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August 6, 2008

The design genius of Apple

My 26 July post was about my recent efforts to achieve HyperCard/SuperCard migration. The payoff was being ready to order a new Mac. My trusty Cube had been grinding slowly, overtaken by "progress", and my online publishing business needs five applications open just to process an order, up to ten if I'm editing, choosing images or reviewing page design. Since it's nearly seven years since my last upgrade, I jumped without hesitation to the best current iMac: gorgeous 24-inch screen with blistering fast (over 3GHz) dual processors and plenty of memory. Best of all, it took under five minutes to unpack, plug in its single power lead and get it surfing the web fast and gracefully. I enjoyed small details such as well-designed packaging, and the way the remote control works straight away and intuitively, just like an iPod. Here's hoping this will suffice for the next seven years!

And, had my Cube been unmodified, I expect that Apple's brilliant Migration Assistant "software that lets you transfer your data, preferences and settings from one Mac to another" would have made the next bit painless. Sadly, all attempts to get the Cube to start up in "target" mode failed, so Migration never began. Best friend and guru Bob Tennent managed to troubleshoot this: it's a side-effect of the Cube's retro-fitted non-Apple optical drive. We tried using Airport (wireless network) instead of Firewire, but that failed: you can't even instal Leopard (System 10.5) on a Cube so as to use its two-way Migration Assistant. Deep sigh, but there's no gain without pain, especially where computers are involved. I spent the next few hours reinstalling software, importing bookmarks and retrieving passwords, product keys and settings. Without my wonderful SuperCard project (which contains everything I needed, and much more) I couldn't have done it nearly so fast, and maybe I would have lost my reason ... so converting from HyperCard first was deffo the way to go!

All the data files from the external hard drive came across fine. I rejected Time Machine's kind invitation to back up automatically, fearing that this might have replaced all my precious ex-Cube data with the iMac's minimal data. Remembering the bad old days of MS-DOS (which expected you to know syntax in order to back files up in the intended direction) I'd rather make such decisions manually.

Right now, less than 24 hours after the box was delivered, nearly all applications have been reinstalled and nearly all peripherals are working fine. Downsides (so far) are that AppleWorks 6 won't run any more, and my 19-year old LaserWriter is unable to print: maybe the iMac thinks it's too last-century and won't talk to it? Or maybe guru Bob will talk me through the solution tonight. It was after midnight when I finally sorted the Entourage database and frankly, some Dutch courage had been taken in the meantime: sleep beckoned, so I left it overnight, downloading its updates.

Best of all, all orders have been handled and no customer (unless they happen to read this blog) will be aware of any disruption. And husband Keir, who was in Oban overnight (just as well, for all the attention I'd have paid him:), will return to find my 22-inch screen attached to his Cube, where it will give his PowerPoints more room to breathe.

August 14, 2008

Calmness descends after the computer upgrade

I'm delighted to report that the dust has settled on my computer upgrade, and I'm back to using the machine as a tool rather than diverting energy into installing software, troubleshooting and choosing hardware. My SuperCard project is running sweetly on the new iMac and although it doesn't try to exploit most of the new SC features, it does the job smoothly, and I can expand its functionality as I go along. And I have never seen photographs look as stunning as on its glossy 24-inch screen.

The problem with using my ancient laser printer was looking intractable with System 10.5 (Leopard), possibly related to its AppleTalk connection. Having swapped it with the new Epson printer (which I had given to husband Keir, see blog entry of 21.11.2007) for diagnostic purposes, I had the happy idea of making the swap permanent. Since husband Keir is not about to upgrade from 10.4 any time soon, Leopard gives me a good reason to retrieve the better printer! How ironic that a piece of machinery which has given 19 years' reliable service is now on borrowed time for reasons of software "progress"!

The AppleWorks problem has been solved, also in an unorthodox way. My own, legally purchased and upgraded AppleWorks CD had refused point-blank to instal under Leopard. Considering that all our invoices and many book manuscripts are in Appleworks, this was a major setback. The solution was a kind friend who emailed me his AppleWorks to try. Despite having the same version number (6.2.9) as mine, this one works a treat under Leopard. So all my recent concern about Microsoft Office 2008 and downloading a trial version of iWorks Pages was needless. I realise AppleWorks is no longer maintained, but feel I've done enough innovating recently and my motto remains "If it ain't broken, don't fix it". The time to change word processing systems is not ripe.

