Welcome to 2005! As we gear up for Macworld Expo, we’re starting the new year off with a rich collection of Mac news and information. Apple releases new Xserves and is shipping Xsan, Boingo finally launches its service for Mac users, and old favorite Graphing Calculator arrives for Mac OS X. 2005 also brings a successful move for our main mailing lists – Adam shares the details. Lastly, Matt Neuburg listens to several random sound utilities, the Omni Group releases OmniWeb 5.1, and we note a few more Macworld Expo events.
Helping Asian Tsunami Victims — The mind boggles at the loss of life and destruction caused by the recent earthquakes and resulting tsunamis. Our thoughts go out to the millions of people affected, and particularly to our readers in those countries. More to the point, we encourage you to donate to one of the many aid organizations working to help restore the foundations of daily life – food, clean drinking water, clothing, sanitation facilities – without which many more people will die. See Google’s Tsunami Relief page and CNN’s Aid Groups page for more information and donation links. Our hope is that the individuals, institutions, and governments of the world can draw together in helping the victims of this event, which, though terrible, was at least free from malice or ideology. [ACE]
Circus Ponies Software Sponsoring TidBITS — 2005 is starting on an upbeat note for TidBITS, with Circus Ponies joining us as a sponsor. I’ve been relying heavily on their NoteBook program since the middle of 2003, when I realized that I needed to take manual control of my to-do list (see "The Well-Worn NoteBook" in TidBITS-745). Since then NoteBook has become a fixture on my Mac as a repository for random bits of information, lists of things to remember, and instructions for complex tasks that I perform too infrequently to remember. But part of the other reason I use NoteBook is that Jayson Adams and Elizabeth Statmore of Circus Ponies have been extremely responsive to bug reports and suggestions; to my mind, that’s a key aspect of any program. Although Circus Ponies has only been developing NoteBook for Mac OS X since 2003, the program has deep roots leading all the way back to NeXTstep, and it’s great to see such programs surviving to the present day. If you’re looking for an information repository, be sure to give NoteBook’s 30-day demo a try; the full version is $50. [ACE]
Nisus Software Sponsoring TidBITS — If NoteBook is an old program from a new company, Nisus Writer Express is a new program from an old company. Nisus Software is celebrating its 20th year, and the company’s flagship program is now Nisus Writer Express, a complete rewrite of the classic version of Nisus Writer that TidBITS has relied on from the very beginning. Our next generation content management system will help us wean ourselves from needing Nisus Writer running in Classic mode, and at the moment, Nisus Writer Express is the leading candidate to become my most commonly used word processor, thanks to its combination of writing and text processing tools, most notably the Document Manager that lets you start writing without even worrying about saving your work; the real-time integration with the free Nisus Thesaurus; and clearly presented statistics on the document and selection, something that’s essential for any professional writer. It’s a slick little program, and in my usage, it’s further along than any of the other new word processors I’ve tried. So, if you find Microsoft Word overkill for what you need, but TextEdit too little, Nisus Writer Express deserves a look; it’s $60 and a 30-day trial version is available. [ACE]
Adam Takes the Fifth! The findings of the annual MDJ Power 25 survey are out, and this year the industry insiders who participate in the polling placed TidBITS’s publisher Adam Engst fifth in the list of people who wield the most influence and power in the Macintosh industry. This is Adam’s fifth consecutive placement in the top five vote-getters, and Adam is still the only member of the top five who doesn’t work for Apple Computer. As in years past, the MDJ Power 25 tends to favor Apple executives and employees: 14 of the 25 positions were awarded to Apple, with CEO Steve Jobs, Executive VP Tim Cook, Software Engineering VP Bertrand Serlet, and VP of industrial design Jonathan Ive filling the top four slots. However, the 2004 list was not without its surprises: Apple’s de facto #2 man Tim Cook wasn’t even ranked in 2002 or 2003, Wall Street Journal technology columnist Walt Mossberg climbed to a #7 ranking, and Macworld’s editorial director Jason Snell sprang off the "honorable mention" list to a #11 placement. Also surprising: Avie Tevanian dropped to #10 (largely in favor of Bertrand Serlet), Apple’s Phil Schiller didn’t make the list this year, and the only third-party developers to earn slots were Microsoft (Bill Gates and MacBU Manager Roz Ho) and Allume’s Jonathan Kahn. [GD]
OmniWeb 5.1 Ships — The Omni Group has released OmniWeb 5.1, an update to its full-featured Web browser (see "OmniWeb 5.0: The Powerful Web Browser" in TidBITS-742). This version incorporates numerous fixes, but most notably integrates Apple’s latest WebCore rendering engine for improved performance and rendering compatibility (OmniWeb is built on top of Apple’s WebCore framework, which are also used by Safari). OmniWeb 5.1 is a free update to current registered users; a new license costs $30, and upgrades from versions earlier than 5.0 cost $10. A fully functional 30-day demo is available as a 5.9 MB download. [JLC]
Partying at Macworld Expo SF 2005 — Although we’re not seeing the types of extravagant Macworld Expo parties that existed several years ago, this year’s show offers several opportunities for Mac fans to gather and have fun. Adam and I have a full slate of appearances this year (see "Macworld Expo SF 2005 Events" in TidBITS-760 to see when and where we’ll be), but I wanted to mention a couple of additional events.
