Monday, December 22, 2008

December Update

It has been three months since my last confess, er, update. These last three months have been very busy for me, and for the whole economy, the government, and, I am sure, for everyone else. I feel like getting a bumper sticker that says "We're already in the Alternate Universe..."

Personally, I have been head's down fighting a few fires. Writing blog entries are not as easy as they look -- I always mean to just do a quick update, and they end up in multiple paragraphs and, since I don't want to get it wrong, researched.

But, I have a few minutes available, this Christmas week, and so: here's an update.

The MacBook Pro -- the more I use it, the more I love it. No sense continuing to gush about it.

Getting Things Done, or GTD. This has been an interesting experience. GTD is a whole-life change, at least it seems that way. I find that I still can use a single bullet list of items that really need to get done, as opposed to a set of Next Actions lists. I have gone from paper-and-electronic, to all paper (and manila folders), and back to paper-and-electronic. The electronic part is a series of three MindJet MindManager Maps - one for Next Actions, one for Someday/Maybe, and one for listing GTD Projects. In GTD, a project is any activity that has more than one action, so you can have (do have) a lot of projects.

One of the issues I had was linking Next Actions to specific Projects. When you have a project like "Clear Brush from the Yard", having a Next Action of "Fill Gas Can" can be a sort-of floating activity, unless you know that you need to get gas to fill the brush cutter. So, I invented a numbering scheme for projects. The idea is that it must uniquely ID a project and be very short. I also like some intelligence in the scheme, otherwise, why not just use a sequential four or five digit number? So, I use a scheme where the first digit is the year ("8" for "2008"), the second is the letter for the month ("A" = January, etc.), and the last two are sequential for the month ("01".."99"). Each project in the Projects list has an assigned project number, and each Next Action that corresponds to a project has its project number in front. So, "8L01 Fill Gas Can", if project "8L01" is "Clear Brush from Yard" (this would be the first sequential project of December, 2008).

GTD is very broad. You have a lot of rope to hang yourself with. David Allen, its author, provided guidelines, but not a specific set of cast-in-concrete methods to use to do the system. Therefore, I am sure that I am doing it wholly different from anyone else, and probably incorrectly.

One of the more difficult things for me to do, and it is a requirement to do it, is the weekly review, in which you go over everything and put it all back together again. Allen warns against not doing this -- the idea is that you need to pull back to reconnoiter your situation and regroup and reevaluate. My problem is that I jump to something that needs to get done now, and leave the rest behind. But, successfully done, it is amazing how in control I feel when I successfully go through it all and decide what to do with each and every issue, problem, demand, and activity in my life. That makes GTD worth doing, even incorrectly!

As for projects, each project in the Projects list has to be a current project that is active, not something that can or should wait (these should be in the "Someday/Maybe" list). As a result, if you do not have a defined Next Action on each project you have, you are not doing the project! So, you either need to analyze what the Next Action should be and log it (or do it), or suspend the project. Having project numbers helps with this process, as I can search for the project number in Next Actions to see if there is one, and if not, determine what it should be, if anything.

Another aspect of GTD is that Allen expects that for real projects, like implementing SAP, you would have a real project plan with all that entails. Yet, there is nothing in the process (at least in the one book I read) that mentions how to integrate a project plan with multiple people and activities to the GTD lists. What I have done is add the "real" projects to the GTD Project list, with it own number, and then work with the Next Actions in conjunction with the tasks in the project plan.

It is important to realize that GTD is a single-user system, meaning that it tracks one life, not many. Everything on the list has to do with one person's set of actions and activities. You can have a team in which all members use GTD as their time management home-base, but if there is a team of 20 people, then there would be 20 Project lists, 20 Next Actions, 20 Someday/Maybes, etc., because the GTD lists link to a person's real life, and their life is wider than the team (even in cult-like work environments!). So, in the case where a project manager is managing a project with a team of twenty, he would have the one project plan and drive the plan with tasks and team-member assignments, timelines, and all the rest. The team members would then incorporate their tasks into whatever time management system they are using.

I think the beauty of GTD is that it is an individual process and method. I can conceive of no case in which anyone would be monitoring my GTD lists, except as a coach. The broadness of the GTD guidelines, while disconcerting at first since it is nice to have a rigid methodology sometimes, takes into account personal variance in way of working, preference for technology, and personal style. And yet, the core is there: capture it all, get it out of your head, and define the Next Actions that need to be done.

In addition, Allen's recommended filing technique of having a single general set of files, alphabetical, manila folders only (not hanging), labeled with a labeler instead of by hand (especially with my handwriting!), and filing everything that you want to save, even if it is a single piece of paper, is huge for me. There is one spot for it all (save certain legal and financial files). If I want to find the installation CD for my Mac, it is there. If I want to find the recipe for Brick Chicken, it is there. If I want to find my benefits information from a former employer, it's there, too. One spot. Not on the desk, and not in my center drawer. Filed. The only issue is having a plan for consistent naming, and there, you just have to go with a plan. Does "Brick Chicken" get filed in a recipe folder under "R", or as a single file under "B?" In my case, I chose a single recipe folder, but there is really no wrong answer, and anyway, if I forget and look under "B", I won't find it, and so will naturally go on to "R".

I wrote an earlier post about the Tickler File. Very useful -- good place to put some future-action thing into and then forget about until you need it.

I had also wrote an entry about the Time Sort/Noguchi file system. I have abandoned this. The filing method for GTD is better for me, even for short term actions. I have a "projects" folder section for all active projects that require a folder on my desk. Formerly, I had them set up as Time-sort file system, but now it is alphabetical, and in manila folders. Easier to work with. When the project is done, I move the folder to the general file if I want to keep it.

On other fronts, I am very excited about the concept of "Cloud Computing," in which you run your software on other people's computer systems (in a nutshell). More on this to come. There is a revolution here.

Cheers, for now.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Update on my MacBook

Just a quick update. I am still very happy with my Mac -- and I will not go back.

The more I use it, the more I like it. Is it perfect? No. In a way, that's sort of comforting. There are still little glitches that show that computers are still in their infancy, in the overall scheme of things.

