Alan Watts, South Park style

A couple of days ago, Open Culture highlighted some Alan Watts talks that were animated by the creators of South Park back in 2007. That was news to me. What an unexpected pairing. If you enjoy these videos, be sure to see the 'related content' links at the end of the Open Culture post.

My exploration of the quirky, entertaining, informative, and often enlightening talks of Alan Watts began about 12 years ago when I started studying Zen Buddhism with his introductory book, 'The Way of Zen.' That fairly dry book led me to a raft of Watts audio recordings. Listening to a Watts lecture is a completely different experience. You may not agree with everything that he has to say, but it may lead you to think about the world quite differently. I think the bulk of his talks stand the test of time (although you may notice beat generation lingo and the occasional anecdote that would be considered quite politically incorrect by today's standards).

If you're unfamiliar with Watts, YouTube is a good place to start for some free content. Despite what some of the online fan comments convey, it helps to know that Watts didn't see himself as any kind of a guru. He said he was a mere 'spiritual entertainer' with 'nothing to sell.' Alas, decades after his death, the Alan Watts collection of audio recordings are now for sale (and they aren't particularly cheap). Years ago, I subscribed to a free Watts podcast that presented highlights from many of his talks. I checked to see if it still existed today. Apparently it does, but it appears that it has only recently been relaunched or refreshed. There is only one available episode which was published just a few days ago.

I was surprised to see that the people behind the podcast and the audio collections (the primary being Mark Watts, son of Alan Watts) also offer an iOS app which, while also pricey, does include 21 hours of lectures. I admit that I've added this app to my 'maybe someday' list. I also own a lengthy audiobook that I think is worth the price of admission, given that I've listened to parts of it many times. Final note: looks like the nonprofit behind all of this Watts merch, curiously called the 'Electronic University,' has big plans for the future. At least we know they aren't spending it on pizza and beer.

I Won’t Miss Google Reader

I've used Google Reader for years, but I won't miss the service when it shuts down later this year. There are plenty of alternatives (and more on the way). A few of the more intriguing choices are Feedly, Feedbin, Fever, and NewsBlur.

Like many users, I never actually visit my Google Reader page. I rely on third-party services that suck in my Google Reader subscriptions. For the desktop, I use Feedly. For iOS, I use Reeder. Will it matter that I'm no longer using Google Reader on the back-end? Not really. I take solace knowing that I'll be using fewer Google services. My main concern is that this may be part of a broader trend with Google: trying to funnel us all into Google+ and clamping down on how (and if) third parties can use Google services. I wouldn't be all that surprised if Google were to lock down Gmail someday soon so that it could only be accessed via Google's mobile apps or their web-based service. It is an ad-based company, after all.

In any case, of the many alternative news aggregator services, my bet is that Feedly will rise to the top of the pack in terms of popularity. They're poised to seamlessly transition existing Google Readers (without any required user action). That's very handy, but it would only go so far if the service was so-so. On that front, I think the Feedly experience is one of the best out there. It looks great, it's easy to customize to fit different workflows and visual preferences, and they're aggressively honing the service to make it better.

As an example of this, I've just rediscovered Feedly's mobile apps. I've used Feedly on the desktop for quite a while and like how easy it is to view and manage feeds in various ways. While I tried the Feedly iOS apps early on in their history, I wasn't drawn in. Reeder was still a better experience on iOS. However, I tried the apps again last night. I'm glad I did. These apps have come a long way and I'm fairly convinced that they'll work for me quite well.

As an aside, I also enjoy news aggregation services like Zite and Prismatic, but I tend to put these sort of services in a different category as they focus on presenting stories based on reader interests. They are fantastic for discovery and casual browsing and are certainly worth a look. Lastly, you may note that I haven't mentioned Flipboard anywhere in this article. I must be one of the few people out there who just don't care for it. Nothing personal, Flipboard. I note it here, though, because it's an alternative highly-regarded reader that is also certainly worth a test drive.

On Apple

A few loosely-formed notes related to Apple's latest announcements:
  • The Retina Macbook Pro is lovely. I'm not planning on purchasing it, though. If I were going to get it, I'd spring for expensive upgrades (16 GB of RAM, largest hard drive), as I've read that there is apparently no way to upgrade this machine. I also have a more existential concern: if were to buy a Retina laptop, would I still be able to tolerate my crappy external monitor? 
  • The $20 upgrade fee to install Mountain Lion on all your Macs is a good deal. 
  • I'm lamenting the unmistakable signs that the desktop hierarchical file system is going the way of the floppy drive. App libraries are in, in which each app houses its own files and data, iOS style.  I suspect that, within the next iteration or two of OS X, the file system will join Console, Terminal, and Activity Monitor in the utility bin. And as with most Mac utilities, it probably won't be used by many. Still, as long as access to the file system remains, I'll be OK. 
  • Here's one thing that worries me about app libraries. A lot of people organize files on the Mac by topic, not by app. For example, I have documents (created with many different apps) that are related to my house that I've tagged and filed away in one place. How will a walled-in app library solution allow me to organize documents across apps? Maybe a tagging solution will be offered. And what of plain text files, which may be opened and manipulated by scores of iOS and desktop apps? That's the beauty of the flexibility of Dropbox text file storage. It's so very flexible.
  • Speaking of files, I love my PathFinder. And EagleFiler. And Launchbar. With every OS X release, my insecurity grows about the future of these and many other desktop apps. Imagine how the developers feel.
  • Every time I see more iOS features come to the desktop, I can't help but think, 'Winter is coming!'
  • Apple demos of new OS features are consistently drool-worthy and slick, but they need to help us users more in terms of follow-through. My point is that Apple could do a much better job in documenting how to use their apps and operating systems. Updates come fast and furious, but new features and usage scenarios are poorly documented.
  • I'm surprised that Apple has yet to offer a better password solution for logging in to web-based accounts across devices. Stated another way, I'm surprised that Apple hasn't yet Sherlocked 1Password. Couldn't you see Apple offering a password solution that syncs across your Mac(s) and devices via iCloud, but only works with Safari to encourage browser lock-in. Speaking of, does anyone know of a site that lists all third party apps that have been Sherlocked over the years?
  • Passbook looks promising. I hope it expands to include supermarkets, chain stores, and gas station membership bar codes. It's the 21st century. Why do I still need a Petco plastic dongle on my car keychain?
  • What of Dragon Dictate? Curious that I received a newsletter from Nuance for the first time in a long while on the day of the WWDC keynote offering a special discount to buy Dictate for Father's Day. And I received another similar email today. So I'm wondering if the new OS X dictation feature will obviate the need for Dragon Dictate ... or if this product will differentiate itself by offering a more robust voice-recognition package for Mac. I should note that I'm a happy Dragon Dictate user.
  • Facebook integration thoughts: blah. I'm not a fan.
  • Siri's new ability to open an app by name isn't enough. What if I don't remember the name of the app? This is a good step forward, but we need more and better ways to navigate our hundreds of iOS apps. By keyword, for example. Wouldn't it be nice to ask Siri to serve up all weather-related or board game apps?
  • The Mac Pro update was weak. Did you see that the Mac Pro had a little 'new' tag on it in the Apple Store on the day of the keynote? The next day, that notation disappeared ... no doubt because of the deluge of feedback from outraged power users who were expecting a real update. That won't come, apparently, until next year.
  • iTunes remains a bloated mess. 
  • When on Earth is the iWorks desktop suite going to be refreshed?
  • iOS, iTunes, iLife, iEverything. Am I the only one who is sick of the 'i' thing?  

It’s May!?

Acorn 3 last week (while it was still on sale) based on rave reviews from trusted sources. I used it to prep this image collage. I've been using Photoshop since the 1996, so this is a significant change.

Will it replace Photoshop? Maybe, someday. I'd like to be able to migrate away from Adobe, mainly because the software updates are expensive; I, a relative power user, really don't need many of Photoshop's capabilities; I find I need the other Adobe tools in the Creative Suite (web edition) less and less; I like supporting indie developers.

The problem is that my Photoshop workflow has evolved over many years. I can whip out images quite fast with the tool. Acorn appears to offer many of the tools I need (if not most, to be honest), but learning a new app and getting that speed back is going to take some time.

Learning to use Acorn efficiently feels akin to the time, years ago, when I learned to type in Dvorak instead over Qwerty. The above image would take me a minute to create in Photoshop. It took me 15 minutes in Acorn. But that's to be expected.

So far, it's doing the job well ... and it's fast, fast, fast. I also appreciate many of the little touches in Acorn that make it pleasant to use (e.g., when I add a guide, I'm shown the pixel measurement in a little bubble window as I scroll the guide into place). And I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that it supports all of my Dvorak-Qwerty keyboard shortcuts, which is something that I can't say for my version of Photoshop (CS3). So I'm sticking with it as my primary editor to see if I can make the switch. Even if it doesn't meet all my needs, I still have Photoshop CS3 to fall back on if I need more advanced features. My hope is that I won't need to upgrade to the newest CS version of Photoshop. Ever.

