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Journal: Dear Mozilla: Please create my.firefox.com 1

Journal by sootman

As a web developer, I have a lot of extensions in Firefox. I also get new computers (and create new test accounts) with alarming frequency and often install and set up Firefox for friends and family. I want to be able to create and share lists of extensions, like a music playlist, to make it easy to set up Firefox when I get a new computer, or give a pre-made list to my friends and family. Here are my thoughts of a product I'd like to exist.

1) You create a site -- say, my.firefox.com -- and I log into it. I can upload a list of all the extensions that I have. (Auto-generated by the browser, of course.) When I go to a new machine, I log in (once logged in, I'm looking at my.firefox.com/mynamehere) and I can click one button to install the current version of all listed extensions on my current machine. (Extensions that are already installed and current are not touched; present but outdated extensions are silently upgraded.) Or, if I only want a few extensions (like if I want to install my dev tools but not Adblock Plus or NoScript so I can see how the Web looks to the rest of the world) I can check a box next to each one I want and then click "install selected extensions" at the bottom of the page. Maybe, if you want to be fancy, there is a list of the extensions and a red/green indicator that shows if it's present on my current machine.

2) You know how music services let you create and share playlists? That's what I want to do with Firefox extensions. I want a list for my mom with nothing but Adblock Plus and Status-4-Evar so I go to the page that shows all my extensions, check the boxes next to those two, click "Create new list", and name it "mom". Then, from her computer, I go to my.firefox.com/mynamehere/mom (or call her up and tell her the address, or email her the link -- in any case, this is why I want clean, clear, and memorable URLs) and click "Install all". Maybe there's a form on the page that I can use to email her a link, like how you can email articles from news sites -- your basic "share" button. (Automatically-generated and -emailed links could be long and obscure.) Maybe my sister is a bit more tech-savvy -- but not a web developer -- so I make a list for her with ABP, NoScript, and a couple others, but not all of my dev tools.

And that's it. Keep it simple. No "click here to share this list on Facebook/Twitter/G+/App.net" buttons. No scrolling list of new or popular extensions. Just a nice, simple, extremely useful service. The front page would be nothing but "sign up" and "sign in". Maybe two more buttons for "Why is Firefox great?" and "What are extensions"? Once you're logged in, there would have to be some sniffing done to see if you're using Firefox or not, and enable/disable features based on that -- for example, there would be no "install" button if you're not using Firefox, but you could still manage lists.

Lists would not be visible unless 1) you're signed in as you, 2) someone got there via cryptic, generated URL (from the "share" box), or 3) you have checked a box that says "make this list public." That way people couldn't poke around and find out that a famous columnist for the WSJ or NYT has a list for 'family' with Adblock Plus.

User Journal

Journal: Why the iPad mini works for me

Journal by sootman

Ever since tablets were first on the horizon (post-iPhone and Kindle but pre-everything else) I always felt that one the size of a paperback would be great. When the iPad came out at 10", I wasn't sure if I'd like that size. My first thought would be a good size for looking at but kind of big to hold. I checked it out (played with friends', had a loaner from work, etc.) and yes, I didn't care for it much. I bought one to do a bit of testing and development on and I figured I'd try to use it and see if I grew to like it. I didn't, and sold it a few months later. (I bought a refurbished iPad 1 shortly after the 2 came out, so it was cheap, and I sold it for not much of a loss -- basically I rented it for like $8 a month, which wasn't bad since it was for work.) It's just big enough that it really takes up some space whenever you set it down, and while it is amazing, overall, that you can get so much power into 1.5 lbs, that's just a bit much to hold and look at for any amount of time.

I ordered the Mini as soon as I could and it arrived this morning and it's great. It's a great size and very light. The screen, while not retina, is still good. We were all happy with our original iPhones before the 4 came along, right? :-) The pixel density of the iPad mini is the same ~160-163 ppi as the original iPhone, the 3G, and the 3GS. I've seen (and love) retina screens but I can live without them.

The bezel on the sides are indeed thin but the whole thing is so light and thin (not referring to the overall thickness -- I mean, not wide, side-to-side) you just let it rest on your fingers (which easily reach about 2/3 the way across the back) and then you just need a bit of pressure from your thumb to hold it in place. It's not like the full-size iPad that you really need a firm grip on so thumb coverage isn't a huge problem.

Speaking of width, thumb typing in portrait is great. On a full-size iPad, the only way I could ever type was by holding it flat with one hand and stabbing the screen with a couple fingers of the other hand, which causes the whole thing to wobble around. When holding the Mini in portrait mode, your thumbs can easily touch each other so it's a cinch to hit every key. (Holding it in landscape, it is again a bit of a stretch.) The split keyboard is a good solution but I'm personally not a fan -- if I were typing a word like 'stew' I might use my right thumb for the 't' -- so I like to have it undocked but merged. (It has 3 modes: docked (stuck to the bottom), floating and split, or floating and merged.) I just hold the tablet in a way that's comfortable and then adjust the keyboard height so it's in just the right spot. My one complaint is I wish Apple would just put a damn number row at the top of the thing, at least in portrait mode. There's plenty of room for one more row of buttons.

The weight is fantastic. The iPad 2 and iPad (4) are right about double the Mini's weight: 0.69 pounds versus 1.33 and 1.44. (0.69 x 2 = 1.38.) The iPhone 4S is 0.306 pounds and the iPhone 5 is 0.247 pounds. So the iPad mini is, in fact, closer in weight to an iPhone than a full-sized iPad. Holding an iPhone in one hand and the Mini in the other isn't drastically different -- you're talking a about a difference of about 3-4oz between those two versus an 8-ounce difference between the Mini and its big brother.

