alan little’s weblog – mac archive

Never ask what sort of computer a guy drives. If he’s a Mac user, he’ll tell you. If not, why embarrass him?
attributed to Tom Clancy

The new Wintel PC arrived today, and all I can say is: God Bless Apple. Oh, the PC set up quickly, and it's a sweet machine. But as ever, the Windows interface is just a mat of grass over the tiger trap of spikes that makes up the horrid OS beneath, and it’s just a question of when you find out.
James Lileks

clawed by the leopard

29th April 2009 permanent link

I didn’t upgrade to Mac OS X 105 “Leopard” when it came out – I read enough horror stories about it being a mini-Vista, the first major OS release of recent years where Apple really screwed up and broke a lot of things for a lot of people. After a while and a couple of maintenance releases, I assumed it must be stable and largely working, but I still couldn’t see that it offered anything new and compelling to justify the expense, hassle and risk of an upgrade.

And, as it turns out, I should have stayed right there. Unfortunately, however, was offering a good deal on the Mac Box Set Family Pack, and I was thinking I might be in need of a clean Leopard install disk for a couple of things I have in mind, so …

I’ve been using Mac OS X since 2002. I can’t remember if I started on 10.1 or 10.2, but in any case I made it to 10.4, and then up to patch level 10.4.11, without any of the upgrades encountering the slightest glitch. This is why people buy computers from Apple. 10.4 to 10.5? Glitches. Great big nasty glitches.

My mail disappeared. Getting it back turns out to be a simple matter of just temporarily moving a couple of files, but still. My mail. Ten years of people’s addresses. Probably the most irreplaceable thing on most people’s computers. My trust and confidence shattered immediately by the first thing I look at. I have a fairly recent backup (yes, I know, I should have had a backup from right before the upgrade. But my previous experience with frictionless Apple upgrades has evidently made me not paranoid enough.) How could they still have a huge bug like that 10.5.6? This genuinely surprises me, and makes me I’m sure less tolerant than I otherwise might have been of the the other little glitches and irritations that follow.

mail gone

403 Forbidden, says Safari when I attempt to access my local working copy of Half an hour’s googling later – half an irreplaceable hour of my valuable life wasted, thank you so much Apple – I learn that following these instructions changes the error message, but doesn’t fix the problem. Following these instructions does fix the problem, and is simple as long as you’re not afraid of a command line and a text editor. Many people are, however, and Apple’s programmers (who aren’t) could easily have taken care of this automatically if they could have been bothered. It's caused by the fact that 10.5 uses a later – and presumably better, it’s ten years since I was last well-informed about such things – version of Apache, and the new version needs to be configured differently. Fair enough. Would it really be beyond the bounds of Apple’s developers’ ingenuity to notice that one is upgrading an existing installation, and create the one file needed to make this work?

Cmd+> (Apple key and “less than” sign) doesn’t tab between different windows in the same application as it used to, and is supposed to, on German Mac keyboards. In some applications – web browsers and text editors for example – this is crippling. I can turn it back on by editing the keyboard shortcuts in System Preferences, but I shouldn’t have to. The machine knows it has a German keyboard, and it was working properly before.

My 3G wireless connection software is suddenly much slower and flakier at detecting the phone. I often have to reboot the phone. Having finally established a connection, the connection manager then often, but not always, runs at 100% cpu, spinning up the fan loudly and eating battery capacity. Not Apple software, I know, but it worked perfectly well before and now it doesn’t. UPDATE: connecting works fine as long as I ensure the software is running before I plug the phone in. Still rather far from Just Working.

Choosing English as the installation language doesn’t make English the default system language. Nor does having had English as the default system language before the upgrade. At least not consistently. Applications I already had before the upgrade still seem to appear in English; new ones come up in German until I go into System Preferences (or, sometimes, “Sytemeinstellungen”) and switch my preferred language to English there too. A small thing, but irritating, especially when all the previous things have already shaken my confidence and patience. And Apple are supposed to be about getting the small things right.

Leopard refused point blank to install on my desktop Mac, a perfectly adequate and smoothly functioning three year old G5 Powermac. Having been through the experience on the laptop, I can't say I'm sorry and have decided to leave my working system well alone.

On the not-broken-but-different front: some things seem a bit slower, most things feel a bit quicker. Icons are generally larger, more 3D and brighter, which I find loud and dislike. There was never anything wrong with little flat grey folders. Fonts are generally bolder and more contrasty too – something improved in the rendering? – which I found a bit jarring at first, but after a day I like it already. Icons bounce in the dock in a more staccato, less fluid manner that pisses me off. We really are nitpicking now. I don’t like the translucent menu bar at first, but after a few minutes’ googling after hacks to fix it, I conclude that the hacks don’t seem that good, and lots of people seem to think one gets used to the menu bar after a while, so I’ll leave it for now.

All in all, a considerable amount of hassle for insignificant gain. I really shouldn’t have bothered.

UPDATE: Tim Bray is singing the Mac upgrade blues too.

living in fear

23rd February 2009 permanent link

Still visiting family in England, and discovering what a dark and dangerous place the internet feels like these days to people who have Windows on their computers.

My parents have been intending for a while to get a new PC, and consequently didn’t bother keeping up the maintenance payments on the virus software on the old one. Don’t go on the internet, I am warned, the virus scanner isn’t up to date. My brother had a virus outbreak on his PC, apparently, and prefers not to hook it up to the internet unless he has a pressing need to send an urgent email because, he says, he feels the need to run a full virus scan immediately afterwards.

Sometimes I’m so glad to be using a Mac.

public service announcement

3rd August 2006 permanent link

Public Service Announcement: if a member of your household, on her way to sleep on the sofa in the living room because an increasing proportion of the bed is being taken over by a small boy wriggling and coughing loudly, should happen to switch off the power to your (dual 2.5 GHz G5) Mac while it is sleeping, without waking it up to shut it down, and when you come to switch it back on, the little white power light lights up and nothing else whatsoever happens, then don’t follow this advice to remove the little internal battery that lives just above the heat sink on the graphics card (location of battery described & illustrated here, although mine has a different kind of battery) and wait 24 hours.

Instead simply start the Mac without the little battery. Just once, then power it down again and put the little battery back in again. Problem solved.

credit where credit’s due

28th May 2006 permanent link

Credit where credit’s due: I just noticed the bug I reported to Apple a while ago in Safari’s rendering of Sanskrit text is fixed in Safari version 2.0.3

Camino 1.0 and Firefox 1.5 on the other hand, don’t even try to render it, at least not on the Mac.

upgrading your iPod

19th February 2006 permanent link

I got my wife an iPod for her birthday, then spent a little while showing her how to copy Björk and Kate Bush songs onto it. First I explained a bit about compressed music and the difference between low and high bitrates (minimal-to-none, if you’re our age).

My wife isn’t any kind of audiophile or technical enthusiast. She nevertheless asks why I don’t use the standard white earbuds that came with my iPod Mini, and can she have a go with my Sennheisers? Immediately says they make the white earbuds sound “miserabel”, thus proving the point somebody well-informed made (wouldn’t surprise me if it were Steve Crandall, but I can’t track the link down just now), that above a reasonable minimum bitrate – around 160 AAC – upgrading your headphones makes a heck of a lot more difference than higher bitrates.

She can buy her own Sennheisers.

the price of disks

15th January 2006 permanent link

“There are no good stories out there on how a family manages terabytes of data. None.” Bill de HÓra observes.

Indeed. I am old enough to remember working for IBM one what was then one of the larger databases in Europe: a whole terabyte of store sales data, housed on a thousand one-gigabyte disks. That was only ten years ago too. (These days you could have a petabyte for about the same money, although it would have to be two thousand 500 gigabyte disks.)

I passed the terabyte-in-my-living-room mark the year before last, and am now somewhere well north of two terabytes. Most of that consists of 500 gigabytes in my desktop computer and two backups thereof on LaCie firewire drives, one of which lives next to the computer and one at work as an offsite backup, swapped every couple of weeks. I used to just have one backup, until this article by Ken Rockwell inspired me to do something about having another one offsite.