Apple’s Last Mouse

I finally broke down and bought an Apple Magic Mouse a couple of weeks back to replace an aging Logitech MX Revolution. I'm happy with my new input device, but I suspect it will be the last Apple mouse I ever buy. That's because I'm convinced that this is Apple's final mouse.

When I first started using it, I thought of the mouse as a hybrid device that cleverly combines old and new input ideas. After using it for a while, I've started to think about it as a transitional device. The Magic Mouse isn't about the mouse at all. It's all about the Multi-Touch surface. 

My guess is that Apple will soon proclaim the mouse dead and drop it from their product line. Only the Magic Trackpad will remain for desktop computers. 

Is the Magic Trackpad a superior input device? Based on my experience using the Trackpad on my Macbook Pro, I'd say it's better for most tasks but not as good for tasks that require fine control. The Multi-Touch, finger-driven interface is great, but it would be even better to have a large Trackpad that could transform into a Wacom-style pen tablet device. Perhaps a gesture could toggle modes.  

Of course, even touch surfaces may someday be obviated by eye- and voice-controlled desktop computing. I can see how such future tech might work well for routine tasks, but I wager we'd still need some sort of physical input device for precision work (e.g., detailed selections, drawing). I bet that device will look a lot more like a Trackpad than a mouse. It could also look like an iPad running a Trackpad app.

Vonnegut’s Biographer

Author Charles J. Shields has started a blog about writing 'And So it Goes,' a Kurt Vonnegut biography due out this November. What better name could a Vonnegut biography have, really? I look forward to reading it. I'm always struck by how Vonnegut talked in the same fashion as he wrote. From Shields' post about his first meeting with the author:

He walks rather slowly, loping along, and stoop-shouldered too from writing for nearly sixty years. During the walk, we made small talk. Nothing memorable. I had a strange feeling of not being able to get much of a purchase on the conversation. Vonnegut doesn’t converse with you as much as make pronouncements. Apropos of nothing, he mentioned that only one-third of New York City public school students graduate. “Most of them who drop out are black,” he said. “Slavery was not such a good idea. My hero, Voltaire,” he went on, “speculated in the slave trade.”

When we reached the restaurant, the owner, a tall, slim blonde man in his late thirties opened the door and beamed. No one else was there.

“Welcome on a cold and rainy day,” he said, in a Dutch-accented voice.

“This is my biographer,” Vonnegut said, indicating me.

“Well, it’s about time,” said the restaurateur happily.

“No, it isn’t,” Kurt replied with a shrug. “It’s too late.”

Vonnegut died months after they met. Shields plans to post a new entry each Saturday chronicling his five-year journey to write the biography. 

I've read and own nearly all of Vonnegut's books. Slaughterhouse Five is certainly great, but my all-time favorite is surely Cat's Cradle. If you're a fan, do yourself a favor and get a copy of 'Kurt Vonnegut's Audio Collection.' It includes Slaughterhouse, Cat's Cradle, Breakfast of Champions , and short stories from Welcome to the Monkey House, all read by Kurt Vonnegut. Even if you don't like audio, you owe it to yourself to hear Vonnegut reading his own works.

On Finite & Infinite Games

Wellcome Image Award. This small collection led me on a small tour-de-link this evening that began with the offerings of The Wellcome Library, turned to the ever-absorbing Tree of Life Web project, and ended with thoughts about IBM's Watson.

How did I get there? I'm not sure. I do know, though, that I found myself looking up the James Burke Knowledge Web somewhere along the way—a project that aims to serve as a counterpoint to specialized, stove-piped knowledge by connecting overlapping bits of history, technology, science, and culture. I used to read Burke's 'Connections' column in Scientific American and recall, long ago, watching episodes of the TV series. I've loosely followed Burke's web project for many years, hoping it would take off. Unfortunately, the site looks much the same now as it did when I last checked several years ago. I think it's long been surpassed (or, rather, bypassed) by other collaborative projects, namely Wikipedia.

Yet I don't think today's offerings on the Web come anywhere close to meeting the intent of the Burke project. The nearest example I can think of that emphasizes discovery across disciplines and through history is the Wikipedia Game, although it's only a shadow of the bigger idea. 

While searching for the rules of the Wikipedia Game, I inadvertently came across a reference to something altogether new to me, called The Game:

The objective is to avoid thinking about The Game itself. Thinking about The Game constitutes a loss, which, according to the rules of The Game, must be announced each time it occurs. It is impossible to win The Game; players can only attempt to avoid losing for as long as they possibly can.

Funny stuff. This obscurity reminded me of one of the first philosophy books I ever read: Finite and Infinite Games by James P. Carse. It's an abstract book that I find myself revisiting over the years, as I've found that it means different things to me as I grow older. It's what you might call a long-term reading experience, in much the same way that Sun Tzu's Art of War isn't something you really read. The content is best sampled, sparingly.

Of course I had to look up the Carse book in Wikipedia, too. I was delighted to find a reference there to the Clock of the Long Now, which is a project to create a 10,000 year clock. This interesting idea comes from the Long Now Foundation—another site which I frequent—dedicated to long-term thinking. If there's one thing we humans need to do more often, it's surely long-term thinking. 

What do finite and infinite games have to do with long-term thought? I'll quote what seems to be the most-often quoted part of Carse's slim book (from the first chapter):

There are at least two kinds of games. One could be called finite, the other infinite. A finite game is played for the purpose of winning, an infinite game for the purpose of continuing the play.

The Long Now is about playing the infinite game. What could help us become better players? At least one answer is to improve our ability to connect the dots between our history, technology, science, and culture.

I wound up my evening Web surf with a really interesting post about IBM's Watson performance on the Jeopardy! game show. Watson certainly put in an impressive performance, demonstrating how computing power is starting to make inroads into the realm of knowledge and language.  Certainly, it showed great promise at answering questions based on ambiguous, misleading, and subtle clues (with notable exceptions). Perhaps we should introduce Watson to the Wikipedia Game. Then we could see how it does at assembling Burke's Knowledge Web. I bet Watson could turn up some interesting connections.

Rethinking Mailplane


Following yesterday’s Mailplane post, I received the following comment from Mark Munz, the developer of TextSoap (an app I purchased at full price in 2008 and greatly value):

Mailplane’s price for a year’s usage = $0.07/day. I bought it 2+ years ago, so the cost for me has been less than $0.03/day. We’re all on tighter budgets today. That’s fine. You can wait for another promo opportunity to come around. You can list out missing features that would add more value to the package. Both are reasonable responses. But to just publicly devalue a developers efforts like you did is completely unfair. You apparently want an app that cannot be sustained by the developer long term. Honestly, there is nothing worse than public price whining, except maybe price whining about a relatively low price point.

This really gave me pause to think about what I wrote and how I wrote it. After mulling it over, I’ve concluded that he’s right about the price. If you consider the price of an app based upon daily use, the cost equation looks quite different. And a mail client isn’t an occasional-use application. It’s something that is used all the time. So is $25 too much? What I realize now is that this is the wrong question to ask. What I should have asked is if it’s worth it to me to pay the $25 registration fee. This is an entirely different question, and it leads to the next point.

This should be a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ decision. Not a ‘maybe not now, but I’ll keep using it past the expiration’ decision. I regret that I advocated using the app beyond the trial date. I’m going to make a rule for myself to either delete an app or buy it after the trial period. While it’s true that one can keep using the scaled-back version of Mailplane past the 30-day trial (which, as I said yesterday, is a classy thing to allow and is not at all common), is it the right thing to do? No, it’s really not. The right thing to do is to make a choice at some point within the trial period. If you like it, buy it. If you don’t, delete it.

One can argue that Mailplane is just a Google front-end, or one can argue that it’s a tightly-integrated, feature-full mail app. I think it’s somewhere in between right now. The important point is that I had a lengthy trial to check it out, and now I should choose. For me, I think my last post makes it clear that I really like Mailplane. While I may have come across as whiny about the price, I hope my comments didn’t come across as a devaluation of the developer’s efforts. That was not my intent. I consider myself an ardent supporter of indie Mac developers.

As Mark said, budgets are tight all around. I’ve been thinking a lot today about the effect of low prices in the iPhone/Touch App store (not to mention the glut of bundle deals over the past few years) on evolving perceptions about what Mac desktop apps should cost. Are we starting to expect to pay only a couple of bucks? Did that play into my thinking about the cost of Mailplane? Perhaps so.

What I’ve realized is this: if we all start to expect to pay less and less for Mac desktop apps, we may end up in a place where we have very few indie developers left. That would be terrible. As I’ve noted before on this blog, indie third-party apps are the best part of using a Mac. And that’s another important point about cost that I’m going to keep in mind going forward: paying the registration fee is as much about supporting a particular developer as it is about supporting the community.

