Do I really want to do this?

An initial foray into blogging.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Mac Media Center Software

I got my first HDTV! I feel spoiled. I feel even more spoiled because I'm not quite satisfied yet -- one of the things I want to be able to do with it is to watch the video files on it that I usually watch on my MacBook. Here's what I want to be able to do:

From the couch, with no keyboard and no mouse:
1. Locate the video file in my Movies folder that I want to watch
2. Open it with VLC
3. Go to fullscreen mode in VLC, turn subtitles on and off, and skip forwards and backwards in the movie
4. Launch and browse iPhoto, and launch and manipulate iTunes

That's it for the short list. VLC is a requirement because I often find VLC's performance to be better than Quicktime, with files they both support, and VLC supports a lot more file formats. I have several matroska files with subtitles that I want to be able to watch, and VLC is one of the limited number of Mac tools to support those. Nearly all of the available options seem to do fine at manipulating iTunes and iPhoto, so I focused my testing on VLC.

I first looked at the AppleTV and Media Center type applications. The AppleTV is right out, though, because it does not launch VLC, and will only browse files that Quicktime recognizes. The same problem applies to the Media Center apps -- though they often support more file formats, most don't support matroska with optional subtitles. If you don't care whether you use VLC, they might be excellent solutions. Ars Technica has a good review of them.

The next thing I looked at was software to harness the Apple remote to do useful things. This is where I found my solution. Here's the software I looked at, in the order I looked at them.

mira ($15.95)
This was the one I wanted to like the most. I'd tried it out last year during a free software promotion. It is slick, but it is not a way to control things from start to finish. You can program the buttons of the remote on a per-application basis, like all these sorts of tools, but there is no file browser, which was a necessity for me. Also, there is no "Open..." or "Subtitles" action available for VLC. So this was out.

iRed Lite (free)
This was my next candidate, because it's free, and you can program the buttons to do whatever you want. There's no built-in file browser, but my grand plan was to set up a quicksilver trigger to bring up a content menu of my Movies folder, and then have the remote keys move through the menus and launch a file. But it only halfway worked -- I couldn't get iRed Lite to communicate well with Quicksilver. It kept randomly launching Quicksilver multiple times in a row. I eventually gave up on this one.

Sofa Control ($14.95)
I'd not heard much about Sofa Control, but something on their web page made me take a closer look -- it mentions that it can be used as a media center, and that you can browse files, which is what I wanted. I downloaded it and looked at their tutorial, in which you use the remote to flip through a multi-page pdf in Preview. The tutorial is very well done and I felt like an expert in five minutes. It's not perfect -- for some reason the "Open..." option in VLC doesn't work, and long filenames are truncated in the menus, for example. There's a minor problem in that the mouse cursor initially appears at the top left of the screen, and if you enter VLC's fullscreen mode without moving it, the menubar will show up on top of your movie. Also, if you don't like the application presets, you need to be able to edit AppleScript to change them. This is both an advantage and a disadvantage -- for me, it's an advantage, because I can hack my way through it, and it is as flexible as possible.

The killer feature of Sofa Control, though, is the application-specific menu. Six buttons can only handle so much, after all, and you'll have to remember or look up what the buttons do. But in Sofa Control, the "menu" button on the remote brings up an additional menu with all the application-specific actions that did not fit onto the remote buttons. It is the perfect place to stick the subtitle controls for VLC, which the developer did. (Holding the "menu" key down brings up the global Sofa Remote options.)

So, Sofa Control left a very favorable impression.

Remote Buddy (approximately US $28)
I'd noticed that RemoteBuddy looked a lot like Sofa Control in action (they both mimic Front Row in style), but cost more. It looks like it might be a more polished, easily customizable version of Sofa Control with more features, on the surface. It can take advantage of other remote controls you might own, plus the iPhone. It has an on-screen keyboard, so you can type URL's into Safari, for example. It seems to have more sophisticated iTunes controls than the other software did.

