Archive for May, 2011

iCal, MobileMe and Synchronisation

Sunday, May 29th, 2011

In a previous post I mentioned using Calendar events to automatically download podcasts over night. When I set this up I just added an Events calendar (to keep this daily repeating event separate from everything else so that I could filter out its view).  However this was still within my MobileMe Calendar.  This meant that this calendar and its events was being synchronised to my other Mac computer and also to my iPad and iPod touch.  This was annoying for two reasons:

  1. It added an item to every day on the calendar which while a little annoying on my iMac wasn’t too bad as it could be filtered, but was really annoying on my iPod Touch and IPad where it is more difficult to filter calendars.  (As far as I can tell you can display all calendars, or an individual calendar, but can’t filter out individual calendars.)
  2. The associated event also appeared so that on my iMac I would get an error message each day saying the event hadn’t run because the script couldn’t be found.  On the iPod Touch and iPad a notification for the event would come up on the device.

The answer to this problem is not entirely trivial.  The new MobileMe calendar is effectively stored in the cloud and distributed to devices and as far as I can see you get all of it subject to some filtering on the iOS devices where events beyond a certain point in the past are not synchronised.  Therefore this event/action for executing the script needs to be in a local calendar.  This can be done by creating a new calendar in the “On My Mac” group:

iCal Menu Screenshot

 

I moved the Events calendar from my MobileMe group to the On My Mac group (and also renamed it to Alarms — Autorun).

Calendar on iCal

However, I discovered that this didn’t quite solve the problem as this calendar also become synchronised to my iMac.  To solve this one needs to go in to the MobileMe preferences and on the Sync tab un-check Calendars.  The Mobile Me calendars are still synchronised as these have a master slave relationship between MobileMe in the cloud and the individual devices.  Un-checking this box stops the local “On My Mac” calendars being synchronised between machines.

Synchronisation Preferences

This means that the local “Alarms — autorun” calendar now stays firmly on my MacBook which is where I keep my main iTunes Podcast library.  The next time one opens the calendar on an iOS device these events and alarms will disappear as they are syncing through the cloud MobileMe.

I imagine that you need to make sure that you are not synchronising calendars to iOS devices via iTunes.  However, if you are using MobileMe you probably shouldn’t be using iTunes syncing for calendars in any case as it should be the cloud syncing (and if you have both, the calendars probably have multiple entries!)

I’m not sure if this helps anyone else, but at least it is a record for me when in six months time I’ve forgotten what I did.

 

More on UK / European law on website cookies and tracking

Thursday, May 26th, 2011

As a follow up to an item I posted about two weeks ago, the UK has deferred the requirement for websites to comply with new European inspired rules on internet tracking for a year.  Apparently only two countries (as of yesterday) have implemented the rules: Estonia and Denmark.  (Denmark is currently getting a rough press in the UK for its disapproval of Marmite.)

The UK view seems to be that it would like to put the onus more on to the browser makers and using “do-not-track” type capabilities rather than enforcing websites to jump through all sorts of hoops.   I am of two minds on this.  As someone who maintains websites I am glad that I haven’t got to make significant changes in a hurry.  On the other hand, having recently installed Ghostery, I’ve become very aware of how much tracking is actually going on.

Interestingly the UK Information Commissioner’s Office website now has a rather ugly banner drawing attention to its use of cookies and requesting approval.  Not a particularly pleasant solution.  Two more interesting pieces on this are here and here.

 

Apple, Patents and Developers

Tuesday, May 24th, 2011

I am not a lawyer, neither am I currently a developer, but the whole issue of patents is beginning to get me concerned and fed-up.   I have no issue with the fact that patents should exist to provide an opportunity for people and companies to be able to exploit their novel ideas and make money from them.   On the one hand we have a patent system which frequently means that inventors have to spend years and enormous amounts of money to defend their ideas as happened to James Dyson.  On the other hand we have patent trolls that vacuum up vast numbers of patents and then sue everyone who might possible be using them.  We also have the problem of the granting of patents for what appear to be almost trivial ideas, particular with regard to software, where the US Patent Office appears to grant patents fairly freely by comparison with the European patent offices.  An example might be the Amazon 1-click patent.

I was disturbed when hearing that Apple Developers were being sent notice for infringement of patent when using the facilities of the App Store for in-app purchase.   It seemed unbelievable that a developer could be sued for using a library API in the way that was documented by the provider of the library.  However, Apple has now stepped in to this battle and hopefully developers will be able to sleep more easily.  While Lodsys seem only to have gone for App Store developers at the moment, there would seem to be little distinction with going after anyone providing an upgrade or update facility within their code for the App Store or for the Android Market Place or even for updating from their own website.   I’m sure this will be watched with interest by many.