The big problem now is that I’m alarmingly close to using up all 500 gigbytes (times three), and bigger than 500 gigabyte disks aren’t readily available or affordable yet. I suppose they wil be soon. 500 gigabytes nearly full up of what? About 200 each of music and photographs, plus other miscellaneous stuff.

This isn’t all really necessary. Most of the music is a backup of my CD collection, and so not as precious and irreplaceable as the photographs. Do I really need three backups of the backup? Until the whole collection just gets too big to back up feasibly, it’s just easier to synch everything with SuperDuper than it is to worry about different schedules and places for different things. (I don’t really need music in a lossless format either – the likelihood that my middle aged ears could hear any difference between that and a compressed format half the size or less is minimal)

I maybe need to re-examine my priorities here. I have most of my easily (albeit expensively) replaceable music CDs backed up; meanwhile most of my lifetime’s creative output is sitting completely un-backed-up next to the computer in the form of a cupboard full of slides and negatives, of which I have backup-quality digital scans of maybe one percent or less. Not that the negs and slides are nearly as vulnerable as the last two years’ digital photos: a tiny drive glitch could easily trash all those to the point where they would be retrievable only at vast expense by a data recovery service, whereas it would take a pretty big domestic catastrophe to destroy all the slides and negatives in a locked (albeit not fireproof) cupboard.

Burn CDs or DVDs? No thanks. How long would it take to back up 500 gigabytes onto CDs? About a year? Where would I put them? Besides, I’ve had plenty of only two or three year old burned CDs go unreadable. DVDs alleviate the burning problem somewhat but are even less archival. Tapes are expensive and also not really big enough. No, hard disks are the only viable way forward for the time being.

They’re not cheap, though – and I’m only dealing with music and still photos, I have hardly any video on the computer. And it’s a lot of hassle remembering to do it, and lugging the backup disks around. Last week I was fumbling round behind the computer with one of them and broke its Firewire 400 connector. It still has two Firewire 800 connectors, but those are only useful on a severely limited number of computers.

Let’s keep this all in perspective: in pre-PC days, my PhD supervisor told me he had a colleague who lost all his paper notes and drafts for a book in an office fire, and had to start again from scratch. At least most people these days most people have the option to avoid something like that happening to them, although lots apparently don’t care enough to bother.

the price of screws

15th January 2006 permanent link

Apple’s Powermac G5 computers only take two disk drives as standard – removing the side of the stylish but huge brushed aluminium case reveals that most of the space inside is taken up by enormous heatsinks for the the processors – and the two drives are fitted via a rather nice system of plastic grooves into which special dome-shaped rubber screws slide after you have attached them to the sides of the disk drives. The machine normally ships with one disk already in place and a spare set of screws for a second disk.

This is great except when you buy a used Powermac G5, as I just did, and the previous owner has replaced the original hard disk with one that is faster (good) but small (bad), and has lost the special screws that came with the original disk (very bad, as it turns out). Googling reveals that these special screws are not easy to come by; eventually a Mac repair shop in England quoted me €35 for a set.

Thirty five bucks for four screws!!?? Eek. Are these things milspec or something?

Looked at another way, €35 isn’t really that much when what I’m talking about is putting a €300 disk drive into a €2000 computer. But it’s the principle of the thing.

What turns out to work perfectly well is 3mm plastic screws from the hardware store fitted with two plastic washers apiece (determined by experimentation: three washers was too tight a fit) at a total cost of four euros for more screws & washers than I need. This is good because Plan B involved cutting & drilling bits of pencil eraser to fit over normal metal drive screws, a project that would have involved easily €35 worth of labour costs assessed at any reasonable hourly rate (although it would still have been worth it for the principle of the thing)

(I will try to remember to mention it if my disk drive vibrates itself to death inside three weeks. It’s pretty quiet so far though)

windows woes

11th January 2006 permanent link

James Robertson and Steve Crandall have been writing lately about how having a Windows PC at home – or worse still, being computer-savvy oneself and having friends & relatives who aren’t, but who have Windows PCs at home – is rapdily becoming a huge security and administration nightmare. I am beginning to see their point.

At Christmas a friend of mine was having a problem with Microsoft Office: it had decided for no apparent reason it was going to start complaining about Frontpage not being installed, every time he tried to do something totally unrelated to Frontpage like opening a spreadsheet. The dialog came up and had to be cancelled about a dozen times before you could actually get anything done. Virus? Office actually having spontaneously uninstalled part of itself for no reason? Neither would surprise me and either way, not really what I wanted to be doing in my Christmas holiday. (Particularly since the infantile, amateurish Windows XP blue-and-orange-blobs look makes me want to puke every time I look at it, which thankfully isn’t very often since I still use Windows 2000 at work)

My friend also has a dialup Internet connection. He says his antivirus updates are getting so big he has to do them overnight, otherwise they tie up the phone for lengths of time the rest of the family find unacceptable. And 5 megabytes of pictures that somebody had emailed him were timing out either Outlook or his dialup connection when he tried to download them. I showed him how to access his email account via his ISP's webmail and delete the message there. Having a Mac wouldn’t magically stop my friend’s friends sending him all their photos of Hong Kong, but a Mac wouldn’t time out for no obvious reason whilst trying to do a simple thing like download a big email attachment. I couldn’t find anywhere to check or set the timeout value, or maximum allowed mail size, or whatever might have been the problem; trying to do that wasn’t really how I wanted to spend my Christmas holiday either.

I may just have found a home for my old iBook.

What's stopping me is one piece of software. My friend is a composer, and in his early 70s, and currently in the process of getting his life's work out of manuscripts and into digital form for posterity. He’s using an apparently very good, but also very expensive, piece of music notation software called Sibelius. Sibelius exists for the Mac – the problem is that my friend got his Windows copy at the student rate while he was enrolled at an adult education college a couple of years back; now he isn’t any more and I very much doubt if Sibelius would allow him to convert his current Windows student license to a Mac license at any kind of reasonable price. A new, full price Sibelius 4 license (Mac or Windows) costs £595, or $1,054 US. I have no problem whatsoever with the makers of Sibelius making a living by charging whatever they like for their product, but at that price my friend is not in the market.

Anybody know any more reasonably priced music notation software for the Mac - must be able to read & write Sibelius files? (Rapid googling suggests there might be good alternatives, if my friend were willing to spend time learning them). Or want to donate a copy of Sibelius for the Mac to a good cause? Any version will do. My friend is currently using Version 3, but originally learned Version 1 and says he preferred that.

dealing with idiots

25th November 2005 permanent link

The continuing saga of trying to get iTunes to handle classical music in a half-sensible manner. Andy Baker convinced me that there is actually a case for putting the composer instead of the performer in the “Artist” field – at least for people who for whatever reason choose to use benighted software that doesn’t recognise the standard ID3 Composer tag. This one is quick and easy to fix in iTunes anyway. I really can’t begin to imagine what the people who came up with the other common anti-pattern were thinking. (Achtung! wide picture)


Here we have “Song” used for the title of the work and “Artist” (!) holding the names of the movements. Composer might be embedded in the album title if you’re lucky, and you have to guess the performer. <unahimsic>The idiot(s) responsible for this should be shot</unahimsic>. This nonsense is so widespread that I suspect the idiot responsible is the author of some widely used piece of crap software – my naïve faith in the human race is such that I have difficulty bringing myself to believe in a large number of people all choosing to do the same utterly stupid thing in exactly the same way. This one is much more of a pain to fix – iTunes doesn’t let you bulk edit the movement names from “artist” across into “song name”, you have to cut and paste them one by one.