RemoteBuddy requires installation of a kernel extension, which made me a little nervous. And in practice, the things I wanted to do didn't work as well out-of-the-box as they had with Sofa Control. You are a little more limited to the functions you can program onto your remote buttons -- there is an extra application menu, but it only contains things that you've programmed the buttons to do plus a few global things, like "Hide" and "Quit". I had to edit the preferences to set up a subtitle toggle in VLC, but at least it was there. It's a little difficult to get started with RemoteBuddy; I had to add an option to the default behavior to bring up the global menu (isn't this a no-brainer? Is there some magic way I don't know about to get to the global menu?) I kept running into stumbling blocks which frustrated me.

While there is a "Movies" option from the RemoteBuddy menus, it did not find the matroska files in my Movies folder -- or in fact, any movie files. Possibly if I fiddled with it some more, I could have figured out how to make it work, but at that point I was ready to commit to Sofa Control.

Now my only problem is, should my next major purchase be a Mac Mini to attach to the TV permanently, or should I buy myself a new MacBook Pro and use the old MacBook as my media PC? :)


Saturday, June 17, 2006

PIM Review

I need a new life-organizer that plays nicely on Intel Macs.

I like storing random ideas and snippets so they don't get lost. I don't remember how many pages were in my original OS 7 NotePad document, but it was a lot. (And it made such a satisfying *thunk* when you turned the page...)

Then, NotePad wasn't enough. I tried a bunch, and came up with iOrganize around the OS 8 days. I paid for it. But. It didn't make the transition to OS 9, I think it was, very well. It got reorganized, but I liked the interface less and less. So I went hunting again. I came up with MacJournal, free at the time, and very useful for a long while. I've still got a lot of stuff in it, especially encrypted stuff, like shareware numbers and birthday gift lists, etc.

I got distracted by VoodooPad in the middle of it, but I have discovered that I don't quite have enough self-discipline to keep my whole life organized in VoodooPad. Mostly because it's too hard to clean up after myself. I make a new note for everything, and suddenly I have sixteen billion notes. Which would be OK, but it takes a long time for a 15MB file to load. I know the developer is planning fixes, but I really want to streamline my document instead of growing it forever.

What I wanted to do with VoodooPad was take a sort of tree of documents, ie, give it a page name and export all the pages recursively linked to on that document and its "children", and start fresh from there. That doesn't exist. Again, the developer has a "split" functionality coming up, but in order to use it, you have to click a checkbox for every single page you want transferred. Did I mention I have sixteen billion pages? Not all of which are easily identified by their name, either. If I actually have to make a decision on every page individually, this is the way I'd want to do it: on the "Pages" drawer or panel or whatever, highlight the first page. It will show up in the main pane, serving as a preview for me. If I want to delete it, I press command-D. If I want to keep it, I press the down arrow to go to the next document. It would be pretty speedy but it doesn't work, because pressing the down arrow moves the focus to the main content window.

More complaints: The text in the new Pages panel in the beta VoodooPad is tiny. I'm transitioning from a 15" 1152x768 screen to a 13.3" 1280x800 screen, so all text is tiny anyway, but that panel is seriously pushing it. And if you only have one tab, there should be no tabbar. Wasted space in these sorts of apps really bugs me for some reason. Also, encryption doesn't quite seem to work as I expect in VoodooPad, so I stopped even trying with it, and just kept my encrypted stuff back in MacJournal 2.6. (It's much nicer to have encrypted hierarchies of documents rather than encrypted single pages.)

So, time to move on from VoodooPad, and I am not enthusiastic about going back to MacJournal 2.6. I'm feeling the drain of the non-native apps, and a few key features are missing from the old version. I need to migrate to a universal binary that will meet my needs. I downloaded Mariner's new MacJournal, which does not feel very different from the old free version but has nested journals -- yay! It crashed for me once after I exited from full-screen mode (note: this bug is fixed as of version 4.0.4), and it lost the encryption on one of my existing encrypted journals as it was updating them from version 2.6 to version 4. Nested journals and drag-and-drop reordering of notes are great improvements, but I've always felt you should be able to click on the note title in the drawer and be able to change the name of the note in place. Alas, still no. Even with a few minor annoyances though, this is a big contender. Price is slightly higher than (some) others -- $35, and upgrades won't be free, though I'm not sure how often you have to pay.