On Tuesday, 11-Jan-05, everyone is invited to the Party for the People, starting at 8:00 PM in the Piazza Lounge of the Parc 55 Hotel. Also worthy of note is the 19th annual Netters Dinner on Thursday, 13-Jan-05; registration is now open at $18 per person for the hot and spicy meal at Hunan (registration wasn’t active when we published the original announcement in December). As usual, consult the Hess Memorial Macworld Expo SF 2005 Events List for updated information on these and other happenings. Hope to see you there! [JLC]
Nisus Writer Express 2.1.1 Released — Nisus Software recently released version 2.1.1 of Nisus Writer Express, their increasingly powerful word processor for Mac OS X. Whereas version 2.1 focused on improving the speed of scrolling, searching, typing, and opening documents, 2.1.1 is aimed at squashing bugs. A number of crashing bugs were fixed, Paste As Text Only has been improved, the spelling checker is more accurate around superscript text, and styles imported from Word documents no longer appear with gibberish names. Overall, version 2.1.1 of the program feels significantly tighter and more solid than previous versions, and I’m using it more and more for drafting longer TidBITS articles. Nisus Writer Express 2.1.1 is a free update for all owners of Nisus Writer Express; new copies cost $60, and upgrades from Nisus Writer Classic 6.0.x are priced at $45 (add $5 to all these prices for a CD). The update is a 21.3 MB download. [ACE]
DealBITS Drawing: GarageSale Winners — Congratulations to Tim Williams of mac.com, Jim McElligot of hemostat.com, and Keith Rettig of multirater.com, whose entries were chosen randomly in last week’s DealBITS drawing and who each received a copy of iwascoding.com’s GarageSale. Even if you didn’t win, you can still save 20 percent off the purchase price of GarageSale (making the single-user license $19.99, or the family pack license $35.99) through 17-Jan-05. Order using the third link below to receive your discount; this offer is open to all TidBITS readers. Thanks to the 1,114 people who entered, and keep an eye out for future DealBITS drawings! [ACE]
On 31-Dec-04, I moved all our subscribers from our aged Power Mac 7100 running ListSTAR 1.2 (we’re talking systems that saw their last significant upgrade in 1997) to our shiny dual-processor Xserve running Web Crossing, which serves static and dynamic Web pages, provides a high-performance object-oriented database, and handles all our normal and mailing list mail (short of three translation lists that I still need to move), among other things.
Overall, the move went well, although the welcome message generated quite a few more bounces than I’d expected due to the roundabout method we’d used to track them in the past. Picking the holiday break also meant a slew (almost 400) of out-of-office replies – I feel like I know many of you just a little bit better now. And most surprising, since I seldom run across them in normal mail, were all the challenge-response requests, of which I received about 125 from at least 10 different systems. In an intentional break from our standard policy of not responding to any challenge-response mail, I chose to respond to each one manually in this specific case, since I wanted to reduce the confusion of switching to a new system as much as possible. And do I have opinions on the usability of challenge-response systems now! But that’s a future article.
Explaining Common Confusions — Needless to say, some confusion still resulted, thanks in part to the fact that people aren’t always caught up on reading TidBITS and thus didn’t expect the move. Nothing I can do about that. But a few other things came up that perhaps I can explain a bit better.