November 20, 2008

Software upgrades, ethics and online purchase

Back in August, I thought that the only casualty of my upgrade to the iMac was AppleWorks. Little did I realise that my occasional use of Acrobat Pro would also become an issue. Mostly I use Acrobat Reader, which is free to download, but occasionally I need a few Pro features – for example to be able to chop a book into sections for our "Look inside" feature on the Rucksack Readers website, so people can "try before they buy". Sadly, when I tried to instal an old version of Acrobat Pro from my CD yesterday, I was thwarted: it's an upgrade to an earlier version (also a legal CD) which runs under Classic. The iMac doesn't do Classic, so it had a hissy fit and spat out that CD.

So I looked around the web intending to buy an update, and was horrified to find that Acrobat Pro costs £413 on Amazon, and nearly as much from US sources with all the extra delay, carriage and duty. Since I seldom need Pro, it seemed an outrageous price, and Adobe don't even do a 30-day trial edition for Mac (as they do for Windows). So I tried a Google search including the word discount, and was surprised to find dozens of sites offering OEM download-only versions for $60 US. Surprised, intrigued, curious, ... indeed I was almost tempted, since I certainly don't need the manuals, CD or packaging.

But having had a lot of my own intellectual property ripped off over a long lifetime, I am very old-fashioned about software piracy and had read with scepticism the reasons stated why the software was so cheap (bankrupt stock, auctions, no delivery costs etc). I then noticed that although the sites in question had very different company names, URLs and general appearances, the FAQ wording was suspiciously identical (with the same tiny mistakes in spelling or grammar), they all offered the same vast range of popular software, and, most dubious of all, they all had the same "call centre" number, a UK number 0203 286 4046 that claims a link with 25 Vartry Road, London, N15 6PT. Phone it and you'll get an answering machine. Check the address online and you'll find it consists of flats. So with no intention of buying anything from this dodgy-seeming source, I clicked the Checkout button.

These sites are littered with plausible-looking bits and pieces, moneyback assurances, privacy and anti-spam policies. The shopping cart page has a security logo and the site claims to be designed by

© VK Software. Approved by Google Inc.
This information is provided by the customer and is entered into our certified secure network. Any information provided by our customers is never shared, sold, or released to any third party outside our network.

But the bogus padlock graphic is merely artwork, not in the browser, and the URL lacks the vital s in https:// ... The unwary might not notice these small details and may enter their card details into this totally insecure environment with disastrous results.

The conclusion seems inescapable that the very low software prices are purely an inducement to divulge your card details. Whether you then get a working and/or pirated download is not the point. Once your card has been compromised, it will be very clear that this was a poor bargain. But if Adobe's pricing weren't so high, there wouldn't be such a strong incentive for such websites to flourish, proliferate and doubtless take lots of money from unsuspecting customers. Is Adobe's greed fuelling this particular market?

Deep sigh! I run an online business and I want people to be able to trust this form of commerce. It's disappointing to find so much human ingenuity going into deceiving others, and the whole thing has been hugely time-wasting. It's similar to a Trojan horse: "Timeo Danaos et[iam] dona ferentes" ("Beware of Greeks even if they bring presents" – a caution that the citizens of Troy should have heeded).

October 5, 2009

How a tractor cured my online displacement activity

I returned from Nepal last Monday afternoon to the usual mountain of email, post and messages. Being somewhat sleep-starved and travel-weary, dealing with it would probably have occupied most of my week. But on Tuesday morning, an overladen tractor on our hill took out the phone wires, which mean no phone, no email and no web-surfing all week.

BT sent engineers out daily, to communicate, to survey the damage and to plan the repair. By Friday afternoon they had replaced two telegraph poles and a long section of cable, which seemed rather efficient, and we were back online. Meantime I had realised that my most important task was to write up the Everest trekking route description while it was fresh in my mind. Have broken the back of that task without online distraction, I now think the tractor did me a favour, although it didn't feel that way at the time.

It's so tempting to let the small, easy tasks (like replying to email) squeeze out the large important ones (like writing a book). Next time I am tempted by displacement activity, I shall try to remember the tractor – albeit unplugging my ethernet cable is an easier step to undo.

