It’s a grab-bag week! Charles Arthur explains why dialup users need the spam-fighting tool PostArmor, Tom Gewecke looks at the new, improved, and still-buggy aspects of Panther that relate to using Mac OS X in languages other than English, and Geoff Duncan makes a rare appearance to bury MP3.com and bemoan its passing. In the news, Bare Bones releases BBEdit 7.1, we report on our Panther upgrade poll, and we announce our newest sponsor: Dr. Bott!
Dr. Bott Sponsoring TidBITS — We’re pleased to welcome our latest long-term sponsor, the Macintosh peripheral manufacturer and distributor Dr. Bott. Most people, and I was among them initially, don’t realize that the company name wasn’t chosen for its pleasant geekiness: at Macworld Expo a few years ago, I was surprised to meet in person Dr. Roderich Bott, a German Macintosh developer and former chemist who joined forces with Portland-based Macintosh consultant Eric Prentice to found the company. The pair’s goal is to provide high-quality, innovative products to the Mac community, something they accomplish both by developing their own products and by distributing other companies’ products. Dr. Bott is well known for devices like the MoniSwitch, a keyboard/video/monitor switch designed for use with the Mac, and, more recently, the ExtendAIR antennas for AirPort Extreme Base Stations. On the distribution side, Dr. Bott particularly tries to serve the smaller resellers who would have trouble buying from multiple manufacturers or dealing with large distributors who prefer higher-volume merchants. All in all, Dr. Bott has proven itself a thoroughly Mac-like company, and we’re happy to have them further supporting the Macintosh community through their TidBITS sponsorship. [ACE]
BBEdit 7.1 Adds Live HTML Preview and SFTP — Bare Bones Software has released BBEdit 7.1, a free update to the company’s powerful text and HTML editing program that adds a handful of welcome features. Most notable is the Preview in BBEdit command, which displays the HTML page you’re working on in a BBEdit window using the WebKit rendering engine that’s also at the heart of Safari. The truly cool part is that it’s a live preview, with updates appearing automatically seconds after you make a change to the HTML code. Though the page may not look perfect due to missing graphics or server-side processing, BBEdit’s Preview makes tweaking Web pages far faster and easier than before (though you’ll really want a second monitor to hold the extra windows). Also new in BBEdit 7.1 is support for SFTP (SSH File Transfer Protocol), which provides encrypted FTP sessions when there’s a compatible version of sshd running on port 22, as is true of Mac OS X machines when Remote Login is selected in the Sharing preference pane. Lastly, if you’re working with FTP servers on your local network, BBEdit’s FTP dialogs now support Rendezvous for discovering FTP and SFTP servers. BBEdit 7.1 is a 15.2 MB download; it’s free for registered users of BBEdit 7.0. New copies cost $180, with a variety of upgrade and cross-upgrade discounts available. [ACE]
Poll Results: Panting for Panther? In last week’s poll, we asked, "When do you plan to upgrade your main Mac to Mac OS X 10.3 Panther?" It turns out that about half of the TidBITS audience (at least those who respond to our polls) are essentially early adopters, since 45 percent of respondents have already installed Panther, and another 6 percent plan to do it as soon as they get around to it (they must be overworked early adopters). Another large chunk (30 percent) said they’d upgrade once Panther stabilizes: well-publicized problems with FireWire hard drives have engendered appropriate caution for many people. A smaller number don’t see Panther as a necessary upgrade: 7 percent plan to upgrade once their work or programs require it, and another 11 percent will upgrade by default once they buy new Macs. And the number of people who don’t plan to upgrade at all? A vanishingly small 1 percent, or only 4 people from the total of nearly 700 respondents.
