Recently in Apple/Macs Category

I ran across a link in my Twitter feed to this article, which describes Apple's attempts to modify Siri, its voice-activated iOS "personal assistant" application, to provide more helpful feedback for people searching for suicide-related information. 
With an update to phones running iOS 6 and iOS 7, Siri now reacts with a strong, two-fold approach when mentions of suicide come up. First, the assistant offers the number of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and will even offer to call directly -- a new feature that makes seeking help as simple as clicking "yes" on the phone. If for whatever reason the user decides to select "no", Siri does a search of all local suicide prevention centers, offering a list and directions powered by Yelp.

According to the article, here's what Siri now returns when suicide is mentioned:

Screenshot of Siri's suicide response

However, either this update hasn't been rolled out to everyone yet, or Siri isn't particularly sympathetic to my inquiries. Whenever I tell her that "I'm thinking of suicide," she says she doesn't know what I mean, and offers to search the web for that phrase. Perhaps this is actually an iOS 7 update that will be released this fall.

Anyway, the article goes on to say that Apple isn't the only tech company sensitive to the increasing problem of suicide. Google has modified its search results so that a search for "suicide" will display a link to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, along with a prominent display of the toll-free number.

Unfortunately, Google hasn't completely anticipated and accounted for the results that appear immediately after that well-intentioned link. As with many searches on generic words or phrases, a Wikipedia article is at the top of the search results, and at least a portion of those results seems designed to counteract Google's efforts. Here's a screenshot of those results.

Screenshot

Notice the highlighted phrase? What an unfortunate placement of information for someone who might be contemplating suicide.

It's not as though folks can't or won't find such information despite the best well-meaning efforts of the companies and organizations who run the web, but this is an example of just how complex such sensitive issues can get, and even the best plans of the smartest people on the planet don't always work out as they expected.

iPhone Tips
February 13, 2013 9:22 PM | Posted in:

MacWorld recently published 33 Expert Tips and Tricks for iOS 6, and there are a few worth passing along.

Note that even though the article's title contains the word "expert," if you can turn on your iPhone, you can implement each of these features. It's not rocket surgery.

Reverse Panorama

We were at a restaurant with friends last month and I was trying to take a panorama photo of the striking interior, and was having trouble because the starting point for the photo set the exposure for the whole picture. In this case, the left-to-right default for the panoramic movement had me starting at a really bright window and moving into the relatively darker interior, meaning that most of the resulting photo was too dim. 

"Apple should give us some way to reverse the panorama to cope with settings like this," I observed (although probably less eloquently than that, around a mouth full of seafood). Well, as it turns out, Apple did that and I'm just now finding out that all it takes is a tap on the panorama line, which will reverse it so that you move the phone from right to left, as the following photo illustrates.

Photo of my iPhone; very exciting

Emoji Keyboard Activation

Emoji is the Japanese term for pictograph, and it refers to those tiny, brightly colored and often annoying characters that you see in many emails. They're like emoticons on PEDs, and you, too, can fill your writing with them via your iPhone (or iPad). There's an entire alternate keyboard dedicated to emoji built into iOS 6 and it's activated via Settings. Select General, then International, then Keyboards, and you'll see a screen similar to this one:

Photo of my iPhone; very exciting

Tap "Add New Keyboard" and select Emoji from the rather extensive list (including Tibetan and Flemish). After doing so, the next time your iDevice's keyboard appears (e.g. when you're creating a new email), you'll see a new "Globe" icon that, when selected, yields a plethora of overly cute emoticons to choose from. Uh, like this...

Photo of my iPhone; very exciting

If you turn on the "Read selected text" setting, Siri will attempt to read these characters aloud. I haven't tried it. I suspect Siri is grateful.

Note: Before you get visions of filling up your friends' Facebook walls with icons of cute caterpillars, you should know that - as far as I can tell - Facebook doesn't support Emoji characters. So, you'll have to annoy them via email.

Custom Vibrations

The last tip is my favorite, and it should be yours as well, if you have any respect at all for your inner drummer. You already know you can have custom ringtones that are associated with specific people so you can recognize their calls. Well, did you realize you can do the same thing with vibration alerts? And unlike ringtones which can be downloaded, you can only have custom vibrations that you create yourself, right there on your phone's screen. Here's how to do it.

