Think twice before playing a new audio CD in your Mac. Adam looks at how music labels are treating consumers like criminals by deliberately creating corrupt audio discs that can gum up your Mac. Also in this issue, Matt Neuburg positions Layout Master as a worthy addition to a webmaster’s toolbox. We also drool over Apple’s upcoming Xserve rack-mounted server, and note the releases of speed-bumped iBooks, PopChar X, and Now Up-to-Date & Contact 4.2.1.
No TidBITS Issue 27-May-02 — It is said there’s no rest for the wicked, but of late that homily has been spilling over to the rest of us as well. So, TidBITS is taking a well-deserved week off for the U.S. Memorial Day holiday, which, in a fit of happenstance, coincides with the week of Managing Editor Jeff Carlson’s birthday celebrations and the Mac Mania Geek Cruise that will be occupying most of my attention. Depending on my shipboard email connectivity and free moments, TidBITS Talk may suffer only partial abatement, but in general, please save me the embarrassment of late or missing replies by holding non-essential private mail until the second week in June. TidBITS returns with the 03-Jun-02 issue. [ACE]
Apple Speed Bumps iBooks — Apple today announced an update to the slick iBook line that adds faster CPUs, 512K on-chip L2 cache, a more powerful ATI Mobility Radeon graphics processor with 16 MB of RAM and AGP 2X, larger hard drives, and a new video-out port. You can now buy the iBook that has a 12.1-inch screen with either 600 MHz or 700 MHz PowerPC G3 processors and 20, 30, or 40 GB hard drives; the 14.1-inch screen model features the 700 MHz processor and either a 30 or 40 GB hard drive. With both iBooks you can choose between a CD-ROM drive and a DVD-ROM/CD-RW Combo drive and how much RAM you want (starting at either 128 MB or 256 MB, maxing out at 640 MB). Both models also retain their two USB ports, FireWire port, AirPort compatibility, 56 Kbps V.90 modem, 10/100Base-T Ethernet, and built-in microphone and speakers. Pricing starts at $1,200 for the 12.1-inch screen models and $1,650 for the 14.1-inch models. Despite the lack of anything revolutionary here, these changes make a very good computer even better. [ACE]
Now Up-to-Date & Contact 4.2.1 Adds Grab-‘n-Go — Power On Software has released Now Up-to-Date & Contact 4.2.1, a free upgrade for users of the Mac OS X-only version of their popular calendaring and contact management program. In a valiant attempt to increase the number of hyphens used in Macintosh publications, Now Up-to-Date & Contact 4.2.1 brings back the Grab-‘n-Go utility from the Mac OS 9 version of the program. With Grab-‘n-Go, you can Control-click text in applications that support contextual menus (few of which I use regularly, unfortunately) and create new appointments, tasks, and other event types in Now Up-to-Date. Also improved are the QuickDay and QuickContact utilities, which now provide proper menus and can be Command-dragged to new locations in the menu bar. Finally, you can now move the Now Up-to-Date & Contact folder to locations other than the top-level of the Applications folder. The free update is a 16 MB download; upgrades from earlier versions cost $50, and new copies cost $120. [ACE]
Snap, Crackle, and PopChar X — The many enthusiastic fans of Günther Blaschek’s venerable PopChar utility were rewarded for their patience this week when he released a Mac OS X version. PopChar X is a background-only application that puts a small "P" in the top left corner of the menu bar; clicking on this "P" causes a window to pop down showing the characters of any font, their ASCII numeric values, and the keystroke(s) needed to type them. Clicking a character inserts it in the current application.
