06 December 2009

Not a Granny Smith

A couple of weeks ago, I tried to upgrade my MacBook to Apple’s latest operating system, nicknamed Snow Leopard. Theoretically, this should have been as easy as popping in the disc and clicking a bunch of “Continue” buttons. In practice, that was not true at all. The installation software said that it could not proceed because my hard drive wasn’t the disc used to boot up the computer. Hunh? Web research ensued, and I came to the conclusion that the only solution involved erasing and repartitioning my hard drive, and then installing Snow Leopard. That sounded drastic; I put Snow Leopard away.

A few days later, I called Apple support, to try to resolve this. The guy on the other end of the line was patient and helpful, and walked me through a series of tests, before coming to the conclusion that, yes, the hard drive needed to be repartitioned. Why? He didn’t know, but he acknowledged that I was clearly not the first person to face the issue. He assured me that the Time Machine backup I had made prior to the call would work as promised, and he led me through the process.

This has a happy ending: it took about a half-hour to reinstall the original Leopard operating system, another 90 minutes to restore everything from the back-up, and then another 45 minutes or so to add Snow Leopard. Time Machine restored my computer perfectly—everything, down to each tweak, setting, and file. It was a reminder of the genius nature of that system, and credit to Apple for figuring it out: a back-up system that allows both a system-wide restoration and a file-by-file exploration, under one built-in software umbrella. And now my machine runs faster, courtesy of Snow Leopard.


Earlier today, I went in to the Apple story to have them check out my iPhone. A couple weeks ago, the little switch that controls the ringer just snapped off. I’ve been able, with the aid of finger nails, to flick the stub of the switch around when desperately necessary but it is a drag.

The “geniuses” in Apple’s Upper West Side store were terrific. My phone is in great shape, and it was clear that this was both a small problem—and not a reflection of serious abuse. Plus, the phone is covered under Apple’s extended warranty program.

Or so I thought. I bought the extended warranty after I bought the phone, but the salesman at the Apple store told me that just by purchasing it, the warranty was in effect. Not so: I needed to activate it, and I hadn’t done that. Today, Apple took care of that for me—it helped that I had the receipt, showing I’d purchased it last February—and then, when finished, replaced the phone. No more questions asked. Then they let me sit there while I connected the new iPhone to my laptop and “restored” the settings from the old phone to the new one, courtesy of another smart Apple back-up tool.

Which also worked more or less flawlessly. (The less: I had to manually put my music, etc., back on the phone. A very slight inconvenience in the overall process.) It took about two hours to do the full restore, but it meant that two hours later I had my iPhone back, with all my apps, settings, old text messages...


I finally broke up with Microsoft a little more than a year ago, and thus far, Apple has not let me down. In fact, my household has converted, my extended family has converted, and my office may convert, too. Still—despite reaffirming the high quality of Apple’s products, software, and services—these two experiences highlight the frustrating nature of computers and personal technology when something goes wrong. And invariably, something will go wrong at some point.

My experiences are not unique, but that’s the point. I remain concerned that we rely too much on these machines to (help us) manage our lives, without giving due attention to the weaknesses of the systems, or of ourselves. One lesson in all this is, clearly, back-up regularly. Another is buy Apple: the products and services are better value for the money. The biggest lesson of all may be the one we will never learn: to start relying on less fragile systems, before our collective memory needs to be erased and repartitioned, with little hope of a full, restorable back-up available.

Labels: , , ,

12 October 2009

Sensible Reading

I appreciate effective combinations of quality products and good service. While it’s often more entertaining to excoriate companies that fall down on one front or another, the folks doing good work deserve recognition tooso here’s a short item of support for the creators of the my6sense app for the iPhone / iPod Touch.