Select a contact via the Phone or Contacts app and tap the Edit button. Scroll down the resulting screen and tap the Vibration line; this will yield the following screen:

Photo of my iPhone; very exciting

The perceptive among you will recognize that I've created a custom vibration alert based on the most famous drum solo in the history of drum solos.

Tap "Create New Vibration" and you'll be presented with a drum set...OK, not really, but it's pretty close:

Photo of my iPhone; very exciting

This is where it gets fun. Harken back to those great extended rock drum solos of the hazy past - Wipeout, anyone? - or re-create your favorite drumline riffs from your marching days. In other words, tap to your heart's content, and the phone will record the result. If you don't like the results, cancel and try again. Here's how I did it (it helps to have fingernails, by the way; I guess you could use actual drumsticks but you didn't hear that from me):


Once you're satisfied with your tapping, save the new vibe and it will automatically be assigned to the person whose contact you opened at the beginning of this tip. Unfortunately, custom vibrations are nearly as interesting as custom ringtones when it comes to actually using them, but the fun is in the creation. That goes for a lot of things, though.

My iPhone/iPad Feature Wish List
October 16, 2012 8:56 PM | Posted in:

My iPhone and iPad are important parts of my technological life, both at work and at home. I no longer use a notebook computer at home, and my iPhone integrates beautifully at work with our Microsoft Exchange setup. I can even access work applications remotely via Citrix on my iPad (which I do a really lot - in case my boss happens to check in here).

But neither device is perfect. Well, actually, from a hardware perspective, both leave little to be desired - especially if I'm ever able to upgrade to an iPhone 5. It's the operating system - iOS 6, to be exact - that has considerable room for improvement.

I'm sure Apple is working on some of the bigger picture items, like a workable directory structure and a time travel feature, but I want to make sure they don't overlook some details that would, above all else, make me happy. So, here's a short and simple list of things to implement in the next upgrade iOS. Please make them happen, Apple.

  • An option to require a code to power off the phone - This would be an awesome security feature. If your phone is stolen, the first thing a savvy thief will do is turn the phone off in order to defeat the "Find My Phone" app and the remote erase feature. Requiring a user-specified code to shut it down, similar to the way one can set a code to unlock the phone, would prevent an unauthorized possessor (i.e. "thief") from doing this. Sure, he or she could still run the battery down, but that would still give you some time to try to locate the phone, or at least wipe it remotely.

  • A forward delete key - If Apple truly wants the iPad to become a legitimate alternative to a notebook computer, the ability to delete text backward and forward is a no-brainer. It's not always easy to position the cursor in the right spot to use the backward delete arrow; having a forward delete key would allow you to drop the cursor in approximately the right spot and still get the job done. How hard would it be to program a shift-delete option to accomplish this?

  • More control over sleep settings - I doubt that there is more than a handful of people who think that iOS's 2/5/10/15 minute and "never" autolock options are somehow lacking, but I'd like to have the ability to specify exactly how long I want my phone or iPad to stay awake. I listen to music during my 45 minute treadmill workouts, and I want to see album covers along with the tunes. If I set the autolock option to "never," I invariably forget to reset it and it doesn't go to sleep until the battery runs down. So, Apple, I want to pick my own live-before-lock duration.

Steve Jobs
October 5, 2011 8:26 PM | Posted in: ,

Steve Jobs died today at age 56, and the world lost a creative visionary. Apple enthusiasts will freely admit the significance of the loss, while even those who rejected or denigrated his contributions will nevertheless continue to enjoy for years to come the benefits of the technologies he championed.

I didn't know Jobs, but I know enough about him to draw a few conclusions from his life and death.

  • Fifty-six years is too young for anyone to die, and it's a reminder that cancer sucks.

  • His net worth was estimated to be in excess of six billion dollars. Only in science fiction stories can money buy more life. Keep that in mind when setting your priorities.

  • Jobs was respected for his creativity, drive, and vision. But I never heard anyone talk about how much they loved him, or even liked him. He had a wife and kids, and I'm sure many people liked and loved him, but he'll be remembered for his achievements, not his character. I wonder if that's a legacy he'd be comfortable with.

