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After nearly 600 issues, Technical Editor Geoff Duncan is ceasing day-to-day work with TidBITS. In a farewell article, he looks back on his years with TidBITS and how computer technology has evolved while still failing to make the need for support and explanation obsolete. Also in this issue, we look at Apple’s busy week recalling 1.8 million iBook G4 and PowerBook G4 batteries, paying $100 million to settle a lawsuit with Creative Technologies, and issuing a careful denial of a MacBook Wi-Fi security exploit. Plus, Adam notes Google’s displeasure at being verbed, as well as the release of our latest ebook, “Take Control of Booking a Cheap Airline Ticket,” and a new program to make Take Control titles extremely affordable for classroom use.

Adam Engst No comments

DealBITS Drawing: Business Card Composer

Creating a good business card is an interesting task, since you simply must include certain pieces of information, and you have an extremely limited space in which to do so, all while trying to make your business card stand out from the pack. We’ve made business cards in a variety of programs over the years, but one that stood out recently is BeLight Software’s Business Card Composer, the previous version of which Joe Kissell used to create his TidBITS and Take Control business cards. It’s a slick application, and in version 4.0, BeLight Software added more than 100 new designs; provided a Merge Image feature for bringing images in from Address Book, iPhoto, and the Finder; added support for adjustable shadows; and improved the text editing features.

In this week’s DealBITS drawing, then, you can enter to win one of three copies of Business Card Composer 4.0, each worth $34.95. Entrants who aren’t among our lucky winners will receive a discount on purchasing Business Card Composer, so be sure to enter at the DealBITS page linked below. All information gathered is covered by our comprehensive privacy policy. Be careful with your spam filters, since you must be able to receive email from my address to learn if you’ve won. Remember too, that if someone you refer to this drawing wins, you’ll receive the same prize as a reward for spreading the word.

Jeff Carlson No comments

Apple Recalling 1.8 Million Laptop Batteries

Apple last week announced a voluntary recall of 1.8 million iBook G4 and PowerBook G4 batteries due to potential overheating issues. The affected lithium-ion batteries were manufactured by Sony and are related to the batteries recently recalled by Dell (see “Dell Recalls 4.1 Million Batteries,” 21-Aug-06). The batteries were sold between October 2003 and August 2006. Affected batteries include:



  • 12-inch iBook G4, battery model number A1061, and serial number ranges of ZZ338-ZZ427, 3K429-3K611, and 6C519-6C552 (ending with S9WA, S9WC or S9WD).
  • 12-inch PowerBook G4, battery model number A1079, and serial number ranges of ZZ411-ZZ427 and 3K428-3K611.
  • 15-inch PowerBook G4, battery model numbers A1078 and A1148, and serial number ranges of 3K425-3K601, 6N530-6N551 (ending with THTA, THTB, or THTC), and 6N601 (ending with THTC).
  • If you own an affected battery, Apple recommends that you stop using it immediately (the laptop can run from its power cord without a battery) and order a replacement from the Battery Exchange Program iBook G4 and PowerBook G4 Web page. The program is being managed only through the Web site, so don’t take a battery to an Apple Store or authorized retailer. Apple claims a 4 to 6 week turnaround for receiving a new battery.

    Since the announcement, some people have had trouble with Apple’s Web form, mostly with serial numbers that fall within the published range not being acknowledged. According to some reports, attempts that failed on the first few days after the announcement have subsequently worked as Apple fixes the bugs in the form-checking code. If you’re still not having any luck, you can also call Apple and see if a person can accept the number manually. Note that not all batteries within the published ranges were made by Sony, and thus aren’t affected (this might account for the more-specific “ending with” phrases now included).

    According to information posted by the United States Consumer Product Safety Commission, “Apple has received nine reports of batteries overheating, including two reports of minor burns from handling overheated computers and other reports of minor property damage. No serious injuries were reported.”

    Sony expects the Dell and Apple battery recalls to cost between $172 million and $258 million, and even if the recall doesn’t hurt Apple’s bottom line, it’s still a distraction and potential reputation hit with people who don’t realize the fault lies with Sony.

    Geoff Duncan No comments

    Apple Settles with Creative for $100 Million

    Removing a dark cloud from the future of its now-iconic iPod music players, Apple Computer has announced it will pay Creative Technologies $100 million to settle all legal disputes between the companies. The payment grants Apple a paid-up license to use Creative’s so-called “Zen” patent in all Apple products; under the terms of the agreement, Apple can recoup some of the money if Creative is able to license the Zen patent to other parties.