I first learned about the my6sense app through a post on Mashable back in August. They gave it a rave review for its combination of features: feed reader; information sharer; and a feature called “Digital Intuition,” that over time learns your tastes and suggests other reading material based on those tastes. For me, the initial draw was the feed reader component. I have discovered, though, that the “Digital Intuition” feature works quite well: having added my own feeds, and spent time reading different items (or not), the app has learned some of my interests, and the main feed page now provides a range of different, interesting items to look at, in addition to the feeds I added myself.

Adding or importing feeds in my6sense is easy, as is creating folders to combine multiple feeds into one reading page, so users can cluster technology items together, arts items together, etc. The top 20 items loaded are available offline, which is perfect for paging through on a subway ride where there’s no internet access.

BUT, the thing that really got me committed to continued usage was the response I received from the company when I did have a problem. Early on, two feeds that I tried to add would not go through. It was odd; everything worked fine except for these two specific, unrelated blogs . I got a range of error messages, some telling me that the items were there already, others just a slightly-too-cutesy “Oh noes!” Oh, noes indeed. On the verge of giving upthe app was free, after all, so I wouldn’t lose muchI submitted feedback through the app’s own feedback tool. That generated a reply within a day, with a person who was terrific on follow-through. She asked for more detail about the problem, and proposed a few different solutions; none worked. She was apologetic and, when she said that the developers were looking into the issue, I believed her. And, indeed, a subsequent update to the app fixed my issues.

At this point, there are a few small tweaks I’d like to see my6sense make, to improve the usability. One is to add side-to-side page scrolling, as in the Wall Street Journal’s app; right now, my6sense makes a reader go back to the top of the screen to change items. Another is just a little more flexibility in controlling the font size. A better automatic information category for the arts would be nice, beyond the celebrity-driven items that are built in. And the real stretch nice-to-have would be a “save” or bookmark feature, to keep track of a few things one may want to remember for later.

So there you have it. Great product, great price, and great service: if you’re looking for a feed reader and information aggregator, check out my6sense.

Labels: , ,

16 May 2009

OpenOffice Update

OpenOffice.org - the free, multi-platform, "office" software suite of programs and tools - recently launched version 3.1. I wrote about version 2.0 back in 2006, and since then the program has only improved further. Rather than repeat the whole structure of my original argument, I thought I would just punch out a few quick reasons why OpenOffice.org can and should replace your version(s) of Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and Access:

1. Features. These programs do everything that Microsoft's programs do - and sometimes more. For example, any file / document can be exported to PDF format with one click (and without buying or installing any additional software, like Adobe Acrobat). With two clicks, you can control the quality of the PDF, the file size, the inclusion of bookmarks on the page, how it looks when it opens, and more.

2. Interoperability for imports. In addition to being able to open Microsoft Office documents perfectly, OpenOffice.org has worked for opening a range of other files, including former Microsoft files that have been corrupted or improperly closed. Moreover Microsoft has, in recent years, dropped some of the converters it used to include by default with programs like Word. OpenOffice.org still has them - and they work better than Microsoft's ever did anyway.

3. Interoperability for exports. Want to save a file (yours or someone else's) as a Microsoft Word document? OpenOffice.org will do it, with no problems. Want to convert that presentation into an easy, web-enabled Flash file? OpenOffice.org will do it, no problem. Got an old Access database you can no longer ... access? OpenOffice.org will open it - and let you extract the data into a spreadsheet.

4. Languages. Speak another language? Want to use an office program that knows that language, dictionary and all? OpenOffice.org can be had (for free) in a wide range of languages, from Afrikaans to Vietnamese.

5. Add-ons / extensions. The smart developers at OpenOffice.org use the Mozilla / Firefox model and have opened up a whole world of "extensions," additional items components (from new document templates to new functions), many of which can also be had for free.

6. Stability. Since I started using OpenOffice.org full time in 2003, I think I can count on two hands the number of times the program has crashed. That's with heavy-duty use, for files in multiple formats and across multiple platforms (Windows, Mac OS X, and even Linux). Six years, 10 crashes? When was the last time your software worked so well, Microsoft?