Chain e-mails

Monday, May 23rd, 2011

Recently an e-mail was forwarded to me with all sorts of claims about Feng Shui and dates in July.  It started as follows:

Money bags

This year, July has 5 Fridays, 5 Saturdays and 5 Sundays. This happens
once every 823 years. This is called money bags. So, forward this to
your friends and money will arrive within 4 days. Based on Chinese
Feng Shui. The one who does not forward…..will be without money.


Well this is nonsense.

 

Any July that has the 1st on a Friday will have 5 Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.  This occurs far more often than once in 823 years.  It is not exactly one out of seven because of the way leap years distort the calendar, but from 1970 to 2999 (1030 years) it occurs 149 times (14.4660%).

Incidentally in the period 1970 to 2999, the first of July is slightly more likely to be a Sunday (150 out of 1030) which means that the 13th is slightly more likely to be a Friday.

The fully table is:

1st on a Monday: 146
…Tuesday 147
…Wednesday 149
…Thursday 145
…Friday 149
…Saturday 144
…Sunday 150

Examples of years with 1st July starting on a Friday are: 1977, 1983, 1988, 1994, 2005, 2011, 2016, 2022, 2033, 2039, 2044, 2050, 2061, 2067, 2072, 2078, 2089, 2095.

It continues with:

This year we’re going to experience four unusual dates.

1/1/11, 1/11/11, 11/1/11, 11/11/11 and that’s not all…

Well this rapidly gets into a discussions of what are interesting or unusual dates (or indeed numbers). One can argue that all numbers are interesting.

It continues:

Take the last two digits of the year in which you were born — now add
The age you will be this year,

The results will be 111 for everyone in whole world. This is the year of
The Money!!!

The proverb goes that if you send this to eight good friends money will
Appear in next four days as it is explained in Chinese FENGSHUI.

Its a mystery, but its worth a try. Good luck.

Again this is not true for anyone born since 2000 (or for anyone who is over 111). Similar “identities” exist for every year e.g. in 2000 take your age and 2 digit date of birth and it adds to 100 (unless you were born in the 19th century).

There is nothing mysterious about this other than the originator got stuff wrong.

Another Mac App Bundle

Thursday, May 19th, 2011

Hard on the heels of the MacLegion bundle that I mentioned, is a new bundle from ProductiveMacs.  This one includes eight applications for $29.99 (plus VAT for those of us in countries that levy Value Added Tax).  Like the MacLegion bundle, this one looks quite attractive as at least half of the applications are ones that I’ve heard of and at least thought of trying out or buying.

The applications are:

TextExpander — This one is often called out on podcasts that I listen to.  If one is regularly doing any significant amount of typing (even programming and web development) it can be a big time saver.

Path Finder — Probably the best known Finder replacement application.

Socialite — Not one that I know, and probably not very relevant to me as it really is aggregation for social networks.

HoudahSpot — This is a front-end to SpotLight.  I recall Don McAllister doing a ScreenCast on it some time ago.   I use and recommend HoudahGeo that is built by the same developer for geo tagging photographs.

Today — This is not one that I know, and seems to be a front-end / viewer for iCal.

Blast — Not one that I know and it appears to keep track of recently used files and provide easy fast access to them.

Keyboard Maestro — I’ve not heard of this one but according to the developer’s webpage it is John Gruber’s (Daring Fireball) secret weapon.  It appears to be a system for setting up quite complex keyboard shortcuts and so could well be a big productivity saving.

Mail Act-on — This I have heard of and is a Mail plug-in that provides the ability to improve the ease with which one processes mail (in Mail.app).  I’ve usually heard it talked about with other plug-ins such as MailTags which is another plug-in from the same developers.

TextExpander, Path Finder, HoudahSpot and Keyboard Maestro individually are priced at $30 or more and so if you want any of those, then this bundle is potentially a saving.

Will I buy it?  Well it is available until the end of this month, so there is time to think about it yet.  I suspect that I probably won’t go for it because although is very attractive, I find that I end up not using many of the applications that I purchase.   If I was sitting working at my Mac all day generating text I’m sure that I would heavily use TextExpander, but that is not my life at the moment.  I’m a little wary about Finder replacements and don’t really feel a need for the other apps, but this bundle is undoubtedly good value.