Which is of course a time-wasting pain in the arse, and after you’ve done it too many times (because it’s still marginally better than typing everything from scratch) you realise that it might be worth spending half an hour learning Applescript. A quick search for “itunes classical applescript” reveals nothing that directly does the job, but a huge library of other scripts for doing things with iTunes which we can easily borrow & adapt. Applescript turns out to be quite a cute little scripting language, and a few minutes’ work produces this:

"Artist to Song Name" for iTunes
fixes one of the most common problems with CDDB classical data, 
where movement names are idiotically placed in the "Artist" field
written by Alan Little

based on
"Track Number to Song Name Prefix" for iTunes
by Doug Adams

tell application "iTunes"
	if selection is not {} or view of front window is not library playlist 1 then
		if selection is not {} then -- use selection
			set theseTracks to selection
		else -- use whole playlist (this doesn't work)
			set theseTracks to every file track of view of front window
		end if
		display dialog "Select some tracks or a Playlist..." buttons {"Cancel"} default button 1 with icon 2
	end if
	display dialog "Overwrite Song Name with Artist, or append?" buttons {"Overwrite", "Append"} default button 2
	if the button returned of the result is "Append" then
		set myAppend to true
		set myAppend to false
	end if
	display dialog "Artist" default answer "" buttons {"OK"} default button 1
	set newArtist to text returned of result
	set fixed indexing to true
	with timeout of 30000 seconds
		repeat with aTr in theseTracks
			set newName to artist of aTr
			if myAppend then
				set newName to name of aTr & " " & newName
			end if
			set name of aTr to newName
			set artist of aTr to newArtist
		end repeat
	end timeout
	set fixed indexing to false
end tell

… which works.

hooking up macs (part 2)

4th November 2005 permanent link

After Brian Tiemann revealed to me that the way get my Macs to connect by Ethernet instead of WiFi was too obvious for me to see it, Michael Jennings wrote pondering why it isn’t possible to network PCs over Firewire, that being a nice even faster route that is available on lots of machines.

I replied assuming there must be some reason why that doesn’t work, because otherwise surely everybody would be doing it? But apparently it works perfectly well and has been in OS X for a couple of years, as I discovered on Chris Petrilli’s blog; and, googling further, even works in Windows XP. Here are Apple’s website and slashdot on the subject.

So why doesn’t everybody do it, given that Firewire is four to eight times faster than 100mbit Ethernet as commonly found on laptops and lots of older or low-spec desktops (maybe more, if you count realistic sustained throughput rather than theoretical peak speed)? Well, Firewire is only good for four metres or so, versus about a hundred for normal Ethernet cabling, and Firewire cables are a lot more expensive. But if you have a Firewire cable already, and you have two machines right next to one another, one or both of which have slow Ethernet connections, then it seems like the obvious thing to do. I must try it some time.

thanks brian

24th October 2005 permanent link

Some things on the Mac are so simple, easy and obvious they’re actually almost impossible to find if you’re too indoctrinated in the Windows Way of digging around in mazes of twisty little settings dialogs. I’ve only been using Macs for three years, and Windows for fifteen or so, and I still use Windows at work, so I have difficulty with these things.

I suspected I had a networking problem with my two Macs (desktop and laptop). The desktop has an old, slow WiFi card, and even when I connected them with an Ethernet cable, the file transfer speeds I was getting were so slow I strongly suspected they must be ignoring the nice fast wire and talking instead over the nasty slow wireless connection. I looked around for ways to say “use the wire not the wifi”, but couldn’t find any. Eventually I resorted to always switiching WiFi off on one of the machines before I connected them. I was sure there had to be a better way, and actually what I needed to do was:

to make sure that the Ethernet port is listed first in the network ports in the Network preferences... it goes through those ports in the preference order you specify, and if Ethernet is listed above AirPort, it'll use that.

Just drag and drop, et voila! My it’s fast. It never crossed my mind that it would be that easy. The information came from Brian Tiemann, who I emailed thinking this would be the sort of thing he would know. I was right. Thanks Brian.

failure rate: 100%

15th February 2005 permanent link

The failure rate on my Apple laptops is now up to one hundred percent.

My iBook’s battery died within a year; then after a year and a half the screen went with a cable fault that is apparently well known and common, but which Apple refuse to acknowledge or fix out of warranty.

So last August I bought a Powerbook, thinking it might be not quite as shoddily built. The CD drive just stopped working. It’s still under warranty, but I deeply resent having to send the bloody thing away for weeks when it should just bloody work.

I like OS X a lot more than windows, but I’m really having second thoughts about whether I’m willing to put up with this crap. Can anybody recommend a Windows laptop that’s as small and light as a 12 inch iBook or Powerbook, reasonably priced and robust? (Or are laptops just inherently fragile? Am I expecting too much of equipment that gets shaken and rattled twice a day on the train?)

fun with ibooks

13th December 2004 permanent link

This is something to add to my list of Possible Things To Do With My Dead iBook. (Others include get it repaired and sell it on ebay; or get it repaired and give it to my parents with an iSight so they can keep an eye on what their grandson is up to, and vice versa.)

Link from Kimbro Staken

computer security

7th December 2004 permanent link

Very good article on security – why Macs aren’t as secure, and Windows isn’t as egregiously insecure, as Mac users like to think – on drunken blog


29th October 2004 permanent link

I did my bit for open source software quality today, by raising bugs against Apple’s Safari browser and Mozilla’s Firefox. Both have – different – serious errors in the way they display Devanagari. Devanagari is the script in which Sanskrit, Hindi and several other Indian languages totalling a few hundred million native speakers are written, so this is not exactly an obscure problem. See here for details and examples, which will look different depending on what browser you’re using.

Internet Explorer 6, I discovered, displays Devanagari correctly. I’m quite surprised to see a case where Microsoft do standards compliance correctly and the open source browsers (Safari is based on an open-source core) get it wrong. Maybe Microsoft have already outsourced their browser development to India? Maybe the world needs more Indian open source developers.

NOTE: I have the highest respect for the programming skills of anybody who would even attempt to write a rendering engine for Devanagari, or any other script that builds compound characters for letter combinations. I wouldn’t like to try it. But it really should be a solved problem by now.

Why did I notice this? Because I started last night on a little project to pull together my notes & thoughts on the Yoga Sutras (योग सुत्र - or not, depending on what browser you’re using) of Patanjali and I thought it would be nice to include the original text. More on this if I ever actually get anywhere with it.


25th October 2004 permanent link

Sometimes Apple piss me off – their pathetic selection of overpriced boring music; their low end laptops that fall apart after only a couple of years of shaking and rattling in the Munich U-Bahn. But sometimes they really impress me.

I installed my new hard disks last night. I was expecting this to be a lengthy struggle, which would not have been good because I couldn’t start until Jack had gone to bed. (Would you open your PC and rearrange its vital moving parts with a toddler in the room only too eager to assist you?)

I had done a bit of reading up about how best to organise disks on a Mac. Macs of the model I have have two separate disk channels each capable of taking two disks; general consensus is that you want the OS on your fastest disk, and your user files on the other channel. This meant moving the original OS disk out of its original slot and installing another copy of the OS on one of the new disks. I asked on the Apple support forums if this was ok, and people said yes, it is. Still I did it with some trepidation, fully expecting an unbootable Mac and at least having to open it up again and put the old boot disk back where it came from. But no. It booted first time. It was late and I couldn’t be bothered to dig a pile of CDs out and do a fresh install on the new disk, so I did it the Lazy Man’s Way; used Mike Bombich’s excellent piece of freeware, Carbon Copy Cloner, to copy the old OS installation onto the new disk. From which the Mac then happily booted first time. Then followed Mike’s instructions for moving my Home folder off the new OS disk onto the other new disk. Which also worked first time. I can’t imagine being able to get away with anything even remotely like this on a Windows box (and I must remember to drop a few bucks in Mike’s donation box).

Moving my photos and music into their spacious new homes was an anticlimax, although it took a while.

