Category Archives: techtalk

Getting a jump on the holiday weekend with technoinsanity

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For years now I’ve reserved a little bit of time around Labor Day weekend to do something that will completely screw up my websites, but since this year we’ll be traveling on that weekend for perhaps the first time ever, I thought I’d better just get the technical explosion out of the way now. So I did.

My sites have been hosted on a Movable Type template for years. It was easy and free and it worked, and I knew how to use it; when I started, serious blogs were kinda evenly split between MT and WordPress. But over time Movable Type atrophied, more customizable templates never appeared, and WordPress really took over. But, what the hell, trying to move everything over seemed daunting, and I just stayed with MT.

Similarly, I’ve had a webhost for quite a few years that has been just fine, but now they’re not. Lots of downtime, my cPanel keeps getting moved around to different servers without notice (meaning I can’t find it), I’ve gotten locked out of my own account for reasons they can never quite explain, and I’m just done. So while I work on moving things over to a new host, I thought I’d do the WordPress migration too.

It actually went mostly seamlessly. This should allow people to comment more easily (commenting features were never updated on MT), and give me some more flexibility. One thing that is weird — if you use the Archives drop-down, it still delivers the old-style pages from MT. If you search for the same pages, they come up in the new WP format. Working on it. All solutions welcome.

Update: Hey, fixed it. Had to hide my old MT archive pages from WordPress. Somehow it found them, but as soon as I hid them, it generated its own archives.

Does this mean I’ll be reviving my blogging on this site? We’ll see. There are only so many hours in the day, and Hoxsie takes up a lot of my blogging energy. Sometimes I still have some non-historic things to say, and I’ll try to get to that a bit more.

Sacrilege: Windows on a Mac

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I know, I know, but I had no choice. Some elements of my fancy new job absolutely require that I take my fancy new Macbook Pro and run some seriously unfancy Windows programs. So, fine. I continue my neediness and order even more new software, an install disk for Windows and a copy of Parallels for Mac (on the advice of brilliant daughter, who had already tried the Boot Camp path and found it to be silly). Software arrives, Parallels is downloaded, and suddenly I realize: the MacBook Pro has no DVD drive. I mean, I knew that, but I also knew that that really hardly matters, because I don’t think I used the DVD drive on my previous work Windows machine more than three times.

Check Parallels, and its website has a simple solution: I can use DVD sharing on one of my Macs that does have a drive, and just run the Windows disc over there. They even helpfully pointed me directly to the Apple knowledgebase article on the topic, which helpfully contradicted their contention by clearly stating that DVD sharing can’t be used for things like installing Windows. So I’ve used up Plans A and B, and am now scouring the internet for Plan C, and the advice is wildly awful. Nearly all of what I turned up was written by people who didn’t understand one system or the other; the good news was that their errors were almost always pointed out in just-south-of-trollish responses, but it was clear most of these approaches to the problem weren’t going to work. And all I really needed was a disk image of the Windows 7 install disk that Parallels could use to do the installation, on a USB drive. It seemed like it should be so simple.

Turns out: it was. I found one crucial piece of information in one of the threads regarding creating an .ISO file that the installer could read. All I had to do was insert the DVD in my Mac Pro, go to Disk Utility and choose to make a new image from the DVD. Instead of a Mac partition, I was to create the new image as DVD/CD Master. Putting that on a 4GB thumb drive, I would have a file with a  Windows gobbledygook name that ended in .CDR. So how to get that to change to an .ISO file? Ignore the people who posted Terminal scripts that would accomplish this. Just go to the file in a Finder window and change the name manually. Delete .CDR, make it .ISO. Quit Disk Utility, eject your thumb drive, put the thumb drive in the MacBook, and tell Parallels that’s where the Windows installation disk is. In the end, it almost couldn’t have been simpler.