The areas I have problems with it are areas of overlap with the Windows world. PowerPoint for the Mac is different from the PC version, even though the files are compatible. The key sequences are dfferent, and the layout is different. I have not gone whole-hog Mac -- abandoning PowerPoint for Keynote in iWork, for example -- so perhaps I deserve some issues here and there.

It is funny how my expectations are different, now. Google released Chrome, their new browser, last week, but only for Windows. Windows? Now, considering how all of the demoes Google makes of their software is done on Macs, I have to think that a version of Chrome for the Mac is close at hand, but, I think the Mac should have come first! Sure, from a market point of view, Windows is still the bulk of the PCs out there, but that will change.

Speaking of Chrome, I did download and try it. I like it! I have to say that it is still early, but the idea is good, and I like the interface, and I like the comic book introduction Google put together. The comic book is really techie, but I like that, and it explains why they did what they did. I have been getting used to browser problems over the years, to the point where, like an incessant ear ringing, I just stopped noticing. But, with Chrome, the effect is almost, but not quite yet, like that effect of total silence and relief when the droning suddently stops. The effect will be fully mature, I suspect, when the bugs are ironed out.

So, I have found that I like Safari as a browser. I also use Firefox. I use Firefox alot when I know that a site hates, or doesn't support, Safari.

Entourage, which is (and this is unfair, because it is better) Outlook for the Mac from Microsoft, is okay, but, as I said, better in general than Outlook. Outlook however works better with Exchange. The one way to handle that is to kill Exchange and move to something like Google gmail.

I love MindJet MindManager. I use the Mac version, but I have to say that their PC version is better. Too bad. It is not enough to make me go back to the PC, but it is the one app that comes close.

I find myself going directly to the Mac keyboard shortcuts on my PC, which is interesting, and shows how far I've gone. I have to purposely "remap" my fingers to go back to PC mode.

Also, and amazingly, I don't use a mouse anymore with my MacBook. I love the multi-touch interface. I find myself trying to scroll with two fingers on my PC notebook -- and, it does not work! The multi-touch touch pad is truly incredible, and I found myself reaching less and less for the mouse, and then, whcn I was using the mouse, I would go back to the pad for scrolling and other things -- and I have a nice mouse! Finally, I just stopped using the mouse, and I use it now with the PC notebook (when I rarely use that). The multi-touch pad is awesome.

I find when I go back to a PC notebook, it is like putting back on the old hairshirt. I am glad to get back to the MacBook.

And, it still just works. I close it, and it sleeps. I open it, and it starts right up. I have it near a known WIFI location, and it connects right up. I have it near an unknown WIFI location, and it asks me to connect -- and it connects right up. You see, it is the little things that matter. It is the details that matter. Who cares that Michael Dell has the most awesome supply chain and the (so-called) cheapest PCs on earth, and that Dell is able to efficiently configure PCs to order and get them to you same-day, if the PC is a piece of crap? Who cares that IBM/Lenovo builds onyx-colored bricks that can take the hammerings of plane flights and three-year-olds if their eraserhead mouse is skittish and your finger keeps sliding off? And they all use Windows, which requires a large amount of babysitting no matter what you do, or what version you run. Whatever small problems I have had with the Mac are minuscule compared to the constant tinkering and attention that Windows machines require to maintain decent performance.

Macs are great.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Forty-three Folder Tickler File

I am splitting this out from the post that follows. This is a "Tickler File" that you use to keep track of things that should be done on a particular day.

This is a simple and amazing little tool. It is made up of forty-three manila folders -- one folder for each month (12), and one folder for each day (31). I have 12 side-tabbed folders with a label on each for each month, and 31 center-tabbed folders labeled with a number for each day. It becomes a rotating file system. You start with tomorrow's day number (say "10" since today is July 9), put "August" after "31", put "1" through "9" after "August", and "September" through "July" in back.

The folders contain anything that should be done on that day - a sheet of paper or 3x5 card with "do X" on it, or a bill that needs to be paid on that day, or a reminder to review locations for a vacation. For example, if you want to call your sister on her birthday August 5th, put a reminder card ("call sis") in the number "5" folder. If you need to do something in, say, October ("Check out where to buy pumpkins"), put it in the "October" folder. Then, when October comes around, either do it, or put it in the day that makes sense.

Tomorrow morning, the 10th, I look in the number "10" folder (the one in front), take out the things that need to be done, and place the "10" between the "9" and "September" folders. Now, "11" is in front. I do the things I pulled from the file (or defer, or whatever). Thus, it is an active file, each day rotating to the next month. When the month folder comes up (as in the "October" example), do or re-locate the items in the month folder.

Now, you could put these onto a regular or electronic calendar. The key is physicality. For example, I have my auto registration note in there on a particular date. This is the note from the DMV. Sure, I could have a reminder on the calendar to "pay registration." Then what? I see the reminder, and now I have to find the note. With the tickler file, the note is there. Or, if I want to call someone I met at a conference next week, I put their card in the folder for that day. When the day comes around, I see the card, and call the person. It is deceptively ingenious.

I did "Google" for a good link to create a tickler file - there are a few examples and entries. However, the ones I found seemed a lot more complicated than just the basic forty-three folder setup I have. My set ends up at about 1.5" thick, which makes it portable. I take it with me in my laptop bag, and place it between two metal L-shaped bookends on my desks.

The key, as mentioned in the book, is that it must be a trusted system. You must check and process the contents of the tickler file daily. If you are going away for a few days, check all folders until the day you get back for things that need to be done.

This is a really good tool.

Getting Things Done

June and the first part of July have been incredibly busy for me -- here I posted a review in May, and then kept quiet for two months!

What I have been doing lately is putting in place David Allen's "Getting Things Done" methodology. You can read the links, but in a nutshell, it is a set of processes and techniques for organizing your life. It is really more than a "time management" system. The concept is to capture all the things you have your attention on, deciding what to do with them, which then clears you mind of having to think about them, so you can focus on what you need and want to do, and then, get them done!

In the web blogging and free-lance development and graphics arts community, the concept of time management is huge. People like David Seah, companies like 37 Signals, blogs like 43 Folders, interesting low-tech tools like the Pocketmod and the Hipster PDA, all try to explore and find ways to maximize personal and business productivity. In this world, David Allen's Getting Things Done (or "GTD") is virtually a standard. Some practice it, some practice variants of it, some contrast their techniques with his, and some reject it, but nearly everyone references GTD.