I’m not quite at the Terabyte In My Living Room mark yet. The next firewire disk I buy for backups will do it.

holiday yoga

31st August 2004 permanent link

Does doing extra hip-opening excercises in addition to your formal yoga practice actually help to advance (the physical aspects of) your yoga practice? Most ashtanga yoga practitioners would say no, whilst in many cases sneakily doing them anyway in the hope that they might. Here are my recent experiences and thoughts on the matter, derived from comparing lifestyle a: office job, toddler at home with lifestyle b: on holiday with toddler:

working in office on holiday with toddler
you spent lots of time sitting down, and so can sit for hours in half lotus or similar supposedly hip-opening positions.
(your colleagues may find this a little odd at first. They get used to it)
you rarely sit down
you can maybe squeeze forty minutes or so of yoga practice in in the evening while the baby is having supper (after you’ve put him to bed you’re tired and it’s too late)(*).
(Mornings? forget it. You have to change the baby, feed the baby, dress the baby, pack the baby’s lunch, change the baby again, deliver the baby to daycare, and at some point eventually go to work.)
you can do a full yoga practice every afternoon while the rest of the family has a siesta
your hips feel subjectively quite open due to all the sitting, but when you actually try something like marichyasana d during your practice it’s really hard your hips feel tight and sore from all the not-sitting, but your practices are actually good and things you normally find hard like marichyasana d or supta kurmasana come relatively easily.

So lots of time sitting in half lotus etc. outside of formal yoga practice feels like it should help, but actually doesn’t. Or at any rate isn’t a substitute for doing enough proper practice.

(*) Or not, if instead you get to waste an hour pissing about with network settings and thinking “why, oh why will the new network card I just bought for my new Powerbook not connect to my home network when every other bloody machine in the house will?” before giving up and asking the question on the Apple support forums. As I just did. I hate computers when they don’t work.
UPDATE: kudos to Netgear, whose online support actually works. A search on their site for “Apple Airport Extreme” tells me that I should upgrade the firmware on my MR814v2 router. I do. It works.

but before i go …

15th August 2004 permanent link

Some more things I learned today:

my new laptop

14th August 2004 permanent link

Things I learned today:

And that’s it for the next two weeks. I am going on holiday. I am taking my yoga mat and my new Nikon D70. I am also taking the new Powerbook but only for (a) playing DVDs for Jack in the car, (b) backing up photos. I have no intention of going anywhere near the Internet.

another cheap shot

16th June 2004 permanent link

Not finding music in Apple’s music store is like shooting fish in a barrel. But it’s also cheap & easy weblog footage, so … I’ll try to make this the last time.

The search facility, and the metadata for the classical music they do have, is quite reasonable. Although they’re still using “album” (= CD) – a basically irrelevant concept for classical music – instead of “work” as the main unit.

There appears to be no facility for marking interesting things that you don’t want to buy right now. Other obvious ideas not present: ratings, recommendations, reviews, liner notes, lyrics.

I started off looking at the German version of the site but then had an altercation with the registration system when I thought about buying something. I naïvely took the phrase “a credit card with a billing address in Germany” to mean “a credit card with a billing address in Germany”. What Apple actually appear to mean is “a credit card with a billing address in Germany and not issued by a British bank”. So now I'm on the UK store instead and faced with the unpleasant prospect of paying the 20% Brit Tax. In the increasingly unlikely-looking event that I can actually find anything I want to listen to.

I start off looking in classical. The UK site has hardly any Benjamin Britten, Frank Bridge or William Walton. (The German version admittedly has plenty of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms; and presumably when it happens will not be deficient in Mozart or Haydn. Although on what I’ve seen so far I wouldn’t be counting on a great selection of Bruckner.)

Look for English music in other directions. No AC/DC, Motorhead, Radiohead, Pretenders, Fall. (Pretenders & (?) AC/DC admittedly not actually English. While we’re doing not actually English: we have a grand total of one Runrig album which is more than we have of Capercaillie). From a somewhat different perspective, no Autechre, Aphex Twin or Underworld either. Still no Led Zeppelin. One Rolling Stones track. There’ll be Beatles on this particular Apple’s music store when Hell freezes over, presumably (i.e. in about three weeks, according to that stupid film). Very little Sisters of Mercy. Plenty of Clash, Buzzcocks, Joy Division. Stone Roses, Inspiral Carpets, Happy Mondays: absent. Some Big Audio Dynamite. One album by Pulp that I already have. I didn’t pay £7.99 for it either. They’ve got a Kirsty MacColl album but it doesn’t have her cover of Billy Bragg’s A New England on it, bugger. They don’t have Billy’s version either, although they do have two of his considerably more than two albums.

I am not being deliberately perverse or difficult here. None of the names in the last paragraph are obscure; some of them are even quite famous. I’m looking for things I might actually seriously consider downloading, somewhat at random as they happen to cross my mind. I’m finding something like one in three of them. Which is really not very impressive considering that the whole point of something like this is supposed to be selection and convenience.

Just as a control, let’s check up on some people I wouldn’t listen to if Apple paid me. Nope, Coldplay and Peter Gabriel aren’t there either, although Phil Collins and Sting are out in force as is only to be expected.

I’m not the only person noticing this striking absence of music either. Such august Mac commentators as As the Apple Turns and Macworld UK are saying the same things. On MacSlash: “great swathes of music are missing. Of more concern, it seems to be having difficulty validating my plastic”, says one commenter; others wonder if it’s actually legal in the EU to refuse cross-border sales to residents of other EU countries (I can’t imagine Apple’s legal department would have overlooked something like that though). The most enthusiastic responses seem to be along the lines of “oh well, it’s probably no worse than the US store was when it launched, let’s hope it gets better quickly”. Mine is more like “I’m not wasting any more time with this. I’ll drop by again in a few months to see if it’s improved”.

They do, however, have seventeen versions of La Bamba. Now we’re getting somewhere, although not anywhere near the episode of Andy Kershaw’s world music show on BBC Radio 1 that consisted of nothing but versions of La Bamba for two hours, not least among them John Peel’s unaccompanied spoken version in English. This being the most glorious moment of Andy Kershaw’s career that I actually personally heard, although presumably not as glorious as the time he played The Ramones on Radio Three. (If somebody wishes to write in and confirm that the whole thing, some time around the late 1980s possibly, wasn’t a hallucination I would be profoundly grateful)

itunes (immer noch keine) musik store

15th June 2004 permanent link

Apple’s iTunes Music Store opened today in Britain, France and Germany.

I’ve mentioned before that when I looked at what was available in the US version last year, I was underwhelmed by the selection of music available and sceptical about whether it could possibly be worth paying not much below CD prices for possibly very much below CD sound quality. Now I get to find out.

Pricing: not as bad as expected. £0.79 is $1.43, and in fairness to Apple the UK price includes sales tax whereas the US $0.99 doesn’t. Without sales tax it’s $1.20, so not as outrageously far above US prices as rumours suggested. European price is cheaper, though - €0.99 including sales tax is $1.19 or £0.66. Basically the US price plus sales tax, which seems fair enough. UK music buyers get overcharged as always; but not as badly as I expected and I suspect it’s more the record companies’ fault than Apple’s.

By the standard of UK CD prices, £7.99 for an album is quite reasonable for current full price releases. But there are plenty of places where you can get back catalogue CDs at or below that price.

The question remains: is AAC at 128 kbits/sec anywhere even remotely near CD sound quality? I very much doubt it, but I plan to buy a couple and see (or rather, hear). Watch this space.

