Back to Work! Wednesday, July 18, 2007

It's a few weeks later, but Zabeth and I are back from our two week vacation, and so things around here are returning to normal: the Shirt Pocket Support "autoresponder" is turned off (since I'm able to respond more quickly now), and Z's begun her internship in Bridgewater.

The motivation for the vacation: Z just graduated from Vet School, and she had two weeks to recharge before her internship started. So, we decided to make a strong memory to carry her through the next year of work-without-sleep. And so -- we had a great time bopping around Germany and Italy, from Munich down to Matera -- actually, even further, down in Ostuni -- staying in Siena, Rome, Positano, Santa Agata sui due Golfi and Lake Garda along the way, and stopping at too many other places to list.

It was a "working vacation", which means a full work day, every day, but broken into little pieces all day long. It's a bit haphazard and nerve-wracking as the support cases build up and questions need to be answered, but it works well enough that I can still deliver good service to my valued users. Or try to!

Germany

Munich

One of the things we did while in Munich was tour the factory where BMWs are built, quite literally in the middle of the city. The plant -- which is huge and cannot grow beyond its current boundaries -- is on multiple levels, and uses a lot of techniques to reduce noise, pollution, and make efficient use of space. It's an extremely worthwhile three hours if you're a fan of sophisticated manufacturing (check out the videos at the plant site), and completely free.

BMW Headquarters

It's amazing how much car manufacturing has changed -- one (award winning!) assembly station had something like 13 robots all working together to weld a unibody... incredibly complicated programming and layout. Very cool.

After the plant tour, we had a great time in Munich thanks to our friend Mathey and his girlfriend Sonja, who were kind enough to show us around their beautiful city. In which you can surf. Who knew: video evidence pending!

Surfing Munich

Lunch in Germany

Anyway, we spent far too little time in Germany, something I plan to rectify next time. Hopefully we'll be back in less than ten years!

Munich Man (Insurance Company Sculpture)

Italy

Siena

Our first stop in Italy was Siena, at a beautiful Bed and Breakfast (Frances' Lodge) outside the city. Our hosts -- Franco and Frances -- couldn't have been more gracious, nor their property more beautiful.

Lunch in Germany

Internet access was extremely problematic, though, so I ended up spending a few hours of each day at an Internet Café in Siena itself -- so, if you saw a guy frantically typing at a MacBook Pro, in between the people browsing Facebook/My Space/Flickr, without stopping to breathe, that was me. (Note the laptop bag strap in this picture, just across from Siena's Duomo...)

Siena with Laptop

Both Frances and Franco (Frances from Florence, and Franco Torre through-and-through) helped us find good places to visit, eat and helped fill us in on the details of Siena and the Palio di Siena, which is much more involved than you might expect given the length of the race, with tons of fascinating political intrigue and behind the scenes machinations.

Torre

We enjoyed taking various side-trips to towns and hikes through the Tuscan countryside, although I wish we had Taiko along -- he would have loved romping through the hills and fields during our long walks! And the gelato! (For the curious - cinnamon and black cherry.)

Cherry Gelato

Rome

After (again) too few days, we headed down to Rome to meet our old friends Mike (my college roommate and old business partner at UnderWare) and Robin and their kids Ian and Leah. We hadn't been able to share vacation time in a long while, and it was great to spend some quality, relaxing time with them.

Pantheon - Rome

We were only able to spend two days in Rome (sound like a theme?), so we hardly scratched the surface of the place, but enjoyed seeing things we'd only read about, with a tour guide who supplied many helpful details as we walked -- quickly -- through history.

Positano via Pompeii

A few days after we arrived in Rome we left our friends and were off to the Amalfi coast -- specifically Positano. On the way, we stopped in Herculaneum and Pompeii to take in a bit of their amazing history (and it's well worth seeing both - the contrasts between the two towns are fascinating).

Herculaneum

Pompeii

And from there down to the coast and Positano for a relaxing few days at the beach, and some invigorating hiking in the extremely steep hills above.

Positano

The Amalfi Drive and Matera

From there, we drove down the Amalfi Drive (which is a blast and would make a terrific video game)

Amalfi Drive

to the Basilicata region and Matera to meet back up with our friends. Matera's old section, where we stayed, is quite ancient and built into the rock hills above a deep ravine. Squint a little and it's the 3rd century BC, and you're heading home after tending the flock all day.

