Bill Morefield My thoughts, discoveries, and occasional rambiings.

June 30, 2013

A Last Word on Google Reader

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , — Bill Morefield @ 2:00 pm

I’d originally planned this to be published a few days ago and to be much more comprehensive on what I chose to replace Google Reader and how I’d arrived at that decision. Simply put, life, and a failed hard drive, got in the way. So instead here’s the shorter version.

I’ve used Google Reader for a long time, first to sync, and then as my main reader, then again to sync. And I was not happy to see it go away, and so soon after the announcement, but expected that several alternatives would appear to try to fill the void. They have. More than twenty are listed on ReplaceReader, a site listing all the alternatives. Some existed before the announcement, but have either arrived or been reinvigorated afterward.

Google Reader won because it was frankly better than the alternatives when it came out. There were other services that synced news, but frankly they didn’t work as well. I know because my primary method at the time was a series of batch files that copied my sync state to and from a USB thumb drive.

From the start I planned to wait until about mid June to really begin testing alternatives. I’d play with a few before then, but I expected a couple of months would be needed for the new candidates to arrive. An early month vacation that wasn’t quite as restful as expected had me starting a bit earlier, but I really didn’t make my final choice until earlier this week.

I’m currently using NewsBlur. It was the first alternative I tried and the one I kept coming back to. Overall it feels the most polished web version at this point and the native iOS apps work well. In addition it feels the most stable and reliable as it was around before the shutdown announcement. The intelligent features for news feeds I’m still playing with, but look promising so far.

The other service I’m keeping an eye on is Feed Wrangler. It still feels just a bit too rough for me to use daily, but it might be the one that I’ll be using six months from now. The flexibility of the smart streams could be a wonderful way to manage the heavier traffic sites I follow while highlighting what I want to read.

Overall none of the programs really seem to completely replicate Google Reader. There are a lot of new programs coming out, many in just the last few days, and this is changing quickly. I expect many of them won’t be around a year from now. What I’d look for now is what works best for you and make sure you have a way to export your data so there’s a way out if your chosen service closes down in the future.

June 19, 2013

Time Machine Backups to a Windows Server in Mountain Lion

Filed under: apple,osx — Tags: , , — Bill Morefield @ 9:54 am

Since I moved to a MacBook as my laptop a couple of years ago, I’ve had one continuing problem with backups.  In my mixed Windows/mac environment I’ve used an HP MediaSmart Windows Home Server as my file storage solution for both systems and mostly that’s worked well.

At first Time Machine backups from Snow Leopard to this server worked fine as the HP server included software that allowed it to function as a native Time Machine destination.  That stopped working with the changes that Apple made to Time Machine in Lion.  HP being HP, they never updated their tools to work with Lion.  Once I upgraded to Lion I found no good alternative so I changed to the use of an external USB drive to store my backups.  I never really liked this solution since it required me to remember to plug in the drive on a regular basis. It also ran slowly at times and I didn’t like that it put part of my backups in a different place than the rest of them.

I finally found a solution that is not perfect, but is as close I’ve gotten.  Recently I had to redo this when the disk that held the backups had some issues because of a bad hard drive on my server and thought it worth documenting. It’s been more than a year since I set this up so I can’t provide the links to the blog post that got me thinking this direction so unfortunately I can’t credit them.  Still this is how to create a pretty good TimeMachine backup destination for a Lion or Mountain Lion Mac to a Windows Server.  In fact it should work with any storage that is network accessible and doesn’t natively support updated Apple’s AFP protocol.

This works by creating an Apple disk image on a server share.  This is the same concept used by VMWare and Parallels to create disk images for virtual machines.  Here though we’ll set up a disk image that we can later mount from our Apple that works as a destination for our backups.