    Creative filed suit against Apple in May 2006, almost 10 months after having been granted a patent on the organization and navigation of music tracks on a portable device. Creative initially filed for the patent in January 2001, when it debuted its first Nomad and Zen music players. Apple introduced the first iPod in October 2001. However, Creative’s claim took until August 2005 to wend its way through the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

    The settlement not only removes doubts from the future of the iPod line (as part of its suit, Creative was seeking to block the importation of iPods into the United States), but also saves Creative from a protracted and costly patent battle. In addition to having to prove its case against Apple, Apple had filed two salvos of suits accusing Creative of violating Apple patents. The settlement presumably lets the companies set aside all litigation, and – what’s more – Apple gains a partner. Creative plans to join Apple’s “Made for iPod” program and begin producing its own lines of iPod accessories later this year.

    Glenn Fleishman No comments

    Apple Issues Careful Wi-Fi Exploit Denial

    Apple public relations director Lynn Fox says that the Wi-Fi exploit demonstrated by David Maynor and Jon Ellch two weeks ago in a video shown at the Black Hat 2006 conference does not represent a flaw in Apple’s software or device firmware (see “Wireless Driver Hack Could Target Macs and Windows”, 07-Aug-06). Apple told Macworld and many other media outlets that the demonstrated exploit uses a third-party wireless driver for a Wi-Fi USB adapter. Neither the driver nor the chips are the same as those used by Apple in Mac OS X on a MacBook.

    Further, Fox said that Apple has received neither code nor a demonstration that shows a flaw in shipping hardware and software. The researchers have changed the message on the page at SecureWorks, the consulting site at which they provide services, to clarify that Apple code wasn’t involved in their demonstration. Chipmaker Atheros also issued a statement – to Brian Krebs at Security Fix – that their products apparently aren’t at risk, either, based on what they knew at the time that they issued that statement.

    The two researchers who presented the hack say that a flaw in the way in which wireless drivers from several manufacturers hand off data to the operating system can allow exploits in which a machine can be compromised to execute arbitrary code. That arbitrary code could then allow an affected system to grant root, or system ownership, access to the computer. In July, Intel released a patch for their Centrino Wi-Fi adapters found in laptops from many manufacturers that fixes such a problem, although Maynor and Ellch said that this fix wasn’t a result of their work.

    With that level of access, a cracker could install “bot” software that’s used to turn affected computers into remotely activated warriors in the spam or denial-of-service wars. Bots are now considered the biggest single problem on the Internet because millions of computers can be activated, like sleeper cells, whenever an attack is desired.

    A small firestorm of responses have appeared since Apple’s denial, hinging on two factors: some writers and bloggers have been presented with information by Maynor and Ellch that is not yet in the public sphere of knowledge, and Apple’s denial of the exploit is extremely carefully crafted.

    My take at the moment is that it’s highly possible that Maynor and Ellch have found a security flaw in the built-in MacBook and MacBook Pro Wi-Fi drivers that, at the point that Apple made their statement about not seeing any “evidence” of an exploit, they had not yet presented to Apple. In this scenario, Maynor and Ellch accidentally provided details to Brian Krebs before they meant to, and are remaining mum until Apple responds. We’ll see.

    You can read many takes on this subject: George Ou at ZDNet (who has received private information), John Gruber at Daring Fireball (who has not), security expert Rich Mogull’s personal blog (he has been disclosed), Wi-Fi expert Jim Thompson (who tears the exploit apart limb by limb, fingernail by fingernail) and John Moltz at Crazy Apple Rumors Site (who makes stuff up).

    Adam Engst No comments

    Google Unhappy at Being Verbed

    A few months ago, I wrote about how editors of the Oxford English Dictionary and the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary were adding “Google” to their dictionaries as a verb (see “Google Becomes a Verb”, 10-Jul-06). In it, I noted that trademark lawyers (at least those at Google) probably wouldn’t be happy about this event since it dilutes the Google trademark, even though it’s essentially free advertising for Google. The concern is, of course, that if a trademark becomes used generically, the trademark owner loses the ability to protect it.

    How right I was. According to a short blip in The Independent, Google is now sending nasty-grams to media organizations – though not us, yet – to warn them about using its name as a verb. Other sites have picked up the news, but as is often the case with the close-mouthed Google, little hard information has emerged. Google has confirmed sending the letters, saying in one instance, “We think it’s important to make the distinction between using the word Google to describe using Google to search the internet, and using the word Google to describe searching the internet. It has some serious trademark issues.”

