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As Snow Leopard and the iPhone OS 3.1 settle in, we have a practical issue for you this week, thanks to guest writers Michael E. Cohen and Lewis Butler. Michael explains how changes in the iPhone OS could cause duplication when syncing calendar events, and Lewis figures out how to improve Snow Leopard’s autocorrection capabilities. In other news, Adam explains how to watch Apple events online; and Glenn Fleishman covers Google’s acquisition of reCAPTCHA, the introduction of the AT&T 3G MicroCell home cellular base station, and the 802.11n chip buried in the new iPod touch. Doug McLean also contributes a pair of features: a look at widespread SuperDrive problems and an article about the plight of real snow leopards (and what you can do to help!). Notable software releases this week include Sandvox 1.6.4, Mellel 2.7, MercuryMover 2.0.6, Camera Raw 5.5, Lightroom 2.5, and Things 1.2.2.

Adam Engst 3 comments

Watch Apple Events Online

A friend recently asked if there was any place he could download the video from Apple’s September 9th special event announcing iTunes 9, the new iPod nano, and the iPhone OS 3.1. He knew all about the liveblogging done by the likes of Macworld and Ars Technica, but he wanted to see the real deal, complete with Steve Jobs and the musical performance by Norah Jones.

The easiest way to tune in – albeit a day or so afterwards – is to subscribe to the Apple Keynotes podcast in iTunes. You may need to update the podcast manually every so often, since new episodes appear only every few months, so iTunes may decide you aren’t listening sufficiently often to continue with automatic downloads. An added benefit of this for people like me is that I can keep the videos around to see what Apple really said at some time in the past in case I suspect that a story is changing.

Readers Ben Wheeler and Michael Schmitt informed me of two other ways you can reliably find the video of an Apple event, either later that day or the next day. Ben pointed out that the Apple home page will usually have a link (one of the boxes at the bottom) to the video of the event, though that will disappear once Apple has something more timely to replace it with.

Michael noted that Apple provides an Apple Events page in its QuickTime Guide that lists recent events; this is probably the most reliable place to find events after the fact if you don’t want to subscribe to the Apple Keynotes podcast. The other advantage of this page is that you can choose among different formats, including full HD.

Glenn Fleishman 15 comments

AT&T Reveals Details on 3G MicroCell Home Base Station

AT&T has launched a Web site with details about its 3G MicroCell, a home cellular base station that provides enhanced coverage in your home for regular AT&T 3G mobile phones (including the iPhone), routing calls over a broadband connection. Such femtocells, as they are called in the industry, use licensed frequencies owned by cellular companies to improve signal strength and thus voice call quality.


Details slipped months ago about AT&T’s plan for such a home base station, which AT&T has been testing with an unknown number of customers and its own employees. The Web site requires a ZIP code to check for availability, and AT&T said – according to Engadget – that only Charlotte, N.C., residents are currently eligible. Still, this marks a transition into commercial availability.

These tiny base stations support voice and data connections via any 3G-capable phone that can work on AT&T’s cellular network. This is distinct from T-Mobile’s longstanding unlicensed mobile access (UMA) service, which uses ordinary Wi-Fi for the local connection, but requires one of a dozen or so specially designed dual-mode handsets and smartphones offered by the company. (T-Mobile’s UMA handsets now typically cost no more than regular 2G and 3G phones.)

Femtocells require a GPS receiver, and typically come with extremely long antennas. The GPS provides emergency E911 call location to operators, but also confirms the location of a femtocell, necessary to ensure that a carrier employs only the frequencies for which it’s licensed in a given geographic area – and that the base station isn’t used illegally outside the United States.

InformationWeek reported that the 3G MicroCell will cost $150, but that AT&T will provide a $100 rebate for customers who sign up for a calling plan. Engadget reproduced a price sheet that shows AT&T offering unlimited calling with the base station at $9.99 per month for AT&T landline and broadband subscribers, and $19.99 per month for all others. Engadget relayed news from AT&T that the price is in testing, too.

Sprint and Verizon both offer femtocells. Sprint charges $99.99 for the base station, $4.99 per month for its use in improving coverage, and an additional $10 per month for unlimited calls on an individual or family plan. Verizon charges $249.99 for the base station, with no monthly fee but has no calling plans available. With AT&T’s pricing options, the company is essentially offering both kinds of services: for $150 flat, you get better coverage; for $50 and a monthly fee, you get coverage and unlimited calling.

Sprint and Verizon offer only 2G voice calling with their femtocells. The AT&T 3G MicroCell, as one might guess from its name, works with 3G voice and data. While 3G smartphones from AT&T almost all include Wi-Fi for the data side of the equation, the cheaper, so-called “feature phones” with 3G support commonly lack Wi-Fi, although that’s starting to change with newer models.

Carriers love femtocells because they shift traffic (and the expense of moving calls and data) from their expensive-to-operate, capital-intensive cellular networks to cheap broadband – broadband that the customer has installed and paid for separately.

