Tuesday, September 29, 2009


Switching over to Disqus for comment system for the blog. Let me know
(those few that comment!) if it bugs you.

Monday, September 28, 2009

DNS over VPN and Snow Leopard

Since upgrading to Snow Leopard DNS hasn't worked on VPN. A friend suggested a:

sudo killall mDNSResponder

And sure enough that fixed it. Poking around I found others suggesting that it gets scripted up to get killed every 60 seconds.

The fact that this helps and the fact that companies like Parallels have knowledge base articles on it would lead one to believe Apple should be fixing it.

At least the workaround is known until Apple gets in gear.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Call blocking

I have to say that i'm having a blast with Google Voice. No more
spammers and once I identify them from the "missed calls" log (since
no phones ring if they're not in my address book) I can block them so
they get the tone of disconnect. Love it, sweet sweet revenge on the

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

iPhone 3.1 woes update

Since my last entry on the misery i've had with iPhone 3.0 i've made some progress. After much fiddling I found that turning off things like wifi, bluetooth, MobileMe, etc did not solve my problems.

The one symptom I could see is that with all accounts deleted and MobileMe sync turned off I still saw calendars listed in the iPhone calendar app:

Nothing I did (reboot, power off, reset) would get rid of them.

I resorted to the ultimate and completely nuked the phone and set it up like a brand new phone. This is a horrifically painful process since you have to re-lay out where your apps are, re-enter passwords/settings for each app etc. Perhaps a restore would have worked but I had read reports that it didnt and didn't want to do the 2 hour wipe part more than once.

The process worked. I've been good for 4 days and i'm declaring victory.

There are still some reports that even with Calendar sync off in iTunes people are seeing calendars "on my iphone" that they cant get rid of. I think the bug exists but there are some manifestations of it that are catastrophic like mine and others that are just annoying.

Regardless, for Apple to not have fixed it quickly is inexcusable. Their self-inflicted punishment appears to be giving people new iPhone 3G's unnecessarily.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

ScanSnap 510M and Snow Leopard

One of the many casualties of Snow Leopard, the ScanSnap S510M software got crippled with this update. ScanSnap is an oddity to me. Such a great scanner and such poor software and support by Fujitsu. Anyway, the ScanSnap software broke in an odd way. You cant "Scan to Folder" but you can "Scan to Print". Fujitsu posted the chart of what works and what doesnt. So my new workflow is to "Scan and Print" but then from the printer settings box, do a "Save as PDF". One extra step but essentially it recreates what I had before things broke and my Scanner is functional.

Shame on Fujitsu for not fixing this before the Snow Leopard release or shortly after. Double shame on Apple for breaking so many things with a featureless release.

Monday, September 14, 2009

iPhone 3.1 Woes

Since i've upgraded to the 3.1 OS on the iPhone my iPhone has been frustrating. Its slow to respond, takes forever on key presses, battery is draining quickly, etc. Looking around the net shows that others are experiencing the same thing. The general solution appears to be don't turn on wifi and bluetooth at the same time although others are suggesting more drastic measures. I'll give the wifi/bluetooth settings a shot and see how it does over the next day or so and report back. 

Seems like a basic test case. Perhaps they used the team from Snow Leopard? Or are they just giving us grief for not upgrading the the 3GS? Of course if they had offered early upgrades...

Mint and Intuit

I wrote a while back on my blog why I chose Mint.com over Quicken
Online and I guess Intuit is paying attention. I'm glad to see them
recognizing this and picking up the cool team at Mint.

For the record, Quicken for the Mac STILL has not been updated and
since they don't have an Intel version wont even run on Snow Leopard.
I say fire the group and get some startup to start over, it will be
cheaper and better. Look at Mint.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Snow Leopard - wait it out

I pre-ordered Apple's latest OS, Snow Leopard and got it the day it
came out. Thanks to some FedEx fiasco's I didnt install until the next
day but I think I still qualify as an early adopter. I have to say i'm
seriously disappointed. The quality and compatibility is poor. Worse
than any other release i've experienced from Apple. Here's some of
what i've seen:

1) Many applications are incompatible and not yet updated. Perhaps you
can blame developers for not being on top of things, but I think not.
I expected PPC apps to have an issue as this is an intel only release,
but I was shocked at the number of apps that broke even though they
had intel support. Here's a short list:

Medialink, EyeTV, Growl, ScanSnap, 1Password, Contribute, and many more

Why did so many apps break? Why didn't apple warn people in advance?
The upgrade from PPC to Intel machines was smoother.

2) I've seen several "black screen of death" events where I must power
cycle the machine. I was perfectly stable before that. For the record
the machine I saw that on I did a complete wipe (disk format) and
fresh install of Snow Leopard and then only installed the latest
versions of apps I needed. Can't blame some less tested upgrade path
for that one.

3) I've had many hangs in Mail and Safari where I have to force quit
the apps. Didn't have those issues before the upgrade. This is a fresh
install, Apples apps and basic ones. Quality Control?

4) We've seen some odd behavior -- VPN to work using Apple's native
VPN to a Cisco firewall worked great before Snow Leopard. After the
upgrade DNS doesnt work. You can connect but you cant resolve anything
on the other end so you end up having to edit /etc/hosts and add
systems by hand. How'd they brake that one? And why? (multiple people
have experienced this)

5) Some vendors, like the Agile folks, makers of 1Password, have
chosen to use this as an opportunity to charge for an upgrade and not
support you unless you upgrade. Considering i'd owned 1Password for
less than 10 months I was shocked to see them require me to pay for an
upgrade. On all other fronts the Agile team is amazing but this
decision is flat out wrong. Others have gone down that route and
you'll be paying for upgrades to apps that worked fine prior to Snow
Leopard. The OS may be cheap ($29) but the time sink and the apps you
have to pay to upgrade are not.

So i've had issues, what about the good stuff? Um, what good stuff?
Frankly I haven't noticed a performance improvement and the
frustrations of a semi-stable OS wipes that out anyway. There are a
few very minor visual improvements, but fundamentally almost nothing
is noticeably different.

Its too late for me now, but I wish I had waited 6 months+ to upgrade.
Not the normal experience with Apple.

Home Media Servers

The battle has been raging for a while on who owns a device near your TV. My bet is one of the consoles is going to win as they have the video quality, compute power etc. A while back I remodeled my family room and since I didnt have much time at the time I hired a company to do the sound piece. The speakers etc worked out fine and i'm happy. What i'm not happy with is that they installed a Control4 unit as the controller for the whole system. There's an attached drive to load media on. This system is dated by today's standards and you can't make any configuration changes without calling a dealer to support it -- yes you cant manage a device you own. Some day i'll rip it out of my system and get a better approach. What a waste.

Anyway, using it for video playback doesnt work, it supports music (poorly) and pictures (also poorly) (perhaps the $250+ software upgrade would make things better but im not going to find out). Basically anything you do with it costs serious money which means it has to go.

I got a disk of the first season of 24 for Christmas and I wanted to watch it but not be feeding disks to my playback device constantly. I had the idea to rip the disks and then do video-on-demand within my home. I already have Cat5e cabled networking and a GigE switch between the major computers and my family room so bandwidth wasnt an issue. I had the ripped files and needed a way to serve them to the TV. I use my PS3 as a DVD player since my old DVD player died and as it also does the BluRay disks too. Unfortunately the PS3 disk is tiny. 

I looked around and found MediaLink which turns a mac into a media server for the PS3 (They have a version for the XBox 360 too). That works great, I can now browse my pictures, music and video from iTunes, iPhoto or on folders on my drives and play them back on the PS3. The PS3 could use better menus/controls but it works and the software was $20.

So now my video library is on a TB hard drive in my basement and streams to my family room when I need it sure beats the DVD shuffle.

Only problem is Snow Leopard broke it. See next blog entry.

Banks and Scanners

If you've been following my blog you know that I love my scanner
(although with Snow Leopard its somewhat crippled). The banks are onto
this whole scanning thing.