As I started reading about personally productivity and trying various techniques out, I saw these references to GTD. Most of those writing about it tried to explain it in their own words. In so doing, they tended to emphasize parts and de-emphasize others (in other words, distort the program) based on their own problems in productivity they were addressing. As a result, I did not have a clear picture of it, and even had a bit of a negative view.

However, it became clear that I needed to read this book, since it is so influential in the community. As I started reading the book, it became clear that there is gold there.

Another thing became clear: GTD is much different from what I read about in the blogs. So, my first word of advice to those that want to do this, get the book!

Rather than describe the process, I will describe the results, at least some of them.

First, my office at work is cleaner and more organized than it has ever been. And, two months into this, it is still organized! This is huge.

In going through all my stuff, I determined what was actionable and what was not, and of the stuff that was not actionable, what should be kept and what should be trashed. And, of the stuff that should be kept, how it should be kept. This is key: It is one thing to have the manual to your wireless bluetooth headset that you know you should have somewhere. It is quite another to have a place for it and know exactly where it is! And get to it in seconds.

So, no more loose crap on the desk or in my office.

Second, I feel much more in control of what I'm doing. I know that I have captured all the things I need to think about or do that are important to me. That includes, for example, this blog post. Rather than have the twinge in the middle of the night "Oh no! I need to rotate my tires!," it is captured (and if it isn't, I can capture it right then). As a result, if I get an "Oh no!" midnight moment, the next moment I think "oh yeah -- got it," and go back to sleep. The result of that is less and less "oh no" moments. That is huge. That is part of what Allen refers to as "Mind like Water," a term borrowed from Martial Arts. Rather than being distracted by incomplete actions and little niggling things that are competing with each other to get my attention, they are addressed, "processed," and out of the way and off my mind. As a result, I can focus on the what I decide needs to be done.

The process of doing this has been like tectonic plates shifting. It is not an easy process. It is not completely straightforward. I read the book over and over and over as I went through the process. The book is really well written, but it is an overview, a set of guidelines. There are books like this, mostly written by experts in a field that know so much about the field that each sentence covers a general process that seem obvious when read (and written, no doubt), but when implemented show that there are a lot of details that need to be filled in.

David Allen gives the outline of the process in the book, but he does not lay down the exact step-by-step actions needed to actually do this. This is a good thing, since it allows for flexibility, but it also requires serious study and trial to come up with the details that work with you. This is one reason the blogs talking about GTD are so varied in how they describe it.

For example, Allen recommends having a calendar, but does not say whether it should be paper, a planner, or electronic. He does not recommend any particular tool for doing this. He recommends, but does not demand, a tickler file (something I have implemented and love, so far). He recommends, but does not demand, using checklists. He provides pretty broad guidelines. As a result, I was trying all sorts of specific ways to capture next actions, projects, etc.

He does cover the key principles very well -- the concept of "mind like water," the power of capturing everything, the power of "Next Actions," where the you define the next physical action that needs to be gone toward a project or goal, as opposed to vague todos like "Find a new barber" or "Organize garage."

As a result of going through this, I find that this is not a one-shot activity. You don't just implement GTD and go home. This is a process that morphs and changes as you work with it.

In my case, I found that using electronics is not necessarily a good way to implement GTD, especially if you are using a tool on a computer (as opposed to a hand-held). If you have, for example, a list of errands than need to be done when you are out in your car, having the list on your computer does nothing for you. In my case, I have a manila folder with one 3x5 card or sheet of paper for each errand that needs to be done. If I have a gift card from Target, say, I put the card in the folder so I have it when I am out and about and something takes me to target. I put my dry cleaning ticket in the same folder so I have it when I pick up my dry cleaning. GTD uses the concept of "contexts," which indicate the various places where you are when you do tasks, such as "at work," "on the computer," "on the phone," or, in this case, "running errands." If I am running errands in the car, I do not have my computer, so a low-tech folder is much better. Also, why write something on a list when the physical item, such as a dry-cleaning ticket in the Errands folder, does the job?

As a result, GTD can be a pretty physical discipline. It goes outside any possible electronic system you can have. I do have parts of the system on my computer. I use MindJet's Mind Manager to track a number of things. I am not convinced that electronic is necessarily the best way to go with GTD, though. Sometimes paper and pencil are the best technology!

Another physical tool that Allen recommends (and I briefly mentioned above) is the "tickler" file, which I broke out into a new post. This physical tool is just plain better than an electronic implementation, just as the physical "Errands" folder is better than having an electronic "Errands" list.

So, so far, so good. I am finding it a good set of guidelines. I am finding gaps that I am back-filling. I have tried one or two GTD-oriented task managers, and found that they do not work for me because of the physicality issue noted above. But, I have to say that this has been a major adjustment, but a good one. I recommend looking at it.

Thursday, May 08, 2008


I just reviewed the entries on Ask Uncle Mark. It is interesting to see how it morphed over the years (first post in January, 2005) from a computer advice column into what is now a place for me to post my comments on technology (and other) subjects that interest me. I have purposely limited the blog to personal computer-related issues, as opposed to enterprise computing or subjects like politics or the arts. In reviewing the entries, I find that the scope is narrower than I'd like it to be, and that I have covered some areas more than once, while not following up in others.

Since my readership is, well, limited (fourteen RSS subscribers, and I think I am a few of those), I have not felt the strain of expectations nor the urgency of having to meet a deadline. The blog shows it -- two-three posts per month, or less. It really is a labor of love. But, also, it is labor! I am not one of those that can dash off a few lines about something and do it quickly, for two reasons: the first is that if I am writing about it, I find it interesting enough to warrant a deeper look, and two, I want to be accurate and I want to ensure that what I am writing is as correct as I can make it (even if it's my opinion: do I really feel this way?). As a result, each entry takes a significant amount of time -- hours in some cases.

So, as time moved on, I looked at this as a way to warn people about the dangers of the brave new internet world, give people a deeper understanding of personal computing, and occasionally point out some interesting things I have found.