Several people were horribly offended at being given a TidBITS account with a password and wondered why it was necessary. The primary reason is that we spend a lot of time helping people change their email addresses and cleaning up mailing lists after people abandon old addresses. We’re too small to be spending time on unnecessary clerical tasks that everyone can easily do themselves. In fact, this was one of the reasons I chose Web Crossing for our server software in the first place; it has full-fledged user account capabilities. So, for instance, if you want to change your email address, you can do so in your account, and the new address will immediately be reflected in all of our TidBITS and Take Control mailing lists. If you don’t want to change your email address, there’s no need to log in to your TidBITS account at all; should you ever want to do so, you can always request a new password.
A number of people have been confused by the interface to the Web Crossing preferences. It’s not ideal, and it’s certainly not pretty, but if you just follow the instructions on our Account Help page, I don’t think you’ll have any trouble. Redesigning the preferences pages is on my list of things to do; it’s one of those areas of Web Crossing that hasn’t received interface attention in a number of years, and it’s clearly due for some work.
Some folks have been confused by the fact that we appear to have two subscription interfaces. Here’s the deal. The TidBITS Subscriptions page was brought over from our old server; it’s a nice interface and is easy to use for subscribing and unsubscribing, as long as you know which of your email addresses to use. However, it’s a "dumb" form that requires email confirmation of all changes made through it to prevent people from messing with other people’s subscriptions. Then there’s the Manage Subscriptions page, which Web Crossing maintains automatically and dynamically as part of your TidBITS account preferences. It lists the mailing lists to which you’re subscribed and lets you change how you’re notified of new messages. So, both pages can be used to unsubscribe, but only the TidBITS Subscriptions page can be used to subscribe to new lists. Simplifying this dichotomy will take some thought; we need a public page that people without accounts can use to subscribe, but at the same time, it’s nice when the system can identify you and help you manage your specific subscriptions. As I become ever more familiar with the Web Crossing mindset, I’ll figure out a better approach.
The above confusion seems to have been exacerbated by the fact that some people don’t realize we offer TidBITS in four editions: Text Issue, HTML Issue, Text Announcement, and HTML Announcement. Each edition has a different mailing list; the vast majority of our subscribers receive the Text Issue, which is the full TidBITS issue in 7-bit ASCII text. The HTML Issue is the full TidBITS issue formatted with minimal HTML that looks good in all email programs that support HTML mail. Relatively few people are subscribed to the announcement lists; instead of the full issue each week, subscribers receive a summary of the issue and a list of articles with links to our article database. If you wish to try a different list than the one you’re currently subscribed to, use the TidBITS Subscriptions page to subscribe, being sure to use the email address that’s currently associated with your TidBITS account (otherwise you’ll end up with two accounts).
Smoothing the Road — These transitions are never perfectly smooth, but overall, I think this one has gone pretty well. After I finish moving the last few translation lists over, it will be time to concentrate hard on the content management system. I certainly hope to keep any downtime to a minimum, but it’s impossible to predict how things will develop, so thanks for bearing with us on this server move!
Perhaps paving the way for Steve Jobs’s scheduled keynote address at Macworld Expo in San Francisco, Apple last week announced an upgraded line of Xserve rack-mount servers, as well as the availability of its long-awaited Xsan storage area network product.
The top of the line Xserve G5 now sports dual 2.3 GHz PowerPC G5 processors and a 1.15 GHz front-side system bus, which Apple calls the fastest in the industry for a 1U rack-mount server. A single-processor 2.0 GHz G5 configuration will remain available. Formerly, the Xserve G5 was available in single- or dual-processor 2.0 GHz G5 configurations.
In talking about the school’s upgraded supercomputer cluster made up of 2.3 GHz Xserves, Srinidhi Varadarajan, director of the Terascale Computing Facility at Virginia Tech, said, "1,100 Xserve servers are now achieving over 12.25 trillion operations per second, a speed increase of 20 percent over the original system’s performance."
