Saturday, December 30, 2006

Buying software for the wrong/right reasons

The podcast Security Now has been on my 'must listen' list for quite a while. Some podcasts I subscribe to are downloaded by iTunes, copied to my iPod and when they turn up in my "Unplayed" Smart Playlist I'll make a snap decision as to whether I'll listen or skip (this decision is usually directly dependent on the total number of podcasts in the "Unplayed" list).

But I'll always listen to Security Now. Steve Gibson knows computers. Not like some people know computers -- people who have used lots of software on several different machines, people who may have done a little scripting, or even programmed in 'C' or Pascal. Steve Gibson is familiar with the PC on a hardware level. His website, has loads of free Windows software utilities available for download. These are not the kind of idle utilities that someone thought up as maybe possibly useful, for someone somewhere. They are essential utilities that solve (and I mean solve, not just mitigate) specific problems with Microsoft Windows. I first came across Steve's utilities without knowing it. After suffering persistent pop-up spam windows on a new XP PC, I did a Google search and came up with something called "Kill The Messenger". I downloaded it, ran it, and have not been troubled since. At the time I knew nothing about Gibson Research Corporation, and didn't actually give it any more thought. It was only after listening to early episodes of Security Now that I went to the website and discovered I had successfully used one of Steve's free utilities several years ago.

Steve Gibson's flagship product is SpinRite, now up to version 6, and by all accounts is the world's best hard-disk recovery and maintenance utility. It isn't cheap, at $89, and some might balk at such a price for a download of only 170 kb. (Yes, that's kilobytes.) Remember, however, that Steve Gibson is 'old school' -- he programs in assembler, for DOS, so his utilities are really tight, fast and efficient. This is the ultimate low-fat software.

The Security Now podcast, part of the TWIT network, features Leo Laporte and Steve Gibson talking about various aspects of computer security, whether this is a comprehensive primer on cryptographic technology (and I do mean comprehensive -- this isn't something that you can give less than your full attention to; it's geeky in the extreme), or discussions on the underlying technology of something in the news -- such as the recent Sony rootkit debacle. Every fourth episode (which with typical geekness they designate a MOD 4 episode) is devoted to answering listeners' queries.

I've been considering buying SpinRite for a while, partly because Steve is providing a useful free service, not only via Security Now, but also to all Windows computer users via his Shields Up! website, and partly because if it's as good as everyone says it is, SpinRite will be a useful utility have instantly available. So today I purchased it.

A few months ago I bought a Maxtor 300GB external USB drive for my MacBook, and it began to regularly misbehave after being powered up for an hour or more. Apparently SpinRite is undiscriminating as to operating systems and file formats, and the recommendation is to extract the external drive from its case and mount it inside a PC before running SpinRite on it. Alternatively, it's possible to run SpinRite on a USB drive if the USB drivers are accessible by SpinRite, although this likely to be much slower in operation.

Well, I couldn't open the case, so I connected the drive to a USB port on the PC, just to see what might happen. I was surprised to find that SpinRite found the drive, and is now -- as I type -- doing its stuff. It will apparently take about five hours.

Watch this space.

Friday, December 29, 2006

Progress and promises

On the right-hand side of this blog you'll find some new additions (click here if you can't see them). I've added some word-counters for my novel-length works-in-progress. This is partly an incentive for me to keep the figures moving, and partly to let people know how I'm doing. (The names of the WIPs are in a sort of code, and don't necessarily relate to their actual, eventual titles.)

Stephen King's universal advice to writers is, "read a lot and write a lot," so I've also added a list of what I'm currently reading. Not that I'll be doing 'a lot' of either, given how much else I've got on, but at least I'll be able to track my progress.

Here's some of the 'else':

My podcast novel, The Plitone Revisionist, is up to Episode 13 (of about 23) at, and I have another two episodes to edit, assemble and post in the next couple of days. I also have the 'verbose' version to catch up with -- something that's proving more difficult than I expected, but which I am nevertheless determined to achieve. Listener response to TPR has been very gratifying -- via email, comments using the feedback form at and comments on the Podiobooker blog.

And there's the podcast. The Rev Up Review has been sparse of late, but that too will be speeding up in the new year, and I hope to bring it back to something approaching its former regularity. I've plenty of content (it's been accumulating while I've not been producing regular shows), so there's lots to discuss, and I've some other ideas for RUR that I'll be floating in the new year.

I'd like to post more regularly to this blog, too....

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Still here!

Yikes, it's been a while. And I've thought guiltily about this blog on and off for several months -- without doing anything. I could bore you with excuses -- ahem! -- reasons, but you don't want to hear them.

Instead I'll post an update on the MacBook saga:

It's still looking good. So far I've suffered none of the so-called horror stories. No overheating, no discolouration of the plastic, and only occasional shutdowns, which appear to have been fixed by the latest SMC firmware update (if indeed it was a problem on this particular MacBook).

I'm now using the Aqua Beta Intel version of NeoOffice, and have standardized on the Open Document format for my wordprocessing files.

I bought Audio Hijack Pro to capture RealPlayer output direct to disk (and a whole lot of other useful features that I've hardly explored yet).

