Monthly Archives: January 2009

Unpaid Advertising: My MacBook

Great Hardware

I have nothing but praise to lavish on my MacBook for its construction. Made of a solid piece of aluminum, it is the sturdiest object I own. The size of the MacBook is “just right”. It fits well on my lap for couch computing and is large enough to accommodate a useable screen and an adult sized keyboard. The picture above is a self-portrait not so lovingly manipulated with some free open source image editors. Don’t let this picture fool you, the unibody aluminum MacBook is 100% gorgeousness. 

The Macbook just plain feels good. The cooling fan is silent during normal use and very quiet during heavy use. Heat over all is quite low. This is no lap-burner that will give you sweaty palms. 

Macs of late have been criticized for using glossy displays. Back in 2002, I bought a LCD monitor for the sole reason of reducing eye strain due to the brightness and glare of CRTs. The MacBook has a glossy LCD screen, but it is no mirrored hunk of glass. On sunny days I have to keep the screen shaded, but I have not noticed any problems in any other light. Perhaps the LED backlighting is bright enough to overpower reflections. The screen’s resolutions is also just right: enough pixels for 720p HD movies but a low enough resolution to avoid squinting at on-screen text. 

The Nvidia 9400M integrated graphics really pep-up the display. For an integrated chip, the 9400M is more powerful than many discrete cards. Its a real game changer and the reason I bought this MacBook over Apple’s weaker offerings. 

Typing is a pleasure: quiet, smooth, with keys that are well laid out and easy to find by touch. The keyboard sits back from the largest trackpad I have ever seen. My MacBook does not include a backlit keyboard, which is available on the more expensive model. This is a feature that I do not miss, thanks to contrast between the keys and the aluminum shell.

I was never a fan of laptop trackpads because I could never move the cursor from one end of the screen to the other. I also had trouble hitting the buttons. The multi-touch trackpad is a quantum leap in trackpads, and perhaps the most innovating input device since the invention of the mouse over 40 years ago. Tapping twice for “right clicking” and running my fingers around to scroll is so much easier than mousing around that I have packed away my spare mouse possibly forever. 

Great Software

Little did I know that experimenting with Linux was good practice for using the Mac OS. Coincidence? I think not. Both Linux and Mac OS are derived from Unix based systems of old. The user interface for many linux systems also borrow from Mac OS. Frankly, with no disrespect to the hardworking and ingenious Linux community, Mac OS is better. Applications install to the Applications folder and are therefore easier to keep track of. Connecting to other computers and network drives is ten time easier. Mac OS also has smarter user management which for you Linux geeks means no more typing "Sudo" a thousand times just to edit xorg.config and makes a mockery of the thousand times I had to type "sudo" in a Linux terminal. There is no point in comparisons to Microsoft Windows except to point out that after using Linux and Mac OS, Windows just seems wrong.

Most of the great open source software I used with Linux is also on the Mac:, Gimp, and Firefox. I was surprised, though, at how much I liked most of the software included with the mac. iWeb is a fantastically web publishing tool that perfectly compromises ease-of-use with features. iPhoto is easier to use than I originally believed. Preview is also more capable than I would have given it credit for (but it still doesn’t replace Irfanview). TimeMachine is just magical in its ease of use. The biggest surprise I found was Safari. With a few free extensions (from Safari had all the tab saving ad-blocking power of Firefox. I can’t quite put my multi touch finger on it, but Safari just seems better on a Mac than Firefox. 

But the New Macbook Is so Expensive! Or is it?

All-in-all, is the unibody MacBook worth it? Yes. Financially, the MacBook is a good deal. "Wait . . . what?" you say. Just look at this handy table comparing the costs of the MacBook versus Apple's cheapest computer, the Mac Mini. I supplemented the Mac Mini with products from the Apple store necessary to bring the Mac Mini to the feature level of the MacBook.

Looking at this table, the new MacBook is a better deal from Apple than the Mac Mini. The advantages of portability don’t lend themselves to a chart, but ponder this: I created this web page on my couch. Can a desktop do that? 

Consider also the resale value an Apple computer versus its Window's lovin' competitors. A late 2004 Apple iBook G4 originally cost around $1500. Now it might sell for $500 on ebay. The most sought after PC in my experience is the IBM/Lenovo Thinkpad. A Thinkpad t42 that cost $2050 in early 2005 might sell for $300 on ebay. An iBook owner would have $200. Some Macs fetch even better resale values.