Matera Sassi

Il Frantoio

One afternoon we drove from Matera to Ostuni to have a delightful homestyle meal at Masseria Il Frantoio, where our hosts Armando and Rosalba Balestrazzi stuffed us silly with all manner of delicious treats, all grown organically on their farm.

Il Frantoio

Don Alfonso 1890

And, finally, a long drive back from Matera to Sant'Agata sui due Golfi (near Naples), for a blowout last meal at Don Alfonso, celebrating Ian's 16th birthday and Zabeth's graduation and upcoming trial-by-fire Internship. Everybody's pretty comatose here, as we'd been eating for something like 5 hours...

Birthday at Don Alfonso

A lovely location and spectacular dinner... which no doubt would have been followed by an amazing breakfast had we not been forced to check out so early due to inconvenient flights.

Lake Garda

Since Zabeth had to start her Internship on Monday, I dropped her off at the Naples Airport early, and started the long solo drive back to Munich, stopping at Lake Garda for a quick overnight, and continuing to Munich -- on the Autostrada/Autobahn through Austria, stopping every so often for a shot or two of Espresso -- much too early the next morning.

A long few flights, and I'm back!

Thanks

It'd been quite a while since we'd been in Europe, and it was really great to get away (even while still needing to work every day -- it's very cool that I have a job that I can do anywhere), to see things we'd never had a chance to see before, and to revisit where Zabeth and I got engaged ten years ago.

Big thanks to Mike -- our resident Italy/travel/food expert -- for doing much of the planning; Mike, Robin, Ian and Leah for sharing part of their vacation with us; Mathey and Sonja for their time in Munich; my parents and brother Paul for taking great care of Taiko; and to Jonas Salling of Salling Software for helping out in the forums.

Very special thanks to all of you for your patience during the trip, your understanding when support responses didn't get turned around in minutes, and the chance to recharge our batteries before her internship starts, which will be 14 months with less than a week's break.

Wish us luck!

Goodbye and Thanks!

iPhone Friday, July 13, 2007

It's not easy to look at the iPhone, let alone touch the thing, and not be enchanted. It's all planes and subtle, refined curves with a radius (and texture) that feels great in the hand. It's not light, but not heavy either: just about right, given the size of it, and the weight helps to stabilize it during use. Someone spent a lot of time with mock-ups holding, twirling, pocketing and came up with something pretty much ideal.

As you'd expect, the color scheme and material choice is minimal and elegant: matte stainless on the back, chrome Apple logo and highlights, matte black buttons and RF area, and on the front, a black "contrast screen" (like a Bang & Olufsen TV) that hides the LCD underneath until it lights up.

And what an LCD it is: bigger than expected given the size of the device much bigger and very high-res and contrasty. It almost doesn't matter what's being displayed on it: everything looks pretty great in its antialiased, Helvetica glory. Unlike every other touchscreen you've ever used, the iPhone's is a capacitance unit with a glass cover that's completely visible outdoors, even in direct sunlight. No more squinting, indoors or out. I can't think of a thing about the screen I'd change.

But there's no point having a beautiful LCD if there's nothing worthwhile to put on it. And in this, Apple didn't disappoint either. The iPhone actually looks and works just like the ads you've seen. It's rare that something works exactly like the demos (which are usually canned, faked, magically perfect) but in this case it's true. Fast animated transitions between sections, quick response and redraws. It's rare that you feel that you're waiting for something, and if the animations are designed to look good and disguise load delays and offscreen redraws, they serve their purpose admirably.

There are a lot of reviews out there that do one of those "feature lists" of the iPhone vs. your typical Nokia, Sony/Ericsson, RIM, Treo, Windows Mobile device or whatever... and, often, the iPhone comes up "short", even when you take into account that software updates are promised down the road. (Of course, I'd expect firmware updates for any smartphone, and all of the above get firmware updates. It's pretty standard practice... what's rare is the addition of features. For example, my Nokia E61i doesn't have "feature pack 1" of S60, which fixes a bunch of important stuff, and it never will, even though FP1 came out before the E61i).)