    Perhaps the most interesting coverage I found by googling for “Google verb legal letters” comes from a posting by Frank Abate on the American Dialect Society Mailing List, in which he claims that Google can’t really do anything to people using “google” as a verb because U.S. trademark law explicitly excludes proprietary rights in verbs (and nouns, as opposed to proper adjectives). Although I found plenty of support for the fact that “proper” usage of trademarks involves using them as proper adjectives (“a Xerox photocopier”), I couldn’t confirm that a company would be on shaky legal ground if trying to prevent usage of a trademark as a noun or verb. But you know what’s funny about Frank Abate’s list posting? It’s from February 2003. I guess Google has been prickly about being verbed for some time now. But they also haven’t sued anyone for it yet, as far as I’ve seen.

    Geoff Duncan No comments

    The More Things Change…

    Way back in 1994, Adam and Tonya graciously welcomed me to the TidBITS community by bringing me on board as TidBITS’s managing editor. Now after more than 5,000 articles, almost 600 issues, and nearly twelve years, it’s time to bid a fond farewell: this piece marks my final appearance in TidBITS as a regular staff member.

    I realize many readers have only a fuzzy idea of my roles at TidBITS over the years – or no idea at all. That’s understandable: although I’ve written more than 750 items and articles for TidBITS, the bulk of my work has been behind the scenes. At first, I worked with external authors to get material into shape, helped edit stories, and generally pushed TidBITS forward. Eventually, I took over distributing TidBITS issues – that used to involve a couple hours engaged in battle with quaint devices called modems, uploading to commercial online services, bulletin boards, and eventually publishing on a newfangled thing called the Web. Up until a couple weeks ago, I helped edit, produced, and distributed essentially every issue of TidBITS since mid-1995, and my real-life acquaintances know these tasks have made my Mondays sacrosanct, well, forever. I also got to know many TidBITS readers and subscribers by way of handling editorial email for many years: responding to comments and questions, forwarding material along to other staff members, and handling subscription problems and queries from readers. In case you didn’t know already, TidBITS’s readers are a fine bunch.

    Eventually I slipped into a role more involved in supporting and developing TidBITS services and projects. This probably started with the first incarnation of DealBITS, but took root when TidBITS took over management of its mailing lists from Rice University back in 1996, for which we had to create our own subscription management system. (At the time, no Mac-based mailing list software could handle TidBITS.) Adam mostly dealt with the server side of things; I dealt with the databases and the programming. With some expansions to enable new lists and bounce processing, that system ran until TidBITS migrated mailing services to Web Crossing in 2004, and it offered features which (to my knowledge) still aren’t available in any commercially available mailing list management software.

    I didn’t realize it at the time, but the point where I crossed the line from a regular “face of TidBITS” to being more of a “back room geek” was probably when Adam and Tonya took a month-long trip to Australia in 1998. Adam had held a contest to come up with a full-text search engine for TidBITS, but, as much as the winning software solved our search problem, keeping that software running – on a server in Adam and Tonya’s basement, at the top of a steep hill maybe 15 miles from my place – was a bit of an effort. I think it was on my third trip up there in the span of a week, spending hours hunched over the black-and-white monitor as the software laboriously re-indexed eight years of TidBITS issues, trying to keep warm by running up and down the stairs, entertaining Adam and Tonya’s cat Cubbins, and blowing into my hands, that I first thought, “This would be simpler if the server was at my place.” After all, I had better connectivity than Adam and Tonya did, and I was already riding herd on a Web robot I’d developed (which was running 24/7 on my old Quadras). Trying to baby-sit servers in two locations was just too much.

    And so began the descent into madness. A proof-of-concept TidBITS article database I’d halfway put together on a spare Mac was quickly pressed into service as a way to reference individual articles, but we then used it to generate content for the TidBITS Web site, and soon it was operating as a replacement for the failed full text search engine. At some point the server moved off my desk and into my office closet, and was joined by another server, and then another. Next we lashed an insidiously developed, Web-enabled archive for TidBITS Talk into the system, and the server closet ballooned again. By 1999, the system was supporting polls, quizzes, between-issue news updates, sponsor banners, and reader contributions; publishing issues; generating email, and more. As we added features, we inevitably found much off-the-shelf software unsuitable, so I wound up writing POP, SMTP, HTTP, and XML-RPC clients plus security software from the ground up to support needed functions.

