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Archive for the ‘Tech’ Category

Apps and Applications

Thanks to “Blackadder the Third” for the influence of title alliteration. Thanks to me for the crappy execution.

Yesterday, I did something to a Mac I’ve never done before and it left me with a sick feeling in my stomach. Behold:

WIn7install

I have some work that requires me to use proprietary software that’s Windows-only, so I had to. I chose VMware over other options because I have a friend who works there, so I figure high-quality tech support will be easy to access.

I had a bad experience with tech support recently. Our old router was dropping connections and somebody on our wireless LAN has been occasionally uploading way more data than normal. I installed DD-WRT on the old router, a Cisco/Linksys WRT54G v.6. Version 6 of that router is crippled with minimal RAM compared to earlier models so the installation left no room for the tools I’d need to install to monitor bandwidth by user. Plus, it kept dropping connections.

By the way, yes, Wi-Fi routers can wear out despite a lack of any moving parts. Probably.

So I bought a new Netgear router and put DD-WRT on that. I tried and failed to install a Linux bandwidth monitor program on it and I felt the best thing to do would be to start anew, with factory settings. I tried to reset the router according to the manual, but it just wouldn’t reset. It did, however, stop working.

I called Netgear tech support and spent an hour with a clueless person. He was trained to follow the script he was given, which was to test the router and repair its Internet connection. He wouldn’t comprehend that I was asking him to help me reset the router. He also wasn’t comfortable with using Macs, so he made me dig out Elvi’s Windows laptop and use the unintuitive networking tools on that. My post-call assessment was not kind – although at some point in the process, the router came back to life, although with DD-WRT and not the native Netgear firmware. I said thanks and goodbye.

Oh, yeah. I’ve also moved up to Mac OS 10.8 Mountain Lion. I forget why.

Anyway, in the upgrade I discovered that my favourite text-editing program, Tex-Edit Plus no longer worked. I’ve been using it for close to 20 years, and I lamented its loss – until I visited the site to learn that an updated version will work on Mountain Lion. Huzzah! It’s shareware, and recommends you pay $15. I paid $50 a long time ago. It’s that good.

I started this post with the intention of noting some apps. I suppose it’s time to get around to that.

I continue to have a torrid love affair with Waze. I’m obsessed with mapping for it. I pretty much singlehandedly filled in everything between St-Jean-sur-Richelieu and Drummondville. On to Trois-Rivières! It’s not healthy.

I’m also using Lose It, which is an app that lets you record what you eat and exercise you perform. I got on a scale in late December and saw 178 on the readout. That’s too much. I set a goal of getting down to 155 lbs by May, roughly a pound a week. Lose It set my daily caloric budget at 1,752. Right now, I’m bouncing between 172 and 174 so it seems to be working.

What I like about Lose It is its bar-code scanner. Scan what you eat and it tells you what it costs in calories. What I don’t like about Lose It is that it is aimed at people who eat prepackaged foods. It’s sometimes difficult to find home-made foodstuffs in its list and of course food made from scratch doesn’t have a bar code. Nevertheless, I’m sticking with it, and to my budget.

Another I want to praise is actually kind of boring. Battleship Destroyer HMS turns you into a gunner on a Royal Navy frigate in World War II. It’s simple and it gets dull after a while, particularly if you stick to the free version. The amazing thing about the game, and this is not unique, is that you can play in gyroscope mode. Instead of using screen swipes or buttons to move, you move the smart phone to view the world around you. Want to swivel your gun turret? Turn around. Want to aim high? Lift the phone toward the sky. It’s surprisingly immersive.

The final app I want to mention is Spaceteam (iOS only). Developer Henry Smith knocked this off to train himself to code iOS apps and has an unexpected hit in his hands. You can only play it face to face, and multiplayer is mandatory. Every player has a control panel and is sent a list of commands. If they cannot use their own control panel to fulfil the command, they must ask/shout at the other players to do so. That’s the whole game. It gets hard, especially when you lose the labels on the controls.

We have a game night scheduled with friends tonight. I wonder if I can use Richard III to whip up some enthusiasm for Kingmaker.

