Thursday, November 03, 2005

Grand Canyon

Just sharing my desktop picture. I've tweaked it very gently in Picasa. Boy, I wish I could step away from my computer and go back to where I was standing on the North Rim in August when I took this shot.

And stay there. Posted by Picasa

Wednesday, November 02, 2005


I may be losing my faith. No, not in the important way. I'm sticking with Rome on that score. I'm simply referring to my faith in Apple. Ten days ago I bought a Dell laptop running Windows XP Professional. I've used it all day every day since then. And I like it.

It's not (very) ugly (anymore)!

I have mixed feelings about XP blue. But the real problem with Windows - especially compared to the Mac - used to be that the fonts were ugly. I couldn't understand how anybody could write in front of a Windows machine.

Well, Clear Type has substantially fixed that problem. It took me a while to get Clear Type, my default resolution, and the fonts used as defaults in various apps to synchronize with one another, but I think the text I see in my word processor, on my FileMaker layouts, and in web browsers, is satisfactory. Looks different from Mac text; I'd have no trouble recognizing a Windows screen from the fonts alone, in an instant. And I still don't think fonts render quite as "realistically" on the PC as they do on a Mac, but the differences are relatively minor now.

And the other graphical elements of the UI - things like the taskbar, normal buttons and dialogs - are also satisfactorily attractive.

Windows XP Pro

I'm hardly prepared to write a review of Windows XP. I'll need to read at least a few pounds worth of the 74 lb Que book on XP Pro that I bought from Barnes and Noble the other day. But I have a few thoughts. There's no question that the first several versions of Windows were horrible. Windows 95/98 and whatever else I tried in the late '90s also sucked. But Windows XP Pro isn't half bad. And there are a few things about Windows that I think Apple should steal. I like the Windows Explorer much better than any of the views in Mac OS X. I work with the Explorer's folders view (a kind of outline) in a panel on the left; and I view the contents of folders in a list on the right. I find this a heck of a lot easier to use than the Mac's column view.

The "Start" menu is badly named and its organization is a bit curious, too. But I've gotten used to it. And I like the fact that I can hit the Windows key and select an app to run. I know Mac users who love a utility for the Mac that lets them do something similar.

Actually, I am rather fond of the fact that, in Windows, it's quite easy to select almost anything from the keyboard.

One thing I like about Windows a great deal: It's pretty easy to uninstall almost anything, because nearly all installers come with uninstallers, and also because there's a Control Panel for uninstalling software. Not always so easy to uninstall stuff on the Mac.

One gripe: I find the Windows XP task bar's listing of open windows worse than useless - it's downright confusing. But the other thing I loathe about Windows is the use of the window to hold the application as well as the documents. Applications should go into layers; documents go into windows.


The software on my computer is pretty good. works extremely well in XP Pro. Doesn't work at all on the Mac. Ironic that, to get away from Microsoft, I have to buy and switch to a Windows machine.

Google Desktop is very nice and strikes me as more useful than Mac OS X's Spotlight. They're both iffy as search tools; both return more hits than I want. But Google Desktop also tells me what new mail I have and provides other handy utilities.

While I'm mentioning Google, I might mention also that Picasa seems to me every bit as good as iPhoto, and perhaps even better. The general UI is somewhat similar, but Picasa has more photo-fixing options.

FireFox for Windows is as good a browser as Safari.

Thunderbird, the Mozilla email client, is not as good an email client as Apple Mail, at least in some fairly basic ways. But it at least uses a standard file format for mail. I'm angry at Apple right now because getting my mail from Mail is proving to be a daunting task.

FileZilla is a freeware FTP program that works quite nicely, now that I've figured out how to get out through my firewall. Compared to Panic Software's Transmit, FileZilla is so ugly and so old-fashioned looking that I've actually come to regard it somewhat fondly.

What about utilities? Well, As-U-Type (from Fanix) is much better than TypeIt4Me. Don't mean to knock TypeIt4Me, which is one of my favorite all-time Mac programs. Just that As-U-Type combines all of TypeIt4Me's glossary expansion capability with a powerful spelling checker, multiple clipboards, and more. TextSOAP on the PC isn't anywhere near as useful as it is on the Mac but that might not be TextSOAP's fault. Apparently it's not as easy to tap into the contextual menus (or whatever you call what you get when you right-click) as it is on the Mac. SnagIt 7 strikes me as every bit as powerful as Snapz Pro.