Bank of America switched over to allowing you to feed the checks
directly into the ATM without a deposit slip or envelope. The scanning
works pretty good. One problem, I have to press about 4 buttons per
check. It takes me 10x as long to deposit a batch of checks as it used
to. Sure, you used new cool technology, but you just wasted more of my
time. Give me back the old machine or let me bulk feed my deposit
checks. Technology gone wrong.

USAA on the other hand has taken a different approach. I guess they're
forced to be creative having branches only in Texas. Anyway, you get
checks to deposit, scan them or snap pictures with your iphone. Upload
them to USAA and then shred them. Seems crazy but the system works
great. No need to leave my house, nothing to mail, cost efficient. The
first time or two it takes some fiddling to know what they need in
terms of an image but once you get it its a breeze. Its the future.

Banks Stink

Banks just stink these days. While we're now saving them money by
using ATMs, they charge you fees up to $3 per transaction if you use
someone elses ATM. Meanwhile you're saving them money for a teller etc.

I was moving out of Citizens bank recently due to their crazy fee
structure. I asked them how to close my account. They said take all
the money out (get it to zero) and they'd auto-close after 7 days. I
proceeded to get the balance to zero. A few days later my silly
insurance company took out an automatic payment for $10.35, so I went
negative by that amount. I saw it quickly and immediately transferred
$10.35 back in. I figured I was set. Meanwhile Citizens charged me $39
for going negative and sent me snail mail over labor day weekend). I
was away and when I got back I was swamped so I didnt look at anything
for essentially 2 weeks. Since I remained negative (by the $39) for
more than a few days they charged me another $35. Then since more days
passed, another $35. They never called, and they were assessing fees
on their fees. They refused to credit me back any of the $109 when I
finally addressed it. I paid the money and filed a complaint with the
Better Business Bureau. That bank should not be in business.

I have a real issue with banks that want you to keep your money with
them but then they slowly drain your accounts with their fees. What a

Google Voice Rocks

I got a free Grand Dialer account early on when it came out. I never made much use of it though. Then it was bought by Google and still it sat unused for a long time. This week, though, I had a thought. 

A while back I wrote about home phones and cell phones. To summarize, even if I could cancel my landline and move the number to google (you currently cant do this) I need to keep a home phone connection for:

a) Our home business uses that number and its been known for 10+ years and its in publications etc
b) We have an ADT system and it needs to dial out
c) 911 is better with a landline

The problem, though, is that with 10+ years at the same number and as a landline we get spammers calling constantly. The result is that we never answer the phone and our voice mailbox fills up. Sometimes its important stuff but because of the fear of the spammers (yes, i've put the number on all the do not call lists I can find) we delay in getting back to people and we can't really be reached through that number.

So what was my Google voice thought? Forward my home number to my google voice number. From there use google voice to manage the traffic. You can upload your address book (new after the google acquisition) including the groups. Then on a per-group basis set the desired behavior. 

So here's my setup:

1) Home phone always forwards to google voice
2) We have 3 cell phones, one for me, one for the wife, and one for the barn
3) Depending on the address book group a person falls in it will ring 1, 2 or 3 of those phone numbers. 
4) Also depending on the group the person falls in it may prompt them for their name first so we can decide if we want the call (they hear ringing until we accept)
5) If they're in no groups, no phones ring. They get to leave a voicemail if they want (spammers dont, but if they did google has some answers for that)
6) If someone like my dad calls, all 3 phones ring, if someone picks it up and its for the other person you can transfer to the other cell phone with a google voice command. 
7) Voice mails come in email with (weak) transcriptions. You can listen to them from your email (even on the iPhone!) and you can forward them to each other. You can also manage them in the order you want to -- no more wading through 17 useless voice mails to get to the one you want. (the transcriptions are amusing though)

I turned all this on a couple days ago and its magic. We've received NO unwanted calls and we're now easier for people to reach. Call one number (our home #) and you'll reach who we want you to reach.

I'm not sure this is the use case Google Voice envisioned, a family google voice line, but as I did with my email, i'm using Google as an advanced spam filter and they're great at it.

I think about people with multiple houses that they travel between and think how this can solve their problems too. Forward those land lines to google and then use it to route to where you want when you want. With remote management through google you have total control.

Next steps? Perhaps change my cell # and route everyone to my google voice number or my home number. I'm getting a lot of spammers on the cell phone now. Problem with handing out the google voice number is that you start being really tied to google voice versus the solution it provides. Handing out the home number though could get messy if google voice ever went away. I'll ponder that a while before I change my cell #. 

My guess is that i'll just change it and hand out a google voice #, I like living on the edge :)

Friday, September 11, 2009

iTunes 9

I was checking out some of the cool stuff in iTunes 9. There are still
some silly things they're doing which I think are basic that need to
be addressed:

1) Finally they let you have the concept of home shared libraries with
a common iTunes account. The problem though is that if my wife and I
want to sync the same songs to our iPods we have to have them in the
local library. In other words we're being forced to copy music around.

2) The iTunes Store got a major overhaul which is cool. But they still
have a very broken behavior in that they give you NO indication that
you already own a song. Go to "iTunes Essentials" and you'll see
recommended songs and pricing but you may already have/own the songs.
Why cant they search and indicate this?

Anyway its a good app and getting better.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

ESX and virtual machines losing time and hanging

I ran into a nasty bug between VMware ESX and VMWare Fusion. The
VMWare guys had no idea about it and after 3 hours on the phone with
them with little progress I started experimenting on my own and found
the solution.

Remember that I migrated my VMWare Fusion hosted VMs to ESX using the
VMWare converter tool. Prior to conversion I removed all snapshots
created by VMWare fusion.

The symptoms were that the machines under ESX were losing time and
network connectivity intermittently with no log entries on ESX and no
errors on the machines other than the massive time jumps. You could
see the machines "disappear" for 2+ minutes at a shot.

Turns out the issue was VMWare Fusion's autoprotect feature. I didn't
disable that on the VMs prior to migration and while ESX doesnt
support that feature it appears to break it. ESX was creating some
kind of snapshots frequently and there was no way at ESX to disable
this functionality.

My solution was to use VMware converter to go back from ESX, load the
machine into VMware fusion, turn off the Autoprotect feature, then re-
convert the machine back to ESX. Since then everything has been perfect.

The VMWare support people were friendly but not helpful and despite
the obvious client hangs and lots of snapshots getting created by ESX
were unwilling to admit it was an ESX issue. Obviously if my fix above
fixed the issue then it was a VMWare issue. I made no changes to the
guest operating systems.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Quicken delayed -- again

Time to fire the team working on this one. Quicken is now slipped to February 2010. This is the ONLY non-Intel app I have. Since snow leopard will beat their release their app wont even run on the latest version of Apples OSX. They say they haven't given up on the Mac market but their actions say otherwise. 

How many engineering teams can slip that much and survive?

Someone, please make a decent finance app for OSX and put these jokers out of the mac market permanently!

VMWare Fusion -> ESX

Finally made the leap at work and got an ESX setup. Then had to work
through converting 5 VMs from an OSX VMware fusion environment to ESX
server. A few observations along the way:

1) VMware needs a TON of help on marketing. Their product names,
portfolio etc are confusing as all get out.

2) Get the "VMWare vCenter converter standalone" app (Windows/Linux
only) to do the conversions

3) Since you can only run on Windows or Linux you'll have to move your
VMs to somewhere that the app can access them for import

4) The VMs must be shut down. Also the snapshots don't seem to import
so remove them first (saves space)

5) As you go through the wizard for the converter, make sure you
choose to make your disks "thin" versus "flat" in the last step. The
default is flat which will eat your ESX disk space.

6) For the ones that wont convert with a "the object or item referred
to could not be found" error, downgrade the image in VMWare fusion and
then repeat the process.