However, cell subscribers may grow to love in-home base stations for a similar reason: they’ve already paid for the broadband, and the additional load of voice and data calls is negligible, while the reward of unlimited calls – without paying significantly higher monthly fees – and better reception seems of high value.

Glenn Fleishman 1 comment

Google Acquires CAPTCHA Service

The reCAPTCHA service that helps Web sites tell humans and computers apart has been acquired by Google. Started by Carnegie Mellon University computer science professor Luis von Ahn, the company feeds out millions of distorted images a day that deter malicious or commercially motivated automated behavior. Von Ahn and colleagues came up with the term CAPTCHA (a contrived acronym for “Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart”), wrote an early paper on the topic, and have continued to advance the academic and practical elements.

A CAPTCHA is a puzzle that humans can solve relatively easily but that stymies computers; it’s used as a type of Turing test. Alan Turing’s famous test involved two parties, one a computer, attempting to convince a human interlocutor of their respective humanity. With CAPTCHAs, an automated system feeds out what are typically hard problems in artificial intelligence – still mostly centered on machine vision and text recognition – to ferret out faux folk.

The reCAPTCHA approach is particularly interesting, because it relies on a large base of scanned words that have failed separate attempts at optical character recognition by two different systems. The source scans include a commercial project for The New York Times to turn its vast archives into text. Such OCR-resistant words are perfect puzzles for humans, and they’re helpful for fixing what are called “suspect” words in OCR. reCAPTCHA currently processes five to seven million words a day through nearly 40 million CAPTCHAs.

(The secret of how reCAPTCHA gets machines to act as arbiters of human intelligence? The system always provides two words, one of which is known and drawn from a huge database. The unknown word is shown to several people, most of whom must provide the same response, before the word is deemed solved.)

Google uses CAPTCHAs to prevent automated creation of accounts, automated comment spam in Blogger, and general havoc. TidBITS uses CAPTCHAs to protect email addresses of authors and restrict TipBITS submissions to real people. (Our comment verification process relies on email to determine whether or not the submitter is a person.)

I recently wrote an extensive article for The Economist about CAPTCHAs, focusing on reCAPTCHA. The reason for a spotlight on its efforts, even as I described the scope of the field, was that reCAPTCHA is widely admired for having come up with a clever and still-functional method of finding things humans do well. There are many other such categories, but OCR resistance is low-hanging fruit.

The use of reCAPTCHA at Google will be, von Ahn says in his inaugural Google Blog post, “not only to increase fraud and spam protection for Google products but also to improve our books and newspaper scanning process.”

That’s right! We’re all going to have a hand in Google’s book conversion project, one word at a time.

Glenn Fleishman 2 comments

New iPod Touch Has 802.11n Chip

The folks at iFixit, who disassemble and examine new hardware, found a Broadcom chip that uses single-stream 802.11n in the new, faster iPod touch models released last week. Does that mean the iPod touch is suddenly much zippier on the network? Not quite.

The 802.11n standard – finally ratified by the IEEE engineering group on 11-Sep-09 – sped up Wi-Fi network throughput by several factors. Apple started putting a relatively compatible version of 802.11n in all its new computers in October 2006, and in all its new router models in January 2007.

However, 802.11n hasn’t appeared in any major handheld devices, such as the iPhone or other smartphones – at least, until now. I checked a new iPod touch, and Apple’s AirPort Utility shows it connecting only via 802.11g on an 802.11n network. Apple may have plans to enable it through firmware and driver upgrades later. Back in October 2006, Apple started shipping 802.11n chips within Macs, but didn’t release an enabler until February 2007. It’s barely possible that Apple used the chip for cost and integration reasons, but has no plans to enable 802.11n.

The lack of 802.11n before now was partly due to some basic design principles. The flavor of 802.11n that’s in nearly every computer adapter and base station shipped to date uses at least two antennas, and has the equivalent of two separate radios inside for each of the two common unlicensed radio bands. (802.11n devices can use either 2.4 or 5 GHz, but aren’t required to use one over the other, nor support both. Newer base stations, including Apple’s, can broadcast simultaneously over both bands; such base stations have, in the simplest terms, four radios, two each devoted to each band.)

The radios and antennas work together in a system called “multiple in, multiple out” (MIMO) that takes advantages of wireless signal reflection. Each radio carries a unique stream of data, and different power levels sent to each antenna steer the stream’s beam so that a receiver can separately distinguish and decode both streams.

Fitting two radios, two or more antennas, and the necessary chips into a handheld is pretty much impossible. That led to the development of single-stream 802.11n, which uses one radio stream and one antenna. Single-stream has the advantage of faster encoding than its predecessor, 802.11g, giving it a baseline improvement in speed.

Chipmakers also worked to drop the power requirement. Single-stream 802.11n is likely more efficient than 802.11g in battery use, in fact. The Broadcom chip integrates an FM receiver and a Bluetooth radio, which also contributes to a reduction in battery use. (Oddly, the Wi-Fi-less iPod nano is the model that publicly gained an FM tuner, while the iPod touch hasn’t enabled that function on its chip.)