Of course, part of the "standard practice" for phone design comes the "No" from carriers for some of the more advanced features -- remember that even "unlocked" phones have to be designed with customers in mind, and carriers are the big player in this game. And they often say "no" to WiFi, "no" to bluetooth, "no" to cameras, chat, whatever the carrier has determined its customers want, or it wants to put in to maximize revenue. It can be pretty frustrating as you discover you're in a walled garden, and the landscape architect has absolutely no taste whatsoever.

What's different about the iPhone, though, is the big "Yes" that came from the carrier to Apple to do what they wanted and with no previous history of phones, that's a "yes" to a totally new platform that isn't tied to previous usage patters, menu layouts, "but our customers are used to this", "our phone's identity depends on", etc. A "yes" to a new way of doing things a "yes" to Thinking Different, and a yes to "taste". While there are some "no"s there -- some frustrating ones that'll hopefully be fixed with the aforementioned updates, as has been promised -- they still sweated this experience. It shows.

But, again, that doesn't mean that the iPhone has a huge list of "features". It doesn't, and I'm guessing it won't. Ever, because that's not the point. You're not going to see things -- at least from Apple -- like remote desktop clients, or satellite box control, or buried SyncML clients... or the various nooks and crannies where those things hide. There's no huge list of applications, memory checkers, task managers, file managers, USB mode setters, picture editors.

The iPhone is full to the brim of pretty cool technology, but at the user level the experience is one of understatement. You have but a few "features":

  1. The phone itself
  2. SMS text messaging
  3. A basic camera
  4. A photo viewer
  5. A contact manager
  6. A calendar application
  7. An email application
  8. A web browser
  9. Google Maps
  10. A stock tracker
  11. A weather application
  12. YouTube
  13. A calculator
  14. A note-taking application
  15. Totally new, and pretty great iPod functionality
  16. A way to adjust settings

And that's it. Really - 16 "features": there's nothing else there.

Except there is. Because, with a few notable exceptions, this stuff was designed to be all of a piece: to work well, the way you'd expect. Apple started pretty much with a clean slate: there's no PSION "cruft", no six-versions-of-Windows-mobile, no S60/UIQ divergence, no crackberry usage patterns to retain, and no backend to monetize. A blank piece of paper, with appropriate constraints, and the ability to go nuts, which they did not, much to their credit. And when they were done (after what had to be a lot-lot-lot of revisions) well, sure, there's a User's Guide somewhere up on the web, but it's not something you'll generally need, even if you're not a phone nerd. It just basically works.

For most of the "general public", it does what they want and need.

And part of what it's missing is The Suck. You're not going through the typical Smartphone Wait when you pick something. It appears, it works, it's responsive and, frankly, given the "touch" nature of the UI, it had to be. If you tap something, it has to react and it does. If you're used to other phones, you're going to be amazed by this.

All that is great stuff.

Which isn't to say it's all perfect. It's kind of like Super Mario 64: an amazing game, truly revolutionary, but it's not everything to everyone. And even to most, it's just missing stuff. So, quickly, my biggest issues, apart from bugs, are:

  • Mail should be unified. Lots of people say this, and they're all right, mostly because the experience of going to a different mailbox is so painful you see that there's unread mail on the Home screen, but to get to it you have to tap around so many times by the time you find it you just don't care any more.
  • There's no way to flag mail, so if there's mail you need to deal with when you get back to your desktop, best of luck finding it!
  • Mobile Safari keeps opening new "tabs", even when you're tapping on an email link to the same general site, which eats memory and is quite inconvenient.
  • No A2DP support for wireless Bluetooth headphones.
  • Notes is pointless, sadly, because nothing syncs.
  • No OTA sync of calendars/contacts, which I really miss.
  • When apps quit in the background, they don't always save state.
    This is especially annoying with the iPod app, which loses your playlist, music location, etc.
  • No IMAP Push support is, well, annoying.
  • Javascript support is slow and a bit buggy.

But, all things considered, that's a tiny list. Apple's done an amazing job, and this is without question the finest 1st generation product I've ever seen. Kudos to all!

Update: I originally wrote and sent this on the iPhone with a moblog module. Some wrapping awkwardness ensued, various characters (emdashes, seemingly) were stripped, and some bad formatting/editing got through. I've tried to fix everything I've noticed -- sorry about that.

