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February 20, 2008

Quick thought regarding the silly 24 hour iTunes rental limit

So we all know that the 24 hour limit sucks. That (along with the fact that you can only get HD content if you have an Apple TV, what could otherwise be the killer feature for me) certainly prevents me from me from even considering it as an option beyond something to keep in the back of my head for last resort instant gratification.

Netflix, by contrast is of course quite happy to let you keep DVDs for as long as you like. As a subscription outfit, they just make more and more money off of you. But plenty of people would certainly prefer to pay per rental and herein lies the problem as renting on a long enough time frame becomes indistinguishable from buying.

The solution: Instead of putting an arbitrary cutoff time after hitting play, there should be a virtual check back in. You'd a allowed to have, say, 10 movies checked out at a time, paying for the rental when you download them and keeping them as long as you like, but you wouldn't be allowed to download the 11th until you "check in" one of the 10, rendering it unplayable. Certainly this would introduce some more security holes and would set an upper limit on how many movies you could take with you on a trip if you don't want to access the internet from the road, but it would prevent wholesale abuse. On the whole I think it would work much better for most people.

January 16, 2008

This just in: New MacBook Air is for portable computing.


Or well, you'd think it would be "duh."

I'm not big on ultra portables. I use a mid sized MacBook Pro 15" (named Mallory by the way) because I like to have (and well, can afford) one machine that I largely take from desk to desk going from work to home to wherever else I need to be. I'm a large enough guy that carting Mallory back and forth from work isn't ever much of a problem, and making her smaller, even much smaller isn't going to magically solve the ergonomics of using her away from a desk.

So I've watched the complaints that Apple doesn't offer a decent ultra-portable form the sidelines as a somewhat disinterested observer. Ok, I get that for people with desktop machines who use their portables as portables instead of "transplantable" computers might like something super small to take to the coffee shop or the plane or class or meetings or wherever it is that they go when not sitting at their desktop.

So Apple comes out with just such a machine and all those same people, the people who derided the 17" and so clearly don't subscribe to the "transplantable" computer idea, complain that there are not enough ways to tether it down? Honestly? You really want lots of ports so you can park this super, super thin computer on a desk with wires sticking out of every end so you won't notice how thin it is because you can't pick it up without unplugging a bunch of things anyway? You're really concerned that you need to install software on it with the help of a larger computer? Do you really do much installing of software on the road? If you, like me, aren't willing to sacrifice much in the way of power for size then, news flash, you don't actually want an ultra portable. You want a general purpose portable, and congratulations, Apple already sells those in a variety of size-power-price points.

Update: Many people are further making the comparison to the Cube. I think that's deeply flawed as while both machines made compromises on price in order to achieve small size and exciting form factor, many people appreciate those things in a desktop, but few really benefit from them. Anyone who uses a laptop will benefit in very concrete ways from the lightness and thinness of the Air... even if many don't feel the trade off is worth it. I strongly doubt that anyone out there would find themselves buying a computer they otherwise wouldn't because they could fit it on a smaller desktop. There are definitely people out there who would choose to bring a computer with them at the weight and thinness of the Air that would decide not to bring one at all otherwise.

September 10, 2007

Cover flow audio stutter mini-kerfuffle

While checking out the new iPods at the Apple Store, I discovered a big defect in the new iPod's marquee feature: cover flow. On the first several iPods I picked up, scrolling through cover flow would cause the audio to distort and stutter unbearably. Not just a little or just when the song hadn't had a chance to cache and not just when scrolling all the way from one end to the other. I was just about ready to give the feature up for useless when I picked up another iPod, one attached to one of the iMacs on the other side of the room and there was no trace of the problem. A quick google search pulled up some other reports of the problem, so it wasn't just something wrong with the iPods in that store, and frankly I was a little surprised not to find more reports given the severity of the problem.

It puzzled me for a while. At first I figured that identical seeming iPods were getting different components. Then I figured it out: The ones by the computers were restarting when they got plugged and re-plugged. Sure enough, I picked up the first iPod again, stuttery as ever. A quick restart, holding down the center and menu buttons, and it was perfectly smooth. Mystery and, as far as I'm concerned, problem solved. Hopefully a future software update will prevent it from happening at all.