The progressive Conservative copyright bill

Lost in the news blitz of Tuesday’s American elections was the establishment of the copyright provisions of Bill C-11 as active law.

For several years, the combination of phrases “copyright law” and “Conservative government” in an article have provoked anxiety and confusion, and that stems from a series of bills the Conservative Party introduced to Parliament in 2005-2007. The foundation of the government’s approach was the American DMCA, which Canadians generally found abhorrent.

After public consultation and further thought, the Harper government introduced Bill C-11 and passed it this past summer. It is a direct descendant of its ancestor bills, including the almost reasonable Bill C-61.

Canadian copyright guru Michael Geist explains the evolution and bullet-points the features of the Bill C-11.

There are major changes from previous bills. One of the most notable is the establishment of parody and satire as legal uses of copyrighted material. This was the case in the US, but not previously in Canada.

You may now use any material that is public and online for educational purposes. This is an expansion of previous fair-use provisions and, boy, is it broad.

One contentious remnant of the old bills has been effectively neutered if not eliminated. It remains illegal to break a digital lock in order to make copies of media (although you are allowed to possess the tools to do so). Although restrictive, this provision is tempered by the cap on statutory damages for breaking a digital lock for non-commercial reasons. The most a guilty individual can be forced to pay is $5,000. That’s not even going to cover a company’s legal fee for a case, so unless a company is driven by revenge or example-making rather than profit, the cap is essentially permission to copy for non-commercial purposes.

All in all, Bill C-11 is an enlightened approach. It’s not perfect, but what is?

I squished a bug

When I’m not being paid to write, edit, or research, I do home/small-office IT support for Macs. I love doing it. It’s the puzzles that intrigue me. This week, I had a doozy.

A client bought a new Mac Pro to replace her old one. The migration of her old account to the new Mac went pretty well, with only a few wobbly moments – for some reason, her old iPhoto 6 replaced the new version that came on the new Mac.

Once that was done, she had me install a (legal) copy of Microsoft Office 2011 on the new machine to replace the Office 2008 she’d been using on her older Mac Pro.

The first installation (and subsequent updates) seemed to go flawlessly, until it was time to open the Office applications. The splash screen would come on but before any document or blank template would load, the application would crash, with this error (in this example, for Word):

Microsoft Error Reporting log version: 2.0

Error Signature:
Exception: EXC_BAD_ACCESS
Date/Time: 2012-10-26 01:40:50 +0000
Application Name: Microsoft Word
Application Bundle ID: com.microsoft.Word
Application Signature: MSWD
Application Version: 14.2.4.120824
Crashed Module Name: CoreFoundation
Crashed Module Version: 744.12
Crashed Module Offset: 0x0000b849
Blame Module Name: MicrosoftMenuLibrary
Blame Module Version: 14.2.4.120824
Blame Module Offset: 0x000133ec
Application LCID: 1033
Extra app info: Reg=en Loc=0x0409
Crashed thread: 0

And that would be followed by a dump of incomprehensible codes and threads.

I did a bit of research and learned that this was a known problem. The primary recommended step is to delete all Microsoft Office preference files. I did, but it didn’t help.

Next, I deleted every trace of Microsoft software – including preferences, receipts, and fonts typefaces – from the new Mac and reinstalled Office. No dice.

I spent nearly two hours on the phone with Microsoft tech support. The nice lady, via a customized LogMeIn client, also wiped everything clean and reinstalled Office, with as little success as I had. We did learn, though, that Office worked fine for a pristine new user on the Mac Pro. There was obviously some conflict with something in the migrated user account. With that information, Microsoft told me to call Apple tech support.

Apple found a few cache files that Microsoft tech support hadn’t dealt with, but it didn’t help. While on hold while my call was being bumped up a support level, something occurred to me. My client is a graphic designer and has nearly 1,000 fonts typefaces, some of which she’s had for decades. I disabled her migrated fonts typefaces, leaving only the system fonts typefaces and the fonts typefaces Microsoft installs for Office.

Ta-dah! The Office applications worked!

There is nothing more tedious than going through fonts typefaces looking for a problem – but it’s a puzzle and I love it. Especially when I solve that puzzle.