The new Xserves support up to three 400 GB drive modules, offering up to 1.2 TB (terabytes) of internal storage. The Single 2.0 GHz Xserve sells for $3,000, and the dual 2.3 GHz model sells for $4,000; these and a $3,000 cluster-optimized configuration are available immediately. The first two configurations include an unlimited client license for Mac OS X Server, allowing an unlimited number of Mac, Windows, or Linux clients to connect to the server. The cluster configuration includes a 10-client license.
At the same time, Apple says it has begun shipping its Xsan storage area network solution, a high-performance cluster file system announced last April at NAB (see "Apple NABs Pro Video Attention" in TidBITS-727).
The software, available for $1,000 per client or server node, allows up to 64 systems on a network to share files and volumes up to 16 TB in size, reading and writing to the shared storage simultaneously. Xsan works with G4- or G5-based Xserve or Power Mac computers running Mac OS X 10.3 or Mac OS X Server 10.3, or with Xserve RAID storage units. Using Fibre Channel multipathing (two Fibre Channel computers connecting a computer to the SAN), Xsan offers up to a theoretical throughput up to 400 MBps.
Boingo Wireless has finally released their Mac OS X client software for connecting to thousands of commercial wireless 802.11b hotspots. Boingo is an aggregator, meaning that they combine for-fee hotspots from dozens of networks into a single user account: subscribers use one login and pay a single session or monthly fee, either $8 per day or $22 per month for unlimited use. It’s a lot cheaper to subscribe to Boingo than to pay for accounts on all the individual networks that you might need to access while traveling.
Adam and I have been fans of Boingo since its inception – and we’ve been lobbying founder Sky Dayton, an old friend of Adam’s as well as EarthLink’s founder, for a Mac version since they announced themselves three years ago. The reasons for delay would make a long story, but what’s important is that the waiting is over.
Use Boingo’s online directory to determine which locations might be useful to you. They have several thousand hotspots in their aggregated network, including all of the Wayport-serviced hotels and airports, which number about 1,000. The company is striking new deals all the time, and it’s likely to grow quite a bit this year. They also have an increasingly large number of locations outside the U.S., useful for international travelers.
The reason client software is so important for fee-based hotspots is that there are few standards (and few networks conform to the same standards) for logging users into the hotspot networks. The client has to handle the back-end authentication, which is the careful and secure dance of sending a user name and password; make sure an account is active; and allow that user onto the network.
Use the code PDLST0419 to sign up for unlimited service and get your first month free. Boingo’s client software works with Mac OS 10.2.8 or later; previous versions of Mac OS X 10.2 require Safari to be separately installed.
Boingo doesn’t require any term of contract nor charge a cancellation fee when you discontinue your month-to-month usage. T-Mobile by contrast charges $40 per month for their unlimited month-to-month plan with no termination charge. So there’s no penalty with Boingo for signing up only during months when you have heavy hotspot needs while traveling.
There’s a story behind every piece of software, but I doubt any can compare with the tale of Graphing Calculator, which shipped with the first PowerPC-based Macs and continued to be bundled with Mac OS 8 and, in version 1.3, with Mac OS 9. I won’t attempt a second-hand retelling, since Ron Avitzur, Graphing Calculator’s primary developer, has done such a good job already, but suffice to say, Graphing Calculator was a program written by Ron and another developer, Greg Robbins (who lived a few miles from us in Seattle when we were there) after their jobs at Apple had ended – the twist is that they continued to go into work at Apple every day, using their still-active badges and offices. Graphing Calculator’s genesis is probably the ultimate skunkworks story – there was nothing official about it until the very end, and yet it shipped on 20 million Macs and helped untold numbers of students better understand mathematics.
Now a new chapter in Graphing Calculator’s story has begun. Ron has just released a Mac OS X version of Graphing Calculator 3.5 through his company, Pacific Tech, which sold more-advanced versions of the program even while Apple bundled the free version. Interestingly, most of the porting work was done by Marco Piovanelli, a programmer who’s best known as the creator of the WASTE text engine used by innumerable Macintosh programs as well as Graphing Calculator itself.
My math background is sufficiently weak and distant that I cannot evaluate the program on its mathematical merits, but a glance at the feature list reveals an impressive set, given that it can graph simple and complex equations in two, three, and four dimensions, including multiple equations on the same graph. You can even have Graphing Calculator automatically substitute a range of values for a parameter in an equation and animate the resulting graph as the numbers change. A slew of examples and demos show off just what the program can do, and you can see some screenshots of some seriously high-end mathematical features at the Complex Functions page below. As Ron jokingly told me, "It helps visualize functions of a complex variable in four dimensions, a feature every seventh grader needs!"