Unfortunately this doesn't change that, while cool, cover flow is of limited utility to begin with, especially so on a mobile device device with a large collection that can only be browsed in one long list. What's especially unfortunate is that on the go playlist creation doesn't seem to work with cover flow and that's where I could most see using it: brainstorming about what I want to listen to next.

Product Lineup

iPod LineupI've been thinking more about Apple's new iPods and my reaction to them. I think the basic force behind my disappointed reaction was that, for the first time ever, it wasn't entirely clear to me which iPod I would buy if I could. In fact, I think it is noteworthy that prominently displayed on Apple's webiste is a feature entitled "Which iPod are you?". Apple tends to strive for simple product lineups these days, balancing the need to make as much cool stuff available as possible with the fear of diluting their product image with a flood of sub-par options. Furthermore there is some tendency, I think, to feel that if a customer has to think too hard about which option is the best for them, they might think themselves right out of the purchase altogether, feeling that none of the options is optimal. Apple would much rather have you salivating over the one perfect product.

Apple is in a funny product transition with its iPods, based in part on the iPhone and in part on the increasing capacity of flash based players, and that has, unfortunately, left them caught making their customers choose between sub-par options whose flaws wouldn't even be evident if the other product wasn't available for comparison.

Continue reading “Product Lineup” »

September 5, 2007


I was hoping to get an excuse to upgrade my 20GB 2G iPod today. At first my heart sunk when I saw the iPod Classic announcement, thinking they had decided not to release the expected touch screen iPod. Then I hit reload, and it was there... Except it kind of wasn't. The iPod Touch has everything I could possibly want in an iPod, except it only has up to 16GB of storage. That's less than my 5 year old iPod which cannot, as of earlier this year, hold my entire music library--the main reason I'm looking for an upgrade. I just can't see a downgrade in storage. Sure, I don't need to take all of my music everywhere, but once I cross that bridge, I suddenly have to start making decisions about which music I am going to take. And now instead of just plugging it in and it's done, I have to think about it. I have to make decisions, and I have to keep things organized. And that's just less fun than the original wonder I had in being able to carry all my music with me anywhere without thinking about it.

I don't know. Maybe my experiments with downsizing my library to fit on my current iPod will convince me that 16GB is enough. Or maybe in 6 months there will be a 32 or 64GB version, or eventually I might get an iPhone and a touch screen iPod will seem less exciting, leading me to an eventual iPod Classic upgrade. But in any case, I won't be throwing any money Apple's way just right now, and I was kind of hoping to be pushed over the edge into doing that today.

Update: Seems about the least I can get my catalogue down to without having to make any really difficult choices is 15GB, which probably wouldn't fit onto a 16GB iPod Touch given the formatting and OS overhead. My next iPod must have at least 30GB.

September 3, 2007

Who needs the networks?

In the wake of the current spat between NBC and Apple over the price and DRM applied to TV content sold on iTunes, many people have been considering the status quo of TV distribution and pricing. Fake Steve, through his usual hyperbole probably comes closest to the truth by asking, essentially, why we need the networks at all. Don't they exist simply to agrigate content produced by production companies in order to pipe it over the airwaves to consumers? Why should we need them at all when the content producers could sell directly through iTunes or any other internet distributer? What are they there for other than to take a cut of the profits?

Leaving aside the fact that--for now--vastly more people watch plain old, live, non-time-shifted network TV than any kind of content on the internet, you could come up with a few reasons for networks to keep on existing:

Continue reading “Who needs the networks?” »

April 28, 2007

Record Time

Mallory's (my MacBook Pro's) processor fan died recently so I had to take her in again, and I've got to hand it to Apple. I brought her in at 5:00 and she was all fixed by 8:30. What's more they fixed her for free even though I'm a few days out of warrantee (in part or whole because I had brought her in just recently I think). Given all the problems that I've had with her (and she really is a wonderful machine even still) it's so nice that I've had a positive experience every time I've had to bring her in for service. They've really got the whole "Genius Bar" thing down.

They treat me like I know what I'm doing. They're up front about what they do and don't know, and they do their best to look into everything that I bring up and fix as much as they can as quickly as they can.

Very pleasing.