So I went back and looked at the features I like about Mailplane: access to all of my accounts in one place, tight OS integration, easy photo resizing, drag-and-drop support, Address Book integration, signature and snippet storage, and UI tweaks that let me make my Gmail accounts look great. Is this worth $0.07 a day to me? You know, I think it is.

So I’ve changed my mind. I’ve decided to buy Mailplane. I was wrong. Thanks for the comment, Mark.

A Greener Apple?

A bunch of wasted Apple packaging material

I received my iPhone AppleCare warranty extension in the mail this week. Above, you can see the included shipping material and Apple packaging.

The important part of this package is a registration number printed on one small card. This number must be entered on Apple's Web site to activate the warranty.

Let's review this process: I order AppleCare for the iPhone online. The only available delivery option is to have it mailed to me. I wait for a week for the package. It arrives in a box. Inside this box, I find packaging material, a printed packing list, and an AppleCare box. I tear off the shrink wrap from the AppleCare box. Inside, I find a small pamphlet containing the AppleCare Protection Plan and a small card. The small card contains a printed registration number and directs me to go online. Once online, I'm prompted to enter the registration number and my iPhone serial number. Seconds later, I receive an email from Apple. It is an AppleCare Protection Plan Certificate. Among other useful information, this certificate contains the AppleCare registration number, my iPhone serial number, and a link to the full Protection Plan documentation.

Hey, Apple: do you see anything wasteful about this?

Apple Feedback | A Greener Apple

The DNS choice

Last week, the tech world was abuzz with the launch of Google's new public Domain Name System (DNS) resolution service.

Since I posted a while back about OpenDNS, I thought I'd share my thoughts on this subject. The main question I set out to answer is whether or not I should switch from OpenDNS to Google's Public DNS?

As I began this experiment, my most important criteria was speed. Which service offers the fastest browsing experience? To answer that, I searched around and discovered this helpful post on TechSutraGoogle DNS vs OpenDNS: Google Rocks for International Users.

One of the readers over at TechSutra (Stevan Bajić) wrote the following bash script to test out the speed of four popular alternative DNS services. To use this script, run this in terminal (you can enter any domains you want here):

isp=$(dig +noall +stats 2>&1 | awk '$2~/^SERVER:$/{split($3,dnsip,"#");print dnsip[1]}');
s=" ";
header=("Domain${s:0:23}" "Your ISP${s:0:10}" "Google${s:0:10}" "${s:0:10}" "OpenDNS${s:0:10}" "DNS Adv.${s:0:10}");
echo "${h}";
echo "| ${header[0]:0:23} | ${header[1]:0:10} | ${header[2]:0:10} | ${header[3]:0:10} | ${header[4]:0:10} | ${header[5]:0:10} |";
echo "${h}";
for i in "" "" "" "" "" "";
echo -ne "| ${ii:0:23} |";
for j in "${isp}" "" "" "" "";
r="${s:10}$(dig +noall +stats +time=9 @${j} ${i} 2>&1 | awk '$2~/^Query$/{print $4" "$5}')";
echo -ne " ${r:${#r}-10} |";
echo -ne "n${h}n";

I ran tests at different times of the day, and on different days. For me, OpenDNS and Google were consistently fast. Results for Level3, DNS Advantage, and my ISP varied widely (sometimes I'd get decent results, sometimes response times were abysmal).

While the results I received from Google and OpenDNS were best, the difference in speed between the two was negligible. We're talking milliseconds here, after all. I don't think I'm really going to notice the difference between a response time of, say, 11 ms and 13ms (although research indicates that milliseconds do makes a difference).


One think to keep in mind is that the initial test you perform may return slower results than subsequent tests for some obscure sites. The first time you search for, for example, (my wife's blog) the DNS service will likely have to go out and get this IP address from an authoritative server. After that first lookup, the IP will be cached with the DNS server, so the response time will be quicker for subsequent tests. In short, run multiple tests.

My results jibe with those coming in from readers at TechSutra: that OpenDNS may have a slight edge for many U.S. locations, while Google DNS may have the edge for users outside of the U.S. Best to test it out the alternatives for yourself.

So, I've established that Google DNS and OpenDNS offer comparably faster DNS lookups compared to my ISP. Both services also offer security features to make browsing safer (my ISP may have these features, but I have no way of knowing what's going as these details aren't published. I have greater confidence that Google and OpenDNS DNS servers are not and will not be compromised).

Now, which to choose?

1. Do I want to use yet another Google service?

I'm not too worried about this. Google privacy policy is very clear. I've experienced no cause for concern with my Google services.

2. Do I have a problem with the way OpenDNS operates?

When I began this comparison, the answer was 'not really.' After pondering this for a while, I have to say I do have a problem. With OpenDNS, if you type in a domain that does not exist, you are redirected to an OpenDNS ad-based search page. This is bad behavior. I knew this already, but I didn't worry about. I turned off NX Domain redirection in my OpenDNS user settings. Here's the part that annoys me: OpenDNS describes this feature as 'typo correction,' but say nothing about how this is tied to redirection to their own ad page if the domain can't be resolved. They should take a cue from Google and explain this more clearly. Sure, this service corrects typos (changes .cmo to .com, for example), but this is only a minor feature of a service that's really about generating revenue from the mistakes people make in entering URLs. In addition, when you perform a Google Search using OpenDNS, your request is redirected to an OpenDNS server before going to Google by default. This may also be turned off (by unchecking 'Enable OpenDNS Proxy') but it's not really clear how to do it. And let's face it, most users aren't going to mess with OpenDNS advanced settings. Lastly, you must have BOTH 'Enable OpenDNS Proxy' and 'Typo Correction' turned on to enjoy the benefits of OpenDNS' content filtering features (one of the big reasons people like OpenDNS).

Here's the bottom line: OpenDNS offers a fast DNS service that includes many extra free or pay features. It's a good option if you need those extra features and aren't worried about the way the service handles your requests. The main gripe I have with OpenDNS is that they are not transparent about how they're doing business. Google, on the other hand, offers a fast DNS service and reliable security features. It's a good option if you don't need extra bells and whistles.

Think I'll switch over to Google DNS.

VMWare 3: Good Product, Terrible Ordering Process

Here is an example of a confusing, muddled online purchasing experience.

It began well enough. I decided to upgrade to the latest version of VMWare Fusion 3 prior to installing Windows 7 on my Mac. I had heard that VMWare's virtualization offered faster boot times, better integration with the Mac OS, and best-in-class support for the 64-bit version of Windows 7. I started my journey by reading up on the new features on the VMWare site. Then I read about what would be included with my purchase:

VMWare Fusion step 2

I hesitated. Did I really need to pay $20 more? Was this indicating that VMWare intends to release version 4.0 within the next 12 months? Are they saying that, with the basic $40 upgrade fee, I can expect to pay $40 again within a year for version 4? And that paying $20 now will save me $20 down the road? That might be worth it, but I didn't have enough information to make the decision. Who knows? They aren't telling. They just throw it out there that it may be a good idea to 'protect your investment.' Nothing explicit is stated. In the absence of clarity, I decided to go with the simple $40 upgrade. I reasoned that the last point upgrade occurred more than 12 months ago, so I'm probably OK with the basic upgrade. I imagine many a consumer will opt for the 'protect your investment' path. I hope it works out for them. VMWare should more explicitly state what this 'protection' offers. As is, it seems like a cheesy ploy to make some extra cash.

On to the next step. Next, I'm presented with options to 'add functionality' to my selection.

VMWare Fusion step 3

This step in the ordering process is particularly frustrating. It's also devious. For $30 more, I could choose per-incident email support for one incident per year. By clicking on the link for this option, I received an explanatory pop-up message indicating that this would afford me email/phone support from a Technical Support Engineer. I would also get 'documentation, Knowledge Base articles and discussion forums through the VMware web site.'

Do I need this? I don't think so. I had just read on the previous page that my $40 upgrade fee comes with 18 months of free email support. And documentation, forums, and Knowledge Base articles are complimentary for all registered users of VMWare Fusion. So what does this 'added functionality' get you? Nothing that you probably couldn't figure out from the forums. And if you do need to send an email to VMWare to get help, you can do so without spending extra money. They claim target response times within 24 hours for all severity of problems. That's pretty good free support.

I say this step in the ordering process is devious because it's poorly explained, and I think deliberately so. The explanatory pop-up window is vague, and there's no link anywhere to the VMWare Support Options page, where all of this is explained in much greater detail (I tried to get there by choosing a 'Support' link located at the top of the 'Customize Your Order' page, but I was taken to a page entitled 'Buy VMWare Support.' Here, I was presented with yet another offer to purchase per-incident support).