7. Environmental conservation. This may sound silly, but think about it: it's a lot more environmentally sensitive (and cost-effective) to deliver a program that requires no additional packaging. Each new computer you buy with Microsoft Office installed comes with crap you will likely throw out, from the packaging to the reinstallation CDs. OpenOffice.org is free, which means that it's readily available - which means that crap is unnecessary. Need a new copy? Just download it when you need it.

8. Global accessibility. Hand in hand with the environmental message is one of global do-gooding. Free software like this is liberating: classes of people can get easy access to a valuable, high-quality product. Yes, this is limited to people who already can afford a computer; but as the cost of hardware falls, the freedom to choose other software products increases their utility. And there is a reason that governments are also switching to OpenOffice.org: it saves taxpayers money, too.

9. Cost. You can't beat free. Seriously. Especially when free is really, really good.

Every software has some thing bound to drive a user nuts. For me, it's the hidden nature of OpenOffice.org's "Recent Documents" menu: it's only accessible when some kind of document is already open. But that's a small thing, and easily managed. Everything else is great, which is why, several years later, I'm once again back telling people to take a look. It's worth it.

Labels: ,

08 May 2009

Data Geek

Doing some research for a ... well, some kind of article / blog post / op-ed [TBD] about art museum attendance, I happened on a cool feature of the U.S. Census Bureau: the Facts for Features section of their site. Given how much I love their data, I don't know how I've missed this previously.

Essentially, the Census Bureau each year publishes a set of stats keyed to specific holidays, drawing on their deep and rich data set about life in these here United States of America. For example, the most recent is about the upcoming 4th of July holiday, and includes information about cookouts (and the amount of meat we consume, or where our baked beans likely came from), fireworks, and even the dollar value of our annual trade with Britain, our former colonizer ($112.4 billion).


And, while I'm on the geek front, also coming soon: some thoughts on the just-released version 3.1 of OpenOffice, my office "suite" of choice.

Labels: , ,

29 March 2009

RSS Feed Update

More technology notes: with the migration to a new server last week, and the other problems I was having with Blogger, the Atom & RSS feeds for my sites were not working.

Those problems should now be fixed. If you need to update your feeds, here's the info:
Atom: http://www.sascha.com/atom.xml
RSS: http://www.2rss.com/atom2rss.php?atom=http://www.sascha.com/atom.xml


Labels: ,

28 February 2009

Evernote Thanks

It's easy - too easy - to be constantly critical, in the negative sense, of what goes on around us. Therefore when something works as it should, it seems worth saying "Thank you!" And when the something that worked as it should is a small company with a good product, saying "Thank you!" publicly is even more important.

So: Thank you, Evernote!

I have been using Evernote since 2005 to track my notes and ideas, keep clips from web sites and other sources, and generally help manage my life. The early version of the program was easy to use, easy to learn, and free. Eventually, I upgraded to a low-cost paid version, which enabled a synchronization feature, so I could sync my "notes" across different computers using a USB flash drive as the go-between.

Last year, Evernote released version 3.0, an even more sophisticated version - also free - that offers the synchronization feature across Windows, Mac, iPhone, and other platforms, along with a web interface. The premium version, very reasonably priced at $45 per year, turns Evernote into a file server: drop attachments into your notes, and they also synchronize across the entire system. Open those attachments up, edit them, and the changes are saved back to the system.

All this was cool enough, but it was not until I ran into a problem that I really appreciated how great Evernote is. A note I created with multiple attachments got corrupted; first time it has happened, and I don't know what caused it, but it stopped the program from syncing. Within one hour of asking for help, I had a response asking for some more detail; within 12 hours I had an e-mail from Evernote with the solution to the problem. Everything was back to normal after that.

If you're the kind of person who likes to jot down ideas, keep track of receipts, categorize information or to-do lists across different areas of your life, take pictures or audio notes to remind yourself of different things, and more ... Evernote is the program for you. I cannot recommend it highly enough, and they deserve a public thank you for their great product, and for their great customer service.

Labels: , ,