Apple products aren't for everyone. Tablets aren't for everyone. Of the people that like tablets, 7- or 8-inch models aren't for all of them. That's fine with me. I'm just happy to finally have the tablet I want, in the size that I want, at a price that -- while not what I was hoping for -- is not unworkable. :-)

User Journal

Journal: Flash: the next <TABLE>

Journal by sootman

When Flash was introduced, it was for creating vector-based animation and basic interactive games. (Kind of like Shockwave but lighter.) It became very popular very quickly because it did lots of neat stuff with very small (vector-based) files and because the browser plugin itself was only a few hundred kilobytes at a time when most people were on dialup and most other plugins (like Shockwave and QuickTime) were several megabytes. Once you downloaded the plugin (just a few minutes) you could be watching neat little cartoons in seconds.

Flash is still great for creating vector animation and games, but people started using it for large parts of their site because it gave them lots of control over fonts and item placement (in addition to all the cool effects that Flash lets you do.) It could even be used for certain kinds of apps, and it let people create whole complex user interfaces (scroll bars, etc.) that could all be rendered inside a browser window.* People started using it more and more. But two things are happening: many mobile devices (mainly the iPhone, but others as well) don't support Flash, and a bunch of HTML-related technologies--HTML5, CSS, JavaScript--are now really mature and are enabling lots and lots of powerful features with no plugins required. (And they DO work on new mobile devices with modern browsers.)

So lots of people are freaking the hell out and saying the iPad (in particular) will flop because it doesn't support Flash, but I think Flash is where HTML tables were just a few years ago. Tables were originally designed to hold tabular data, then people started using them for layout, and once HTML and CSS got a little better, pretty much everyone abandoned them and they're now only used for their original purpose: holding tabular data. So will it be with Flash: it was invented for vector animation, people started using it for everything, but now that other (better, more standard, more open) technologies have matured, it will fall back to being used for nothing more than it was originally designed for--animation and games.

* and, of course, Flash can be a basic "wrapper" around video, enabling you to play video on lots of platforms, but video standardization efforts are making good progress too.

User Journal

Journal: Who sucks: Apple or Seagate? 2

Journal by sootman

So I've got this great little Intel Mac mini. I hooked up a 500 GB USB Seagate drive to use for Time Machine. (I also have a 500 GB Seagate inside in place of the stock drive.) The external drive is always attached and the machine is on 24/7; scheduled to go to sleep at 1am. (It's a media center.) Within a few weeks, the drive was no longer showing up on the desktop. "Huh" I thought, and did the usual things: unplugged, replugged, rebooted, etc. Eventually I looked in DIsk Utility--nothing. Disk Utility on another machine saw the disk, saw errors, but couldn't fix them. I couldn't even format it. I was only a few months into the 5-year warranty (the long warranty is one of the main reasons I buy Seagates) so I sent it back in. They promptly sent a replacement which I connected in the same way and BLAMMO--a few weeks later this new drive (different SN--I checked) is exhibiting the EXACT SAME SYMPTOMS.

So--is my Mini somehow putting out bad USB juju and killing the drives, or did Seagate happen to make at least two really bad drives? I'd like to know before I send it in, and no, I don't want to buy another drive from another vendor to test. Has anyone seen anything like this happen?

Handhelds

Journal: Slashdot for iPhone - as it should be 5

Journal by sootman

Reading Slashdot on the iPhone is not as good as it could be. The iPhone's workaround for non-mobile-opimized pages--the pan and zoom system--is fine for sites I only look at occasionally, but for something I look at as often as Slashdot, I'd like something a little better. So, I whipped up my own system. This doesn't replace the entire site, it's just for the front page. (Update: it now also works (kind of) for story pages.) It pulls the non-logged-in front page so it might not be the same as what you'd see if you were logged in.

I started with trying to style the RSS feed, but the feed (in my limited experience) seems to be often out of sync with the actual front page. So, I fell back onto Plan B: the brute-force method of downloading the actual front page and styling it for iPhone. I've got a PHP script that pulls down the page with cURL, then I use two methods to hack away everything I don't want: PHP's str_replace and 'display: none' in the style sheet. Then I add styling to the elements I want to keep. I also added some icons to jump up and down from one story to the next, to the top of the page, and a 'search' button since Mobile Safari doesn't have find-in-page. This is ugly and hackish and I don't know if it's really valid HTML (probably not) but for the most part it does what I want it to do so I'm happy with it. I'm happy to hear any suggestions for improvement.

Three common issues: 1) sometiems it'll show the headline but not the story, 2) sometimes it'll show an extra blank line between the headline and the story, and 3) sometimes you'll get weird stuff at the top, like --> or </script>'); dfp_tile++; //]]> -->. These come and go. No big deal. This isn't perfect but it's enough to give me a 'fix' when I'm standing in line somewhere. :-)

The source is out there so hack on it all you want. Go ahead and my page to your bookmarks or copy it to your own server and change it all you want--hide bylines, tags, comments, add other stuff back in, whatever you want.

More info: http://pixelcity.com/slashdot/
Page: http://pixelcity.com/s/
PHP source: http://pixelcity.com/s/index.phps
Style sheet: http://pixelcity.com/s/style.css

Technology (Apple)

Journal: If Apple REALLY cared about being green...

Journal by sootman

I applaud Apple's recent environmental improvements. They started using smaller packaging for all of their products (software, hardware, iPods) and they've also recently started making their products "greener" as well with recyclable materials and fewer bad chemicals.

BUT--they're still pushing all-in-one designs which are SO inherently wasteful. Laptops, obviously, have their limitations, but why isn't there a standalone computer between the $600 Mac mini and the $2200 Mac Pro? Why does the iMac get revised so much more often than these two? I was lucky enough to get a good price on a used Mac Pro but I'd still prefer to have gotten a physically smaller tower that also draws less energy. During the G3/G4/G5 years there was almost always an entry-level box starting at around $1500. Now all the $1000-$2000 Macs have built-in screens.

