Category Archives: Apple

Cool Mac/Mobile Software for Sysadmins, Programmers, and People

I recently upgraded my primary workhorse (a MacBook Pro) to Snow Leopard. Before I did, I decided to go through and take stock of all of the documents and software I’d accumulated. While I was doing this, I simultaneously got into a conversation with a buddy of mine about the software he uses on his Macs. Turns out he maintains a whole page devoted to (mostly non-geek, but still somehow geeky) Mac software he uses.

I decided to go ahead and list the software I use for stuff whether it was geeky or not. Then I realized that pretty much all of the software I use is kinda geeky. I guess if you’re someone who’s going to create a list of software you use, it’s pretty hopeless.

So… here’s what I’m using. Suggestions welcome in the comments!

Social Media

My Twitter account updates my Facebook status. My Brightkite checkins update the location information on my Twitter account. It also sends a tweet… which updates my Facebook status. I pay less attention to the ongoing status in my LinkedIn account, but it gets updated automatically as well, I just don’t remember how or by what anymore.

I’ve tried a bunch of Twitter clients. Tweetie is “good enough”. It’s the one I use most often. If I need something hardcore I use Tweetdeck or TweetGrid, which has the benefit of being web-based.

TwitterLocal lets you put in your location and a radius, and then shows you tweets from people who are discernibly near you. I think Brightkite does a better overall job with this, since its whole reason for being is to be location-aware, but it seems like I get fewer updates than with TwitterLocal.

Communication

  • Colloquy
  • Tweetie
  • Mail
  • Skype
  • Google Talk

Right. Twitter is also a communication tool. I have, in fact, checked in with people via Twitter. It’s not how I typically use it, but I think it counts :)

I have to use both Skype and Google Talk because I’m on the road a lot (I’m a consultant) and there are enough hotels who do stupid things with their network that I’m forced to use whichever one works on that particular network. Though I mostly use GMail for mail, it’s gone down a few times on me, so it’s good to have Mail around. I’ve recently found GMail notifier to be almost useless as well, so when I use Mail, I find that getting alerted to incoming messages frees my brain. I use Mail.appetizer to show me previews of incoming mail so I don’t have to switch gears from what I’m doing to see the latest spam. Note, however, that it’s not quite ready for Snow Leopard.

I haven’t tried Mail in Snow Leopard yet. If they ever fix the search functionality (I find it useless) I’ll stop using the GMail interface. I’ve tried thunderbird, but its search is even worse (or was, the last time I tried it).

Fun Stuff

I play guitar and piano, and have also played drums, saxophone, and lots of other noise-making apparatuses. I like that GarageBand will let me put down bass and drum tracks without having to own a bass or drum set.

I also enjoy photography, though I don’t often get out on long quiet hikes in nature or gastronomical adventures that would make for the kinds of stunning things I see on Flickr all the time. However, I do have a family, and we do travel, so while not even 10% of my pics on Flickr are stock quality photos, at least 90% of them are interesting to me personally :)

iPhoto I see as a necessary evil these days. I used to love it, but now that it tries to help me out by autocategorizing on things that, as it turns out, are pretty arbitrary in the context of my life, I don’t like it as much. It’s good for quick touch-ups though. I’ve saved a number of pics with it.

StellaOSX is an Atari 2600 emulator for the Mac that comes with like, I dunno, thousands of ROMs? If you miss your old Atari games, and you have a Mac, it’s all you’ll ever need.

Sim City 4 is a city-building game. If you haven’t heard of Sim City before, it’s not like the Sims. At all. I don’t get that game, in fact. Sim City is a game where you have to try to build a city, build its wealth and prestige, and try to keep the residents happy as well.

Productivity

Things for Mac is the first application I’ve personally seen that seamlessly syncs with Things for my iPhone. It works great. It’s not a full-blown project management solution, but it’s more than a todo list. It’s not about work-related stuff, either. Things is really about keeping my personal things in order. I have to call the township for an inspection on my recent AC replacement, schedule for a followup doctor visit for my dog, hire an insulation contractor by the fall, send out my quarterly taxes, make a dentist appointment… that kind of stuff. It’s also a great place to put ideas for blog posts and stuff, and since it’s right there on my iPhone, I don’t forget as many ideas anymore. I can’t say enough good things about Things, so I’ll just say go try it.

Google Calendar and iCal are kept in sync, so I don’t have to use the horrifically slow Google Calendar on my iPhone. I can sync to iCal on the desktop, sync that to my iPhone, and use iCal on the phone as well. Why the whole calendar synchronization thing has to *still* be hard after like 4 years of trying is beyond me.

Office

Keynote makes doing things that are hard in PowerPoint and impossible in OpenOffice or Google Docs easy as all getout. As a trainer, I spend a lot of time putting content together and trying to find new ways to make it more engaging, less boring, etc. (not that I’ve been accused of being boring, mind you) ;-)

I deliver all of my training from a MacBook Pro using either the remote that came with my laptop or the Remote iPhone application. Usually I can’t use Remote for iPhone because of restrictions regarding the wireless network, but I sometimes use it at home to rehearse new content.

I do use Google Docs for lots of other stuff. It’s not what I’d call full-featured, but when you discover that it’s integrated with Google Talk, it actually makes real-time collaboration pretty nice. Sadly, Microsoft Word is still the only word processing application I’ve seen with offline collaboration features that I’d call “pretty good”. Nothing I’ve seen recently can do what Word did 5 years ago in terms of collaboration. Again — sad.