In the end, the death of Steve Jobs seems to serve as a reminder of the wisdom of the writer of the book of Ecclesiastes

Vanity of vanities! All is vanity. What advantage does man have in all his work which he does under the sun.
Ever heard of the "Canon Hack Development Kit (CHDK)"? If you have, I bow before your superior geekiness. I had never heard of it until I decided to research how I might be able to use my Canon PowerShot S95 to shoot in time-lapse mode. Out of the box, this otherwise highly competent point-and-shoot (P&S) won't allow you to automatically take a series of photos at set intervals.

Enter the CHDK, a collection of free software that extends the firmware of many Canon compact digital cameras - but not digital SLRs - and adds capabilities to those cameras that go far beyond their out-of-the-box features. One key feature of CHDK is that those enhancements are non-destructive and non-permanent. The camera's original firmware is not altered, and the CHDK programs can be easily and permanently removed at any time. Here's a brief FAQ about CHDK that documents some of the enhancements.

Well, that's the theory, anyway. And to be honest, I couldn't find any verifiable instances where someone had hurt, let alone ruined, their camera by installing CHDK. Still, the concept and processes are inscrutable enough to give one pause before diving in. Heck, I thought about it for all of about twenty seconds before I got busy rewriting the innards of my camera. (Don't try this at home, unless you really want to.)

I thought I might post a full how-to article on installing and using CHDK, but there are plenty of good articles on the web and there's no reason to invent the wheel. If you're a Mac owner, this is a good resource; here's another that's geared for Windows users.

It might be helpful to understand the basic concepts, without going into all the gory details, so here's a quick summary of the process:

  1. Right off the bat, you need to determine the version of firmware your camera uses. This is critical to ensuring that you install the proper version of CHDK. For me, the perfect solution was ACID - the Automatic Camera Identifier and Downloader. This free program, available for OSX, Windows, and Ubuntu Linux, is an all-in-one firmware identifier and CHDK downloader program. Once you download and install ACID, you can discover your firmware version simply by dragging a photo from your camera's SD card into the ACID program's window. The program not only identifies the firmware, it provides a link for downloading the proper CHDK for your camera.

  2. You need to have a properly formatted SD card onto which the CHDK can be installed. I found another free program called SDMInst that performed that task for me with just a few click. Note that this program works only with OSX, but I'm sure there are other similar apps for Windows.

  3. After the CHDK is installed, the SD card must be locked (you'll still be able to take photos); I think this prevents the programs from being overwritten by the camera's firmware, but that's just a guess. Once this is done and the card is re-inserted into the camera, you can confirm that installation was successful by the appearance of a new boot-up screen that appears briefly on your camera's LCD screen. Here's what mine looks like:
Photo - Startup screen of S95

In addition, the CHDK installs a new menu screen that's accessible by pushing a series of buttons on the camera. On the S95, for example, pushing the print button followed by the menu button brings up the following menu:


Photo - CHDK menu screen of S95

I have no idea what most of these do, because I haven't had a chance to research them. But the sub-menus provide an inkling of their capabilities. For example:

Photo - CHDK sub-menu screen of S95

This particular sub-menu allows you to override the camera's factory settings for things like ISO, aperture, and shutter speed. And, again, anything you set on this menu is reset to the factory default as soon as you turn the camera off, so there's no danger of permanently altering the configuration.

Just for comparison purposes, here's the default menu screen, pre-CHDK, on the S95:

Photo - Default menu screen of S95

Boring, huh? Prettier, yeah...but still boring. 

Now that I've got it, what do I do with it?

As I mentioned at the beginning, the reason I embarked on this weird journey was to figure out a way to equip the S95 with time-lapse photo capability. So, installation of the CHDK is simply a means to an end.

The final step in my quest to equip my camera with automatic time-lapse capability was to install an intervalometer script into the CHDK. Ultra Intervalometer is such a script, a free uBASIC program that's easily installed by simply downloading and copying into the Scripts folder in the CHDK directory on your camera's SD card. Once installed, you have to manually load the script via the CHDK menu each time you use the camera. Here's the menu screen highlighting the script that will activate the time-lapse program:

Photo - CHDK script activation screen of S95

Once this script is loaded, the following parameter screen is used to configure how you want the time-lapse production to proceed: you can set the number of shots (or specify unlimited), the time interval between shots, and how long a delay you want before the first shot is taken (thereby kicking off the time-lapse; this would be helpful if you want to start the program in the middle of the night without having to actually get up and press the shutter button). Here's what the parameter menu looks like:

Photo - Ultra Intervalometer screen of S95

The benefit of using a digital camera for time-lapse photos vs. the GoPro is that I can use the digicam's built-in settings for flash and autofocus, as well as taking advantage of the zoom lens.

