Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Firefox 3 Beta

Today I downloaded and installed on Rohan, my MacBook Pro, the latest beta version of Mozilla Firefox 3.

As expected, a couple themes and extensions weren't compatible. One of the themes was iFox, which makes older version of FF appear more Mac-like. However, the new default FF theme for Macs which is debuting in FF3 is more Mac-like than previous defaults. So, I'll stick with that for the time being.

The extensions I had which don't yet work with FF3 include del.icio.us, DownThemAll, and Linkification. However, AdBlock Plus does work with FF3, which is great.

I'm not sure if it's having fewer extensions or if it's due to better code, but FF3 Beta is faster on Rohan than FF2. I've actually been using Safari 3 for the most part since I upgraded Rohan to Leopard, because it's quite a bit faster at page rendering than FF2, even when it has to display ads.

A neat new feature which I immediately noticed is an entry in the bookmarks bar: "Smart Bookmarks." FF3 automatically adds the bookmarks which you frequently visit to this folder, which makes it quicker to access them. It's not a killer app but it's a nice touch.

I think I'll stick with FF3 for a bit to see how it works. If anything blows up I'll post a followup.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

System Rescue CD

Tonight I was glad I have a copy of the System Rescue CD. ("SRCD")

My mother called me tonight to let me know that Gondor, my old P-III/733 that I built about 8 years ago, would not boot. After turning on and displaying the POST messages it displayed a disk read error. (Naturally, she didn't say that "it halted after POSTing.") So, I headed over after dinner.

Sure enough, it wouldn't boot. I'm not sure if the master boot record just got hosed or something worse. The SRCD was able to boot the system and mount both internal hard disks, so it's probably the MBR. The XP install on Gondor is about 4 years old, so if it shit the bed I guess I shouldn't be too surprised.

Earlier this week my father picked up one of the 8 GB USB flash drives Microcenter has for about $30 and had started to copy some of his data to it. Unfortunately, he hadn't yet backed up all his stuff to it, even after all my nudging. I was able to copy over their My Documents folder using Midnight Commander running off the SRCD. (FWIW, the SRCD recognized the first internal disk as sda, the second disk as sdb, and the USB stick as sdc.)

Incidentally, my mom fitted Gondor with a Microsoft Ergonomic keyboard. Aside from hating those things with a passion, it would not work properly with the SRCD. Not all of the function keys worked properly, which made using Midnight Commander near impossible. My work around for this was to login to Gondor via SSH from Rohan, my MacBook Pro.

While the data was copying over, I went online using my Rohan and ordered a NewerTech Universal Drive Adapter from Other World Computing. This will allow me to yank the drives from Gondor, plug them into my laptop or my folks' MacBook, and more easily recover data and run diagnostics on them. (I've been thinking of purchasing one of these for awhile and this gives me an excuse.)

Before leaving I stressed the necessity of copying the contents of the flash drive over to their MacBook, seeing as how easily a thumb drive could get lost. As it is, they will probably have to recreate things like browser bookmarks and email addressbooks.

I'm trying to convince them to dump the PC entirely and migrate over to the MacBook as their primary computer. They can plug in their Sony flat panel monitor to make it easier on their eyes, and use an external mouse and keyboard. Additionally, I want them to upgrade the Mac to Leopard, buy an external hard disk, and use Time Machine so they don't have to think about backups. One less Windows machine for me to maintain would be damn nice.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Busy Weekend

We had a busy weekend. Saturday morning I got myself to the optometrist for the first time in 10 years. Yes, I was way overdue. That said, my eyes have barely changed since the last time I went. I am getting new glasses with the revised prescription, the main benefit of which is that I'll no longer have specs with scratches on the right lens.

Afterwards I went over to client to do some onsite server updates and discuss future needs. We have several things to do in the coming year: upgrade their LAN to a gigabit Ethernet core, replace an aging file server, and possibly install a VPN between two sites. To this we're adding a disk-based backup system to replace the Dell tape loader they're currently using. The problem with tape based backup for them is that it's too slow. They're a custom print shop which deals with a large amount of data in the form of graphic files. They've reached the point where a weekend doesn't contain enough hours to do two sets of full backups, as they want to do. Moving to external hard disks that are swapped out, with one kept offsite, will allow them to do so.

Aside from working, one my aunts was in from NY. It was nice to see her. While she was here we managed to get ahold of my cousin, currently on an assignment with IBM over in Milan, Italy. We chatted for awhile via Skype. It never ceases to amaze me how good the quality usually is, and the fact that it isn't costing me anything to talk to someone on the other side of the planet.