  1. Start the Apple Disk Utility.  Easiest way is to bring up Spotlight and start typing in Disk Utility.
  2. Make sure that you do not have a drive selected and click New Image…
  3. I had problems creating the disk image directly on the external storage. When I tried creating the image on the remote storage it would never mount correctly. Instead I created the disk image on a local drive and then moved it to the server share.  This would normally be a problem since we want our disk image to be large enough for our backups and therefore want it at least as large as our hard disk.  To work around this, and save storage space until it’s needed, we’ll create a sparse bundle disk image.  This type of disk only allocates space when it’s needed.  It will run slower than a preallocated image, but I’ve found the difference isn’t noticeable.
  4. Now give the image a name.  I used MacBook-Backup for mine.  You will need this name later, so make sure it’s easy to type.
  5. Next skip ahead in the dialog and change the Image Format to sparse bundle disk image. This lets us create a disk image that will grow over time so we do not need to allocate all the space at once. It also let’s me allocate a 1 TB backup disk and still create it on the 500 GB SSD in my MacBook.
  6. You’ll want to size the image based on how much you have to backup and how long you want to be able to go back to retrieve data. Since I’d been using a 1 TB USB drive I decided to create the image the same size and found that’s worked well for me. Under the Size dropdown select Custom… to enter any size that you’d like.
  7. For format the default Mac OS Extended (Journaled) works fine so leave it.
  8. Encryption is optional.  For an actual portable disk like the USB drive I’d consider encryption a necessity.  With a network stored file the question is how much you trust the other people who may have access to your server.  If you want to be safe, 128 bit encryption works well.  I’m using it on my backup.
  9. You can create the image anywhere on your computer.  I gave it the name MacBook-Backup.sparsebundle to make it clear what it was.  Again since it’s a sparse bundle it will only initially use a small amount of disk space regardless of the size of the disk image.
  10. Once Disk Utility finishes creating the image, unmount it, and move it to your remote storage.  In my case I created a new share on my server and gave my account read/write access to that share.  I then moved the file into the share.

With the image file now on my storage, I next had to tell my Mac where this file was and to use it as the Time  Machine destination.  If you try to do this through the GUI as normal you’ll see that only external drives and AFP supporting devices (generally either a Time Capsule, Airport Base Station, or NAS with the necessary support) show.  Instead we need to use the tmutil command to tell Lion where this image file is

To do this I found the easiest approach to first mount the image to your computer.  To do this connect to your external storage where you placed the file.  In my case this was a cifs share and I mounted it using the Go -> Connect to Server… option in Finder.  Once I did this it and I entered my login credentials I could see the disk image.  To mount the image double click on it.  If you created an encrypted image you will be asked for the password.  You can choose to store the password in your keychain so you will not need to enter it each time.  Once the image is mounted, you will see it in Finder under Devices much as you would an external drive.  The name will be the image name you entered in step 4 above.

If you want to move any existing Time Machine backup you can do so.  Apple provides instructions to do this at https://support.apple.com/kb/HT5096.  In this case the disk image functions just as an external drive would.  It takes time, but allows you to keep your existing backup data.

Next start Terminal.  At the prompt enter the following command to tell Apple where our Time Machine destination will reside:

sudo tmutil setdestination /Volumes/Mounted Image

Change Mounted Image to the name of the device in Finder after you mounted it.  In my case since I gave it the name MacBook Backup in step 4, my command is:

sudo tmutil setdestination /Volumes/MacBook-Backup

Try running a backup now by going to the TimeMachine icon and select Backup Now.  Depending on how much data you have on your Mac and the speed of your network it might take a while.  If you have a lot to backup the first time doing so with a network cable instead of wireless can speed it up significantly.  If you have an existing backup it may be faster to transfer it to the new image which will allow the backup to pick up from there.

After a few days this is working well.  I’m now getting regular backups instead of only when I remember to plug in the USB drive and have the time to let the backup run.  I’ve found the backups over my wireless to be much faster than over the USB 2 in my MacBook.  I also feel more confident my backup is up to date and will cover if something happens to my laptop or hard drive.

It’s not perfect though.  Since this is for all purposes an external drive it functions much as connecting a physical drive and not as a network destination.  To kick off the backup, you must manually attach to the server and mount the drive. I’ve also found that when networks other than my home, I get errors about not being able to connect to the storage when the Mac attempts to start the backup. I’ve generally just ignored these since there seems to be no problem other than the error message.