I've done a very rudimentary test of the time-lapse capability and it does work as advertised. I'll post a better example at some point in the future, as well as share any additional cool applications that might be useful via CHDK. 

By the way, you can write your own CHDK scripts, if you know BASIC (I don't), and load other scripts if you know how to use a browser (I do).
Last February I posted a brief review of Air Display, an iOS app that lets you use your iPad (or iPhone/iPod touch) as a second monitor. At the time, I had tested the app for only a short time and had done no real work using it.

For the past few days, I've been working from a hotel room in Denver and now have hours of experience using Air Display to turn my iPad into a second monitor for my 13" MacBook Pro. Or should I say, "attempting" to turn my iPad into a second monitor?

When it works, Air Display is a quite effective helper app, and increases my screen real estate by more than 50%. I use it in the following ways:

  • Menus - Adobe CS5 applications are infamous for their extensive menus which can consume your workspace and leave little room for the actual task at hand. Using Air Display, I can shift Photoshop's or Dreamweaver's menus onto my iPad and free up my entire MacBook display for the work.

  • Secondary applications - At any given time I'll have around a dozen applications open. Only a few of them are essential for the work I'm doing and I'll keep them on the notebook's screen. The others can be shifted to the iPad.

  • Separate browser tabs - Using Chrome's tear-off tab feature, I can move a browser window to the iPad while keeping the active window open on the MacBook. That's what I'm doing right now, in fact, with a separate tab on the iPad open to my previous blog post, while typing this on the notebook.
This is all wonderful in theory, but Air Display has some quirks that will drive you to distraction until you figure out how to work around them.

The initial connection process seems to be iffy. Since it requires that the Air Display apps be running on both your computer and your iOS device, if either of them aren't cooperating, you don't get a connection. I've found that after waking up my notebook and iPad in the morning, I need to quit the iPad app, and restart it - sometime a couple of times - before a connection can be made. Also, occasionally the iPad's screen will be blank (it should show your computer's wallpaper). For a while, I thought that indicated that the connection had not been made, but I discovered that dragging an application's window or a browser tab over to the iPad will, in effect, bring Air Display to life.

I also found that I had to disable my notebook's firewall in order to have a reliable connection with Air Display. I don't know if that's a quirk that's associated with the hotel's WiFi system; I didn't have that issue when I tested it at home. But if you're on the road and having problems, you might try this, assuming you're willing to live with the security implications.

And, finally, I've noticed that the longer Air Display is running and active, the slower it gets. This behavior is manifested by an increasingly jerky cursor movement, a disappearing cursor, or one that doesn't move at all. When this happens, a rebooting of the iPad and a reconnection of the Air Display software is often required to restore the original operation.

While these are not insignificant quirks, I must admit that Air Display has become an essential part of my "road warrior" toolbox. I'm willing to live with its eccentricities because when the app is working as it should, it makes a tremendous difference in my efficiency. 

Apple's Misspelling
March 11, 2011 1:54 PM | Posted in:

Apple Inc. prides itself on its beautiful, user-friendly designs and quality workmanship, and so I was shocked - shocked, I tell you! - to discover this page in the Mac OS X Sites directory (that's where you can make a website available to the world using the Apache web server software built into OS X):

 screenshot

I realize that Mac OS X contains millions of lines of coding, and that a minor spelling error like this is hardly a crime against humanity. And, in fact, perhaps my surprise about it in this age of Diminished Grammatical Expectations is proof that Apple deserves its reputation for quality. But it's hard to believe that the error has persisted through the years. Perhaps it's a test.

Apple Store Down
March 2, 2011 9:45 AM | Posted in:

You know Apple is up to something big when you see this screen where the Apple Store usually appears:

Screenshot of browser window

I'm sure this is related to the company's announcement regarding (we think) the iPad 2 in a couple of hours.
You don't really need to be a certified geek to appreciation the implications of a three terabyte hard drive priced under $300. That's about a 50% increase over the previous maximum capacity, and enough storage to hold over 400,000 songs. Or you could store a hundred Blu-Ray movies (at 30 gigabytes each).