I decided to hunt for a list of similar applications. There are a surprising number of them, but none of them are perfect. Here're the ones I downloaded:

DEVONnote ($20): Not as intuitive as others, although all the functionality I want seems to be there. Command-N doesn't do anything. Why couldn't those "classify" and "see also" buttons at the bottom have been part of the toolbar? You can't undo things like the "Group" command.

Dossier ($19): The concept of folders is not pulled off as well as the others. You can get a list of folders, but you can't expand them to see what's inside; you need the third pane for that. I'm not a fan of third panes, unless we're talking widescreen view, which seems overkill for everyday note taking. This doesn't have widescreen view anyway. No nested folders.

Formation ($30): Too busy. Looks ported from a less beautiful OS. Might not be universal binary, anyway, given how long it bounced in the dock. The columns are nice, but this isn't really what I'm looking for.

MacJournal ($35): see above. Excellent, but some inexplicable behavior and not quite perfect interface.

Mori ($28): Cool interface. Of the programs I tested, this one most made me want to start typing in it. I think I'd be sold, but no encryption. It behaves the way I expect it to, and the sample document presented (inbox/project list/filing cabinet) is not only apropos to how I would use it, it's much better designed than my current scheme. So it's a possibility, but where am I going to store those shareware numbers? I thought about using Keychain Access, which would sort of work, except I have a lot of stuff encrypted in MacJournal now. I don't want to have to hunt for all that stuff in Keychain Access. Still, Mori's tempting.

Yojimbo ($39): This application doesn't really seem designed for writing text. It seems designed for saving smallish bits of information, which yes, I will do, but I will also want to sit down and be able to dedicate the majority of the app's screen space to a word processing frame I can just type into.

So from the looks of it, though I'm tempted by the beauty of Mori, I think I'm going with MacJournal.

ETA: After another week of using MacJournal -- Yep, I'll definitely be buying this one. Actually, I have already done so. I haven't had any more unseemly crashes with it, and it's suiting my needs just fine. Being able to upload to blogs so easily is icing on the cake.


Friday, June 16, 2006

Just what everyone needed, another MacBook review

I've read so many MacBook reviews while I've been waiting to get mine that I feel the need to contribute my own thoughts. So, here's my one-week review.

Two-fingered trackpad scroll is the best thing EVER. If I never move the cursor to another tiny arrow button it'll be too soon. It's making me fumble when I try to use my computer at work. It's linux and has one of those linux-style three-button (no scrollwheel) mice. I keep trying to hold down the first two mouse buttons and scroll with it that way. Eek.

Anyone want to write linux mouse software to do that? O:)

And, success! I managed to upgrade the RAM to 2GB myself. For a while I thought the operation was doomed to failure, because the left-most screw was nearly impossible to unscrew. One of the RAM chips popped out much more easily than the other one, but neither of them was as much trouble as that stupid screw. Anyway, I feel relieved and a bit accomplished that I managed it. But even if you have a tiny screwdriver, I say don't bother trying with those screws unless you've got a bona-fide #00 Phillips head one.

Even with just MacJournal (in which I'm writing this) and my login items (Quicksilver, PandoCalendar under Rosetta, and the Activity Monitor dock icon showing CPU history), I'm using 483 MB of RAM. After a few days of watching MenuMeters, I noticed I was at 1.96 GB once, but generally I use about 1.25 GB. This means that I think it might be better to get one 1 GB ram chip to replace one of the initial 256 MB chips than to replace both chips with 512 MB chips, even if there is loss of performance due to unpaired RAM. At any rate, having 2 GB of RAM makes me happy.

I love the brightness and crispness of the glossy screen. There's a huge window right behind my chair at work, which I was afraid would cause tons of glare. There is some, but it turns out that the benefits of this screen far outweigh the annoyances. It's not at all unusable, even when the sun is streaming directly over my shoulder. Honestly the glare off the white border is more noticeable. I also love the keyboard, but since I got to try them out in the Apple Store the very day the MacBooks were released, I knew from the beginning that I wouldn't have a problem with that.