7) If you're moving around Linux machines this way you may need to fix
the networking config. For us this was:
rm /etc/udev/rules.d/70-persistent-net.rules*

8) Their web access for ESX just gives a "503 Service Unavailable". It
seems out of the box this doesnt work and ssh into the console doesnt

In the end everything moved and we're up and running on a real
environment. The tired desktop with flaky fusion is now retired.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Yet another OSX Server'ism

Today our Open Directory service lost its mind. At least thats what it
seemed like. Turns out what started it was a configuration change we
made a couple days ago. We enabled SSL for LDAP via the Server Admin
tool. Turns out SSL auth is broken in OSX server without some fixes.
It also turns out that once you click this button, it appears that
local client apps like Workgroup Manager start using SSL to
communicate and when you turn this back off they don't stop using SSL.
In other words, once you go SSL you can't go back just by shutting it
back off, so you're forced to fix the SSL issue.

Anyway, here's what you need to do if you're having SSL issues with
Open Directory on OSX server (10.5):

olcDisallows: bind_anon

then: sudo killall slapd

Also see: http://www.afp548.com/article.php?story=20071203011158936

To test on a client:
ldapsearch -v -x -W -D
"uid=<auser>,cn=users,dc=<host>,dc=<domain>,dc=<com>" -H ldaps://
<host>.<domain>.<com> -b "dc=<host>,dc=<domain>,dc=<com>"

Replacing the things in <>'s with your appropriate information. You
can test this with and without the user ID section to see if anonymous
access is allowed.

If you're using a self-signed cert you may need to do this on the



From there you should be able to ping your LDAP server (make sure you
allow access through firewalls etc).

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Unlimited iPhone Ringtones for free on OSX

This has been covered in pieces elsewhere on the net, but I just got it going myself and figured i'd share.

It always bugged me that iTunes wouldn't let me make ANY song a ringtone and they wanted to charge me extra for the few ones that I could. Turns out there's a way to make any MP3 (and perhaps other formats, but all my music is MP3) file a ringtone. 

Here's the process:

1) Pick a song, make a duplicate of it and give it an easy to recognize name like "a song - for ringtone"
2) Get info on the copy of the song and pick the start/end time on the song in the options tab. Make sure the duration is no more than 40 seconds. Fiddle with that until you're happy. Use iTunes repeat play to help you fiddle
3) Run garageband and open a new project, I chose a voice project (perhaps others would work too)
4) Delete one of the two voices (you get a male and female by default) (delete track or command-delete) (this seems to be optional)
5) Click on the bottom right icon in the garageband window (media). Find your song and drag it to the remaining track (you can adjust length etc again here if you want)
6) From the garageband menu choose share->send ringtone to iTunes
7) Sync your ringtones and assign them to whoever. My wife got "Firecracker" by Josh Turner. She thinks he wrote the song for her. Go figure.

There appear to be other ways of doing this too but no way to natively do it within iTunes. This avoids any command prompt hackery and uses Apple products I already had.

I think Apple is split on this front. I think the Carriers (AT&T) dont want them giving away ringtones, but at the same time they haven't completely blocked it. 

There are better interfaces for doing this (iToner from Ambrosia) but they're not free. The process above isn't hard and its free and legal so why part with the $15?

Another OSX Server-ism

I was making a minor change on OSX server today, just adding another
machine to DNS. I found out the hard way that if you insert a comment
with parenthesis "()" in it in the description fields OSX server DNS
crashes in interesting ways. The GUI crashes and eventually all of DNS
comes down, specifically the line that crashed this piece of OSX server:

machinename IN HINFO "Virtual Machine running on anothermachine
(description)" "more text"

The same line without parenthesis works just fine.

Makes me wonder if anyone is using OSX Server for real prime time

Cisco ASA and ASDM

Cisco has a nice client side java app, ASDM, for managing their
firewalls. Unfortunately if you go to the web page for the firewall (https://
<ip address of firewall>) and click "Run ASDM" then you just end up
with a downloaded file "asdm.jnlp". If you have the less-secure
setting of open files after download it will likely open up an XML
document in Xcode or something like that. So how do you run the ASDM
on the Mac?

Do this at the command line:

javaws asdm.jnlp

From there it will ask you where to save the .app bundle and then
next time you can just run that application.

Friday, June 19, 2009

iPhone 3GS Update

It seems that AT&T is reading my blog :)

Anyway, they changed their stance and are now offering special upgrade pricing to early iPhone adopters.

I just checked my status and I got this back:

"A full discount on a standard handset or iPhone upgrade is not available at this time, but you may qualify on 12/12/2009.  We can offer you an iPhone upgrade at a higher price with a 2-yr commitment and an $18 upgrade fee. Please visit a participating iPhone sales location for pricing on this offer."

Since this program is targeting the early adopters:

"All of that said, we've been listening to our customers. And since many of our iPhone 3G customers are early adopters and literally weeks shy of being upgrade eligible due to iPhone 3G S launching 11 months after iPhone 3G, we're extending the window of upgrade eligibility for a limited time."

And I got the iPhone 3G the day it came out I don't understand why I'm blocked until 12/12/09.

Either their systems reports on upgrade ability don't match their press releases or they're flat out lying on the whole early adopter program. AT&T appears to just make things up and see how people react then tune/correct as they go. Not a lot of thought/planning going into what they're doing.

Anyway, even if I was eligible for the early upgrade there's little in the HW that i'd care about:

  • Compass - More targeting people walking around in cities. Fortunately I dont do much of that.
  • More memory - I fit just fine in the current footprint (16GB)
  • Bluetooth audio - i'm not very interested in this and i'd have to buy new a new headset too
  • Voice commands - i'm not much of a talker
  • Better performance - This is the only one thats really appealing. Some apps are dogs and some of the delays on the phone are annoying. But thank goodness its not a Newton!

What I would like is an upgrade that would stop the phone from dropping calls 3x on a 45 minute ride on the Mass Turnpike. Unfortunately that upgrade is one that requires a new carrier. AT&T remains the weakest part of the iPhone which we all expected from the day Apple announced the first one. Its just a shame considering how much business they've received thanks to the iPhone.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Find my iPhone

A cool feature that came out with iPhone OS 3.0 today. Not sure it will help you find it while its in your house but it will at least track down what store/gas station you left your phone at.

For the house problem it has the ability to vibrate/ring (despite ring settings) for up to 2 mintes:

"Write a message that will appear on your iPhone's screen. You can also play a sound on your iPhone, even if it is in silent mode."

If you choose the sound option when its at somewhere like a gas station they'll get annoyed. Assuming you have security on your phone (a pin, which you should have or your whole life is exposed) then it will beep and vibrate continuously for 2 minutes and they can't stop it without the pin. They could power it off (I confirmed they could do this) if they know how to do that on an iPhone. I fear what they'd do otherwise...

Monday, June 8, 2009

iPhone 3Gs

Ok, I have to post on it. I'm more excited about the new iPhone 3.0
software. But in this generation of the iPhone AT&T and Apple have
made what I think is a mistake. For the first two versions I got the
phones the day the phone came out. The very first because it was new
and exciting etc. The second one before it had some significant
improvements (3G) AND they let me get it for the same price as a new
customer -- i.e. they allowed me to upgrade before my 2 years were up.
Without that I wouldnt have an iPhone 3G. This time around they've
taken an ugly approach of requiring you to pay full price ($500-$700)
AND re-up for 2 years. Thats worse than most on an early renewal. I
could live with re-upping for 2 years IF they gave me a discounted
price. But I can't live with both.

So i'll wait out my contract. Hopefully verizon will get to offer one
around the time my contract expires and i'll be rid of AT&T and get to
a new phone at the same time.

BTW, the side effect of them allowing me to upgrade at the cheaper
price would have been for me to give my 3G to my wife, caused her to
switch from Verizon and then they'd have another AT&T subscriber. AT&T
didn't think this one through especially with oncoming competition on
several fronts.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

OSX Server - What works and what Doesnt

So after 2 months of using OSX server, here's the update:

What we're using it for:

1) Central file server - I often have to fix permissions on the shares as someone will copy things into a share and the file will be read only to others in the same group. Since the UI is messed in Leopard (see previous post) you have to fix this through a VNC connection on the server which means you need to be an admin. Apple really needs to fix that.