Unfortunately, many computers won't be able to take advantage of this extra storage without installing extra hardware or software, due to a 30-year old decision about hard drive standards. Fortunately, Mac OS 10.5 and 10.6 users don't have this limitation, so Seagate's drive will work for them right out of the box. Their biggest problem is going to be finding one of these massive drives; Seagate's website shows them to be out of stock, already.

OK, perhaps that's not the biggest problem. I suspect figuring out how to back-up one of these drives will be the real challenge. It would require 600 regular DVDs to make a copy of a full 3 terabyte hard drive.

[I had to use an Excel spreadsheet to make the preceding computations, because I can't wrap my mind around numbers this big.]

Seeking Silence
February 22, 2011 3:27 PM | Posted in: ,

I solved a tricky little problem today and want to document it in case anyone else encounters it. But first, some background.

Our ballroom dance club is trying something different at our March dance. Up to now, we've always had live music, and that tradition will continue. But, for a variety of reasons, we're going to try some prerecorded music, sort of DJ-style...without the DJ.

I've created a play list in iTunes of about 50 songs for the evening, providing a wide variety of music for the most popular steps (foxtrot, waltz, swing, rumba, cha cha, tango, and salsa), and we're going to stream the music through a sound system via an iPad. The music is outstanding, but when Debbie and I gave the play list a run-through (well, a dance-through, to be exact), we discovered an unanticipated problem. There's not enough time between the songs.

Now, you would typically want the DJ to keep the music going in a continuous stream, but this isn't a nightclub or mosh pit. Well, sometimes it does resemble a mosh pit, but that's mostly unintentional. Anyway, ballroom dancing is a bit more formal, and we want to give people some time to get on and off the floor.

Here's the problem. iTunes, by default, puts two seconds between each song in a play list, and there's no preference or option to change that. There is an option to cross-fade songs (one fades out while the next fades in), but that doesn't help us a bit.

I tried googling a solution and found that this situation is not a problem for the vast majority of folks. In fact, most people want to know how to shorten the gap between songs. I did find one suggestion to put a short recording of, well, nothing in between each song but that seemed inelegant and tedious. Surely Apple, in its ubër-elegant and ultra-non-tedious design, had a better solution.

Uh, nope. I posted my dilemma on the discussion board on the  Apple website and the only workable solution that was suggested was - you guessed it - an "empty" audio file used as a spacer between songs. (This approach is reminiscent of a staple of website design back in the 90s, before CSS, when we used 1 pixel transparent GIFs to provide the desired spacing around various elements on the website. Can you say "inelegant" and "tedious"? And, uh, "effective"?)

So, I found a 15-second "empty" mp3 and downloaded it (it was advertised as a free download; I just hope the creators actually cleared the copyright issues around that bit of silence). I then imported it into iTunes, and dragged it into my play list.

Once in the play list, I copied-and-pasted the mp3 as many times as was needed to separate the songs, and then dragged the instances of the mp3 through the play list to provide the inter-song gaps. That's when I realized again the genius of Apple's iTunes music database approach. The actual "song" resides in one place; the duplicates are simply pointers to that one song.

Why is this important? Well, I discovered that 15 seconds was too long. That pause borders on uncomfortable. Ten seconds would be just about right. But that means I have to delete all those 15-second gaps, find a 10-second mp3, and repeat the import/copy/paste/drag process, right? Wrong.

If you select "Get Info" under the "File" menu in iTunes for a highlighted song, it provides an option (under the Option tab - go figure) for specifying a start and end time for the selected song. This allows a sort of on-the-fly cropping of an audio file, and it was the perfect solution for my "got 15 seconds of nothing but need only 10" problem. I simply selected one of the instances of the silent mp3 and set the end time to 10 seconds. As if by magick, all the other copies of the mp3 took on that same setting throughout the play list.

Now, this is where the elegance finally appears. Since I haven't physically edited the sound file, there are still 15 seconds of silence contained therein, and if I decide I want a larger gap, I can restore up to the full amount with that single setting. (There is a complication if I want to use, say, a 10 second gap on one play list and 15 seconds on another. In that case, I'll need to physically duplicate the original mp3, rename it, and import it to iTunes.)