December 10, 2010

WWF releases a PDF downgrade

It may be rash to comment on a format I haven't seen, but according to French TV the WWF has released a new .wwf format that is supposed to replace the brilliant PDF (Adobe's portable document format) with the handy extra feature that you can't print from it. Brilliant: have we learned nothing from the fiascos of format wars? Think VHS versus Betamax, mobile phone chargers, and in 2010 lots of Word users unknowingly emailing files in .docx format to people who can't open them (without messing about with a conversion that most of them don't know is possible).

I am a lifelong hater of waste, and a keen recycler, but there are times when only a printout will do. I don't print about 99.5% of the documents I receive, mostly dealing with them on screen. But if I need printout, that is my decision, not the WWF's. The last thing the world needs is a fresh source of electronic frustration. Avoiding waste is an issue of education, habit and attitude, not electronic compulsion. And the PDF is a mature, useful de facto standard which allows you to transmit a document that transcends all the minor incompatibilities that computers would normally interpose between sender and recipient. It doesn't need to be replaced, especially not by something less competent.

Anyway it won't work. I bet I'll still be able to make a screen clip (Cmd-Shift-4 if you use a Mac) and print that. I sometimes resort to this method to overcome incompatibilities between browsers and airline websites that otherwise would frustrate the mere printing of a boarding card. And unless the WWF has also disabled the useful features of copy and paste, people will still print such documents if they want to. It will just be more bother and yet another instance of the fact that the Nanny State breeds workarounds.

PS I just saw this blog explaining how to overcome the "no-print" flag in what is only a slightly (pointlessly) encrypted PDF using open source software, further confirming that this attempt is doomed.

January 3, 2013

Snow Leopard, memory and my iMac

It's well over four years since I bought my daily workhorse, an iMac, in August 2008. I had failed to notice how much it had slowed down. To overcome frustrations with new software that won't run on older operating systems, without risking losing access to older software, best friend and computer guru Bob Tennent kindly partitioned my hard drive so that the old operating system and a newer one could coexist peacefully. Belatedly, we realised that (unexpectedly) the older software would work under Snow Leopard after all, so that as long as I avoided migrating to the latest operating systems (Lion or Mountain Lion) I don't have to upgrade or replace my favourite software. So the partition was hastily abolished, data restored, and I thought life would return to simplicity.

All that disc formatting and backing up took quite a while, and in the meantime we had realised that an upgrade to 4 gig of internal memory was long overdue. (The iMac had arrived with 2 gigabytes, which in 2008 was adequate, but OSs are memory-hungry.) So I ordered two 2-gig memory cards from Mr Memory and was pleased to note they offer a free lifetime warranty and that the total cost would be under £40. They arrived today, and I expected that I'd be able to fit them myself. Having weathered the fitting of ROM chips in my BBC Micro days, how hard could it be?

Armed with the clear instructions, I closed down, took precautions against static and easily removed the existing 1-gig chips, replacing them with the two new chips. This took under 10 minutes, including clearing a space to set the iMac face down for access to the memory slots. Helpfully, the base of the iMac stand even has diagrams confirming how to access the memory slots. It all seemed really straightforward, so confidently I powered up ...

Total disaster: ... blank screen, no startup sound, dead iMac!

Blind panic! I must have put the chips in the wrong way round and perhaps ruined both chips and iMac. Powering down again, I took out the new cards, hoping that I might get going again with the old. A slow iMac seemed infinitely preferable to a dead one. Slow down, breathe deeply and engage brain: I tried a systematic process of inserting the new cards, one at a time, in each slot. Aha: one worked fine solo, and the other doesn't work at all. So I've kept the good one, and restored one of the 1-gig cards, so now I have a 3-gig iMac!

Although they unwittingly supplied me with a dud chip, my impression of Mr Memory is actually still very positive. Paul Atkinson, the man who answered the phone today, didn't give me the "Hasn't your husband got a soldering iron?" line that I used to get in my BBC Micro days. He didn't tell me I'd got it all wrong. He commended the process that I had adopted, and seemed certain that the chip assembly was defective. Apparently they test all chips before dispatch, but sometimes a single one of hundreds of tiny solders gets dislodged in the post, and that is all it takes for a chip to fail. He apologised for its failure, gave me a returns number and Freepost instructions, and now I await a replacement.