2) DHCP - this is working, although some of the engineers have complained that the OSX DHCP server seems slow.

3) DNS - no real complaints here

4) Mail - The UI around the mail setup was weak and broken. Has anyone tested that? Some things we had to do:

/etc/postfix/master.cf -> uncomment submission inet n - n - - smtpd
enables port 587

/etc/postfix/main.cf -> add tls_random_source = dev:/dev/urandom (gets rid of some error messages)
"no entropy source specified with parameter tls_random_source"

/etc/imapd.conf -> add tls_ca_file: /etc/certificates/wasabi.nasuni.net.crt (gets rid of more error messages)
"TLS server engine: No CA file specified. Client side certs may not work"


They also don't let you add aliases other than Groups so you need to:

sudo vi /etc/aliases
sudo newaliases

Also note that when you stop the mail server and restart it through their UI (i.e. after you changed some settings) you often lose the first email that gets sent after restart. Nice.

Generally i'd recommend using someone else's mail server. The experience was not an "apple" one.

5) Open Directory - Apple uses this for all the user/group management and I havent had to touch it.

6) Radius - We use this for Cisco VPN authentication. Note that OSX server didn't really support this in the UI, so you need to follow some instructions.

7) Software update - saves multiple macs downloading to the same spot. Note that the first time you turn this on its really painful as it brings in a lot of updates.

8) Backups - the server time machine's itself and presents itself as a time machine target for any clients to use.

What we're NOT using it for:

1) Wiki - I used the Apple Wiki quite a bit. Its VERY limited. The WYSIWYG is nice, but you don't always get what you see and it can do some odd formatting stuff. If you want to do more advanced stuff you get thrown into HTML and the HTML is cluttered and hard to manage. You can't do a lot of basic stuff and eventually I punted and went with the tried-and-true MediaWiki which i'm very happy with. Its running as its own VM.

2) Web Hosting - I didn't really even try this. I wanted a server that wasn't hosting all the stuff above to be our external web host. So I created a standard Linux VM and am hosting the site via Apache.

3) Firewall - We have a decent Cisco firewall so I didn't try the OSX server firewall.

4) Our source code control/bug tracking etc is off on Linux VMs.

OSX Server bonding issues

We had some crazy issues with our OSX server setup. When we had clients join the server we had odd permission problems, synchronization issues with passwords etc. After much mucking around it turns out it was mostly our fault. Our OSX server is also a target for SSH from the outside (not on the normal port 22 and requiring certificates). To support logging in I had created some local user accounts on the OSX server machine, and for convenience I had given them the same names as the server accounts.


OSX server gets very confused if you have local accounts with the same names as the server accounts. And you don't need the local accounts anyway as you can enable the server accounts to login/get a shell through the admin tools. Deleting all the local user accounts and enabling the ones we needed to login helped a lot of the issues.

The Leopard client still does odd things when you're looking at group/user permissions (and ACLs) on network shares. Seems that Apple messed this up in the UI in Leopard so that if you look at them you see things that just don't make sense as the users/groups are not getting copied over from the server and displayed correctly. Under the covers of the UI the right things seem to be happening but it can be confusing for the users.

OSX Environment and IE

In our vision for an All-Mac office we sort of expected to be able to pull that off without any bumps. I mentioned previously that I ran into early bumps of some office environment management apps that required windows. Later I found out that our bank (Silicon Valley Bank) and our payroll group (ADP) both have web sites that are not friendly to non-Windows/Internet Explorer environments. I proceeded to setup a new VM with Vista Home ($199 for the full install) for our office admin to run just for IE for these sites but otherwise to use the Mac side of things. When you run into mainstream companies that lack support for non-Windows platforms with their websites you really get a sense of the size of the Linux/OSX market on the business side of things.

Another thing i'm amazed at is that Vista Business sells for $300, but I can buy a full Netbook with Vista Home for $300, or a Dell Inspirion 531 with Vista Home for $249. Vista Home sells for $199 for a fresh install which is required for VM use. So the hardware is worth $49. You can setup a VM for $199 or you can have dedicated hardware for $249. While I went the VM approach mostly because I dont want more hardware to deal with (power, cooling, all that) the economics just don't make sense. 


Just got back from a bike ride with the kid. Got to use my new iPhone attachment for the bike and EveryTrail iPhone app. Thats a nice combination and lets you keep track of rides.

Ride with Lydia

Widget powered by EveryTrail: GPS Geotagging

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Netflix, Flexplay, and RedBox

I'm currently a Netflix subscriber (cheap plan, 1 out at a month unlimited with Blu-Ray = $10.99/month). I average about 3 movies a month. This means each movie costs me about $3.65 to watch. Whenever possible I watch them in BluRay format. 

The other day I noticed how many RedBox outlets there are around where I travel. Gas stations, grocery stores etc. With RedBox you pay $1/night and you can reserve movies. They have pretty current movies, but no BluRay options. There's no subscription fees and you only pay for what you use. This could possibly drop my monthly cost, but i'd have to know in advance that i'd be able to watch a movie in a given night or i'd end up paying for an extra night (and feel the pressure to watch soon). The fact that the price can stack up if you don't watch it once you take it out puts me off. The lack of BluRay is disappointing too. 

Shortly after running into RedBox I noticed a 48-hour self destructing DVD option at Staples called FlexPlay. It chemically self destructs its playability (in a way that doesn't break your DVD player) 48 hours after you open it. Staples generally sells the disks for $1. The outlets aren't as convenient (in this case tied to Staples store hours) and the movies aren't usually as new as Netflix and RedBox (or updated as frequently). On the positive side your expense is capped at $1/movie and you can "queue" them up by buying several and having them handy and watch whatever suits your mood. If you rent via their web site they "rent" the movies at $4.99, they're not going to win the war with that kind of pricing. At $1 and with more outlets I can see how they could be competitive with RedBox. With the limited availability, older movies, and poor pricing direct they're out.

Ok, you're probably wondering why I dont just do video-on-demand and pay just for what I watch. A couple reasons, my bankruptcy-declaring cable company charges $5.99 per rental (HD). Thats more than my average cost via NetFlix. In addition, their movie selection is worse than Netflix and RedBox. And finally about 50% of the time there are issues with the video on demand playback.

Currently NetFlix appears to be the best option as it gives me the most flexibility when I play the movies and the quality/availability of what I want. Its largest downside is the fact that I have to wait 3-4 days after watching one to watch another. I could pay more to have more flexibility but given how few I watch it doesnt seem worth it. If someone could deliver HD video on demand at an equivalent cost to NetFlix then i'd switch but given where I live and the monopoly of the local TV provider, i'm stuck for a while.

iTunes Music Video Playing Problems

If you happen to be having problems playing music videos in iTunes I
found an odd behavior: If you use multiple speakers normally for
playing music, then Videos won't play when you have multiple speakers
selected. You have to choose just the speakers of your mac and then
the videos will play. Seems like a bug to me -- there should at least
be a warning.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Side track - The Mace

A side track from my ramblings on IT setup. Why is this blog called "The Mace's Musings"? What/Who is "The Mace"?

This goes back to high school in the days where the internet barely existed and computer bulletin board systems (BBS) were the gathering spots of the geeks like me. Basically they were computers with modems attached to phone lines that one person at a time could call from their computer to that BBS and post their comments/download stuff and log off for the next person. Some more advanced ones had multiple lines but that was pretty rare in the early days. Back then they were places to chat with people, but more often than not they were used to distribute "Warez" or software. For the most part, in those days, there wasnt much freeware/shareware and the bulk of software getting downloaded was commercial/stolen. Those were the days of 300 baud apple cat modems (with a later huge upgrade to 1200 baud) and software applications that fit on a floppy. Still downloads took forever and new file transfer protocols like xmodem and zmodem were being pushed to help speed things up and recover from broken connections etc. There was a huge culture around all of this and it was mostly an Apple II/Apple Cat world.