The Dell

I bought a Dell Inspiron 6000. Pentium M processor at 2.something GHz, 1 GB of RAM, 60 GB hard drive. Performance is as good or better than performance on my PowerBook G4 (Aluminum, 1.5 GB RAM). The Dell is big and heavy and, with the PowerBook sitting beside it, would not be called sexy. Actually, I'd say that the Dell has a Made in Russia feel about it, except for the fact that it seems to work very well. And it cost less than half as much as I paid for the PowerBook ($1100 vs about $2400).

And there are some nice things about the Dell. I don't like using the trackpad left and right buttons. But I do like the fact that you can slide your finger vertically on the right side of the track pad and the document onscreen will scroll up or down; slide side to side on the trackpad and the document scrolls left to right. And I like the placement of the arrow keys on the Dell better than on the PowerBook.

I like it, but I don't love it

Windows does have some problems.

For starters, what I have to do to type non-standard English characters like an é (e + acute accent) or ñ (enya) is just nuts. The Mac has had this right since 1984. Why can't Microsoft figure this out?

It was much harder than it should have been to connect my new, inexpensive but very standard ViewSonic external monitor. Eventually I figured it out, but plug and play apparently still involves the occasional prayer. On the positive side, my La Cie mobile external hard drive plugged in and mounted just fine.

Practicing safe sex, er, computing

Of course I'm worried about spyware, etc. But I think I'm reasonably safe. I have a firewall. I work on a closed network. I don't use Internet Explorer or Outlook Express, at all. Don't have Microsoft Office installed, either. I have an admin account that I use just for installing software and I try to get in and out of it quickly when I need to install something. The rest of the time I work in a user account with limited privileges. My passwords are reasonably secure.

Still, I'm worried, in a way that I never was on the Mac. And for this reason, I can't recommend Windows to anybody else yet.

Has it been difficult to switch?

No, it has not been difficult to switch. I've had to learn a bit more about Windows than I knew already. My FileMaker developer friends have been a great resource there, but I know how to use online help, and I've answered a lot of my own questions. And, without meaning to pat myself on the back, I'm not an ordinary user.

Many of the things that are different about Windows from the Mac are simply that - different, and not necessarily worse. Actually, I think I've answered a question I've wondered about for a long time: the use of Alt-F4 as a shortcut for closing a window. Given the placement of the control key on a PC keyboard, Alt-F4 is easier to type than Control-Q. I understand now why so few of my clients use the nice keyboard shortcuts I give them in my databases. Typing control + number on a PC is awkward. On the other hand, using the Alt key to get into menus is brilliant.

I've moved all my FileMaker databases over to the Dell. My initial reason for switching to the Dell was so that I could work on my FileMaker databases on a Windows machine. I recently discovered that my databases do not look on Windows the way they look on the Mac, and that's not good. Working in FileMaker for Windows is 99% identical to working on a Mac. So no problems there.

The biggest problem with the switch has been - and remains - getting Apple Mail to let me have my mail back. I'm fairly angry about this. Google Desktop can search my mail in Thunderbird as quickly and thoroughly as Spotlight can search my messages in OS X, and Thunderbird doesn't seem to require that I store my mail in a non-standard format.

Role model?

In the immortal words of Sir Charles Barkley, I don't want to be a role model. I am in no way ready to suggest to my family and friends (many of whom are using Macs on my recommendation) that they chuck the Mac for a PC next time they're buying. But give me another week and ask me again.

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Email in the 21st century

I have a dilemma that is driving me crazy, now that I'm using 2 computers pretty actively. The problem is, how to deal with email: move to the web or stick with the desktop?

Web mail's pros and cons

It seems to me that, other things being equal, storing my mail on a remote (Internet) server is superior to downloading it and storing it on a laptop and deleting the messages from the POP server after they've been downloaded. Internet storage is superior for a couple of reasons:

1. It allows me to access my mail from either my PowerBook OR my Dell laptop and see the same messages. For that matter, I could access my mail from any other computer in the world that has Internet access.

2. Both Gmail and Yahoo! Mail give me 2 GB of storage space. My Point in Space account, on the other hand, gives me a small fraction of this space for mail storage. (I think I get 20 MB.)

3. Of course I couldn't completely rely upon the folks at Gmail or Yahoo!, but as a practical matter, if I use a web mail service, then I probably can worry a little less about losing mail.

I might add that, if I stick with Gmail as my preferred web-mail service, there are some other advantages. Google Desktop is a very nifty utility that, among other things, tells me when new mail comes in, without requiring me to look at my web browser all the time.