The warnings are pretty clear:

  • The internet is, among other things, a den of iniquity, and it is best to put in place safeguards.
  • Wikipedia, which is an amazingly popular and respected information source on the web, is tainted, biased, and unreliable.
  • If it is sworn to as true and it came via email, it is probably not true.
  • Beware of "phishing" and treat your passwords like gold.
Currently, I am moving to the Apple platform (I am writing this on my MacBook Pro, using Firefox), and writing about that.

I have been warning that Microsoft is on its way to irrelevance, and Vista is a no-goer. Of course, many have no choice anymore unless they go to a Mac. But serious people are not doing Vista.

One thing that became clear early on is that I do not have the resources or the time to be a full-blown technology reviewer, ala Mossberg and Gizmodo. And, I don't want to be, really. One thing I have learned in my thirty-plus years as a technologist, it is that technologies change like the wind, but the core stays forever. That means that the latest gadget is latest only for a few days or hours, but the reasons for using these tools do not change: to do more, easier, and faster. But, also, core is things like usability, clean design, bug-free systems, efficiency. Reviewing the latest gadget is not core. Commenting on how Microsoft is blowing it is (or was - old news now!).

And speaking of core, areas I have not written about are areas that are true and dear to my heart but are more related to enterprise computing and overall technical direction of computing and technology. Subjects include Virtualization, Cloud Computing, data center issues, and others. This was mainly because of the original vision of the blog being personal use-based.

I touched on one area of interest to me last year: personal productivity. I did a note on planners, and one on the Time Sort (Noguchi) Filing System. Then, I dropped the ball.

So, the scope and purpose of the blog has changed. As I do this review, I realize that I have been half-way through a transition from personal advice column on computing to a general commentary on computing, technical, and productivity trends. So, I think it is time to complete the transition.

I have been toying with whether I should keep the name of Ask Uncle Mark or not, mainly because of the change of scope and tenor of the blog... But, I have been doing this now for four years, at least as this name, so for now, at least, I am keeping the name. The name of my virtual consulting company, Sand and Vision, is really the better name for something like this -- take sand and vision, and that becomes silicon and computing, which leads to iPhones, BlackBerries, MacBooks, etc.

Going forward, I am going to broaden the scope of Ask Uncle Mark:
  • I will be doing much more commentary on enterprise computing and to some degree software development.
  • I will expand on technology trends.
  • I will be commenting on areas outside of pure computing, such as personal productivity, some science, and who knows what. I will stay away from politics and religion, however!
  • I will no longer assume the audience is completely non-technical. I will not make sure all entries are at the "entry level" for non-technical computer users. I will, however, monitor comments and clarify posts as needed.
The last bullet is to free me up to streamline entries. I want to be able to comment on, say, programming using Ruby on Rails without having to put in place a full-blown course on software development.

I will not promise a certain number of posts per week or month. I hope to put in place a number of entries, but they come when they come.

In the near term, I will be looking at two main areas: my experiences with my new Apple, and an expansion of the personal productivity area. After hearing about this for quite a while, I am reading and implementing David Allen's "Getting Things Done" ("GTD") methodology. For a while, I have been looking at ways to organize, and I have to say that Allen's approach looks pretty good. More later on that.

Please feel free to comment or leave me suggestions. Let me know what you like!

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

"Apple Time" Update

It has been almost two months since I "went Mac," and it is time for an update.

First, let me say that the Mac has won me over. As I stated in March, I am not going back. This MacBook Pro is truly the best laptop I have ever used, and it does things very well.

The goal was to be able to do all my work on this Mac without resorting to Windows, and I can say that for the most part, that goal has been reached.

Of all the applications I use, the ones that matter are:

  • Microsoft Office
  • MindJet MindManager
  • The BlackBerry
  • Keypass
  • Sony Digital Recorder software
  • Various utilities, such as Telnet and FTP
  • Text Editing/Programming software
  • Web Browsing
Of the above, the only one that does not support the Mac is the Sony digital recorder software. I was going to add the BlackBerry, but there is an application called "PocketMac" that RIM distributes free -- I have not tried it, but I will.

MS Office 2008 is good -- I installed it about two weeks ago, and it is different from MS Office 2007 for the PC, but compatible. It is certainly workable, and so far, I have had no serious issues. It is important to note that the Microsoft Mac development team is a whole 'nother bunch of people than the Office 2007 team -- but, hey, that is standard issue for Microsoft. I have not had the chance to really work Office 2008, but so far, it works fairly well.

MindJet MindManager's Mac version is not as feature-rich as the Windows version, which is unfortunate, because I really use this software more than any other. The files are all compatible, though, and it works very well -- it just lacks some features that I like.

Keypass is an application that I use to hold my passwords, and I was afraid when starting this experiment that I would have to forgo it -- but, there is KeypassX, which is a Mac version, and it works great! Keypass, by the way, is a requirement. It is the best way I have found to keep track of the myriad passwords that I have, and it is very secure. Security people say you should never write down passwords, and should have hard-to-guess passwords. Well, hard-to-guess passwords are also hard-to-remember passwords. So, people use their pet's or kid's name (hey, I did this too when I started out!). Also, many people use the same password for their work computer, their email apps, their banking apps, and their other web logons. Someone can guess it once, and get into all of it! Keypass makes it easy to manage all of this. I store all my confidential info in Keypass, including SSNs and other information, because it is so secure. Do it!

The utility and text programs are different in a Mac, but are excellent and professional. It is important to note that all the development pros I have seen lately are using Macs, including the guys at Google who released their Google App Engine a few weeks ago.

The goal of this experiment is to see if the Mac is a viable alternative for a PC in a business environment. So far, I have to say that it is not "seamless." There are issues surrounding Mac use in a Windows world. To a Windows-centric IT shop that does not want to work with it, the Mac will not work. This is mainly because hooking up a Mac to a Windows domain, using Windows (Active Directory, really) shares and printers, and authentication, is not the same with a Mac as it is with a PC, and the Mac does have limitations here. So, an IT shop has to look broader: Are there benefits to going Mac that outweigh the limitation of using a Mac with Active Directory? Smaller shops have an easier time, since the impact of architecture changes/accommodations are limited to a few people and locations, and the impact can be made less painful. Larger companies, with ossified IT groups with ossified "change control" protocols and five-year IT roadmaps will just plain not really accommodate a Mac, unless the shop adds it into their plan, which means politics.