The better battery usage means that a handheld can use 802.11n, and putting 802.11n into a mobile device lets a unit like the iPod touch send and receive 50 percent more data in the same period of time – maybe a net throughput of roughly 30 Mbps instead of 20 Mbps. (For far more technical detail, read my Wi-Fi Networking News article, “Does the iPhone Need 802.11n?” I wasn’t prescient; there was a lot of chatter early this year about single-stream chips, and I thought what turned out to be the iPhone 3GS was a likely first use.)

That higher speed would make it possible to stream movies or transfer data at far higher rates, but would have little practical impact on routine activities. This might be the precursor to iTunes over-the-air sync (via something like the new Home Sharing feature) for media with the iPhone and iPod touch.

But there’s also a “good neighbor” part of single-stream N that improves network efficiency, and makes, say, other video streaming or transfers on the network perform better.

Single-stream 802.11n can be bad for a network, because each packet transferred takes the space of at least two multiple-radio packets. However, there’s a clever way around that called “space-time block coding” (STBC).

Without getting into any of the gory details, STBC lets a base station transmit separate data streams to single-stream devices, one per radio in the base station. Devices with a single-stream chip are more likely to consume data than produce it (most of the time, at least), and thus this effectively restores network throughput instead of halving it when multiple single-radio 802.11n devices are using the network. (STBC isn’t yet built into Apple’s base stations, but it could be as simple as a firmware update.)

The other advantage of Broadcom’s chip is that it allows the use of either the 2.4 or 5 GHz bands. While 2.4 GHz has greater range, it’s far more crowded, and you’re less likely to get anywhere near the full possible throughput with even 802.11g.

Signals sent at 5 GHz can travel shorter distances (using the same signal power), but because of a dramatically lower level of use and more available spectrum, the odds are much better you’ll get something close to the highest possible throughput.

Chipmakers have been pushing single-stream 802.11n to sell new chips at higher profit margins, of course, but also because they want to encourage users to buy newer base stations!

But Apple’s move may spell a greater interest in moving media on and off the iPod touch and (possibly shortly) the iPhone 3GS. Far higher throughput makes it much easier for an iPod touch to act as a media outpost on a local network.

Lewis Butler 15 comments

Improve Snow Leopard’s Autocorrection Capabilities

Mac OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard includes a number of new text-related features, including automatic spelling correction and text substitution. These features are supported in Apple-supplied applications like Apple Mail, Safari (in text areas), TextEdit, and AppleScript Editor, along with independent applications that use the appropriate Apple technology – relatively few at the moment, but more are undoubtedly on the way.

(One tip: The automatic spelling correction is seldom enabled by default. To turn it on, make sure the insertion point is somewhere where text can be entered, and either choose Edit > Spelling and Grammar > Correct Spelling Automatically or, if the Edit menu’s submenu doesn’t have what you need, Control-click where you’re typing and choose Spelling and Grammar > Correct Spelling Automatically from the contextual menu that appears. The latter approach is particularly likely to be necessary in Safari and other WebKit-based applications, like Mailplane. Text substitution doesn’t need to be turned on.)

The automatic spelling correction compares what you type with words in Mac OS X’s internal dictionary, automatically replacing mistakes with what it believes you meant to type. The text substitution feature relies instead on replacement pairs – a specific mistake coupled with a specific replacement.

As a result, although the automatic spelling correction can fix mistakes that no one would have anticipated, it can also guess incorrectly. In contrast, the text substitution feature knows only about the mistakes you’ve taught it, but it will always do the right thing when you make a known mistake.

So here’s the problem. Let’s say you type the text “wth” because you want to enter the word “with”. Snow Leopard’s automatic spelling correction replaces “wth” with “wt.” for some reason, causing you more work than if it had done nothing at all.

Luckily, Snow Leopard’s text substitution feature overrides the automatic spelling correction, so if you create a replacement (in the Text view of the Language & Text pane of System Preferences) that replaces “wth” with “with”, that mistake will be corrected properly in the future.

Unfortunately, Apple’s replacement dictionary has very few entries and adding them is tedious, so I set out to find where and how they are stored, enabling me to bolster them with the public domain TidBITS AutoCorrect Dictionary initially created for use with Eudora (see “An ATypoKill Eudora Hack,” 2000-09-04). (Subsequently, the TidBITS AutoCorrect Dictionary has been made available for Typinator, TextExpander, and TypeIt4Me, which also offer many other capabilities beyond Snow Leopard’s.)

[Editor’s Note: Testing the automatic spelling correction feature in Snow Leopard has been extremely frustrating. It doesn’t seem to work all the time when you intentionally type misspelled words, and it doesn’t always kick in instantaneously. The feature is certainly a help in general, but right now, the connections feel a little loose. -Adam]

The Basics — After a little digging, I found that Apple stores the replacement pairs in an invisible file at ~/Library/Preferences/.GlobalPreferences.plist, and the pairs have a data structure that looks like this:









Next, I took the TidBITS AutoCorrect Dictionary, reformatted it to the appropriate structure, and pasted it into the .GlobalPreferences.plist file. To test it, I typed a few of the typos in the file into TextEdit, and watched them be replaced.