Preview is a PDF viewer, but it also will do screen grabs. I know there’s a keyboard shortcut to do screen captures. I think it’s shift-command-4. I’m just as happy opening Preview, which is right there on the Dock anyway. It’s better than the old utility Apple provided for this, which would only save in TIFF format.

I feel like people look at me strange when I say that I use a dictionary every single day I’m on the computer (so… every day). I used it for this post, as a matter of fact (“apparatuses” still doesn’t sound right to me). I wish there was an app that could tell you how often you’ve used an app in the last day, week, month, etc. I’ll bet the Dictionary app outnumbers Mail (I usually only use Mail when GMail is down).

System Maintenance

  • Time Capsule/Time Machine
  • AppCleaner
  • Disk Inventory X
  • Apple Remote Desktop

I bought a Time Capsule. It’s an Apple product. It’s an enclosed 1TB hard drive inside of a wireless access point. It also has a USB port where you can connect a hub and then connect up other external USB hard drives, and a USB printer that can then be shared with the whole network without running a long-in-the-tooth Mac G4 with the mirrored doors and the fan that sounds like the landing of the mothership…. uh…. I mean… It’s really easy to use! I use it to back up all of the Macs in the house. The iPhone backs up to my Mac, so that’s covered too.

AppCleaner isn’t horribly useful, but I do use it, and it helps slightly. Maybe. It’s supposed to help you get rid of apps you no longer use, but it still leaves behind seemingly everything that would normally be left behind if you just opened Terminal and typed “sudo rm -rf ./AppName”. I give it the benefit of the doubt. Maybe it catches some stuff sometimes, and then I know all of the usual suspects that hang on to old app cruft, so I can clean some of it out manually without too much fuss.

Disk Inventory X is pretty cool. It presents a tree map view of the contents of your hard drive which makes it dead easy to spot where the disk hogs are. And here I was writing scripts for this ;-) It’s a great spotting tool, but because it’s constantly scraping the disk, it’s quite slow. You also can’t select multiple things in the interface and move them all to the trash at one time, which would be nice. Still, it definitely helped me find stuff I didn’t know was there, and that was taking up lots and lots of space.

Apple Remote Desktop isn’t something I use often, but it’s handy to have around. It lets you do all kinds of advanced stuff by connecting to the desktop of a remote Mac, but I just do simple things with it. If you didn’t know about it, it’s worth at least being aware of.

System Administration/Geekery

  • Terminal
  • Vim
  • SSH Tunnel Manager
  • VMware Fusion
  • Cisco VPN Client

This is the “where do I start” section for me. I do lots of geekery, and these tools facilitate a lot of the geekery. I stuck with the basics here. I use Terminal because tons of what I do is on the command line. There are things I do on the command line for which GUI applications exist, but to be honest, some of those cost money, and none of them are as efficient or reliable as the command line. I know that makes me sound like an old graybeard, but it’s mostly true. A GUI that really makes something you already know how to do on the command line easier is rare.

Vim, of course, runs inside of Terminal. If I’m writing a bunch of code across lots of files or something, I’ll try to use Komodo Edit (and I might upgrade to Komodo IDE), but if I’m on a remote machine, or I just need to do a quick edit here or there, one file at a time, I’ll just use Vim. Vim can do window splitting and code folding and stuff like that, so Komodo isn’t a requirement for me, it’s just slightly more convenient, and it has Vi key bindings :)

SSH Tunnel Manager is a GUI for managing SSH tunnels. Go figure. I’ve been using it for years now, but to be honest, if I don’t use it for a while, the interface becomes unintuitive to me and I go back to the command line or my SSH config file to set up tunnels.

VMware Fusion is great. I can test the latest Linux distros without devoting a whole machine to them, or I can run Windows and test web stuff in IE. There seems to be no end to the stuff I find myself using VMware Fusion for. Surprising.

I’m told there’s a VPN client built into Snow Leopard, but I haven’t tested it out yet. Some have reported issues, so hopefully they don’t bite me.

Programming/Development

Komodo Edit is my favorite editor for writing code, period. If it didn’t have Vi keybindings, I’d likely just use Vim. And I do, sometimes. My first-choice language these days is Python, but I still write plenty of PHP, shell, SQL, Perl, etc. The Mac comes with XCode as an optional install, and I should really give it another shot, but in the past I’ve felt that it was kind of overwhelming, not to mention kinda clunky and slow.

Django is a Python web framework that comes with a development stand-in web server so you can do all of your development on the laptop, test it all locally, then push out to some environment that more closely matches production.

Speaking of pushing out changes, I mostly use Mercurial for my own projects nowadays, and I rather like it, but lots of things still use Subversion, which is wildly popular. My open source project actually uses Subversion with Google Code, but Google recently announced Mercurial support for hosted projects, so I’ll need to look at changing that over.

Fabric is a deployment tool. It’s written in Python and uses the paramiko library, which I found interesting, because I’d written a couple of automation scripts using paramiko that would have been easier to do with Fabric. I’ve only done simple things with Fabric so far, but it’s worth a look if you do a lot of rsync-ish stuff, followed by some “ssh in a for loop” stuff, supported by some cron jobs…. Fabric can really ease your life.

VMware Fusion is used in a programming context in two ways: to test web stuff on IE (I have an XP VM), and to work with libraries that are more convenient to work with under Linux than on the Mac. Sometimes Linux distros have things built-in that I’d have to build from source (along with all the dependencies) on the Mac.