So, there's a pretty detailed solution to a rather obscure problem. But if someone out there needs a way to increase the gap between songs in iTunes (that's a little trick to help Google find this post) then I'm happy to share what I've learned, and my job here is finished. Heck, I'll even provide a link so you can download your own slice of silence.

I'll let you know how the dance turns out. We're a little nervous. Ballroom dancers are such traditionalists, and they're like a pack of rabid hyenas under a full moon if things don't suit them.

My Geeky Valentine
February 16, 2011 8:05 AM | Posted in:

This is what happens when two gadget freaks hook up. For Valentine's Day, I gave my wife the obligatory box of Godiva chocolates...and an iPod nano that she could mount on a wrist strap Photo - ZaggMate iPad case with keyboard and use as a casual watch. In turn, she gave me a ZaggMate iPad case with built-in Bluetooth keyboard.

The ZaggMate is one of the better ideas to come down the pike. As the photo shows, the iPad fits snugly face-down, presenting a solid aluminum surface all around in a form factor that is barely thicker and heavier than the iPad by itself. But when the two units are separated, the tablet rests solidly, in either landscape or portrait mode, in a padded slot and links wirelessly to the keyboard.

The keyboard itself is full-featured, if not quite full-sized. Besides all the standard keys, it sports a series of iPad-specific controls: there are keys to put the tablet to sleep, jump to the home screen, bring up the search screen, and show/hide the iPad's software keyboard. There are also keys for controlling slideshows, as well as music via the iPod application.

I mentioned that the Zagg's keyboard was not quite full-sized, and that's the only drawback I've found for the device. Because it's almost like a regular keyboard, I have a tendency to try to use it like one, instead of focusing on the fact that the keys are smaller and closer together than normal. Fast touch typing is possible, but it takes a while to make the mental and physical transition from a normal keyboard. Regardless, typing speed and accuracy are several orders of magnitude better than using the iPad's virtual keyboard.

One minor surprise: I've been unable to pair the Zagg keyboard with my MacBook Pro. I don't know that I'd ever use the two together, but I still figured that they'd connect. I'm not sure what's up with that.

Using an iPad as a second monitor
February 2, 2011 6:08 AM | Posted in: ,

I love my 13" MacBook Pro. It's portable and powerful, and capable of doing every work-related task I throw at it when I'm traveling. But...

That display is so teensy. I know; that's the compromise I made when I selected that model, but it's occasionally (OK, often) aggravating not to be able to see two open documents simultaneously. Gee, if there was only some way to add another display, but without having to lug along another piece of equipment. Life would be so good.

Air Display IconWell, effective yesterday, life is so good. Yesterday, I purchased (for the princely sum of $9.99) a little application called Air Display from the App Store thereby increasing my laptop's screen area by about 55%. Air Display allows you to connect your iPad (or iPhone or iPod touch) to your laptop or desktop computer and use it as a second (or third) monitor.

The main requirement is that the computer and the iPad have to be connected to the same wi-fi network, but once the app is installed on the iPad (and a small "helper app" put on the computer), the connection to each other is quick and sure. You can configure the app to automatically connect to your iPad when they're both in range, or you can do it manually.

And it works as advertised. There's some latency in the iPad's screen so you wouldn't want to use it for gaming or videos while functioning as a second monitor, but the resolution is crystal clear for documents and still graphics - probably even better than on my laptop.

With Air Display, I can put a Word doc on the iPad and use it to copy and paste text into an HTML doc on my laptop. Or I can monitor a website on one device while doing a blog post on the other. The really slick thing is that you can move the iPad wherever you want it - even put it in your lap - and reorient it to landscape/portrait mode and the picture automatically adjusts.

The iPad's touch screen continues to operate even while connected as a monitor, so you can navigate that device via either mouse or touch. According to the documentation, depending on your operating system, you can even use multi-touch gestures on the iPad, although I haven't tried that.

The Air Display works with both Mac and Windows machines (but check system requirements for both), and with the iPad, iPhone, and iPod touch. And again, this app works only if you have access to a wi-fi network.

Note: Your mileage may vary, but I do find that the auto-connect feature is a bit jicky. If I use app switching on the iPad (double click of the Home button) to select a different app, and then switch back to Air Display, it doesn't always return to the original state. I'm not sure if I'm doing something wrong or if that's a bug. But when it does work, it's like having a Very Smart Monitor.