The only question is if putting over 2,700 replacement pairs into the .GlobalPreferences.plist file will impact performance, particularly on slower Macs. In initial usage on several machines, including a Mac Pro (Early 2008) and a 2009 MacBook Pro, it has seemed fine, though there was a bit of a slowdown on a Mac Pro (Early 2006). Leave a comment if you see any performance problems after adding all these entries to your .GlobalPreferences.plist.

Do It Yourself — If you would like to try this out yourself, TidBITS has made my reformatted TidBITS AutoCorrect Dictionary available for download.

Once you’ve downloaded and expanded the file, follow these step-by-step instructions using either BBEdit or the free TextWrangler, also from Bare Bones Software. (The .GlobalPreferences.plist file is saved as a compressed plist, so a program like TextEdit or vim/nano won’t be able to read it properly without additional steps.)

  1. Open the Language & Text preference pane.
  2. Click the Text button to switch to the Text view.
  3. Click the + button and add a new replacement. I suggest “teh” and “the”.
  4. Open the reformatted TidBITS AutoCorrect Dictionary in BBEdit or TextWrangler, select all (Command-A), and copy the text to the clipboard.
  5. In BBEdit, choose File > Open Hidden.
  6. Navigate to your home folder, then Library, then Preferences and select the .GlobalPreferences.plist file.
  7. In that file, find the replacement pair you added (search for “teh”).
  8. Select the entire dictionary entry (from dict to /dict).
  9. Paste the contents of the linked file from before over the “teh” dictionary entry.
  10. Save the .GlobalPreferences.plist file.
  11. Log out and log in again, or restart. (This may not be necessary, but be sure to do it if the replacements don’t seem to work.)

Voila! From now on the replacement pairs in the TidBITS AutoCorrect Dictionary will be used in favor of the automatic spelling correction feature’s potentially incorrect guesses.

(Another tip: If the automatic spelling correction repeatedly changes something you’re intending to type, such as replacing “foo” with “of”, create a replacement pair in the Language & Text preference pane’s Text view that replaces “foo” with “foo”. Hopefully that will keep the automatic spelling correction off your case.)

If Things Go Awry — If you find that adding more than 2,700 entries causes typing performance in Apple Mail or TextEdit to be too slow, you can always go back to the Language & Text preference pane and click the Restore Defaults button to revert to the minimal list that Apple provides.

[Lewis Butler is a longtime Unix system admin, postmaster and Mac geek. He is a frequent contributor to a large number of mailing lists under his “LuKreme” alias.]

Michael E. Cohen 18 comments

Preventing Duplicate Calendar Events in iPhone OS 3.1

The calendar syncing capabilities of the iPhone (and its sibling, the iPod touch) have been evolving quickly, and in many ways for the better, but the latest enhancements to these capabilities can create an unexpected problem for users. Specifically, calendar syncing using iPhone OS 3.1 (the most recent version, as of this writing) can all too easily lead to duplicate calendar events on your device. Since these changes threw a bit of a monkey wrench into my in-progress update to “Take Control of Syncing Data in Leopard,” I wanted to share what I’ve discovered.

The underlying cause for these duplicate events is complicated, involving MobileMe, iTunes, and how read-only subscribed calendars in iCal sync to your shiny handheld device. To understand what’s going on, you need to know something about how calendar syncing on the iPhone/iPod touch has changed over time.

Also, keep in mind that I’m talking about two types of calendars here:

  • Read-write calendars you created in iCal and populated with your own events. These are by far the most common.
  • Read-only calendars from some remote source to which you’ve subscribed in iCal. These calendars might be shared from a service like Google Calendar, or found on iCalShare or Apple’s list of iCal calendars. Many people have never subscribed to a public calendar in iCal before, but it’s easy: either choose Calendar > Subscribe and enter a URL to a shared calendar or download a .ics file from iCalShare or Apple (Calendar > Find Shared Calendars in iCal).

iPhone OS 2.x — In iPhone OS 2.x, you could sync your iCal calendars with your device in two ways:

  • iTunes with a USB connection: This syncing method let you sync any combination of your iCal calendars – both those you created in iCal and those read-only calendars to which you subscribed in iCal. Using the iTunes syncing interface, you could pick which calendars you wanted to sync with your device, and which ones not to sync.
  • Over the air with MobileMe: With this method you could sync all the calendars that you created in iCal over the air, bypassing the USB/iTunes connection; as a bonus, you gained instant push updating between the calendars on your device and those in iCal on your Mac (as long as your Mac was turned on and connected to the Internet, of course). However, MobileMe syncing did not sync any of your subscribed read-only calendars. Nor, if you chose this method, could you pick which of your iCal calendars to sync; MobileMe always synced all of your iCal-created calendars, willy-nilly.

