Archive for the ‘technology’ Category

8 October, 2011

I doubt that I am the only person to think of this, but it felt fitting to name our Apple TV “steve”.

Rethink This, AT&T
10 February, 2011

Today we picked up our brand-new, Verizon iPhones. Our OG iPhones were slaved, of course, to AT&T and thus suffered horrible audio quality and most calls being dropped. That’s right: most calls. We experienced well over 50% of calls being dropped. From whence comes our deep and abiding antipathy toward AT&T.

We are ecstatic to have switched to Verizon: outstanding audio quality, no dropped calls, and not a single penny going to AT&T.

Safari Fired
14 November, 2009

My web feed needs are quite simple, mostly web comics and family’s, friends’, and author’s blogs. So simple that I haven’t bothered to learn the difference between RSS and Atom . Accordingly for years I have just used Safari as my aggregator.

Despite the marketing to the contrary, I have not found Safari 4 to be much of an improvement over Safari 3. In particular, its handling of web feeds is unacceptably broken. There are several feeds for which it would only notify of updates every couple of months. The checking of feeds would consume Safari such that it would be unresponsive for five seconds or more upon startup. At least half the time when I tried to browse to a particular feed Safari would spin for some time and then show an error page saying that there was an IPC timeout in the Mach kernel.

I think that all three behaviors are symptoms of the same cause, probably an architectural flaw in the code for the feeds. This behavior first appeared in the beta for Safari 4 and has not been fixed in the eight months since then. A mantra often associated with Mac software is “it just works”; Safari 4’s web feed handling just doesn’t work. There is no way that the kind of problems I continue to see can be considered acceptable. Simply put, Safari 4 should not have shipped with these failures.

Yesterday I reached my breaking point and went looking for a new aggregator. I chose NewsFire and have been very pleased with it. I have seen no problems at all with any of the feeds, so I know that the problems are not caused by the feeds themselves. I like the NewsFire interface a lot, finding it very usable. And since I’ve removed my feeds from my Safari bookmarks, Safari starts up a lot faster, too.

The Customer Has Spoken
1 July, 2008

About a fortnight ago, we received an email from Netflix announcing that in September they would remove Profiles, a feature that allows multiple queues for the same account. For example, in my home my spouse is the primary account holder with the default queue, my kids have their own queue, and I have my own queue. All three queues together count against the number of movies out at a time. Given the widely divergent tastes in movies amongst all of us, the three different queues (or “profiles”) allow us to more easily manage the movies we want to see.

The shamefully vague email announcing the degradation of service said “While it may be disappointing to see Profiles go away, this change will help us continue to improve the Netflix website for all our customers”. Netflix spokesperson Steve Swasey reiterated that asinine position with “the decision will ultimately benefit all Netflix members … we will be able to put more focus and resources site and service improvements that benefit everyone”. As if those who use profiles are somehow preventing those who don’t from using the web site.

To say I was slightly peeved would be a gross understatement. I hate using the telephone but I was angry enough to call their customer support and ask for a better explanation. The poor gal who answered said that it was in response to requests from the users. I have a very hard time believing that anyone actually called to complain that someone else could use multiple profiles. The script she read implied that profiles confused the majority of Netflix users. Again, I find that explanation tenuous at best since you have to specifically activate extra profiles and most Netflix users I know use profiles without confusion.
Two decades of working in the software industry give me a strong hunch about the real impetus behind this horrible decision. This kind of bonehead maneuver has all the hallmarks of someone with strong opinions unencumbered by facts, no objective criteria by which to have their performance measured, and lots and lots of spare time to stump for their pet idea du juor. (Think Ryan’s web site on “The Office”.) Said clown probably concocted the “users demand it” line as justification after the fact. Given the outrage at the proposal, it is obvious that quite a significant percentage of the Netflix users are in favor of profiles.

