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.