Firebug is just basically a necessity if you do any kind of web development. It lets you inspect the design elements on the page visually, as well as in code, which makes debugging your CSS so easy it’s almost a non-event.

So… what tools are you using?

Totally Hooked: ‘Things’ for Mac

First, I want to point out the only thing I hate about this application: the name. It’s bad for me, it’s bad for the developers… it’s just bad. If I ever had a problem, how am I supposed to do a search for that? If the developers want to find blog posts like this one, how are they supposed to do that?

Aside from the name, Things for Mac really, truly shines. I’ve tried lots and lots and lots of task managers, project managers, life managers, blah, blah, blah. I’ve probably tried 15 of them, and really tried hard to like them, but I just couldn’t. Some are too rigid and structured, while others are completely lacking any structure whatsoever. Some have a learning curve that forces you to make time to sit down and learn them. Others take pains to pay special attention to every aspect of your life (a model doomed to failure). I don’t want to mention all of the ones I’ve tried, because they’re not bad products and don’t deserve bad press. Mostly, they all worked well — they just were not right for me.

Things, on the other hand, I like. It’s just the right balance of features, structure, and ease-of-use. After watching the screencast introduction, I was off and running, and haven’t looked back. I wrote a short poem (a la Dr. Seuss) about my experience:

I do not like them on my Dock,
I do not like them in Firefox.
I do not like them in my car,
I do not like them near or far!
I do not like most “task”ish apps,
but I find I like this “Things” for Mac!

Ok, it’s totally corny. On to what I like about it.

On the Desktop

I actually didn’t expect to like the idea of a desktop application. Of the 15 other tools I’ve tried, only one or two others had a desktop app, and those two apps were opposite ends of the spectrum: one required a PhD to use, and the other was more like a free-form note pad. Things is neither. If you’re in a rush and just want to make sure you don’t forget a task, you can click on ‘Inbox’, type in as many or as few task details as you want, and be done with it. Later, you can drag the task into a project, or add scheduling information, make it repeat, etc.

Even better, it has a keyboard shortcut that’s settable, so if the app is running somewhere, you can just use that to do a “Quick Entry” without leaving the app you’re currently using. Very handy.

Though Things is not project management software, you can create “Areas of Responsibility”, and then have projects inside of those areas. This is perfect for me. I have areas of responsibility like “Home”, “Work”, and “Blog”, and inside the “Home” area I have all of my home improvement projects. My “Work” area contains a list of projects, which themselves contain high-level tasks (I leave the detailed stuff to actual project management software), and also projects which are related to business development, which I don’t use project management software for. The “Blog” area is a perfect place to jot down ideas for blog posts that I can go back to later and check off when they’re completed.

You don’t have to worry too much about being reminded about upcoming due dates, assuming you set due dates (which you don’t have to do). When due dates are approaching, Things will move the tasks into the “Today” queue, so if you have some down time during the day and aren’t sure what to tackle next, click “Today”, and start on something! I find that there’s almost always something in that queue that I have time to do before I need to (or am able to) get back to what I was doing. That, alone, is worth the $50 I paid for Things.

On the Go!

I’m not sure I would be so into Things if it weren’t for the accompanying iPhone app, which pretty much rocks. I guess if that didn’t exist, they would’ve considered having a companion web interface or something, but really, given the choice, I’d rather have it be mobile than solely on the web (though I’d like to see Things work on non-Apple mobile devices too).

One of the really awesome things about the iPhone app is that it syncs over the air to the desktop app. Of course, both have to be running, and they need to be on the same network, but my desktop app is *always* open, and I have yet to be inconvenienced by anything related to the sync functionality. Some folks have requested mac-to-mac sync capability, which isn’t currently there, but I don’t need it, so it’s not an issue for me.

While the iPhone app is missing some features of the desktop application, 90% of what’s in the desktop app is doable from the iPhone. The only notable exception for me personally was an apparent inability to create new areas of responsibility. Indeed, this is the one place where the interface is a little inconsistent. While clicking “Inbox” or “Today” will bring you to a list of tasks and projects, they chose to list projects and areas of responsibility in the sidebar for easy perusal and drill-down capabilities. It works well in the desktop app, but it’d be nice to make “areas” a queue on the iPhone, just like “Projects” is.

A Compeling Duo

In the end, Things has two things going for it: First, it has the nicest, easiest to use interface. Second, it has the ability to sync over the air with my iPhone, which also has a nice interface. In the old days, you might leave your bulky planner at your desk and carry around a note pad, and this mimicks that kind of experience, but takes away the need to sync them up later by hand.

It’s simple, but not too simple. Structured, but not too structured. I’ve been using it for a little over 2 weeks now, and have no plans to change. I know this sounds like an ad, so I should also say that I’m not being paid for this and don’t work for the company that makes it. I do recommend you check it out, though, if you’re in the market for something to help manage your time.

Marc Andreessen on Everything

Marc Andreessen was on Charlie Rose last night, and I missed it. A buddy told me about it, and I wanted to watch, but things just got in the way. So here it is.

So, this is the very first time I’ve ever embedded video into a blog post. I couldn’t help myself.

Why?

I’ve never even heard Marc Andreessen talk until tonight, to be honest. I’ve been a huge fan of his actual technical work, and I’ve read some of his writings, and you almost can’t help but follow his career if you work with internet-related things directly, but I’ve somehow missed him at all of the conferences, never seen an interview… until now. And you know, it turns out that in this interview, he validates several posts that have been lying around on this blog for some time.

He talks about the evolution of web commerce and cloud computing and how it lowers the bar for startups.