Unfortunately, only ASCII characters are displayed – basically the first 230-odd characters of a font – whereas many Mac OS X fonts have hundreds or even thousands more characters (see "Two Bytes of the Cherry: Unicode and Mac OS X, Part 2" in TidBITS-625). Also, the location of the "P" can’t be changed and may conflict with other utilities that use the corner of the menubar, such as MaxMenus. Blaschek says users can expect these shortcomings to be corrected in a future version. PopChar X is $30, and includes a license for the new version of PopChar Pro for Mac OS 7.1 and later, plus free upgrades for two years. [MAN]
Apple last week introduced a new line of rack-mountable servers, due to ship in June 2002 and available for ordering now at the online Apple Store. The 1U (one rack unit in height) Xserve server offers single or dual 1 GHz PowerPC G4 processors, up to 2 GB of DDR SDRAM memory, up to 480 GB of storage in four hot-pluggable ATA/100 drives, two Gigabit Ethernet ports, three FireWire ports, two USB ports, and one DB-9 serial port. The 19-inch-wide, 1.75-inch-tall (48.3 cm by 4.4 cm) enclosure allows up to 42 units in a standard 42U rack, and requires no special tools to change or add components. On the software side, Xserve includes an unlimited-license copy of Mac OS X Server (normally $1,000 if purchased separately), which is pre-configured to include the Apache Web server, a mail server, QuickTime Streaming Server, WebObjects, MySQL, and file and print servers for Mac OS, Windows, and Linux clients. Apple also includes Server Monitor, an application that keeps tabs on a number of internal hardware sensors and notifies administrators of problems.
Pricing starts at $3,000 for a single 1 GHz G4 processor configuration with 256 MB of DDR memory and a 60 GB drive module. The mid-range dual-processor configuration is $4,000 with 512 MB of memory and a 60 GB drive module. A decked-out unit with dual processors, 2 GB of memory, and four 120 GB drive modules is $7,800. With the Xserve introduction, Apple is bringing back on-site repair and warranty options, offering up to three years of four-hour on-site response during business hours. There are also optional AppleCare Service Parts kits to enable users to keep spares on hand for mission-critical servers.
Apple’s past ventures into the enterprise server market have historically been short-lived. The Mac OS-based Apple Workgroup Servers, the AIX (IBM’s flavor of Unix) Apple Network Servers, and even the never-released Novell Netware for PowerPC servers are all examples. The last few years have shown Apple making strong strides into viable server software (such as the old Rhapsody-based Mac OS X Server 1.x, and the more-recent Darwin-based Mac OS X Server 10.x), and Xserve offers an astonishing combination of viable hardware and solid server software at a compelling price. Cost may be an obstacle to Unix network administrators who like to buy the cheapest Pentium-based hardware, but those who want serious server hardware, featuring an industrial-strength power supply and management features, are taking a close look at Xserve. We don’t blame them; we, like many others on TidBITS Talk, want one of our own.
Accustomed to playing CDs in your Mac? Beware. A number of music labels have released intentionally corrupt audio discs in Europe and the U.S. that look like industry standard CDs and even play in some CD players (see Fat Chuck’s Corrupt CDs site and the Campaign for Digital Rights site for lists). But if you ignore or fail to notice the "Will not play on PC/Mac" warning label on the outside of the package – if it’s even present – you might be in for a rude surprise.
These audio discs use a copy prevention (a more accurate term than "copy protection") scheme that makes them incompatible with the Red Book format that defines the Compact Disc standard. The desired result is that the discs should play in normal audio CD players, but not in computer CD drives. (See "Copyright: Who Should Benefit?" in TidBITS-618 for additional coverage of this topic.)
The disc failing to play is annoying in itself, but the rude surprise is that you may not be able to eject the disc. Apple recently posted a Knowledge Base article on this topic, offering a number of workarounds, especially for newer Macs that lack a manual eject mechanism. Worse, according to reports sent to the Campaign for Digital Rights, these audio discs may cause some Macs to crash and some to start up to a gray screen if the disc is left in the drive at startup.
If the disc still fails to eject after you’ve tried all of Apple’s suggestions, you’ll need to take your Mac to an authorized repair center and have them extract the disc manually. In the initial posting of the Knowledge Base article, Apple included a comment that this repair would not be covered by your warranty or AppleCare, which, although extreme, was still a reasonable position. After all, the blame for this happening lies first with the music labels for making and distributing corrupt audio discs, and second with the user for inserting it in the CD drive, and only minimally with Apple for eliminating the manual eject hole from some Macs. Still, in a situation where Apple was taking the moral high ground, the warranty comment caused many people to focus on Apple rather than on the perpetrators of these discs, so a modification to the Knowledge Base article removed the comment. (What that means for warranty and AppleCare coverage is thus unknown.) You can read the original in a Mac Observer article from last week.