As I explained to Netflix in the email of complaint I sent, in software (including web site development) the cost for supporting multiples of anything is almost all in the transition from supporting one to supporting many. Since the profiles feature had already been developed, that was a sunk cost; removing profiles would not, and could not, recoup any of the costs of its development. The only thing removing profiles would do is piss off the customers. It would actually cost more to remove it than to leave it in place as removing code is more than just a cut-and-paste exercise. Certainly a company the size of Netflix could afford to hire a web site designer who knows enough CSS to accommodate multiple profiles in their new web site. Heck, they could even dream big and consider using AJAX to present a different web page based on whether or not the person had multiple profiles. The point is that support for multiple profiles is technically feasible and cheaper than removing said support.

Luckily, this idea crumbled under the withering fire of protest from the users. Netflix has relented and will keep profiles. In their email they said “You spoke, and we listened. We are keeping Profiles. Thank you for all the calls and emails telling us how important Profiles are.” This decision is as mindful of the customers as the previous was ignorant of them. Good on ya, Netflix.

Too Bold by Half
24 March, 2008

A site (that shall remain nameless) that I was reading today is that of someone with a bachelor’s degree in computer science. I say this to put a very annoying trait of the site into context: hyperlinks use some JavaScript magic to embolden themselves on mouse-over.

Obviously, I am keen on using a bold typeface for hyperlinks. I adopted the habit in the primeval days of the mid-nineties to make it easier for the reader to see keywords. A fellow who once was a reader complimented me on the technique and I’ve kept it since. So I have no objection to the emboldening per se.

Dynamically changing the appearance of the page can be made to work quite effectively. WordPress uses a fade effect rather nicely after an entry is posted. Tooltip windows are generally unobtrusive and do not obscure the item for which they provide tips.

What I find rather distracting is the dynamic emboldening when the mouse pointer hovers over the link. Changing the typeface makes a major visual change to exactly the user’s point of focus and causes cascading layout changes for the rest of the text of the paragraph.

Sometimes one can be too clever by half.

Apple Is a Tall Poppy?
21 March, 2008

John Gruber recently wrote about an idiotic Wired cover story about Apple. I only read Gruber’s analysis, not the article in question, so I shan’t comment on the article directly.

Some years back I was telling my friend who was born in India that I thought Indians had been fully assimilated into American culture. My justification was that I began hearing jokes about Indians from those who like ethnic jokes. Much like with siblings, outlanders are treated with kid-gloves but locals are fair game for abuse.

I have seen the same thing on development teams. When people don’t know the new guy, they err on the side of caution, not kicking the noob while they’re down. Once a mutual respect has been earned and they know the new guy is up to the challenge, the gloves come off and the kidding begins.

It seems that Apple has made a full recovery since folks are now taking potshots at them.

Who Could Hang a Name on You?
26 January, 2008

My spouse recently started using CookWare Deluxe to manage recipes. One of its features is the production of a shopping list based on the selected recipes. The manual gives instructions for putting the list on an iPod. In essence, mount the iPod like a disk and drag the text file into the Notes folder.

However we weren’t able to see the file when under Extras:Notes on the iPod itself. Since the file (inexplicably) has <TITLE> -- Market List -- </TITLE> as the first line, I tried changing the extension from .txt to .html. That seemed to work a little better but it only seemed to work once. We were so fermisht that we took the MacBook and iPod down to the Apple Genius for some help. He had no more success than we did.

I had this hunch that the format of the file was somehow throwing a wrench into things. Perhaps it was too large or, more likely in my opinion, perhaps its pseudo-HTML format convinced the iPod to try to treat it as an HTML file which it most definitely wasn’t. I figured if I munged it into plain text we might have better luck.

I’ve been using Perl for fourteen years and Tcl for three. But it seems like all the cool kids are using Ruby so I thought I’d give it a whirl. Since modern operating systems have all the major scripting languages pre-installed, all I had to do was fire up Emacs for coding and Safari for documentation and I was off and running.