He talks about news, newspapers and how they absolutely must kill the print edition, now.

He talks about social media, where it came from, where it’s going, “viral”, etc.

This is not to compare myself to Andreessen in any way — that’s ludicrous. But it’s nice to get some validation from on high for some of the thoughts and ideas I’ve had. Now if only I could write a tool that will lay the foundation for the next generation of human interaction, I’ll be all set ;-)

It should go without saying that I learned some things, but the biggest thing I learned came from just a tiny little quip buried in the middle of the video somewhere. He says, while talking about the iPhone, that it was “beamed in from 5 years in the future”. I think problems should be thought about that way in general. I’ve adopted a new way of thinking about products and services from pondering on this for all of 5 minutes. Find a service that solves a problem now, or find a problem that exists now — either one. Now think about how that problem will be solved in 5 years. Now set a deadline for solving that problem in 1 year.

Sounds impossible? Not a chance. Impossible is just another excuse to get creative, change your perspective, rethink the problem, and produce a solution. Listening to really smart people talk can be inadvertently inspiring. Thanks Marc!

2009: Waiting to Exhale

Lots of blogs list a bunch of stuff that happened in the year just past, and I have done a year-in-review post before, but in looking back at posts on this blog and elsewhere, what strikes me most is not the big achievements that took place in technology in 2008, but rather the questions that remain unanswered. So much got started in 2008 — I’m really excited to see what happens with it all in 2009!

Cloud Computing

Technically, the various utility or ‘cloud’ computing initiatives started prior to 2008, but in my observation, they gained more traction in 2008 than at any other time. At the beginning of 2008, I was using Amazon’s S3, and testing to expand into more wide use of EC2 during my time as Technology Director for AddThis.com (pre-buyout). I was also investigating tons of other technologies that take different approaches to the higher-level problem these things all try to solve: owning, and housing (and cooling… and powering…) equipment. Professionally, I’ve used or tested heavily AppLogic, GoGrid, and all of the Amazon services. Personally, I’ve also tried Google App Engine.

2008 was a banner year for getting people to start tinkering with these technologies, and we’ve seen the launch of ‘helper’ services like RightScale, which puts a very pretty (and quite powerful) face on the Amazon services. The question now is whether the cost-benefit analyses, and the security and availability story is going to be compeling enough to lure in more and bigger users. I think 2009 is going to be the year that makes or breaks some of these initiatives.

The other question I have about cloud computing, which I’ve been asking since the last half of 2007, is “where does all of this leave the sysadmin?” It seems to me that a great many of the services being trotted out for users to play with seek to provide either user-level GUI interfaces, or low-level developer-centric interfaces to solve problems that historically have been the purview of system administrators. I’ve been wondering if it will force sysadmins to become more dev-centric, developers to become more system-savvy, if it will force more interaction between the two camps, or if it means death to sysadmins on some level, to some degree, or for some purposes.

I really think there’s a lot of hype surrounding the services, but I also think there’s enough good work being done here that 2009 could begin to reveal a sea change in how services are delivered and deployed on the web.

Drizzle

If you’re working in the web 2.0, uber-scaling space, and you’re using MySQL, chances are your relationship with your database is less ideal than it was when you were using it to run your blog or your recipe database. As you try to scale MySQL through various means, you find that there are lots of things that could be handled better to make MySQL scale more gracefully. Some extra internal accounting and instrumentation would also be nice. In many cases, it would also be nice to just cut out all of the crap you know you’re not going to use. If you’re looking to sharding, it would be good if there was a database that was born after the notion of sharding became widely understood.

Drizzle is a project started by some MySQL gurus to take a great experimental leap toward what could become a beacon in the dark sea of high scalability. At the very least, it will serve as a foundation for future work in creating databases that are more flexible, more manageable, and, more easily scaled. Of course, it’s also likely that Drizzle will be tied more closely to a slightly narrower audience, but I can say from experience that had the ideals of the Drizzle team been fully realized in an open source product prior to 2008, I may not have even installed MySQL in the first place. I had at least a passing familiarity with what I was getting myself into, and pulled the trigger to use MySQL based on criteria that deviated somewhat from pure technological merit. ;-)

I don’t believe Drizzle has announced any kind of timeline for releases. I wouldn’t expect them to. Instead, the first release will probably be announced on blogs in various places with links to downloads or something. The Cirrus Milestone for the project seems to focus quite a bit on cleanup, standardization, and things that, to prospective deployers, are relatively uninteresting. But I think 2009 will at least see Drizzle getting to the point where it can support more developers, and make more progress, more quickly. In 2009, I think we’ll see people doing testing with Drizzle with more serious goals in mind than just tinkering, and I think in 2010 we’ll see production employments. Call me crazy – it’s my prediction.

Microsoft

Windows market share on the desktop, it was recently reported by IDC, has dropped below 90% for the first time in something like 15 years, to 89.6%. Mac users now represent 9.1% of the market, and the rest is owned by Linux, at a paltry 0.9%.

It would seem that OS X has eaten away a few percentage points from Windows, and done perhaps more damage to the Linux space. I have no data to back that up at the moment – I’m going by the enormous shift from Linux to OS X between OSCON 2006 and OSCON 2008. I’ll let you know what I see at LISA 2009, which I plan to attend.

But what about Microsoft? Sure, they’re the company IT wonks love to hate, but the question of how their apparent (marketed) direction will affect their products and business is one that truly fascinates me. Microsoft has become the Herbert Hoover of American software companies, while Apple is FDR, perceived as having saved many of us from the utter depression and despair of the Hoover years (insert joke about sucking here).