Note #2: I took advantage of Avatron's live chat support feature and the tech confirmed that the reconnect feature was somewhat dependent on the length of time you were away from the app. Jumping away for a few seconds to check WeatherBug is probably OK; leaving for a few minutes to play Angry Birds will require a reconnect. I hope they'll fix this in a subsequent release.

Apple TV: Media Game Changer
December 27, 2010 9:15 PM | Posted in:

We got an Apple TV for Christmas and I installed it this morning. I want to be careful with the hyperbole, but this device has the potential to change the visual media landscape in the same way that iPods changed the way we listen to music and iPhones changed the way we communicate with one another. That's a pretty amazing claim for a 4" x 4" x 1" box that costs $99.

Apple TVIf you're not familiar with the Apple TV, it's easy to describe: it sits between your internet connection and your high definition TV and allows you to grab media from the web or from your computer and view it on that TV. If you have a WiFi network, it will connect to it; if your network is wired, you can connect via an Ethernet cable. And, like all Apple products, it just works.

Installation and configuration took less than 20 minutes from unboxing to viewing a streaming movie via Netflix. I connected the device to our home theater receiver via an HDMI cable, and then connected to our WiFi network. If you don't have a receiver, you can connect it directly to your TV, but again, you'll need an HDMI  connection (i.e. a high-def TV).

Once you power up the Apple TV (by plugging it into a power outlet) and have it connected to your receiver or TV, it will walk you through the initial setup. This allows you to log into your WiFi network if it's password protected (and it should be). You can also log into your Netflix and MobileMe accounts to access their content, and if you have Home Sharing activated on any of the computers in your network, you can stream music, videos, and photos from those computers. You can also stream YouTube videos and photos via Flickr. And don't forget the hundreds of internet radio stations offering just about every conceivable genre of music.

The video quality is very good (although it obviously varies with the source of the content; low res YouTube videos look, well, crummy, just like they do on your computer). Apple TV can output 720p high definition video, so it's not the highest available quality (which would be 1080p), but according to this report, if your TV can't display 720p then you may have some problems.

Navigating the Apple TV's menus couldn't be easier. The hierarchy of options is obvious and simple, and the small Apple 3-button remote control does the job well. The biggest gripe I had with the setup was the awkwardness of entering usernames and passwords for the various services using the remote to select characters, but I'm at a loss to suggest how it might be done more easily. Plus, this needs to be done only once, as the device will store the data for subsequent use.

Streaming movies from Netflix is undeniably cool, but the real fun begins when you find you can stream slide shows of your own photos from your MobileMe account or music playlists from your computer's iTunes installation. You're no longer tied to your computer's monitor or sound system for such content.

Oh, and did I mention it costs only $99? (You will have to spring for an HDMI cable if you don't have a spare one laying around.)

Update: I did forget to mention that the Apple TV supports surround sound audio.

The December issue of MacWorld has a good tutorial for setting an "if found" message on the home screen of your iPhone. This is accomplished by creating an image to use as wallpaper on your iDevice, and that image is overlaid with text giving instructions regarding how to get in touch with the rightful owner of the lost device.

The example in the magazine uses the following text:

If found, please return phone to Dan Miller 415/555-5555

I'm not crazy about this example. For one thing, it's illogical; you can't return a phone to a name and a phone number. Also, I don't like the privacy implications of putting my name on my phone's screen, along with a phone number.

I think a better approach is what I've done, as shown below.

iPhone Wallpaper

No name, no extraneous text, and the phone number I actually used in place of the sample shown above is my wife's mobile phone, making it harder to cross-reference to a person. But this also has the advantage of increasing the odds of the caller actually reaching someone quickly.

I think I'm more likely to misplace or drop my phone when I'm traveling, and most of my traveling nowadays is done with my wife. Using her cell number means that we wouldn't have to wait until we got home to get information about the missing phone. I'm simply playing the odds.

While MacWorld's tutorial is directed toward the iPhone, the technique will also work for iPad and iPod touch users. The iPod's screen resolution is the same as the iPhone's (320 x 480 pixels), but the iPad's is 768 x 1024 pixels.

Here are the steps for creating your custom "If Found" message.