    Over time, we fixed problems, added features (like a version of TidBITS for handheld devices and an RSS feed), and I put a good deal of effort into trying to improve the systems’ performance, staving off attackers, and learning to keep trawlers and increasingly aggressive Web robots under control. The setup weathered a 6.8 magnitude earthquake, but a few weeks later my ISP went dark and – in a fit of irony – I packed TidBITS’s most important pieces off to that same, chilly spot in Adam and Tonya’s basement for a few weeks just before they relocated to Ithaca, New York. With some additions and changes, that database and Web publishing system was driving TidBITS – and taking up a lot of my office closet space – until earlier this month.

    Around that same period, two important things happened. First, I got pneumonia. Not run-of-the-mill, gosh-I-feel-awful pneumonia, but an antibiotic-resistant, atypical form which took off about 35 pounds in 20 days, put a baseball-sized abscess in one lung, and stayed with me for months. As a weight-loss plan it was hard to beat, but the illness did make me reassess a few things and realize that, despite the cozy heat emanating from the office closet, I wasn’t very interested in being a “server monkey.” Do I like to help design and build cool things? Sure! Do I like baby-sitting hardware and jumping to its rescue whenever Web crawlers swarm it like yellowjackets on jam? Not so much.

    Second, Apple launched Mac OS X. Despite having done a fair bit of software development and testing for various Unix derivations over the years, I have an irrational distaste for Unix. (To be sure, I can rationalize it: don’t get me started.) As silly as it sounds, I’ve always found Unix inscrutable, ramshackle, ill-tempered, and suitable only for software developers. I didn’t consider the “classic” Mac OS any paragon of usability or transparency either (again, don’t get me started), but with Mac OS X, I felt Apple finally abandoned a key – albeit abstract – goal to bring the advantages of computing to everyday people in a way they could use, manage, and maintain without becoming rocket scientists. Of course, other computer manufacturers and operating system developers haven’t made much progress on that front either, but Apple used to try to make “computers for the rest of us.” With Mac OS X, Apple essentially put a patina over parts of an arcane, byzantine collection of technologies and called it innovation. In my book, that’s not “computers for the rest of us,” but “computers just like all the rest.” But I waited and hoped.

    I understand the technical and market forces which led to Mac OS X and which continue to drive its development, and I certainly don’t begrudge folks who like Mac OS X, love it, or embrace its Unix underpinnings. Truthfully, I feel Mac OS X has a lot to commend it, as modern operating systems go. However, I don’t think modern operating systems are anything much to crow about, and, despite a few years of trying, I haven’t been able to bring myself to enjoy Apple’s Aqua-flavored Kool-Aid.

    Since I first started using computers – a 4K Commodore PET at the age of 11, followed by an Apple IIc and an early VAX running a Version 7 Unix – I’ve lamented that the technology wasn’t ready for prime time. The main reason I got into technical writing – then software testing, then development, consulting, editing, TidBITS, and Internet-based projects – was because it wasn’t simple enough to make computers do what I wanted. Instead, I found myself fiddling, fixing, explaining, programming, enabling, and helping other people. I believed in the potential of information technology and felt I could make a positive contribution by helping other people tap into it: the glitches and problems and stumbling blocks were just bumps in the road – growing pains, right? But when my mother retypes a document because she can’t find the original, a TidBITS Talk thread deteriorates into a discussion of command line switches, I utterly destroy a brand-new Mac mini by clicking its Printer Sharing checkbox, a live music recording is ruined by an invisible background process, or a disabled friend feels she has no choice but to buy a new printer because her old one suddenly stopped working… I just want to scream. It’s the twenty-first century: why are we still mired in this stuff?

    I’ve long said that we’ll know computers have arrived when there’s no need for people like me. The fact so many everyday people have to turn to interpreters, consultants, experts, classes, training, and technophiles to use their computers and put them to work, to me, represents a fundamental failure of the industry. It seems people like me will be needed for a long, long time. Many years ago, Microsoft held a press event to announce a significant expansion of the company’s technical support offerings; the late technology writer Cary Lu scored a zinger – and made a profound point – by politely asking if Microsoft anticipated its products would one day reach a level where users would require fewer support resources. Along the same lines, I remain flabbergasted Apple has installed Genius Bars in its retail stores. To me, Genius Bars don’t say “Apple’s your friend and is here to help!” but instead, “Everyone knows Apple makes the easiest-to-use computers, but only a genius can figure them out.”