Microsoft is enormous. It moves horribly slowly. It has shown a stubborness in the past that would seem difficult for something so large to shake off. Their products reflect this big, slow, obstinacy. What end users need is a software company that is going to lead its users in the direction they’re all moving in already on their own. It can no longer be about “allowing users” to do things (Ballmer has used such phrasing in the past). It needs to be about enabling and empowering, and getting the hell out of the user’s way.

The big question I think 2009 will answer is whether or not Ray Ozzie can affect change to either the culture, or the mechanics of how Microsoft does business (either one is likely to have a drastic effect on the other).

Python 3.0

It’s here already. I, for one, am quite excited about it. I think that GvR, Alex Martelli, Steve Holden, and others have put forth a very admirable effort to communicate with users and developers about what changes are imminent, what they mean, and how to prepare to move forward. I think 2009 is going to require 100% of the communication effort expended in 2008 in order to continue to rally the troops. I don’t know, but would imagine that the powers that be can see that as well, and so it will be. Assuming I’m right there, adoption will increase in the community, and the community buzz resulting from the wider adoption will begin to take some of the pressure off of the really big names, who quite honestly have craploads of other things to work on!

I believe that by summer 2009 we’ll see Python 2.6 migrations happening more rapidly, and a year out from that point we’ll start to see the wave of 3.0 migrations building to more tsunami-like proportions.

Another question: is there sufficien new adoption of Python going on to register 3.0 on the usage scale? Probably not now, but hopefully in 2009…

USA Gets a CTO

I’ve read a few articles about this, but all I’ve read really just amounts to noise and speculation. What, exactly, will the CTO be charged with? I’ve seen Ed Felten floated as a candidate for the position, but he’s not a person who’s going to want to run in and try to herd cats to try to standardize their desktop computing platform. I think if the CTO position is going to take charge of the things Felten has already shown a keen interest in (namely, high-level IT policy, the effect of technology on society, privacy and security… as it relates to the former two items, etc), then there could be nobody better for the job. Princeton’s Center for Information Technology Policy is one of the few places (maybe the only place) I’d actually take a pay cut to join ;-P

I imagine that 2009 will answer the questions surrounding the nation’s very first CTO.

It’s The Economy!

I’m a freelance technology consultant and trainer. Anyone who is making a living freelancing is probably wondering about the state of the economy, no matter where they live (incidentally, I live in the US). The numbers aren’t good. The S&P is down something like 41% this year – the largest drop on record. The state of the markets in general, along with the failing of the banks and their subsequent appearance in Senate committee hearings, as well as the deflationary spiral in the housing market (and predicted more general deflationary spiral) invoke images of bread lines and soup kitchens… or at least very little work for freelancers.

Personally, I have a lot to lose if things *really* go south to the degree that they did in the 1930′s, but I have to say that I don’t think it’ll happen. If you’re worried about this becoming the next Great Depression and are really losing sleep over it, I recommend you read a book called “The Great Depression” by Robert S. McElvaine. There are probably tons of books you can read, but this is one I happen to like. It’s full of both fact and opinion, but the opinions are well-reasoned, and loudly advertised as being opinions (you’re not likely to find a book about any topic relating to economics that isn’t full of opinions anyway).

What I think you’ll find is that, while there are a lot of parallels between now and then, there are lots of things that *aren’t* parallel as well (partly as a result of the depression – for example, the US is no longer on the gold standard, and both banks and securities trading are infinitely more regulated now). Also, not all of the parallels are bad. For example, things began to improve (though slightly at first) almost the day a new Democratic leader replaced the outgoing Republican regime.

My advice (which I hope I can follow myself): If the market numbers bother you, don’t look. Service your customers, don’t burn any bridges, rebuild the ones you can, build new ones where you can, and above all, Do Good Work. When you don’t have work, market, volunteer, and build your network and friendships. Don’t eat lunch alone, as they say.

What are you wondering about?

My list is necessarily one-sided. A person can be into only so many things at once. What kinds of tech-related questions are you searching for answers on as we enter the new year?

What do you find lacking/awesome in tech training classes?

Dear lazyweb, 

Over the past year, I’ve spoken to a few clients about performing on-site training for their staff in things like Linux administration, SQL, PHP, etc. I’ve also gotten a few training contracts as a result, and those contracts have gone quite well, and I have some repeat business already! I really really enjoy that line of work (and my consulting work keeps my skillset sharp and insures I won’t get ‘stale’). 

What I think my current clients like is that they already know my work and are confident in my knowledge of the areas I’m training in, and they love that I’ll create custom content for them instead of having static, inflexible, prepackaged classes. 

Technical people, though, are extremely, excruciatingly scrutinizing, though. We’re a lot that likes to find problems with things, because we like to fix problems. We also (some of us, at least) believe that anything worth doing is worth doing right, and that’s my goal. So, although I’m also a part of that scrutinizing, problem-solving crowd, I’m also aware that I don’t have a monopoly on valuable opinions regarding how training is put together, delivered, etc. 

So, if you have had experiences, good or bad, with in-person training classes, or if something in one of those classes stood out to you, or something won’t leave your brain about your experience, I’d love to hear it!

What Ordinary Users Think About IE: Debunked

Point all of your chain-mail-forwarding family and friends at this post. It’s a collection of things people have said to me, or that I’ve overheard, that reveal little tidbits about what people are thinking when they use IE.

I have to use IE – it’s my internet!