You can save any equation in Graphing Calculator’s own format, of course, but you can also save in RTF (the equations and graphs are saved as graphics) for importing into other programs, in HTML format for posting on the Web, and in QuickTime movie format for showing off animated equations. It’s also easy to change the look of the graphs, add text boxes with explanations, and print your equations. There’s also a free Graphing Calculator Viewer program that lets you view and interact with (but not type into) Graphing Calculator documents, making it a useful demo version.
Previous versions of the program have long been popular with math teachers around the world thanks to the ease with which it enables students to visualize highly abstract mathematical concepts. An included (look in the Help menu) activity book called Learning Math with Graphing Calculator helps you explore how you can learn more about mathematics using the program.
If you’re at all interested in math, or if you help others learn math, take a look at this new version of Graphing Calculator for Mac OS X. You can download a free version of the limited Graphing Calculator 1.3 for Mac OS 9 or 1.4 for Mac OS X to check it out. If you want the full feature set, Graphing Calculator 3.5 for Mac OS X 10.3.6 or later costs $60 for students, teachers, and parents, $40 for students with ID using it on only a single machine, or $100 for everyone else. Mac OS 9 and Windows versions are also available for the same prices.
Call me weird – and no doubt you will – but I often like to have my computer make random noise. The reason is that when I’m working at my computer on a piece of writing, I don’t like silence. To stay focused, and to help drown out the distracting natural and artificial noises of the neighborhood, it helps me to have some steady sound proceeding in the background. That sound, however, must not involve human voices, such as radio or television. If Terry Gross or the Car Talk guys are on, no work will get done; instead, I’ll listen to them. The same thing applies to music. Unlike many people, I can’t tune music out; music as background doesn’t work for me. Perhaps this is because of my classical training – I don’t know – but whatever the reason, when music is in the air, I tend to listen. This phenomenon is especially troublesome, by the way, in drug stores and restaurants that use Muzak or "Easy Listening" or other pseudo-musical perversions; I can’t stop listening, and what I’m hearing is horrible, so I typically run screaming from the place moments after entering. How people can actually work in such venues, or what restrains them from suing their employers, has always been a mystery to me. Everyone complains of the ghastly holiday music that pervades workplaces in the run-up to Christmas, but to me, the whole world sounds like that all year round. But I digress.
As I said at the outset, while working at my computer, I often want sound, but not speech, and not music either; and the solution is random noise. I’m referring here to sound that goes nowhere and has no discernible pattern, sound that is gentle and pretty and unobtrusive. Such sound has nothing to grab the mind’s attention, nothing to remind the hearer of the passage of time; yet neither is it soporific or monotonous. This sort of sound, I find, helps to keep my mind alert and relaxed; it pleases me and warms the atmosphere, yet it leaves me free to focus on the task at hand.
There are a surprisingly large number of good random noise generators for Mac OS X. Yet most of them do not quite fit my needs. Jon Klein’s Musik makes random notes, but uses just one instrument, and patterns rapidly start to emerge, so that it quickly becomes boring and annoying at the same time. (Klein is best known for his remarkable cross-platform Breve artificial-life simulation environment.) Composer Karlheinz Essl is single-handedly responsible for several interesting real-time music-generation applications. His FontanaMixer is an attempt to recreate a famous aleatory John Cage piece; it’s remarkable, but it grabs most of your CPU, making it hard to get anything else done, and its sounds are raspy and clanky, involve a human voice, and are mixed with long periods of silence, as if someone were muttering while sorting through the garbage cans in an alley – not exactly conducive to great expository writing. His Seelewaschen is also quite CPU-heavy, visibly slowing down my typing rate; it involves a tolling bell reprocessed to give various raspy, chirpy effects – sobering, but not relaxing. Much more to my taste is Essl’s now classic LexikonSonate, which plays a random but extremely musical and sophisticated piano; it stops and starts rather a lot, though, and the piano sound is rather percussive. Besides, the very qualities that make its output musically brilliant and intriguing militate against its use as subconscious background – it makes me want to listen.
