TidBITS#1087/01-Aug-2011

After last week’s massive Lion-focused issue, we’re chilling out with some alternative topics. Adam reports on the Mac OS X 10.6.8 Supplemental Update (and version 1.1 of the Mac OS X 10.6.8 Update), which promises to fix the printing and audio problems that Apple introduced in 10.6.8. Then he looks in depth at BBEdit 10, a massive upgrade to the powerful text editor that adds sharing of application support files via Dropbox, spruces up the project window and HTML markup interfaces, adds EPUB editing, and much more. We also pick up again with Jeff Porten’s reporting from The Amazing Meeting — this time focusing on some interviews he did with popular podcasters. Notable software releases this week include Carbon Copy Cloner 3.4.1, ClamXav 2.2.1, and Transmit 4.1.7.
 
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Apple Addresses 10.6.8 Problems

  by Adam C. Engst <ace@tidbits.com>
  7 comments

A few weeks ago, in “Mac OS X 10.6.8 Suffers Printing and Audio Problems” (1 July 2011), I noted that people upgrading to Mac OS X 10.6.8 Snow Leopard had been experiencing a number of problems, most notably related to printing and audio. (For details about what was supposed to change in 10.6.8, see “Mac OS X 10.6.8 Update Preps for Lion,” 24 June 2011.)

Apple has now released a number of updates to address these problems, depending on what version of Mac OS X you’re running. For those who have already upgraded to 10.6.8, the Mac OS X 10.6.8 Supplemental Update (10.19 MB) says that it fixes problems with network printers pausing print jobs and failing to complete, plus system audio failing when using HDMI or optical audio out. In addition, the update says that it also solves problems transferring data from a Snow Leopard Mac to a new Mac running 10.7 Lion; the implication is that the Migration Assistant Update for Mac OS X Snow Leopard has been rolled in. Apple also released Mac OS X 10.6.8 Server Supplemental Update, which presumably fixes the same problems and also improves server-side performance when using Server Monitor.

If you were cautious and haven’t yet updated to 10.6.8, Apple has now released Mac OS X 10.6.8 Update v1.1, presumably (though they don’t actually say so) to address the same problems addressed by the Mac OS X 10.6.8 Supplemental Update. So, assuming that these problems have indeed been addressed and no others introduced, it’s probably safer to upgrade to 10.6.8 now. That said, if you have no pressing need to upgrade from a previous version of Snow Leopard, I still recommend waiting a week or two to make sure no new problems crop up. For instance, although it’s unclear how widespread these issues are, I’m still receiving anecdotal complaints about Wi-Fi dropouts and sending messages in Mail. And, of course, there’s no significant need to update to 10.6.8 at all, if you’re happy with 10.6.7 and not planning on updating to Lion any time soon.

As usual, Mac OS X 10.6.8 Update v1.1 comes in four different versions; delta updates from 10.6.7 and combo updates that will work on any version of 10.6, for both the desktop and server versions of Snow Leopard.

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BBEdit 10 Improves UI, HTML Markup, and EPUB Editing

  by Adam C. Engst <ace@tidbits.com>
  4 comments

It’s instructive, I believe, to think briefly about how Apple has aimed many of the marquee features of Mac OS X 10.7 Lion largely at people who either aren’t currently Mac users or who aren’t entirely comfortable with the traditional desktop metaphor (see “The Two Faces of Lion,” 9 June 2011). That’s not to say that Lion won’t provide long-time Mac users with some welcome features, but we old-timers don’t seem to be the target audience.

I draw your attention to Apple’s targeting to contrast it with how Bare Bones Software has gone about creating the latest version of their powerful text editor, BBEdit 10. Despite the fact that we at TidBITS write far more prose than code, BBEdit has been our writing tool of choice for some years, thanks to its support for the Subversion version control system, syntax coloring of the Markdown format for styling plain text, grep-based searching, and more.