It looks like I'm going to make another Mac convert in the form of my aunt. She wants to get a laptop and I spent some time explaining the benefits of Apple's platform. My cousin is supportive of the idea, since there aren't any Windows-only apps she needs. Of course, what he's really excited about is no longer being her tech support person. Anyway, I will be pricing out a MacBook Pro (she wants a larger screen than the MacBooks) and related accessories for her. We may go up and visit her for a weekend so that I can help move her off her old PC onto the Mac when she gets it.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

My First Experience With AppleCare

Since I returned to the Mac platform back at the end of 2004* I have not had the need to call Apple for tech support. However, I noticed recently that the battery life on my 2.16 GHz Macbook Pro, purchased in January 2007, was deteriorating drastically. I can pretty much watch the battery life percentage indicator in the menu bar drop second-by-second. I'm lucky to get an hour and a quarter out of it, and that's with the Bluetooth module and AirPort turned off, and screen dimmed.

Because my MBP is my primary machine, back in December I sprung for the AppleCare extended warranty. While I mostly used the machine while plugged in, I do sometimes need to run it off battery power. So, I called AppleCare on Thursday afternoon. It turned out to be one of the most pleasant experiences I've had with tech support from any vendor.

First, I was greeted by an automated system which asked me a few questions which required a "Yes" or "No" answer. After about a minute on hold I was then forwarded to Colin. It's a sad sign of the times that I was happy to get a native English speaker rather than someone claiming to be "Steve" or "Bob" but who's real name is probably something like "Mujibar."

Anyway, after getting my name and MBP's serial number, Colin walked me through a few troubleshooting steps and decided that I should get a replacement battery. He needed to get a supervisor's override to put in the order, which required me waiting on hold for about 5 minutes. But at the end of the call he confirmed my shipping address and put in the order. I should get the new battery Monday along with a return shipping label for the old battery.

To my surprise, the battery arrived yesterday, one day after my call to Apple.

Note that under the terms of AppleCare, laptop batteries are considered consumables so unless they are defective, Apple isn't obligated to replace them. But based on the reported behavior and information in System Profiler, it wasn't difficult to convince them to replace mine.

It was refreshing to get a competent tech support representative who spoke English well, and not have to throw a fit to get good service. I'm impressed.

* My first Mac was a Mac Plus bought in January 1997, but I primarily used PCs running Windows, Linux, or FreeBSD from 1992 through 2004.

Monday, February 04, 2008

A USB Thumb Drive for Emergencies

Like many people nowadays, my life involves dealing with a lot of data. Especially important items include the many usernames, logins, and account numbers for loans, credit cards, and various websites which I use. I keep a spreadsheet in an encrypted file on my laptop to keep track of them. But what happens if my laptop is stolen, lost, or destroyed?

For awhile I've carried a copy of the spreadsheet along with other important info in encrypted form on a USB flash drive on my keyring. This way, it's always with me even if the SHTF. The drive I've been using has been a Microcenter bulk 1 GB stick, and it's worked just fine.

The prices on USB thumb drives have plummeted over the past year. So, over the weekend I bought an 8 GB USB flash drive at Microcenter. Like my old stick, it's one of their bulk, house-brand units and the cost was only $29.99 + tax.

I keep only the most essential data on the USB stick, and I formatted the stick as FAT32 so that it can be read in any PC or Mac I may need to use. It's organized like so:

Root directory
-A plain text file with contact info, including next of kin and the number for my childrens' daycare.

Documents folder
-Backup of my Safari browser bookmarks
-Backup of my OS X Addressbook
-Backup of my iCal database
-Separate encrypted images for financial data, logins, client data

Installer files folder
-Contains installation files for several Windows programs (AVG Antivirus, Firefox, Foxit PDF reader, Spybot, and the anti-spyware hosts file from MVPS.org)

Mac Portable Apps folder (apps that can run directly from the USB stick when connected to a Mac running OS X)
-Portable Firefox
-Portable AdiumX instant messenger client

Windows Portable Apps folder (apps that can run directly from the USB stick when connected to a Windows PC)
-PuTTy (a telnet and SSH client)
-Portable Firefox
-Pidgin Portable instant messenger client

Over 6 GB are still free.

Running applications from the USB drive is quite a bit slower than from a hard disk, but this isn't for regular use. Since flash memory has a limited number of read/write cycles, and because I don't want potentially sensitive information saved in an unencrypted folder on the thumb drive, I configured both Firefox installations to not cache files locally.

The new thumb drive has replaced my old one in my pocket. It rides on a keyring along with a Victorinox Rambler SAK, a Countycomm.com Peanut Lighter, and a Countycomm.com SO-ARES LED light.