    So now that TidBITS has successfully migrated its services out of my closet, it’s time for me to focus on projects more personally fulfilling than reading Apple’s tea leaves, hoping the computing industry suddenly gets it right, or jumping and clapping on cue whenever the Internet’s “next big thing” comes a-knocking. I don’t plan to drop off the face of the earth: for the time being, I’ll appear on TidBITS’s virtual masthead as “Editor at Large” and I’ll continue to contribute material to TidBITS as time and opportunity permit. But where, to me, the Macintosh used to represent a set of values and ideals about the role of technology in people’s lives, now the Macintosh is just a computer. I need to treat it as such.

    I’d like to express my appreciation to the entire TidBITS staff – Joe Kissell, Glenn Fleishman, Matt Neuburg, Jeff Carlson, Mark Anbinder, and (of course!) Adam and Tonya – for their camaraderie, support, friendship, and (especially) humor over the years: they’re a sterling group, and I can’t recommend them highly enough. But, most importantly, I’d like to thank the TidBITS readership and community for welcoming us to your mailboxes and browsers for all these years: you represent what is truly the best thing about the Macintosh. Don’t forget it!

    Adam Engst No comments

    Take Control News/28-Aug-06

    New Ebook Helps You Book a Cheap Airline Ticket — Our latest ebook – Sam Sellers’s “Take Control of Booking a Cheap Airline Ticket” – is somewhat unusual, but we think it solves an important problem for anyone who needs to book a plane ticket but doesn’t want to pay too much or waste time on futile Web searches. That’s because it’s easy to see a collection of airline ticket sites as modules in one big confusing application, and this ebook teaches you the best way to use that application to save time and money, while reducing frustration.

    Tonya and I recently ran into this problem when we wanted to book an open-jaw trip from Ithaca to San Francisco and then home again from Seattle. We spent hours hunting for a deal, had fares increase seemingly within minutes of our first search, and felt that we had to consult far too many sites before we found a good price. In short, we felt out of control. Next time, we’ll know what to do because Sam’s ebook explains exactly which sites to visit in the right order when booking plane tickets for trips originating within the United States. If you fly at all, we encourage you to try Sam’s technique for finding the lowest available ticket prices; your savings on even a single flight will more than pay for the $10 ebook!

    Discounted Class Copy Pricing Now Available — As an author, you know you’ve arrived when your work is required reading in a class, and that’s something we’re hoping to see more of with our Take Control ebooks. Over the years, we’ve received a number of inquiries from teachers who want to purchase copies of our ebooks to distribute to their students, but at full price, the cost was too high for most classes. Now, however, we’re pleased to announce that – in order to make our ebooks more cost-effective as class materials – we have introduced special ultra-discounted pricing specifically for classes, whether taught at a college or university, in an Apple Store, by a Macintosh consultant, or in a K-12 or adult-education setting. Teachers can now buy our ebooks for distribution to up to 10 students for what you would normally pay for only 2 copies (that’s as much as 80-percent off); for more students, additional copies can be purchased in 10-student blocks. Once we’ve received payment, we’ll create a custom-stamped version of each ebook for the teacher to distribute to students. Apart from the stamp, these ebooks are identical in every way to the normal versions we sell, including free minor updates. To learn more and apply for class-copy pricing for your class, visit our Take Control Class Copies page.

    TidBITS Staff No comments

    Hot Topics in TidBITS Talk/28-Aug-06

    Last Tango Round the Mulberry Bush — Matt Neuburg’s article about the email program Mulberry brings out supporters and questions the need for a bug-report mechanism for a program no longer in development. 6 messages

    The Decline of WWDC — Attendees of Apple’s Worldwide Development Conference debate the shortcomings of this year’s show, based on Matt Neuburg’s article from last week. 16 messages

    Secure Transfer Using Civil Netizen and Pando — Glenn Fleishman’s article on these two file-sharing applications brings up other services, such as Amazon’s S3 and Tango DropBox Pro. 2 messages

    Should I get a new scanner? Is it worth trying to find a scanner with Intel-native drivers, or stick with your existing one? 5 messages

    Notification scheme for reducing spam — The peer-to-peer aspects of Civil Netizen and Pando prompt speculation on how such technology might be used to cut down spam. 7 messages