The music labels should be liable for any charges incurred by users who need to take their Macs into a dealer for extraction. There’s a big difference between "Will not play on PC/Mac" and "Do not insert into PC/Mac at risk of rendering computer inoperable." Plus, record stores should post large warnings near such discs in the store or face potential liability themselves. Sure, users shouldn’t put these corrupt disks in their computers, but it’s certainly possible for someone to miss the warning, if there is one (who reads the outside of what looks like a standard compact disc carefully?). Plus, some people, even knowing that the disc won’t play, may be curious about what does happen if the disc is inserted – talk about curiosity requiring the cat take a trip to the vet.
Cartels without a Clue — I don’t know what bugs me the most about this situation. High up on the list is the way the music cartel is treating customers: as thieves and pirates. Computer users aren’t the only ones affected either, since many normal CD players, DVD players, and car CD players also reportedly have trouble with these corrupt audio discs. Some companies believe that the customer is always right; these music companies seem to believe that the customer is always criminal.
But can that bit of stupidity compete with the uninformed arrogance that copy prevention technologies, particularly when applied in only part of the world, even begin to dent usage of the peer-to-peer file sharing networks? A cursory search showed that numerous tracks from the Spider-Man movie soundtrack, one of the albums listed as corrupt on the Campaign for Digital Rights site, are readily available for downloading. It takes only a single person to make a copy of an audio disc – even if it requires an extra analog-to-digital step – before the music appears on the file sharing networks. Worse, if certain audio discs are known to be corrupt, I can see many computer users downloading copies of the songs rather than purchasing the disc, just to avoid the hassle.
Then there’s the fact that covering the outer track of these corrupt discs with a black marker or electrical tape can result in the discs being playable in a computer’s CD drive. In other words, a steady hand with a Sharpie is all that’s necessary to defeat the copy prevention technology? Ooo, that’s secure.
Of these, I think the prize goes to treating customers as criminals. Believing that copy prevention technologies can’t or won’t be broken, and thinking that they could make any difference are indeed arrogant and uninformed, but treating your customers as criminals not only encourages them to act that way, it also poisons the well for future sales, even for CDs that have no copy prevention technologies in place. I know that my level of disgust with the music cartel has distinctly cooled my enthusiasm for buying music except directly from independent musicians, and I’ve certainly heard similar sentiments from others.
DMCA/EUCD Criminals — I used the term "criminals" above quite intentionally because according to the U.S. Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA – check out the "YMCA" parodies below for a giggle), circumventing copyright protection technology for any reason is a criminal offense. There have been many well-documented cases involving the DMCA – for an overview, read the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s recent report detailing the consequences of the DMCA after three years. The European Union Copyright Directive (EUCD) has many of the same kinds of provisions and is generating similar kinds of protest.
One spot of light comes from U.S. Representative Rick Boucher (D-Virginia), who plans to introduce legislation that would modify the DMCA to make it legal to break copy prevention technologies to exercise fair use rights. Boucher isn’t attempting to legalize all copying – it would still be a violation to copy something with the intent of violating the work’s copyright. There’s no telling if his legislation stands any chance against the deep pockets of the music and movie cartels, but to judge from the list of Boucher’s Internet and technology initiatives on his Web site, he has a clue and may be the best hope for action in Congress.
Creative Commons Launches — Another bright spot is the recent launch of the Creative Commons project, which I mentioned in "A Couple of Cool Concepts" back in TidBITS-617. Creative Commons is a non-profit organization founded on the notion that some writers, artists, musicians, and movie makers would rather share their creations than exercise the full restrictions of copyright law, which, thanks to the DMCA, are Draconian.
What I like about this approach is that it emphasizes the aspect of creation that desires an audience – when I write, I do so because, more than anything else, I want people to read my words. Yes, I need to earn a living from my writing, but I’ve managed to do that in a variety of ways while keeping TidBITS free for over 12 years. What I’ve done with TidBITS isn’t rocket science, and although it’s also not a model that everyone should, or even could, emulate, it shows that the concept of sharing one’s creative works and earning a living are not mutually exclusive, as so many of the powerful industry lobbying groups would have you believe. We’ll see how successful Creative Commons becomes, but I have high hopes for them and plan to use their services myself in the future.
Perhaps the best aspect of Creative Commons, though, is that it’s applying some creativity to the business end of the copyright debate. We’d all be better off if as much creativity was put into business models as into artistic endeavors and creating copy prevention technologies.