Anyway, I started with my Apple II and a modem and started dialing into the BBS's. Back then everyone used a handle so nobody knew who really was downloading the software etc. The handle was your bulletin board identity and people and groups like the Legion of Doom had them and became well known in the community. 

I was in my basement one day with a good friend and we both were getting started in the community and figured we needed handles. He was into comic books, especially "Thor" and picked Odin, a Nordic god associated with war. We both liked the war and fantasy games like Wizardry. My choice was a weapon, a mace, personified to The Mace. The choice was both due to the weapon(ness) of it as well as an indirect reference to my last name.

From there I used this new handle and visited many BBS's across the country and eventually ran my own, starting with a single one and eventually franchising out to multiple states and I became fairly well known for a while. I dropped off the grid when I turned 17 and decided to follow a more legal path in life. I heavily modified some base BBS software to give my own stuff its own unique feel and draw and this was the beginning of any real programming with a purpose for me.

So thats where The Mace came from. 

As an amusing aside, about 20 years after I picked "The Mace", I was chatting with someone who worked for me at work many states away from where I grew up and we were talking about the early days in computers. We eventually got around to BBS's and he found out I was "The Mace". He had frequented my system and knew who "The Mace" was. Small world.

Those formative years in remote connections, tunneling through AT&T's computers, hacking/crack systems, distributed work, and programming have shown their influence on me for the last 20 years. While i'm not proud of some of it, I wouldn't be who I am without it.

OSX Server Day 1

Now that we were limping along from an IT perspective it was time to get a real server created. I took my OSX Server, 10 Client edition, popped it in my new MacPro (Nehalem) turned it on and got a white screen. Nothing. Odd. I booted off the pre-installed Leopard and it was fine. So from there I decided to just install it from the CD versus booting the CD. It installed fine and I rebooted and had OSX server. Then I was presented with a LOT of system management options and terminology and concepts I didn't know. I thought OSX server was supposed to be easy? Turns out there are 3 modes to OSX server - Standard (simple), Workgroup, and Advanced. When you install the way I had to it treats it as a server upgrade and forces advanced mode. 

Why couldn't I boot the CD? Turns out the OSX server I bought (several months ago) was older than the hardware I had just bought and was missing drivers etc and I could not swap the disk for a newer one without paying $500 to apple again. This was nuts, I got on the phone and after speaking to 5 Apple people (just to get to the correct department), I got told that since my OSX server was purchased a while back, and even though it wasn't used, they shouldn't be supporting me. Nice, so much for planning ahead. But then they said, if you do the install by booting Leopard and then running only a piece of the OSX server install package it may let me avoid advanced mode. I got one blurb from them on how to do this:

"Install OS X client onto unit, creating an admin user with the name & password that you want on the server. 
Update all SW and then insert OS X Server install disc into unit. 
Go to Finder>Go>Volumes.
The name of the metapackage file to be run is "MacOSXServerInstall.mpkg", which is located in /Volumes/Mac OS X Server Install Disc/System/Installation/Packages.
Run this metapackage file to install OS X Server on unit. "

Nevermind the fact that this information was limited and flawed, it gave me just enough to find the package I needed. The best way I found was to do this through the terminal and then "open" the referenced package. After doing this I got OSX server setup in the way it was meant to be. 

It took a great deal of time because each attempt required OSX updates (over my crazy aircard setup) as well as OSX server updates. A few times as they were setting up the rest of my network I had wrong IP addresses/configurations which were difficult to change in OSX server so I had the pleasure of doing this several times.

In the end I think the steps are something like this (none of which I could find with google searches):

1) Boot Leopard install CD (even if your new MacPro has Leopard pre-installed)
2) Go into disk utility and set up your disks the way you want (OSX server install would have had this step but you can't boot that). Your options may be more limited than OSX server but I had 4 1TB drives and created 2 mirrored 1TB volumes. One I called "OS" and one I called "Data". I'm so creative.
3) Now install Leopard and do all the updates. If you're doing this with an Aircard bring a good book.
4) Now, while logged into leopard after all the updates/reboots are done, put in the OSX server CD and run the package above. You'll walk through OSX server install. Oddly it doesnt force a reboot. 
5) Next, don't do any updates (if you do, start over at #1 - found that the hard way), eject CD and reboot.
6) Now you get the OSX server install screen asking you about standard (stand alone) vs workgroup vs advanced. I originally chose standard but later found out I should have chosen workgroup so I started over again.
7) Now once it comes up you can do the OSX server update (another 200MB+ over the aircard). Note that if you plan on making mistakes like I did its helpful to download these update packages and squirrel them away (I put them on the data drive that I wasn't wiping on each attempt).
8) Now you have an installed OSX server. Time to figure out what it can and cant do. Thats for another episode.

The alternative is to buy/get an OSX server CD that works with your hardware. My first experience with OSX server has not been pleasant.

IT early pains

With our new office we rented space and I hired a group (Rockport Technology Group) to come in and do the wiring, phones and basic network setup. They're a great bunch of guys that i've used before and they always do a first class job. What I was left with was a CISCO ASA5505 firewall, 2 Cisco 521 WAPs, a 48 port GigE switch, a Nortel BCM 50 phone system and a Keyscan card reader system for physical security. 

With that gear I have a wired and wireless network as well as phones and card access for my office which can sit about 40 people. Note that I haven't mentioned an internet connection. Thats because we don't have one yet (!). I ordered dual T1 lines from Verizon, but T1s take time (4-6 weeks). The fallback was Comcast since they were supposedly in the building already and had a 2-3 day install time. Even though they pre-certified the site/install when the guys turned up they found no Comcast in the building. They said they need to run cable to the building and they need to wait for the ground to thaw first (yes, though its April our ground is frozen after you get down a few inches -- welcome to New England). So I cancelled that order. I had had 5 phone lines installed by Verizon for the normal phone system so we asked them to convert one to DSL. You'd think that would be fast, but it takes Verizon 7-10 days to do that too. The DSL should be live next Tuesday. The T1's follow 3-4 weeks later.

So I have an office full of people that need internet access, what do I do? My crazy fallback idea from the beginning was to use my Verizon Aircard. I bought it a while back and used it to be on the net at all times, in the car, in airports, etc. Its a decent card and fast. So in the beginning I had it in my MacBookPro and was just doing internet sharing from it to the Airport. Apple makes this dead easy and it works well. The problem is the office space is 7K+ sq ft so there's no hope of covering much range that way. I could try to extend it with other network gear like Apple's airport express but i'd be buying them to use them for a week or two. I could try to bridge it to our new Cisco wifi but that was still coming online and having its own challenges. The other issue was that I needed to use my MacBookPro for stuff and so the network connection would come and go based on what I was doing which didn't help the others.

What I didn't have were any servers set up yet. I had bought 2 of the new Nehalem MacPros to be used for "IT stuff" and decided to use one of them to bridge to the net. I used one with the base Leopard install, installed the aircard and Verizon software and turned on internet sharing bridging the aircard to the wired ethernet port. Since the Cisco WAPs (wireless points) were also connected to the same network, all of a sudden everyone had internet access whether they were on Wifi or wired. The Verizon software (VZ Access Manager) just pain stinks. I have a conspiracy theory on these cell companies and the aircards -- its that when you use too much bandwidth they drop the connection just to see if they can stop the traffic, if nothing else its a brutal throttle. VZAccess doesn't automatically reconnect. But if you look in your network settings when connected with VZaccess, they have a new network location setup with the Verizon modem. In that new location I added in the ethernet port I wanted to share. I also set that location to be my location whether I was connected or not. I then when into the advanced settings of the modem through the OSX network preferences pane and set it up to auto-reconnect, never disconnect etc. With that done the network drops at times but reconnects without my involvement and we've had a productive few days downloading tools, updates, email etc. Its no speed daemon but its something you can live with.