IE is not your internet. IE is what’s known as a web browser. There are lots of different web browsers. IE just happens to be the one that comes with Windows. It doesn’t make it a good browser or anything. It’s just there in the event that you have no other browser. If the only browser on your system is IE, the first thing you should do is use it to download Firefox by clicking here.

If IE is so horrible, how come everyone uses it?

They don’t, actually. There was a time not too long ago where over 90% of internet users used IE. However, with the constant flood of security issues (IE usage really should be considered dangerous at this point), IE’s horrible support of web standards (which makes it hard for web developers to create cool sites for you to use), and its inability to keep up with really cool features in modern browsers, its share of the internet usage market has been declining steadily over the last couple of years. In fact, this source puts IE usage at around 45% currently, so not even a majority of people use IE anymore, if statistics are to be believed. Accurate statistics for browser use are difficult to nail down, and are probably more useful to discern a trend, not hard numbers. Still, the usage trend for IE is moving downward, steadily, and not particularly slowly. If you’re still using IE, you’re almost a dinosaur. Just about the entire tech-savvy world has migrated over to Firefox, with small contingents choosing Safari (Mac only) and Chrome (Windows only). Very small camps also use Opera and Konqueror.

This is also not to be trusted, but it’s my opinion based on observation of the IT field over the past 10 years: of the 40% of people still using IE, probably half of them are forced to use it in their offices because they don’t have the proper permissions on their office computers to install anything else. The other half probably just don’t realize they have any choice in the matter. You do. There are other browsers. I’ve named a few in this post. Go get one, or three, of them.

Will all of the sites I use still work?

It has always been exceedingly rare that a web site actually *requires* IE in order to work properly. Your online banking, email, video, pictures, shopping, etc., will all still work. The only time you might need IE around is to use the Microsoft Update website. In all likelihood, you’ll be much happier with your internet experience using something like Firefox than you ever were with IE. Think about it this way: I’m a complete geek. I use the internet for things ordinary users didn’t even know you could do. I bank, shop, communicate, manage projects, calendars and email, registered and run my business completely online. It’s difficult to think of a task that can be done on the internet that I don’t use the internet for, and I haven’t used IE in probably 8 years, and have not had any issues. If you find a web site that absolutely, positively CANNOT be used UNLESS you’re viewing it with IE, please post it in the comments, and I’ll create a “hall of shame” page to list them all, along with alternative sites you can access WITHOUT IE, which probably provide a better service anyway :)

I’m not technical enough to install another browser.

Who told you that?! That’s silly. You installed Elf Bowling didn’t you? C’mon, I know you did. Or what about that crazy toolbar that’s now fuddling up your IE window? Or those icons blinking down near the clock that you forgot the purpose of. At some point, you have installed something on your computer, and it was, in all likelihood, harder to do than installing Firefox would be. It’s simple. You go here, click on the huge Firefox logo, and it presents you with super-duper easy instructions (with pictures!) and a download. It takes less than 3 minutes to install, and you DO NOT have to know what you’re doing in any way or be geeky in any way to install it. If you can tell whether you’re computer is turned on or not, you’re overqualified to be a professional Firefox installer.

I Like IE. I have no problems with IE.

Whether you realize it or not, you have problems with IE, believe me. I had a cousin who said he had no problems with IE too. Then he came to my house one day, knocked on my door, and when I opened it, he handed me a hard drive from his computer. He said that all of his pictures of his first-born child were on there, and his computer had contracted a virus, and he couldn’t even boot from the hard drive. So it was up to me to recover the only pics he had of his only son being born. True story. Turns out, I tracked down the virus on the hard drive, and it was contracted by IE. Also, it wasn’t the only virus he had. If you think you’re safe because you have antivirus software, you’re sadly mistaken. He had it installed too, but it hadn’t been updated in 6 months, so any viruses released since the last update weren’t recognized by the antivirus software, and were allowed to roam freely onto his hard drive.

There has never, in the history of browsers, been a worse track record with regards to security than IE. Never. I promise – but you’re free to Google around for yourself. Half of the reason antivirus software even exists is purely to protect IE users (though email viruses are a problem independent of what browser you use, admittedly).

The other reason you might say you like IE is because you’ve never used anything else. As an alternative, I strongly suggest giving Firefox a shot.

Why do you care what browser I use?

I’m a technology guy. I’m one of those people that would work with technology even if he wasn’t being paid. Some people care about cooking, or quilting, or stained glass, or candlemaking, or knitting, or sewing, or horticulture, or wine. Heck, my mom cares about every single one of those things! Me, I care about technology, and I care about the internet. I want the internet to be a better place. Browsers play a non-trivial role in making the internet a better place. Also, one reason I care about technology is that it helps people do things they might otherwise be unable to do. Browsers enable users to do great things, and it allows us developers to make great things available to you. But when countless hours are spent trying to make things work with IE, it just slows everything down, and you don’t get cool stuff on the internet nearly as fast as you could.

So, it’s less about me caring what browser you use. In fact, I don’t really care if you use Firefox or not, it just happens to be the best browser out there currently. If you want to try something completely different, I encourage that too. It’s more about me caring about technology, the internet, and your browsing experience.

Linux on Laptop = Epic Fail

I brought my MacBook Pro in for a warranty repair yesterday around noon. Since then I’ve been using a Lenovo T61 to get basic work done, and also to see if any progress has been made in the area of Linux support for my laptop. I bought this laptop specifically because a website said that it was very well supported by Linux distributions “out of the box”, including video and wireless. I was sure to make hardware choices that didn’t require special third-party drivers… I’ve been doing this for 10 years, so I have some understanding of how to buy a laptop that I plan to put Linux on. Well, this time I apparently failed.

