Responsive Developers

A couple of weeks ago I was playing with HDRtist Pro and it crashed on me.  The application put up a box to allow me to send the crash report to the developer and include any details about how I was using it at the time.  As it crashed more or less on launch, I’d not really done anything at that point and I noted this and sent off the bug report.  I’ve often wondered when doing this with applications as to whether it really would be helpful.   In this case, a day or two later I had an e-mail from the Developer apologising for the problem and providing a link to a beta version to try.  The beta version worked perfectly.  I replied that that version seemed to be fine, and that previously, except for that one occasion, the application had worked correctly.  I also noted that one never really knew whether reporting problems would have any effect.  The developer replied:

Thank you for helping us to test this release.

We do take all errors seriously, no matter how hard or how long we test, there are always problems that don’t appear on our testing machines.

For instance this bug, we’ve never seen it. We only know it exists from the error reports and thankfully the error report gives enough information to be able to alter the code to stop it from happening again.

I thought this was an excellent response and encourages me to use this application over other alternatives as it shows real developer commitment — and I would prefer to spend my money on developers that merit that.  Kudos to HDRtist Pro.

I should post an example, and I will do in the near future.  I previously posted this over a year ago (using the basic free HDRtist application)

computing Opinions

Web Standards, Browsers and Users

One issue that is guaranteed to get me frustrated and annoyed is problems with web sites that don’t work either because they have been designed to work with specific browsers, or assume a certain screen size, or fail to take account of users that may have visual disabilities.  This is becoming a more pressing issue as in the UK (and presumably many other countries), more and more of one’s every day tasks have to be conducted on line.

I recently had an appeal for help from a friend who has been applying for jobs, but many employers only allow online applications and she was having problems because the form would not submit from her computer or would produce errors that were unhelpful and puzzling to her.  I’ve had similar problems in the past with sites that refuse to work with anything other than Internet Explorer (which is useless for anyone using a Mac, a Linux system or any tablet), or sites that have been designed in a way where I’ve been unable to get to certain items on drop down lists because there is no way of scrolling the list on my screen.  While in some ways things have got better over the past few years because of the existence of devices like the iPad, a move to standards, and the greater prevalence of Mac computers, problems still arise.   Given the push for many government services to be delivered online, the very people who often need to access those services are often the least likely to have a computer, or have to use a computer at a library where there may be a fairly restrictive firewall, or have only a very old computer running an old operating system and browser.

Another problem that can often arise is that many people now only use web based e-mail and have never set up a mail client (or use a machine in a library where there will not be a mail client set up), but links on web sites for e-mail will try to load a mail client and then the user gets confused.

All of this is even more complicated for those people with vision problems who may be using a screen reader (that is absolutely not going to cope with a complex layout) and even those of us who are partially colour blind can often be at a complete loss on some sites where the colour either makes the screen unreadable or where the instructions are to press a particular coloured button but which we can’t identify.

I remember a news item from a few years ago where even accessing a bank system via a screen reader was enough to set off security alarms.

There is a lot that needs to be done for accessibility and much more care needs to be taken by governments and corporations in their web site development, particularly thinking about how their site is going to work when used by those who are not comfortable with computers, or with disabilities or who are using old software or assistive technologies.

computing Opinions

Apple World Wide Developers Conference

I think yesterday’s announcements from the Apple WWDC covered much of the material that had been trailed or been wanted.

The announcements on OS X Lion had already been widely previewed by Apple.  I think the main revelation is that it will be coming in July (rather than later in the year) and will be under $30 rather than much more expensive.  The other surprise is that there is apparently going to be no DVD — it will be a download from the Mac App Store.   I feel from time to time that Apple doesn’t always appreciate that in many countries (including the US and Western Europe), broadband is not always as pervasive as  it is on the Apple campus.  A 4GB download (which I think is what is being described as its size) is a significant part of bandwidth allowance for many people in the UK (even on ADSL connections, 5GB, 10GB and 20GB caps are pretty common) and even “unlimited” may not mean much more, or may only apply to bandwidth used overnight.  There is also the problem of download speed — many people only get 2Mb/s or less (in fact when I’m in South Wales I get a lot less than 1Mb/s and would probably have to expect a download time of 9 or 10 hours).  Worse still, there are people who still are only able to get dial-up access.   I think this may also be a factor with iCloud as well.  I use DropBox and MobileMe syncing in many of the applications that I use, largely because I use multiple Mac computers (and used to use them from multiple locations), but I wouldn’t choose to keep all my music and media in the cloud because of the problems with accessing it.  OS X Lion will require a minimum Intel Core 2 Duo processor which cuts off those of us with older machines from the early days of the change from PowerPC to Intel that are only Intel Core Duo.   My MacBook should be able to run Lion but not my iMac, nor my MacMIni that can only run Leopard rather than Snow Leopard (although I should be able to run the latter if / when I crack open the case and upgrade the RAM).  Perhaps it is time for a new machine or two.