I use Cyberduck for FTP server access, and Blue Harvest to stop OS X dropping '.DS_Store' files all over my employers' network.

The latest software addition is something I had expected to see eventually, but the reality of it actually running on the McB is just too amazing for words. At the MacExpo in London a week or so ago I bought a copy of Parallels Desktop for Mac, which is virtualisation software, allowing you to run other operating systems inside a window in OS X.

My original intention was to run a version of DOS, just so I can continue to use a couple of very old (but useful) applications from years ago. As it happened I didn't have quite the right disks in order to install MSDOS 6.2, or Windows 98 SE, or Windows 95 (any of which would have been suitable). I should be able to make the right set of disks, given time, but to test the installation of Parallels on my MacBook I decided to install Windows XP.

Installing WinXP in Parallels is a completely transparent and seemingly foolproof operation. XP looks better on the MacBook than it does on my desktop PC, especially as it recognizes the McB's wide screen.

The best thing about XP on the Mac using Parallels is that OS X continues to run underneath, so even using full screen mode for XP, things like Skype and Google Notifier are still running. When new mail comes in, the black Notifier window appears over the top of the XP desktop, in what appears to be a totally seamless manner. In fact the whole experience of running XP in Parallels in utterly charming.

I admit there's a certain satisfaction in watching Microsoft Windows XP running on what it thinks is a bog-standard PC, when in fact it's totally owned by a Macintosh application. And although XP is kept safely away from the computer hardware (so no viruses or other malware can stray outside the Parallels window) there doesn't seem to be much of a performance hit.

You want to buy a computer? You have a choice:

  • That one over there, which runs Windows (or Linux, or DOS);
  • Or this one over here, which runs Mac OS X (or Windows, or Linux, or DOS, or all of them at once).
Your choice.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Patrick McLean's The Seanachai: "Blame Abraham"

I've been a fan of The Seanachai for quite some time. Patrick McLean's short podcasts are little gems of mastery -- beautifully written, expertly delivered and flawlessly produced. Mostly he does serialized fiction; I particularly enjoyed his story about the man who shot his guitar.

But occasionally Patrick does a one-off commentary, and his latest, "Blame Abraham" cuts right through all the nonsense, spin and partisan hype surrounding the current Middle-Eastern crisis.

Listen to it. And then share it.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

"Don't Buy a MacBook"

Despite my long-time use of PCs running Windows of various flavours, I have recently evangelized Macintosh -- especially to computer novices.

Apple's switch to Intel, however, has complicated this. The current range of Macs, which all come with iLife '06, offer complete computing solutions -- in essence, a Mac should give you all you'll ever need for doing the stuff most people would want a computer to do. But the Intel switch has resulted in a number of applications that aren't available on new Macs.

There's also the inescapable Windows-compatibility issue. In the run-up to my purchase of a new MacBook, I was fairly forceful in my recommendations for the new Macs. Someone to whom my Mac-evangelism was taken to heart is now somewhat annoyed with me, because -- in her particular case -- I've recanted my unequivocal recommendation. Two circumstances have caused me to moderate my enthusiasm:

  1. One of the main uses to which this person wishes to put her yet-to-be-purchased notebook computer is video-chat with relatives in Canada. Of course, if these relatives were Mac users, then iChat would be ideal. But they use Windows, and Skype is only now, I hear, beta-testing the Mac version of its video-capable VOIP application.
  2. I had expected there to be some months' delay before this person actually got around to making a purchase, by which time the availability of Universal versions of established Mac applications should not be an issue. At present it is an issue. Therefore, if she wants to buy a computer now, I'm suggesting she gets a cheap Windows notebook. She'll need to put up with the Windows user interface, but that's what she's used to at work.
This does not in any way diminish my satisfaction with my shiny new MacBook. True, there are some things I find awkward or annoying, but that's inevitable with a new computer. Nothing's perfect, but the MacBook is doing the things for which I purchased it, and doing them well.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Taking stock

I've spent far too much time this weekend in front of my computer(s) (ss) (sss) -- yes that's actually three computers that I use regularly, here at home. One of them is my shiny new MacBook, which is turning out to be one of the most pleasurable (if relatively expensive) purchases I've made in several years. But nevertheless my eyes have been fixed on one bright rectangle or another all weekend (and still are, as I type this).

Have I been wasting my time? I don't think so, but I did have some other stuff to do, which for one reason or another has proved not so easily doable, and I've ended up in front of the screen(s) again. The problem with computers is that they are so capable. You can do so much diverse stuff with them, it's sometimes hard to knuckle down and do the stuff you should be doing.

Such as writing.

I have a novel in progress, which I'm writing in a decidedly episodic manner. I don't have a plot, only a collection of characters plus a series of cool events that I want to incorporate into the narrative, so I'm writing several disconnected passages featuring one or more of the characters, hoping that I'll be able to pull it all together into a coherent and logical form later on. As a novice writer I believe this is a perfectly acceptable way to proceed. If there's one thing I've learned from reading a ton of writing-advice books, it's that there's no single correct way of writing fiction -- there are as many correct ways as there are successful authors.