And Now the Bad

Some of the software that comes with new Macs are not all they are cracked up to be. iWeb fills a hole in my heart, but programs like iTunes and Safari are free to anyone. iPhoto has lost some luster with Google's release of Picasa for the Mac. Some software, like Garageband, looks cool and would be great if I only I could play a musical instrument. Other software, like iMovie ’08 stink big time. 

Using iMovie ’08 for the first time is like finding a dent in your brand new car

To be blunt, iMovie '08 is a broken program that can no more edit my home movies than change my underwear. My first movie project was editing my wife’s home movies on DVD. iMovie '08, however, won’t even try to import movies from DVDs. I encoded the DVD as a .mp4 files with a handy free application called Handbrake. iMovie '08 would import the .mp4 file but that took about 12 hours. The whole time a bar imperceptibly indicated progress toward making thumbnail pictures for the video. I gave up and hit the (X) button. The video survived, but without thumbnails. Then iMovie '08 crashed. I started up again and selected a portion of the video to crop. iMovie '08 first ran excruciatingly slow before crashing again.  I could have sworn I was computing back in 1992. Then iMovie '08 crashed again.

In disbelief, I searched the internet for a solution. To my surprise, iMovie '08 was derided by many. In fact, the reaction was so poor that Apple now allows owners of iMovie '08 download iMovie '06 for free. In my opinion, Apple should have saved me the download and pre-installed iMovie '06 on my MacBook. Despite being two years older than iMovie ’08, the download actually edits video. Another great free program is Mpeg Streamclip. It can make quick cuts from a movie before iMovie will even load. In my opinion, iMovie '08 can go suck an egg. 

Prospective Mac purchasers, you can look forward to using iMovie '09. Apple announced this upgrade less than a month after I received my MacBook. Apparently this product is like an iMovie '08 that works. Am I hurt and angry that Apple sold me a broken version of iMovie when they planned on coming out with a better version less than a month later. You betcha’. But I am more disturbed that Apple released iMovie '08 in the first place. 

Mobile Me makes me think Apple's engineers had to have the internet explained to them.

Mobile Me works somehow, that's the best I can say about it. The service can sync passwords, bookmarks, calendars, mail, contacts, and files saved on network storage named iDisk. Signing up was easy. Syncing was easy too. MobileMe even imported my contacts from gmail. Mounting the iDisk was easy at home but transferring files is very very slow, like dial-up speeds. Maybe Apple's servers only came with 56K modems. Sometimes Mobile Me does not work so well. The iDisk does not always mount on my work computer and other users complain of outages.

The mobile part of MobileMe is the most lacking. MobileMe has the most barebones website since the original Google search website. It looks slick with smooth shiny buttons, but that’s all it is, buttons. Compare that to the user defined splash pages pages such as iGoogle or Yahoo. Even Microsoft has customizable home pages (that seem like neanderthals in a crowd of homo sapiens). I feel great after syncing my bookmark changes, but then I log onto iGoogle and instantly see my gmail, calendar, RSS feeds, weather, and sticky notes. No syncing is necessary with iGoogle and unlike MobileMe, iGoogle never gives me a bogus error for using the wrong web browser. The real kicker: I can do everything on Mobile Me for free somewhere else. Yet Mobile me does what it advertises, is a one-stop-shop for my syncing needs, and I feel safer having my data backed up on the servers of a solvent company.

In Summary

As a hardware company, I give Apple 5 out of 5 stars. The Mac OS is in my opinion the best on the market. Most of Apple’s software is valuable and makes the MacBook a MacBook. When I combine the failure of iMovie '08 with the buggy and lackluster Mobile Me offering, I must wonder whether Apple is really ready to deliver in this new age of high definition/internet delivered content. Troubling thoughts for a new Mac owner.

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Rants – don’t bother arguing agaisnt climate change critics

My wife asked me to help find evidence and arguments to turn around a climate change critic in our family. He had some evidence that Arctic sea ice is re-freezing at record pace. That would be great news for a warming planet except Arctic sea ice has been drastically shrinking. According to the National Snow and Ice Data Center, "Arctic sea ice in 2008 was notable for several reasons. The year continued the negative trend in summer sea ice extent, with the second-lowest summer minimum since record-keeping began in 1979.  2008 sea ice also showed well-below-average ice extents throughout the entire year." According to this data, one winters record re-freezing will be undone by another summer's record thawing. So did I send these actual facts to the climate change critic? No. The problem is not his lack of scientific knowledge but a conundrum of social psychology.