First, I had Ubuntu installed, and I was never able to keep the wireless card working consistently. To be honest, Ubuntu is the best distro I’ve had on this thing so far. Next, I gave OpenSUSE 11 a shot, and there’s been no end to the issues. Of course, it started with the wireless card. I have an Intel 3945ABG wireless card, according to lspci and dmesg output. In fact, here’s my lspci output right here:

00:00.0 Host bridge: Intel Corporation Mobile PM965/GM965/GL960 Memory Controller Hub (rev 0c)
00:02.0 VGA compatible controller: Intel Corporation Mobile GM965/GL960 Integrated Graphics Controller (rev 0c)
00:02.1 Display controller: Intel Corporation Mobile GM965/GL960 Integrated Graphics Controller (rev 0c)
00:19.0 Ethernet controller: Intel Corporation 82566MM Gigabit Network Connection (rev 03)
00:1a.0 USB Controller: Intel Corporation 82801H (ICH8 Family) USB UHCI Controller #4 (rev 03)
00:1a.1 USB Controller: Intel Corporation 82801H (ICH8 Family) USB UHCI Controller #5 (rev 03)
00:1a.7 USB Controller: Intel Corporation 82801H (ICH8 Family) USB2 EHCI Controller #2 (rev 03)
00:1b.0 Audio device: Intel Corporation 82801H (ICH8 Family) HD Audio Controller (rev 03)
00:1c.0 PCI bridge: Intel Corporation 82801H (ICH8 Family) PCI Express Port 1 (rev 03)
00:1c.1 PCI bridge: Intel Corporation 82801H (ICH8 Family) PCI Express Port 2 (rev 03)
00:1c.2 PCI bridge: Intel Corporation 82801H (ICH8 Family) PCI Express Port 3 (rev 03)
00:1c.3 PCI bridge: Intel Corporation 82801H (ICH8 Family) PCI Express Port 4 (rev 03)
00:1c.4 PCI bridge: Intel Corporation 82801H (ICH8 Family) PCI Express Port 5 (rev 03)
00:1d.0 USB Controller: Intel Corporation 82801H (ICH8 Family) USB UHCI Controller #1 (rev 03)
00:1d.1 USB Controller: Intel Corporation 82801H (ICH8 Family) USB UHCI Controller #2 (rev 03)
00:1d.2 USB Controller: Intel Corporation 82801H (ICH8 Family) USB UHCI Controller #3 (rev 03)
00:1d.7 USB Controller: Intel Corporation 82801H (ICH8 Family) USB2 EHCI Controller #1 (rev 03)
00:1e.0 PCI bridge: Intel Corporation 82801 Mobile PCI Bridge (rev f3)
00:1f.0 ISA bridge: Intel Corporation 82801HBM (ICH8M-E) LPC Interface Controller (rev 03)
00:1f.1 IDE interface: Intel Corporation 82801HBM/HEM (ICH8M/ICH8M-E) IDE Controller (rev 03)
00:1f.2 SATA controller: Intel Corporation 82801HBM/HEM (ICH8M/ICH8M-E) SATA AHCI Controller (rev 03)
00:1f.3 SMBus: Intel Corporation 82801H (ICH8 Family) SMBus Controller (rev 03)
03:00.0 Network controller: Intel Corporation PRO/Wireless 3945ABG Network Connection (rev 02)
15:00.0 CardBus bridge: Ricoh Co Ltd RL5c476 II (rev ba)
15:00.1 FireWire (IEEE 1394): Ricoh Co Ltd R5C832 IEEE 1394 Controller (rev 04)
15:00.2 SD Host controller: Ricoh Co Ltd R5C822 SD/SDIO/MMC/MS/MSPro Host Adapter (rev 21)
15:00.3 System peripheral: Ricoh Co Ltd R5C843 MMC Host Controller (rev ff)
15:00.4 System peripheral: Ricoh Co Ltd R5C592 Memory Stick Bus Host Adapter (rev 11)
15:00.5 System peripheral: Ricoh Co Ltd xD-Picture Card Controller (rev 11)

I’m running the KDE4 desktop, and tried using the default NetworkManager icon that’s in the systray to get things working. From what I saw there, it appeared that my card wasn’t scanning. I put in my network details manually, and tried to connect, and it failed with no errors. In the NetworkManager log there was lots of output, but nothing particularly useful. It just said the association took to long and that it was now marking that connection as ‘invalid’. Great. So here I am, trying to use Linux on the desktop, and only 5 minutes after the very first system boot, I’m tailing log files and debugging, and basically playing sysadmin, which is exactly what I don’t want to be doing on my desktop system. Restart NetworkManager, see what dhclient is doing, reboot, check /etc/modprobe.d, lsmod…. fail. Now what?

Well, I opened kwifimanager, and it said that I had indeed associated with an access point. So… I *am* scanning? Hmm. I had no IP address, so I figured I had probably fat-fingered my WEP settings somewhere. Tailing /var/log/messages agrees, saying WEP decryption is failing. So I double-check everything, all looks normal and correct to me, I try again, and No Bueno. *sigh*.

Finally, I reverted to command-line tactics, and ran this little line:

iwconfig wlan0 essid <myssid> key <mykey>

Magically, it works, where all of the GUI nonsense had failed. Now here’s a question: how the hell do you get this to “just work” at boot time? Well, I had about 10 emails to send to clients, so I put that question off and fired up a browser and…. fail. WTF?