Every monitor I've ever owned has lasted through at least two computers.* Computers have gotten over 10x faster in last ten years but screens have only gotten about 4x larger. Of what I currently own, most of my computers are 2-3 years old but most of my monitors are 4-5 years old. And to take it even further, many have had multiple inputs! For example, most of my monitors are LCDs from Dell. Not only do most Dell LCDs have DVI and VGA connectors, many also have jacks for various other video inputs--composite (RCA), component, and/or S-Video. I've got a Dell LCD in my room that's connected to a Mac (DVI), a PC (VGA), a cable box (S-Video), and a VCR (composite). Maybe that's not an ideal setup for everyone but I don't watch TV if I'm on the computer so it's fine for me. (And by the way, they even support picture-in-picture.) And don't tell me it's a quality difference--Apple doesn't manufacture their own LCD panels, they buy them, same as everyone else. In fact, a few years ago they were using the exact same panel for their 20" widescreen LCD that Dell used!

* Except for an early DVI-D 18" IBM flat panel, which is awesome but only works with the 32 MB ATI Rage Fury Pro AGP video card I bought at the same time. For some reason, no DVI-I computer I own will drive it, though when I plug it into my work's MacBook Pro the laptop's screen flashes for a moment, indicating that it knows I've plugged in something. Any ideas?

Bug

Journal: New user pages suck even more than I thought! 5

Journal by sootman

So it's bad enough that the new user pages look like Digg tried to swallow Slashdot and threw up on the screen. I've gotten used to going to /~sootman/comments instead of just /~sootman. But when I tried to get my "did I get modded?" fix while out and about I learned the horrible truth: that the new pages totally fall apart on the iPhone. See a screenshot here. It's IMPOSSIBLE to see how your comments are scored. It doesn't get any better in landscape mode. I'm over 30 so I don't usually say this but there's no other word... FAIL.

Handhelds

Journal: iPhone, a year later

Journal by sootman
Originally posted Friday, September 19, 2008. Slightly edited (just a few small fixes) 9/21/2012.

Wow. I've had my iPhone just over a year. And to think that when it came out I wasn't even planning to get one. (Long story short: neat, but had nothing I needed. Then I got a raise at work at the same time th price dropped so I got one after all.) Let's see how a year of use matched my predictions:

I have a video iPod, but I don't watch movies on it, so a widescreen iPod is not something I need.

I don't have any media on my iPhone. At all. I have plenty on my 60 GB iPod. I had some music on my iPhone just so I could see how coverflow looked, then I ran out of room for taking pictures, so I just tossed it all the next chance I got. I have almost every pic I've ever taken on this thing. The only video I've seen on this is a handful of YouTube clips, which I usually watch when I want to run down the battery to zero before recharging. I've never come close to watching a 22-minute TV show, let alone a whole movie, on this.

I do a decent amount of text messaging but the fact that it saves my conversations in an iChat-like interface is not something I need--most of my messages are read once and tossed.

And this sucks. MOST of my messages get quickly tossed but SOME I like to keep. No middle ground. So I have EVERY MESSAGE my wife and I have sent each other since 9/26/07. Grr...

Speaking of texting, I have a Nokia 6820 with a QWERTY keyboard. I'm sure the touchscreen will be nice, but it'll be hard to beat a physical keyboard. I'll reserve judgment until I try one out, but regardless, I already have a real keyboard, so even if it's decent, the iPhone's full keyboard won't be a huge step up--it's not like I'm coming from the world of texting with 12 buttons.

The virtual keyboard works great... AS GOOD AS a physical one. A bit better in some ways, a bit worse in others. The great spellchecker is what makes it work. (Never having used a 12-button phone for texting, I don't miss T9.) And I miss physical buttons for some other reasons. Like, to press # to skip a voicemail greeting, I used to be able to do that without taking the phone away from my ear. Now I have to pull the phone away from my ear so the screen will light up (PLUS press the 'keypad' button) and then press pound.

visual voicemail looks great--and it's about damn time!--but I don't get that many messages. When I miss a call and get a message, my Nokia offers to show me the number I missed before it offers me the option to listen to the message, so before I call in, I generally know who it is that called. I don't stack up a lot of messages since I don't get that many calls and am usually available when people want me. So it's another cool feature that I don't really need.

Yup. I'm not kidding--I've gotten maybe a dozen voicemails in the last year.

the Internet stuff looks great. Despite the fact that my Axim X50v has twice the screen resolution (640x480 vs. 480x320) I don't doubt that Apple will make browsing better, especially since web browsers on handhelds mostly suck. But again, I'm rarely someplace that I don't have Internet access and an actual computer. Would it occasionally be useful to check the weather while I'm sitting in a movie theater, or look up the price of something online for comparison purposes when I'm in a store? Sure. Would this really be life-altering stuff? No. I doubt (I hope, but I doubt) Apple will make Cingular offer a decent data plan to go along with this. You'll probably be looking at $100/month to really use the Internet over a cellular network--and I don't think the speed via anything but 802.11 will be that great. (Plus, using Google with a regular phone is pretty great.*)

The Web works great. A bit slow but generally acceptable over EDGE for those times when you just really need it. And it's handy and fun to have the rest of the time.

email. This is the one thing I would kinda really like to have... But again, I don't live and die by email, so this isn't a huge deal for me.

I set up a special email account that is used only on this phone so I can send pics to Flickr. That's it. Otherwise I use the yahoo mail and gmail through the browser, mainly just for the occasional "I wonder if anyone has written" when I'm out, about, and bored. I've composed a dozen, maybe 20 emails on this thing? I have two jobs and am otherwise usually home so I'm never far from real email.