Therefore, if you wanted to choose which calendars to sync with your device, or if you wanted any subscribed read-only calendars from iCal on your device, you had to sync the device using iTunes – and lose the benefits of push syncing.

iPhone OS 3.0 — Apple’s next major update to the iPhone OS eliminated the either/or choice between MobileMe and iTunes syncing and allowed you to sync your device using both methods. To accommodate this enhancement, changes were made in how the iPhone and iPod touch displayed calendars, as follows:

  • iTunes with a USB connection: When you used this syncing method, each of the calendars that you synced ended up in a calendar collection on your device labeled “From My Mac.”
  • Over the air with MobileMe: With this method, all of your iCal-created calendars ended up in a calendar collection on your device labeled with the name of your MobileMe account. Note, however, that you still couldn’t sync read-only subscribed calendars from iCal to your device using MobileMe.

This was a significant improvement because it allowed you to do the following:

  • You could see your self-created iCal calendar events on your device by looking in the MobileMe collection.
  • You could see your subscribed read-only calendar events by looking in the From My Mac collection.
  • You could see all of your events by viewing All Calendars in the Calendar app on your device.

However, there was also the possibility of duplicate event confusion, because you could choose to sync the same calendar both with MobileMe and with iTunes. When you did that, a version of the calendar ended up both in the From My Mac collection and in the MobileMe collection. When you viewed All Calendars on your device, you would see events from that doubly synced calendar twice: one from each of the two collections.

So, if you synced with MobileMe, you had to make sure not to sync any of your self-created calendars with iTunes and only use iTunes to sync the calendars that MobileMe didn’t sync. (Moral: with great power comes great responsibility. I’m sure I’ve heard that somewhere before.)

iPhone OS 3.1 — The just-released iPhone OS 3.1 finally syncs your read-only subscribed calendars directly from MobileMe, eliminating the need to use iTunes syncing to get read-only subscribed calendars on your device.

(Note that read-only subscribed calendars have always synced with MobileMe from one Mac to another, but iPhone OS 3.1 can now access this information directly from MobileMe. Some might argue that the iPhone and iPod touch should have been able to do this all along.)

Unfortunately, you still can’t choose which calendars are included when you sync with MobileMe – it remains an all-or-nothing proposition. However, now “all” includes all of your read-only subscribed calendars from iCal as well as all the calendars you have created in iCal. As a result, if you want to pick which calendars to sync, you have to return to the same solution that you used with the iPhone 2.x firmware. That is, you need to choose to sync your device only with MobileMe (and sync all of your calendars) or only with iTunes (and choose which of your calendars to sync).

The Hidden Gotcha — Sounds reasonable, right? Not so fast, seeker: there’s a hidden gotcha lurking in the current implementation of calendar syncing. This problem affects iPhone and iPod touch users who have previously synced their calendars using iTunes but who now want to sync only with MobileMe.

Here’s the gotcha: when you turn off calendar syncing in iTunes to switch to MobileMe, those calendars that were in the From My Mac collection on your device are not deleted from your device. Instead, they are moved to an On My iPhone collection (this collection has a different name on the iPod touch, but serves the same purpose).

As a result, when you look at All Calendars on your device, you still see duplicate events: those events from the old calendars in the On My iPhone collection, as well as those events that reach your device over the air from MobileMe. Nor is there currently a way to delete the calendars in the On My iPhone collection. Curses!

Kludging the Gotcha — Luckily, I’ve figured out a workaround, albeit a clumsy one, that can eliminate such duplicates:

  1. In iCal, create a new empty calendar (give it an obvious name, like “Empty Calendar”).
  2. In iTunes, sync only that empty calendar with your device (if you have turned off iTunes syncing, you have to turn it back on, of course, for this step). When you sync, the From My Mac collection will now contain only that empty calendar.

The MobileMe collection on your device will still list the empty calendar, of course, but, since it contains no entries, you won’t see any duplicate entries when you view the All Calendars collection on your device. Later, if you turn off calendar syncing in iTunes, the empty calendar will move to the On My iPhone collection, where it will still be harmless.

(Note that if you have turned syncing off in iTunes so that you have an On My iPhone calendar collection, turning iTunes syncing back on replaces the On My iPhone collection with From My Mac. This From My Mac collection now contains the set of calendars you are currently syncing with iTunes.)

Maybe someday, if some future version of iTunes or the iPhone OS provides the capability to delete calendars from the On My iPhone collection, you can eliminate this empty placeholder calendar. However, even if that feature never appears, at least you won’t be seeing misleading duplicate events on your device.

Doug McLean 6 comments

Protecting Snow Leopard’s Namesake Cats

By now you’ve probably gotten a glimpse at the big cat Apple has been touting as the face of its new operating system, Snow Leopard. But did you know that the real snow leopard is a highly endangered species? With dwindling population numbers in the wild estimated to be between 3,500 to 7,000, this native of Central Asia is facing extinction.

The snow leopard is a beautiful cat with big paws, a thick fur coat, and a long tail used for balance in its mountainous roaming. Bearing the moniker Spirit of the Himalayas, its natural habitat encompasses the mountains of central and south Asia including parts of Mongolia, India, Pakistan, China, and other countries. Solitary animals, snow leopards usually live 15 to 20 years in the wild.