The problem is that there was a an old version of Georgia font typeface in her ~/Library/Fonts directory. That was in conflict with the native OS X version of Georgia and and version Microsoft may have installed itself.

I deleted several duplicate fonts typefaces, but it was the removal of Georgia that fixed the problem. Well, either that or GillSans.

Take that, megacorporations what can’t figure out what I did.

Map appstravaganza

What can you write when everyone already knows your lead? Let me think about this a moment….

Screw it.

You’ve doubtless heard that Apple dumped Google Maps from the iOS line-up. Whole Web sites have been set up to display the flaws in the Maps app with which Apple replaced it.

I did my own little exploration of my navigation apps. I never used Google Maps. I use Navigon (now part of the Garmin family) and the free Waze app. Waze is great if it can find your address or destination in a search. It’s a bit finicky, sometimes without reason. Navigon is better able to help you pinpoint your destination, but Waze is better at the navigation, as it takes into account traffic and anticipated road speeds when it calculates your route.

I decided to look at a tricky section of the map near home. Girouard Avenue south of Sherbrooke used to be one-way southbound and had an entrance ramp onto Autoroute 15. That ramp was closed in December 2010 and that section of Girouard was turned into a two-way street. Around the same time, Crowley was extended to intersect Upper Lachine.

Here’s how the three apps map these major changes, some of which are nearly two years old. Apple’s Maps is on the left, Navigon in the middle, and Waze on the right. I recommend you click to open the full-sized image.

(Ignore the black infestation of the right-side roads on Maps. That’s my fault, the result of a poor fill operation in Photoshop.)

Neither Navigon nor Maps has the Crowley extension. Both have Girouard as continuing to be a one-way street. The ramp may or may not be active; it’s tough to tell. Waze has it correct. It may look at first like Girouard maintains its one-way status, but those arrows are indicating the ramp only. The ramp, you can tell, is not connected to Girouard and Waze will never route you onto it. You can see the extension in place between Crowley and Upper Lachine.

Also note that Waze is the only one of these apps to correctly show that Decarie no longer intersects de Maisonneuve from the south (which is to the right on these maps).

What does Google maps show?


View Larger Map

Google has Decarie and Crowley correct, but fails with Girouard.

I didn’t expect this result, but Waze wins. Did I mention it’s free?

Waze and means, part two

Last time, I established that I come from a line of antagonists. This post, we move from the theoretical to the practical.

A few months ago, I discovered that Navigon was on sale in the US iTunes Store for around half price. I bought it, I used it, I like it. Setting a target address is a little annoying – you have to set the city, then the street, then the number instead of typing or pasting it all in at once. Other than that, and a few pronunciation errors, it works great.

(I think the Quebec map has built-in French pronunciation, which reads “chemin” perfectly but requires five syllables for “Mountain Sights”.)

In February, I head about Waze, which is a free, crowd-sourced GPS navigation app. You can use it for free and live with the reasonably correct maps. Or you be like me and start editing those maps to make them better.

From what I gather, Waze started with a satellite map and had an algorithm (or slave farm) find and plot the streets. After that, users took over and continue to edit the maps into shape. We name streets, set the street directions and types, mark legal and illegal turns, etc. The central Waze brain monitors drives and alerts editors to mistakes they may not know about. Drivers can also send an alert to the system to be dealt with, whether that alert is an incorrect map issue or a traffic jam. The app requires a minuscule amount of data transmission but it’s worth it. Map-editing is perfect for those of us with compulsion issues.

YouTube Preview Image

There is a slight problem when it comes to editing: too many cooks spoil the broth. While the Waze wiki provides some guidelines for editors, there is no firm standard for mapping and no oversight. This leads to problems, which is where the antagonism comes in. Remember the antagonism? It’s between cooks.

Some people get a kick out of editing the maps, and for us, there are two primary annoyances. The first is idiots who go on the map and make global changes to amass Waze points with no consideration for accuracy. That’s why, for example, the current map features “Ville St. Laurent”, “Montréal (Saint-Laurent)”, and Saint Luarent”, among other variations for the Montreal borough and former independent city of Saint-Laurent. It’s a huge pain to fix that to the accepted standard (the second one, by the way).