2 MP camera. Nice. I actually find myself using the incredibly crappy camera built into my phone surprisingly often--mostly for odd-but-useful things, like taking a picture of a store's door to capture the hours it's open. And I wish it were a lot better than it is (352x240) and I wish I would remember to carry my real camera with me for when I see cool stuff. But that alone is not worth shelling out the money for. I really should just keep my PowerShot in the car.

I love the camera to death. Sure, it's not great, but its quality is very good, and I've almost ALWAYS got my phone on me. And even if I did keep my PowerShot in the car (it died this summer, btw.) there are plenty of times when my car is not nearby.

All the other stuff, like the fancy address book, is nice, but again, just not something I need. Sure, it looks great, but I can use my current phone pretty easily. 90% of my calls are to 10% of my contacts, so I usually just use my 'recently dialed numbers' list, which is 1 button away on my Nokia. Maps looks nice, and I'm sure it's great for finding "nearby' businesses, but I'd rather have real GPS capabilities.

Maps has been useful. Since I mainly call a handful of people, I use favorites instead of recents. (Which is good, because iPhone's "recents" suck--either "missed" or "all"--no way to only show "recently dialed" or "recently received.")

So it does lots and lots and lots of cool stuff, but it doesn't do a single thing I really need. I'll probably get one in late 2008 or early 2009, when my Nokia is dead and the iPhones are $249.

I bought one of the very first refurbished 4 GB phones--$399 is just so much more reasonable than $499. Then came the infamous price drop a week later--soon enough that Apple credited me the $150 difference in price. So I got it for $249. :-)

But for right now, my Nokia will do. Plus there is one mark in favor of my Nokia that the iPhone will never reach--since it isn't also a widescreen iPod, it's quite small. If you haven't seen one, it's about the size of a candy bar. Bigger than the smallest of phones, but much smaller than the iPhone. Maybe not thinner, but probably shorter and about half the width.

Wow, are looks deveiving. The iPhone is just a bit wider and taller than my 6820 and quite a bit thinner. Even with the protective case it slides into and out of my pocket easily. I liked the way my Nokia fit into my pocket a little more but the iPhone is fine. Mainly I miss having clear tactile cues about which way is up, and indentations and texture to really get a grip on it.

* Google's text messaging features are pretty great. Just put together a short query and text it to GOOGL (46645) and get a text message response back with your query results. It's not a text portal to the full Google site--it's geared towards local stuff and stores and it gives short answers, but it's handy. I've used it to... - get the number and address of businesses - get weather info--send 'weather' and your zip code and you'll get the current temp, wind, etc., plus a week's forecast - check prices--I was in a Best Buy and they had an amp on sale, but they were out of stock. I sent the brand and model to Google and found out that not only was it available at bestbuy.com (just so happened to be the match that they sent back) but that it was $40 less online! (I did the actual purchase at home.) - and I'm sure there's tons of other stuff it can do, like movie showtimes and whatnot.

... but having a real browser is just so much better. I do all these same things on the real Web and it's just so much better. :-)

So, long story short: the little things (maps, etc.) are nice to have, a great mobile browser is great to have, and having a decent camera with me is my favorite thing about it. The main thing missing is GPS, but it looks like I can sell this one for enough to buy a new one.
Data Storage

Journal: WD is confused about their own warranty policies 1

Journal by sootman

Original entry: Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Long story short: WDs "Caviar Black" drives are advertised as having five-year warranties but may only show 3 years. If you buy one, visit WD's warranty check page and let them know if your drive shows up as only being covered for 3 years.

One of my 19-month old, 500 GB Western Digital hard drives recently died. Well, not totally dead. It got flakey and OS X's Disk Utility said that S.M.A.R.T. reported that the drive is dying. It's pretty much dead--OS X usually won't mount it, and if it does, it doesn't stay up for long. (Side note--anyone know of a way that I can keep using this drive? Or is it totally dead once SMART says so?)

Luckily, I have a 1 TB WD Caviar 'Green' drive and my backups were pretty current. Sadly, the 500 only had a 12-month warranty so I started looking for a new drive. I generally buy whichever drive is on sale that week (I bought my 500 in 12/2006 when it was suddenly on sale for $149 instead of $249--wow!) though I've become more sensitive to the warranty situation. (I started buying Seagates a few years ago (when economical to do so) when my friend pointed out that they have five-year coverage; the 'Green' drive (purchased a month ago for $169, down from $239) has a 3-year warranty.) Nothing was on sale last week but this week presented me with two options: a $169 Maxtor at Office Depot (or Office Max, I forget which) with a 3-year warranty and a $199 WD Caviar "Black" from Best Buy with a 5-year warranty. (I generally prefer to buy from a physical store--you get it quicker, you don't have to pay for shipping, and returns are easier. It's bad enough when a product is bad and you've got spend time to return it; it's even worse when you've got to PAY to send it back and wait 2 weeks for the whole process to be done and your credit settled, etc.)

I went ahead and bought the Black but when I got home, a moment after I tore the plastic off (d'oh!) I saw that the bottom of the box states that the drive has a 3-year warranty. WTF? I went to WD's warranty check page and plugged in my serial number and, sure enough, I'm only covered until 2011--three years hence. I sent them an email on Sunday but hadn't heard back (except for their instant automated response) by Wednesday so I called them. The helpful Indian gentleman stepped me through their site and directed me to this page which also states that Caviar Black's are covered for five years, whether purchased in bulk or at retail. Thanks, buddy, for helping me make my case!

He put me on hold for a bit and then returned and asked me to fax in my receipt and they'll get it straightened out. I'll do that tomorrow (drive is at home, I just brought the serial number with me to make a call--note that WD won't even talk to you if you don't have a serial number) and will update this page with the result.