Rather than go after new users who, for one reason or another, have not purchased BBEdit previously, Bare Bones has instead thought long and hard about how to improve key features in BBEdit for existing users. (New users will also appreciate the lower price of $49.99, or $39.99 through 19 October 2011.) And while programmers will find plenty to like in this update to BBEdit, a number of BBEdit 10’s new and improved features will be of particular interest to professionals who work with non-code text, including prose in Markdown format, Web pages in HTML, and EPUB-based ebooks. Let’s go through the main new features.

Dropbox-based Sharing of Support Files -- The feature I most like right off is Dropbox-based sharing of application support files. BBEdit maintains a BBEdit folder inside ~/Library/Application Support that contains all sorts of essential files, including text factories, scripts, clippings, and so on. Until now, it has been fussy to sync those between multiple machines, and I’m always irritated when I find myself on my MacBook without access to a recently created text factory or clipping.

To share BBEdit’s application support files, create a folder in your Dropbox folder called “Application Support” and move (or if you’re just testing, copy) the BBEdit folder from ~/Library/Application Support/ to ~/Dropbox/Application Support/. (Do this when BBEdit isn’t running; it looks for the new location only at startup.) That’s all that’s necessary; BBEdit looks to Dropbox first for its support files and, if it doesn’t find them there, reverts back to the traditional location.

One note: There’s nothing BBEdit-specific about that Application Support folder in your Dropbox folder, and Bare Bones settled on this approach for sharing in the hope that other Mac developers interested in using Dropbox for sharing support files (for utilities such as 1Password and TextExpander) would consider using the ~/Dropbox/Application Support/ folder as well. Spread the word!

Speaking of sharing, sometimes you want to give someone a set of BBEdit support files that are associated with some project on which you’re collaborating. For that, you don’t want to use Dropbox, since your collaborator probably doesn’t want all your BBEdit settings. Instead, BBEdit now offers the concept of “packages,” which are collections of scripts, clippings, language modules, and text filters, all contained within properly named folders (Contents/Scripts, Contents/Clippings, and so on) within a folder that uses the .bbpackage extension and is stored in the Application Support/BBEdit/Packages folder (local or in Dropbox).

Plus, something that’s new to me, though not to BBEdit 10, is that you can set certain options on a per-document basis with Emacs variable blocks. For instance, since we use .tb internally as the filename extension for Markdown, if we wanted to send a Markdown-formatted article to a contributor for checking such that they’d see Markdown syntax coloring, we could add this line at the top of the file to tell BBEdit to parse it as Markdown. For an interface to this feature, choose Edit > Insert > Emacs Variable Block (these blocks can go at the beginning or the end of the file).

<!-- -*- mode: markdown; -->

Faster Access to Documents -- In an effort to make standard editing windows (which previously defaulted to a right-side drawer to list multiple open files) more like BBEdit’s project windows (which used a left-side sidebar to list multiple files), BBEdit 10 does away with the drawer entirely, relying instead on a multi-paned left-side sidebar.

For standard editing windows, the sidebar’s two panes show currently open documents at the top, with recently accessed documents listed below. For project windows, the currently open and recent documents panes are joined by a project pane that lists the files in the project (regardless of whether they’re open or have been used recently) along with a pane dedicated to a project-specific scratchpad and Unix worksheet. (The scratchpad is just a place to store random bits of text that might be useful; the Unix worksheet provides a Unix command-line environment like Terminal.)


To provide even faster access to documents in play, BBEdit 10 by default automatically saves and reopens documents that were open when you quit, much like Lion’s Resume feature. But BBEdit isn’t relying on Lion for auto-saving of documents or resuming; the feature works equally well in Snow Leopard. What’s truly cool is that BBEdit will happily quit even if one or more documents has unsaved changes, and when you start it up again, your documents will be in exactly the same “unsaved” state as when you quit. For those of us who seem to have a number of “untitled text” windows open at any given time, this is a nice touch. (A warning: don’t rely on this feature in favor of saving. I ran into one situation where two copies of BBEdit each had untitled files open but quitting and relaunching one copy opened not the untitled file it had open, but the two untitled files open in the other copy.)