Just a side note: I installed Windows. I installed nothing but Windows, and my entire machine is a week old. But as soon as I tried to run Internet Explorer in Windows, I found a nasty rogue that is called Antivirus Pro; it essentially hijacks your machine, redirects your URLs, and extorts you to pay for a key by putting up a list of alleged viruses your machine is infected with. The list is fake, but this thing is real. Now, where could it have come from other than the Windows install itself? Microsoft claims its antivirus tools are aware of it and will remove it, but I tried two of them without success. I found instructions for manually removing it, which took a little while and a few tries but did eventually work. So glad to be using Windows again! It couldn’t get to the FIRST task I asked of it without a massive problem.

Time will come today

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Time to insure

Image by carljohnson via Flickr

After reading Daniel Walker Howe’s brilliant history of the transformation of the U.S. in the early 1800s, What Hath God Wrought, and then researching a brief story on the establishment of Albany Time, I realized that our approach to time has become standardized, perfect, and wrong. Reading Ian Bartky’s Selling the True Time only reinforces my wonder that we have transformed time from the local true time to something that is delivered from a distant location and that is nearly always wrong.

They say that even a broken clock is right twice a day. Ironically, our highly synchronized clocks, now tied in to official timeservers by high-speed internet connections, are almost never right.

It’s commonly thought that in olden days, time was set by solar noon, the point at which the sun is highest in the sky. Not really true, because it was understood early on that the earth actually rotates 361 degrees each day in relation to the sun, making the solar day a very inaccurate time reference (not to mention the difficulty of measuring the position of a disk that takes up such a large space in the sky and blinds you as you stare at it — leading to the stereotype of the squinty-eyed sailor). Instead, astronomers adopted sidereal time, measuring the earth’s rotation against the night sky, setting a day according to a normal 360-degree rotation. As the use of accurate clocks and watches spread widely in the 19th century, it was common for local jewelers and clockmakers to keep the correct time: local sidereal time. These merchants often were, or were assisted by, amateur astronomers, armed with star charts from Europe and the established reference of the Greenwich observatory, who would frequently set local time with a fair degree of accuracy. So here in Albany, the local watchmaker on Pearl Street was where you went to find out what time it was. And if you took the train to Syracuse, you might step off the train and go across the street to another jeweler to check the time, because it is about 9 minutes earlier in Syracuse than in Albany. That’s how time really works: it’s tied to your longitude, and even a small distance on the planet can make a significant difference in what time it is.

Came the telegraph, railroads and professional astronomers, and the case was made that for the sake of safety, to prevent rail collisions in the days before electric track signaling, trains should all run on the same time. In 1883, the railroads adopted the Standard Time system, breaking the U.S. into four time zones. (Standard time wasn’t established by federal law until 1918.) Most major cities, highly dependent on the railroads for the flow of commerce, adjusted their official time to railroad standard time. Suddenly, when it was noon in Boston, it was noon in Detroit – a convenience, but a patent falsehood, as these two cities are 47 minutes apart. But standard time was universally adopted, and became more and more important to commerce as communications sped up and the world got smaller.

In the early days of personal computers and the web, one of the exciting things was that you could suddenly get highly accurate time through your computer — much easier than placing the call to the local time and temperature line and then walking around the house to set your clocks, guessing how long it had been since you got the time as you moved from room to room. It used to require a program; now it’s built right in to the computer, the phone, the cable box, the Playstation. There’s perfect standard time all over my house – and it even adjusts to the lie we tell ourselves, daylight savings time, to enjoy longer summer evenings. We’ve transformed from having highly accurate time in the 19th century to being completely wrong in the 21st.

So we still commonly think that noon is the point when the sun is highest in the sky (which it is, if you’re talking about solar noon) — but solar noon here in Albany, during daylight savings time, is at 1:04:10 PM. Solar noon in Detroit is at 1:41:31 PM. But if I’m on a phone call with someone in Detroit, at noon today, we’ll both get on the phone at the same time and the sun won’t be near its highest point in the sky. Our time is highly accurate and completely wrong.