I'm now totally religious about keeping receipt and warranty info complete and accessible. For the drives that are in my Mac Pro, I keep the original receipt, a photocopy of the receipt (in case the original receipt, typically printed on thermal paper, fades) and a printed-out copy of the warranty info (don't trust that the site will be current, available, or correct when needed) taped to the case itself. If I've ever got to get inside the machine again to replace a drive, everything I need is right there. A warranty is no substitute for backups but at least the manufacturer will give me a new drive if the old one dies. (Though I've heard other horror stories, like a friend who wanted to return his dead drive--the manufacturer told him they wouldn't RMA it unless he ran their utility to verify it. The drive was SO dead the utility wouldn't run, so they wouldn't take it back. Not sure how that wound up working out for him but I'll cross that bridge when I come to it.)

Also: after having had some things stolen and recovered recently, I am also totally a believer in registering things with the manufacturer. Just like no one ever kicked themselves for having too many backups, it's never a bad thing to have multiple places showing what you bought, including a serial number, and when.

Update: I came into work Thursday ready to get all my paperwork together. In addition to faxing them the receipt, I was going to put together a few pages showing the bottom of the box where it says '3 years' and the pages on the site that say '5 years' and the warranty check page showing that my drive has 3 years. Upon arriving at the warranty check page, I saw that my drive has been upgraded to 5 years. So without my fax, they went ahead and fixed things, though if it was due to the phone call or the original email I don't know. Since it has been fixed I'm not going to bother to send in all my stuff.

User Journal

Journal: So, what is there to do in D.C.? 5

Journal by sootman
I'm going to Wasington, D.C. next month for the DC PHP conference. I've been there once before with family and enjoyed it a lot but this time I'm going alone and I'm wondering what there is to do in the evening. Seems like all the museums close around 7 or 7:30 and I don't remember there being much else to do at night but walk around looking at the monuments. (Which is fun, but I've got 3 or 4 nights to fill) Any thoughts? Any unique geeky things I shouldn't miss while I'm in town? (I've already been to the Air & Space museum.) Is there an SR-71 parked anywhere nearby? That would be worth a rental car. :-)
OS X

Journal: Changes in 'screencapture' from Tiger to Leopard 8

Journal by sootman

OS X ships with a great little command-line utility called 'screencapture.' It is a command-line interface to OS X's screen capture tool, which is activated from the desktop by pressing shift-command-3. If you want to monitor a computer you're not sitting at (10.4 or earlier--see below) just ssh in and say something like

screencapture -x screen.png

and then view the file--scp it to the computer you're sitting at, or use FTP, or whatever. It's a standard unix-style command, simple as can be--'screencapture' does just what you'd expect it to, the '-x' means "don't play the 'click' sound" and then you specify the output file, 'screen.png' in this example. (This worked in earlier versions of OS X with some changes. 10.3, for example, saved screen caps as PDFs so you'd say 'screen.pdf' instead.)

You have to run that as the logged-in user or as root. One of the things I used it for was to monitor some conference rooms that I'm in charge of by running this script and saving the file to a web-viewable directory. To do this on a stock 10.4 machine, just create a file called 'screen.pl' in /Library/WebServer/CGI-Executables/ with these contents:

#!/usr/bin/perl
use CGI;
$cgi = CGI->new();
print $cgi->header;
print qq~<html>\n<head>\n<title>View Screen</title>\n</head>\n<body>\n~;
my $step1 = qx!screencapture -x /Library/WebServer/Documents/screen.png!;
print qq~<img src='/screen.png' border='1'>\n~;
print qq~</body>\n</html>\n~;
1;

It's a Perl script, so 'chmod 755' it, and there should be a blank line at the end, IIRC. Make sure the user this script will be running as can write to /Library/WebServer/Documents/. Then, edit your httpd.conf file (sudo pico /etc/httpd/httpd.conf) and change the user that the server runs as to either a) the user who is always logged in or b) root. (Yes, I know this is a potential security risk. I do not recommend running this on a box that is viewable to the Internet at large.) In my case, monitoring computers in the conference room where everyone logged into an account named 'conference', I changed these lines in httpd.conf from

User www
Group www

to

User conference
Group conference

(Remember to restart the webserver for these changes to take effect. (sudo apachectl graceful) Also note that dpending on various things, the group name may or may not be the same as the user name. ls /Users/ for a hint.) Once you've done that, you can see the screen by visiting http://ip.address.goes.here/cgi-bin/screen.pl . Very useful little tool.

So everything was going along fine until 10.5 came out. They seem to have slammed the door on running screencapture in any way remote way. Even if you ssh in as the user who is currently logged in it won't let you. But you can then log in locally, press 'up' one time to call the same command out of .bash_history, and it works just fine. And, of course, my perl script above no longer works. (Note that 10.5 has Apache's config file stored in /etc/apache2/httpd.conf.) Well, it kind of works, but all you see is a black image (the same size as your desktop) and not the actual screen. But it's definitely a remote-vs-local issue: you can run say screencapture -x screen.pngfrom a locally-spawned Terminal session and it works--creates a file in whatever directory you're in--but ssh in and run it or visit /cgi-bin/screen.pl and it doesn't. The question is, does anyone know why, and can anyone find a way around this? I've tried some things with Automator but I really want this to run invisibly so it doesn't bother whoever's using the machine.

Slashback

Journal: How to make Slashdot better

Journal by sootman
These thoughts are by no means original. I just have them rattling around in my head and putting them down onto (virtual) paper will free up resources for other tasks. I'll write this in terms of "you" rather than "they" in the hopes that someday, someone who actually has input in how Slashdot works will read these ideas and implement them. (Update: OK, looking this over, I see I kind of meandered around and change person and tense throughout. Maybe I'll fix that someday.)

Slashdot is great. But there are a few rough edges that continually poke through the surface, like springs in a couch, that spoil the experience to various degrees. It would take so little effort to make these changes and the rewards would be so great--truly an example of the 90/10 rule.