Interestingly, Karelia Software, makers of the Watson Internet searching and reference tool, can track the operating system version of Watson users and found that 62.7 percent were running Panther, 36.2 percent were still on Mac OS X 10.2 Jaguar, and 1.1 percent were still running Mac OS X 10.1 (codenamed Puma). It’s possible that the difference in results comes from the fact that we’re actually reporting on Panther’s strengths and weaknesses, thus ensuring that our audience is perhaps somewhat more aware of problems than Karelia’s users are. [ACE]
Last week CNET announced its purchase of "certain assets" of the once-ballyhooed independent music distribution company MP3.com for an undisclosed sum. Those assets appear to be mainly the domains and any clout the MP3.com brand may still carry: as of 02-Dec-03, the existing MP3.com will shut down and the company will delete and destroy the hosted music and materials of an estimated 250,000 artists from all over the world. The company also says it won’t be giving CNET any information about its customers or users. CNET hasn’t announced its plans for MP3.com, but I expect it will create a new site focusing on the technologies and news of the digital music world, much as it has done with the video-game-oriented GameSpot.com site.
Although MP3.com’s heyday passed long ago – following substantial legal setbacks, the massive popularity of the original Napster, and MP3.com’s ill-fated acquisition by Vivendi/Universal – the final demise of MP3.com marks a milestone in these early days of online music distribution: the one major, centralized outlet for independent, unsigned artists is no more.
For the sake of disclosure, one of my non-TidBITS alter egos is a professional musician, and I once maintained a page of freely downloadable music on MP3.com (as did several of my colleagues and clients). I mainly used MP3.com as a means to provide downloadable demos without consuming my limited bandwidth: I never attempted to sell CDs or earn money via MP3.com. This last was probably true for the vast majority of MP3.com artists: with a few notable exceptions, most never earned much or tried to sell anything.
Nonetheless, for several years MP3.com was the most recognizable and most-used online music distributor, search engine, directory, and clearinghouse for independent online music – and even for some signed artists who had online rights to their material or reasonable contracts with their distributors. It was still wise for artists to maintain separate Web sites (particularly once MP3.com’s user experience began to decline as the site was "monetized"), but having a presence and even just a single recording on MP3.com was a great way for listeners and other artists to find you. Part of the joy of using MP3.com was searching for previously unknown artists and tracks, whether local acts or artists from the other side of the world.
I remember finding some neat electronica from a British duo (wish I still had it!), wonderful modern bossanova from a Brazilian teenager and his grand-uncle, and some truly horrendous rock from a local high school band – to be sure, much of what was on MP3.com wasn’t all that great. But also I received numerous notes and inquiries from listeners around the world who would never have encountered my music otherwise, and the MP3.com page directly and indirectly helped me land a number of paid jobs. In fact, just this weekend I sat in with a band I first encountered via the site’s regional charts – go figure.
There are still other independent online music distributors – prominent among them are 1Sound, SoundClick, and Ampcast – but none of them have captured the mindshare or experienced the massive artist adoption of MP3.com – and certainly none of them have approached MP3.com’s levels of budget, resources, or staffing. There are also hybrid distributors like the seemingly very savvy CDBaby, which may emerge as a preferred way for independent artists to get into online services like the iTunes Music Store – over 5,000 albums are lined up right now at CDBaby if Apple ever opens its doors!
There’s no question MP3.com was an unwieldy behemoth, but without it the community of independent online artists becomes a much more unnavigable, fractious morass. Enclaves of outstanding artists, music, and even online music distributors will survive and even thrive without MP3.com, but the means of discovering these things will be known to only a precious, clued-in few.
Make no mistake, I come to bury MP3.com, not to praise it: MP3.com made many tragic errors, broke many promises, alienated countless users and artists, behaved poorly, and ultimately suffocated under its own weight. But MP3.com nonetheless played an important role in the world of independent online music, and for that, it will be missed.
With Mac OS X 10.2 Jaguar, Apple made sweeping changes to the operating system’s language handling and internationalization features, which are key to the Mac’s acceptance throughout much of the world and for many people who regularly work in multiple languages. Three weeks of working with the foreign language capabilities of Mac OS X 10.3 Panther reveals a number of interesting new features. Although the changes are not as great as those we saw in Jaguar – and a couple new bugs have been introduced – the experience is on balance overwhelmingly positive.