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Sharing iCal without paying Apple

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Yes, you can share your iCal information without paying Apple.

I don’t know why sharing iCal calendars is so difficult. Apple has always defaulted so that you can only do it easily through their paid service (formerly .Mac, now something called MobileMe). There used to be some other sharing services around that made it easy, but many of them have disappeared, and all the other fixes seem to involve running a script or a client on each machine you want to share it with. We needed to create a new calendar today and my free iCal hosting service was once again giving me trouble, so I finally got around to figuring out how to do this on my own service. Turns out? Not that hard.

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You know what you don’t see much of anymore?

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Mimeographing 1940, originally uploaded by carljohnson.

Mimeographing services. For decades, mimeographing reigned supreme as the cheap, easy way to make quality copies of printed materials, and every office of any size had one. A typist would set up a stencil, which would then be attached to a spinning drum. Ink would be squeezed through the stencil and onto the sheet of paper. They’re now often confused in our nostalgic minds with dittos, the fragrant medium of school tests that also went by the name of “spirit duplicators.” Dittos worked more like offset, with a mirror-image wax-coated master that printed where the wax wasn’t, usually in a purple ink. Both technologies suffered a bit from the rise of the Xerox-style photocopier, but were truly put to death by personal computers and printers. They are still in use in the developing world, apparently because they don’t require electricity.

You don’t see a lot of typewriting services, either. And the bottom dropped right out of the multigraphing market.

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Typewriter pr0n!

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Remington keys 4

Image by carljohnson via Flickr

If, like me, you spent a significant part (though hopefully it won’t turn out to be the majority) of your life in the 20th century, you may share an unreasoned love of typewriters. I got rid of my last typewriter, a lightly and lovingly used IBM Selectric, back in ’95, once it was clear that I would never again want to cast a keystroke that wasn’t captured in the e-world. But that didn’t dim the romance of keys, carriage and bell, and the entire industry that grew up around it. My long-time home of Syracuse was the original home of Smith (later Smith-Corona) typewriters, as well as at least three other typewriter factories. Typewriter money built three of Syracuse University’s landmark buildings. I still have a beautiful Remington Noiseless, proud product of the Remington factory in Ilion – I fell in love with it at a junk shop on the west side of Syracuse and walked its heavy frame through the slums to get it home. It still serves a decorative purpose, a rare beauty that carried two sets of characters on each striker, but my dream of finding a second one for parts and getting it back into working order is a dream deferred.

So if you share this love that dares not carbon copy its name, you’ll appreciate this wonderful site: The Martin Howard Collection of Antique Typewriters. These are marvelous creations from the earliest days of typewriting, before QWERTY was the rule, and every one is a gem, a technological dream from another time. Please to enjoy.

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Mea culpa!

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Sorry to all the folks who took the time to comment and then wondered if I even cared. Your comment is very important to me. No, really it is. Not sure what Movable Type setting I had screwed up. It’s supposed to send me an email when there are comments pending, but I got nothing. Also, if you have trouble commenting, shoot me an email and let me know. It’s supposed to accept pretty much every ID system out there, and will even let you comment with just an email address. I’d turn off moderation, but you cannot believe how many spam comments I’m getting already.

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Did you know? Snow Leopard edition

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Having only recently moved into the wonderful world of having an up-to-date operating system, I’m still playing catch-up on capabilities. I went from Tiger on my old G4 to a short stay on Leopard on the new Mac Pro, and now Snow Leopard on the Pro and the new iMac. And I keep finding little surprises I didn’t even know it could do. For instance, all of a sudden, QuickTime will make and save audio, video and screen recordings. When did that happen? Last I had checked, you had to buy QuickTime Pro, which I never did, and used about 14 different programs to work around that need. (Downside: it still won’t record streaming audio, for what may seem like obvious copyright reasons.)

This morning’s new discovery?

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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.