I log on. For some reason it thinks I’m in the States. I decide to search for something I already have on CD (and, as it happens in this particular case, on vinyl too): Bruce Springsteen’s Thunder Road. They have the album version and two live versions. In order to buy the album version, I have to tell it I’m in Germany. At which point they don’t have Thunder Road any more, or any thing else by Mr. Springsteen either. Once again, Apple’s alleged collection of 700,000 songs fails to include exactly what I happen to be looking for. And again: I decide to give the classical music a look, and they have nothing by the Borodin, Smetana, Hungarian or Juilliard Quartets. I could carry on and eliminate all the greatest chamber ensembles of the last half century, but since that’s already four of any conceivable top ten accounted for, searching any further would just be too depressing. But wait, heavens above: they have two CDs’ worth of Wilhelm Furtwängler’s entire recorded output (of, probably, several hundred items). Credibility restored. Er …

document not saved

3rd June 2004 permanent link

Finding fault with Microsoft’s software design is usually too easy to be interesting, and I’ve already complained about Word’s tendency to crash every half hour or so on the Mac. But I would still, o incompetent morons on the Excel development team, like to know exactly what it is I’m expected to do next in this situation:

Document not saved

Update: despite this astounding piece of gratuitously user-hostile design I have, perhaps foolishly, persisted with Excel for one particular project. And so have discovered that, guess what, Word isn't the only application on my Mac that crashes more than once a day on average.


14th May 2004 permanent link

A while ago I reviewed John Siracusa’s arstechnica review of Apple’s OS X 10.3 operating system. John writes to point out that in my article – which I wrote on the train with no access to fact-checking facilities – I wrongly said he also wrote arstechnica’s technical coverage of the IBM PowerPC 970 (aka Apple “G5”) processor. The PowerPC article was by Jon (no “h”) Stokes. Apologies to John & Jon.

taping things from the radio

13th May 2004 permanent link

Having discovered the joys of Internet Radio Three yesterday, I had a look at their programme listings and found that they have lots of interesting stuff. They’re in the middle of a series of live lunchtime broadcasts of the complete Beethoven string quartets, with one or two of them played by a different group each day. (The live performances are happening in Nottingham, and if I were anywhere near that part of England I would be trying very hard to find an excuse to go. Wait. My parents live near Nottingham. Sudden urge to visit parents). Today’s is the Skampa Quartet playing opus 132. I’ve never heard the Skampa Quartet but I know they are students of the Smetana Quartet, and the Smetana Quartet were one of the undisputed greatest string quartets of the last half century – I’ve mentioned here before that their recording of Beethoven’s 9th string quartet is one of the most inspired performances I’ve ever heard of of any piece of music. And Beethoven opus 132 – well, as Brian says: peak of Western Civ. Note To Self: if caught up in Apocalypse & required to justify entire existence of mankind, mention late Beethoven string quartets.

But I won’t be at home at lunchtime today, and I’ve already established that Radio Three’s audio stream doesn’t work through the firewall in the office. Internet radio streams are intentionally difficult to record. What to do?

A quick google search on “capture RealAudio Mac” reveals that the answer is Audio Hijack. This is a piece of software that defeats attempts to prevent people from recording internet audio streams by, basically, pretending to be the part of the operating system that normally controls the Mac’s soundcard, grabbing whatever gets sent to the sound card and, er, recording it. And it’s perfectly legal because time-shifting, fair use, just like a VCR, mutter, mumble. Whatever.

A quick test shows that it works and that setting it up to record a particular audio stream on a timer is indeed, as advertised in the help file, “just like a VCR, but you’ll actually understand how to program it”. So I fondly hope to get home from work today and find Radio Three’s lunchtime concert sitting on my hard disk.

This is all quite nostalgic for me – I haven’t “taped” music from the “radio” since my student days. The results from the tests I did sounded a lot better than I ever remember getting by really taping things from the real radio. (The baseline for comparison here isn’t what somebody could theoretically have achieved in the Old Days using an audiophile-grade tuner, writing to an audiophile-grade tape deck, on expensive metal tapes, in a location carefully selected for good FM reception. It’s Alan in a student dwelling, using the cheapest available tapes on a cheap portable). On my Mac’s soundcard and a small pair of earbuds, both the BBC’s audio stream and the Audio Hijack recording of it sound perfectly acceptable. I strongly suspect they would sound less impressive burned to a CD and played on a real stereo – so, Note To Music Industry: if this performance turns out to be as good as I hope, and the Skampa Quartet ever record Beethoven, already having a recording of a live performance might well make me more likely to buy the CD not less.

Audio Hijack is made by Rogue Amoeba (“good software with a bad attitude”), who seem to be a prime example of a good small software company. They have a niche product that fills an obvious need and appears to be the clear leader in its niche. Their software, as far as I can tell from a couple of small tests, works as advertised and is easy to use. The support forums on their website are informative, the website is reasonably well designed and – just think for a moment how unusual this is – their help files actually contain useful information that helps you to use the product. Recommended.

Mac Software Tip Of The Day Number Two: assuming I have programmed Audio Hijack correctly, I will get a single one hour file containing two pieces of music plus some things like Radio Three presenters and audience noise that that I don’t want. Assuming I wanted to listen to the Beethoven more than once (even though that might be Wrong because then it isn’t just time-shifting) I will probably want to cut the big one hour file up into manageable chunks. But I don’t seem to have any software that can do that. Apple’s QuickTime Pro does it, but also does many other ”professional media authoring” things that I don’t understand and am not interested in, and $30 seems like a lot of money just for a pair of digital scissors. My also-Mac-using colleague Andreas informs me that what I need is a piece of freeware called Audacity. This also has all the editing bells & whistles that I wouldn’t know what to do with even if I wanted them, but should work perfectly well as a free pair of scissors.

Update: bollocks. Audio Hijack worked perfectly and recorded an hour of Radio 3 that, burned to a CD and played on a proper stereo, sounds much better than I expected. The only problem is: it’s the wrong hour. I forgot to allow for the time difference between Germany and the UK, so no Skampa Quartet for me. Oh well. There will be other interesting things on Radio 3 in future, and I know how to get them now.

more classical metadata

17th March 2004 permanent link

Brian Tiemann replies to my excessively long & detailed post on classical music metadata, and hopes that Apple may have something in the works along the lines we’ve both been thinking about. Personally I’m not at all sure if Apple, or anybody else, is likely to think there’s enough of a market to put effort into an iTunes Classical Edition, much as I personally would find it convenient.

Where there might be a market is in high end audio. I read somewhere that some audiophile gear company, I think it was Linn, is supposed to be producting an audiophile-grade digital jukebox system, using a piece of very expensive custom hardware to hold the hard disk jukebox and feed the music into a good amp and speakers. <digression>But can’t you just use a PC? No. Not just (cynical view) because Linn and others like them are in the business of selling ridiculuously expensive custom hardware to people whose perception of sound quality might just conceivably be affected by the knowledge of how much money they’ve spent. There are also actual good reasons why a PC is not good as a component of a serious music system. I don’t want my stereo to take five minutes to boot. I don’t want whining disk drives and CPU fans drowning out the music I’m trying to listen to (a problem Brian is also aware of). Apparently computers are also appallingly noisy in an electrical sense if you’re trying to get a clean high-grade audio sgnal to come out of your sound card – Apple is said to have particularly serious problems in this area at the moment. </digression>Somebody who is willing to spend tens of thousands of dollars for a Linn digital jukebox might well also want it to come with some decent metadata  (i.e. not the crap that is in CDDB) pre-loaded rather than having to key everything in themselves from scratch.

But that takes us back to the other main issue here: CDDB is full of garbage. Having the slickest, fanciest application in the world doesn’t help you all that much if you can’t get any decent data to display in it.

itunes and classical music

14th March 2004 permanent link

I was tidying up my iTunes music collection yesterday evening, and thinking about what an appalling useless mess the id3 tag system and the Gracenote CDDB database are for classical music. I’m not the first to think this – see this piece by Brian Tiemann, and this one by Kimbro Staken.

(Yes, tidying up my music collection in iTunes is my idea of a good time on a Saturday night. I have a ten month old baby, what else do you expect? Maria wanted to watch one of those appalling “Pop Idol” style karaoke shows; I couldn’t bear it, but didn’t have the energy to write anything.)