Things went well. In just a few hours I knew enough Ruby to write a twenty-two line script that massaged the generated shopping list into a plain text file. Early testing shows that the plain text file works much better with the iPod.

The only hiccups I had with Ruby were related to reading in the contents of the file. (I doubt it but it might be due to having an old version: Tiger comes with 1.8.2.) The first problem was that the lines were only terminated with carriage returns. That’s the way the file gets generated, probably to support old skool Macs. The second problem was that alternating characters were NUL. I suppose that has something to do with Unicode and my naive code for reading the file didn’t account for that. I assume that both problems are just a function of my being a Ruby newbie.

Fructose, Not Acetic Acid
12 January, 2008

John Gruber recently wrote about advertising on Daring Fireball. He mentions that some readers complained to Macworld about Sony Vaio ads. I no longer read Macworld because of their editor, but I complained about the appearance of those ads at Mac|Life, which I do read. He says, “I’ve also gotten a handful of complaints about the ads for Microsoft Expression Studio appearing this month … But, even if Microsoft did want to reach [Daring Fireball]’s audience specifically, so what? The idea that it’s somehow offensive makes no … sense to me”.

I find that position surprising for a Mac aficionado, especially one so passionate and vocal. Gruber, who says “an ad is an ad, and what I write is what I write”, has the same approach to advertising that Slashdot has: advertising is a revenue source, not content. It’s not coincidental that those dependent on advertising revenue have that position; it’s in their own best interest.

Yet apparently there are limits as Gruber says, “There are certainly products and services for which I wouldn’t accept a sponsorship, for various reasons”. (Since he doesn’t disclose those reasons, I think we can assume that he won’t accept advertising from hate groups, etc.) Thus what Gruber is saying is that it makes no sense to him to deny sponsorship from Apple‘s direct competitors in particular.

Given that he describes his blog as “a Mac column in the form of a weblog”, his policy makes no sense to me. While some people like Word for the Mac (I only know one who tolerates it) the majority of Mac users have an antipathy for Microsoft and Windows closer to that of the Linux community than the general populace. Advertising Microsoft products on an Apple blog makes as much sense as advertising Yugo parts on a Toyota Land Cruiser fanatic web site. Or, as Brian Ford wrote concerning Gruber’s position, “like Al Gore accepting a sponsorship from the Hummer corporation”.

Gruber is thinking like a writer, not a businessman. (Which isn’t a criticism per se, just an observation.) Writers for newspapers accept responsibility for their articles, not the advertising around it. The problem is that readers get the advertising with the content. Advertisers take pains to make their ads as much a part of the content as possible. Businesses need to think about the entire customer experience, not just the individual job tasks. By accepting advertising revenue, Gruber made Daring Fireball a business.

I doubt that either Microsoft or Sony would prefer to spend their advertising dollars on the Mac community; the return on investment is lower than advertising elsewhere. Using services like The Deck results in indiscriminate advertising spam. But beyond being ineffective for the advertisers, it’s irritating to the readers.

Advertisers want to advertise to as many potential customers as possible. Fewer readers means fewer potential customers means fewer advertising dollars in the long run. While the “an ad is an ad” mindset may work for a writer, it’s not a successful business model. Irritating publications drive away readers, whether in print or on the web.

Where’d Who Go?
9 January, 2008

Recently Safari 3 stopped updating my bookmarks bar with the count of the new articles for each menu therein. I noticed that RSSBookmarksInBarAreSubscribed was absent from so I put it back as 1. So far, though, it doesn’t appear that it worked. Googling has so far yielded no help. What the…?

UPDATE: That does seem to have fixed it.

The Ides of Jobs
8 January, 2008

In the Apple Store at lunch time today, there were sixteen employees wandering the store. The employees outnumbered the customers. After conversing with a number of them, it appeared that the majority were new employees and, sadly, Apple newbs at that.

I wonder what spawned all the new employees. Perchance some forthcoming announcements?