As for screen real estate -- that has been an adjustment. I'm going from 15.1" 1172x768 to a 13.3" 1280x800. So all the fonts are miniscule, and small system fonts are rough on my eyes. I'm adjusting, but I have a ways to go. It would've been nice if they could have squeezed a 14" screen in here by reducing the LCD frame width. Everything looks so big (and blurry and dim) on my Titanium now.

Any other complaints from me? Well, the up/down arrow keys, especially "up", occasionally seem to refuse to register keypresses, and/or require a large amount of force. Left/right work fine. The trackpad button click is soggier than my Titanium. Luckily I mostly use trackpad tapping, though I do habitually command-click with my ring finger on command and my thumb pressing the physical button. I'm trying to learn to command-tap, instead.

But geez, that's seriously all I can think of to complain about. That boggles the mind. I had a lot more initial complaints going from my Lombard to my Titanium PowerBook. My reception of the MacBook in general has been a lot closer to the euphoria I felt upon acquiring my Lombard PowerBook, which was my very first portable computer.

My MacBook gets hot, but not abnormally so, is so far not showing the discoloring, and I don't think it has any noisemaking problems. I suppose it moos on rare occasions, but it's tons quieter than my Titanium. The MacBook does seem to vibrate a tiny bit (due to the hard drive or maybe an extremely quiet fan?), which is new sensation for me but not a problem. I plan to upgrade to a 120 GB hard drive someday, so we'll see if that has any impact on the vibration. The MacBook itself is so sturdy and solid, a world apart from my creaky Titanium.

One more difference I noticed between my two laptops: with the Titanium, if you pressed the CD eject key on the keyboard and there was no disk in the drive, it would do nothing. On the MacBook, it makes noise indicating it's trying to eject even when there's no disk. Maybe this is a troubleshooting feature?


Sunday, May 28, 2006

And other people think they are laptop bag snobs, ha!

So. I've decided on a white MacBook. I'm such a dork. Since they released the MacBooks (less than two weeks ago), I've been to FOUR Apple Stores plus a CompUSA to look at them. The first day was the day they were released, at the St. Louis Apple Store. I happened to be visiting my parents at the time, and my excuse was my brother's laptop problems (which turned out to be a failing iBook hard drive.) The second Apple Store I went to was the new 5th Ave store in NY, the day after it opened. I was with a friend, and there was really too much to do and see to concentrate on making a decision, so I went to a CompUSA a few days later. They only had the black one, and the guy manning the Mac section is seriously annoying, so the next day I went to the Menlo Park Apple Store in a last ditch effort to make up my mind. And it worked! The white MacBook shall be mine. Then I decided to go to the grand opening of the Freehold Apple Store yesterday, just for the heck of it. Got a free t-shirt there, so that's cool. :)

New York was great, as usual, and wore me out, as usual, since I very rarely choose to do things that involve sitting down in NY. I took the 7am bus and walked from 8:45am to 10pm, except for lunch and dinner. Breakfast was Beardpapa's cream puffs on the go -- if you ever get the chance to eat some of those, DO IT. They're awesome. I had wanted a green tea creampuff, but they only had vanilla and chocolate that day. They sometimes have coffee-flavored ones, which I definitely want to try. We also found this random 1940's diner in the upper east side that surpassed expectations, and had some excellent gelato at an italian cafe around Madison and 78th St. Yes, trips to NY can often be defined by what one finds there to eat. Central Park, the Guggenheim and el Museo del Barrio were also nice. ;)

I finally got around to reading The DaVinci Code, but haven't seen the movie. The book was choppy and had a wince-factor through the roof, but it should make a good thriller movie. I can only hope they use E Nomine in the movie, although I doubt they did. After all, much like the book, everything must be dumbed down to the lowest common denominator, so music in German is out. (Yes, I know, all my European music references are from 1999. Sigh.)

While I wait for the arrival of my spiffy new MacBook, I've been doing some bag shopping. Here's what I want in a laptop bag/airplane carryon:

1. It shouldn't be much wider or longer than the computer, but still long enough to fit a folder or normal-sized paper. This means very near to 11x14".