There are serious problems with Internet mail, however. The most serious one is that composing messages in a web form is a pain in the butt. I stopped using Bare Bones' Mailsmith over a year ago, but boy, I still miss its editing tools, which are without parallel. Web mail is okay for writing quick, two-sentence replies. But if you want to write several paragraphs - which I do, fairly often - or if you want to edit the text that you are quoting - which I always do - well, the web clients stink. I don't like the width of the editing window, or its height, or the fonts used to display text, or the lack of a rewrap command, etc.

There is the problem in a nutshell. Internet-based email is better from the standpoint of accessibility and storage; but web-clients lack the nice features that a desktop client has.


There are only two ways to compromise here, and neither compromise is entirely satisfactory.

First, it's possible to access my web mail (whether Gmail or Yahoo! Mail) using a POP client on my computer. That allows me to get new mail and write replies using a real mail application. The problem with this approach is that the web mail services aren't good at handling multiple accounts. I get mail that is sent to about half a dozen different addresses. I can have all these messages forwarded from my POP box at Point in Space to my Gmail account. And if I stick with reading my messages in Gmail, I'm actually able to distinguish one from the other pretty well. But when the messages are all being downloaded from Gmail to my computer, it's not so easy for my desktop email client (say, Thunderbird or Apple Mail) to figure out which messages belong to which accounts originally and make sure that I reply from the correct address/account.

The second compromise is to forget about desktop clients, but use a text editor whenever I want to compose a message that's longer than a couple sentences. I have to copy the original message (the part I'm replying to), switch to my editor, paste, write my reply, copy or cut, switch back to the browser and paste. It's less of a hassle than it sounds, but it's still a hassle.

No alternatives

A completely different approach that's occurred to me is to forget about web mail, and simply use two desktop clients - one on the PowerBook, one on the Dell. I could configure Mail on the PowerBook and Thunderbird on the Dell so that both would leave messages on my server for, say, a week or ten days. During that time, I'd make sure I checked the mail with both programs and downloaded it. And Point in Space offers a pretty nice web mail service that I could use occasionally (say, when traveling without my own computer) to check new messages.

But this won't work. For one thing, it FEELS crazy. But on a more practical level, if I compose and mail a reply from Thunderbird, Apple Mail doesn't know about it, and vice versa. So it's actually rather difficult to have a single mail store that has everything in it. In other words, this is actually worse than just deciding to use one computer as my email computer and then dealing with the occasional inconvenience of being away from that computer.

As an aside, I must say that, at the moment, I'm very angry at Apple. Getting my messages out of Apple Mail is proving to be quite a challenge.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

Mighty Mouse Indeed

I finally got my hands on the new Mighty Mouse from Apple. And I love it.

A lot of people are rather surprised that Apple would cave in and release a two-button mouse. Apple has never made a two button mouse before, and it's generally been understood that Apple (i.e. Steve Jobs) believes two-button mice are a bad UI/design concept.

But the Mighty Mouse is not a two-button mouse. It's a one-button mouse that is sensitive to whether you click it on one side or the other. I think it's an important distinction. Because of its design, the Mighty Mouse allows your hand to grip it and click it more comfortably and more flexibly.

I've owned and used quite a few conventional two-button mice over the years, from Microsoft and Logitech and other top makers. My personal take is that they all contribute to RSI. You end up having to use your index finger for left clicking and your middle or ring finger for right clicking. That's a lot of clicking, especially for the index finger, and it puts a lot of focused stress on the muscles those fingers are attached to. A year and a half ago I began to experience a fair bit of discomfort in my right hand and wrist. After trying several other remedies, I switched back from a two-button mouse to Apple's one-button Pro mouse a year ago, and within a month or so the discomfort in my right hand had more or less completely gone away. I do not expect that discomfort to come back now that I'm switching to the Mighty Mouse. I can easily click the right side of the mouse with several fingers spread comfortably over the entire right side of the mouse. And I can left click with three or four fingers, even with my entire hand, if I like. I am convinced the Mighty Mouse is the best designed and most ergonomic mouse in its weight class.

So I disagree with Walter Mossberg. I think the Mighty Mouse is a novel design, and a good one. My Mighty Mouse is not finicky at all. I don't have any problems getting it to right click. It is true (as noted in the Ars Technica review) that you have to keep your index finger off the left-size of the mouse while you right-click. But I figured this out pretty quickly. My guess is that whether you like it or not will depend on what mouse you were using before, and what you expect from a "two-button" mouse. If you expect this to work like a conventional two-button mouse, well, you will be disappointed. But if you come to the Mighty Mouse from the Apple Pro or Apple Bluetooth mouse, I bet you'll like the new mouse even better.

