Hooray! Apple implemented my iPod Shuffle idea!

11 March 2009

You read it here first! A iPod Shuffle that tells you what track you’re listening too:

Making the iPod shuffle perfect

The Voiceover feature in the new 4GB Shuffle iPod is pretty much exactly what I suggested in a blog entry last March:

Ideally, it’d be good to be able to press some button combination to hear [the track name] when you want to know what you’re listening to.

Of course, I think it’s a pretty obvious idea for anyone who uses a Shuffle on public transport, or while walking or running, and is aware of text-to-speech capabilities. But I did submit the idea to directly to Apple too, so who knows, perhaps it helped persuade them to implement it.

(If so, Apple guys, a free one would be nice!)

Beware, Time Machine users!

8 July 2008

My MacBook hard drive recently started making strange clunking noises and I knew at once it was a goner. I felt a brief surge of panic at first, as I’d just got back from holiday and imported a load of photos, but I had done a Time Machine backup to an external drive just a couple of days ago. It should all be saved.

Once I’d got a new hard drive sorted out, I thought, it was going to be a doddle getting back to where I was two days ago. How wrong I was!


First point: don’t try to save space by opting not to back up system files (as I did). 

If you’ve backed up everything, you can choose to restore everything by booting from the Leopard DVD and choosing this option from the Utilities menu. If not, you find you can’t even get at your Time Machine backup without choosing to back up your virgin OS X installation to that disk.

I haven’t dared do that, because if you choose to start backing up a clean installation with Time Machine, what happens to your pre-hard disk failure backup? It’s not going to get deleted but presumably it becomes not the latest backup, but the last backup but one, which I assume complicates the restoration process yet further.


Second point: you can restore user accounts via the Migration Assistant in Utilities after you’ve got done a clean install and upgraded the system to the latest version, but this option doesn’t let you restore other data such as Applications.

If this option is made clear by Apple, I didn’t find it in any of the support documents I read. Instead, I stumbled across it during the first reboot and system setup after a clean install of OS X. At this stage, it does offer you the option of restoring non-user account files such as Applications – except it doesn’t work! When I chose it, everything froze. 

So, to cut a long story short, I set up a temp account, upgraded to 10.5.4 and then clicked on the Migration Assistant in Utilities with the external drive with the Time Machine backup mounted. This gives you the option of restoring entire user accounts but nothing else.


Third point: did Time Machine really backup your account properly last time you did it? Check if you’ve done a lot of precious stuff.

So after numerous failed attempts and much swearing, I’d done a clean install, upgraded it and then restored the user accounts from an external drive using Migration Assistant. I thought I was finally back to where I was when the hard disk failed about a week ago.

I logged back in to my restored account and opened up iPhoto. We’d got back from holiday a few days before the drive conked out, and as I had had a new camera to play with, I’d taken loads of photos that I had spent quite some time sorting out in iPhoto. Fortunately, I’d done one Time Machine backup since returning from the holiday. It would all have been backed up.

It wasn’t.

Time Machine had restored me not to the latest version but one more than two weeks old. When I opened up the Backup folder, I saw why: the latest backup had failed and produced an XXXXXX.inprogress file. 

The .inprogress file can be opened by right-clicking and choosing Show Package Contents – and the latest iPhoto libary with all the holiday photos was there. But simply it copying over didn’t work – iPhoto produced a “you don’t have permission” error when I tried to open it, which no amount of playing with permissions would fix.

Eventually I discovered the way round this. You have to copy files from the .inprogress folders to your account using Automator rather than dragging and dropping. Don’t ask me why it works but it does.


Time waster

So how many hours did it take me to figure this out? I hate to think. I was hopping mad with Apple at the time, but the question I had to ask myself was this – without Time Machine, would my last backup have been two days before my hard drive failed?

Honest answer: no, probably more like two months at best.  

So Time Machine did save my bacon. But restoring my system wasn’t simple, it wasn’t quick and it certainly wasn’t fun. Apple, I hope you can make it a lot better!

Making the iPod shuffle perfect

28 March 2008

I like the iPod Shuffle. I especially like the fact that you can use it without ever having to look at it. When you spend a big part of your day dodging fellow commuters on busy trains and streets, you know how annoying it is when people bump into you because they’re staring at a mobile or iPod screen. As a music player, I really do prefer it to its bigger brethren, including the iPhone. 

That said, there are times when I would like to know what I’m listening to. And it seems to me there’s a simple way Apple or another software developer could make it happen: use Leopard’s built-in Text to Speech software to generate a short, small MP3 or AAC sound file naming the song title, artist and album for each track on the Shuffle. 

Ideally, it’d be good to be able to press some button combination to hear  this sound file when you want to know what you’re listening to. But it would be even simply to add the name, track and album speech file to the beginning or end of each track when songs are transferred to an iPod Shuffle. It wouldn’t be that difficult to do. Would it?