Last point: the design of this page is such that the 'Add to Cart' button is clear and obvious, but the 'No Thanks - Proceed to Checkout' link is small and unobtrusive. I've seen this sort of thing in many places around the Web, as I'm sure you have. It's a subtlety designed to get people to spend more money, simply because many people aren't paying attention. This sort of thing is not customer friendly. It's customer hostile.

At any rate, I moved on. After I made my purchase, I was directed to a download page. Here, I was presented with yet another confusing choice: do I want to download the full or the light version?

VMWare Fusion step 6

Aha. It turns out the the light version only comes with VMWare tools to support the Windows and Mac OS. The full version includes support for a wide variety of operating systems. Why wasn't this important point mentioned in the first place?

I don't want to sound like an Apple snob here, but I don't have experiences like this when purchasing third-party software for the Mac. When I buy software, I expect high-quality software. And my expectations extend to the online presence of the developer: I expect the design and messages on the developer's Web site to focus on generating a positive customer experience through the entire process (to include purchasing and upgrading). I don't expect what I used to experience all the time when buying software online in my Windows days: vague descriptions, bundled 'complimentary' subscriptions, shifty designs to encourage click-through on money-making bits, and other clever marketing ploys that emphasize making money over concern for the customer.

Message to VMWare: this kind of nonsense does not inspire customer loyalty. I could pack up and move to Parallels. You should really treat me better.

Now that I've got that off my chest, I'm happy to report that the new version of VMWare works quite well. I'm happy with it.

If you do buy VMWare Fusion 3.0, be sure to download the free Take Control of VMWare 3 from TidBits. It's free thanks to sponsorship from VMWare. The Take Control e-books are great, by the way — I've purchased several and find them to be excellent references. They usually cost between $10 to $12 bucks a pop, so this is an exceptional offer.

Kayaking to Costco

Google Maps

Last week, we discovered that my wife had not updated her Google Maps home location on her iPod Touch since our move to Maryland last year. As far as the little device was concerned, we still lived in Ewa Beach, Hawaii. We found this out because we had to travel to a Costco in Virginia from our home and needed directions. We usually use my iPhone to dial in a driving route, but on this occasion my wife fired up her Touch. The directions we received gave us a good laugh, and I thought I'd share a couple of screen shots. Someone at Google has a sense of humor.

Going Offline in Maine

We’re about to head North to my home state of Maine for a couple of weeks, a place I haven’t lived for 20 years. Over the past two decades, I’ve moved from Colorado, to Boston, to Guam, to Germany, back to Boston, to Germany again, to Hawaii, and (most recently) to Washington, DC. For work and pleasure, I’ve had the privilege of traveling throughout Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Africa, Europe, and around the Pacific Rim. Yet I still consider myself to be from Maine.

What I’ve missed most about Maine over the years, aside from family, is the remoteness of the place. At points past Bangor, you can still get properly lost. There’s the Allagash Wilderness Waterway, a natural water park over 90 miles long best seen by canoe. There’s Baxter State Park, where you can hike to a distant pond, cast your fly rod all day, and not once hear or see another human.

And there’s a vast section of unnamed townships between Bangor and Eastport riddled with lakes, covered by trees, and connected by logging roads. It’s one of many places in Maine where moose and deer outnumber people. It’s here that we’ll be staying with my folks at their camp on the edge of a very large lake sparsely populated with a few camps, cabins, and campsites. It’s a quiet place. It’s far from other people, electricity, running water, or many of the other amenities we’re accustomed to in our urban environment. And we can’t wait to get there.

When I was a kid, I used to explore the world with the aid of a small shortwave radio and dream about leaving Maine. I would often spend hours at night, alone in my room, slowly churning through the channels. I could usually get Voice of America and the BBC. I would often pick up French language stations from Quebec. I once picked up an English language broadcast from Cuba. And, weather permitting, every so often I would pick up broadcasts in German, Chinese, or Russian. It was exhilarating.

These days, I experience much of the world through the glare of LCD screens. At work, I spend the bulk of my days in front of dual monitors, shuffling between applications and responding to e-mails. At home, I often find myself sitting in front of another set of dual monitors, shuffling between a similar bunch of applications. And wherever I go, I carry my trusty iPhone. When I’m not working on a project, I’m likely managing multiple e-mail accounts, or floating between different social media sites, or surfing the Web, or doing something online.

While I’m a big fan of technology and gadgetry, the amazing ease and convenience many of us have grown to expect comes at a cost. Today, I can casually read news, hear radio stations, or watch broadcasts from all over the world. I can chat with friends in Europe as if they were next door. I’m never disconnected from the Internet. Yet I rarely feel that sense of mystery and exploration that I experienced surfing for distant voices over the airwaves.

That’s why I still like to listen to shortwave from time to time. It takes work. You need to find the right bands, you need to dial slowly, and you need to rely on chance because reception is tied to atmospheric conditions. Sometimes you find interesting broadcasts, sometimes you don’t. Sometimes you only pick up the background radiation of the universe. In all cases, you can only listen. I like that.

I’m looking forward to visiting Maine. It’ll be nice to get away from the city and unplug for a while. I’ll also be taking a shortwave radio. For an hour or so during the trip, I plan to canoe out into the lake at dark, put on some headphones and see what I can tune in.

Interesting stuff

A few notes of interest.

1. MacUpdate Spring Bundle: Yet another bundle for $49. Standout included applications are TechTool Pro, Parallels, Circus Ponies Notebook, and NetBarrier.

2. Google Wave: What would E-mail look like if it were invented today? Check out this video preview from the Google I/O developer conference. Pretty interesting and ambitious (and it’s open source).

3. Adobe CS4: Dvorak and WebKit. I recently learned two interesting bits about Adobe CS4. First, CS4 drops Opera as a built-in rendering engine and replaces it with WebKit (the open-source browser engine used by Safari and Chrome, among others). That will fix the problem I encountered with Opera. And for Dvorak users out there, I received word from a reader that Adobe CS4 now correctly handles Dvorak and Dvorak-Qwerty. Finally.

4. QIDO: A company called KeyGhost in New Zealand is now offering a hardware device that plugs into a USB keyboard and allows one to convert from Qwerty to Dvorak instantly without relying on spotty operating system support (especially from Windows) and even spottier application support. They’re sending me one to test out and review. More to come.

5. History of the Earth in 60 seconds. I came across this several months ago. Watch 4.6 billion years of history compressed into one minute. Cool.

6. MIT Media Lab Center for Future Story Telling. I also came across this many months ago and have been meaning to post it. Here’s an excerpt:

Research will range from on-set motion capture to accurately and unobtrusively merge human performers and digital character models; to next-generation synthetic performer technologies, such as richly interactive, highly expressive robotic or animated characters; to cameras that will spawn entirely new visual art forms; to morphable movie studios, where one studio can be turned into many through advanced visual imaging techniques; to holographic TV. It will draw on technologies pioneered at the Media Lab, such as digital systems that understand people at an emotional level, or cameras capable of capturing the intent of the storyteller.

The MIT Media Lab does some very interesting work. The new Center is slated to open in 2010, but research is already underway. Sounds intriguing. Can I work there?

Hidden Opera

Opera is installed by Adobe as part of the Creative Suite.

Turns out Adobe has been using Opera for years as a rendering engine. I've read that it's used in all kinds of places: to display Adobe Help files, in Device Central (to preview how applications would look in different mobile devices), in Photoshop, in Bridge, and in Dreamweaver (which has apparently been using Opera since Macromedia days). I'm sure this is only a partial list.

With a little digging, I found the hidden Opera installation in the bundled contents of Adobe Bridge (you need to view the application's package contents to peer inside).

I discovered Opera was on my system when opening a torrent. Expecting Transmission to open up, I was surprised to see an Opera browser window. This, it turns out, is a common occurrence. If you run in to this, the easy solution is to right click the .torrent file, choose 'Get Info,' and then choose Transmission. Then choose 'Change All' so that all future torrent files will open with Transmission.

While I was a bit annoyed to see a browser I never installed on my machine, I'm not going to do anything about it since it's needed by my Adobe apps. But it should stay there, behind the scenes. I think I know how this happened. I recently reinstalled Mac OS X and reinstalled all of my applications. I installed the Adobe Creative Suite, and I later installed Transmission. When I opened a torrent link, the Mac OS had was still associating all .torrent files with Opera, as that was (prior to installing Transmission) the only application on my system that would accept this file type. That explains why I had to re-associate the file type. So the real problem here is that the Mac OS associated a file type with an application that is hidden inside a bundle. That seems like odd behavior to me.

And since I'm talking about Adobe applications, I can't pass up the chance to rant about Dvorak-Qwerty. All Adobe apps that were once Macromedia apps (Dreamweaver, Flash, Fireworks) function as expected with the Dvorak-Qwerty keyboard layout. All other Adobe apps do not support the D-Q layout.

This drives me crazy. We're now on the fourth iteration of the Creative Suites, and this inconsistency persists. Guess it's time to send Adobe another message.