I used that same MacPro to create the VMWare environment for the management apps for the Nortel and Keyscan pieces that I spoke about in my previous post. I also created a basic file shares so we could move things around internally.

Now I needed a real server with permissions for the different elements of the business, that was stable, could be backed up etc. More on that to come.

OSX Office Environment

I've had the fortunate experience (kidding) to become a part time IT guy for my new company. The plan is Mac's all around to limit the IT noise and then virtual machines for those that have some need of Linux/Windows. The basic setup is OSX + MS Office for the Mac + VMWare. Note that despite recent benchmarks of Parallels vs VMWare Fusion I went with VMWare, I did this because like MS Office, they're the leading VM environment and I can download more pre-configured machines etc for that environment than any other. 

The developers need Linux to do their thing and I expected that. What I didn't expect was that some basic applications like the ones to run the Keyscan card key access to the office doors and the Nortel phone system are windows only apps. For those I spent the whopping $300 on Vista Business, installed it in a Windows VM and then installed the apps in there. Generally these infrastructure apps don't need to be running all the time so that makes it even easier. Still, not having web based management or cross-platform apps in this age just shows you how far Apple has to go.

Over the next few posts i'll be talking about my experience in setting up an OSX based office environment and in the process you'll see how little I know about basic IT concepts :)

Monday, March 23, 2009

Cloud Reliability

Building stable cloud services is a difficult thing. Even google is


Tuesday, March 17, 2009

iPhone 3.0

I wont re-state all the iPhone 3.0 features they announced today as others have done that well. But there are a few that to me were key that may not be highlighted by others:

MMS - I left everyone behind on Verizon when I broke my contract and joined AT&T just to get the iPhone. I imagine there are tons of others in that camp. They all send me MMS pictures which are too painful to try to access so I miss all those family pics. 

Voice Memos - An obvious oversight. I wonder though about them putting so many 3rd party guys (iTalk for example) out of business. Why?

Search - Across apps is nice but not needed to me, but within an app like Mail and Calendar its required.

And finally one that not too many are pointing out, I can finally send stuff from my address book on the iPhone to someone else. That was a major one for me.

Note that I didn't point out other things like Copy & Paste, Tethering and some others. They'll be nice but not as basic/fundamental.

Its great to have a phone thats so flexible that they can roll out serious updates like this and do it for free. While the iPhone is still not the best phone on the planet with dropped calls etc, it sure is my favorite electronic device.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Sirius XM almost folded

I 'm on a roll. First I wrote about Apple and the DRM challenges forcing me to buy from Amazon MP3, a short while later Apple went DRM free. Then I wrote about XM radio and its flaws for me, and then they narrowly avoided bankruptcy. Perhaps if the Sirius fools han't done a $500M deal with Howard Stern and other questionable business practices they wouldn't have come so close to losing it all.

As with so many other things, companies need to study and learn their about their customers preferences, likes and dislikes etc and then work with a total focus on meeting the needs of those customers. I'm just one voice with my own set of preferences, but there are common things to learn and do if you study analyze and get to know your customers. Apple, Sirius and others, take note or perish.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Is the mac a gaming platform?

Apple has come a long way with hardware and software and has made significant inroads in its ability to be a desktop system in business. I've been using Macs for work in small and large companies for the last 6 years and its been pretty rare that that's caused me grief (the major point being Exchange/Outlook support which I hope will be fixed in Snow Leopard)

I wish I could say Apple has made a lot of progress on the video game front, but the reality is that it hasn't. Despite having some leading edge Video cards like the NVIDIA GeForce 8800 GT that  I have in this MacPro and essentially the same Intel-based hardware, there are few games for the Mac. Why is that?

Part, I would say is that Apple has continually ignored the video game industry while MicroSoft with its "Games for Windows" drive and others has encouraged the PC as a gaming platform. So the company is not supportive. Thats a major point.

Next is that the hardware support for games is not complete. I recently spent a lot of time looking for a way to get 5.1 sound on my Mac for gaming. The issue is that you can't get that. Sure it can output 5.1 sound optically from DVDs etc, but generated sound from games cannot be piped over the optical output and you can't buy a card, USB device etc that does it in the current MacPro generations. Griffin Technology did make a FireWave product that outputs sound over FireWire to a device that gives you 5.1 sound output, but both FireWire and the FireWave have been discontinued. So there is no 5.1 sound support for games on the Mac. 

Along similar lines, if you really want the best bleeding edge video cards as they come out from vendors like Nvidia that offer "upgrade" programs so you can continually upgrade your card you're out of luck. The mac hardware lacks the specific power connectors that the current generation video cards require so Mac video cards end up being custom made for Apple. If you could make the power problem work your next issue would be the total lack of video diver support for the platform.

Ok you say, I can use my Mac HW and then run windows games in VMWare or Parallels. Well, no, you can't really, while some DirectX support has been added to the virtualization platforms, the performance and compatibility limit you to games that have fairly modest requirements.

Fine, then just play games under BootCamp and let Windows own the Mac hardware. Well, thats what I do, but you still wont have 5.1 sound or the latest video card. It does well and you can play Far Cry 2, Crysis, etc in this mode, but you wont have as good as an experience you get on a PC. And you're not running OSX and you've paid a premium for Mac HW to get less out of it.

If you're a serious gamer, don't buy a Mac. That's what Apple is telling us. My love of the OS (and dislike of the alternatives) is stronger than my need for the best video gaming experience but I long for the day when Apple either gets "with it" or legalizes the hackintosh.

My good friend recently sold me his MacPro (at a great price!) and went back to the PC. He's a serious gamer. He loves the Mac and hates Windows, but the gamer side of him won. 

Wii Fit

My daughter got a Wii fit for Christmas and i've been amazed with the device. While it looks like a simple slightly raised step platform they've dramatically changed the video game experience with the introduction of this wireless board. When you step on it it knows your weight, and where the weight is placed on the board. From there you can snow board, ski, do push ups, jog etc. While I don't think its a good substitute for a gym (and some are quite upset about it) I do think forcing some more movement into video gaming beyond just the fingers is a great idea. The fit, along with the Wii itself has innovated on the video game front and despite its very dated graphics capabilities it has continued to have a serious impact on the video gaming industry. If you have Wii and dont have a Wii fit, I'd suggest you get one. Not to get in shape, but to experience one more incremental step of progress in the video gaming industry.

iPhoto and Face and Place Recognition

With the latest iPhoto update Apple added two key new features: faces and places. In faces, iPhoto does a decent job of recognizing faces in pictures and then tries to match the patterns to find the people. You give it a few hints and it tries to find more of the same person. For years i've used keywords to identify key people so I can find pictures, say, with myself, my daughter and my wife in them. With faces in theory this is made more automatic. 

My experience though has been a little different. It did force me to tag more pictures and put some structure around the naming of pictures. The actual face similarity piece is about 50/50 in my experience. An odd side benefit I found is that I enjoyed the process and we actually had fun with the program guessing a completely wrong person for a given face. How could my friends face match my sister? Combine that with an OCD tendency and you can entertain yourself for hours matching faces and names. But in the long haul, given the lack of accuracy I don't think the addition added much value and you can't rely on it.

With Places, Apple goes through a lot of trouble to point out GPS camera support and that certainly works with the poor pictures that the iPhone takes. But if you go and stroll through Best Buy, the now defunct Circuit City, or Wal-Mart, how many GPS enabled cameras do you find on the shelves? Zero. None. So is this feature solely aimed at the poor pictures taken on camera phones? If so i'd argue that Apple and iPhoto isn't the place to store them but something more online, more accessible since these cheap shots have limited use and quality.

You can, after import, add location information to your pictures, and again thats another time sink for OCD people and it provides little long term photo management value.

Would I buy the update again knowing what I know now? Probably, I love iPhoto and want to have the latest updates. But if you're buying it for new features, think again.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009


I'm amazed that in this digital age there are still very few options for managing voice mail for the services I use. My home internet is through Charter Communications which does not provide for emailing voicemail messages or even sending you alerts that you have new messages via txt or email.