HTML Markup Interface & Template-based Previews -- One field where BBEdit is particularly popular is HTML authoring, and to help those who spend their days mucking about with HTML, BBEdit 10 now offers a completely revamped and far smarter user interface. Although the basic way you insert tags quickly in BBEdit is unchanged (hierarchical menus or a floating palette), BBEdit 10 now displays a popover that lets you set all the attributes of a particular tag, intelligently presenting just the appropriate options thanks to smarts obtained from BBEdit’s syntax checker. You can even Control-click an existing tag and choose Edit Markup to edit its attributes in the popover.


The other major feature in BBEdit 10 for HTML authoring is the capability to create and switch among HTML and CSS templates for previews within BBEdit. One of the problems with the prevalence of template-based content management systems is that you’re seldom creating an entire page of HTML. Instead, you create fragments, and the CMS puts your fragment together with the core HTML template and CSS files to generate the full page. Previously, previewing fragments in BBEdit was unsatisfying at best, since the fragments never looked anything like what the final page would; now you can create and set HTML and CSS templates into which your fragments are inserted before being previewed. This feature still won’t get around the problem of previewing fragments inside dynamically generated sites, but it will solve previewing problems for a number of users.

In-Zip Editing, including EPUB -- The next major feature in BBEdit is one that probably won’t intrigue most people… until you get to the special case. BBEdit 10 can now not just look at text files inside Zip archives, you can also edit those files — manually or with text filters or multi-file searches — within the Zip archives, and BBEdit will save them right back inside the archive. This is no mean feat of legerdemain that will no doubt be useful in a variety of situations.

But where this feature really shines is with EPUB files, which are Zip-compressed collections of HTML and CSS files, along with a few other text-based support files and any necessary graphics and multimedia files. Previously, even doing something as simple as fixing a typo in an EPUB file has meant unzipping the file, making the change, and rezipping the file with the appropriate command-line incantations to get the right MIME type. Most people who work with EPUB regularly have automated this in some fashion (we have some Automator-based contextual menu commands that unzip and rezip EPUBs; they’re available for download, if you’d like to check them out). But even still, it would be far better to be able to edit the EPUB in place, without the intermediate files, and that’s exactly what BBEdit 10 provides.

Just open an EPUB file in BBEdit 10, find the correct file in the disk browser window that appears, and edit it like you would any other file. Once you save your changes, BBEdit updates the Zip-compressed EPUB file. It’s important to note that BBEdit isn’t aware of anything else in the EPUB file’s structure, so BBEdit won’t prevent you from rendering the EPUB invalid or warn you that you’ve done so. But, since BBEdit has such good scripting support, you could undoubtedly build in an EPUB validation script if you wanted.

Scripts and Text Filters, Oh My! -- One notable change that might result in some initial confusion is BBEdit 10’s new distinction between scripts and text filters. Previously, BBEdit differentiated between types of scripts — AppleScripts, Unix shell scripts, BBEdit’s own text factories, and so on. While logical at one level, the script language isn’t generally the way most people think about scripts; they think about what the scripts do.

To that end, BBEdit 10 separates the different types of scripts into two functional types: scripts and text filters. A “script” in BBEdit 10 is part of a workflow; it operates on multiple files or updates Subversion or something like that. In contrast, a “text filter” manipulates only the contents of the frontmost document. The two types have associated folders in /Application Support/BBEdit and you access scripts from the Scripts menu and text filters from Text > Apply Text Filter.

Although BBEdit 10 automatically tries to put existing text factories in the right folders, it may not be entirely accurate, so if you have something that’s a text filter but has ended up in the Scripts folder, just move it. Your old Text Factories folder sticks around, but it’s probably worth throwing it out manually to avoid confusion when saving new text factories.

BBEdit 10 can now treat Automator workflows as either scripts or text filters, depending on what they do.

New Preferences Window and Text Colors pane -- Lastly, BBEdit 10 offers a complete overhaul of the program’s extensive Preferences window. It now lists the collections of preferences along the left, and resizes the window dynamically to hold the necessary options on the right. Some little-used options have been removed to reduce complexity, but you can still use defaults write commands in Terminal to access every last option; see Help > BBEdit Help > Expert Preferences for a full list.