2. It should have a full-sized pocket along the padded edge for a folder of papers.

3. It must be deep enough to hold my smallish purse. Probably 4" to 6" would be fine.

4. A small number of internal pockets would be nice but not necessary, as long as they don't add to the weight and bulk.

5. It should be comfortable to carry, not too heavy. I'd prefer an over-the-shoulder bag to a backpack-type bag.

6. It should have an external water bottle pocket.

7. After five years of a (very nice) black briefcase laptop bag (the RacerX), I want to feel female again. So preferably something not all black and with a touch of feminine style.

8. Zippers only. No buckles or flaps, which take more time and only get in the way. Don't any of the people who design these bags use them? If they did, wouldn't they realize how annoying those stupid plastic buckles are?

9. It must have a sturdy, non-removable laptop sleeve that is fast and easy to take the computer in and out of. I'm spoiled by my RacerX.

So, as far as I can tell, that bag doesn't exist. Yet. There are some that come close though.

15" Powerbook RacerX, 14.5" x 11" x 4.5", 2.8 lb., $144

I've got one of the very best already, the RacerX. I've used it for five years. It's not much worse for the wear; some of the decorative block-pattern matterial is starting to unravel near the top corner, and some of the texture of the bike handle is starting to wear off. It was not designed to hold a female purse, but with a little stuffing it fits. No external water bottle, and it's all black and male-looking. Still, it's going to be hard to compete against it's quality and design. 6.5/9

Chelsey Henry Laptop Bag, 17.0 x 5.0 x 12.0 inches, 1.0 pounds, $99

I saw this one at the Apple Store. This bag gets so many style points I'm vaguely tempted to overlook the things it's missing. But it's a bit long, has no external water bottle pocket, and has a removable laptop sleeve. With a flap, no less. So it gets 6.5/9, with the half point for it being a bit long.

Ogio Chassy, 12"h x 15.5"w x 3"d, 1.6lb, ~$60 (click "multi-view" for more pictures)

Again, high style points, maybe a bit too high, as it looks more like something young girls would carry. I like the green one. That flap might not even annoy me enough to complain about it, since there are no buckles and it doesn't take up the whole front of the bag. It gets points off for size, though; I'm not sure 3" is deep enough to hold my purse. 7/9

Overland Equipment Trinidad, 14" x 11" x 6", 1.6lb, ~$80

Excellent, but those buckles! Times like this I wish I could sew. If I could chop off that outer flap and the buckles, it might be perfect. 8/9

Overland Equipment Sportclub, 13.5" x 10.5" x 6", 2lb, ~$55

If this were designed to be a laptop bag, it could be perfect, too. Unfortunately, it isn't. So, points off for everything computer related... too bad! 8/9

be.ez LE13, ???

Doesn't look like it'll have an external water bottle pocket, but it does look like it could be very cool. And designed for the MacBook, no less.

So, until I find bag nirvana, I suppose I'll stick with my RacerX.


Tuesday, April 25, 2006


MacZot is a fun kind of a thing which tempts me to spend money. Much of the software they offer is newfangled, meaning I can't run it because I'm still on OS 10.3. Today they've got SubEthaEdit from CodingMonkeys which I've always wanted to try in multi-user mode, but not knowing anyone who owned it, never did. Maybe some more people will own it after BLOGZOT 2.0 on, which is taking place today. MacZOT and TheCodingMonkeys claim to be awarding $105,000 in Mac software, but what's really important is that if you investigate MacZot today, you might acquire a license for SubEthaEdit for yourself. Sounds like a good deal to me.


Thursday, February 16, 2006

Enough to make your blood boil

I got the email Tuesday from the head of NOAA expounding on what a free and open organization NOAA is (mentioned in this free WSJ article: Statement Acknowledges Some Government Scientists See Link to Global Warming), and I was like, huh? That's sure not what all the top scientists who get asked for interviews say. And then in the article, the administration is saying that Tom Knutson was allowed to, and did, give some interviews -- that's true, we have an archive of them -- but 90% of them aired on the stupid Comcast local access cable channel, where no one sees them. It's the national coverage that might get someone's attention that gets turned down.