Most all of these critics are not scientists or more importantly are not climate experts. I learned years ago working on legal cases with experts that in any given subject, they will know more than I ever will. There are many reasons (that I have observed) why good people refuse to believe an experts:

1. The expert challenges their pre-existing beliefs.
2. They don't like some "poindexter" telling them what to believe.
3. They have a $$ interest in the opposite point of view.
4. They believe they actually know more than the expert does.
5. They feel like the expert is accusing them of doing something wrong.

Basically, if a climate change critic admits that climate change is real, the critic has to feel bad. No amount of evidence or reasoning will change that.

So when a critic of climate change says things like "scientists are doing science all wrong" or "its all a liberal conspiracy", just tell them that whether climate change is real or not, they are good people.

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Just Silly – my best hack ever

I am a big fan of doing more with less (material and work). The best hacks, a.k.a. DIY projects, are the simplest. My Blackberry is no iPhone but it is handy on the road and also makes a nice companion in the office for quickly looking at new e-mails. It has big flaw: its USB socket is on the side. The cord couldn't be in a worse position for desk use of a Blackberry. While charging, the Blackberry naturally contorts away from a good reading position. When disconnected, the cord would often fall behind my desk. A prone Blackberry is not ergonomically easy to look at either. Desk mounts are not really that expensive, but I am loathe to spend money just the same.

My solution: tacking the USB cable and Blackberry to my bulletin board. The tacks and board are effectively free from my employer. Set-up was easy and the whole arrangement is further customizable. The cord no longer falls behind my desk. The Blackberry is in a nice upright position to display incoming e-mails, calls, and reminders. Huzaa to thumbtacks!

Total cost: $0
Time spent: 5 minutes

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Untimely Reviews – “No Country for Old Men”

Do not let the image to the left fool you. I do not own a Blu-Ray player. I did not see "No Country for Old Men" in high definition wide-screen format. I wish I had.

Sometimes a movie is so amazingly great that it transcends itself. "Pulp Fiction" comes to mind as one of these kinds of movies. These instant classics convey a compelling story and show us intriguing characters but the spectator experience is uplifted by how the movie was filmed. These movies are art and "No Country for Old Men" is simply the best art I have seen in years. A friend of mine was asked if he loved it and he responded, "love is not a strong enough word to describe how I feel about this movie." That's about the best accolade a movie can get.

All of the principal players in this movie could have been awarded an Oscar for their performance. Javier Bardem did win an award for his chilling role of a complicated madman. Tommy Lee Jones provided one of his best performances ever as a Texas sheriff burnt-out from what he sees as an increasingly violent world. Josh Brolin is unerapreciated, in my opinion, for his very down-to-earth portrayal of a the ordinary guy on the run from an extraordinary killer. Special kudos should also go to the large cast of ordinary looking folk such as the man who plays a befuddled gas station attendant desperate to end an ever more akward conversation with Javier Bardem's assasin.

The real star of this film is its own cinametography. Perhaps the first 1/3 of this film is dominated by a desolate Texas landscape that never looked so good. This film also makes use of clever shot that deftly tell us what has happened or what will happen. The film also brings ordinary places to life. Cheap hotel rooms and trailer homes have never before come to life as they do in this film. Much of the beauty of this fim is wasted on an old fashioned standard definition television, of course. Mark Twain may have said "You will always regret the things you didn't do". I truly regret passing up the opportunity to see this film in a theater. Do not make my mistake, see this movie the right way!

Despite all of the accolades from critics and me, some people did not like this movie. My wife for instance, did not care as much for it as I did. Her complaints were few but stong: there is graphic violence and blood and many scenes are slow and expository, as I'm sure the book was. In defense of this movie, the blood and gore show the real consequences of violence. The movie also has a statement to make about violence that is well told through its characters and well conveyed by the brilliant cast of actors. There is nothing wasted in this film; some scenes are diamonds, but each scene is a gem.

I rate this movie as 5 out of 5 "must see"s. You must see it. You must see it. You must see it. You must see it. You must see it.

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