A telework tale

So, I now have the opportunity to telework once per week. I must say that I like it. Imagine that. But what makes it so great is not so much working in very casual clothing (that's a nice way of saying 'pajamas'), but that I can work on my Mac using tools that I know and rely on.

The thing is, I spend much of my workday at home or the office using the same basic tools: DreamWeaver, PhotoShop, and a text editor. So if I use the same basic software in both environments, why am I so much more efficient at home? Here are some of the reasons I came up with:

1. Launchbar

Launchbar is an application launcher, calculator, easy file opener, etc. It does many, many things. I'm still learning hidden tricks and tips to get more out of this excellent, lightweight application. I expect it to be on any machine I use. When it's not, I get cranky.

2. TextExpander

If you type the same thing over and over again, TextExpander is a godsend. Use it to assign shortcuts to any text you want. I use it for everything from inserting a redirect link to adding a signature block to inserting an image. You wouldn't believe how much time this tool saves.

3. PathFinder

Finder is anemic. Windows Explorer makes me want to cry. PathFinder rules. One feature I particularly like is the ability to save tab sets. I have about five tabs that I like to have open when working on this site. I have three folders I like to have open when working on office projects. I can save each workflow in distinct tab sets, open each up with a click, and I'm ready to go. Having just upgraded to the new PathFinder 5, I'm also digging the split-pane view. At any rate, the main thing I appreciate about PathFinder is how utterly, completely customizable it is. I have honed it over time. It's uniquely adapted to me. It's a weapon. I love that.

4. Spaces

I'm a recent Apple Spaces convert. I didn't think much of it for the longest time, but I'm glad I gave it another look. There are two camps when it comes to using Spaces. Some like dividing up apps into different spaces and some like dividing up tasks within different spaces. It's a subtle difference that you won't really get until you try out both ways. Some may wish to stop reading this paragraph now to prevent a headache. If you want to learn more about the options in Spaces, read on.

To be fair, even if I was using a Mac at the office, I probably wouldn't be able to install many (or any) of the third-party applications listed here due to IT policies. Still, it's worth pointing out how much utility and efficiency result from third party apps. And to be fair regarding my PC use, there are a couple of tiny free PC apps that I use in the office which do contribute quite a lot to my productivity. One is called EditPad. It's a lightweight text editor that sits in the system tray. It offers tabbed pages and does a nice job of stripping out formating on text so I can pop it into a web page. The other is called HotKeyz. This lets me remap my keyboard (I use the Dvorak layout, and this lets me reassign keys so I can still use Qwerty key combos). Unlike the Mac, Windows does not have a built-in Dvorak-Qwerty alternate keyboard layout. What a shame.

So, the difference in how Spaces works is defined by checking or un-checking a preference labeled 'When switching to an application, switch to a space with open windows for the application.' If checked, you will automatically be transported to a space with existing open window for the given app when you select that app (with command-tab). Unchecked, you are not transported to another space when tabbing to an app. Instead, the app is simply selected within that space. You then have the option to open a new window of that app within your space. Alternatively, you can click on the dock icon of that app to cycle through the open windows of that app within different spaces. Note that if you've set up some of your apps to appear only in certain spaces, this won't work as expected. In this instance, selecting an app will not change spaces; but creating a new instance (or page) of that app will transport you back to the space you defined for that app. The solution, then, is to not pre-define your apps to only work within a particular app. Confusing, yes.

I've settled on the later workflow, opting to make each space task-specific, instead of app-specific. I don't have any apps assigned to particular spaces. That way I can have, say, two different TextMate windows open in two different spaces, which is nice when multi-tasking.

Either way (app- or task-based Spaces) works, though. Try both out. What I would really like is to have control on a per-app basis so I could assign a few apps to work only in one space, and other apps to work on a task-management basis within any space.

At any rate, I've finally got Spaces set up in a useful way. I think it can get better, but it's a lot better than what I have on my Office PC...which is basic tabbing through apps. It annoys me to no end that I can only cycle forward through apps on Windows using command-tab. Stupid.

5. TextSoap

I'm also fairly new to TextSoap, but it's growing more useful by the day as I learn how to harness its power. If you deal with a lot of text coming at you from various sources and in various forms (and you need to reformat it for the web or to meet some other style guideline), then TextSoap might be a tool for you. You can use it for simple tasks like cleaning those annoying > marks in emails, or you can learn some regex and really work magic on your text. Warning: not for faint of heart. I'm at the stage where I can't do much (ok, anything) with regex, but I'm giving it a go. TextSoap is still very powerful, though, when you use the more than 100 text cleaners pre-loaded on the app.

6. Hazel

I like Hazel more and more. It's a nice way to automate filing of documents, music files, app downloads, etc. Whenever I download anything to the desktop (or drop a file to the desktop), Hazel takes care of filing it away in the right place for me (it automates color labeling of folders, too). It also has a feature to remove the plist files and other miscellaneous crap associated with a file when you move it to the trash (meaning you no longer need an additional tool like AppZapper). It also takes care of emptying my trash at predefined intervals. Like TextSoap, it's one of those apps that takes a some commitment to learn and set up to your individual preferences, but it pays big dividends.

7. Color-Labeled folders

Such a simple thing. How I wish I could colorize some of my Windows folders. When you are looking at a list of dozens upon dozens of folders, it sure is nice to have a few of your favorites color-coded. I know there's that 'favorites' thing in Explorer, but I hate it. Can't say why. Just hate it.

8. OmniWeb

OmniWeb is not a free browser, which might turn some people off. It shouldn't. It's an amazing browser. Worth every penny. And it's only $15. I bought it a couple of years ago, and haven't had to pay an upgrade fee yet. I most rely on OmniWeb's ability to save groups of pages for easy retrieval in what OmniWeb calls a 'Workspace.' For example, I have four sites that I generally need to have open when working from home. All I need on OmniWeb is open up the 'work' workspace, and all my chosen pages open up. I have about a dozen such saved workspaces for different workflows. I can also take snapshots of pages at particular places. This is handy when I want a site to open and display at a point other than the top of the page. The ad-blocking is also top-notch. As are the per-page setting definitions ... for instance, I set up my father-in-law with the top five financial sites he likes on OmniWeb. Since his eyesight is poor, I adjusted the text size for each site so it was as big as possible without breaking the site. Every one of his favorite sites could handle more or less text size increases. With OmniWeb, I set the optimal large text size so the page still looked good, and it remembers each setting. Brilliant. OmniWeb also has a shared bookmark folder to access bookmarks easily across user accounts. There's much more. It's an incredible browser. It's fast, too.

9. QuickLook

I expect QuickLook to be on all the machines I use. When it's not, I find myself hitting the space bar repeatedly in frustration.

10. Things

I rely on Things to manage my to do list. Everything I enter in Things is automatically synced to my iPhone Things app. And all my 'next up' to do items automatically sync with iCal and Apple Mail. This app is great, and I look forward to purchasing it when 1.0 is released at Mac World next month.

11. Yojimbo

I haven't seen a good note/snippet manager for Windows. I'm sure there is one, but I haven't seen it. There are tons of choices for the Mac. Yojimbo is my current favorite app to collect little items that don't fit elsewhere. I wish they'd update this app, though. It's been a long time ... also wish they'd come out with the ability to sync and store notes 'in the cloud' for remote access, and offer an iPhone version. It's not perfect, but it blows away what I have on my PC. Which is a vanilla linear text editor.

12. VooDooPad

Like Yojimbo, it's a place to dump notes, but it's a different paradigm. It's an elegant little personal wiki. I use it daily. Check out the free Lite version.

13. Bean

I probably have ten or so text editors of various shapes and sizes. After paying more money than I care to admit (I'm a bit of a text editor junkie) I find myself using the free Bean more often than not. It just works well, and it's blazing fast.

OpenDNS + DynDNS + DNS-O-Matic

I finally got around to setting up a few services on my Mac related to dynamic DNS hosting. Having done so, I'm asking myself why I didn't do this long ago.

So, what is dynamic DNS? Here's a brief and imperfect overview. Let's start with DNS, or Domain Naming System. This, broadly speaking, is a service that translates hostnames into numbers that a computer can understand, and vice-versa. It's DNS that allows you to type '' instead of a hard-to-remember number like (an IP address). Your computer has an IP address. All the sites you visit have an IP address. Everything that accesses the internet has an IP address.

The thing about IP addresses is that, for a variety of reasons, there are only a finite number of them to go around.

This affects you directly. Because of this scarcity, your Internet Service Provider (ISP) only has a finite number of addresses to pass out to all the computers using that ISP that wish to access the internet.

The result of this shuffling act means that the address of your computer is changing all the time. That makes it hard to get back to your computer if you are remote and need to connect to, say, grab some important documents. Enter the dynamic DNS hosting service.