Layout Master 1.1, from Western Civilisation, is software of a kind I really like: it does one thing and does it splendidly. Like its earlier companion program, Style Master, which I reviewed in TidBITS-501, that one thing has to do with authoring and editing Cascading Style Sheets (CSS), the supplement to HTML that is increasingly becoming the way to dictate the formal details of your Web pages. The two programs completely overlap with respect to the area of CSS with which they deal: Layout Master handles just Position, Background, and Border properties; Style Master handles all of CSS, including those three. So in theory, you could work on your CSS using Style Master alone; but you wouldn’t want to, because Layout Master lets you edit Position properties in the only way that makes intuitive sense – visually.
Historical Interlude — If you already know all about CSS, you can skip this section of the review. Its purpose is to explain what CSS is, to put it in some historical perspective, and to summarize the pros and cons of its use.
In the early days of the Web, HTML was a very small language; there were almost no rules. This fact had two major consequences. First, HTML was inadequate to sketch more than the most basic structure of a Web page, which could consist only of successive paragraphs of text interspersed with occasional images; there was almost no capability for the author to dictate the style and positioning of any of that text. Thus, it was hard to make a Web page look interesting or even good; indeed, one could only guess how a page would look, since user-defined settings in any individual’s browser could easily foil one’s attempts at rational or aesthetic design.
Second, browser developers made up for this inadequacy by innovation; in essence they simply forced the evolution of HTML by unilaterally introducing their own contributions. In some cases, these innovations were good: Netscape’s invention of the TABLE and FONT tags, for example, made webmasters of every stripe breathe a sigh of relief. But these innovations were implemented erratically, leading to a situation where it was almost impossible to determine how a page would render among the different browsers and platforms (even different versions of the same browser). Webmasters spent their time cursing and writing ever more convoluted workarounds as they tested and retested pages under all conceivable conditions.
The reaction to this situation has been a gradual but massive technical and cultural effort to move the Web towards standards, offering well-defined rules as to what constitutes HTML and as to what a browser’s responsibilities are when interpreting it. The World Wide Web Consortium has become the de facto clearing house for rationalization of standards, clarifying the rules for different versions of HTML and related languages, and providing tools for automated validation so that webmasters can know definitively whether their pages are legal HTML or not. Just as important, new browsers such as Mozilla are aimed explicitly at complying with those standards. Of course, if you’re still using an older browser you don’t reap the benefits of this situation, but personally I think it’s splendid. I no longer worry about testing my pages with every browser; it has taken me years of wrangling to bring those pages up to the standard, but I now just validate them as "HTML 4.01 Transitional," and if an older browser can’t deal with that, I don’t care – and I suspect that many Web authors feel the same.
We come now to the place of Cascading Style Sheets in all this. The CSS specification was developed and presented in two stages, now called CSS1 and CSS2. (And CSS3 is in the works.) As usual, I simplify for pedagogical purposes, so no letters please…
CSS1 is chiefly about aspects of character and paragraph formatting: font, size, alignment, leading, paragraph margins. CSS2, aside from some media-oriented and linguistic innovations that don’t concern us here, chiefly refines the "visual formatting model" for Web pages. This means that you get to isolate elements of the page – a word, an image, a paragraph, a whole lot of paragraphs, whatever – and dictate where on the page they should go. Positioning that was previously the domain of tables and frames, or was downright impossible, can thus be specified through CSS. (Tables and frames are by no means abolished, but they no longer have to be pressed into service merely for purposes of positioning.)
For an example, take a look at the W3C’s CSS home page. If you’re using a recent browser, you should see a navigation box that hovers transparently in the upper right of your window even when you scroll the page. That’s done through "fixed" positioning of this element.
Unfortunately, no browser implements the full CSS2 specification, and positioning is one of those gray areas that most browsers implement only partially or with numerous bugs, if at all. But support is improving; and when you’re ready to adopt CSS2 positioning in your Web pages, Layout Master will be there to help.
