to remove the shadows as they are pretty ugly in XP.

OmniGroup also seem to be closing the gap with the forthcoming OmniPlan. i was involved in the initial beta testing of this, and it is a superb package. It may not have quite all the features of MS Project, but it has all the important ones and is slick and stable, even in beta. If I was still doing Engineering I would be rushing to buy this!

The final part of the gap was closed last week when I got hold of TurboCAD Mac V2. This will import and export to AutoCAD, but has a look and feel very much like Bentley Microstation SE, the package that I spent much of the time that I spent doing CAD on. I'd previously tried to get by through a number of methods. The first was the addition of a plug-in for illustrator (Hot Door CAD Tools 2) but I found it really unstable, and the price to upgrade was somewhat extortionate. I decided not to because there was no guarantee that it would be any better. Next up was using the scale function on OmniGraffle 4. This was excellent, and has been really useful in preparing crude room layouts for the nursery and study, but it was far less intuitive than a CAD package. So TurboCAD looks like it is going to be really useful, especially as I can enter a CAD mindset really easily!

All of a sudden, all the burning advantages that PCs have over Macs for my work have gone!

What a difference a decade makes!

I've just dug out my PowerBook 190cs (from 1996) because I'm passing it on to someone via Freecycle. As it hadn't been switched on since 2004 (!) the battery needed to be recharged, so I've had it plugged in all day. As I was writing the last blog entry, I had my current PowerBook G4 next to it, so I grabbed a photo.

PowerBooks 190 and G4

Both these machines were the bottom end units of the their times. Interestingly, they both take about the same time to boot up, and feel similarly snappy in performance!

So PB190 vs PB G4 12"
Processor: 68LC040 66MHz vs PPC G4 1.5 GHz
Memory: 20Mb (Maxed) vs 512 Mb (can go to 1.5 Gb)
HDD: 500 Mb vs 60 Gb
OS: 7.5.2 vs 10.4.7
Screen : Passive 9" vs Active 12"
Networking: serial port vs Bluetooth / Airport Extreme / Ethernet / Modem

The old PB keyboard is better than the current PB, but both are better than the iBook and the new MacBook keyboards. The new machine is lighter, thinner and slightly narrower.

I have a great nostalgia for the old machine because I wrote my first few books for BITS on it. It was also my first Mac, and the machine I bought when I graduated and started working. It was my work horse for a long time, and I built my first websites with it, initially with pure HTML and later with Adobe Pagemill (which I upgraded to GoLive 4.0 when Adobe bought the application from Cyberstudio). The 20Mb of RAM never gave a problem, nor did the processor. It's amazing how much operating systems have bloated since that time. A clean boot of OS X takes around 180 Mb of RAM initially vs 4Mb for system 7.5. Those were the days! But I wouldn't go back.

Initial Thoughts on RW 3.5

I like the new version of Rapidweaver. It shows significant progress from the previous one, and is even more powerful, plus it still allows you to use the old themes, which means that the Birkenhead History Society pages didn't need any significant update. The BITS website did need some more work, but that related to the complexity of the site and the theme. I had to change to the new version and manually change some of the default layouts. However, migrating all the sites took less than an hour tops.

What I do especially like is the increased flexibility built into some of the themes. For example, some of them support variable widths now. I did try that originally for this blog, but I think I will revert to the fixed width from now on, as it looks more aesthetically pleasing. I've also landed a more autumnal flavour to the site looks for a while!

Next thing (website wise) will be to develop the theme for the Power Projection website. It needs an update (especially with the new book) and it needs to move servers from the same one as this blog! Assuming I can sort out the sub-domain and parked domain stuff, I'll land it on the BITS servers as well.

Once this has been done I will have completely walked away from GoLive! How times change...

RapidWeaver 3.5

Well, RapidWeaver 3.5 is finally out of beta so I decided to give it a try. I'll change the BITS and BHS websites later, as the themes need some work first! So far, so smooth!

Slow Updates

I'm pretty fed up with Pipex, my ISP, at the moment as they've changed something with their FTP servers (running on an NT box from the look of the responses in the command line) which has messed up my FTP access. I'm certain it's at their end because:

1) I've not changed anything (okay, this week, four weeks in, I did run the OS X security update).
2) I can access the other ISPs I use for BITS etc with the same packages (Cyberduck and Rapidweaver - I even dragged GoLive and Fetch back out)!
3) They had FTP system problems immediately at the point that the problem manifested, which one of the support emails hinted still existed.

I've done all the usual - toggling Active/Passive etc and switching the FTP module that Rapidweaver uses. The only way I can upload at the moment is by leaving the computer's security wide open while I do so. I'm hoping that the email exchange with support will resolve this soon enough...

I suppose it is worth saying that I do think, aside from this, that Pipex is doing a fine job otherwise!

Flexibility with Rapidweaver

It's a new year, so I decided to try and see how easy it was to change the site look. This took 7 clicks...

1) Open the theme menu.
2) Select the theme.
3) Open the site inspector.
4) Select the theme settings to apply to the whole site.
5) Select brushed metal.
6) Select light grey outer skin.
7) Publish the site with the publish button.

I do love RapidWeaver. Having just looked on RealMac Software's website (RapidWeaver's Publisher), I've noticed a preview of version 3.5 has been announced for MacWorld next week. Can't wait to see what they've added...

Saturday Night In

Last night, we were planning to see some friends, but they cancelled, so we took the opportunity to watch two – very different – films. Sin City and The Breakfast Club.

Sin City was stylistically fantastic, feeling very much like a comic book (or graphic novel, if you're feeling posh). Shot mainly in black and white, colour is used for emphasis, much like the girl in the red coat was used by Spielberg in Schindler's List. The story itself is very dark, and the heroes – themselves always almost flawed – seem to be doomed against the uncaring bleakness of the city. I'm not sure how true it is to Frank Miller's original, but it was very good, possibly one to buy.

I haven't watched 'the Breakfast Club' for perhaps ten to fifteen years, but I bought it yesterday because I saw it in the local store. My better half had been looking for it for a while, but it's only just come out on DVD. It was as enjoyable as I remember, possibly because it was giving me flashbacks of being a teenager at the same time as the film. I'm glad we got this.

It also made me realise how much rubbish we see out of Hollywood these days. CGI and explosions don't beat plot and character development. Something George Lucas should have realised, especially when you see what was cut out of Attack of the Clones if you watch the deleted scenes. All the character development and rounding out that the original films had!

First thoughts...

Well, it's two days since I started trying RapidWeaver, and I've probably spent five hours playing with it to get this far. In reality, that time was split into two hours getting the old files and FTP login details and stripping them out, and three hours actually getting used to the program.

I'm pleased with the result, although the clouds do remind me a little too much of Windows for comfort. The next step will be modifying a theme for my father-in-law to have his societies website. I'm hoping that this first one can be done just by opening the theme package and dropping in a replacement graphic the same size, but if the worst comes to the worst I'll use the CSSEdit program. However, I was hoping to leave that for site number three...

It's a very different feel to web development, using RapidWeaver, compared to GoLive. Mac360 described it 'as a whole new metaphor'. They've got that right on the ball.

I'm waiting to see how long it takes my dad to notice this site has changed!