The folks at OpenDNS took a look at dynamic DNS hosting and asked 'What else could we do with this?' The result is a service that does a number of interesting things. OpenDNS does not provide you with an unchanging, easy-to-remember hostname (actually, it does track your ever-changing IP address, but only for its own purposes). What it does do is serve as your primary DNS server (instead of the DNS server used by your ISP). You don't need to install any software. You simply need to point your computer (or router) to the OpenDNS DNS servers. Read on if you're not sure why you should care.

This is a service owned by OpenDNS which basically does one thing: it transmits your current IP address to whatever services you are using. In my case, it ensures that both DynDNS and OpenDNS get my latest IP address from my ISP.

So what do I get out of this?

- With DynDNS, I can now use my user-created hostname to help me remotely access files on my Mac using SSH (Secure Shell). If I didn't have DynDNS, I would not know my current ISP-assigned IP address. With it, I always do.

- With OpenDNS, I get a big boost in speed and reliability when surfing the web. In my case (using Comcast), I would often type in a site address and it would take a bit of time for the page to load. Sometimes, nothing seemed to be happening at all. With OpenDNS, I've experienced a noticeable difference in speed, and I've experienced no delays in page look-ups.

- OpenDNS also offers several other added features that make it very worthwhile. Essentially, they've taken a basic service (dynamic DNS) and built in a bunch of extra useful stuff built around it. With this service, I can block access to certain types of sites. I get an added layer of built-in phishing protection. I also get sophisticated error-checking (for those times when I type in 'cmo' instead of 'com,' for instance). For those times that OpenDNS can't quite figure out what I'm looking for, the service offers helpful suggestions. I can also create shortcuts (e.g., I created one for this site that enables me to enter 'vfd' in the browser instead of the full web address). Finally, I can view stats related to all of the visited domains and IP addresses accessed through my router.

- DNS-O-Matic, finally, is a simple service that ensures that DynDNS and OpenDNS always have my latest IP address. If you don't use these services, you may choose to sync your IP address with a whole slew of other similar applications as well. I opted to use this service in lieu of installing the DynDNS client software on my Mac.

All three of these services are currently free. It takes a little effort to set it all up, but it's worth it. If you have no need for a consistent hostname for remotely accessing your Mac, then you may not need a service like DynDNS. However, OpenDNS is worth the effort for the speed and reliability boost alone.

One final note: OpenDNS collects information about your surfing habits, so be sure to check out their privacy policy.

On Dvorak and the future of the keyboard

1. Dvorak-Qwerty redux

I decided to test out Tweetdeck, a new Twitter application in Beta developed on the Adobe Air platform. I like it. But when I attempted to hide the app with the shortcut ?-H ... it didn't work. Then it hit me. It's an Adobe app. Of course it doesn't work. That's because I type using a keyboard layout called Dvorak.

It's a common enough layout that it's included as an international keyboard option for both the Mac and PC. The Mac also has a unique keyboard layout called 'Dvorak-Qwerty,' which I use. This allows one to type using the Dvorak layout, but use Qwerty key combos. It's a thoughtful tip of the hat to Dvorak users who know and rely on standard Qwerty keyboard shortcuts.

Most of the applications on my Mac respect this convention and work very well with the D-Q layout. The glaring exceptions are Microsoft Office and Adobe products. I've given up on Microsoft ever fixing this problem, seeing as the OS still doesn't include a D-Q option (and likely never will). But Adobe? Come on. I can't imagine that fixing this little glitch would take much time. Correct me if I'm wrong, Adobe.

I've written about this on Adobe forums, I've sent in suggestions, I've posted on this topic here and on other blogs. Nothing has changed. While I'm sure that there are not many Dvorak typists using Adobe creative suites who rely on Qwerty key combos, I'm surely not the only one! And, hey, we're paying customers. And those suites are expensive.

Someday, I hope that Adobe will fix this relatively simple thing. Adobe: take heed that Smile on my Mac fixed this same problem with TextExpander with one simple update. I wrote to them about the problem. And it was fixed with their next update a few weeks later. Now that's service.

2. This Dvorak post rocks

So, I got an email a while back from Francis Siefken from the Netherlands, a fellow Dvorak user. He put forward a convincing case that switching the U and the I on the Dvorak keyboard would lead to even greater efficiencies. I love this kind of analysis.

Check out his post even if you don't use Dvorak, if only to appreciate the time and thought he clearly put into this. It seems that his blog may have went into hiatus after this one post (something that I can certainly appreciate!), but it's worth the read nonetheless. As is how he named his son, which also appears on this page. I hope we'll see more posts on his blog someday soon.

My view: why not switch the U and I keys? The point is that the keyboard—our primary interface to the digital realm—must continue to evolve. Dvorak, while imperfect, is arguably an evolutionary leap forward from Qwerty. But why stop there? I say let's continue to perfect the layout of keys to meet our needs.

Note that Siefken emphasizes that the primary benefit of Dvorak isn't necessarily speed. It's comfort. If you're someone who types a lot (as in all day, every day) it may be worth your time to learn Dvorak if you're not already heavily invested in Qwerty. Let the keyboard evolve, and let repetitive stress be damned!

The careful reader might now ask why I don't use Dvorak keyboard shortcuts, preferring instead to keep using Qwerty shortcuts. The answer? The most-used shortcut keys are largely grouped down by the ? key, so it's easier and faster. D-Q is a great combo.

3. On the evolution of the keyboard

And speaking of the evolution of keyboards, check out the Optimus Maximus. It's expensive as hell, but wow. It's the future of keyboards.

And what's Apple doing on this front? Perhaps making an Organic Light Emitting Diode (OLED) keyboard of their own. Will it be cheaper than the Optimus Maximus? Probably. Will Art.Lebedev Studios, creator of the Optimus and other wonderful and expensive design goodies, sue Apple? This might be a story we hear more about next year.

The tyranny of the news reader

I've been thinking lately about news readers. I use NetNewsWire on my Mac and my iPhone. It's a good reader, and I've grown to depend on the automated syncing of my feeds between my desktop and phone. I, like many people, only sync 'must read' items to my iPhone. My Mac client is where I download all of my subscribed feeds.

As an aside, here's how to selectively sync your feeds if you use NetNewsWire. The hard way: You get to these settings by logging into your account (assuming you've created one) at Then you choose 'Settings,' then 'Edit Locations.' From here, you can choose which feeds to track on which platform, among many other options. It takes some work to set up initially, but I find it's useful to only sync selected feeds to my iPhone in the interest of bandwidth. The easier way: Fire up NNW on your iPhone or Touch, then select a feed title. Choose 'Edit.' Then choose 'Delete.' This will bring up an option to unsubscribe from the feed everywhere, or just not sync it to the mobile device. Much simpler.

What I've been thinking about is the creeping tyranny of my feed reader. I've found that I've become quite feed-complacent. I have a large set of feeds that I routinely read, and the feed reader saves me time. That's the purpose of a feed reader, right? But over time, I've found that I don't surf around like I used to.

I tend to prefer my feed reader because it's so fast and easy. The result is that I've been reading the same feeds for quite some time, and I find that I rarely add new feeds these days. As I track a lot of mac-related feeds, I've found that it's a bit of an echo chamber. The same posts appear over and over, and it's relatively rare to find something new that hasn't yet been reported on in ten other places.

It seems to me that I used to find a lot of hidden gems by randomly roaming the web. I don't do that as much these days, but I'm going to start exploring again. The internet is a vast place, so there really isn't a good reason to get complacent.

A good tool to break out of the tyranny of the same-old-feeds is StumbleUpon. If you've never used it, it's worth a look.

The advantage of this service as opposed to, say, random web searching, is that you can select a subset of categories that interest you. Then, when you have a few spare moments and feel like exploring, you click the Stumble button (I use a FireFox toolbar) and are taken to a randomized site that falls somewhere within the range of the site categories that interest you. Sometimes the sites suck. Sometimes the sites are magnificent.

The one thing that is certain is that the service will take you to sites you may have never otherwise encountered. As a blogger, I'm often looking for something new and interesting to comment on, or looking for an interesting site or idea to share. This service is a great idea generator. It's also a good way to enjoy yourself as you explore the web ... and rediscover why it's called the World Wide Web.

So this is a call (to myself, really) to break away from the news reader more often and surf. And it's a call to refresh my feeds more often. There's a lot of content out there waiting to be discovered.


ProQuoWe get our furniture and other household goods from Hawaii this Friday. All of our stuff will finally join us here in Maryland…and I will soon once again be able to sit at a proper desk in a proper chair to update this site.

Now that we have a new mailing address, I decided to start off right by stopping the influx of junk mail to our new abode before it even starts.

I’m using a free online service (still in beta) called ProQou, a one-stop source to turn off all of those unwanted mailings.

It’s easy to use. Time will tell how well it works. If you get a lot of junk in your mailbox, check it out.

My new iPhone

Shortly before I moved from Hawaii to Maryland, a friend of mine graciously gave me his 16 GB iPhone (Edge) after he bought a new 3G model.