New as part of BBEdit itself is the Text Colors preference pane, shown above, which enables you to create different sets of colors, which you can then attach to different types of files. This could be useful, for instance, if you wanted Markdown files to have light text on a dark background, while HTML files would have dark text on a light background. As we work with an ever-increasing number of file types, a color-based reminder of what sort of file is open could be helpful.

Separate from the Preferences window is the new Setup window, accessible from BBEdit > Setup. It’s where you can define four different sorts of permanent settings that you might need to access repeatedly: bookmarks for BBEdit’s FTP/SFTP browsers, filters for the disk browsers, search patterns for the Find window, and sites for HTML authoring. These feel a bit unrelated, but the Setup window would seem to be a good way to collect and manage them.

Pricing and Availability -- Suffice to say that if you’re a BBEdit user now, I’d recommend the upgrade highly; Bare Bones has done a good job of refining BBEdit’s interface and providing welcome new capabilities. If you aren’t currently a BBEdit user, but are looking for a powerful tool for editing and manipulating text of all sorts — even very large files — BBEdit is well worth a look. And given the new low price — see below — it’s even easier to recommend than in the past.

BBEdit 10 is available now from Bare Bones, although Apple still hasn’t yet approved it for the Mac App Store. From Bare Bones (and the Mac App Store, whenever Apple sees fit to approve it), BBEdit will list for $49.99, though it’s on sale for $39.99 through 19 October 2011. Upgrades from previous versions also cost $39.99, but anyone who purchased BBEdit 9 after 1 January 2011 is eligible for a free upgrade. That free upgrade timing has the salutary side effect of syncing up with the time that BBEdit has been in the Mac App Store, so people who bought directly from Bare Bones won’t pay more for this upgrade. A free trial version is available.

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The Amazing Meeting 2011: Skeptic Podcasts

  by Jeff Porten <jporten@gmail.com>
  1 comment

Today’s report from The Amazing Meeting (TAM) primarily comes from separate interviews with the people behind two of the most popular podcasts in the skeptic community (see “The Amazing Meeting 2011: What is the JREF?,” 15 July 2011). Unfortunately, I arrived late to TAM’s Friday sessions with a dead MacBook battery, so my report from the afternoon sessions will be short and sweet.

It opened with a panel discussion on the future of space exploration, moderated by Phil Plait (The Bad Astronomer), with Bill Nye (The Science Guy), Neil deGrasse Tyson (Director of the Hayden Planetarium), Pamela Gay (Astronomy Cast), and Lawrence Krauss (“The Physics of Star Trek” and many other books). The discussion was both amusing and surprisingly rollicking, with debates breaking out over whether space travel should be manned or robotic, and the role of pure science in space exploration.

Then Neil deGrasse Tyson took the stage to deliver his keynote speech, which ranged through an amusing overview of his experiences with scientific illiteracy in the United States, a clip of his debate with Richard Dawkins (which has received 1.4 million hits on YouTube), the decline of Arabic intellectualism a millennium ago, the current and highly depressing statistics on a similar decline in the United States, and a stunning summation of our place in the universe derived from our 20th-century discovery that Earth life is built of the same elements, in the same relative distribution, as the rest of the universe.

In short, should you happen to hear that he is giving a public lecture anywhere within four hours of where you are, kennel the dog, feed the fish to the cat, throw the kids in the back seat, and go. You will not regret it. Both the afternoon’s sessions were of such high quality that it left me wondering what I missed in the morning, and I resolved not to make the same mistake again.

Moving on to the interviews: the first was with Brian Dunning, host of Skeptoid. The second was with the “Rogues” who host the Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe: Steve, Jay, and Bob Novella, Evan Bernstein, and Rebecca Watson. Skeptoid focuses on a single story in pseudoscience and popular culture for each episode, while the Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe has a panel format that includes a news roundup, interviews, and weekly contests played on the show. The banter on the show is similar to what happened when I asked Steve and Evan how many listeners they currently have:

Steve: “It depends on how you measure the number.” [He then briefly discussed quantitative techniques for counting the audience.]