OSX Server Security Update Warning Wednesday, May 30, 2007

A quick warning for those of you running Tiger Server: the latest security update edits the LaunchDaemon plist for named (BIND/DNS), relocating it from /usr/bin to /usr/sbin. However, at the same time, it disables it.

That means that, after install and restart, your DNS server will not work: you'll need to turn it back on using launchctl or the Server Admin tool.

Update

No sooner said than patched!

I Hate The Nokia E61i Wednesday, May 23, 2007

All those within the sound of my voice, let it be known: I hate the Nokia E61i.

Well, hate might be too strong a word. After all, Nokia has done some things right.

To start: I decided to give it a try after it got some raves from the Nokia crowd. Since I hadn't used a Nokia in years, it seemed like a good one to try: the E61i's got a nice keyboard and a really nice screen -- although it's only QVGA it's very visible inside and out. The build quality seems pretty nice. It's a good size as these things go, a bit heavy but nicely finished.

The software bundle is good for a business device: various email connectivity tools, push email for Exchange, Blackberry, IMAP. The "today" screen does a good job of showing what's pertinent right now.

But, that's about it.

Even though the E61i was released very recently, it's not a "Feature Pack 1" device (and, from what I've been told, will never be updated to Feature Pack 1). So, perhaps my experience was suboptimal. But it's no less optimal than that of other E61/E61i users.

And, overall, it's pretty suboptimal. This is a "messaging" focused phone. Its whole reason for being is to send and receive email and react to that. That's exactly what I wanted it for. And in that, at least in my situation, it fails pretty miserably.

My server is a Kerio Mailserver (which I'm quite happy with, and will write about in a future post), which provides both IMAP IDLE support and ActiveSync/Exchange capabilities. The E61i ships with an Exchange plug-in, so I used that. It configured reasonably easily (although the layout of the various screens doesn't take advantage of the landscape display, which truncated many fields in a pretty stupid way), and began to sync. And that all worked pretty much OK.

The problems started dealing with the mail itself. First, you can't move items to folders. You can only copy them, so handling Junk mail "properly" is well-nigh impossible.

Second, there's no way to mark a message as "unread". So, if you have mail you haven't yet dealt with, but read, you'd best remember what mail it was.

Third, deleted messages stay visible in the mail list until the sync occurs.

Fourth, links in the mail highlight nicely, but open in the "Service" browser, which isn't the "good" one: it's the old, WAP-style, crummy browser. "Web", the WebCore-based browser can't be associated with links. Instead, you need to copy the link, open Web, and paste them in to a "Go To Address" dialog. Not good, but I guess it could be worse.

Fifth, while this browser mostly works, it eats memory like crazy (even though the memory status in the main menu always indicates there's lots of memory left -- go figure). This causes it to randomly start failing, crashing, exiting... pretty much at any time. So, if you're using a web-based application (as I need to, based on mail notification), you're going to lose data. Typically after typing a long reply.

And stopping the numbering, because of the low memory, the mail program probably closed, which means you need to re-open it, which means you lose context.

Whatever you do, don't click a link in mail, because it'll instance that other browser, and it's hard to get out of.

But that's not all. I haven't even started talking about the slow and blinky screen refreshes, the fact that contact notes don't sync, that calendar notes sync incorrectly (CRs get eaten), that contact details are very inefficiently presented on the screen requiring a ton of scrolling, that network connections are constantly being announced for no reason, that selecting the messaging plugin on the today screen sometimes goes to the list and sometimes to a message (depending on the number of messages there, but it feels less predictable), the awful indeterminate progress indicator, ugly fonts, poor calendar implementation... I could go on and on.

To try to take care of some of this, I installed the trial copy of RoadSync, an alternate ActiveSync application that's worked well on the M600i (a UIQ3 device, rather than S60 Series 3). But it doesn't directly support browser links either. But it does seem to sync slightly better, supports moving to folders and allows mark-as-unread.

But with a browser that crashes constantly and a battery that -- under typical "me" use -- dropped precipitously after just an hour or two... it's just not a phone I could possibly live with.