So, listen for those local experts on your local cable stations, because they might not be allowed to speak at the national level. You might be the only one who gets to hear them.

The thing is, the people I know weren't going to take any sort of radical position; they might've said something along the lines of, in their personal opinion, it's still an open question whether global warming is impacting the intensity of hurricanes.


Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Best non-tech internet shopping articles ever

Michelle Slatalla of the New York Times writes the best non-tech internet shopping articles ever. If you are female, anyway. Sometimes it comes off as snooty and expensive, but it's usually also humorous and informative. So many of my favorite splurges have been her idea. My Mad Gabs lipgloss, my shoe rack (or at least the idea of my shoe rack), and some of my more successful gift ideas. And a lot of other things I'm still keeping in my head as possibilities for future splurging, like Hammacher-Schlemmer vented umbrellas. Last week, her article was on coffee grinders, and I am so tempted... as were tons of people, I think, because the site she recommended nearly buckled under the load.

My brother has said that his dream job is to test video games for a living. I think my dream job is to write funny articles about online shopping experiences. Yes, okay, I'm being a little facetious.


Tuesday, January 10, 2006

All in all, less tempting than I expected

I expected to want to squee or rant about Macworld today, but surprisingly, I don't feel like doing either. There's nothing to be ranting about, because his Steveness gave us the Intel powerbook. (I'm not even going into the name issue.) But. It looks exactly like the old powerbooks. There are some slight changes -- including no s-video out and a slower DVD burner that is only single layer instead of dual layer, which makes no sense to me at all -- but it's the same size, weight, cost, and design as before.

Not that the classic design of the powerbooks is bad. And hey, this way, there will probably be fewer problems with the initial version, because not very much actually changed. I'm excited about the new magnetic plug on the power cord, but isn't it a little sad when the only thing you're really excited about is the power supply cord?

What went away:

1. S-video out
2. FireWire 800
3. dial-up modem
4. dual-layer DVD burning. also now a 4x burner instead of an 8x burner.
5. pcmcia port

What's new:

1. Intel
2. iSight in the lid
3. magnetic power cord
4. Apple Remote/Front Row
5. Now a 60 watt lithium-polymer battery instead of a 50 watt lithium-ion battery, but apple doesn't seem to be touting this change at all, so I don't know what to make of it.
6. new ExpressCard/34 slot, whatever that is
7. hard drive is SATA instead of IDE, but I have no idea if that's better or worse
8. Display uses magnetics to close, so the physical clasp is gone

I think I'll love the magnetic power cord. But, I have THREE now, one each for home, work, and travel, and they're not exactly cheap. If I buy one of these machines, I think I'd up the hard drive to 120 gig. The news over the next few days/month will be interesting to watch unfold...


Sunday, November 21, 2004

More blog musings

Still haven't gotten around to MacJournal yet, but have discovered that text for this theme is showing up in Trebuchet, which I like. I don't have "tahoma" or "bitstream vera sans", wonder what those are like.

So I'm wondering, how does this get paid for? I'm not seeing much in the way of forced advertisements on the blogs provided here. Google ads are purely optional, and even seem to provide the user with, well, something. Anyway, lack of forced ads makes this whole thing much more enjoyable.

Flitting through blogs with the "next blog" link is amusing. I wonder how many people start these pages and never post a second time? Quite possibly me, we'll have to see. Also, I think needs to find a way to kill the bots that are creating blogs. About a third or fourth of the pages I clicked through were nearly identical in structure and contained nothing but ads. Not even very good ads. It's also interesting how many deeply religious bloggers there seem to be.


An initial foray into blogging

Hello all. I'm currently exploring the concept of blogging... we'll see if I take to it and if it becomes useful. I'll experiment with my family and friends perhaps on team blogging, we're thinking of setting one up in-house at work too. I was led to specifically by a fantastic bit of mac software called MacJournal created by Dan Schimpf. His blog is at So the next thing I'll likely try is a post from MacJournal. There's been a lot of technology excitement lately between discovering Firefox (yes, I'm switching from Safari, though I will miss a few things), gmail, rss, and blogs...