The updates in iOS 5 that are due out in the autumn look fairly compelling and include many of the things that folks have been asking for.  The new notifications system is overdue (and I suspect will lead to notifications being used a lot more).  The removal of the need for  a USB wired connection to a computer will mean that iDevices can become standalone devices and make it possible for some folks to just have an iPad rather than a computer.  Obviously this does rely on iCloud and decent bandwidth — although I note that they are going to move to delta updates which should improve things.  I’m not sure how successful the iMessaging service will be, particularly in countries where it would appear everyone just uses SMS.  iOS5 will apparently support the same iDevices as iOS4, so at least there isn’t another step of obsolescence there.

After the various attempts at cloud computing I hope that Apple have learnt enough to get things right this time.  I’ve had no particular problems with MobileMe (although explaining how the syncing works between iDevices and computers and MobileMe in calendars and the like has not been easy — although it is clearer with the new MobileMe calendar which was obviously a start of the transition).   It certainly is not a quick service (particularly here in Europe) — mail sometimes takes ages to load and the iDisk can also take several minutes to access.   I would feel happier if Apple had multiple data centres around the world as reliability has fallen short from time to time.  Subject to my concerns about bandwidth, I really hope that this effort succeeds.   The Music Matching (which allows material not bought from iTunes but imported in to one’s iTunes library to be matched with the corresponding iTunes media in the iCloud without uploading) could be a significant boon and advantage over other competing services, although I notice that although the Music Matching is available straightaway in the US, there is no date for the roll out elsewhere.  It will be interesting to see how the transition to the iCloud operates.   Those of us already with MobileMe get an automatic MobileMe extension to June 30th, 2012.  I noted that iCLoud will be free for Lion and iOS5 users which raises the question of what happens to folks who cannot upgrade to Lion or iOS5 or who have a mixture of devices some of which cannot be upgraded.   Do they effectively have to buy new hardware before June next year?

Overall, I think there are going to be some fun times ahead with Lion next month and then iOS5 after the summer (and possibly new hardware as well).


Heron in Flight

I took this photograph of what I assume is a heron in flight in March while on holiday in Suffolk.  It was taken with my 70–300mm zoom at the 300mm setting.  It was a somewhat lucky shot as the bird was flying above me and I just quickly swung the camera and focussed and this was the one shot that worked.

Heron in Flight

Opinions Typesetting

E-book typesetting

I’ve had an amateur interest in typesetting for most of my working life and certainly from when I stumbled upon TeX and LaTeX.  Unfortunately, when you’ve become exposed to good typography, whether as a result of these systems, or from reading well printed books, one starts to find things that annoy one when standards are not kept.  (I am conscious that this blog suffers from some layout and typographical problems; hopefully I will fix them in the future.)

On John Gruber’s Daring Fireball, a couple of items have attracted my attention.  This piece from Paul Luna starts from an advertisement for the Amazon Kindle printed in one of the UK newspapers where the example shown on the screen in the advertisement is itself badly typeset, and then these pieces from Joe Clark on typography standards in e-books and these poor examples.  What makes some of these examples so bad is that they are not only bad presentation, but make the text either difficult to read or even give the text a different meaning.

I find more generally that if one has been exposed to the high quality typesetting of TeX (particularly with regard to its line-breaking which is optimised over a whole paragraph), every other word processor/ type setting system seems really bad.   As someone who has to use Word a great deal at work for generating documents which, frankly, Word is not up to, it is very frustrating that many of the problems that Word (and other systems) leave unsolved or badly solved were well addressed by Donald Knuth many years ago.

computing Software

iCal, MobileMe and Synchronisation

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.


computing Opinions

More on UK / European law on website cookies and tracking

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.


computing Opinions

Apple, Patents and Developers

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

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.

computing Software

Another Mac App Bundle

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  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.