April 5, 2007

For the last time people:


It's pretty simple people. If you download new DRM free EMI music from iTunes, you must have iTunes. iTunes can read and transcode AAC files, and without the DRM, there's nothing preventing you from converting them into anything you want, sending them off to whatever player or computer you want. There is no way that you could (legally) come into contact with an AAC file from iTunes and not have the ability to transform it to work with whatever player you want.

And for all you people who refuse to give Apple any credit because they are in the business of making money from selling music and have had their hands tainted by the evil DRM: Get over yourselves! If you can't recognize and support a step in the right direction when it's foot comes directly down on the spot where you have your head in the sand, then you deserve to loose the war. I swear, you must be the same people who refuse to vote for democrats because they aren't progressive enough and then complain when Bush wins an election. Go ahead, and go off to your corner to throw your tantrum while the rest of us try to make the world a better place one baby step at a time.


March 27, 2007

Sleeping on the edge

I've decided to disable the "Safe Sleep" option on Mallory (my MacBook Pro). Safe Sleep is the newish feature on mac laptops that suspends the contents of RAM to the hard disk so that it can recover if the battery is removed during sleep. While this is great for swapping batteries on a flight, I only have one battery at the moment. I think I've made use of the feature all of twice, and I wouldn't have done that other than to test it out or simply be lazy because I knew I could.

On the other hand, I'm annoyed by it every single day. Not only can it potentially be a security risk, but it can sometimes take a very long time to write 2 GB to disk. Especially when you realize that you are about to miss your bus. And you know what isn't a good idea? Grabbing your computer and running with it when the disk is busy. I have my computer set to automatically go to sleep when running off of battery power (though not when plugged in) so I think it would be far more likely that my desktop machine would die in it's sleep due to a power outage than my laptop.

So the solution turns out to be easy. Detailed (and overly cautious) instructions are at Macworld.

In short, simply open up a terminal window and first verify what your current sleep mode setting is, then change it to 0, plain vanilla sleep. The command pmset -g or, to zero in on the sleep setting, pmset -g | grep hibernatemode will take care of the first order of business. To change the mode, type:

sudo pmset -a hibernatemode 0

That's it. Apparently the system may reset to the default if you open up the Energy Saver preferences, so if you see it going back to default behavior just repeat the above steps. And if you are going on a trip and think you might be swapping batteries you can always change the setting back (usually 3 -- 7 if use secure virtual memory -- but you should check what your setting is and remember it). Also there's a Dashboard widget linked to in the Macworld article to automate the process of putting your computer directly into hibernation then resetting things back to normal when it wakes.

By the way, another place where Safe Sleep can save your ass is when you are having battery problems and your power cuts out before you think it will. However this only works if it actually cuts out while the computer is asleep. Usually the computer won't even have time to sleep. And, please, if you are experiencing battery problems take your battery in to be replaced immediately. Malfunctioning batteries can be a very bad thing.

March 20, 2007

Backup snags: SuperDuper! after the honneymoon

SuperDuper! Icon

In my rush of initial satisfaction with SuperDuper!, I missed one or two flies in the ointment that make the situation less than ideal. The good news is that there are easy solutions to all of the problems that are graceful enough for the speed, reliability, and metadata savvy of SuperDuper! to win out.

Continue reading “Backup snags: SuperDuper! after the honneymoon” »

March 18, 2007

Backup strategy rehaul. Plus: Insomniac mac solved?

Hard Disk

Since starting graduate school, I've been trying to be better about doing regular, full backups. There's just too many stories about people loosing years of their lives to crashes for anyone without a death wish not to at least try. It also has as much to do with the fact that, for the first time since I've been thinking about backups, hard drives are cheep, and hard drive based backups have become a reality. Which means I don't have to backup 80 GB of data in 100 or 700 MB chunks like in the late 90s when I wasn't good about backing up because I was never going to sit there swapping out that many zip disks or CDs.

Now with high quality external drives of 250 GB or more available for $130 or less, there's no excuse. It helps that I use a laptop as my main computer so I'm stuck with smaller hard drives. Mallory's internal hard drive is 100 GB and I have a 60 and an 80 GB external drive. 100 60 80=240 meaning that for now I can perfectly fit all of my data on my 250 GB backup drive even if I fill everything.

But there's a problem. Just because storage is now economical doesn't mean that backup software is any better. And backup software just isn't something that I'm willing to give any slack. It had better work perfectly and every time or else there's no point.