Let's start with the two biggest gripes about Slashdot: things that come up so frequently and have been around for so long that they're practically clichés: dupes and grammar.
  1. It is absolutely trivial to check for dupes manually. Just use Google (Slashdot's own search isn't that great) to see if the topic has been covered before. If it seems to have been covered before, look closely to see if this is the same news or something related or a follow-up. If it is, feel free to post the new story, but make it clear that this is new and not a dupe.

    It is almost as trivial to create an automated system to check for dupes. Just have something that looks for keywords in the subjects, checks the URLs in the story, etc. If there is a match, raise some flags.
  2. Grammar: please. You call yourselves 'editors' but you are, at the moment, wholly undeserving of that title. Start with a spellcheck. Proceed to a grammar check. Here's an idea: have someone else look it over, too. I don't expect everyone on the staff to have a Master's in English. But there are plenty of typos, misspellings, and other major errors, to say nothing of awkward phrasing and other unpleasantness, that trip people up when reading the summaries. You are editors, not journalists: your job is to edit submissions, making them worthy of reading, not to treat the submitter as a source whose words you have a sacred duty to present exactly as delivered. Take the time to make it good. This isn't a race. You're not "scooping" anyone. This isn't Digg.

    And the same goes for the headlines. Headline writing, like everything else, is an art. Plenty of Slashdot headlines have to be read more than once to make sense. On the one hand, yes, they should by nature be brief; on the other hand, this is not a newspaper and every inch is not infinitely precious. Go for clarity over brevity.

    And for God's sake, quit being downright inaccurate or misleading with the headlines. I mean that's just common sense. There is bias, there are slants, there are interpretations, but being downright wrong is inexcusable.

    For tips on grammar, news writing, and headline writing, go here and here.

There are three other major things that need to be fixed with submissions.

  1. Don't link to blogs that link to the story. Yes, the submitter supplied the story, but ten other people probably did, too. They can supply a name, if if they supply a URL their name gets made into a link as well. That is reward enough. If he's hoping for page views and ad impressions, that will have to do. There is no reason I should look at his two-line "Check out this story on Ars/Anandtech/news.com/NYT" blog entry on my way to get to the actual story in question.
  2. Don't editorialize too much in the submission. And for the love of God, quit adding dopey questions to the end of submissions: anything from "What do you think?" to that hated old standby, "Is this the end of Microsoft/Windows/Office/Linux/Apple/SCO/America?" This is a discussion site. People who come here know this. We don't need a third-grade-style prompt to get the discussion going. All that does is generate two hundred posts of "No, Zonk, you're an idiot" (along with the inevitable and useless "yes/no/maybe" tags) and take away from the real discussion.
  3. This is an issue less than some other things but it is absolutely essential: do some fact checking. Check to see if this is five-year-old news that some random guy just now discovered. Check to see if it's a hoax, or an out-of-date item that has since been debunked/refuted/disproved. Read the article and see if the submission is even correct. Here's on example of posting a complete mistruth. Thankfully this was corrected, but that's a relatively rare case.

There are plenty of minor things as well.

  1. Be aware that not everyone knows everything. This site does have a certain audience with some things in common, so we don't need a link to clarify what Linux is, but many other things could use some clarification, especially new and/or uncommon acronyms. (Speaking of acronyms, follow the old rule: say what they mean the first time they appear. Just because it didn't occur to the submitter to spell it out until he had written it three times, doesn't mean you have to do the same. Remember: edit!) Use your judgment, and show it to at least two other people. Again, not doing so devalues the discussion: rather than talking about the topic, you get 50 posts telling you what the topic is.
  2. Read the comments. Update the story as needed. If a bunch of people write to say that a story is wrong, fix it! This is the Internet, not a print piece. Make the change--with an 'Update:' notification, of course--but for God sakes, don't let errors of fact sit there forever. I don't expect the editors to be perfect in their application of the above tips, but I do expect them to take advantage of the millions of volunteer helpers who point out errors.

Other:

  1. Don't allow ACs to post links.
OS X

Journal: Apple Prediction Part II

Journal by sootman

Weak! My previous journal entry, which I planned to edit by adding comments, has been archived, so comments can't be added. Oh well. I'll just put commentary into this one. Original = italics, new = plain text. Old text has been trimmed. Read the original if you want.

- The iPhone will do quite well. There WILL be lines at 6pm on 6/29. (I'm going to the mall that day to see for myself and will post links to pics/vids in the comments below.)

Well, another commitment prevented me from making it out, but there were lines. (I made this point because someone, somewhere--not just a nobody, but someone you might have read; I wish I remembered who--said the iPhone hype was fake and there wouldn't be lines.) Not only were there lines, but they were shown on most major news channels. How well did it do? A bit of searching puts it at 500-700 thousand units in the first weekend. Bloomber.com says "The iPhone broke AT&T's opening-weekend records, selling more in three days than phones such as Motorola Inc.'s Razr did in their first month, according to spokesman Michael Coe."

- Once the iPhone is out, we'll see some more hardware updates, probably starting in August or September. So far this year all we've seen are slightly faster MacBooks, a move to Santa Rosa in the MacBook Pro, and the addition of an eight-way Mac Pro. Except for the 8-way, the Mac Pro line hasn't changed since its introduction almost a year ago. The Mac Mini is also very overdue for an update--it is overpriced and underpowered, and since I've got a G4 Mini that I want to upgrade--but won't at the current price--I hope Apple doesn't let this line languish.

I'm 2 for 2 so far (or a bit more; see below) and wow, when it rains, it pours. Today (August 7) we saw...
- the new iMac
- upgrades to the Mac mini (Core 2 Duo CPUs)
- upgrade for the Airport Extreme Base Station (gigabit ethernet)
- and, something I didn't expect to happen--upgrades to iLife, iWork, and .Mac.
(When making my predictions, I didn't say anything about Apple's software products.)