On this last note, as I have been studying the Mac and getting it to work in my group, I have seen a lot of IT-avoidance strategies to getting the Mac to work -- some have been used by my own users over the years. Some of these strategies are "unapproved" but basically harmless, and others are "unapproved" and can cause security and other problems. OS X has lessened the second scenario considerably, but the scenarios still exist. So, what happens in a non-Mac environment is what happens to any IT environment where a determined user community loses patience and goes for it: work-arounds and self-support. This has resulted in some rather artistic people, who lean toward the Mac, grinning and bearing the technical aspects of getting these things to work outside the Mac world. The fact that they are succeeding shows the versatility of the Mac (this is not a slight -- I sure would not expect a Windows Active Directory-jockey to design web sites or put together ad layouts).

With that in mind, I do want to point out some of the issues I have uncovered in my travels:

1. The integration to Active Directory was really cool until the security patch came out in March that took out printing to a Windows-based network. This is still an issue. The work-arounds are to either put your windows user name and password on the printer command line (really, really technical, and much deeper into the bowels of this thing than I thought I would ever have to go -- has to do with CUPS) which A. did not work for me, and B. is a security issue, or print directly to a network-attached printer to its IP address. What is its IP address? Exactly. More technical issues and sleuthing required. Sure, doable. But not as cool (or efficient) as choosing a printer from the available list and just printing.

2. Windows Active Directory and OS X's Directory Utility (DU) work well together, but their error checking and correction are not what I would like it to be. Therefore, it is possible to add a Mac to an Active Directory domain with the same name as another computer. This can cause really, really serious problems. I blame Microsoft (since it is its software that is failing, not the Mac), but it is still a problem. This little problem killed our network and brought down our Exchange server.

3. Office 2008's Entourage is pretty cool, but I noticed some definite differences with Outlook (actually, a lot of differences, but most seem to be benign). The main one is that Entourage does not seem to support distribution lists from Outlook in my personal contacts list. You can create a "group" in Entourage, but it does so in your local contact list, not the contacts in your Exchange contact folder. (Disclaimer -- I have not tried hard, but I shouldn't have to!). Again, I blame Microsoft. Entourage is theirs.

4. I was unable to easily open a Word document on a Windows "share" from within Word.

What does all this mean? That the Mac/Windows interface is a pain, and therefore, a problem.

There are three official actions I can take about this:

A. Tear out Windows and Active Directory, or at least build a parallel directory environment using Mac Server,
B. Be aware of the issues and have Mac users (including me) live with them until they eventually go away, or
C. Ban Macs as too much of a problem (while keeping mine, of course!).

Option C is too draconian and actually impossible in my environment. Option A may be the best long-term option, since Microsoft seems determined to fall on their sword with Vista and other super-kludgy software. In this scenario, we reduce Windows and Active Directory as much as possible, root out as much MS software as possible (Exchange? Gone! Office 2007? Gone!), and make the Windows PC's work with LDAP running on Apple servers (can we do this? I don't know. Theoretically, sure. Comments from those that have done it are welcome!).

Option B is the way are are going now, with an active eye on the incremental improvements as OS X gets better and better. Alas, we are not where I wanted to be: Root out PCs and add Macs and be in Nirvana. But, perhaps soon.

Oh, before I close, I did manage to lock up this baby a few times:

1. When I pulled the monitor cable from the laptop before shutting down. Perhaps it is best to do this when the machine is not on. Don't know.
2. When I had lots of apps opened all at once, including Windows on VMWare fusion. Something tweaked.
3. One other time that just seemed out of the blue. Might have been a problem with Firefox -- don't know.

So, they are not crash-proof. But it came back really well each time. Also, I have been just closing the lid and opening the lid, and it just sleeps and awakens like a little baby (only, without the crying part).

Finally, I put in place a local USB drive (a Passport from Western Digital) and set up (as if there is anything to really set up) "Time Machine." Really cool. For those of you old enough to have seen "Star Wars" when it first came out, remember when the Millennium Falcon went into Hyperspace? Well, like that: What a rush! And for backup software! Not only that, but it really works well, and saved me from some serious problems, and I don't have to think about it. The only problem is that I can't have a network drive be the backup drive. I don't know why they don't allow that.

So, bottom line, Vista is failing and people are buying Macs and getting serious about it. I am using one and will not go back. Macs are not quite ready for prime time in the pure Windows business environment, but are usable and worth the effort, and the tsunami is out there and mark my words, by this time next year, the wave will hit and Macs will rule.

Monday, April 21, 2008

A Real Expert Tangles with Wikipedia

Climate change is a "hot" issue right now (please pardon the pun), and as a result, the Internet world is abuzz with comments and commentary that covers all aspects of the issue. It is, in short, a controversial subject.

There is, of course, a lot of science surrounding climatology and the "greenhouse" effect that makes this planet a haven for life. There is also a lot of opinions about what the science is showing us. And, as Mark Twain said, "it is a difference of opinion that makes horse races."

As I noted in an earlier entry, if you want to know the controversy surrounding an issue, check out its entry (or entries) in Wikipedia. So it is with Climate Change.

Recently, a National Post writer named Lawrence Solomon wrote two articles about his experiences working in the world of Wikipedia, and how he ran into significant bias in the area of Climate Change. It is enlightened reading.

Friday, April 18, 2008

PayPal to Ban Safari?

According to ComputerWorld, PayPal is planning on limiting access to its site to users of Browsers that implement "anti-phishing" technologies, such as later versions of Firefox and Micrsosoft's Internet Explorer. ComputerWorld claims this would include a ban on Apple's Safari browser. This is ComputerWorld jumping to conclusions -- ComputerWorld is piecing together comments made by PayPal over the last few months.

Safari is perfectly fine, now that I have been using it for a while. I read PayPal's White Paper mentioned in the ComputerWorld article, and it is quite a good overview of the problems of Phishing, and PayPal's response to it.

PayPal is an online bank, really. Phishers have been targeting them just like any other bank. Phishing is the practice of someone mailing millions of emails that masquerade as a target bank's official email, luring the email recipient to click on an embedded link which goes to a fake site, where you then enter your logon information. Viola! Now they have your personal information, which the crooks use to steal money from you and from the target bank (since banks usually cover moneys stolen by fraud, which Phishing is).