Brian thinks:

it'd be a matter of adding an extra field or two to hold "Work Title" (e.g. Konzert für Klarinette u. Orchester A-dur ) and maybe a movement number, and then it'd involve simply telling the software to handle organizing songs differently that have these fields set. If the "Classical" genre is selected, organize first by Composer; and then, instead of the "Album" field, show the "Work Title" field in the browser. Albums and artists (performing groups) can then become secondary meta-data, not used for organizing the tracks once they're in the database.

If only it were that simple. I’ll talk about what would be needed to really do the job properly, and how to use the fields in iTunes to approximate doing the job properly. The fields available in iTunes, and the ones Brian proposes, are:


Not straightforward. For classical orchestral music I always want the conductor and the orchestra, plus for concertos the soloist. (I never want the composer, which some idiots put in the “artist” field, unless the recording actually is the composer playing or conducting their own work). For chamber groups the name of the group is normally good enough, but not always. Take the Borodin and Juilliard string quartets – two very famous ensembles that have existed for decades (longer even than the Rolling stones) but with major changes of personnel. I believe the Juilliard Quartet now has none of its original members and the Borodin Quartet has one. In the case of the Borodin, the crucial watershed is before and after the original leader, Rostislav Dubinsky, defected to the west in 1975. The post-Dubinsky quartet is also good but it’s different; and if I’m looking for recordings by Dubinsky then I would want to see pre-1975 but not post-1975 Borodin Quartet, plus the Borodin Trio that he formed in America, plus anything he did with other chamber groups or as a soloist.

Artist name search needs to be multilingual. A search for “Vienna Philharmonic” that doesn’t return “Wiener Philharmoniker” is useless; “Furtwängler” should also match “Furtwangler” and “Furtwaengler”.

For orchestras I’m personally only interested in the name of the orchestra, not individual musicians. (My principal classical music adviser points out an important exception to this in the case of anything featuring one O. Little anywhere in the violas – the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra’s Beethoven symphony recordings with Charles Mackerras, for example.)


iTunes’ search is clever enough to do partial matches, so if we have anything at all in the composer field, then “Beethoven, Ludwig van” and “L v Beethoven” both match “Beethoven” without any problem. A bigger problem is the classical CDs in the gracenote database that either don’t have composer at all, or where some cretin has put composer in the “artist” field and (if you’re lucky) stuffed the artist into the “album” title.

But once again we have the not-small question of different spellings of composers’ names in different languages. A simple example: Händel (correct German spelling) = “Haendel” (alternative German spelling, acceptable for example in primitive ASCII-only computer systems) = “Handel” (normal English spelling). I would expect a search for any of these to match all of them. Another example: Дмитрий Дмитриевич Шостакович (correct Russian spelling) = Dmitriy Shostakovich (English transliteration) = Dmitrij Schostakowitsch (German transliteration) = Dimitri Shostakovich (alternative English spelling of the first name, as used last week by Brian Micklethwait). In cases like this, where there are several possible acceptable English spellings of “Dmitriy”, I would expect a decent search system to be able to cope with near-misses rather than having to specify all the possibilities in advance.

In all these cases, there is arguably a canonically correct name – the full version most commonly used in the composer’s native language – and there is a version I personally would be mostly likely to use to search, which would normally be the most common English-language spelling of the composer’s surname. But it wouldn’t be necessary for any version of the name to have any special status in the system in order for search to work correctly, a big pile of equal-status synonyms would do just fine. (What about composers with the same surname? I would expect a search for “Bach” to turn up works by Johann Sebastian Bach. I would not want to have to specify “JS Bach” to avoid seeing things by his lesser relatives. This would be less clear-cut for “Strauss” though. But in any case, it could be easily dealt with by using some combination of rating / most recently played / most frequently played to weight search results.)

album / work title

What does the “work title” of a piece of classical music actually consist of? I’ll take as an example Beethoven’s String Quartet no. 9 in C op.59 “Rasumovsky” no.3. Let’s parse that. It contains at least six pieces of information:

People who really know about this stuff could doubtless point out lots of errors and omissions in the above. But it’s broadly correct, and hopefully enough to get the message across that an apparently simple matter of an extra field called “work title” barely begins to scratch the surface of what’s actually there.

I picked Rasumovsky Quartet no.3 as an example because it is the subject of one of my all-time favourite recordings of anything by anybody, in the form of a stunning 1960s performance by the Smetana Quartet that was originally recorded by the excellent Czech label Supraphon, and is now available as a cheap reissue on Cantus, catalogue number 500152. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Brian wants to stuff all this into one field and call it “Work Title”, rather than using “Album”. Personally I was inclined to use “Album” – it’s a matter of complete indifference to me which CD something originally happened to be on. So I tried putting standardised work titles in the Album field. Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 In E-Flat Major, Op. 55 “Eroica”, to take one example of a work I have about half a dozen different recordings of (out of the 200 or so recordings of it that exist). Ah. Problem. iTunes now sorts all the first movements together, then all the second movements etc. Not useful. What I want, of course, is all four movements of one recording, then all four movements of the next. In order to achieve which I have to take my nice standardised work titles and append some kind of “recording id” to them, duplicating information I already have in Artist and Date. Blah.

Oh, and “Date” in the rare cases when it’s set in the gracenote database is normally the year the CD was released, about which I don’t care a fart. I want the year the recording was made, please.

I don’t usually care if I have two different versions of the same recording. The exception to this is if one of them is remastered or otherwise of noticeably better quality. Take Wilhelm Furtwängler’s 1944 recording of the Eroica with the Wiener Philharmoniker, a.k.a. Furtwangler/VPO Beethoven op. 55, or any of a thousand other possible descriptions of the same thing. I originally downloaded this as an mp3 from emusic, and was so impressed I decided to buy a “proper” CD version to see if I could hear a difference. I could. (Also HIGHLY RECOMMENDED)

song title

I would prefer to just have the names of movements in here. It isn’t very important for classical music anyway – I rarely want to listen to single movements of things and would almost just as soon have an entire work as one track, but I can’t be bothered to do all the clicking about to glue them together in iTunes.

track number

The track number that something was on the original CD is completely irrelevant. As Brian says, you either think “So Track 14 is really the fourth movement of the third work on the disc …”, or you go through and edit everything laboriously by hand to say this is movement 2 of 3 in so-and-so concerto, rather than track 7 of 13 on some irrelevant CD. It would be nice if iTunes provided a quick and easy way to do this, but it doesn’t.

so what do i propose to do about all this?

The information in gracenote is such complete garbage it’s almost a write-off. I just looked up a CD of Janacek’s string quartets by the Talich quartet. What I find is typical:

What I intended to write about is:

  1. Given that the gracenote data is a write-off and I’m resigned to having to input all the metadata myself if I want anything half usable, how am I actually going to use the fields available in iTunes?
  2. How would I actually do it myself in an ideal world, given that what I’m trying to achieve is some kind of super-iTunes cataloguing / sorting / jukebox system, not a research database for musicologists? This, if I ever have time to write it, will get into all sorts of interesting stuff about how to keep an ultra-simple user interface to a search system that, behind the scenes, does all kinds of smart language-independent, user-adaptive stuff.

But this is already too long and it’s getting late. Another day.

my laptop is broken

3rd February 2004 permanent link

Apple’s software is lovely. Unfortunately their hardware seems to be utter crap – their low end laptops at any rate.

I have had my iBook for 18 months. The battery died at 8 months, and was replaced under warranty. I should have realised all was not well at the point and taken out the extended warranty, but didn’t. Big mistake. Now the screen has died – out of warranty.

It seems the particular model I have has no less than two well known and common screen faults. Apple has issued a recall for one of them, but I suspect mine has the other one. If it is what I think it is, it’s conceptually quite simple – blatantly obvious poor design in the way the power cable for the backlight is routed through the screen hinge, apparently. This guy describes how to fix it, but it sounds as though taking iBooks apart is not for the clumsy or faint of heart. I think I’ll see what my local Apple repair centre has to say about it first.