There is also some new software for the iPhone (in addition to last week's update) as I mentioned below. To be honest, I'm looking forward to much larger updates (video recording!!!) but I'm surprised, pleased, and impressed by how many updates Apple has dropped for the iPhone and how quickly they're coming.

- There will NOT be a touchscreen iPod until after Christmas AT THE EARLIEST. Yes, it's a nice technology. Yes, Apple can and will release one eventually--hell, they could have released one ALREADY if they wanted to, right? I mean, what's easier to make: and iPod or an iPod/phone/Internet thingie? DUH. They KNOW they can. They KNOW people want them. But they DON'T want them to cut into iPhone sales. I bet they won't even release 100/120 GB iPods until then, or change the Shuffle or Nano lines. January at the ABSOLUTE EARLIEST; maybe in time for Valentine's day (like they did with the introduction of the colored Shuffle this year), otherwise wait for Spring or Summer.

- Similarly, the iPhone WON'T get minor revs (higher capacity, lower price) until after Christmas. Major revs, like the ability to use faster-than-EDGE cellular data networks, won't arrive for 9-15 months. Some improvements could be handled just in software updates--the ability to use native IM, or send MMS, or record video with the built-in camera--but given the recent debacle over the $1.99 802.11N update, I'm not sure which of these Apple could/would roll out for free. If they don't come free in a software update, look for them in iPhone 2.0, Spring/Summer 2008. Faster networking WILL be in the next major rev of the iPhone.

Wow, was I ever wrong here. Turns out Apple does not want to milk huge margins out of a handful of customers, and force everyone who wants a touchscreen iPod to buy an iPhone. Turns out they'd rather make aggressive moves and try to capture as much market as possible. The special event on September 5 brought out an ENTIRELY new iPod line, ranging from new colors on the Shuffle to video and a new shape for the Mini to a huge 160 GB capacity for the Classic plus the introduction of the Touch plus a staggering $200 price drop on the iPhone. Wow. I'm speechless. One note regarding margins--if they were able to drop the price $200, that pretty much means the profit on each (original) iPhone was over $200. Wow. Nice. Let's just say the profits went from $250 down to $50--that means they've got to sell 5x as many iPhones as they originally planned to make the same amount of money. We'll see how they do. Overall, this is a big move to solidify the iPod's market dominance.

- As I've said, I have no plans to get an iPhone any time soon. I predict they'll be $249 by mid-2009, at which time I'll buy. Unless my current cell phone dies--then I *might* buy one. But probably not even then. Long story short: as cool as the iPhone is, it doesn't do anything I *need*, or even really *want,* outside of the usual hey-that's-a-neat-feature. (Google maps! Cool! Too bad I don't ever go anywhere but back and forth between my house and my two jobs.) I like my current phone, and it's smaller than the iPhone is or ever will be, and *that's* really important to me. (I don't carry a PDA, because I hate carrying big, heavy crap, and my iPod only gets used in my car.) The only thing I'd like would be a better (~1MP) camera--mine only does 320x240. The introduction of true GPS might also push me to buy one--that's one device I *do* want (I've got one, but with a tiny B/W screen) and would be willing to carry.

And finally, I got this one wrong too. :-) I got an unexpected raise at work the same time the price came down, so I got one of the last (and cheapest) 4 GB models. (OTOH, I got it at the price I wanted--$249.) Overall, I'm happy enough. For phone-related stuff, my old one did some things better. The iPhone obviously does more, and it's quite cool and fun to play with, but it's not better in every single respect. I felt a bit sad when I switched my account over and my old one complained "SIM card not recognized" or whatever the message was.

OS X

Journal: Mid-2007 Apple predictions

Journal by sootman

Here are my Apple predictions.

- The iPhone will do quite well. There WILL be lines at 6pm on 6/29. (I'm going to the mall that day to see for myself and will post links to pics/vids in the comments below.*)

- Once the iPhone is out, we'll see some more hardware updates, probably starting in August or September. So far this year all we've seen are slightly faster MacBooks, a move to Santa Rosa in the MacBook Pro, and the addition of an eight-way Mac Pro. Except for the 8-way, the Mac Pro line hasn't changed since its introduction almost a year ago. The Mac Mini is also very overdue for an update--it is overpriced and underpowered, and since I've got a G4 Mini that I want to upgrade--but won't at the current price--I hope Apple doesn't let this line languish.

- There will NOT be a touchscreen iPod until after Christmas AT THE EARLIEST.** Yes, it's a nice technology. Yes, Apple can and will release one eventually--hell, they could have released one ALREADY if they wanted to, right? I mean, what's easier to make: and iPod or an iPod/phone/Internet thingie? DUH. They KNOW they can. They KNOW people want them. But they DON'T want them to cut into iPhone sales. I bet they won't even release 100/120 GB iPods until then, or change the Shuffle or Nano lines. January at the ABSOLUTE EARLIEST; maybe in time for Valentine's day (like they did with the introduction of the colored Shuffle this year), otherwise wait for Spring or Summer.

- Similarly, the iPhone WON'T get minor revs (higher capacity, lower price) until after Christmas. Major revs, like the ability to use faster-than-EDGE cellular data networks, won't arrive for 9-15 months. Some improvements could be handled just in software updates--the ability to use native IM, or send MMS***, or record video with the built-in camera****--but given the recent debacle over the $1.99 802.11N update, I'm not sure which of these Apple could/would roll out for free. If they don't come free in a software update, look for them in iPhone 2.0, Spring/Summer 2008. Faster networking WILL be in the next major rev of the iPhone.