PayPal's approach to Phishing is interesting. It is:

  1. Try to put in place verified email so that phishing emails can be stopped before they reach in-boxes.

  2. Have Phishing sites "Blocked" from the internet, by using anti-Phishing features of some browsers and law enforcement working with the Phisher's Internet provider. (The law enforcement piece here was listed separately on the white paper as an "Ancillary Strategy" but, really, it is part of the same thing. Block the site, and take it down through legal means).

  3. "Customer Education" -- get the customer to know more about the problem and act to avoid Phishers. (This smacks of "if only the customer would stop screwing up!").

  4. Better authentication methods.

  5. Finally, legal means via legislation preventing "spoofing" sites.
Their conclusion is that they want to move forward with the multi-pronged strategy, and they single out specifically the email authentication part (step 1).

Here's my take:

PayPal can do something that can nip this in the bud - and, as it turns out, they are almost already there.

They put "Authentication" as section 5.3 under "Ancillary Strategies". Four paragraphs in an eleven page document. And yet, authentication is the true answer to the problem. Phishers can phish all day long and die on the vine if PayPal puts in place a real authentication scheme.

I logged into my PayPal account. I used my email address and password -- this is the standard way. Email address and password. This is weak authentication. This is the kind of thing that is easily Phished for and gotten. PayPal, in their white paper, appears to be trying to "boil the ocean" with internet protocol changes, changes to laws in a hundred countries, law enforcement swat teams, and user re-education camps, and yet they still have this weak password scheme? Why don't they implement a real authentication scheme? One that proves that the person is who they say they are?

Guess what? They have! But not 100%.

After I logged in, I noticed that they have something called the "Pay Pal Security Key." This is a device that implements "dual factor" authentication. You have your ID and password. The device provides a six digit code that changes every thirty seconds. When you log in, you provide your user ID, password, and security code from the device. For whatever reason, this is optional, not required.

They are introducing this for $5. It also works for eBay, and they say it will be usable at other sites down the road. If you have PayPal or eBay, get one!

I used basically the same thing years ago at my prior job, and it works great. You no longer have to really worry about your password, and the company that issues it no longer has to worry about customers or employees that write their passwords down on post-its attached to their keyboard. This circumvents all that. A fraudster can have your name, user ID, password, mother's maiden name, social security number, etc., etc. They can even have the last six digit number you used. But if they don't have the device, they can't get in! Not unless they happen to guess a one-in-a-million number. In other words, they have to win the lottery, but all they get is your PayPal balance!

So, PayPal wants to stop fraud. They can stop fraud tomorrow if they require all their users to get one of these keys. This is an expensive solution, but, hey, banks have been known to give toasters away with new accounts, so why not security keys?

Everything else in their white paper is interesting, but at the end of the day will not eliminate fraud. It will reduce fraud, and that is good. But changing email protocols, forcing browsers to conform to some "anti-phishing" standard, changing laws, and finally getting users educated are all long term incremental actions that over a period of maybe ten to twenty years may yield some fruit. The internet, however, by its nature, is wide open. You can cordon off parts here and there using laws and protocols, but the openness will always be there, leaving room for crooks to maneuver.

In any event, I think it is important for companies like PayPal to know who it is they are dealing with - it is up to them to ensure you are who you say you are. I personally have no control over someone claiming to be me and logging into PayPal, even if some personal information was Phished out of me. It is someone else, knocking on PayPal's door, claiming to be me. PayPal is holding my money in trust. I expect them to keep someone else's mitts off my money! So, PayPal needs to implement a way that proves it is me doing business as me. This Security Key does that.

There are other methods to do this other than hardware keys. Vidoop was mentioned in an earlier blog entry. However, Vidoop is more for your piece of mind than for the place where you log in -- Vidoop authenticates your machine and you, to your satisfaction, so you know that no one else can fake you using a Vidoop ID. But since Vidoop is an "OpenID," sites that use OpenID are not forced to accept only Vidoop IDs.

As far as the threat of PayPal restricting site access to "safe" browsers, potentially banning Safari, I think it is a better bet for PayPal to push their Security Key than it is to restrict users based on what browser they choose to use. There are a lot of Apples out there. Yes, I know you can run Firefox on a Mac, but why force the issue? Lots of people will pay $5 for an access key/token, but not $1,000 for a new computer that can handle a pig like IE 7, especially when that $1,000 gets them a Mac!

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Gartner Catches On to Microsoft

Over a year ago, I predicted the end of Microsoft domination. Now, a year and a quarter later, Gartner is catching on and stating that Windows is "collapsing." The reasons stated are the obvious: Vista is seen as too incremental to warrant a migration off of Windows XP, and it has the reputation of being a resource pig.

I have been using a Mac now for a month. I am really, really happy with it. It is not perfect -- the Mac's reputation of being the PC that never crashes is overstated -- but it is a heck of a lot better than XP. 

I find it interesting to find my own mind-set changing, quite without thinking about it. When Google announced its Google App Engine two days ago, I noticed that the demonstrator was demoing it using a Mac. When I have been seeing developers show demos for whatever they are selling, I am seeing them done on a Mac. When you see pictures of a "generic laptop" in ads or in movies, they are always a Macbook. This has been trickling in over the years, but now it is ubiquitous. iTunes sells more music than everyone other that Wal-Mart, and they will overtake Wal-Mart this year. iPod has been the number one music device for years. iPhone is selling very well and has the cache of being the phone to have ("Blackberry or iPhone" is the question. No one else need apply). 

Regarding my mindset, I look at a PC app and think to myself "man, that looks old." When I look at a software provider and I see that it only runs on Windows, I think "man, that is old-school." All of a sudden, the future for applications that people use has only two platforms that matter: The Web (as in Gmail, Twitter, Basecamp, etc.), or Apple Mac. The movement to the web was no surprise. That is a no-brainer, as Google Apps,, and other "Software as a Service" offerings gain real traction. What surprised me was that Apple would surge back so strong. But, now that I am living the experience, it is no longer a surprise. I love this thing. I'll write more about that in a separate post, but I love this Mac.

