Tag Archives: OS X

Why I am not a Linux user any more

linux-desktop-i-want-to-believeFor the last couple of days I’ve been trying to install some new software on the Ubuntu Linux machine that my kids use in their playroom. Being able to get a real computer for the kids for about $75 (about half of which was spent on the monitor; the box itself is a castoff desktop from the college that I bought for $10) and run all the software they could possibly want to use at their age for free has been great. But having to deal with the technical side of Linux and the usability issues in software reminds me of why I no longer use Linux in my daily life.

Back in 2001, when I started my new job at my current institution, I took the plunge and installed Red Hat Linux on my school computer rather than Windows. I had a colleague at my former work who was a Linux zealot and I figured I would take the transition period to my new job to switch operating systems. At the time, one of the driving reasons for doing so was the simple realization that, although I used computers all the time in my work and at home, I really didn’t understand how computers work. I figured running Linux would allow me a chance to learn, as well as expose me to some very good open-source software.

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Death of a Mac mini

Last week, my wife had to reboot our Mac mini, and she got… the blinking file folder icon. For the uninitiated, the blinking file folder is the OS X equivalent of the blue screen of death. I spent an evening trying all the tricks on Apple’s support pages and trying to get it to boot from the OS X install disc, but no dice. 

So today the Mrs. and I took a trip up to the Apple Store to get a Mac Genius opinion. The verdict was what I suspected: the hard drive is dead. Fortunately we don’t keep a lot of critical data on the hard drive (the iPod has all our iTunes stuff, and our photos and movies are on an external drive) so the data loss is not catastrophic. We could possibly replace the hard drive, but we’d be looking at spending $400+ on parts and labor to fix a computer that’s four years old and was showing its age. So we’re declaring the Mac mini deceased. 

It looks like we’ll be replacing it with the low-end current model of iMac. We’d get another Mac mini, but after seeing the iMac’s gorgeous monitor up-close, both my wife and I suddenly couldn’t deal with the 8-year old CRT we were using as the mini’s monitor. Just the 20 inch size for us — after spending all my time on a 17-inch laptop monitor I kind of got lost in all the space on a 24-inch monitor. 

While at the Apple Store, we got a good look at the Macbook Air. It’s not the machine for me — I need more stuff on my laptop than the MBA has — but it is certainly very impressive and visually striking. It is so light, you’d almost think it was not a real computer at all but just a prop. 

And the Apple Store itself is something of a marvel. While so many mall stores are foundering and depressingly empty, there were at least 100-150 people in the Apple Store and they were all buying stuff. (Well, we weren’t.) It was crowded, loud, and active — more like an exclusive club on a Saturday night than a mall store on a Saturday afternoon. I think Apple, as a company, is in pretty good shape these days if this is the pace of their business. 

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Colleges switching from PC to Mac en masse?

apple-pc-mac-people.jpgIt’s not just Wilkes University that is contemplating an institution-wide switch from Windows machines to OS X machines running both OS’s under Boot Camp.

At Princeton University, 31 percent of students’ computers connected to the campus network in fall 2006 were Macs, compared with 10 percent in 2003-4. Similar gains have been reported across the country. In fall 2006, 20 percent of freshmen at the University of Virginia owned Macs, compared with 3 percent four years earlier. At Dartmouth College, which has historically had strong Apple support, the numbers are even higher, with 55 percent of freshmen last semester reportedly using Macs. […]

n 2006, two colleges separately took the unusual step of switching to Mac lab environments with the dual-boot option: Wilkes University, in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., and Bemidji State University, in Bemidji, Minn. Both began purchasing iMacs to gradually replace their existing PCs over a several-year upgrade cycle, and some other state institutions in Minnesota are following suit. Already, other colleges across the country have begun contacting the IT directors behind the shift as they consider whether going Mac-only makes sense for them as well.

The article also points out that Penn State has been thinking about this as well, but “any talk of switching to a single platform is off the table” because of the sheer size of the university and the multiplicity of computing needs among students and faculty there. That seems right; the whole point is not to lock oneself into any particular format but rather to invest in the technology that is going to work the best for the longest amount of time for minimal cost. Which is a pretty good argument against being a “Microsoft campus”.

I’ve noticed an uptick in new Mac users around my college as well, including our president. And the parents of a lot of the prospective students I’ve met this year have said they’ll be buying their kids Macs once they get to college. And the IT people are laughing less and less when I mention us doing an institutional switch…

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Leopard and OpenOffice

Update: I’m getting a ton of visitors to this article, so I just wanted to say “welcome”. After reading this article, please sample my Top 12 Posts list and my other articles on technology and educational technology

I don’t run OpenOffice on my Macbook since I use MS Office or iWork for everything, but I have a ton of old OpenOffice files sitting around, left over from my Linux days when I did use OpenOffice. I just discovered that under Leopard, you can Quick-Look an OpenOffice word processing document (with the .odt format) even though OpenOffice is not installed:

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And if you double-click an OpenOffice word processing document, it opens up — in TextEdit, fully formatted!