Montreal provides rare challenges to map editors because of the language situation. Street names of more than one word take a dash according to the Quebec government’s strict toponomy, but the cities don’t always follow that rule on their signs. French names take a hyphen (Boulevard René-Levesque Ouest) but English ones don’t (Avenue Mountain Sights). The island is Île Perrot; the city is Île-Perrot.

One of the features/bugs of the usage of Montreal street names is that rarely do we use the generic part of the street name. We say, “Take a left on Saint-Denis,” not “Take a left on Rue Saint-Denis.” We say, “It’s near Décarie and Queen-Mary,” not “It’s near Boulevard Décarie and Chemin Queen-Mary,” or, heaven forbid, “It’s at the corner of Décarie Boulevard and Queen Mary Road.”

Of course, when you use Google Maps to look up street names, all the streets are listed with the generic indicator. Official municipality maps, such as Dorval’s, often skip that formality. Driving and looking at street signs doesn’t always help as many of those are also missing the generic indicator for reasons found at the intersection of budgets and anti-English politics.

It’s my contention, then, that to make a better GPS app means taking into account these real-life considerations – but I’m just one cook.

Two super-users constantly “patrol” and edit the map of Montreal in Waze. The Waze forum allows users to send messages so I know about about the other guy. He’s a francophone Montreal police officer (that’s a bit redundant…). He goes by something like Duff, so let’s call him that.

Duff is all about the rules. I’m all about accessibility. If it were up to him, all roads would have their full names. We have battled a bit about Chemin de la Côte-Saint-Luc, which to me is a ridiculous thing to put on a map when everyone just calls it “Côte-Saint-Luc”. Similarly, who cares if it’s Avenue O’Brien, Rue O’Brien, Chemin O’Brien or Boulevard O’Brien? The advantage of not putting down the street-type designations is twofold: it cuts down on map clutter and it better matches the street signs that drivers see.

Duff disagrees. Early in my Waze phase, we battled over naming, until coming to an unspoken agreement. I stopped changing the names of major streets (e.g. Rue Saint-Urbain) and he stopped renaming minor streets and streets with ridiculously long full names (e.g. Chemin de la Côte-Sainte-Catherine). Together we have converted E and O to Est and Ouest, St. to Saint (to avoid Waze pronouncing the abbreviation as “street”), and put missing French accents into town names (Montréal, not Montreal). We also have begun using abbreviations for boulevard (Boul.) and avenue (Ave.), both of which Waze pronounces correctly, in English at least.

Waze has a problem with accents. It pronounces Décarie as “Dee-Ay-copyright-caree”. I thinks it’s better to leave the accents in and wait for the system to catch up than to poke language purists. The Waze disagreements are language issues, but not typical Quebec head-butting language issues.

After I capitulated on streets like Rue Saint-Jacques and Rue Jean-Talon Est and Ouest and he left the Côtes alone, we have an uneasy ceasefire, with hotspots. Duff and I are still at war in Verdun and parts north. I think he wants to set full names on every street that is indicated by an exit. We bombard each other with changes over des Irlandais, Riverside, Mill, Oak, Marc-Cantin, etc. He also likes to invade Lasalle and change the lonely streets west of Angrignon – uh, Boul Angrignon: Senkus, Cordner, Lapierre, etc.

That’s not all I do, though. I have completed every street and intersection in Hampstead, Côte-Saint-Luc, Montréal-Ouest, and the boroughs of Lachine and Saint-Leonard. I’m halfway through Dorval. I’ve completed large chunks of Lasalle, Saint-Laurent, and within the pre-merger boundaries of Montreal proper.

I feel I’m rambling a bit so I’ll cut out now. I do heartily endorse Waze, even if you’re only a consumer of it rather than a contributor. The traffic updates alone make it worth the price.

Waze and means, part one

I come from a long line of antagonists.

My dad’s mother died a few months before I was born and my grandfather was not a capable bachelor. He met a slightly older woman on a cruise and they got married. Then they got divorced. Then, on her terms, they got married again.

My grandfather needed someone to take care of him. His wife was willing to do that, for a price. It was a marriage of convenience. It was certainly not love.