Now, I can't ever see myself ever again saying "I love my Windows box." In fact, I can remember only one instance where I ever truly felt that I loved a Windows box, and that was my old 486 running Windows NT circa 1992 -- and then, it was the box I loved (faster that anything!) rather than Windows NT (Registry? What the heck is that? What was ever really wrong with Config.ini?). No, all Windows boxes I have had save the 486 were pains in the neck, but necessary evils, since there were no alternatives. Laptops in 1994, 1995 were Toshibas running Windows 3.1. Windows 95 beta fried my old Toshiba and forced me to swear off forever "beta testing" Microsoft products. Writing code for MS-DOS was quirky, but basically straightforward. Writing Windows code forced me to rely on their super-buggy Microsoft Foundation Classes. I had to debug their software! And pay for it, too! Oh, sure, I could have written my own library of Windows routines, but then about 90% of my code or better would girders and pillars, and only 10% or less would be actual functionality. 

The Mac was always a joy to write code for (although I didn't personally, because the money was not there... Mea Culpa on Windows domination to that degree.) I still have a t-shirt from the 1998 Software Development conference in Santa Clara for CodeWarrier ("Kicking Butt and Writing Code") which was the development tool of choice for many Mac developers and was a great platform, at least from the demo I saw and the people I spoke to.

Next Computer's NextStep operating system and Objective C were unbelievable! And, guess what? They live on in Mac OS X. 

In retrospect, it is surprising that I waited until 2008 to make the jump to Mac. I am not the only one -- it is happening all over. 

Macs are not 100%, yet. They don't fit very easily into a Windows Active Directory world, although they are better, much better, than they used to be. Businesses are still strongly incentivized to use Windows-based PCs and laptops, and general inertia will keep the platform alive in the business sector for several more years. But, it is dying. Businesses will, over time, move more and more to Linux and Open Source for back-office systems like databases, and web applications for user applications, leaving Microsoft in the lurch.

If Gates were still with Microsoft, I would not count Microsoft out. But, he is gone. Microsoft cannot pull off the big come-back without him. It looks like Microsoft's demise is getting obvious.

Monday, March 17, 2008

I'm Not Going Back

So, it's been not quite two weeks since I received my new MacBook Pro. What a machine!

Here's the deal. The Apple philosophy is different from the Windows philosophy.

"Philosophy" is a term I have been using since the '80s to describe the overall point of view a computer company takes in relation to how to use their product or system. The philosophy guides the user interface, what can and can't be done, what you can expect to do or not do, and the general attitude the system takes. For example, in the '80s, you had the CP/M philosophy of files and applications organized by "users" and the MS/DOS (from Unix) philosophy of hierarchical directories. The Mac had "folders" and the mouse and ease-of-use, MS/DOS had "directories" and the command line and "professional." The philosophies of Unix, MS/DOS, and to a large degree Windows assume a technical user community, or one that will just have to deal with the technical things going on. Apple has pretty much always had a target audience of people, and especially, artist or visual types, who don't need or want to know what goes on beneath the hood, so to speak. This was a detriment in the beginning, because the systems were not up to the task of being non-technical. You still had to look under the hood with earlier versions of the Mac. But, with OS X and especially the later versions, this goal of not needing a technical degree to run a computer that can still do some cool things has pretty much been realized. And, the goal of having a Mac do the things formerly firmly rooted in the Windows world seems to have been achieved as well.

The first thing that happens when a PC guy like me moves to the Apple is to try to do things on the Apple the way you do things on a PC. For example: using "control" keys for editing. Different on a Mac. The Mac has a different keyboard layout, and so the first thing is, get used to the new layout.

After that hurdle, the Mac philosophy really kicks in and messes with the Windows point of view. The Mac philosophy is "it just works." When moving from PC to Mac, this is the thing to keep in mind. It just works.

What does that mean? When you attach another monitor, it knows what it is and automatically adjusts. It just works. When printing to printers on an Active Directory network, you join the domain (need administrator help, here), and then all the freaking printers just show up, ready to print. It just works. When you are ready to go home, you close the screen and it suspends properly every single time. When you open the screen it comes back, every single time and it knows where it is and that it is not on the office network, home network, or that the screen is no longer attached, or that the internet is no longer available... it just works.

This is huge. I have a Toshiba Tecra that should be a dream machine that just refuses to come back from suspend or hibernation mode. "Resume failure" is the name of the tune. I have an HP that is testy when I resume in a new place under new circumstances. If it comes back, which sometimes doesn't happen. I feel like I am playing Russian Roulette when I turn my Windows laptop off. This is not true of the Mac. It just works.

I do have a need for Windows, because I have a Sony recorder and a BlackBerry. They need Windows to run their software. So, I have VMWare Fusion for the Mac. Oh man. I copied a Windows XP Virtual Machine (VM) from my Windows desktop to the Mac, and started it up under Fusion. It comes right up and runs, and it works wonderfully! I can run the Windows VM
in full screen and it is indistinguishable from any other PC -- looks the same. I run it one of the Mac's "spaces," which is basically how the Mac does virtual desktops. When I move to that "space", it is as if I am now running a PC. Wild.

It is not a walk in the park to learn the Mac, but Apple's guiding philosophy of "it just works," if you put yourself in that mindset, makes it become intuitive.

So, in a nutshell:

The hardware is second to none, looks beautiful, and works very well. As laptop, it is the best one I have ever used.

Mac's OS X follows the philosophy of "It just works." and it does. It has a number of really cool things that are cool because it makes you work better, which is the goal of having a computer in the first place.

So far, the main apps that I need in life run well under a Mac. Windows XP runs great in VMWare Fusion. My guess is that Bootcamp works well, too, but I am a VMWare guy and it is great to run it all at once.

Using the Mac for the time I have been using it makes me realize how much I need to think about system issues when running Windows. Things like: Viruses? Hard drive: which one? Where is that file, anyway? With the Mac, the apps get the attention. You don't think about where apps are, they are in the Applications folder.

I don't think I shut the Mac down fully since last week when I was installing and upgrading. When I did, it came back right now! not in five minutes.

I know that I will get very good with the navigation system on the Mac. I know that when I am (realistically, a few weeks - true of any system change like this), I will fly with this thing.