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Maybe TextEdit played nicely with OpenOffice documents all along, but it’s still a nice discovery. Leopard’s got its quirks and flaws, but it also seems to have a lot of nice undocumented features like these.

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Icon soup

So I was trying to avoid thinking about how badly the Colts were playing tonight against San Diego by dinking around with Leopard some more. Specifically, I was trying to make a stack that contained aliases for my most commonly-used math-related applications: TeXShop, LaTeXiT, Excel, Sketchpad, and Maple. This way I could take five icons off the dock and replace them with a single stack that would fan out in that cool way Leopard does it.  So I made aliases for all five apps,  made a new folder, moved the aliases into the folder, and put it on the right side of the dock. The good news is that it works like it’s supposed to. The bad news is that the icon for the stack looks like:

icon.jpg

It’s all five of the individual icons, layered on top of each other in an indistinct mess.

Is this happening because the icons are transparent? Anybody know how to make this go away, so that only one icon at a time appears?

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Riding in the Time Machine

tm.jpgAs a sort of Part II of this post about my experiences with Leopard, I wanted to go into detail about Time Machine, Leopard’s always-on backup utility. When I first heard about this app coming in Leopard, I wasn’t excited; how excited can you possibly get about a disk backup utility? But this ended up being one of the Leopard features I looked forward to having the most, because it meant I could finally cross off that “Make backup of hard drive” task that had been sitting in my OmniFocus task list for… you don’t want to know how long.

It turns out that Time Machine does a decent job of what it is supposed to do — but there are some downsides and some things that aren’t working for me as advertised.

My plan was to put Time Machine to work using this 500 GB Iomega USB hard drive that I purchased over the summer specifically for archiving video, class files from the past decade, and other stuff. Upon plugging the drive in, Time Machine asked if I wanted to use it as my Time Machine backup drive. I said yes, and immediately the backing up began. But a few minutes into the process, the backup abruptly stopped and gave me a generic failure message. This continued to happen after trying again a couple more times.

A little Googling later, I had found the problem — my hard drive was formatted using a generic FAT32 filesystem, and Time Machine only works with Mac OS filesystems. I reformatted the hard drive using Disk Utility, using the Mac OS X Extended (Journaled) filesystem, and plugged the drive back in — and Time Machine proceeded without a hitch. I had thought FAT32 was something like a generic filesystem, but Time Machine is picky about such things. So if you’re having trouble getting Time Machine to even get off the ground, try reformatting using a specifically Mac OS filesystem.

When the external drive is plugged in, Time Machine makes a backup every hour for 24 hours, and then once a week and once a month for archiving purposes, until the disk is full. The peace of mind that comes from knowing I have hourly backups for one day, and archived backups waiting in the wings, is quite amazing. It’s especially nice that once you have Time Machine configured, you pretty much just forget about it and let it do its job.

And if I ever had to restore from a backup, I’d just click on the Time Machine icon in the dock, and then the magic happens:

tm2.jpg

You just select the version of your system you want to restore from, and click-and-drag files or select “Restore” to restore the whole thing. It’s simple — but oh, the visual effects. Cheesy beyond belief. Apple, come on — what happened to the simple, minimalist design I’ve come to love from you guys? Moving stars in the background? Please.

Apart from the cheesiness of the visuals, there are some issues with how Time Machine works on my system which might be common to others.

First of all, my laptop gets hot when Time Machine is running. Really hot — it actually becomes uncomfortable to use the machine because of the heat, and who knows what it’s doing to the insides of the computer. Here’s an iStat nano readout on the temperatures of the laptop under normal use without the Time Machine running a backup:

hot-mac-3.jpg

And here’s what it reads when Time Machine is running a backup:

hot-mac.jpg

That’s a 40-degree temperature swing on the CPU, and that temperature is pushing the boiling point. Macbook laptops were known to run hot when they first came out, but Apple released a firmware update that fixed the problem, and I had not noticed any unusual heating since then — until now. This may be because I am using a particular USB drive — or just a USB drive, period.

Second, the laptop slows down noticeably when the backups are being made. Again, could be because of my use of a USB drive, but I’ve never noticed a slowdown before when using this drive.

Third, I noticed that every time Time Machine attempts to make a backup, it is backing up about 16 GB of information. I know I don’t have that much stuff I use regularly on the hard drive, so I tried to tell Time Machine not to back up certain things. Apple supposedly has this covered, saying on their Time Machine page that

By default, Time Machine backs up everything on your Mac. But if you want to exclude certain files, that’s easy enough. Just go to Time Machine preferences, click Options, then select the folders you wish to skip. You can also delete a single file or folder that you’ve been backing up — and delete it from all of your backups going back in time.