It had a cracked screen, but I didn’t mind. The shattered glass was mostly confined to one corner, so it wasn’t too distracting. He didn’t ask for any direct payment, only requesting that I send him a new Mac game around Christmas time when he’s deployed to Iraq (he’s a combat cameraman in the Navy).

This iPhone was unbelievably handy during our move, and I was and continue to be grateful for it (and since I didn’t buy it from Apple or AT&T, I don’t have a two-year contract, which is nice. I’m squeamish about locked-in contracts).

A couple of weeks ago, however, this iPhone started acting up. The dock connector would only work with Apple’s supplied USB cable. It would not work with third party cables, chargers, or music docking stations.

Just to see what would happen, I took it to my new local Apple store at Montgomery Mall in Maryland. I explained the problem, and the Apple Genius carefully tested it out. I was expecting to get a quote for a repair cost. I was shocked when the Apple Genius offered me a new 16GB Edge iPhone on the spot.

After he confirmed the defect, he informed me that a cracked screen is cause to void the warranty, so I really should protect it with a case (which I certainly do).

So, I now have a new (refurbished) iPhone, and I am a very happy customer.

The moral of the story: if you have an iPhone with a cracked screen that has a legitimate defect that may not be tied to dropping it, it’s worth a try to schedule an appointment with a Genius to see what happens.

My strategy was honesty, politeness, and preparedness. As I’ve read online from other iPhone users, sometimes you get lucky. Make sure you back it up before you go, as the store rep will likely want to restore the software to see if it solves the issue.

For my friend who gave me his original iPhone, thank you. I admit that I feel a bit guilty. How about two Mac games for Christmas? Stay safe.

Catching Up, Lessons Learned

Well, I'm happy to say the move is over. Before I recap some of my technology-oriented 'lessons learned' during this period of transition, I'd like to respond to some of the comments received over the past couple of months while I was not monitoring this site:

1. Reader Lek asked how to convert (or move) a site from Rapidweaver to WordPress. The only way I am aware of to do this is to manually transfer posts and comments. There are no automated ways to do it that I know of. If anyone knows of any tricks or tips in this department, please let us know.

I did, however, come across interesting threads related to MarsEdit and RapidWeaver that are worth checking out. Both threads relate to using RW for static content and another system (e.g. WordPress) for a blog on one site.

2. A couple of readers commented on the current bugginess of RapidWeaver, and reader PanicGirl noted the lack of ability to directly edit code in a RW blog. About the bugs: it does has some flaws, but I maintain it's about the easiest way to get a site up and running for people who don't want or need absolute control, but want quite a bit of flexiblity. And, no, you can't edit HTML directly in RW. It It may not be the best tool for those who want total control. For those who do want such control, RW templates are fully editable, but it takes a fair investment of time to learn how to do it.

3. PanicGirl also asked if MarsEdit is the best tool to use with WordPress, and if I'd tried MacJournal. MarsEdit is the best tool that I know of to manage my WP blog. It saves me countless hours. I haven't used MacJournal for a long while (in the days before it had this feature, back when it was donationware). Sounds like this would make a good future app comparison.

4. Reader Gary commented on my Yojimbo review, noting that worrying about potential database corruption in a SQLite database is different than actually experiencing database corruption. I haven't come across any users who actually had such corruption. My Yojimbo database has never given me any problems. Point taken.

5. I received several new app suggestions regarding the long-delayed Mac PIM review series (which I started before the move, then was forced to abandon because of the move). I'm still scratching my head a bit over the Info Manager comparison idea. All of the suggested applications are certainly worthy of review, so my challenge now is to regroup and decide how I want to tackle this comparison in the coming months.

To recap, I began a comparison between five info management apps back in May(!), but have only completed a full review of Yojimbo to date. I floundered for a while, too, on just which apps I should choose for this series. I think I may opt for more reviews, but markedly shorter reviews for each app. I'd like to spend more time discussing the range and categorization of info managers to help place them in better context, which will hopefully help to sift through the sea of choices out there for the Mac. The term 'Personal Info Manager' really doesn't cut it, as fellow blogger Alan aptly pointed out in a post on his site. Stay tuned for more on this. This topic has become a minor obsession.

6. Some other readers took the time to post some nice comments on various reviews on the site, to which I say 'thank you.' And I thank all readers for their patience during this long offline period. Curiously, my RSS subscriber base actually increased over the past two months, despite the dearth of new material. Go figure.

About the Move

Now for a few words about my move from Hawaii to Maryland. I spent the better portion of the past two months without internet access, and without my desktop Mac. Fortune smiled on me, though: right before I moved from Hawaii, a friend upgraded to the 3G iPhone and graciously gave me his 16GB 1st generation iPhone for a pittance. I've always used employer-provided cell phones, so this was the first time I actually had my own mobile device.

I can't stress how useful the iPhone has been during this period with no home, no easy internet access, and no computer. Here's what I took away from the experience:

1. My next Mac will be a Macbook Pro. I love my 24-inch iMac, but I'm now ready to sell it. Since the thing I love most about my current desktop is the large display, I will buy an affordable large display and will dock my laptop while working at home. It's a much more expensive solution, but it's worth it.

2. The iPhone Google Maps application is incredible. The cell tower triangulation employed by my 2G iPhone worked unexpectedly well. We used Maps more than any other single application during the move to get directions to potential new rental homes, to find nearby stores, and to figure out where we were. Transitioning from Oahu's few roadways to the serpentine routes of suburban DC has been jarring.

3. I missed the ability to update my podcasts. The iPhone needs the ability to download casts on the fly, without the need to tether up to iTunes. Judging from Apple's unfriendly and illogical response to the first iPhone app to offer this service, I guess we won't get this functionality any time soon. That's a shame. As many have already noted around the Macosphere, Apple's bizarre and murky iPhone application acceptance/denial policies (coupled with their lack of transparency) threaten to dissuade developers from making great apps. This anticompetitive streak is sad to see. Excellent, inventive third party apps are the soul of the iPhone platform, just as they are the soul of the Mac.

4. Cultured Code's Things for the iPhone worked well for me, but I wonder why it doesn't include the 'Areas' feature of the desktop app. Nevertheless, I relied on it to manage dozens upon dozens of tasks, and it held up beautifully. I was a bit surprised to see that Things 1.0 (desktop) now isn't due out until the Fall, but at least we have a very good Beta. Odd, though, that Things for the iPhone rolled out for $9.99 right from the start.

5. Evernote's iPhone app also served us well. We used this app to store all of our critical data (airplane, hotel, and car reservation confirmations, etc.) for quick and easy access. I have no real complaints about it. It did what I needed it to do. Still, I would love to see Yojimbo compete in this arena. I'm not willing to shell out $30 for the limited functionality of Webjimbo.

6. Agile Web Solution's 1Password did the job, but I was a bit frustrated by the way it opens up links within the application. I prefer to use mobile Safari. I actually think I liked the first iteration of 1Password (the web-based solution) more than I do the full-scale iPhone app, simply because I often surf to a site in Safari, then realize I need a password. In such a case, it's inconvenient to have to exit Safari, start up 1Password, then load the page again within 1Password.

7. The AT&T network is surprisingly spotty. In our new home, I can't get a decent signal ... yet my wife can get a great signal on her cheap T-Mobile pay-as-you-go phone. I expected the iPhone to have a better signal in most locations, but that hasn't been my experience.

8. I downloaded WordPress for the iPhone before I packed up my desktop, but I have yet to use it. The problem is one of ease of use: I just can't see myself typing a post on that little touchscreen. I'm awaiting a bluetooth-enabled mini keyboard.

9. I'd like to add my voice to the choir regarding the lack of cut and paste on the iPhone. It's a basic, essential feature and I'm dumbfounded that we still don't have it at version 2.1.

That's about it for now. It's good to be back.

LibraryThing and Delicious Library

Today is the Ides of March, the day of Julius Caesar's untimely demise in 44 B.C. What's does this have to do with the Mac?

Well, I first thought of Caesar. Then I thought of Colleen McCullough's excellent Masters of Rome historical fiction series, which I recently finished reading. That got me thinking about books in general. Then I thought about Delicious Library and LibraryThing, two excellent bookish tools you can use on your Mac. Hence, this post.

Delicious Library

Delicious Library, from Delicious Monster, is a cataloguing tool that is perhaps the most ingenious use of the Mac's built-in iSight I've seen. Scan the barcodes of your books with your iSight (or any webcam or connected FireWire digital video camera) to create a digital catalog. Then browse through your new digital collection. You can synch up your catalog with your iPod, print out your catalog, and get personalized recommendations based on your collection. If you regularly lend out your books to friends, you can use the tool's loan management system to keep track of who has what. I can't put my finger on it, but I find it oddly enjoyable to scan barcodes on my Mac. Beyond being fun to use, it's a great inventory tool.