Downloading Podcasts at “off-peak” times

Sunday, May 15th, 2011

Like many people outside of the US I have a bandwidth limit on my broadband.  I can go above it but it adds extra cost.  However my ISP has a period overnight (“off-peak“) when bandwidth doesn’t count.   Given the use of the BBC iPlayer and other things, I’ve started trying to avoid doing large downloads during the day time.   Given that I cannot do much about iPlayer as generally one want to watch the programme there and then, the other major items that consume bandwidth are: software updates (particularly some of the hefty Mac OS X updates and iOS updates), and video podcasts (the ones that I subscribe to are not particularly large — 100MB to 300MB each but over a month they do mount up).  While I can usually contrive to do software updates once a week in the morning during the last half-hour or so of “off-peak” time, I really want podcasts to be updated at least each day and don’t really want to have to do it manually.

The solution that I have used for Mac OS X and which I have seen in various forms on a number of websites and have implemented is a very short AppleScript:

tell application “iTunes”

updateAllPodcasts

end tell


This can then be saved as an application “UpdatePodcasts”.   Running the resulting application will launch iTunes if it isn’t already running and will update all of the podcasts.

A little bit of playing with iCal allows this to be automatically called during the early hours of the morning.  One creates an Alarm in iCal to run at an appropriate time in the early hours.  The alarm is set to Open a File — UpdatePodcasts.  Provided my MacBook is left logged in, this then causes it to go away and download new podcasts at a convenient time.

To make this work sensibly, I’ve also turned off the automatic refreshing on podcasts.   There is a preference in iTunes which allows you to set it to refresh podcasts every so often — I’ve set it to manual so that podcasts are only refreshed as a result of a specific action — normally my AppleScript.

This has been working well for the last week or so and has shifted quite a bit of downloading out to the off-peak time.

What I haven’t found a solution for is the problem of one or two really large iOS applications.   I don’t worry about updating most iOS applications whenever I notice that there are updates, but I have one (Classical Music Collection) that is 1.8GB.  When I see this needs updating I avoid it and wait until I happen to be up at an “off-peak” time to do the update.  I haven’t found a neat way to automate this updating to happen over night.  Updating applications requires input of one’s AppleID and there is no AppleScript call to do the update, unlike refreshing podcasts so a similar solution isn’t obvious.

Ghostery

Friday, May 13th, 2011

Following on from my small rant on privacy and cookies, I came across a browser plug-in called Ghostery.  There is a fairly extensive description about it on MacWorld, so I don’t think I need to write much more here.  It shows whether web-sites have “tracking bugs” and potentially allows one to block them.  It is available for Firefox, Safari, Google Chrome and Internet Explorer currently.  For Safari it can be downloaded from the Apple Safari Extensions Gallery or from within Safari in the Extensions manager.

At the very least it is interesting to see how many tracking systems are employed on some pages.  For example, the Macworld page linked above shows up with 5 trackers (Facebook Connect, Doubleclick, Google Adsense, Omniture and Google Analytics).

Needless to say, this blog site is clean (but then I don’t attempt to make money out of it through advertising).

 

How much of our stuff will be preserved?

Thursday, May 12th, 2011

A number of thoughts have been swimming around my brain as a result of two articles I’ve read.  The first was an article from the BBC website yesterday which questioned whether humans have created a new geological age and which was a topic at a major conference held at the Geological Society in London on Wednesday.  The thesis is that man has changed the planet in a fundamental way that merits a new geological age “the Anthropocene”.  There is some debate over the right date for the start of this:

  • thousands of years ago with the rise of agriculture
  • around 1800 when the human population hit one billion and carbon dioxide started to significantly rise because of the Industrial Revolution
  • 1945 — the dawn of the nuclear age — which has merits as a date as sediments worldwide show tell-tale radioactive signatures from the first atom bomb tests

Today there was an article again from the  BBC News — Domesday Project reborn online after 25 years.  This was a project some 25 years ago to create a 20th century version of the 900-year-old Domesday Book, but instead of recording land rights and livestock, it would record life in 1980s Britain based on photographs and written accounts submitted by ordinary people.

Unfortunately, while the project was successful, with more than a million contributions, the distribution was something of a dead-end.  The modern Domesday was released on two Laserdiscs and a BBC Master computer with special software was required to access the interface.  Thus after only a few years most of this was inaccessible to all but a few enthusiasts.  The data has now been reorganised and is presented as a website

This got me thinking — on the one hand, humans have made a lasting impact on the planet earth.   At the same time our “modern technologies” are becoming ever more ephermeral.  Archaeologists discover remarkable information from past civilisations because those civilisations recorded on stone, slate, vellum, or even paper that has survived remarkable lengths of time.  By contrast it can be a challenge to access information from 25 years ago except when it is on paper.