So I tried to tell Time Machine not to backup my Parallels Desktop folder, which has a full installation of Windows XP that I don’t care to keep backed up all the time. That ought to knock a few gigabytes off the backup list. But here’s what I get when I follow Apple’s directions:

time-machine-excluding-folders.jpg

Everything’s grayed out — I can’t select anything to exclude! If I try an end-around to get to my Documents folder by going through Macintosh HD > Users, I get this: files-2.jpg

All the folders I want to enter are denied.

The 16 GB size of each download, coupled with the less-than-optimum speed of file transfer using the USB drive, means that each backup takes 20-25 minutes to complete — and only 35-40 minutes until the next one, which in turn means that about half the time my laptop is running hot and slow because of the near-constant backing up.

Any hints or suggestions on how to fix the heat problem, the slowness problem, or the can’t-select-files-not-to-backup problem would be most appreciated.

So Time Machine definitely solves a serious problem for me and other busy people — the problem of making the time to have regular, frequent, systematic backups of our important data. But it comes at a price, at least in the meanwhile until I figure out how to work around the problems.

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A week with Leopard

Since I was sort of taking the week off from posting new material last week, I didn’t write much about my experiences with Mac OS X Leopard, which I put on the Macbook last Monday. The only thing was this report about troubles with Maple 10 on Leopard. As an update to that, I still haven’t gotten Maple 10 to fire up, and Maplesoft seems unwilling or unable to offer any substantive information on what’s happening. I only got one email that said they don’t support Leopard, and that I should reinstall the software. So, not really very helpful, and for all practical purposes the software is MIA.

Apart from that, Leopard has been an overall positive experience. The installation went fine, although stories about getting the Blue Screen of Death had me worried. I haven’t plumbed all 300+ new features of the OS yet, and perhaps I never will. But there are several standout features, which stand out both for their goodness and their not-so-goodness.

From an overall look-and-feel standpoint, Leopard is somewhat uneven but overall the plusses outweigh the minuses. A lot of people are apparently complaining about the semi-transparent task bar, but mine is perfectly legible:

leopard-1.jpg

I’m using the wallpaper that looks like a bunch of rocks; maybe if you use a lighter background it’s harder to see the stuff on your bar. But I don’t have any problems here. Another feature people haven’t liked is the 3D dock. Here’s mine (click to enlarge):

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I don’t see why we needed a 3D dock, but I don’t have much to complain about. I’m not terribly keen on the little glowing blue orbs underneath the active applications; what was wrong with the simple black triangles from Tiger?

The one seriously questionable aspect of the 3D dock, and really one of the biggest flaws in the overall human factors side of Leopard, is the way stacks are represented in the dock. I like the concept of stacks and the visual way they “fan” out files:

leopard-5.jpg

But what I don’t like is how each stack is visually represented by a thumbnail of the most recently-opened file from the stack. Here, for example, are the three stacks I have on my dock. One is for Downloads, another for Research Reading, and another that just goes to my Documents folder. And that’s not in order from left to right.

leopard-3.jpg

The problem with these icons is that there’s no real information conveyed by them. When I look at those three icons, unless I already knew which stack was which or unless I wanted to take the time to hover my cursor over each one, the little picture does not tell me what the stacks are. Is the one on the middle for Downloads, Documents, or Research Reading? Note that the fairly-clear “RTF” label doesn’t help in identifying the stack; all of the three stacks I have are equally likely to be so represented. It would have been much better if there were a way to assign icons, or custom-make icons, for these stacks for quick visual identification. As it is, with my memory being what it is, I am going to have to have very few of these stacks and memorize what order they come in.

Back on the positive side, I’m becoming a big fan of Cover Flow in the revamped Finder:

leopard-4.jpg

It’s a little slow to use Cover Flow because all those images have to be loaded. But the time is made up, for me at least, because I can visually identify the document I want by seeing a thumbnail of it much faster than I can by identifying the file name.

Cover Flow also allows me to use Quick Look which has been a great time-saver for me. I run so many different applications on my Macbook that I frequently end up with two or even three dozen applications open at any given time, which drains the battery and slows the system down. Being able to Quick Look a document lets me peek in and see, literally, if that’s the right one, without actually starting the application that runs it.

Just one question about Quick Look for those who might know: Why doesn’t my Finder window have the little “eye” icon at the top for Quick Look? (See the clickable screenshot above.) All the Finder windows in the tutorials and on the Apple site have this icon. I don’t really need it (just hit space bar for Quick Look) but it makes me paranoid.

This article’s gone on long enough but I am not quite done yet. So later I’ll have a second article and possibly more; the next one will deal with Time Machine and my adventures in setting up and using it.

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