LibraryThing is a web-based social 'book club' with a user-based catalogue of 24,000,000 books and growing. Wow. Create a free account to get started, enter some books from your library, write a book review, join a discussion group, get some recommendations based on your catalog. You can choose to add just a few books that you most recently read, or enter your entire library (if you enter more than 200 books, you will need to pay a modest fee). Or just surf around to see what others are reading. I could spend days on this page alone. The strength of this tool is its depth of information: pick a title and check out the book info and social info pages to see what I mean. I don't think you'll find better, non-commercial info about a book anywhere on the web. If you really like books, you owe it to yourself to check this out. It's a great discovery tool.

More Connections

By the way, the series of connections that led to this post led me to think of James Burke. I used to love reading his Connections column in Scientific American (he is probably most well-known for his excellent BBC television series). Burke specializes in tracing the interconnectivity of things: how events and inventions in the distant past lead up to the modern day. The connections he makes can be surprising (an example from the TV series: Burke shows how a test of gold’s purity 2500 years ago leads to the atomic bomb).

Check out the James Burke Institute Knowledge Web project — I've had this site bookmarked for years awaiting it's launch. From the Knowledge Web site: "it will soon be an interactive space on the web where students, teachers, and other knowledge seekers can explore information in a highly interconnected, holistic way that allows for an almost infinite number of paths of exploration among people, places, things, and events."

Ubiquitous Data

I’m on the road this week in Washington, DC. Away from my desktop Mac, I’ve been thinking about data synchronization and the cost we should expect to pay for it.

It seems that everyone is coming out with syncing solutions, and most of these solutions include web-based access to data. And soon, we can expect a flood of iPhone/Touch applications — many of which will be modified versions of traditional desktop Mac apps. We’re on the verge of a significant evolution in data synching and universal data presence.

On that note, I want to point out that NetNewsWire, the popular RSS reader, now offers online syncing. This update came out last month, but this is the first opportunity I’ve had to test it out on the road. It works well. It allows me to easily access my RSS feeds, whether on my iPod Touch or on the PC laptop I’m using (under protest) for work. While there are many RSS solutions out there, the free NetNewsWire is one of the best. The addition of syncing means that I can manage and maintain my RSS feeds from any location.

It’s no stretch of imagination to see that seamless synced data is the future, and that this future is coming fast. What I’m talking about is ubiquitous information — the ability to access all of one’s important data anywhere, anytime, from any platform.

While many services are heading in this direction, few yet do it with real style. NetNewsWire offers a good start. It will be better when there the NNW developers come up with a customized iPhone/Touch app in addition to a web-based solution. I’m confident it’s coming.

My suspicion is that we’ll soon look back at this period in personal computing within a couple of years and smile at what we used to put up with: the now-defunct .Mac, Google apps, and the plethora of other syncing services we now enjoy will soon seem quite primitive.

Evernote is a good example of where we’re heading. It’s a great app and offers very good cross-platform access to your data, but a year from now I venture that the only thing that will make Evernote stand out from the crowd will be stellar Optical Character Recognition (Evernote’s OCR is quite remarkable. Take a snapshot of some text, and it is quickly transformed into fully-searchable text). However, Evernote’s ability to sync data in the ‘cloud’ and serve it up on the web or on multiple installations of the app across platforms will be old hat.

Soon we’ll enjoy the ability to access our data everywhere, anywhere, on any platform, whether on or offline — that’s the promise, and it’s coming very soon. A year from now, we will demand it.

But what exactly should we expect? Web-based access is nice, but dedicated sister apps for our iPhone/Touch is even better. This is surely in our future, but at what cost?

I’ve been closely following the development of Cultured Code’s Things, an excellent task manager coming soon for the Mac. Concurrently with the creation of this app, the creators of Things are developing an iPhone/iPod Touch application dubbed ‘Things touch.’ It’s going to be good. Things for the Mac is due out in the Summer; Things touch for the iPhone/Touch will hopefully come out at the same time.

But what I’m wondering is this: will we be charged for different versions of the same application? In other words, if I buy Things 1.0 for the Mac, will I also have to buy Things for the iPhone/Touch for $9.99 (which seems to be a magic price point at this time). I’m guessing we will, and I say we shouldn’t complain too much.

Developing for the iPhone/Touch isn’t a matter of a simple port of a Mac app, or it shouldn’t be. It is about developing a unique user interface customized to this extraordinary mobile platform. It’s about minimalism. It’s about elegance. These considerations entail many design decisions and a lot of extra coding. Cultured Code’s blog for Things development is an excellent place to view a behind-the-scenes view of how difficult this can be for a well-thought out app. Check it out.

I initially thought that I would prefer to pay one price for an application, and that price would include a license for the mobile version of the app for the web and for the iPhone/Touch. However, I now see that this really wouldn’t work. If you don’t have a Touch or an iPhone, you clearly wouldn’t want to pay a higher cost for a version of the app you don’t intend to use.

But what about web-based access to your data in a given app? Should that be a free addition or an additional cost? NetNewsWire offers their reader and web-based access/syncing for free. Yojimbo, on the other hand, offers no web-based access. You need to buy Yojimbo for $39. You can get web-based access to your data only if you buy Webjimbo for an additional $30 (an application which is made by a different company). Should I pay a lump sum of $70 for a desktop app with web access for a product like Yojimbo? I don’t think many will choose this option. I will not. In the case of Yojimbo, I’d like to see them either buy out Webjimbo and roll out their own solution. I’d also like to see them make their own iPhone/Touch app to access Yojimbo data on-the-go. I hope this is in the works.

This example hints at what I’d like to see. In short, my preferred future looks like this: Desktop data-centric apps (e.g., Personal Info Managers , Task Managers) offer desktop and web-access version of their apps for one price. I think we should start to expect web-based access for many of the applications we buy and use on the Mac as part of a standard license fee. For the custom app designed for the iPhone/Touch, $9.99 is a good price point that I’d be willing to pay.

What’s clear is that ubiquitous data access is on the way. Pricing schemes for multi-point, ‘anywhere access’ apps continue to develop and mature. It will be interesting to see what model works best.

We’ll soon see. My hope is that the iPhone (and perhaps the newly-launched MobileMe — the .Mac replacement) will drive a new revolution towards elegant data ubiquity.

Post Script: I’m posting these comments in a hotel room using Wordpress’ web access on a PC laptop. As I’m pressed for time, I’m not adding links. I don’t have the time. It’s a testament to MarsEdit, TextMate and TextExpander — three stellar Mac applications — that I would add links if I had a Mac laptop on-hand. On my PC, it would be too painful and time-intensive.

P.P.S. Look for the next installment in the long-delayed PIM review sometime next week once I get back to Hawaii. I’ll next look at DevonThink Personal. I’ll also be commenting on the minor controversies surrounding my inclusion of VooDooPad in my review series. The sneak-peek: I’m keeping VooDooPad, but I’m adding an extra Personal Information Manager to the series. I’ll explain my decision soon, as well.

The Phoenix has Landed

Congratulations to the team behind the successful landing of NASA’s Phoenix Mars Lander this weekend. In the coming months, the Lander will send back data that will hopefully answer questions about the past and present climate of Mars, the Martian arctic’s ability to support life and the history of water on the planet.

Here are some different ways you can follow the Mission on your Mac:

1. Phoenix Mars Mission website

This site is, as you would expect, the primary source for the latest images, video, news. There is some great blog content here, too. As an aside, check out this CIO article about the behind-the-scenes challenge of serving up web content for the mission in near-real time to tens of thousands of people at once. It’s especially impressive considering that the imagery content is streaming in from millions of miles away.

2. Twitter with the Phoenix

Yes, even the Phoenix Mars Lander has a Twitter account. This is a convenient way to get regular updates — and the spacecraft is even responding to user questions (the tweets are written in the first ‘person’).

3. Visit the Mission on Second Life

And, yes, there’s also a Second Life site for the Mission.

4. Mac screensaver, widget

You can download a couple of Mac freebies over at the Phoenix Mars Mission site. The Mac screensaver features current imagery that auto-updates each time it is launched. The widget provides current Martian weather data.

5. Get the iTunes podcast

There’s also a Phoenix Mars Mission podcast hosted by the University of Arizona. This is the first time a public university has led a Mars mission.

I’ll leave you with an interesting fact: there is a DVD fastened with Velcro to the Phoenix Mars Lander. It’s called Vision of Mars, and it’s a compendium of Mars-related text, art, and radio broadcasts from the 19th and 20th century compiled by the Planetary Society. It also contains 250,000 names of Society members and space exploration enthusiasts. According to the Society, it’s “a message from our world to future human inhabitants of Mars.” The disc, billed as the ‘first library on Mars,’ is reportedly the most expensive DVD ever made. It’s comprised of silicon glass and is designed to last for 500 years.

If it were up to me, I would have attached a Nintendo Wii.