Many of us have shoeboxes full of old photographs that survive remarkably well in poor conditions, but our JPEGs can disappear in a puff when a hard drive expires or a web-server is pulled.  Even at work today, I was looking at computer files I’ve kept over 10 years only to discover that some are unreadable as I no longer have the application that created them.   For that matter, I have samples of both 5 and 8 hole paper tape, punched cards and 8 inch floppy discs that you’d be hard pushed to read now.

I know that librarians and archivists have written about this problem many times, but I think it is one that all of us have to face — the lifetime of much of our electronic media is often less than our lifetimes and maintaining it for longer requires significant work in transferring it regularly to new (backed-up media), choosing wisely about formats, and converting if necessary, and making sure that other people know where it is.

Since going from chemical film to digital photography I’ve realised how vulnerable much of modern media is and I feel that I’m not really keeping up with preserving things that I might want to keep for the rest of my life and pass to my successors.

It is wonderful that the modern Domesday has been “reloaded”, but it hasn’t the permanence of the original Domesday or the Rosetta Stone, or many of the Roman and Greek artefacts.

UK / European law on website cookies and tracking

Wednesday, May 11th, 2011

Updated at 17:35 BST to mention third-party cookies.  Updates are in italics.

The UK is planning to implement various European privacy rules and one of the difficult topics has been the use of data gathered by websites.  Superficially this would seem to be targeted primarily at advertisers and other large companies but in practice could catch almost every website that is not completely static.  One aspect is that the UK rules will require explicit approval for most cookies to be stored on users computers.

The BBC has reported this here and The Register has a story here.  Both organisations have been running various stories over the past few months on this topic.  Part of the problem has been lack of clarity as to what is required, and the problems of technically implementing solutions that satisfy the rules.

Much of what has been written on this topic concentrates on third-party cookies, and I am sure that the original EU Directive may have been intended to target tracking by third-party cookies, that are typically used for advertising.  However, the Information Commissioner’s Office guidance is framed to cover just about every use of cookies other than those deemed “strictly necessary”.  Clearly anyone using advertising on a site that is provided by a third party is going to need to do something.  Some of the advertising organisations are claiming that by putting a clickable badge on the advertising that this satisfies the regulations, although that is not at all obvious to me.

The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) guidance says

… you will need a user’s consent if you want to store a cookie on their device. The ICO recognises that cookies perform a number of legitimate functions. We also recognise that gaining consent will, in many cases, be a challenge.

There is an exception, but it is very narrow:

The only exception to this rule is if what you are doing is ‘strictly necessary’ for a service requested by the user. This exception is a narrow one but might apply, for example, to a cookie you use to ensure that when a user of your site has chosen the goods they wish to buy and clicks the ‘add to basket’ or ‘proceed to checkout’ button, your site ‘remembers’ what they chose on a previous page. You would not need to get consent for this type of activity.

 

After a little more detail it makes explicit that merely remembering preferences is not an exception:

The exception would not apply, for example, just because you have decided that your website is more attractive if you remember users’ preferences or if you decide to use a cookie to collect statistical information about the use of your website.

The full text from the ICO is here.

A lot of smaller organisations will, I think, find complying with the rules rather onerous.  Cookies are often used within packages that webmasters install, but those packages often don’t explain how cookies are used and probably don’t include pages to get the visitor’s consent to the cookies.  Indeed one could argue that getting this consent is itself almost a privacy issue.  Anyone using advertising is clearly likely to be caught with these rules although it is unclear to me whether the responsibility is for the website owner or the third party advertiser.

I did a quick check of the WordPress documentation and there is a page about cookies here, although the page does indicate that it is “in progress”.  As far as I can see, cookies are used by WordPress for Users and for Commenters.  I think therefore it would be necessary to get approval from users when they register.  For Commenters, the WordPress documentation notes that it is “purely a convenience” and therefore in my understanding is definitely not an exception under the ICO’s guidance, and again the code would need modification to explicitly seek approval.

If this is all implemented there will have to be changes to a lot of the standard packages used by hosting sites.  Most photo gallery software will use cookies to store viewing preferences (e.g. number of thumbnails in a row, background colour, etc) and these cookies will need approval.  I can see pop-ups appearing all over the places; and we probably all block those!

Interestingly, the ICO site itself uses Google Analytics and places cookies on visitor’s devices, so I think they need to update their site.  I wonder what they will do?  I’m sure many government sites use cookies.

Almost 100 years of air warfare

Tuesday, May 10th, 2011

BBC News — Libya 1911: How an Italian pilot began the air war era

I saw this story this morning which I found quite surprising.  It seems rather ironic that almost 100 years ago it was an Italian who first (literally) threw bombs out of an aeroplane, and in Libya.