On the iPhone there is no software way to export a voice mail despite the much touted visual voicemail feature. You can't export from the phone, or from desktop software, or even through AT&T's web site. This is an oversight that many web sites are complaining about.

Anyway, the quick and dirty solution is as follows:

1) Find a simple 3.5MM male/mail audio cable plugged into the iPhone (easier with a 3G) and into the Line In on your mac. 
2) Make sure "Line In" is selected in the Input tab of your Sound preferences. 
3) Run Garageband, create a new basic track, picking something like "Male Basic" for type
4) Press record at the bottom of the screen and then hit play on the iPhone visual voicemail to record. 
5) When the voicemail play is complete (watch the iPhone screen). press record again in Garageband to stop recording
6) In the menu choose share, export song to disk, choose MP3 and "Good Quality" and give it a name

You can do something equivalent on the PC. I used Garageband because it was there, there are free programs out there for all platforms that can do the garage band steps for you. 

Sounds complex, but this whole process took me 2 mins including finding the cable in the basement and running Garageband for the first time ever (i'm not musically inclined (which is why I like country :) ))

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Circuit City

Must be my week for silly things in the mail. I got a Circuit City Advantage (their extended warranty) renewal form in the mail with choices of 1, 2 or 3 years. I always question the value of extended warranties, but in the case where a company has filed for bankruptcy you'd have to be just plan nuts to sign up for this.

With the loss of CompUSA and now Circuit City I wonder if we're heading to an age where there will be no instant gratification for electronics and you'll be relegated to the internet and the good, but not quite as instant, services of NewEgg and Amazon

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

XM Radio

The concept, advertising free radio you can receive anywhere with high quality, was good. The execution has not been. In multiple cars by multiple providers i've seen poor XM radio reception. And when digital radio doesnt come in it goes out completely, not just fuzzy, but gone. This is on main roads (route 495) in Massachusetts so this isn't an edge case. Its not under a bridge, in a tunnel, its on open highway. 

Then look at stations like XM station 11 (Sirius 61), its full of advertising. Why am I paying to be delivered ads? Oh because SOME of the stations don't do ads. I see.

And now the ultimate insult, they're raising their prices

Don't get me wrong, XM has entertained me for my 2+ hour commute for the last few years, but when the 1 year subscription I paid for runs out in May i'm not renewing. While Pandora Radio finally caved in to ads at least its a free service. 

I'm thinking iPhone 3G with a audio out cable and Pandora and i've got my replacement for XM better tuned to what I want to hear. If I want ad-free I buy songs online at $1 each and play the playlist. At the rate I buy songs its cheaper than XM.

Another broken business model. 

Off topic - Disney

I don't usually write about non-technical things on this blog but
having just gotten off the phone with Disney Dining Reservations I
can't resist. The reservation agent was extremely helpful and the
process was as efficient as a human could have been. But my point was
I had to speak to someone. Now all the guide books etc recommend
booking dining spots for your stay in disney and doing that as far in
advance as disney allows so you can get into the places you want. We
like to eat and i'm a planner so we mapped it all out where/when then
I needed to book the 12 reservations. They have NO ONLINE SYSTEM.
Thats NUTS. Can you imagine the volume of calls, duration of calls and
human mistakes they're experiencing with a manual dining booking
system? This should not be a complex technical problem and they have
piles of "Imagineers" on staff. What are they thinking?

And yes, we're off to Disney in April. We promised the kid when she
was 5 we'd take her back when she was 10 (5 year decompression cycle).
With that booking experience complete all we have to do is turn up.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

GPS Updates

Today I got an ad in the mail for a GPS update for my Lexus. The GPS update is $265. Sure the Lexus is a luxury car and you should expect to pay more when its involved. But $265 for a $0.50 DVD that they're mass producing? And one thats out of date the day its produced? Thats getting a bit crazy. You can't even plug in addresses while you're moving, it has no traffic updates etc.

Lets see for $247, I can buy a high end Garmin Nuvi 760 or dozens of other types for that or much less and most include more advanced features than the Lexus GPS. You can get a decent portable GPS for $129 these days.

So I could have a GPS that moves with me from car to car and I could buy the latest version every year or I can pay for a DVD from Lexus.

What are they thinking?

Along the same lines, those portable GPS's sell updates for $80. So you buy a GPS for $129 and the software update is $80. 

Folks its time to figure out the model and drop the price and get more people to do the upgrade. 

I, for one, am not paying for GPS updates when they don't make sense.

(p.s. its my wife's car anyway!)

Friday, January 9, 2009

Quicken Online & Mint

Quicken Online's recent failing for me led me to go off looking for other solutions. I started looking for a desktop app to replace the ancient Quicken 2005 I have installed. After some searching and trials I found a lot of pretty poor apps that were either free or shareware. 

Eventually I found iBank which is trying to be the replacement for Quicken on the Mac. Its not free and one thing that really bugs me in app trials is where they limit you based on content versus time, especially when the content has no online effect. For example, I can see Evernote limiting you on content as they're paying for the space online to cover your free capacity. But with iBank all the data is local, there's no reason to limit the number of transactions. Just limit my trial period so I can really try the product. With the demo version they limit you to 75 transactions in a single account. I suppose for many that will be a sufficient trial, but my test was to load in 3 months worth of real data for all my accounts and see how it does. I hit the limit and couldnt do the test. Sure I could pay and then use the 30 day money back guarantee but thats a pain. Anyway, thats no way to do demos, give them the full product and then limit by time or online (i.e. stuff that costs the developer money) capacity ONLY. 

So now you're probably wondering, ok so its a lousy demo but how was the product otherwise? Its a decent desktop money management application. But in using it I came to a couple realizations:

1) Whether its online or offline you still have to categorize your downloaded transactions and fix payee names. None of the solutions out there get this right for you. And even though you can remember a classification to automatically rename VendorX or categorize it on import that generally doesnt work with real and electronic check payments as they all come in as "Check" and "Uncategorized". This means you have to do some data entry (even if its just drop downs). This means all services collect some data from you that has some value for you. Mint, Quicken Online and the offline apps. That means its harder to use more than one and it means its harder to jump between them.

2) With local financial management apps you have to find a place to save your data thats secure, back it up, etc. With the online apps you either trust them or not.
3) With the local apps you're limited in how fast they update the application and roll it out whereas the online ones evolve much more quickly. 

The above led me to back to the online side, I tried Mint.com again and found they had fixed my Citizens bank support. This means I really got to try Mint for the first time. 

Mint has some nice features like the automatic alerts, and even the "ways to save" area I found interesting and potentially useful (although their data was skewed). The interface was nice and clean. The had a nice investment section which Quicken Online doesnt have. They seemed to have some issues connecting to some of my financial institutions and I got intermittent results there.

Along the way having used Quicken Online for a few months and now using Mint I noticed one glaring difference. Quicken Online lets you enter transactions yourself, Mint doesnt. This means if you're trying to use one of these services as an electronic checkbook to know what your balance is etc, only Quicken Online meets that need (assuming it doesnt lose your transactions). 

I went back to Quicken Online and found they had, at least for now, fixed the lost transaction bug and my balances were correct once more so i'm back to using Quicken Online.

I think the local financial management apps are doomed and the competition by Mint and Quicken Online and others (I did look at Wesabe but wasnt interested in its approach) will be interesting. There are a few core use cases and features that must be there and be reliable for the service to win. Neither Mint nor Quicken Online has the perfect set yet. Quicken needs more reliability and investments (eating into their desktop products which is probably why it isnt there). Mint needs more reliability and the ability to enter your own transactions. 

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Wow DRM free

Here I was just catching up on a blog backlog and I complained about Apples DRM versus Amazons DRM free approach only to have Apple drop DRM a few days later. Perhaps they're listening :)

As Mel Gibson would say "FREEDOM"!


