Monthly Archives: October 2009

The Dharma Bums

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“I’ve been reading Whitman, know what he says, Cheer up slaves, and horrify foreign despots, he means that’s the attitude for the Bard, the Zen Lunacy bard of old desert paths, see the whole thing is a world full of rucksack wanderers, Dharma Bums refusing to subscribe to the general demand that they consume production and therefore have to work for the privilege of consuming, all that crap they didn’t really want anyway such as refrigerators, TV sets, cars, at least new fancy cars, certain hair oils and deodorants and general junk you finally always see a week later in the garbage anyway, all of them imprisoned in a system of work, produce, consume, work, produce, consume, I see a vision of a great rucksack revolution thousands or even millions of young Americans wandering around with rucksacks, going up to mountains to pray, making children laugh and old men glad, making young girls happy and old girls happier, all of ’em Zen Lunatics who go about writing poems that happen to appear in their heads for no reason and also by being kind and also by strange unexpected acts keep giving visions of eternal freedom to everybody and to all living creatures, that’s what I like about you Goldbook and Smith, you two guys from the East Coast which I thought was dead.”

Tech Talk

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I don’t normally do tech talk here, but on the chance this will help someone else, I’m going to put up the most boring post ever. (Well, in the top 100, anyway.) There have been trials and tribulations resulting in a new computer, which also meant a new operating system, moving up to Leopard (10.5). For the most part this was smooth because it’s been around a while and programs have been updated and all is peachy keen. But it also came with brand-new Snow Leopard (10.6) in the box, ready to install, and SL breaks quite a few more things. One of those things is AppleTalk, an old networking protocol that goes back to the first Mac. Probably about 5 people still use AppleTalk, but I’m one of them. And in SL it’s finally gone.

Back when we started this whole working from home thing, we borrowed a boatload of money to get nearly the fastest computer thinkable for graphic work – a PowerMac 7100. It came with a 100MB hard drive, an amount we thought, in those pre-digital photo, even pre-worldwide web days, that we could never fill up. The computer and monitor were so expensive (around $4000) that we put off getting a printer for a while, instead driving off to the Kinkos when printing a job was really necessary. (We also went to the corner gas station to fax things, until we got our first fax modem.) When that got old, we took the plunge and bought a fine laser printer, the HP LaserJet 4MP. It prints Postscript files, and it’s a workhorse. 15 years of constant use and absolutely no maintenance later, it’s still going strong and putting out documents that look as crisp as the day we got it. But as time marches on, it gets harder to keep it connected to my new flashy computers. The last time it broke was when parallel ports went away, on my PowerMac G4 dual. This caused some panic until I learned I could network the printer in through an Ethernet bridge, a little magic box that with a minimum of fuss kept things running the past 8 or 9 years. But it was a magic box that came in through AppleTalk, and in figuring out potential issues with SnowLeopard, I found out that its magic will be gone.

Scouting around for a new solution, I learn that there are cables that adapt parallel port connections to USB (which I’m pretty sure didn’t exist yet when I put in the ethernet bridge solution). Notably flaky, but worth a try, and people with the same printer seem to have gotten it to work. So I get a good deal at eBay on a Belkin cable (I don’t know what Keyspan is, but people complain about their cables mightily, so I stuck to a brand I’ve had success with), the cable arrives promptly, and off I go.

Sort of. The Mac sees the cable and knows what it is, but getting documents to the printer is a very chancy thing. Sometimes they go, sometimes they don’t. Sometimes I need to restart the printer, sometimes that doesn’t work. Flaky. And not productive. So I need a better solution, which is where the beauty of OS X’s Unix underpinnings once again shines. (I didn’t even need to get into the Terminal or DarwinPorts, and if those words scare you, don’t worry about it.) So, if you’re trying to keep an old AppleTalk-style printer alive by making it a USB printer, here’s what you do:

  1. Buy the aforementioned Belkin USB Parallel Printer Adapter.
  2. Connect the printer through a USB port (direct to computer or a powered hub; I didn’t have luck coming in through the Cinema Display’s port).
  3. Go here and download usbtb, which provides what is called a CUPS backend for USB printing. This is an open-source project that supports hundreds of printers, and claims to do it faster than OS X.
  4. Install usbtb (double-click the “Install usbtb” package). It will then scan for USB printers. Your printer’s name may show up, or it may be called “Unknown Unknown,” in which case select that. Then you will get a list of printer drivers. The HP LaserJet 4MP is not on that list, so choose its closest relative, the 4M. Quit usbtb.
  5. You could be done, but the 4M’s driver doesn’t provide that Postscripty crispness you’ve been accustomed to, especially in graphics. So go to System Preferences>Print & Fax, choose the printer you just installed, choose Options & Supplies, click the Driver tab, and now replace the print driver with the 4MP driver (which is included in Leopard and Snow Leopard). And it works. Now you’re printing through the CUPS system using an official HP driver, and it all works beautifully.
  6. If you’ve been sharing this printer, you’ll need to delete it and then add it again on the other computers. Also, you will continue to see your shiny new cable listed in the Print & Fax list (mine shows up as “Belk USB Printing Support IEEE-1284 Controller”) – just leave it.
  7. Bonus: By getting rid of the Ethernet bridge, you’ve freed up space for another transformer on your power strip.
On one of the boards, someone said, “Dude! Just buy a new printer!” Well, why? I doubt that any printer I buy today will work as long or as cheaply as this fantastic machine (which cost about $1000 at the time, by the way), and I see no reason to landfill something that’s working just perfectly. I solved this problem for $10, an hour of research, and an hour of experimenting.