This woman was the only grandmother we knew on my dad’s side and, as kids, we knew none of this. Nor did we know that this grandmother and my dad shared a white-hot hatred for each other. They hid it well. But this isn’t about my dad, yet. This is about my grandfather.

There was a certain amount of resentment mixed into the convenience. My dad rarely told us much, so I only heard this story from his Wife Two. My grandfather had somehow discovered that his wife detested the phrase “bum wad” as a synonym for toilet paper. Every chance he got, he’d use “bum wad”. “Frances, when you go to the store, pick up some bum wad.” Oh, that must have been a jolly household.

You know what just occurred to me? This was my step-grandmother’s first marriage. She had short hair. She always wore pants. I can’t recall ever seeing her in a skirt or dress. Maybe she was gay.

Anyway, that was my grandfather. My dad’s attitude can best be explained by the following printout I discovered while cleaning up his office in March.

Note the dot-matrix quality of the text. The printout had been laying around a while.

The sheet speaks for itself. I don’t have to make any more comment – well, except to point out that it makes more sense if you replace “on purpose” with “by accident”. The red cloud of vendetta can muddle one’s editing ability.

So that’s my genetic heritage, which sort of explains this, although a) my vendetta is more passive; b) my vendetta was actually carried out until it overwhelmed me; and c) I never bought a paint gun with which to peg speeding jet-skiers in the canal behind my house.

I was going to go on and explain the Waze bit, but I think I’d rather take a nap now. Stay tuned for part two.

Fox backs down

On March 24, YouTube sent the following notice about the half-minute “Futurama” clip I had uploaded to illustrate my point in “Futurama commits clownslaughter“.

Dear 101Webs,

Your video “Futurama commits clownslaughter”, may have content that is owned or licensed by FOX. As a result, the video has been blocked on YouTube.

This claim is penalizing your account status. Visit your Copyright Notices page for more details on the policy applied to your video.

Sincerely,
– The YouTube Team

When this happens to you, you have two options. You can succumb to the man and take down your video or you can contest the accusation at risk of losing your YouTube account.

I contested. In my reply, I claimed fair use of the clip for illustrative and educational purposes.

What do you know – FOX agreed. I got this today:

Mysteries of the ancient world

I’m back home now, but I still have a few photos to share. It took three full days, but I finally managed to clear out my dad’s office and closet – only to fill the closet again with stuff Brother Two wants to keep but couldn’t fit in his suitcases.

I found a Mac PowerBook 1400C in the closet, deep in the strata. I think in total, my dad had 11 computers, of which two were hooked up. I cleaned up a clamshell iBook and then plugged in and powered up the PowerBook. As you can see if you click on the thumbnail to the left, it booted into System 8.6 as perfectly as possible. I think my dad last used it in early 2003, judging by the dates on the files. Good thing he kept it around.

We also found a brass case. We have no idea what it is. Other than the photos below, here’s what we know…. The “fan” folds open and closed and rotates freely. The axle fits into some sort of plastic apparatus that barely resembles a small electric motor, although there is no resistance to rotation. There is no place for batteries, and since the entire case is made of metal and there are no wires, we doubt it is an electrical device of any kind, or any sort of motor for that matter. But of what use is a manual fan or propellor?

The bottom of the device opens up. Is something supposed to go in there? Take a look, and please guess – or even better, inform.

The inscription on the bottom of the case reads: “PATENTS PENDING / DON QUIXOTE / MADE IN BRITAIN”. Don Quixote is a cigar company and I suspect this has something to do with tobacco, but I’m stumped.

Speaking of mysteries, this video has me, an avowed skeptic, stumped:

Bonus l33t CSS skillz:

I’ve been struggling with getting slideshows to center. I’m using a WordPress plugin called Portfolio Slideshow, which is easy to use and format, but which is inexplicably impossible to center on a page.

Many people have the same predicament, but the developer’s only official response is that the Pro version ($9) has the ability to center the slideshow.