I went to buy a song today (i'll spare you my taste) and sure enough the song I was looking for was in iTunes Plus format (DRM free, 256 bit AAC). Thats nice, its DRM free, but AAC is not a very portable format. When I burn MP3 CDs for my Car they have to be MP3 not AAC, so I still have a conversion problem. I found a tool called Advantageous MP3 that helps you jump to the Amazon MP3 store from the iTunes App. Its not perfect (has to be an artist or album not just a song) but it reduces the time to purchase while using the better interface of iTunes.

I ended up buying off iTunes to see how bad the conversion process was, and iTunes has a "Create MP3 Version" option that worked fine (and kept the rating). Its one more step in the buying process but keeps me within the iTunes App and the pricing was the same. All my smart playlists filter based on Mp3 only so I dont get dups.

Will Apple eventually let us choose our download format or cave to the one everyone else uses?

iPhone App addendum

One other thing I should have mentioned with the iPhone apps: Several others could be on the list (and hopefully will be some day) if Apple supported background notifications. Its supposedly on its way. Once that happens perhaps some chat/Instant Messaging app(s) may make the list etc. Until then they have little value to me when they have to run in the foreground.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

iTunes & Music

I'm no saint and have a questionable past, but I continue to try to be
a better person. Several years ago I decided that all my software,
music and movies should be legally paid for and went on a buying/
purging spree to get to that state. When you pay for everything you
really know the value before you buy and you don't end up with a hard
drive full of useless apps, music you don't listen to, etc.

Anyway, a few things I found out along the way:

1) Software application licenses often don't make sense. The software
vendors need to think about the multiple machine users (I use 3
regularly) and the multi-user households (I have 3 in my family). Some
do offer family licenses, but several require a license per copy.
Sometimes licensing schemes can be so broken that you can't buy more
than one copy at a single email address forcing you to violate the
license or create a fake/new email just to buy it. Anyway, if you
really try hard to pay for everything you have in terms of software
(perhaps most people do that but I didn't always), you'll find a lot
of inconsistencies and annoyances along the way.

2) DRM for music is painful for people who try to follow the law. It
feels like I'm getting penalized for the crimes of others. So for a
while when I bought music off iTunes, i'd create a playlist, burn it
to CD, and then immediately rip it back as MP3. That keeps the
metadata and gets it in an unprotected form. Not so I can share it or
do anything illegal, but so I can use it where I want to use it
without worrying about odd formats and protection. About 6 months ago
I switched to buying all my music off Amazon MP3. The music comes DRM
free and is cheaper or the same price as iTunes. Its not many more
clicks to get it and it saves me wasting a CD and the other clicks to
get rid of the DRM. I think Apple has to go the DRM-free route.
There's no added value to me from buying it off iTunes and their
"Genius" approach isn't going to make me buy more music from them.

So, the thing that bothers me is that if you went into someone's house
and tried to audit their household for compliance with the music and
software licensing laws who would pass? How would you prove that the
2,635 songs in my music library were all bought and/or ripped from
CD's I owned? They are, but i'd hate to try to go through such an
audit. What if I lost a CD after I ripped it? Was I even allowed to
rip it in the first place? Where are the receipts for the music I
bought off iTunes, Amazon etc?

What it comes down to is you doing your best to adhere to the intent
of these broken licenses and concepts and paying (at least once) for
every piece of music and software that isn't free that you have in
your house (yes, even if you have music you don't listen to - if you
have it you should have paid for it or you should delete it).

People that know my past will find this post funny. A long time ago I
ran a multi-state computer piracy bulletin board that was quite
popular in its time. That was back in the days of speedy 300 baud
modems (you're likely accessing this at 15,000x or more faster speeds
now). I've either evolved or gained a lot more respect for Bubba.

iPhone & iPhone 3G

Being the gadget/Apple fanatic I had to get the newer iPhone 3G the
day it came out. What did I do with my old iPhone? Unlike many that
sold them on eBay etc, I gave mine to my daughter. Its not enabled as
a cell phone so its basically and iPod touch. She loves it and does
all sorts of things on it - email, pictures, games, videos, music. And
I can honestly say that after watching her (she's 10) abuse it for the
last 6+ months that the original iPhone is a TOUGH device. Like my
Lexus RX300 that I gave to my wife when I got a new car (Acura MDX), I
feel sorry for it. It was kept in such good shape and now its abused,
but both are tough and can take it. Then again, my girls are tough too.

iPhone Apps

Seems that its the thing to do at the end of the year to rate top iPhone apps you use. To date i've purchased ONE (1) App. And that one was a whopping $20. Which one? 

OmniFocus. A friend turned me on to a series of Apps by the Omni group. The apps are generally overpriced but work well on the mac. I was looking for a better to-do list manager and he swore by the product so I broke down and bought OmniFocus for the mac. It's been helpful in consolidating all my "to do" lists and get things more organized. The natural extension was to buy the iPhone version too (they sync with each other). The insult was that the iPhone App was $20. Its not worth the money. It has a horribly slow launch time (which evidently is better than it used to be) and takes forever to sync with MobileMe. The interface and capabilities are decent but if you want to quickly add a to-do item you'll forget it before the thing launches. I do use the app but mostly for To-do cleanup when on the road/waiting somewhere.

Ok, out of 7 screens of Apps (see full pile below), what is worth mentioning?

Rob's Top 10 iPhone Apps (free unless otherwise noted):

1) NetNewsWire - RSS reader, syncs with my other locations. Wonderful way to keep up on news etc. Great way to kill time waiting in lines, airport etc.
2) Shazam - For finding out what song is playing and remembering it so I can buy it later
3) WeightTrack - because I need to lose we
ight. I wish there was a better free one (its odd when its tied to the OKC stuff) but this one works and is fast & easy
4) GalCon Lite - only game i've liked enough to play more than once on the iPhone
5) 1Password - Password tracker syncs with the mac. In case I need my login info on the road (dont really use it for the iphone browser)
6) Flixster - for finding movie times quickly (Showtim
es has promise but has consistently been unstable for me)
7) Google - I had little use for the early versions which just launched a web browser page, but the voice activated search in it now is the bomb.
8) Dialer - A free working voice activated dialer for the iPhone that works
9) PhoneFlix - Look my Netflix queue
10) OmniFocus - Task manager that syncs wit the Mac. $20.

Apps i'm looking at that have promise:

1) Urbanspoon - a cool way to find restaurants (but not how I pick where to go)
2) Mobile News - AP news reader. Seems more conci
se than RSS etc. 

Apple apps that have little value to me:

1) YouTube - im not a big YouTube fan. I mostly use MobileMe to share videos with family
2) Contacts - its also accessible in the "Phone" app and before they made another app I got used to getting them there
3) iTunes - I dont buy music on the road (or update RSS feeds)

The rest of the Apple apps I use all the time.

Quicken Again (and Happy New Year)

Hi folks, Happy New Year.

Now onto my rant:

A while back I mentioned that Quicken would finally be the last product to update for the Intel macs and the target date was the fall of 2008. Now it seems they've pushed that out to the Summer of 2009. This just adds fuel to the fire. Not only are they the last to update, but they can't hit their own dates. They've proven not to care about the Mac market. I think its time for the mac market to speak back by not buying the product when (IF) it comes out.

I also mentioned that I moved to Quicken online and so far so good. Well it turns out that along with some annoying security issues related to my bank and some unsupported banks, they also miss account transactions which falsely makes you think you're about to go into overdraft. This is what they have to say on the matter:

"Some Quicken Online customers may find that some Account Activity transactions are missing. We have identified the issue and are working on a release to resolve this soon"

I ask you, what good is an online financial tracking service that misses random transactions? None at all, its useless. In this case 99% isn't good enough. I hope the Quicken people are paying attention. 

Perhaps Intuit should stick to Quickbooks and drop its personal finance stuff altogether. They seem to have their act more together there (yes, I use quickbooks 2009 on the mac for a business).