Evan: “I just use the higher number.”

However you measure it, both podcasts enjoy audiences over 100,000; the Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe currently sits atop the science podcast section in iTunes, and Skeptoid is in fifth place. (Editorial note: since three of the Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe team are the brothers Novella, I’m referring to them by their first names.)

Brian Dunning of Skeptoid is a professional FileMaker developer as his day job, so our conversation kicked off by talking pseudoscience in the computer community: perceptions of the dangers of computer viruses and malware versus their actual threat. Much of the end-user’s experience comes from the dialogs and user interfaces presented by security software, so when Internet Explorer warned users about Web sites storing information in cookies, those warnings made people fearful of cookies in general, although their use can be entirely benign. Likewise, owners of Norton antivirus and maintenance software see many reassuring messages about all of the things the software is doing for them; how much of that is necessary at any given time is much less clear.

Our conversation took place shortly after the World Health Organization announcement calling cellphones potentially carcinogenic, which led me to comment that perhaps Norton, like the WHO, was deliberately scaring its audience. Dunning corrected me: it wasn’t the WHO that was behind the overblown reporting of a cancer link, it was the mass media running headlines that overstated the risk. Science has a good understanding of how radiation works, and it is fairly certain that there’s no plausible threat from the low levels of radiation coming from handheld cellphones.

Regardless of whether the issue is something new, like Internet viruses, or as old as concerns about our health, the human brain is susceptible to many different kinds of faulty thinking. Newer issues only bring the added fillip of novelty, providing people with fewer points of reference upon which to base understanding.

Dunning believes that getting truthful information out to the public will always be an uphill battle, thanks to the profit motive. There is plenty of money to be made selling magic bracelets that purportedly cure disease; there is no money to be made telling people that rubber bands are equally (in)effectual.

My conversation with the Skeptic’s Guide Rogues happened to start from the positive side of the same point: the Internet allows people without vast sums of corporate money to broadcast, so providing good information is a matter of hard work and consistent effort. The Internet is also a source of bad information, but Steve believes that the Internet disproportionally benefits those who promote truthful and scientific information: the nature of critical thinking leads people to link and spread good information, which then gives solid information a top-ten search rank — even when the person doing the search is deliberately looking for magic bracelets.

Rebecca added that Internet culture is geek culture; there’s a bias in favor of science and critical thinking among many self-organizing groups on the Internet. Steve said that this helps the advantage that nonprofit groups have: businesses seeking to make a profit are competing against each other, but those offering information are working cooperatively to spread each other’s messages.

We also discussed the nature of old media versus the Internet. For example, one of the driving forces behind the groups opposing vaccination was their ability to use celebrities like Jenny McCarthy to garner media attention, for a message that has absolutely no scientific basis. (I say that with apologies, but no hesitation, to those who may strongly feel otherwise.) It’s still necessary to be good at marketing, and to present solid information with style. Audiences for old media are orders of magnitude larger than online, so it is key for promoters of critical thinking to become expert on their issues, then offer themselves as resources to news producers; most reporters will turn to experts as the fastest way of turning out a story, but only if they know whom to call.

I talked with both Dunning and the Rogues about the nitty-gritty of creating a successful podcast. Both were in agreement on the key techniques: posting new episodes on a regular schedule is necessary to building an audience and creating a professional image. And as Jay said of Steve: “he works his butt off.” My impression is that this is true of everyone I interviewed.