Since 1972, the snow leopard has been identified by the International Union for Conservation of Nature as an endangered species – right up there with the panda, the blue whale, and the albatross. Today, their habitat continues to be encroached upon by agricultural needs; they’re poached for their pelts; and they’re killed by farmers looking to protect their livestock.

Fortunately, other people are looking out for the snow leopard.

Conservation Groups — Two main groups are currently devoted solely to the snow leopard’s plight. Founded in 1981, the Snow Leopard Trust is one of the world’s leading authorities on the study and protection of the snow leopard. With a large staff spread over five snow leopard range countries, the Trust is attempting to affect change at the country level. In 2008, the Trust also began a long-term research project that seeks to gain a stronger grip on the issues facing snow leopards by better understanding their living habits.

The Snow Leopard Trust’s short term conservation goals include expanding the number of Mongolian communities participating in conservation efforts (Mongolia is home to the second-largest snow leopard population) and initiating a pilot program in China, which has the largest snow leopard population. The Trust’s primary long term goal is to help the snow leopard reach healthy and self-sustainable population numbers in the wild.

The Snow Leopard Conservancy is the other main source of snow leopard conservation efforts. The Conservancy focuses on enhancing the stewardship of alpine ecosystems within communities that provide habitat (and easy prey via livestock) for snow leopards. The Conservancy’s stated challenge is to seek “ways of helping local people regain their willingness to co-exist with large predators.”

What Could Apple Do? While it is by no means Apple’s responsibility to take part in the efforts to protect its latest operating system’s namesake, the company has a great opportunity to help a worthy cause. Given Apple’s recent efforts to become a greener enterprise, embracing the snow leopard as its current-day mascot and supporting efforts to save the snow leopard from extinction would help underscore other green efforts like eliminating BFRs, PVC, and mercury from its iPods and computers. The financial planning company Pacific Life provides a good role model of a company giving back to its brand icon, which in their
case is the humpback whale.

Most simply, Apple could just help raise awareness of the issue with an educational box on its Snow Leopard page. Given that many people don’t even know the snow leopard is endangered, even a simple effort like this would go a long way.

Apple could also make a donation to the Snow Leopard Trust and/or the Snow Leopard Conservancy. Better yet, Apple could involve the Mac community in the effort by offering to match donations made by Mac users. The Snow Leopard Trust already has such a donation matching program in place with another donor. Through 31-Oct-09, if the organization can raise $25,000, any donation you make will be met by the Geyer Trust.

“That means doubling the impact for your gift,” Brad Rutherford, Executive Director of the Snow Leopard Trust, told me via email. “Gifts big and small are important to us. $5 is enough for us to track a snow leopard for one day using GPS technology, and $1,000 is what it takes to protect one snow leopard in Kyrgyzstan for one year.

Some Mac-related organizations have already stepped up to the plate. Apple resellers Tekserve in New York City and Monterey Bay Computer Works in California have already contributed to the Snow Leopard Trust’s fundraising program. Tekserve donated the proceeds from the first 100 copies of Snow Leopard it sold. Select ASMC (Apple Specialist Marketing Co-op) retailers are also helping out by promoting snow leopard “adoptions” in their stores. It would be great to see Apple join these Apple resellers and take an active role in encouraging and promoting
the protection of the snow leopard.

What Can You Do? Don’t feel you have to wait for Apple to make a move, because there’s plenty you can do right now to help snow leopards. Aside from making an individual donation to one of the organizations mentioned above, you could “adopt” a snow leopard (via either the Trust or Conservancy), donate your old car to raise funds, or purchase crafts made by people living in the snow leopard habitat to help alleviate the economic pressures that lead herders to forcibly protect their livestock (the craftsmen must abide by jointly negotiated conservation agreements that protect the cats and their key prey).

Additionally, if you really want to get involved, consider volunteering for either the Trust or the Conservancy. The Trust in particular has noted that it needs volunteers to help expand their social network presence, develop presentations, write and distribute press releases, and host fundraising events.

And though it may seem small, simply spreading the word about the snow leopard’s endangered status – whether by conversation, email, or Twitter (I recommend linking to this obscenely cute video of snow leopard kittens at Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo) – can have a real impact. (And if you go to Woodland Park Zoo yourself on the right day, you might even get to see TidBITS Managing Editor Jeff Carlson and his daughter Ellie masquerading as snow leopards.)

Brad Rutherford was up front about the possibilities. “Support from Apple, its retailers, and Mac users has the potential to make a huge, immediate difference in protecting snow leopards,” he said.

So next time you boot up Snow Leopard, take a moment to think about those big cats prowling around the Himalayas, and hopefully, they’ll still be with us long after Apple has moved beyond big cat operating systems.

Doug McLean 23 comments

Exploring Widespread SuperDrive Problems

TidBITS reader Jim Griffiths recently tipped us off to a widespread issue with SuperDrives: the inability of some drives to read or write to discs. In his particular case, a MacBook Pro began having difficulty reading all kinds of optical discs shortly after its warranty expired. This led him to start a thread describing the problem in the Apple Support Discussion forums.