  1. Find a photo or image that you want to use as your wallpaper, and crop it for the device you're creating the wallpaper for (again, 320x480px for iPhone/iPod touch; 768x1024px for iPad)

  2. Use a photo editing program to overlay the cropped image with the text you want to use

  3. Save the edited image in JPG format

  4. Import the image into iPhoto

  5. Connect your iDevice to your computer, open iTunes, and on the Photos tab of your connected device, make sure that Sync Photos from iPhoto is checked, and that the event or album containing the image that you just imported is also checked. Sync your device to transfer the image to the iPhone/Pod/Pad.

  6. Disconnect the device from your computer and open the Settings panel. Select the Wallpaper setting and navigate to Last Import. Choose the image you created and click the Set Lock Screen button. You can also use the image for your Home Screen wallpaper, but it's not essential, and may not be advisable since the "return phone" text will make for a distracting background for your device's icons.
Matt Saxton is the Midland Reporter Telegram's news editor and he regularly authors a column. Today's column documents what he calls a virus that attacked his computer and wreaked havoc with his Facebook account. He makes a specific point that he uses a Mac, and that the virus accessed his Keychain account, which is the Mac operating system's program for protecting and managing sensitive data like passwords.

Color me skeptical.

The hacking of Facebook accounts is a practice that's been around as long as Facebook itself, and the popularity of the service makes it a juicy target for phishers and producers of malware. Often, the hacked account has been broken into using data stolen from another website; here's an example of where a Christian dating service website was compromised and the data obtained thereby led to hacking of multiple Facebook accounts owned by those who had registered on the dating site.

In other cases, the Facebook account itself is the initial target, and the unwary user is tricked into giving up his or her login information via a phishing attack. There was an outbreak of this sort last year; Fast Company provides a FAQ explaining what was involved.

All this is to say that there are multiple ways to compromise a Facebook account that have nothing to do with the user's computer, and that don't involve viruses. Also, while the Mac OS is not immune to viruses, I can find no documentation of a verified successful attack by a virus on Keychain. Even in the example cited above - the phishing attack that affected Macs as well as Windows machines - it was theorized that the offending script was web-based, and not running locally on the computers themselves. If Matt has indeed suffered such an attack, he needs to report it to Apple because it's groundbreaking news.

I'm skeptical about the claim of a successful Keychain attack for at least one additional reason: if you were able to steal someone's list of usernames and passwords for all their personal and financial accounts, would your only exploit be to mess around in Facebook? Of course, it's not outside the realm of possibility that the hacker(s) knew that accessing things like bank accounts could land them serious jail time, whereas the hijacking of a Facebook account probably carries few consequences, so perhaps I shouldn't read too much into that. But it does seem odd that the only manifestation of a Keychain break-in would be related to Facebook (and I certainly don't mean to minimize the importance of Facebook to any given user).

Granted, Matt doesn't write a technology column and he may have left out details or avoided specific terminology that he deemed irrelevant to the overall story, which was how his personal and social life was affected by the loss of an important social media account. I'd be interested in hearing more details about how he came to the conclusion that the attack was virus-based.

The takeaway from this is pretty simple and commonsense. Don't respond to emails or click links from people you don't know, and be skeptical of those you do know. Don't send out your username/password via unknown WiFi networks. Periodically change your passwords.

And, still, be skeptical of claims of viruses that affect Macs. ;-)

The baddest geek in the 'Bucks
August 20, 2010 6:30 AM | Posted in: ,

So, I stumbled across this - a mock-up of an add-on iPhone QWERTY keyboard - and while it's somewhat interesting in concept, it's still far from an ideal solution for those who can't seem to master the phone's tiny virtual keyboard.

But it made me wonder whether the iPhone plays well with the dockable keyboard* that Apple markets to iPad owners. I had never even considered the idea before, so I popped my phone onto the keyboard, and sure enough, it works.

iPhone connected to Apple iPad keyboard

I can assure you that this combination will make you the baddest geek in the Starbucks, if that's your aspiration.** (And, really, why wouldn't it be?)

*And, in anticipation of your next question, the iPad's Bluetooth keyboard also pairs up and works with an iPhone. This combination is even cooler because you can set your phone off to the side while keyboarding, giving people the impression that you're typing with no obvious device to receive the input.

**While the combination may appear ridiculous, I've actually found a legitimate use for it. I have a password management app on my phone and it's a royal pain to input new entries via the virtual keyboard. The next time I have several updates, I will definitely be using the external keyboard.

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