Nine bucks? I didn’t teach myself CSS for nothing! Here’s my custom Portfolio Slideshow CSS code for WordPress. On your Dashboard, open Appearance > Editor. Click on the Stylesheet link at the bottom right. (I ignore the stylesheets for IE6 and IE7. Screw ‘em.) Add the following code to your stylesheet and save:

div.portfolio-slideshow {margin-left:auto; margin-right:auto; width:60%; margin-top:20px; border: solid 1px #d4d7ca;}
div.slideshow-nav {text-align:center; margin-bottom:20px;}

You may want to play with that width percentage to get it perfect on your layout. The margin-top and border styles are optional, as is the entire .slideshow-nav class.

This only works for one specific size of slideshow image. In my case, I’m using 400-pixel-wide images.

My Groupon addiction (and a poll)

I love shopping, and I love shopping for bargains even more. Back in California once, my college friend Alex commented on how nice my suit looked. I told him I found it for only $200. Elvi reproached me about talking cost rather than gracefully accepting the compliment. Had I learned my lesson, I wouldn’t have written that just now.

Groupon has found itself in the news over the past year, mostly due to its failures. I still don’t think it has much of a business model, but great googly moogly, the deals are fantastic.

I was initially lured in by the offer of four 60-minute massages at a reputable spa for a mere $100. Talk about happy endings! After that, I couldn’t turn down a comprehensive auto-detailing package for $85. Nothing polishes off winter like detailing.

I realized I had a problem when I found myself considering a diode-laser hair remover for $200. That’s 80% off retail. No, I let that deal pass.

What I didn’t let pass, at one-tenth the cost ($19 after delivery – there I go again) and 1,000 times the fun of laser hair removal was a VooMote One. Former FCC chairman Michael Powell once called the TiVo “God’s machine“. The VooMote is God’s remote control.

The VooMote One is an infrared device that when couple with an iPhone or iPod Touch turns the latter into a universal remote. It is amazing.

Granted, I could have bought a universal remote but that doesn’t solve my problem, which is that the everyone in my house loses or breaks remotes. This way, I have my VooMote at my desk and I can slip it on when needed.

You can program the VooMote by brand of equipment and a quick test sequence or by teaching it with your remote. It works as advertised, and have I said it is amazing yet?

Not all is perfect, however. I have three issues. Firstly, the app had to attempt the VooMote firmware upgrade three times before it was successful. That happens occasionally, and the company advises you to stop the process and try again if it happens – although the app itself tells you you can ruin the equipment if you do that. Mine is fine.

Secondly, the matte-black plastic case holds onto fingerprints. Mine already looks grubby. It’s not a deal-breaker for me.

The final problem is not the fault of the VooMote. We have an old Sanyo CRT television that the VooMote does not recognize – and I can’t teach the VooMote from the TV remote since the kids have lost it.

Bonus poll:

Buoyed by the success of Nibbler’s teeth, I am considering further customization. I’m thinking of ordering magnetic vinyl decals for the front fenders. On one side would be Nibbler and on the other would be a 101 Squadron badge. Here are the images and a mock-up of what each side would look like. Ignore the positions of the decals for now. We can discuss that later. (I had no side photos with the teeth installed.)

Which, if any, badges should decorate the Mazda?

View Results

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I nearly killed myself

Late last night, after everyone else was asleep, I was leaning back in my chair when I heard a resounding crack and all the lights went out. More worrisome, I smelled smoke.

My biggest fear was that the iPhone had blown up due to a power surge, but I had not connected it to its USB cable. It was working fine. Using the trusty Flashlight app on my iPhone, I investigated all major electronics and outlets in the vicinity: iMac, router, modem, external hard disk, printer, throttle, joystick, and rudder pedals. I found nothing wrong or warm.

I went downstairs and discovered that the downstairs was not affected. Only one circuit breaker had tripped. I flipped it on and went back upstairs. There, I noticed a grey patch on the white extension cord that leads to the printer. The cord was sliced down to the copper wire inside.

I examined my $16 folding Home Depot chair. The plastic foot is missing from one of the legs. (I should explain that I hate chairs on wheels. They distract me and are no good for flight simming.)

I conclude that the leg of the chair was on the extension cord and when I leaned back, it cut into the insulation and shorted out the circuit. The insulation melted or burned a bit, but the voltage passed harmlessly through the chair’s metal leg.

I suppose I was in no real danger, but would have read this lame excuse of a blog post if I hadn’t sensationalized the title? Are you even reading it now?

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