As of this writing, that thread now contains over 225 messages and has been viewed over 30,000 times. Those are big numbers for the forums – and in fact a similar thread has garnered more than 19,000 views – and indicate that Jim is far from the only one experiencing this problem.

While combing through the posts reveals an unusually high number of failing SuperDrives, the symptoms, causes, and solutions offered don’t add up to a clear picture of the situation.

Symptoms and Variables — These SuperDrive-related problems evince a few common symptoms: at some point, a user’s optical drive fails to mount optical discs, usually ejecting a disc after a short period of attempting to read it. However, the systems affected, discs affected, and timing of the symptoms’ arrival differ among users.

According to discussion forum posts, affected systems include the MacBook, MacBook Pro (13-, 15-, and 17-inch), MacBook Air, iMac and Mac Mini. The systems range in age from early 2006 to late 2009.

Specific optical disc drives that have been identified on the forums include:

  • HL-DT-ST DVDRW GSA-S10N (the most commonly listed)

Affected disc types vary: some users are able to mount DVDs but not CDs; other users, vice versa. Some are able to mount commercial CDs and DVDs, but not blank CDs and DVDs, and vice versa. Some are able to mount everything but blank CD-Rs, while others are able to mount everything but blank DVD-Rs. Some are unable to mount any disc of any kind. Some find the issue is intermittent, while others find it constant.

When these problems start happening for users varies as well. Some users noticed problems with their SuperDrives from the start, others say things started going screwy after a couple months, many others complain symptoms didn’t appear until just after the 1-year warranty expired, and still others claim problems appeared only after Snow Leopard had been installed.

This breadth of dates, affected drives, and related disc types makes isolating the problem extremely difficult. It’s possible – even likely – that the problem is actually a variety of problems. Or it might be a single problem with a variety of triggers, leading to variable symptoms and start dates.

Unfortunately, it’s devilishly hard to pin anything down based on anecdotal reports from users, especially in this case. For example, the reported timing of a problem’s arrival is dependent on the user’s awareness of the problem. For instance, if a user’s SuperDrive was dodgy from day one, but wasn’t used with a problematic disc type until a year later, the user might report the latter incorrect date as opposed to the correct date as the problem’s origin.

Similarly, the great disparity over which discs can or can’t be read may point to different problems, one problem with inconsistent symptoms, or inconclusive testing by users. If a user tries only commercial CDs and DVD-Rs, he may report that those discs don’t work and make assumptions about other discs or simply not report on them – skewing, or at least complicating, the data.

Causes Offered — Given these symptoms, users have been putting their heads together, talking with Apple Geniuses, and consulting with other knowledgeable techies to arrive at some possible causes. As you might imagine, there are a variety of suggestions.

The basic debate seems to boil down to whether we’re looking at a hardware issue or software issue. Some users believe the problem is simply rooted in faulty optical drives, while others are convinced problems were prompted by a recent firmware or security update.

A smaller group of users on the forums believe the installation of Snow Leopard is to blame, though many others are quick to point out that these problems have existed long before Snow Leopard.

Those arguing against faulty hardware as the underlying cause point to the fact that a wide variety of Macs and drives are affected. Supporters of a software-based theory are also usually convinced that their specific problems began only after a major software update (though there’s no consensus regarding which update might have caused the problem). A common argument is that it’s possible a faulty update could have lowered the operating system’s tolerance to dirt or dust on a disc.

Another user argued in support of a software cause when he found he was unable to mount a disc on his Mac even when using an external optical drive. When he moved the same external drive to a Windows machine, it worked fine.

As both symptoms and the arrival of the symptoms seem to vary, the efforts to pinpoint a single underlying cause haven’t gotten far.

Solutions Offered — Despite ongoing debate over the causes of the problems, many solutions have been proposed. Below is a list of fixes suggested by forum users, all of which offer unpredictable degrees of success or failure.

  • Purchase and employ a DVD/CD drive cleaning disc. These discs are designed to remove dirt, dust, and static buildup from your optical drive. Alas, most users who tried this solution found that the cleaning disc would be ejected before it could do any good.
  • Use a can of compressed air to blow inside your computer’s optical disc slot and clear away any built-up dust. While several users found this solution helpful, others claimed it didn’t eliminate the problem, and at least one user found it actually made the problem worse – rendering him unable to insert a disc at all.
  • One user recommended tapping right above the disc drive as it begins to slow down its reading prior to ejecting the disc. While this one user swore by this solution, others found it had no effect and, frustrated, suggested that tapping with a hammer might relieve more stress.
  • Several users found that repairing permissions in Disk Utility and resetting PRAM/NVRAM cleared up their issues, though many others said this produced no positive effect for them.
  • One user, whose discs weren’t being ejected but instead simply weren’t mounting, found success by changing the default system behavior for when a disc is inserted in the CDs & DVDs pane of System Preferences.
  • Several users said that opening Disk Utility prior to inserting a disc solved their problem, though again, success with this solution wasn’t widespread.
  • Most – but not all – users who had their SuperDrives replaced – either under warranty from Apple, by paying out-of-warranty fees to Apple, or by doing it themselves – found their problems went away. Some reported needing multiple replacements or even a logic board replacement before the problem disappeared.
  • For users whose machines are out of warranty, buying an external optical drive is a cheaper option than replacing the internal drive. Though, as mentioned above, at least some users found that they were unable to read discs even when using an external drive.