I had an IP address, pinged my router, pinged another host on the network, all good. Pinged an external IP I know by heart, fail. Ugh. Ran ‘cat /etc/resolv.conf’ — empty. Apparently, dhclient didn’t update the information it got from my router. It also didn’t update when I set the domain in NetworkManager to ‘home’, because it still said ‘search site’. I added the proper lines in there, and tried again in the browser… fail. Now what?!?

Ran ‘netstat -rn’. I don’t have a default gateway. *sigh*…

route add default gw 192.168.1.1

And I finally have internet access.

Of course, I can’t work 24 hours a day, so I went to bed, and left my laptop running so I could get right back to work in the morning. Or not.

I had foolishly chosen to use an OpenGL screensaver. Overnight, it completely locked up the machine, rendering it useless without forcibly rebooting it. So much for getting right back to work.

Well, let’s see if I can get some of these issues fixed by updating the software, since I’m now at least connected to the internet (of course, after the forced reboot, I had to do the iwconfig->route add routine again). Ran the updater, picked some extra repositories, and it goes off to set things up. Unfortunately, it also prompts me to import probably 50 or so GPG keys. Annoying. More annoying is, after all of that, it fails to update any of my software, even though it tells me there are updates available. Why you ask? Here’s what I got…

Failed to mount cd:///?devices=/dev/sr0 on /var/adm/mount/AP_0x00000001: No medium found (mount: No medium found)

Click ok. Get same error again. Click ok. Get slightly different error…

Unexpected exception. Failed to mount cd:///?devices=/dev/sr0 on /var/adm/mount/AP_0x00000001: No medium found (mount: No medium found)

Click Ok, get another message…

Please file a bug report about this. See http://en.opensuse.org/Zypper#Troubleshooting for instructions.

I go there, the URL isn’t valid. I find the Troubleshooting page on my own, and there’s a bunch of generic troubleshooting information there. More command line sysadmin-ish stuff in there. Just the kind of stuff I don’t need to be spending otherwise billable time on. I give up and decide that I’ll just deal with it in its broken-ass state for the next 10 hours or so until I can get my beloved MacBook Pro back.

Help me pick a new feed reader

I’ve been using Google Reader since it was created. I really love the *idea* of Google Reader. I like that scrolling through the posts marks them as read. I like that you can toggle between list and expanded views of the posts. I like that you can search within a feed or across all feeds (though selecting multiple specific feeds would be great).

All of that said, I’d like to explore other avenues, because I don’t like that there’s, like, zero flexibility in how the Google Reader interface is configured. My problem starts with large fonts…

I use relatively large fonts. If you increase the font twice up from the default size in firefox on a mac (using the cmd-+ keystroke, twice), and you have more than just a couple of feeds, you wind up with this really horrible side pane with the bottom half of it requiring a scroll bar, and the text wraps, and it just looks terrible. What makes this really REALLY REALLY annoying is that:

  1. I don’t use the features included in the *top* part of the side pane, ever, at all (like ‘trends’ and stuff), and
  2. You can’t resize or disable that part of the side pane.

I’ve used folders and some other features to try to alleviate the issue, but it’s just a compromise, and I’d rather not do that if something else would work better for me. I’ve had a couple of quick glances at just a couple of other readers, but I thought I’d get some input from the lazyweb to see what your thoughts are. Is there a browser-based feed reader that has some of Google’s niceties, but perhaps with a little bit nicer/more configurable interface? Out of curiosity, are you using a Mac-compatible fat-client reader that just totally r0cks in some way? If so, let me know in the comments.

MacBook Pro: Should I Just Get a Refurb?

I hate glossy screens. I’ve tried them. I don’t like them. It’s true that it would probably be good for my eyes in some way, since I do a lot of reading on the laptop and things *are* sharper with the glossy screen. However, there’s just no way I can deal with having a glossy screen all the time, because I don’t have control over the lighting when I’m out and about at client sites or working from a coffee shop or something. If there’s a really busy background, or a huge window at your back, the screen becomes distracting and in some cases unusable due to its highly reflective nature.

Maybe this is a ploy by Apple to actually sell off all of their refurbs and clearance items in a hurry, and then they’ll offer the option on the new MBPs.

This experience has shown me something interesting about myself and my stance toward Linux on the desktop. I’ve run Linux on desktops for about 10 years. In the past 2 years it’s been less often, because that’s around the time I started making friends with the Mac. Over that time, I have apparently reached the point where I will sooner deal with the glossy screen nonsense than go back to using Linux on the desktop full time.

If Apple provides nothing else of value to the Linux community, they at least serve as a proof of concept that, if hardware compatibility is removed from the equation completely, UNIX-based machines can be extremely successful desktops.

I’m a Top 25 Geek Blogger… for some value of “Top”

I’m not someone who wakes up every day and looks at how my blog is ranked by all of the various services. I check out my WordPress stats, but that’s really about it. However, someone went and did some of the work for me, and they’ve decided that, of the blogs that they read or that were suggested to them, this blog ranks #20 in a listing of 25.

I’m really flattered, but wonder if it’s an indicator that this is a quality blog, or that they should aim higher in their blog reading ;-P  Either way, listing 25 bloggers in a flattering way is a fantastic marketing technique, because most of us are probably egomaniacal enough to say “Hey! Look!” and link back to the list on *your* blog, resulting in lots of traffic. Kudos, and thanks Mobile Maven!