June 13, 2013

Thoughts on iOS 7

Filed under: ios,iPhone — Tags: — Bill Morefield @ 6:05 pm

Earlier this week Apple demonstrated the new version of iOS 7. I watched part of the keynote live and the rest while travelling later in the week. So what I’m putting here is based just on that along with what I’ve seen and read publically and not actually using the beta myself. I do have a test device for that, but won’t be doing that until home later this week. Also since I’ve been on vacation and not following the news out of WWDC in depth I might have missed something and will update/correct this as needed. These are what stood out when watching the keynote and reading a few online items off that.

What I liked

The overall look. I’m odd in that I like Windows 8 overall. And iOS 7 really reminds me of Windows 8. It’s not a clone or copy, but it’s inspired by the same design principles that inspired that system. And I like it. The icons aren’t all perfect, but this is a beta and I wouldn’t be surprised to see them polished a bit before the final release. I do think the overall look answers the concerns about the outdated look to the interface, but of course actually using it will do much to see how well it works.

The control center is a great feature and one that excites me from an ease of use view. The toggles for things like Wi-Fi and flight mode are great when travelling. My recent vacation reminded me how long it takes to hop into settings and turn on airplane mode when getting ready to get onto a plane or when going somewhere with little or no cell reception that drains the battery so fast you can almost watch it count down. I do hope that those quick access links at the bottom can be customized, but I doubt it given’s Apple’s past track record.

Better multitasking is finally here too. This was the one of my two biggest hopes that were addressed. Don’t underestimate the ability to start and app and not have to wait for it to update. Compare bringing up a mail app to say bringing up a news reader where it takes a minute to update before you’re done. Background runs are a great feature, and I expect Apple’s implementation will mitigate battery concerns.

Activation lock is a big deal. Working for a company that deals with nearly 1,000 iPads anything to reduce theft makes a big impact. And personally I like the idea that if I lose my iPhone or it’s stolen then it might not be useful to the finder and means I’m more likely to get it back.

Notification Sync. No more clearing the same notification from multiple devices.

I can finally put as many icons in a folder as I want. No more adding numbers to the end of a folder name or jailbreaking for this purpose.

What I’m Not As Excited About

I think that a lot of these features seem interesting, but not there yet or just won’t work for me. I love the idea of a browser integrating secure passwords into the browser, but I’m not sure I feel a lot of trust to iCloud for it at this point. And for me the iCloud, and therefore Apple only, nature of this solution makes it a non-starter for me. I’ll stick with RoboForm, though if I was a developer of a password app I’d be looking into iCloud integration if that’s possible.

AirDrop looks nice, but the rather limited selection of devices it will work on I think means it will be of limited use until older devices cycle out of common use. I know a lot of people still running iPhone 4’s.

The radio service really doesn’t show me anything that would move me from a program I was currently using. I think Pandora might be in the most trouble since it seems the closest to what Apple produced. I’ll play with it, but don’t see it moving me from Slacker. Again the Apple device only likely makes it a non starter for me.

What Disappoints Me

Still doesn’t look like any good inter-application communication. I still have to hope every developer integrates use for the systems I want. My photo site of choice is 500px and I’d love if they could write a 500px share target and then I could send a photo to it from any app. I’ve hoped for this for a while and really though that it might show up this year. I still think we’ll see this feature, but really wonder how much longer Apple can put this off?

Last Thought

There are always software products that look in trouble after the new version appears. This year thought I think the biggest might be the jailbreak community. Each jailbreak version seems to take longer than the last and I’ve noticed each time I’ve missed the jailbreak a little less. A lot of the things I’ve turned to jailbreak apps for now look built in. I’m not sure at this point I’ll be that worried about jail breaking when 7 comes out which will be a first.

April 15, 2013

A Goal Reached

Filed under: health — Tags: , — Bill Morefield @ 2:04 pm

On the morning of April 3, 2013, I stepped onto the scale and it read 189.5. The number may not seem that special on a glance, but to me it’s a big milestone. It marks the conclusion of more than two years of work to drop over 100 pounds. To put the change into a bit more into context in 2010 I wore an extra large shirt and forty four inch waist pants that sometimes felt snug. Today I wear either a a medium shirt or small shirt depending on the type and maker and pants with a thirty four inch waist. That’s a drop of three or so shirt sizes and ten inches off my waist. So forgive me a bit to indulge in a bit of a story of getting from there to here. I’ll have another post in a few days more on what I did so think of this more as the overview.