And although I'd never have planned to upgrade from 2 gigs to a mere 3, I can tell you that the difference in speed is already noticeable!

March 3, 2015

Apple gets it wrong: defaults be damned

I now realise that my last system upgrade (over six years ago) went very smoothly. This time, it has been a nightmare, largely because of little-known toxic defaults buried within Apple Mail under Yosemite.

Here's a summary of the problems I've had with email since getting my new iMac last October:

  • inordinate difficulty in getting my rucsacs.com email set up using Apple's own Mail software under Apple's own OS, despite involving two very tech-competent friends; they concluded that under Yosemite it wouldn't be possible to use the standard, more secure settings (SSL) and instead we had to set it up as non-SSL (less secure), because Yosemite gave us no obvious way to make it trust the certificate
  • intermittent failures over the next four months, occurring randomly and without explanation, affecting both incoming and outgoing, but usually mysteriously resolving after a variable number of hours
  • sometimes finding that Apple Mail had over-ridden the non-standard settings that I had painstakingly input, and had reverted to all the SSL settings and port numbers; it was a big nuisance each time and I started to have alphabet soup nightmares about DNS settings, IMAP, editing SMTP servers and SSL!
  • endless inefficiency because of having to resort to an emergency Gmail address whenever info@rucsacs.com was down, and then having emails scattered between the two systems and never being able to find the one I needed because it had always gone to the other account; often by the time I'd found an email I had forgotten why I was looking for it
  • pitying comments from friends and family who couldn't understand why it wasn't fixed yet - some clearly thought I was getting too old and stupid to work email on an iMac; I began to wonder if they were right!
  • last Friday, the total failure of my email, which persisted for several days, accompanied by an inability for me to connect with my own Rucksack Readers website although it was running perfectly and available to everybody else except me.

It's impossible to run an online business after you have lost access to your website as well as your email, so I escalated the problem with my excellent tech support and webmaster, Dan Champion. He quickly found out why I could no longer over-ride the incorrect settings that Apple Mail had reinstated, see this helpful Nude webdesign blog. Hidden under Mail's Advanced settings is a new and seriously toxic option, checked by default, to "automatically detect and maintain account settings". This is what kept over-riding my input settings. It should have been called "Ignore everything the user tells me" and then I might have known to uncheck it. But I didn't know it was there!

It took a little longer to get to the bottom of the rucsacs.com problem, but once I had run terminal.app (a utility that lets you address commands direct to the iMac OS) Dan told me to use traceroute rucsacs.com. This basically documents the route that the system is attempting to reach rucsacs.com and thus identifies where it fails. This was at the final hurdle, i.e. my IP address was being blocked by my own website host!

Dan worked out that because Apple Mail was repeatedly trying to retrieve settings from mail.rucsacs.com (because of the toxic tick), it had triggered a flood-prevention measure that made the server block my IP address. In short, my own web host had interpreted the constant pestering from Apple Mail as an attack by a spambot! The toxic tick means that Mail, by default, thinks it knows better than everybody else. And because the tick option is so deeply buried, most users will never know it's there. Now that my IP has been unblocked, and my tick box unchecked, I can at last expect reliable email again!

All this has over-shadowed any joy in the fast performance and the 27-inch retina screen that does such wonders for photographs. I am hugely relieved that the problem is finally diagnosed and solved, but desperately frustrated by all the wasted effort. I first used email in the early 1980s to send my weekly column to the Times Educational Supplement and had always have found it useful and reliable - until Yosemite and Mail came on the scene. Of course most people won't have these issues because automation suits the main public emails systems such as Gmail, Yahoo, BTinternet and so forth. But if emails that depend on your own website are deeply involved in how your business operates, it beggars belief that Apple now makes it so difficult to over-rule its settings when they don't apply.

PS Now that I have worked out what to search for, I have found several corroborating posts and have realised that there is a second toxic tick to be cancelled! See for example, see meandmymac tedhagos and Joe Kissell. Given that everybody seems to think that these automatic detection and maintenance options should not be checked by default, how do we get Apple to listen? And how can we save others from going through all this grief??

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This page contains an archive of all entries posted to Jacquetta in the computers category. They are listed from oldest to newest.

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