My first novel, soon to be podcasted, was originally intended to be a series of linked short stories, the first of which I hoped to sell to a magazine and get a captive audience for the subsequent instalments. Eventually, after reading Muriel Gray's excellent first novel The Trickster, I decided to make it a novel from the outset, ditching the single-viewpoint perspective in favour of interwoven multiple viewpoints.

That novel (130,000 words) is finished, at least in a form that I'll be happy to release as a podcast, after spending more than two years messing about trying to interest agents, who seem to think it's acceptable to request three chapters and a synopsis and then sit on them for six months, only to reject them with an inane comment about 'not doing science fiction' -- despite my query letter being completely specific about the genre.

I didn't sit idle, in fiction-writing terms, after I completed the rewrites of my first novel. I now have 75,000 words (about three-quarters complete) of another novel written with a far more rigid structure -- alternate chapters told from alternate viewpoints. But that strict rigidity has been difficult, and I've yet to convince myself that it will work. Consequently I've reached a point when I'd rather be writing something else -- so that's what I'm doing.

The podcast novel will be in addition to The Rev Up Review, which even now is overdue for a new edition, but I'm determined that recording weekly episodes of the novel will not affect the (ir)regularity of The Rev Up Review. In fact, it's my intention that RUR will be a major asset in the promotion of the podcast novel.

Sometimes it worries me that I don't get RUR out as often as some other podcasters produce their shows, that I might be in danger of podfading. But I do it for fun, and to promote my writing, which I also do for fun. If it wasn't fun, I wouldn't do it.

And as far as this blog goes, I'll write it when I feel like it (such as, two posts in as many days, even after a year's break...).

Saturday, June 24, 2006


I've had my MacBook for nearly two weeks, and I'm loving it more and more.

The latest thing I've discovered is with the digital audio out (otherwise known as the headphone socket). I've used the digital audio out on my PC for recording streaming audio (BBC radio's 'listen again' service, for example) onto Minidisc, but my PC has only a coaxial digital output, so I normally use a coax-to-optical converter. This works well, but the recordings have the Sony SCMS (Serial Copy Management System) enabled, and are treated as digital copies, which means I can't make further digital copies from them. This is annoying, and inevitably leads to an additional analogue stage if the recordings need to be copied off Minidisc onto CD, for instance.

The MacBook, however, has TosLink audio jacks, so I can connect an optical cable directly between the MacBook and the Minidisc, and it appears that the recordings have SCMS disabled, so they are entirely DRM-free! Not only that, but plugging in the TosLink cable disables the MacBook's volume control, setting it to maximum, so I don't even have to remember to turn it up.

Needless to say, I'll be using the MacBook for all my future 'streaming audio to Minidisc' recordings.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006


Despite my previous concern over the unavailability of Universal versions of some of the software I'm used to, it seems that the problem is solved (after fashion, and for the time being). The latest PowerPC version of OpenOffice appears to run satisfactorily under Rosetta. Not fast, but adequate until the Universal version is stable and reliable.

So I do, after all, have compatibility with all my previous documents -- which is a relief, considering that this shiny new MacBook, for all its sooper dooper coolness and utility, is supposed to earn its keep with mundane stuff like wordprocessing.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

It's arrived!

I now have a shiny new white MacBook. So far I've used it only in my kitchen, connected wirelessly to the router I bought a month or so ago specifically with the prospect of a new notebook in mind. The MacBook's wireless performance is impressive, picking up half a dozen networks I'd never seen before.

The screen appears extremely sharp, making my cheap 17" TFT look decidedly woolly, and even my 19" CRT now seems a bit furry.

I've been downloading software updates, as well as some other free and open source software I expect to be using. I gather that the Intel versions of DivX and other plugins for QuickTime are a bit iffy, so for the time being I'll be using VLC for playing AVI files.

I have hit a problem. My preferred office software, OpenOffice, isn't available as a Universal Binary in stable form yet, and I've discovered that the alternative, NeoOffice, won't run under Rosetta. For word-processing only, I've downloaded AbiWord, but the two times I've tried to use it (under Rosetta), it's bombed out. Not good.

That's how far I've got, in one-and-a-half evenings. More later.

I've had other delights as well...
...but you'll have to read my other blog to find out about that.

Wednesday, May 31, 2006


After nearly two weeks of dithering, I've ordered my MacBook. I knew my next laptop would be a Mac, but I'd been waiting for Apple's announcement of the iBook replacement before making a decision. The black MacBook is seriously desirable, but at a £90 premium I felt I was being taken for a fashion-conscious, cash-careless air-head.

I don't blame Apple for exploiting those who want to show off the rarity value of a black Mac. If the black iPod is selling better than the white, why not try to make some extra profit? People can always vote with their credit cards.

As I'm doing. I've ordered the white one, upgraded to the spec of the black.

Now I'm checking out which apps have been (or soon will be) released in Universal versions. I use mostly open-source software on my Mac mini, apart from iLife '05, and though I'm looking forward to using iLife '06, there are some apps which I'll be using under Rosetta, at least for a while.

Meanwhile, I'm checking my account at the online Apple Store every day....