Meanwhile, since weblog writing for me is something that happens on the laptop on the train to & from work, expect not much here for a couple of weeks – followed, quite possibly, by a spate of book reviews.

the only bad software on my mac

28th November 2003 permanent link

May I just take this opportunity to point out that Microsoft Office X (the version of Office for Mac OS X) is an incompetently written piece of crap?

I rarely need to use Word these days, thank god, because very little of what I write is intended to end up on paper. But just now I need to write a fancy-looking letter that involves precisely positioning some text over a background image. In the process of which Word has crashed. Twice. There is no other application on my Mac that crashes on a routine basis. This isn’t because every other application I use is simple and trivial, either. I suspect Photoshop is (at least) comparable to Word in its complexity, but it doesn’t crash.

Also, although I am well aware that my 700MHz iBook is not exactly an awesome supercomputer, Excel is the only thing I have on it that is so slow it’s almost unusable.

panther – yes

24th November 2003 permanent link

I upgraded my iBook to Panther at the weekend (having first carefully backed it up to an external firewire drive which I then unplugged. I have to say I’m impressed so far. Nothing has broken yet. The look, on my severely small and cluttered laptop screen, is generally cleaner and easier on the eye – font rendering in particular is much better. Even leaving aside the wonders of Exposé, the performance improvement in basic windowing operations is enough to make a significant difference in ease of use.

And, as every Mac advocate always says, when was the last time a new Windows version was faster on the same hardware? Particularly when the hardware in question is an obsolescent and rather underpowered little low end laptop. Of course, for a long time Microsoft could put out increasingly sluggish bloatware and rely on Moore’s law to save them, whereas Apple couldn’t because Moore’s Law didn’t apply to Motorola. Those days, one hopes, are over. What is not over is the look of Aqua getting steadily cleaner and better, whereas Windows sinks ever further into blue-and-orange blotched amateurish ugliness. When I first saw Windows XP I couldn’t believe that anybody would actually ship something that looked like that except as a joke.

I just noticed the standard python version is now 2.3. That’s nice too.

panther and too many windows

14th November 2003 permanent link

Just in case camera geek tv wasn’t sad enough, I’m about to suggest that a review of an operating system is interesting reading. Even if you don’t use a Mac, but especially if you do, John Siracusa’s review-cum-user-interface-philosophy-seminar of OS X 10.3 “Panther” on arstechnica is worth a look. Certainly one of the best pieces of writing about software that I’ve read for a while. I don’t understand all of what John is talking about—I suspect anybody who isn’t a long time user of pre-OS X Macs wouldn’t—but what I do understand is interesting and makes sense even if I don’t necessarily agree with all of it.

(John is one of the best technical writers around. I seem to recall his paper on the architecture of IBM’s awesome PowerPC 970, aka Apple’s “G5” processor, was so good that either Apple or IBM – possibly both – ripped it off for their promotional materials. Now I come to think of it, John Gruber, who also writes about things Apple, is another of the more intelligent technical writers around at the moment. Something about Macs?)

Update: John Siracusa writes to say he didn’t write the PowerPC article at arstechnica, Jon (no “h”) Stokes did. As I explained to John (Siracusa), I wrote this article on the train on the way to work, so my fact-checking opportunites were limited.

The review section on Exposé, Apple’s super fancy new singing & dancing window switcher, is particularly interesting. Anything that potentially helps with desktop clutter would be a huge win for me. Let’s see what my iBook is wearing today:

Mail. Three Safari windows: the last few pages of John Siracusa’s Panther review that I’m still reading, the draft version of, the various weblogs that constitute my morning newspaper. NetNewsWire Lite. Software Update is trying to tell me something. Goodness knows how many BBEdit windows (only 9 today, says BBEdit. This is unusually low). Internet Explorer? Why? Ah, it's doing cross-browser testing of my “baby’s first stylesheet” attempts at CSS. Terminals: 4 (None of them sporting that ultracool white-on-translucent-green look. Must fix that.) iCal, so that I can add “ultracool translucent green terminal look” to my to-do list. iTunes: Motörhead’s rendering of Louie Louie (nostalgia trip: a teenage favourite that I recently rediscovered on emusic). Emusic download manager, not currently downloading anything because I’m on the train and Munich doesn’t have free WiFi in underground trains just yet. Only a matter of time. Fugu, left over from last night’s visit to’s secret top security data centre in New Zealand. At least 24 windows in total.

That this is even remotely workable on a 12" laptop screen is a great tribute to the quality of Apple’s user interface design and the stability of OS X - it takes me a while to get back up this level of clutter after I reboot, which I have to every few weeks when things start to slow down. But a pleasure to use it isn't, especially on the train when I’ve left the mouse at home and am reduced to the trackpad, at which point the more useful keyboard shortcuts I can find the better. Maybe I should think about upgrading sooner rather than later.

Update 20th November: Gruber reviews Siracusa’s review. He rather likes it – “exhaustive, accurate, and insightful” … “Siracusa’s coverage of the Panther Finder is pure genius” … “It’s gotten to the point where I don’t know what I look forward to more: Apple’s annual Mac OS X update, or Siracusa’s review of it.”

panther - not

28th October 2003 permanent link

Hmm. Lots of people are enthusiastic about Apple's operating system upgrade, Mac OS X 10.3 "Panther", released at the weekend with much fanfare. However, it apparently fries external firewire drives and doesn't run ImagePrint. I'm rather fond of (a) having the 80GB of pictures that are backed up on my external firewire drive, and (b) being able to print them, so I think I'll be waiting a while before I think about upgrading.

meanwhile, over on emusic

24th October 2003 permanent link

So I’m unimpressed with what I can glean about Apple’s music download service. Meanwhile over on eMusic, it’s download frenzy time for Alan. This triggered by the following observations:

(Fortunately my ISP just increased the monthly limit on my DSL account. Must write nice things about them some time soon)

So, what can you get from eMusic? Loads of interesting stuff. Vast archives of early blues (though not, sadly, the Robert Johnson recordings that I think I still have on vinyl in an attic somewhere in England. Pity I don't have a turntable any more). Huge amounts of jazz. I’m not a big jazz fan, but it can’t do any harm to have a few Charlie Parker tunes lying around in case I ever do get the urge. Quite a bit of ’60s soul and gospel. A smallish selection of western classical music - mostly obscure stuff but some potential gems. (Currently downloading an Alfred Brendel recording of Beethoven’s Hammerklavier sonata). An even smaller selection of Indian classical music, but some of it must be worth listening to. And vast amounts of modern American and British indie stuff, most of which isn’t of much interest to me but presumably is to some people.

Kimbro is massively pissed off that eMusic have decided to limit subscribers to 40 downloads a month for $10, or 60 for $15. I can understand why, if he's been used to downloading unlimited amounts for the same price. But I can also see how eMusic would need something approaching a viable business model, and their old terms & conditions can hardly have been one of those. It costs money to have people like Kimbro slurping away at your server at a rate of gigabytes a month. 25 cents a track is a reasonable price for an mp3 file. A dollar a track as charged by Apple and others is overpriced - near-CD price for not (even) near CD quality.

Inferior sound quality is an assumption based on what what stereophile magazine and this guy have to say about the audio quality of the iPod and various levels of mp3 and AAC encoding. If and when I ever get the chance to actually download an AAC file from iTMS and listen to it for myself, I will. Meanwhile I definitely intend to sit down some time soon and have a comparative listen to some variable bit rate mp3s from eMusic against CDs of the same things and draw my own conclusions. Problem being that I have no means of injecting mp3s into my real stereo at the moment, and everything sounds crap anyway on my iBook’s headphone socket.

UPDATE: I tried a comparative listen to a few things on my iBook anyway, since it's the only device I have at the moment that can play mp3s and CDs. Result: everything on the iBook sounds flat and lifeless. MP3s from eMusic possibly sound even more flat and lifeless than CDs - this was my opinion, also the opinion of a colleague who I subjected to a blind listening test. Not exactly conclusive, but not promising for online music actually being worth the money either.

itunes (still) not much music store?