The highest weight I ever saw on a scale came in late 2010 when I weighed in at 290 pounds. While that was the one measured weight, it probably moved 290 and 300 pounds for much of the late summer and early fall of 2010. There wasn’t any kind of epiphany that day. I never really recall a single moment of “I need to lose weight.” If anything it was just the slow realization that I didn’t like being this heavy. At some level maybe that 300 number I knew I’d reach anytime in my current path started the pressure.

As December arrived I started exercising. Nothing outstanding or grand. Some days I walked, but being winter I I mostly used my elliptical. If I remember right my first exercise session lasted about ten minutes and I felt exhausted. I wanted to avoid gaining weight over the holidays and as I got past Christmas I’d succeeded and still hadn’t hit that 300 pound mark. In January I moved to exercising two or three days a week on an elliptical for about twenty minutes at a time. I didn’t really diet, but became a bit more aware of what I ate. Not cutting out anything, but ordering the small instead of the large when eating out.

And it worked. I don’t remember the exact amount, but maybe ten or fifteen pounds as spring 2011 got here. Whatever the amount a few acquaintances and friends commented on it. That was I think the shift, that I’d not only been able to lose weight, but enough to be noticed by others. Don’t underestimate that feedback that came in being a motivation to keep going.

Another incentive with spring coming came from an interest in getting outdoors more for hiking and photography I’d developed the year before. I wanted to be better able to take those hikes without spending as much time resting and recovering as I’d done before. From that first time on the elliptical when ten minutes at a slow pace left me exhausted I could now do thirty minutes at a decent speed. And while I felt tired afterward, I was no longer exhausted. Walking up several flights of stairs into work still left me winded, but not as much as before. I noticed the changes. They were subtle even after a few months, but I had changed.

I again looked at my food intake. I didn’t go onto a real diet and I didn’t stop eating what I wanted. I just ate a little less of it. I’d have a salad on occasion for lunch. I paid attention to portions trying to east smaller ones. No more large fries with lunch and now I’d have one hot dog instead of two or the regular burger and not the double. Not much, but the small things will add up over time. The weight came on over years and it wouldn’t go away overnight. By the end of the summer of 2011 I’d dropped down to about 250 pounds. I exercised pretty regularly now, usually five days a week. The only stretch of any length I missed was after tweaking my back helping a friend move furniture and taking most of a week off to let it heal.

I hit a wall a bit there. I made it to around 245 as September moved to October and really didn’t move much over the rest of 2011. When 2012 began I’d gotten to about 240 pounds. It seemed I’d lost more fat than weight. My health was undeniably better and I had better endurance and strength than probably since I’d been in college. Still I just couldn’t get the weight to budge more. I finally figured out the months of futility came to medicine I took, but whose dosage hadn’t been adjusted for the weight loss. Once I made that change and over the next few months I got my weight down through 230 and to near 225. Then I kind of took the summer of 2012 off a bit and just worked to maintain weight.

By the time I got to fall I was ready for a more serious effort. I wanted rid of the extra weight and back to a normal rate. I was ready to focus and do the work to get there at a faster pace. I set the goal to reach 200 pounds by January 1, 2013.

As September began I started tracking my activity, everything I ate, and my weight daily. Before I’d weighed more sporadically, often just when I remembered to. There are cons to weighing everyday, but overall I think it worked well for me in this case. In September I weighted in at 227. I started a steady drop keeping to a target of dropping a bit over 1.5 pounds per week with the goal of weighing in at 200 pounds on January 1. In the end I missed it by only a few days. I continued the drop through January and took another short break through February. I’m now under the 190 mark that always felt like a big goal to me of getting to 100 pounds below my peak.