Input Improvements — When it comes to entering text in other languages, Panther features a number of welcome additions, including 14 new languages (with input keyboards and fonts), raising the total number to over 50. Panther adds Estonian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Macedonian, Serbian, Dari, Pashto, Uzbek, Armenian, Cherokee, Faroese, Northern Sami, Inuktitut, and Welsh. Also new are some new keyboards (often QWERTY or "Extended" versions) for languages that existed in Jaguar. Some people could be confused by an inability to access non-Roman characters in Cherokee and Inuktitut. The trick is that you must activate Caps Lock to access non-Roman characters. Why? I’m told that’s what "native users" expect.
Apple also revamped the input methods for Asian scripts (Chinese/Japanese/Korean) for the first time in a decade or so. The changes are primarily cosmetic though, with the old "pencil" menus now at the bottom of the "flag" menu. That said, the Japanese input method, Kotoeri, is thoroughly reorganized, with the six input options formerly buried in the "pencil" menu now listed separately in the "flag" menu, and the old "operations palette" gone. Unfortunately, Chinese users had a long wish list of input features that weren’t implemented in Panther.
In Panther, the venerable Key Caps application has disappeared entirely, being replaced with the floating Keyboard Viewer palette, which has no text input field but which types characters clicked on its graphical keyboard directly into the frontmost window. Another new floating Input Mode palette shows activated keyboards. Apple also modified the keyboard shortcuts for switching scripts and keyboards in ways that some people will find more efficient (but you still cannot disable using Command-Space, which some applications want to use for a different function, to switch between input scripts).
Display Improvements — Panther also offers a number of improvements on the display side, including the squashing of several bugs in Jaguar relating to the display of Devanagari and Arabic text. Most notably, though, Apple’s Mail can finally set the character set encoding for outgoing messages. This is a critical addition because, left to its own devices, Mail often chose the wrong encoding, resulting in messages that nobody could read. The encoding list for both incoming and outgoing messages is extensive, and if the one you need isn’t listed in the Language tab of the International preference pane, just click the Edit button and add it.
Panther now selects default fonts according to the priorities set in the Languages preference pane, so there should be less need to disable fonts to prevent inappropriate use. For instance, if you have Chinese above Japanese in the Language preference pane’s list, Panther should use Chinese fonts in preference over Japanese, even if another language is actually first in the list. One caveat: it’s possible that this new font fallback logic may require application support, so it may not be in effect in all applications yet. The number of languages supported for such prioritization and sorting operations has been increased to over 100, up from 64 in Jaguar (send me email if you want a list).
The Character Palette (accessible by choosing Characters from the Action menu – the "gear wheel" pop-up menu – in the Font palette) has a new pane that shows all the variations among fonts having a specific character, which is very useful for non-Roman scripts (it’s also an extremely cool way to see how a specific character looks in different fonts). Also, you can now access special capabilities of advanced fonts relating to ligatures, diacritics, glyph variants, and other features. Select the desired font in the Font palette and choose Typography from the Action menu.
Lastly, the Date/Time/Numbers tabs in Jaguar’s International preference pane have been replaced by a new Formats tab, which supports many more locales for the ways these items are expressed.
Eh? What Was That You Said? As welcome as the improvements discussed above are, Panther doesn’t address some of the limitations present in Jaguar, and it also seems to have introduced some new bugs.
Despite all the new keyboards, Panther doesn’t sport any new system languages. I expected that Apple would at least add Russian, since Apple Computer Russia used to provide a Russian localization for both Mac OS X 10.1 and 10.2 as a separate download. Greek users will also be disappointed at the lack of a Greek localization. Note that you must perform a custom install if you do not want all the system localizations, or if you do want all the available fonts. However, you can add the system localizations and "Fonts for Additional Languages" afterwards by running the appropriate installers from the second and third Panther installation CDs.
In the category of actual defects, a text bug makes it impossible to input certain accented characters using the U.S. (and other) "Extended" keyboards in Cocoa programs. The Simplified Chinese input system has a new pinyin engine which doesn’t deal correctly with certain input combinations. And Mac OS X still does not work correctly with Greek in certain OpenType fonts like Adobe Minion Pro.