The goal is to have the Mac do everything that I can do with Windows. I am not sure that is true, yet, although I am leaning in that direction. I do know, that even if I have to do half my work in Windows, I am doing it on this MacBook Pro, and not on a Windows laptop. I am done with Windows laptops.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Apple MacBook Pro Arrives

Well, the trial has begun. I received the new MacBook Pro today, and boy, is it a beauty. If there is one thing Apple knows, it's the concept of "Whole Product." If you ever bought an Apple product, you know what I mean. The packaging was beautiful! Even the foam surrounding the notebook was cut into a work of art. I knew this was not just another box. The computer itself is clean - no stickers advertising what you just bought. No junk "ad-ware" inside the box ("Office 2007 trial edition! Quicken Trial edition!" junk, junk, junk!). No sample music or pictures. Clean, clean, clean. After years of special ordering laptops for business stripped of consumer-grade crap, it was a joy to just have the computer turn on and not assault me with advertising.

The laptop is beautiful. It is like driving a Packard or Cord instead of a Plymouth.
I have to say, I'm impressed with OS X, especially the "Leopard" edition. Knowing I was entering unknown territory, I just ran the tutorials and video - glad I did. There is a lot there!
Things that I really liked, in no particular order:

  • The multi-touch trackpad is very cool. Like the iPhone. Cool and, more importantly, functional.
  • The glowing keyboard when it gets dark.
  • The ambient light-sensitive screen.
  • "Spaces," which allows you to have multiple "screens" to help de-clutter your screen. This is a concept that has been around since at least the '80s, but they did it very well.
  • "Dashboard" and widgets -- little applets like Google Desktop that you can call up as needed --things like weather, calendar, calculator, etc.
  • Time machine for backing up the thing (although, I would rather it allowed backups to a networked server instead of forcing it to an attached storage device. Perhaps there's a way around that...)
The key to this Mac thing working, though, is that the computer must fulfill the mission, which is to replace my Widows boxes completely. That is the goal. I have three questions:
  1. Can I get my work done on it without continually resorting to Windows?
  2. Is it usable in its own right?
  3. Is it better than working with Windows? In other words, even if it can be used, should it be used? Is there a "value proposition? that makes finally dumping the pig of the Axis of Evil (the Microsoft/Intel deadly embrace of faster machines only to be consumed by the yawning maw of crappy systems software) a real option?
The machine itself is beautiful and well put together. Leopard looks to be a good OS. More to come!

Monday, March 03, 2008

Apple Time!

I am going to see if it is time to move to Apple -- I am getting a MacBook Pro, and will use it for my main computer. More and more things that are done with computers are moving away from the computer themselves, and are moving to web tools, like Google, Yahoo, and others. It is becoming less and less important what machine you are on, and more and more important that you are able to get access, somehow, to the web.

Yes, there are tools that must be run "locally". Microsoft Office and Mind Manager, for example, are two. But both of these run on a Mac.

Some of the tools I use, most notably the BlackBerry, require at least occasional connection to a PC, and the PC must be a PC, not a Mac. So, for that I will run a copy of Windows on the Mac.

But, I think it is time that the Apple can truly take the place of a PC. I will find out, and let you know.

My goals for this are:

1. Do all daily activities on the Mac, including MS Office and Mind Manager activities, and access to Microsoft Exchange. Activities like Google Apps should be a no-brainer, since they run via the web. I can do that from Linux, if I want (and have!).

2. Only resort to a PC (or, really, Windows) when I must (and I will document it). Or, kill whatever forces me to run on Windows. The BlackBerry is safe. All else is suspect!

I should get the machine Wednesday or Thursday. We shall see what comes of it! I'll keep you posted.

Friday, January 18, 2008

iTunes U

Here is a "Short and Sweet" version of the post that almost happened in October. There are a lot of ramifications to having full-blown top-notch university courses available at any time and for free on the internet. This is profound. I'll leave it at that for now!

iTunes has a new feature called iTunes U. MIT is there with its open courseware, Stanford, Yale, Duke, University of Pennsylvania (check out their 60 second lecture series!) It is all free. It is unbelievable.

Vidoop OpenID, Sprint Aircards

Well, time does fly. Here it is 2008 and I haven't posted since August. I almost posted in October, but it was an involved topic and the post was never "post-worthy." I find that writing is work! Not drudgery -- I have read writers who feel that it is -- but, work. I find myself wanting to write a quick post, but then, the details come in, and the need for accuracy comes in, and the need to set the correct context comes in, and then a quick post becomes a novelette!

So, here is the first post of 2008. Yahoo is going to support OpenID. Here is where details and context enter. Suffice it to say the OpenID is an attempt to make authentication on the web easier. Rather than having sign-ons for each website, each with its own password, OpenID allows a single ID to be used on multiple websites. The OpenID site has details.

Now, I figured that if Yahoo and a slew of others are supporting OpenID, I should at least get one. After perusing a few providers (not an insignificant task, I assure you), I came across Vidoop. These guys have a great authentication method. You get an ID. When you log in, they first authenticate the machine you are logging in from by emailing, telephoning, or text-messaging an authorization code, which you then enter, and then ask you to provide a passcode. The passcode is given to you in a grid of pictures, each with its own category. You tell vidoop which categories you want to use, they show you a grid of all categories with a letter in each, and you enter the letters from the categories you chose. Their categories are things like People, Dogs, Cats, Trains, Clocks. If your categories are Dogs and Trains, you enter the letters from the grid where there is a picture of a dog and the grid where there is a picture of a train.

This is brilliant. This is the type of thing that will pretty much guarantee that it will be you who is logging in -- they email the authentication codes to your email account, or call or text-message your phone, and the categories are the ones you chose. I don't have the math here, but I can guess that the odds are low that a break-in will occur. It sure is more secure than a simple password that never gets changed and that is usable from everywhere on Earth.

I just signed up today. Get an OpenID, and use to get it.

Also, I live in the boonies. This means that there is no cable, no DSL, and, until recently, no internet. I have been using the Sprint Aircard for the last month. It uses their mobile network. It is great -- as fast as DSL. They also have a Linksys router that can have the card plugged into it -- now I can get to it from my laptop. Good stuff.

That's all for now. I'll try to post more short and sweet ones this year -- but even this one ain't short!