Requiem for a heavyweight

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Mac switch 1I’ve been mostly offline for the past couple of weeks, a situation that in today’s society is akin to being in a coma. It started with a hard drive crash, and all the efforts that are required to restore a computer after a crash. Then it was followed by another hard drive crash, and so I went through all the issues again – except that now I was very short on spare hard drive space and had to start arranging my backups like a tile puzzle, shifting backup files from one drive to another to make room for backups and restorations. I bought 2 new drives, got everything arranged the way I wanted it, made double-sure my most critical information (and it seems like it’s all critical) was safely backed up, and was in the midst of backing up the new configuration when

the doorbell rang. Only no one was at the door. Not unusual; our wireless doorbell picks up stray signals from time to time. But the clocks in the kitchen were blinking. And the computer was off. The lights weren’t on so if they’d blinked, I didn’t notice. But when I went to restart the computer, I didn’t get a happy Mac. Or a sad Mac, or a confused Mac, or anything else. Absolutely no reaction. So, despite being on a surge protector, a power surge had fried my old G4.

Now, this old machine owed us nothing. It was a G4 dual processor 450 mHz, nearly nine years old hopelessly antiquated in a lot of ways (streaming video, for instance, could hardly be called “streaming” on that machine), and yet still surprisingly capable. I could still run iTunes, Photoshop, Word, Firefox, Excel, Mail and everything else all at once, and it really didn’t suffer too badly. It had been useless for games for years, but that’s what a Playstation is for anyway. But it had certainly served us well all these years, and I was genuinely shocked it was dead.

So the choice was to go cheap and get an iMac that would be wickedly fast by G4 standards, but would have limited expandability, or go top-dollar and get the Mac Pro Quad Core. Well, based on the lesson learned from buying at the top of the range the last two times, my third Mac in 15 years is the Mac Pro. It does some things, like importing images, so fast I get whiplash looking at it. Even the inside of the box is sexy. And while I anticipated spending another several days getting all my old files back in order, Apple’s Migration Assistant put all my files in place, including my mailbox settings, in about an hour. An hour. It was incredible.

So let’s see if this big shiny aluminum box (even bigger than the G4) goes for 9 years.

A misplaced zero

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Way back when I first learned about computers, about 1’s and 0’s and bits and bytes (’cause we weren’t really into kilobytes or megabytes then, and a terabyte would still be something you’d only expect from a pterodactyl), back when we punched programs onto paper tapes before running them through phone lines to a distant mainframe, when there were no monitors, just paper output – way back then, when I learned that a single misplaced digit could ruin my afternoon, I wouldn’t have imagined that decades later it could ruin a lot more than that. A tiny little hard drive failure, not enough to cause the disk to completely fail but enough to make it unmountable – most likely just a little bit or byte out of place somewhere that I can’t find to correct – and my weekend and the beginning of my workweek are toast. My startup drive suddenly froze up on Friday, just after I’d saved a couple of documents I really didn’t want to lose. My pictures were safely off on another drive, and everything except that afternoon’s work was backed up, so it should have been the mildest of inconveniences – except that it’s the startup drive, so all the system data and mailboxes and preferences and everything else that keep my electronic life running smoothly are on there, and not on anything else in a bootable form, and so arrrrgggghhhhh.

That was just a week after another drive failed (again, having been faithfully backed up), and while the system disk didn’t owe me anything (installed in 2002), it is much more of a pain in the ass to lose.

While the periodic Revolt of the Appliances marched on, the toaster decided to throw in with this lot and see what came of it, but rather than causing agony and hand-wringing and careful planning for restoration, the toaster’s revolt was met with swift justice – out with it. A new one was procured, and one of the options had a digital read-out. For toast. At this point I’m not taking any chances on these devices getting together, so the analog choice came home with us and, by all accounts, makes toast.

Meanwhile, backups of backups as I reconfigure, reload, etc., and get a new set of drive arrangements in place. I need to decide whether I’m going the extra mile with the old drive to rescue a few files, but that decision will likely be made when the new drive arrives tomorrow, and it ends up taking its rightful place alongside the toaster.