The significant improvements in Panther unfortunately cannot change the fact that AppleWorks, all Microsoft products for the Mac (aside from MSN Messenger and the MSN 8 integrated browser), along with several important desktop publishing and Web publishing products are not yet Unicode-savvy, and thus cannot handle a number of languages. But this situation is bound to improve with time, as can be seen by the recent updates of Adobe InDesign CS and Macromedia Dreamweaver MX 2004. Also, new programs like the word processor Mellel can help fill the gap.
Additional Info — For more extensive information on Mac OS language issues, visit the Multilingual Mac and Chinese-Mac Web sites.
The other day I logged on to my mail server directly to have a look at what was awaiting me. A total of 115 messages – of which only 45 actually had any relevance for me, the rest being either spam, viruses unwittingly spread by Windows users, or viruses bounced by servers configured by unthinking admins believing my email address’s presence in the From: field meant I was the sender.
A typically depressing day on the Internet – and pretty average too, given that spam and similar junk is now reckoned to make up more than 50 percent of all email, having grown roughly tenfold in the past two years. So we’re all on the lookout for weapons to use against spam. For those of us on dialup Internet connections (as I am at home, with absolutely no prospect of broadband due to my rural location), the problem isn’t sorting the spam out when it gets to us. No, the goal is to prevent the spam from starting the journey down the narrow phone line from the mail server to our computers. That’s why, although spam filters in products like Apple’s Mail, Eudora 6, and SpamSieve interest me, they seem a misplaced effort for my problems. Time is precious, as is bandwidth on a dialup, and I don’t want to devote it to spam.
Blocked at the Mailbox — Checking your mail while it’s still on the mail server is the first step. Over the years I’d used programs like Mail Siphon and POP Monitor (both are available for Mac OS 9 and Mac OS X). But the problem with these programs is that you must manually decide what’s junk and what’s not. I can tell at once that an email entitled "Something wrong with the website xfsdksjk" is spam (spammers add the randomly generated extra letters to avoid ISP spam filters that look for bulk email with identical titles), but neither Mail Siphon nor POP Monitor does. So you end up deleting all the junk mail by hand, which still leaves you cursing spammers.
Then one day I stumbled across PostArmor and realised I’d found exactly what I wanted – a program that could automatically filter spam before downloading it.
PostArmor examines only the headers of messages, but in my experience that actually yields enough clues to identify spam almost without fault. It works by allocating points to each message, based on certain clues in the headers, and only those that don’t rack up too many points will be allowed straight through to your mailbox.
Using PostArmor — The program, written by Paolo Manna, a programmer based in Holland, is intended to sit and run continuously as a proxy for your principal email program – whether that’s Mail, Eudora, Entourage, Mailsmith, or any other IMAP- or POP-based system. You tell your email client that PostArmor is your mail server; PostArmor in turn queries your real mail server and decides, based on its built-in rules and those you set (all of which can be changed) which messages to pass on, which to delete, and which to quarantine.
How does it decide? Particular dirty words (or parts of them – it will also filter using regular expressions, as I’ll explain later) or adult subjects, "privacy" subjects (such as "government" or "tax" or "spy software") or domain subjects (containing the words "your domain" or "quality internet" or "saw your site") and a host of others will all set its whiskers a-tingle. If a message picks up more than a certain number of points (which you set), PostArmor deletes it from the server right away. If it gets more than a threshold figure – again, you decide what – it won’t be deleted, but it won’t be passed on either: it will show up, highlighted in yellow, in PostArmor’s mailbox window. Those which don’t hit the threshold zoom straight through to your email program. You can also whitelist and blacklist certain senders and generate "fake bounces" from the server. (The idea is that the fake bounce will persuade the spammer your address is dead; it’s a pointless waste of bandwidth, since spammers couldn’t care less about removing bouncing addresses from their lists.)
Customizing PostArmor — "But," you’re probably saying, "I have people who legitimately send me messages with prohibited words or phrases like ‘saw your site’ or ‘government’ or ‘tax’ – I’m in charge of my government’s Web site!" That’s fine; you can tweak the numbers and words to your heart’s content, and most of all create your own filtering rules.
PostArmor is remarkably flexible: you can search on the Subject, From, To, Cc, Bcc, Content-Type, Reply-To, Date or "Any" headers (though not the title of the header itself); you can choose if that field contains, doesn’t contain, starts with, ends with, has your address or doesn’t have your address; and then you choose what data string you want to check it against.