Make the Mood — By this point you’re probably thinking to yourself: "I see what this fellow is after. He wants something more along the lines of Music From the Hearts of Space – hippy-dippy, mellow, environmental earwash. He wants ambient music." You’re right; I do. That isn’t at all the kind of music I like to listen to, but it’s the kind of music I want playing when I don’t want to listen. And that’s why my favorite background random noise program is presently SonicMood, from Bit of Paradise Products.
SonicMood has all the right elements for me. It uses pleasant QuickTime instrument sounds, combined into small, gentle ensembles (no more than three different kinds of instruments), playing long tones in a variety of modes (scales), sometimes sounding rather like a cross between foghorns in a harbor and Palestrina on drugs. Each combination of parameters – number and choice of instruments, maximum polyphony, average duration and pause, amplitude range, and mode – is called a Mood, and you can edit existing Moods and create new ones. Not only is each Mood random, within its parameters, but SonicMood also cycles through its Moods, randomly or sequentially, at time intervals that you define. Thus SonicMood provides an ever-changing kaleidoscope of unobtrusive sound environments – and if you do find any of the moods objectionable, you can simply eliminate it. (SonicMood can also display images, but this isn’t a feature I use; in fact, I usually hide SonicMood completely right after starting it up.)
SonicMood might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but surely I can’t be the only person in the world who occasionally wants this sort of sound to emanate from the computer, and in any case it has certainly been helpful to me in my work, and therefore, quite directly, to TidBITS. So, in the class of Tools We Use, I recommend it to your attention. The developer, John R. Hall, is very responsive to suggestions; he quickly added a Dock menu at my request, so that I could pause and start SonicMood without making it visible. SonicMood is just $10, with a 30-day free demo trial period, and is available for both Mac OS X and Mac OS 9; version 2.0 is available now, and version 3.0 should be released shortly.
We’ve been a little unhappy of late with how Take Control news has been appearing in TidBITS issues. It’s not taking the place of other Mac content; our issues have just been getting longer. In an effort to make issues more coherent and easily scanned, we’re moving short announcements and other articles about the Take Control project itself into this Take Control News section. Excerpts from new books that stand on their own as useful articles will continue to appear independently. Most of the items that appear here will be taken from our Take Control News weblog, which may carry other items about Take Control or electronic books. We’ll see how it works out.
Take Control of Your AirPort Network 1.1.3 Released — Just before Christmas, we pushed out a free update to Glenn Fleishman’s "Take Control of Your AirPort Network," bringing it to version 1.1.3. If you haven’t subscribed to the update list (and thus been informed already), click the Check for Updates button on the first page of your copy to load a Web page that lets you download the update. The update includes information about changing the name that appears for a printer connected to a USB port on your AirPort Express or AirPort Extreme Base Station, using WPA (Wi-Fi Protected Access) encryption with WDS (Wireless Distribution System), using Keyspan’s Express Remote control with an AirPort Express and iTunes, and how to turn off Ethernet and/or the AirPort interfaces using the latest firmware update. Glenn also updated the screen shots for the latest version of the AirPort Admin Utility 4.1 and added a pointer to a new list of AirPort-compatible printers that replaces the one Apple pulled.
The second URL below each thread description points to the discussion on our Web Crossing server, which will be much faster.
Personal Finance Software — Quicken is the undisputed champ when it comes to personal finance software, but alternatives do exist. How do they stack up? (24 messages)
How many updates is too often? At what point does a developer’s software updates overwhelm its users? And do beta releases count as updates? (12 messages)
iPhoto-like options for Mac OS 9? Readers suggest software options that offer some of the functionality of iPhoto, which runs only under Mac OS X. (5 messages)
Backing up both Mac and Windows computers — A program such as Retrospect can handle backing up data on a mixed-environment network, but what issues are likely to arise with other software? (7 messages)
Take Control of Backups for low end users — Joe Kissell’s Take Control of Mac OS X Backups ebook covers how to create an effective and thorough backup plan, but some readers look for something even simpler. (30 messages)
‘Shared’ Mail and Browser on Multiple Macs — A reader with multiple Macs in his house wants to be able to go to any machine and access his own email and Web settings. It sounds like a simple problem, but the solutions can be complicated. (19 messages)