Continue reading “Backup strategy rehaul. Plus: Insomniac mac solved?” »

February 5, 2007


Ok. I love my MacBook Pro (her name is Mallory, she's pleased to meet you, too). She's the best computer I've ever had. Maybe adjusted for inflation the Apple II+ or original Macintosh I had when I was growing up give her a run for her money, but we're talking top echelon computer royalty here. She's fast, she's sleek, she does everything that I need her to do with enough left over that she keeps me looking out for solutions to problems that I don't even know I have yet. And did I mention that she's fast? I've even gotten over the silly "MacBook" branding.

This makes her handful of flaws that much more frustrating. She's so close to perfection! A couple of weeks ago my power cord gave out. Apparently because the MagSafe design requires pins to be held together with no physical interlock, the plug has spring-loaded pins. And springs can fail leading to stuck pins and no power. This prompted me to do a mad dash at a backup before I ran out of power so I could bring her in to the Apple Store folks to get that and the host of minor annoyances taken care of.

So... How is she now after a complete working over (which by the way involved a complete wipe and reinstall so I'm really glad I got through that backup)?

  • Annoying display smudge that was there from day one? Fixed!
  • Annoying "processor whine?" Still whining away as strangely as ever.
  • "Display whine" when not at 100% brightness? I didn't used to have that, but I do now! (It's really soft, though.)
  • Airport reconnecting after sleep? So far so good!
  • Strange Airport lockout after waking from sleep? Again, so far so good.
  • Bent part of the case (manufacture defect, not from dropping her or something)? Only partly fixed, but good enough for me.

    And last, but not least...

  • Failure to go to sleep upon closing her lid after running fine for a few days? As of this evening, a big old not fixed!

Looks like Mallory's going to be taking another trip down to the Apple Store...

November 22, 2006

PC Design “Innovation”

Ok, I just have to comment:

I don't mean to come off as an Apple zealot. Love Apple as I do, it certainly has no monopoly on the innovative and interesting, but a quick scan through a New York Times article on PC case design revealed this gem of contradictory logic about Apple and it's role as an innovator computer case design:

Apple Computer is widely credited with long ago shattering conventions that had for years dictated how a computer had to feel and look. Windows-based personal computers generally lagged far behind in fusing function with form in ways that consumers found exciting. But that is changing, executives from mainstay computer companies like Dell and Toshiba say.

Gotta love how the sentence contradicts itself. So... Apple is no longer the leader in PC industrial design, with the Windows-based makers lagging behind because, now, long after Apple started innovating, PC makers are coming up with innovative designs?

I'm not sure that sentence means what you think it means...

(And I'm not even touching the obvious question of what the hell else the executives of the competition would say.)

October 29, 2006

Tip from Daring Fireball: Auto-Completion

I've been using macs for so long that it always comes as a bit of a surprise when I find out that there's a really useful feature that I never had any idea existed. John Grubber at Daring Fireball points out that MacOS X has an auto-completion feature based on the built in spell checker1. You start typing a word in any cocoa text field and hit f5 and a popup menu appears with possible completions for the word. Grubber says that you are supposed to be about to use the escape key unless you are in a context where escape means cancel, but I haven't been able to get it to work anywhere, which is too bad since I'm using a MacBook Pro and to access the f5 key I need to hold down the "fn" to switch the increase volume key into its alternate role as a function key. Maybe it's configurable in system preferences. If I have to use two keys, I'd rather it be an easier key combo...

1 By the way can I say how much I love that there's a built in spell checker. It's the #1 reason I wish all applications would move over to being cocoa, so I can have one standard way of checking spelling in every single text box.

September 13, 2006

Accessible Programming

I just came across an article in Salon titled “Why Johnny can't code” exploring the decline in availability of simple programming tools included with computers. It happens to be written by one of my faveorite Science Fiction authors, David Brin (a fact that I didn't realize until the mention of Startide Rising on the last page--bad me for not reading bylines). His basic thesis is that currently children (or students of any age) have no ready access to a simple programming language like the BASIC that used to be included with every computer, and that because of this, while computers are becoming more and more important, people have less and less of an inroad into understanding how they work.

Continue reading “Accessible Programming” »

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