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TidBITS Watchlist: Notable Software Updates for 1 August 2011

  by TidBITS Staff <editors@tidbits.com>

Carbon Copy Cloner 3.4.1 -- Bombich Software has released Carbon Copy Cloner 3.4.1, a significant update to its popular donationware disk cloning and backup utility. Version 3.4.1 — a quick fix from the 3.4 update — includes a large number of improvements, including the capability to back up to and from non-HFS+ network volumes, perform folder-to-folder backups, and restore data directly to the startup disk. Carbon Copy Cloner 3.4.1 also provides compatibility with Mac OS X 10.7 Lion’s full disk encryption, introduces the “Cloning Coach” for advice on particular configurations or errors, adds email and Growl notifications, reports on disk performance statistics, and can automatically prune archived files to save space. Other notable improvements include the capability to automount local, network, and encrypted volumes, plus the option to sleep, restart, or shut down the Mac at the end of a scheduled task. The update is rounded out by bug fixes, security enhancements, and performance improvements. (Free update, 5.6 MB, release notes)

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ClamXav 2.2.1 -- Mark Allan has released ClamXav 2.2.1, a minor update to the free virus-checking software. The most significant change in this release is the correction of several scheduling bugs that were affecting Mac OS X 10.4 Tiger users. According to Allan, this is also the last update for Tiger users, who are now advised to turn off automatic updates, although they will continue to receive new virus definitions. ClamXav 2.2.1 — though not the version available from the Mac App Store — now also launches its Sentry background virus checker immediately when the user asks it to do so in the settings panel. (Free from Allan’s Web site or from the Mac App Store, 13 MB)

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Transmit 4.1.7 -- Hot on the heels of the previous version is Panic’s Transmit 4.1.7, a minor update to the file transfer software that’s worth getting particularly if you use Transmit Disks, since it fixes a problem where Transmit Disk volumes would fail to mount. Also fixed is a Lion-related issue where line numbers failed to scroll in the editor. Finally, Panic made Transmit’s Favorites sidebar icons monochrome to better match Lion. ($34 new, free update, 22 MB, release notes)

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ExtraBITS for 1 August 2011

  by TidBITS Staff <editors@tidbits.com>

We have four more stories for you this week: news of AT&T limiting data throughput for heavy data users on unlimited plans, problems a few users are having with multiple Mac App Store charges for Lion, the FDA seeking public input on medical app regulations, and a fascinating proposal to heat residences with “data furnaces.”

AT&T to Limit Throughput for Heaviest Data Users with Unlimited Plans -- Bandwidth may be getting cheaper and more available all the time, but you wouldn’t guess it from AT&T’s latest announcement. The company says that, starting 1 October 2011, it will limit throughput rates for the top 5 percent of data users with unlimited plans — whose use is what AT&T calls an “extraordinary” amount of data. AT&T takes pains to point out that this will not apply to the 15 million smartphone customers with tiered data plans or 95 percent of those with unlimited data plans.

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Beware Multiple Mac App Store Charges for Lion -- We’re not surprised that there have been some glitches in the Mac App Store distribution of 1 million copies of Lion in one day, but it’s worth paying attention when you download, since some people — undoubtedly a very small proportion — are seeing multiple charges for Lion. Most of the problems appear to be related to using PayPal to pay for the transaction. Some people are having no trouble getting refunds; others are getting the runaround. There’s nothing special to do; just stay alert after placing your order to make sure that if multiple charges do happen, you’ve documented everything for customer service at Apple, PayPal, and your bank.

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FDA Seeking Public Input on Medical App Regulations -- The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is seeking public comment on new proposed guidelines for mobile medical apps to ensure they don’t pose a risk to patients. But the proposal is quite narrow; it’s aimed only at apps that are used as an accessory to an FDA-approved medical device or turn the mobile device into something that would otherwise be regulated by the FDA. Still, if you’re interested in this field, now is your chance to register your comments.

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Heat Your Home by Hosting Servers (PDF) -- While an increasing amount of data and computing power is moving into the cloud, this paper by Microsoft Research and researchers at the University of Virginia proposes relocating the servers that host cloud services into residential dwellings, where the heat produced can be used to heat the home during the cold months. Most interesting is the researchers’ calculation that using their “data furnace” concept could result in savings of up to $300 per server per year, in comparison to traditional data centers. Regardless of whether the numbers would bear out in reality, I can say with assurance than a single Mac Pro and two 24-inch monitors makes my office significantly more comfortable in the winter.

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