It makes me appreciate the UIQ3 and Windows Mobile devices I've tried, though! Compared to this, the M600i and Dash are absolute paragons of reliable usability!

Maybe hate isn't too strong a word. But whatever word is used, there's one thing for sure: for my usage, the E61i sucks.

Big Days Monday, May 21, 2007

Big couple of days here, in a good way.

New Graduate

First off, Zabeth graduated from Tufts Veterinary School on Sunday -- she's now Dr. Zabeth. Pretty cool stuff. It's really an incredible accomplishment, and Z worked outrageously hard to get to this point.

We've been in "social jail" for four years, so it was really nice to have a little dinner for her at a restaurant in Boston with people we haven't been able to spend much time with in the last four years. Thanks to all who were able to make it -- for your patience with us, your vanishing friends, and for your support.

But it's not done yet: on June 18th, she starts a 14-month internship in West Bridgewater -- and, from what I can determine, it's like one of those TV shows where people run on no sleep for days on end while frantically performing heroic interventions on pets that have jumped from planes or something.

Of course, the experience will be intense and invaluable. We'll have to come up with a theme song -- maybe Massive Attack can write a House-like ditty we can play every morning before she leaves after two hours of fitful rest.

Birthday Boy

It's amazing, but Taiko turned one today. The past year has gone by quickly, and he's grown into a handsome young dog: still quite a puppy, but strong as an ox. I, for one, can totally understand how these dogs were bred to pull carts.

A great dog, and alongside him, a great woman and new Doctor -- not necessarily in that order: I'm a pretty lucky guy.

Ocean of words Thursday, May 03, 2007

For those who haven't heard me blather at length about all things SuperDuper! and Shirt Pocket, there's a 45 minute interview of me up at MacVoices.

Remember: the game rules require you to drink every time you hear me say "Um", "Uh" or audibly gesticulate. Do not play while driving.

Clicking away Friday, April 27, 2007

My friend Jonas Salling has started blogging again, and that's always a good thing.

He's got some recent posts up there as he tests the WiFi support for Clicker, and the results may surprise you!

Jonas is one of the hardest working developers out there, and he never settles for less than absolute excellence when releasing new stuff.

The long-in-development Clicker 3.5 is no exception, and it looks like it's getting really close to release. That's good news for all the fans of Clicker, since a great product is getting a lot better. And I'm sure he has many cool things in store moving forward as well.

Welcome back, Jonas -- looking forward to more posts!

Tip for Seagate SATA drive owners Thursday, April 26, 2007

A little tip for those of you who might have installed Seagate SATA drives into your 3GB/s capable G5, MacPro, NAS device, or whatever.

Looks like recent Seagate drives ship with a jumper installed that limits the drive to 1.5GB/s speeds. While the jumper is documented in the User's Guide that ships with retail packs, it's specifically mentioned as something you might need to install if you have trouble with the drive. And OEM drives don't have any documentation at all.

To get 3GB/s, the jumper should not be present on the outer pins of the jumper block. So -- if you've got one of these drives, check it out: you might get that drive humming along twice as fast!

One long dog Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Taiko and Zabeth were out walking the other day and ran into a neighbor out for a stroll with his own dog. He asked a bit about Ketzl, and Zabeth asked about his previous pups, and during that discussion he said "you know, it's like we've owned one long poodle over the last 30 years".

I know exactly what he means.

It's not that Taiko and Ketzl are the same dog: Taiko's personality is much different than Ketzl's -- he's goofier, jumpier, much more athletic, more dominant, more trainable.

But, at the same time, he loves the same places in the house, the yard, where we walk. The spot under the bush, the cool slate floor, climbing rocks, play style -- these things are "dog" the way laughter is "human", common while different, linking our friends together over the years.

One long dog, with us through thick and thin.

A different Eddy entirely Monday, April 16, 2007

While I'm posting about music, I just love the album A Girl Called Eddy. Erin Moran (aka Eddy) has a beautiful voice and great songwriting chops. A melancholy pop album that's pretty amazing from beginning to end, with some great production and guitar work by Richard Hawley of Pulp fame.

It took four years for her to go from her first EP to the album; I'd been hoping her next wouldn't take quite that long, but it's already been three...

Page 8 of 24 pages « First  <  6 7 8 9 10 >  Last »