How It Works — Layout Master is simple; with the help of the accompanying tutorial, you can learn the whole program in less than an hour. It works much like a basic drawing program. An empty document appears as an empty canvas. Choose New Positioned Element and a rectangle appears; drag it to reposition it, or drag the handles at its corners and sides to resize it. The rectangles can also be aligned or evenly spaced with respect to one another. Double-click a rectangle, and a floating palette appears where you can edit Position, Background, and Border properties by value; for each property, this palette has a Help button that brings up a text window explaining the property’s use, and some properties also include a Caution button that brings up warnings about how the property is implemented in certain browsers. A separate window, the Elements editor, lets you dictate both the layering order and the all-important containment hierarchy for all positioned elements, in the most natural and elegant way imaginable – as an outline.
Behind the scenes, a Layout Master document is actually a text document – in fact, it’s HTML (or, if you so desire, XHTML). Each rectangle in the canvas represents a DIV tag; the style information for each tag can go inline into the tag itself, or into a STYLE tag in the HEAD region, or into a separate stylesheet document. Because its documents are HTML, and because it knows how to parse HTML and CSS, Layout Master can be integrated with other tools you may be using to create your HTML. Instead of a blank document, you can start with an existing HTML document; Layout Master can open this, and can safely add positioned elements to it. You can send a document from Layout Master to another editor, such as Style Master or BBEdit, and work on it there; when you save and return to Layout Master, your changes are instantly reflected.
This technique of sending your document to another editor for further work is, in fact, how you are expected to give your document content. After all, an HTML document consisting of nothing but DIV tags would show up in your browser as blank; it’s the stuff between each pair of DIV tags that constitutes the actual content of your document. So a typical working pattern might be to lay out the basic positioning of a document’s elements using Layout Master, and then to use BBEdit or some other text editor to get some HTML into those elements. Nevertheless, Layout Master does also allow you to supply content in other ways. For example, you can just drag text, or an image file, into a Layout Master document, and presto, it becomes a new positioned element with that text or image as content. You can also edit content manually from within Layout Master, but the interface for doing so is very simple, and the manual discourages you from using this for anything more than minor tweaking.
Of course you can also send a document from Layout Master to any browser for previewing. Layout Master does have an internal preview mode, but it’s rather primitive and doesn’t show very well what the page will look like. Besides, you should view the results of your labors in the browser; Layout Master itself is just a kind of schematic visual environment, and doesn’t aspire to be more than that.
In short, what Layout Master is trying to do is simply show you what positioned elements you’ve got and how they relate to one another, and give you a rational, dependable, and easy-to-use environment for editing them. It does this brilliantly. Other types of editing and display are left to other programs; and since Layout Master integrates well with those other programs, that’s a perfectly appropriate choice. As I said at the outset, Layout Master does just one thing, and does it well – and is all the more endearing for that.
Conclusions — Layout Master is not Mac OS X-native, which should encourage readers who worry that there’s nothing new under the sun for users of older systems. In fact, Layout Master doesn’t even work perfectly in Mac OS X’s Classic environment; in particular, the Help text appears garbled, and previewing in a Mac OS X-native browser doesn’t work – Layout Master can’t even be made aware of such a browser’s existence, because it doesn’t understand about Mac OS X bundles. This, however, is not as big a problem as one might expect. Since a Layout Master document is HTML, it can be opened manually into any browser. Besides, Layout Master can hand a document to BBEdit, which in turn can pass it off to any browser for previewing; since you’ll probably be using the two programs together anyway, this workaround quickly comes to seem perfectly natural.
I must confess that, personally, although I really like Layout Master, I don’t yet feel ready to make much use of positioned elements in my own Web pages, if for no other reason than that the widely used Internet Explorer 5.1 doesn’t handle them well. And positional elements are a bit tricky, so I know that when I do start using them, I can expect to have to do a certain amount of patient experimentation. That being the case, it’s a comfort to feel that when the time comes, Layout Master will be there, making my experimentation easier through its abilities to form and portray valid CSS and to work with other HTML tools and browsers. If you’re curious about the brave new world of positioned elements, and want to get some hands-on experience of what your life will be like when you stop using tables within tables to lay out your Web pages, I recommend you give Layout Master a try.
Layout Master is $50, or it can be purchased together with Style Master Pro for $80; a free 30-day demo is available for download, and the manual and tutorial can be viewed online. It requires a PowerPC-based Macintosh running Mac OS 8 or later with at least 4 MB of RAM (10 MB preferred) allotted to Layout Master.