I’m not done yet as I have a bit more weight to go. My next target is to get to around 180 and I think I’ll be pretty close to a good weight for me once I get there. In addition to the weight I’d really say the bigger change came in my overall health. I’m probably in better shape now than I’d ever been. I can walk up flights of stairs while having a conversation. I regularly do four mile hikes and while tired, feel quite good after them.

January 15, 2013

Arbitrary Sorting Order in Linq To SQL

Filed under: c#,development — Tags: , , — Bill Morefield @ 3:22 pm

I ran into a situation recently that took me some time to work out and thought I’d document here. I have an older ASP.NET Web Forms application I help maintain. Some upgrades and changes to the workflow used by the customer had meant a few assumptions I’d made no longer applied.

The biggest of these was that a list of values no longer returned from the database the way I’d assumed before. Here is the Linq to Sql that pulled the values to that point.

   1:  var plans = from m in dc.MenuPlans
   2:              where m.client == CurrentClient && m.year == year &&
   3:                  m.month == month && m.day == day
   4:              select m;

As you might guess from this code, it pulls a set of menu plans from a database for a client. Each menu plan is specific to a day. What you can’t see here is that each meal has a meal name that is simply “Breakfast”, “Lunch”, “Dinner”, or “Snack”. Before the meals had been entered in that order and the creation method ensured they showed up in the order being entered.

Now they were being entered in a different order by multiple people and the order of creation no longer worked. The desired order was still breakfast, lunch, dinner, and then snack at the end. Sorting simply by the column wouldn’t work as that would produce an alphabetical order resulting in breakfast, dinner, lunch, and then snack. Close, but not quite.

What I needed was a custom ordering sequence. I could pull the items over in four groups and then append them to a final list, but that seemed messy and slow. I wanted a solution to do so at the database and not have to bring the elements in and sort in memory. I finally worked out a nice solution with this code.

   1:  var plans = from m in dc.MenuPlans
   2:              where m.client == CurrentClient && m.year == year &&
   3:                 m.month == month && m.day == day
   4:              orderby m.mealname == "Breakfast" ? 1 :
   5:                 m.mealname == "Lunch" ? 2 :
   6:                 m.mealname == "Dinner" ? 3 : 4
   7:              select m;

The new code lies on lines 4-6. What I do is compare the element that I want to sort by to the values in the order I wish things to show. I’m using the binary operator here. If you’re not familiar with it, this works like a compact if/then statement. The binary operator:

   1:  return x > 0 ? 0 : 1

Is equivalent to the following if/then statement.

   1:  if(x > 0)
   2:     return 0;
   3:  else
   4:     return 1

So the code lets me map the string values to numeric values arbitrarily. Breakfast maps to 1, Lunch maps to 2, Dinner maps to 3, and any other value to 4. Since the result of this is a set of integers, the ordering works the way I want.

While the code looks a bit messy, it translates nicely to SQL that runs on the database server through a CASE statement and I get the order I want without any extra processing in the web application.

October 1, 2012

Apple Maps and What’s the Problem

Filed under: iPhone — Tags: , , , — Bill Morefield @ 10:09 pm

Every iPhone release seems to bring some kind of debacle varying from real to merely a search for clicks on the web by writers. The commentary usually starts with the normal “Apple is finally losing it” to “Apple can do no wrong” and then somewhat sane reality comes in. The iOS maps debacle, which is an iOS issue and not an iPhone issue, looks to be the most valid and worst of them. I’ve followed this one with some interest as I’ve planned to upgrade to the new iPhone.

The issue was driven home a bit to me over the weekend. I was in the northern part of the Cumberland Plateau in Middle Tennessee Sunday looking for two places. One was a place that I’d last visited in my college days and the other one I’d only read about. Along with me were some directions and notes. Neither was a spot you could just plug into a GPS and get directions which admittedly is my normal way of getting somewhere now.

The first spot I found with no problems between good directions and vague memories. It was in fact a more lovely location than I remembered. The second I never found though I drove within a few miles of it. The reason, my directions left out a single turn, a short trip of less than a quarter mile, that meant I never saw the road I was searching for. As a result eventually we gave up and had to abandon the quest for another day.