One of the program’s best features, to my mind, is its capability to let you use regular expressions for that data string. These are tools familiar to Unix users that allow you to search for particular patterns of text in a larger body. Thus for the example email subject title above – "Something wrong with the website xfsdksjk" – I’d set up a "regex" search which looks for a subject line that has a number of spaces followed by a number of characters or digits. If you’re unfamiliar with regexes (like most Mac users), don’t worry: PostArmor’s ReadMe file – whose step-by-step, well-illustrated style is an object lesson to anyone looking to produce software that real people, not wonks, will install and use – contains useful links to online manuals. (For those using Mac OS X, I’d recommend downloading the text editor Tex-Edit and reading its useful guide on regexes, and experimenting with its regex-savvy Find function; the Mac OS 9 version does not offer regex.) You can use regexes, for example, to catch email originating from Chinese (.cn ), Taiwanese (.tw ) or Russian (.ru ) servers: note there’s a space after those letters, which is critical to catching spam rather than email from your friends at CNET, or Twingo, or that nice <[email protected]>, all of whom would run afoul of these filters if those trailing spaces weren’t present.
PostArmor is initially set to delete only the most egregious junk; most dubious stuff is quarantined, after which you can decide its fate manually. As you gain in confidence, you’ll create new rules and tweak the old ones to create a smooth-running system that – if my experience, dealing with 200 email messages a day on two different addresses on a high speed connection at work, and about a quarter of that at home on a third address – will entirely change your reaction to spam. Where it used to be hugely annoying, you’ll now find yourself grinning at those yellow-tinged messages unable to reach you with their false promises of a bigger body or smaller debts. (In my work as a journalist, it also catches a huge number of rubbish email messages sent by PR companies; that certainly eases the burden of keeping up with the world.) Plus when a new virus rolls around and generates pointless bounces of the form "Mail Delivery Failed: …." you can create a new rule deleting any mail that starts with that phrase. So long, SoBig.
Chinks in the Armor? Has it any flaws? I haven’t run into any; the reason I logged on directly to my mail server the other day, as described as the start of this article, rather than letting PostArmor do the heavy lifting, was because the program kept timing out when I tried to check my mail. I contacted Paolo Manna to point this out – and he reacted quickly, sending over a new build (version 1.3.1) of the program which both uses the newer 1.4.1 version of Java available for Mac OS X, and extends the timeout for a login from 20 seconds to 45.
That didn’t solve my problem – but I then discovered this was because my ISP’s spam-overloaded mail server was taking up to 90 seconds just to react to a request to log on. (Usually it’s a couple of seconds.)
Otherwise, the only problem you’re likely to run into with PostArmor is incorrect configuration – if you create a filter incorrectly or without care, you could end up deleting legitimate mail – but you can set wide limits between "allow directly to my mailbox" and "delete as definite spam". You can then check it in the window PostArmor provides to decide, and either allow or destroy it. Thus, I’ve found PostArmor quite safe to use; and it will optionally provide a report on what mail it has blocked and deleted as often as you like, so you can tweak your filters further.
PostArmor is free for a single email account; for more than one you’ll have to pay from $15 upwards (there are discounts for multiple users). As it’s a Java program, it can run on Mac OS 9, Mac OS X, and even Windows, which can be handy: when my iBook was being repaired recently I happily downloaded it on a Windows machine for work and set it to work chomping up those email grubs.
[Charles Arthur is technology editor of The Independent newspaper in London and editor of UKClimbing.com, a British climbing Web site.]
EyeTV review comments — Readers elaborate on what’s good and what’s lacking in the EyeTV. (9 messages)
TiVo/ReplayTV/EyeTV alternatives — In addition to these three options for recording television programs, TidBITS readers suggest Formac’s Studio DV/TV and other options. (14 messages)
Zip compression in Panther — People report problems with Panther’s archive format and using StuffIt Expander, leading to a discussion of different .zip flavors. (11 messages)
Query about iChat availability states — If your status is set to Away, are you really away? And why can people still send you messages? (17 messages)