By the way, I absolutely love the little scroll nubbin (or "trackpea" as David Pogue calls it). I find it easier to use than a more conventional scroll wheel, and left-right (horizontal) scrolling is as easy as up-down (vertical) scrolling. I should perhaps also mention that, while you can use the mouse instantly simply by plugging it in, it seems that the drivers for the Mighty Mouse are not yet included in OS X.4 automatically, so to take full advantage of the M.M. you have to install the software on the included CD. But once you do, you can program the scroll nubbin and also the side (squeeze) buttons however you like. I've got the nubbin invoking Expose's reveal desktop function, and the side buttons showing me all open windows. Fab.

(Originally published on Typepad 8/17/2005)

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Parental Controls (Mac OS)

Mac OS X.4 ("Tiger") gives parents some control over a young child's experience of the Internet. This is good.

I just gave Catherine, our ten-year old, her own email account, so she can communicate with her older sisters, who are away from home now, and so she can get some more experience reading and writing. I would like to exercise some control over her use of the email account and I don't want to have to sit and look over her shoulder all the time. What Tiger offers is just about perfect.
Of course, she doesn't have an admin account on the PowerBook she's allowed to use. I access the Accounts system preferences panel on that machine with admin privileges, click on her account, and indicate that I want to configure parental controls for Mail. I type in a list of addresses with which she may exchange mail - Mom, sisters, our family friend Xiao, uncles and aunts, a couple of friends. And I enter my own address as the gatekeeper. After that, when she receives a message from someone unauthorized, the message first comes to me for approval. Here is what I receive in my inbox:


If I grant permission, the message then automatically gets through to her.

And if she tries to send a message to someone not on her approved list, she sees a note that says, "You are not allowed to send mail to Would you like to ask permission?" If she says yes, the message gets saved in her Drafts folder. I get a message similar to the one above and if I say yes, then the message in her drafts folder says, "You have been given permission to send this email. Click Send to send this email now."

I do not know if this cooperation between Mail and the OS is a unique result of the fact that Mail is Apple's baby and part of the operating system, or whether there's an API of some sort here that other email clients like Gyaz Mail or Mailsmith might be able to hook into in future versions. I did test her computer account with the current release version of Mailsmith and found that the parental controls were circumvented. Solution: Go back to the system preferences panel for Accounts and configure the Finder options for her account to deny her access to Mailsmith. No big deal there. Mailsmith is not a kids email program.

The Internet can be a nasty place. I have not yet restricted her web access - it's a bit burdensome to do so - but adding these parental controls to the email she can receive is pretty easy and provides a certain level of comfort to me.

(Originally published on Typepad 6/16/2005)

Thursday, January 06, 2005

Showing Up

“Eighty percent of success in life is showing up.” Woody Allen

When I started blogging earlier this year, my goal was to post a new article at least once a week. I kept it up for a short while. Then I got busy. I stopped showing up.

I take no comfort in the thought, but I’m not alone. There are a lot of us “little” bloggers, like me and my friend Kirk Samuelson, who aren’t pressured by the thought that thousands of adoring fans will be disappointed if we don’t post something. But even the Big Guys put the ball down and walk away. Punditwatch hasn’t posted since March, when the recent campaign in Iraq began.

Things are a bit more difficult for me because these blogs are handmade. I don’t use an online blogging app like Movable Type or a desktop app like iBlog. Instead, I write these articles in BBedit as include files and mark them up “by hand.” I upload them “by hand.” I do this because I’m a perverse, do-it-myself-even-when-it-hurts kind of guy. I use my own app instead of Quicken to manage my bank accounts. I use my own app instead of one of the many excellent OS X contact management apps. For years I’ve been using my own app to manage my photos and create web galleries online. I’m struggling now to persuade myself that iPhoto really does have many advantages and I should start using it instead.

But I don’t mean to suggest that the technical difficulties I impose upon myself are an excuse. Whether I use iPhoto or my own FileMaker Pro system, the hard part of photography is not managing the photographs I’ve taken, it’s taking good pictures in the first place. The same goes for blogging. BBEdit is highly customizable and I have the process pretty streamlined. The hard part isn’t dealing with the technology, it’s dealing with the writing.

And by “dealing with the writing,” I don’t mean “thinking of things to say.” I don’t have any problems in that department. Content’s easy. As my friends often remark, I’m full of it. But it takes time to package the content in a manner that meets my standards. This blog, for example, says nothing at all, but it took me a full hour to write, edit and polish.

[Originally posted on my blog at in August 2003. Reposted January 2005 on Movable Type as a test article. Moved to Blogger 7/27/06.]

About Me

I am an event photographer living in Dallas, Texas.