While driving back home I thought back to when several years ago I learned that at least one major GPS had a mistake on the addresses on the street where I live. The street is a circle, a short loop of about thirty homes. That brand of GPS, or more exactly the map provider they used, had the addresses backwards so that if you followed them you’d likely end up exactly on the opposite side of the circle from where you actually meant to go.

In the daytime this was a  minor issue since the address numbers on the home would tell you that you were in the wrong spot. At night where these numbers were invisible, it wasn’t so clear. More than once someone I’d provided directions to my house wound up knocking on the wrong door or realizing something didn’t look right and calling me while from the street. It’s how I learned there was a problem and for a while I always added the warning when someone visited the first time.

Both of these had the same basic issue. Bad data. The GPS data was beyond my control and I did the only thing I could do, warn visitors not to trust the address on their GPS. The never found place on Sunday was my largely my fault. I could have checked or verified the directions before I left or at least checked a map well enough to have realized something was off in time to get to the right spot. In both cases though the data I had failed me.

The first time I remember using a computer map system to find directions to a place I’d not visited before it told me to use a bridge that no longer existed to cross a river. On a trip in Kentucky a couple years ago a road under construction and not in my GPS caused it so much confusion my GPS actually crashed and had to be restarted. A construction project I drive through several times almost every day has shifted the entrance and exit patterns to a shopping center, college, and mall several times in less than a year and will do so several more before being complete where the pattern will be completely unrelated to the original one.

And that’s the problem Apple is facing with maps. Map data is often inaccurate. Even good data is often behind. It’s so much easier to travel now with GPS data and maps available on demand on your phone. I’ve learned the art of interpreting the GPS, trusting it enough to get me there, but also expecting it to be wrong at times and using common sense.

The bigger issue is that the overall accuracy of the data doesn’t matter. What matters is how the data is where I want to go. All I know is that one of the two sets of directions I used Sunday was wrong. It doesn’t matter if every other one on the site is perfect, I’ll remember the one that was wrong and never trust them the same way again. Right now that’s what people think about Apple’s maps

It doesn’t really matter where it might be wrong because it will always be a little wrong somewhere and each time I or someone I know gets wrong directions that will be reinforced. I’ll probably take a long time before I trust Apple’s maps to get me there which might be the biggest problem they face now. Apple has to make maps that work not as well as Google, but better and for long enough that everyone forgets how bad a start they got off to.

September 20, 2012

Recent Articles

Filed under: article — Tags: , , — Bill Morefield @ 9:31 pm

Here’s a few articles that I’ve recently had published:

August 20, 2012

My Review of Skip Tunes for Mac OS

Filed under: article — Tags: , , — Bill Morefield @ 6:11 pm

An excerpt:

Most of my solo work time passes with music in the background. Sometimes I’m playing music from my iTunes library, and sometimes I’m streaming music from online radio stations or subscription services. Controlling it all can be a pain….

Skip Tunes is a simple menubar app that offers a solution. It runs in your menu bar to let you control the your music from the menu bar or with keyboard shortcuts. How well does it work?

Read the full Review…

August 15, 2012

A Couple Recent Articles Posted

Filed under: Uncategorized — Bill Morefield @ 8:41 pm

A couple articles/reviews of mine published this week.  First back on Monday a look at what PowerShell for Windows let’s you do on Windows.AppStorm.

Also my first article for Mac.Appstorm reviewing SideEffects, a program that puts color icons back into the sidebar in Finder.

July 6, 2012

Creating HDR photos with Luminance

Filed under: Uncategorized — Bill Morefield @ 3:54 pm

My article on Creating HDR photos with Luminance is up on Windows.AppStorm. A preview:

HDR attempts to compensate for the lesser dynamic range of a camera by taking multiple images that together cover the entire dynamic range of the scene and combining them together to produce a photo that better presents the full dynamic range in the original scene. Many high end graphic processing packages such as Photoshop contain the ability to create HDR images. Other specialty programs designed only to create these images also exist. Creating these images does not require expensive specialized software. Here we’ll look at using the free open source Luminance to produce HDR images.

Read the rest on Windows.AppStorm

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