Summary — While the symptoms and solutions for these issues vary widely, they all revolve around the SuperDrive. If you are experiencing issues similar to the ones described above, consider adding your experiences to the ongoing forum thread linked at the start of this article or contacting Apple (either online, or by working with an Apple Genius at a retail store) to voice your concerns. We’ll continue to monitor this issue, and we hope that Apple will take steps to correct it.

Doug McLean No comments

TidBITS Watchlist: Notable Software Updates for 21-Sep-09

Sandvox 1.6.4 from Karelia Software is a compatibility and maintenance update to the template-based Web site creation tool. The latest version adds full support for Snow Leopard and a Brazilian Portuguese localization. Also, the latest version provides an important update to its Amazon List Pages and Pagelet code in response to a recent change in Amazon’s API. ($57 Regular/$97 Pro, free update, 27.2 MB)

Mellel 2.7 from RedleX is a feature update to the increasingly powerful word processor. Changes include added support for wraparound text and floating images, Snow Leopard compatibility, a new object palette that enables users to control image attributes, a new setup selection pop-up menu, and an option in auto-title flows to “List Separately in TOC.” Also, auto-titles can now span more than six lines, and the Page palette and dialog have been improved. A full list of changes, improvements, and bug fixes is available on RedleX’s Web site. ($49 new, $19 upgrade, 31.8 MB)

MercuryMover 2.0.6 from Helium Foot Software is a compatibility and maintenance update to the keyboard shortcut utility for moving and resizing windows. The latest version includes support for Snow Leopard and fixes a bug that prevented MercuryMover from finding the bottom edge of a taller and top-aligned secondary display. ($20, free update, 2 MB)

Camera Raw 5.5 and Lightroom 2.5 from Adobe add raw file support for five new cameras, including the Nikon D300s, Nikon D3000, Olympus E-P1, Panasonic DMC-FZ35 and Panasonic DMC-GF1. Camera Raw 5.5 also fixes “the demosaic algorithms in the raw conversion process for Bayer sensor cameras with unequal green response.” (Free updates for existing Photoshop and Lightroom users, 46.7/86.6 MB)

Things 1.2.3 from Cultured Code is a maintenance update to the Getting Things Done-inspired task manager. Changes since 1.2.1 include the capability to disable Spotlight indexing, to enable or disable either of the two Quick Entry keyboard shortcuts independently, and to drag multiple cards from Address Book or email messages into a to-do’s notes section. Also, the items in the General pane have been reorganized, support for Japanese input methods has been improved, the French localization has been enhanced, and fixes have been made to the plug-in syntax. A full list of changes is available on Cultured Code’s Web site.
($49.95 new, free update, 8.0 MB).

TidBITS Staff No comments

ExtraBITS for 21-Sep-09

Latest Apple Teardown: A Macintosh Portable — It’s become common for companies such as iFixit to buy Apple’s latest hardware, strip it down to its bare parts, and opine on what’s inside. Benj Edwards at Technologizer is a bit late with his latest entry – exactly 20 years late, in fact. He tears apart a Macintosh Portable, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this week, exposing cutting-edge technology for the time. (Posted 2009-09-21)

Adam Ponders SuperDrive Reliability on Tech Night Owl Live — Adam recaps recent TidBITS content in this discussion with Tech Night Owl Live host Gene Steinberg, talking about SuperDrive reliability problems, the New York Times Web site being compromised, and more. (Posted 2009-09-18)

Your Company? There’s an App for That — Jason Kottke looks at how the iPhone (and similar smartphone devices; be sure to read the first footnote) is upsetting business models that you wouldn’t expect to be impacted. My favorite quote: “We tend to forget that the iPhone is still from the future in a way that most of the other devices on the list above aren’t. It will take time for device makers to make up that difference.” (Posted 2009-09-17)

Jeff Carlson No comments

Hot Topics in TidBITS Talk for 21-Sep-09

New York Times Web Site Compromised — Readers discuss the recent malware attempt that appeared at the New York Times site. (2 messages)

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Gray screen on boot — Could faulty hard drives lead to a problem booting a Power Mac G5, or is the machine itself at fault? (8 messages)

Turning OFF system-wide spell checking (10.4.11) — Reinstalling Mac OS X turned the built-in spelling checker on, but how does one turn it off in Tiger? Curiously, in Snow Leopard it appears you can’t. (4 messages)

Dragon Naturally Speaking — Readers compare notes about running this speech-recognition software under Parallels or Fusion on the Mac, with some suggesting a Mac solution: MacSpeech Dictate. (6 messages)