Natural breeding more dangerous than genetic engineering

3 March 2008

OK, that title is slightly mischievous. When I say natural breeding, we’re not talking normal hot plant sex here, but something even hotter: bombarding the hapless veggies with gamma radiation to induce mutations.

It might not sound very natural to you and I, but according to regulators around the world, this counts as natural compared with genetic modification. If you induce a change by genetic engineering, you have to prove it’s safe. Do it by mutagenesis and no one cares.

Except a team in Portugal are now claiming that mutatagenesis results in more changes in gene expression (which genes are turned on or off) than genetic engineering. For greater changes read more potential to produce (more) toxic substances. After all, plants are primed to produce toxins to deter those that want to eat them.

In fact, history shows that even old-fashioned conventional breeding can be dangerous. The Lenape potato bred in the 1960s turned out to have dangerously high levels of solanine, the toxin found in all potatoes. The Magnum Bonum, an century-old breed from England reintroduced into Sweden in the 1990s, was similarly toxic. (“Old”; “traditional”; “natural”: gotta be good, hmm?)

The kiwi fruit bred in New Zealand from an inedible (but not toxic) Chinese berry and introduced to the US in the 1960s never underwent safety testing and caused allergic reactions in some people (recently shown to be due to a protein called actinidin). Hybrids between ordinary potatoes and related species have been found to produce a novel toxin not found in either parent called demissidine.

The list could go on and on. My point is not that genetic modification is wonderful but that we should be wary of everything we eat, however it was bred or created.

Leopard woes Part III

23 November 2007

As ever, non-Mac users look away now.

So Leopard‘s Time Machine backup system. In one way, it’s absolutely brilliant. Connect a disk, click on a button and (a while later the first time) you’re backed up. From then on you only ever have to connect the disk and everything is done for you. A few clicks and deleted files can be restored.

But what if you handle some very large files, eg video? I started off with Time Machine backing up the Movies folder with my home videos. Then I realised this is a very bad idea because Time Machine isn’t smart enough to know when you’ve merely changed the name of a folder (an iMovie event), rather than its contents (the video clips).

As my backup disk swelled to an alarming size, I chose to not backup the Movies folder. This saved a bit of space by eliminating the last save of the Movies folder from the backup disk. But it didn’t delete earlier instances – and you can’t manually delete anything from the Time Machine backup. So now I’m going to have to start a new Time Machine backup without any of the Movies saves, losing all the other recorded changes as well, which somewhat defeats the point of Time Machine. If you have to keep deleting backups that have grown too large and start again, you might as well just copy your stuff onto another disk periodically, as I did before.

Apple, you need to add some system for paring down bloated backups without having to ditch the entire lot and start over. 

Update: On the latest Time Machine backup, which took ages, all the old Movie folder files disappeared from the backup, freeing up many gigabytes. Hooray!

But I’m totally confused now. Was there some problem with Time Machine that stopped it doing it before? Does it take it more than one session to work out that you’ve chosen not to backup some folders anymore and remove all instances? In the absense of any helpful documentation, who knows?

What’s wrong with Leopard Part II

16 November 2007

I wrote earlier about some of the things I dislike about Leopard, such as the white border around the preview icons of pictures. Tonight I ran into new issues.

I wanted to see what was taking up the space in a folder, so I went to list view, Command-I-ied to change the View option to calculate sizes and closed the Get Info window as usual. It didn’t calculate sizes. I tried again. On the third try I realised that now you have to click “Make default” button to get the Calculate sizes option to stick – whether you want it to be the default or not. But now it applies only to that one window, again whether you want it to or not. How is this an improvement!

It gets worse. The size column in the list view was too narrow to see the sizes, so I dragged it to make it wider. It instantly reverted to its previous width. It seems you’re now stuck with automatically set column widths, unless there’s a preference I’ve yet to find. I’m not used to get frustrated with Macs, and I don’t like the feeling. Apple, it weren’t broke, so why did you “fix” it?

Another bugbear. I used Time Machine to back up my Movies folder, which includes a few gigabytes of video of my son. I’ve been slowly renaming iMovie Events as time allows, and assumed Time Machine was intelligent enough to recognise only the name of an event had changed, as the names of the original clips don’t change when you change an event name in iMovie ’08. But no – a few name changes and my Time Machine backup has swollen hugely. Again, Apple, that’s not clever.


31 October 2007

When I saw this toy, I had to get it. And so far I’ve probably spent more time playing with it than my son.

Look closely and you’ll see that the rigid wooden struts are joined only by the elastic strings, not to each other. What’s amazing is that however you squash it, it always regains its shape.

It’s an example of a tensegrity structure, a term coined by Buckminster Fuller to describe the structures designed by Kenneth Snelson.

Donald Ingber has championed the idea that many biological structures, including the intricate cytoskeletons of our cells, are tensegrity structures. More at New Scientist.