22nd October 2003 permanent link

There’s a discussion going on at arstechnica regarding some people’s opinion that, unless you have very mainstream and boring musical tastes, you ain’t going to find much to your liking at the Apple’s iTunes Music Store. Which was also my impression when I had a look a while ago.

(I also particularly liked the guy who said that if Apple had his favourite music available, they would be deluged with emails from people complaining about corrupted files)

People say it’s getting better. I can’t check on this because, after letting me in once for a look round, it now says I’m not in the USA and refuses to even let me press my nose against the window. (Maybe I’ve been specifically , personally IP-banned for writing unimpressed things about it)

So let’s see: severe lack of interesting music. Near-CD prices for probably inferior to CD sound quality. CD prices for stuff I’m interested in, especially classical, are in free-fall. So I really can’t see what good iTMS going to be to me except for the odd one-hit wonder where I’m not interested in shelling out for a whole CD. And then, only if they actually have the one-hit wonders I want. And if they start selling them in Europe some time this decade. But then I’m not the target demographic anyway.

internet explorer on the increase

4th October 2003 permanent link

Internet Explorer on the increase again. Oh dear.

I started this weblog in July with a look at what browsers visitors to were using. The interesting bits, for me as a Mac user, were that I was getting around 10% of my page views from Mac users, which is higher than the installed base of Macs would suggest; and among Mac browsers, Safari was already at 15% market share and rising fast. Now let’s update that picture:

mac browser market share

Safari’s meteoric rise continued to around 23% in August but Netscape 4 rose too(Netscape 4? That’s even worse than IE). Then in September - Safari back below 20%, Internet Explorer up over 10%. What happened?

Well, we’re not exactly dealing with statistically significant trends here. That IE increase represents a little over 200 page views. It could mean I picked up a grand total of one enthusiastic Mac IE using reader who looked at every page on the site. (And if you’re reading this - get Safari, it’s much better) Don’t get alarmed by changes on percentage graphs until you’ve asked, percentages of what?

3rd October 2003 permanent link

I was a music download virgin until today. I installed a beta version of napster once but it didn't work; a little while ago I had a look at what was available from Apple, but I was unimpressed with the selection, and in any case I can't buy anything from them because I'm not in the USA. But then I noticed somebody on arstechnica recommending eMusic, and thought I'd have a look.

Not bad. Free trial downloads. No DRM. No big-name, big-label artists, but several indie-label artists that I'm interested in and didn't find on iTMS: Badmarsh, Blue Planet, Asian Dub Foundation …

And their classical offerings? Not all that impressive at first sight. Fairly small selection. But wait. They have the Janacek and Bartok string quartets, recorded by unknown East European quartets. Weren't the Kodaly Quartet an unknown East European quartet until they produced their superb Haydn recordings for Naxos? Maybe these guys are brilliant too. Certainly worth downloading them to find out. And they have four recordings of Beethoven piano sonatas by Alfred Brendel - those have to be worth a listen.

I think the selection is too limited for eMusic be a real competitor to iTMS if the latter ever actually appears outside the USA, assuming Apple get their indie label deals sorted out and actually have some of the stuff I want to hear. eMusic is cheaper if you can find more than ten interesting tracks a month in their catalog - which I suspect would be easy for the first few months but might get harder thereafter - but it feels more like an interesting bargain bin than a potential prime source of music.

Apple may have also much better sound quality than eMusic, if their codec is as much better than mp3 as some people seem to think.

The big unanswered question for me with eMusic is whether mp3s are actually good enough to have as your only copy of something worth listening to, or just a way of auditioning things that you're going to want to buy on CD (or iTMS) anyway if you find you like them. Which I'm not going to find out for a few days, because it's a holiday weekend in Germany and I seem to have left my headphones in the office. Oops. At some point I'll also download something from eMusic that I already have on CD so that i can do a direct sound quality comparison on my proper stereo (which, for those who care about such things, is a cheap-but-decent rig consisting of bottom of the range NAD amplifier and Kef speakers). I'll also be interested to see what stereophile magazine has to say about the iPod when their October issue comes online, particularly if they listened to AAC and mp3.

I thought I'd try a tabular comparison, but it probably overstates the advantages of eMusic:




availability worldwide US only eMusic
price $9.99 / month $0.99 / track eMusic if used heavily
selection very few big names, but some interesting indie stuff had hardly any of the things I looked for, but probably getting better fast eMusic, but probably not for long
Mac user interface ok very good iTMS
non-Mac availability Windows, Linux Windows coming some time, maybe eMusic, but not relevant to me
DRM none limited, reasonable eMusic
sound quality mp3 reputedly better than mp3 iTMS by reputation, but will reserve judgement until I've heard both
supported sound format widely used but inferior de facto standard superior but only supported by apple products depends how listenable I find mp3s
free trial 45 tracks no eMusic
minimum purchase 3 months @ 14.99/month 1 track @ $0.99 iTMS

itunes (not much) music store

4th August 2003 permanent link

Out of curiosity I thought I would fire up iTunes and have a look at what I would be able to buy at the iTunes Music Store if there was actually any chance of it working in Europe in the foreseeable future. Doesn’t look like I’m missing much though.

I look for London tabla’n’bass geniuses Badmarsh & Shri. Nada.

OK, maybe the London Asian not-so-underground-any-more is still a bit too much to ask of an American website. How about one of the most famous Indian classical musicians, Hariprasad Chaurasia. Not nothing, but very little.

Perhaps I’m being just a bit wilfully obscure. OK, surely we can’t get much more mainstream than ... Artist: Led Zeppelin. "Your search did not match any results". This cannot be real. Song: Stairway to Heaven (note: not my favourite Zeppelin song, just a test case). Oh yes, no problem, we can offer you Stairway to Heaven performed by Neil Sedaka or the O’Jays. Thanks very much.

Last try. Something modern and mainstream and American - Artist: Liz Phair, Song : Go West. it’s my favourite Liz Phair song and Liz is even featured on the front page, surely we can’t go wrong here. Yes we can. We have every Liz Phair album except the one that that song is on. Which I bought on CD because of that one song and then found I wasn’t wild about the rest of the album - exactly the sort of thing I thought iTMS was going to save me from, but it looks like I’d better not hold my breath.

Really last try: I’ve been wondering about the Blondie album before Parallel Lines, because I’ve heard one song from it that I think is great. After all (quite apart from the fact that I’m showing my age here, and regular TV appearances by Debbie Harry were a highlight of my adolescence), Blondie were surely by any standard a famous American band, right? Even the current generation of American music buyers must have heard of Blondie? Maybe I can see what else is on that album without having to make a trip to the used CD shop. No I can’t. We have one song by Blondie.

And people say this thing is supposed to be good?

more mac market share

26th July 2003 permanent link

In my article on browser market share I said I wasn't aware of any figures for the installed based of Macs. Well, As the Apple Turns is not only always fun, but also occasionally comes up with useful quasi-statistics, like these ones yesterday.

Microsoft apparently claims to have 600 million customers [a mere 10% of the population of the world - how can that be an unassailable monopoly?] of whom the boys & girls at AtAT conservatively assume 90% are Windows users = 540 million Windows users. Apple, meanwhile, believes there are 25 million Macs out there - which if my calculator isn't mistaken means Mac users are about 4.4% of the Windows + Mac installed base(*). Which - finally getting to the point - means that's 10% of Mac-using visitors is on the high side as I suspected it might be.

(*) Assume desktop Linux is statistically insignificant, which is probably true now but might not be for much longer [big pdf link].

mac market share

25th July 2003 permanent link

In my article on browser market share I mentioned Apple's latest 2.3% share of new PC sales. John Gruber at Daring Fireball has some (as always) intelligent comments on why that 2.3% figure isn't as low as it seems - in short, Apple isn't even trying to compete in large chunks of the market (low end commodity PCs, big corporate accounts) and has a far higher share of the market it is competing in - high end sales to discerning individuals.

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