- As I've said, I have no plans to get an iPhone any time soon. I predict they'll be $249 by mid-2009, at which time I'll buy. Unless my current cell phone dies--then I *might* buy one. But probably not even then. Long story short: as cool as the iPhone is, it doesn't do anything I *need*, or even really *want,* outside of the usual hey-that's-a-neat-feature. (Google maps! Cool! Too bad I don't ever go anywhere but back and forth between my house and my two jobs.) I like my current phone, and it's smaller than the iPhone is or ever will be, and *that's* really important to me. (I don't carry a PDA, because I hate carrying big, heavy crap, and my iPod only gets used in my car.) The only thing I'd like would be a better (~1MP) camera--mine only does 320x240. The introduction of true GPS might also push me to buy one--that's one device I *do* want (I've got one, but with a tiny B/W screen) and would be willing to carry.

* I plan to NOT edit this document so the time/date stamp won't change. Any updates will be in the comments below.
** excuse the caps. Too lazy to add bold/ital tags. :-)
*** For those that don't know, the iPhone can do SMS, and it can send pics with email, but it can't send pics with SMS (pics+SMS=MMS)
**** too bad it can't do video. With the YouTube partnership, I'd think that the ability to shoot video and upload it to YouTube directly from the iPhone would be a great feature.

OS X

Journal: The iPhone looks great. Too bad I won't be getting one.

Journal by sootman

(Again, filed under 'OS X' because there doesn't seem to be an 'Apple' topic. But they've got 'Amiga' and 'Be.' WTF?!?!?)

The iPhone looks great. Despite what some pundits and slashdot readers think, I'm sure it will be a success, as I've discussed here. I'd love to get one... but I won't. At least, not any time soon.

I can't say this enough--I'm sure the iPhone will be an incredible device. I love great gadgets. I'd love to have one. But...

- I've got a video iPod, but I don't watch movies on it, so a widescreen iPod is not something I need.

- I do a decent amount of text messaging but the fact that it saves my conversations in an iChat-like interface is not something I need--most of my messages are read once and tossed.

- Speaking of texting, I've got a Nokia 6820 with a QWERTY keyboard. I'm sure the touchscreen will be nice, but it'll be hard to beat a physical keyboard. I'll reserve judgment until I try one out, but regardless, I already have a real keyboard, so even if it's decent, the iPhone's full keyboard won't be a huge step up--it's not like I'm coming from the world of texting with 12 buttons.

- visual voicemail looks great--and it's about damn time!--but I don't get that many messages. When I miss a call and get a message, my Nokia offers to show me the number I missed before it offers me the option to listen to the message, so before I call in, I generally know who it is that called. I don't stack up a lot of messages since I don't get that many calls and am usually available when people want me. So it's another cool feature that I don't really need.

- the Internet stuff looks great. Despite the fact that my Axim X50v has twice the screen resolution (640x480 vs. 480x320) I don't doubt that Apple will make browsing better, especially since web browsers on handhelds mostly suck. But again, I'm rarely someplace that I don't have Internet access and an actual computer. Would it occasionally be useful to check the weather while I'm sitting in a movie theater, or look up the price of something online for comparison purposes when I'm in a store? Sure. Would this really be life-altering stuff? No. I doubt (I hope, but I doubt) Apple will make Cingular offer a decent data plan to go along with this. You'll probably be looking at $100/month to really use the Internet over a cellular network--and I don't think the speed via anything but 802.11 will be that great. (Plus, using Google with a regular phone is pretty great.*)

- email. This is the one thing I would kinda really like to have. I'm not a crackberry addict, but there are times I'd like to be able to send real emails instead of text messages. My Nokia should be able to send email, but 1) I never got that working, and 2) I'd prefer it if the messages came from a 'real' email address. But, I've lived without it so far, so again, this one feature won't suddenly make this $500 device worthwhile. Push email is nice, though--no more checking to see if you've got new messages: if they're there, they'll be there. But again, I don't live and die by email, so this isn't a huge deal for me.

- 2 MP camera. Nice. I actually find myself using the incredibly crappy camera built into my phone surprisingly often--mostly for odd-but-useful things, like taking a picture of a store's door to capture the hours it's open. And I wish it were a lot better than it is (352x240) and I wish I would remember to carry my real camera with me for when I see cool stuff. But that alone is not worth shelling out the money for. I really should just keep my PowerShot in the car.

- All the other stuff, like the fancy address book, is nice, but again, just not something I need. Sure, it looks great, but I can use my current phone pretty easily. 90% of my calls are to 10% of my contacts, so I usually just use my 'recently dialed numbers' list, which is 1 button away on my Nokia. Maps looks nice, and I'm sure it's great for finding "nearby' businesses, but I'd rather have real GPS capabilities.

So it does lots and lots and lots of cool stuff, but it doesn't do a single thing I really need. I'll probably get one in late 2008 or early 2009, when my Nokia is dead and the iPhones are $249. But for right now, my Nokia will do. Plus there is one mark in favor of my Nokia that the iPhone will never reach--since it isn't also a widescreen iPod, it's quite small. If you haven't seen one, it's about the size of a candy bar. Bigger than the smallest of phones, but much smaller than the iPhone. Maybe not thinner, but probably shorter and about half the width.

* Google's text messaging features are pretty great. Just put together a short query and text it to GOOGL (46645) and get a text message response back with your query results. It's not a text portal to the full Google site--it's geared towards local stuff and stores and it gives short answers, but it's handy. I've used it to...

- get the number and address of businesses

- get weather info--send 'weather' and your zip code and you'll get the current temp, wind, etc., plus a week's forecast

- check prices--I was in a Best Buy and they had an amp on sale, but they were out of stock. I sent the brand and model to Google and found out that not only was it available at bestbuy.com (just so happened to be the match that they sent back) but that it was $40 less online! (I did the actual purchase at home.)

- and I'm sure there's tons of other stuff it can do, like movie showtimes and whatnot.

Is a person who blows up banks an econoclast?

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