Friday, 27 November 2009

A Word or Two about Apple Mail

It's strange to think, but when I started full time work after graduating back in 1984 we didn't have email. In fact my first encounter with email was when I opened a Compuserve account sometime in the late 1980s. It wasn't until the early nineties that I had access to email at work, again through a corporate Compuserve account, but with limited availability. Many of my colleagues had another two or three years to wait before the full roll-out of Novell's Groupwise across the company. By the time I joined a very large Global Outsourcing company in the late nineties, email was more prevalent, and Outlook had become the de facto standard for most businesses. It wasn't long before I was receiving several hundred email messages each day, and by the time I left that corporation I was regularly getting more than a thousand messages a week. I became something of an expert on Outlook simply to be able to manage incoming mail.

When I moved across to the Mac platform I duly purchased Office:Mac 2008 which had just hit the streets. I fully expected Entourage to look and work like Outlook. Boy was I mistaken ! Even getting Entourage to read Outlook data files was a major hassle, although I eventually managed to import my old Outlook messages using third party software. But there was enough of a likeness between the Microsoft's Mac and PC mail offerings to keep me hooked in preference to Mail. I particularly liked Entourage's integration of mail, to-do lists and calendar.

I prevailed with Entourage until earlier this year before deciding to try out Mail in earnest. The Entourage database had started a habit of corrupting itself, and of course Time Machine backups were incorporating the entire database every time it was updated. Archiving in Entourage also left me cursing its designers.

I now use Mail all the time and generally wonder why I ever bothered with Entourage. But it isn't Mail out of the box. I have a set of Add-Ins and tools which give the programme its genuine usefulness. These are Letterbox, DockStar, Growl Mail, Mail Tags and Mail Attachments Iconizer. I also have Mail Act-On installed but I'm still trying to get to grips with that. I use MailSteward for archiving, and this also allows me to get around the problems of incompatibility between the Leopard and Snow Leopard versions of Mail.

Luckily the volume of email that I currently have to deal with is greatly reduced from the madness of a few years ago. But even if it were too suddenly escalate, Apple Mail in the Apple Harvest environment would be more than capable of rising to the situation. It would be even better if:
  • Apple would provide a mechanism for properly integrating Mail and iCal without me having to use another third party application like DayLite

  • Apple engineers would stop messing about with Mail internals that then break the 3rd party add-ins until the poor developers have a chance to figure out what they've done and are able to catch up (which they generally do very quickly), and leaving the poor user with a broken environment in the meantime
Another time, we'll look at some of the Add-Ins in more detail. Happy emailing...

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Blogging tools for the Mac

I'm relatively new to the art of blogging (although I've been writing for a number of years), and as a result I'm not all that familiar with different blogging set-ups and tools. When I decided to set up my first blog, ALLYGILL.CO.UK which is aligned to my business, some of the choices were really made for me. I had built the web site for my Process Management consultancy business using RapidWeaver. RapidWeaver is great because it allows me some considerable flexibility without getting me dragged into the gory details of HTML, CSS and JavaScript, etc. on a daily basis. The pages are static, and I probably update them once or twice a month. Dreamweaver was too expensive and overkill for my fairly conservative requirements.

RapidWeaver also supports third party add-ons, and has a thriving developer community. One such add-on was RapidBlog which I purchased with a view to incorporating a blog in the future. RapidBlog is designed to work closely with Blogger, so the choice of a blog host was made automatically.

Blogger itself is a perfectly adequate tool for creating and managing blog entries, as is RapidBlog, but I wanted something with a bit more flexibility and more importantly, that didn't rely on an on-line connection as I quite often write on trains, planes and automobiles (I'm not a driver so don't panic). Some automatic content and configuration management was also important, which, for me, ruled out using RapidBlog as it would overcomplicate the way I manage my web site content.

I don't really remember how I came across MarsEdit. I imagine I read a review in one of the many Mac comics that I subscribe to and it struck me as being a fairly simple tool to use but one that ticked all the right boxes. It's also inexpensive which always goes down well at the Apple Harvest. I would have pointed out an excellent review I read the other day, but I can't quite put my hands on it at the moment. It was written by a staff writer for one of the UK specialist Mac magazines and is much better than anything I can throw together. I'll post a link if I can find it at a later date. Although MarsEdit provides some HTML formatting support, it is a bit basic and I recently added BlogAssist to the arsenal. This is another simple tool allowing that little bit of extra control over blog entry appearance.

Let me know if there's other stuff I'm not aware of. I have looked at WordPress and I'm aware that there's a wide range of associated development tools, but I'm committed to Blogger at the moment. This combination of tools serves me perfectly well and as a wise man said:

"If it ain't bust, don't fix it!"

Eliminate the possibilities - then get lucky

So I think I've finally found the cause of the internet connection drop that I've been suffering from and hopefully eliminated it, but it has been a very unproductive few days. Luckily I work from home, I'm answerable only to myself and I had the time to go through the process of establishing the root cause; if the same thing had happened to the majority of people, it would possibly take days or even weeks before they could determine the problem.

The past few days took me back to the time when I used to cut code for a living, and occasionally I'd get those faults which would only surface every so often, but would cause a total system crash. I'd spend hours trying to step through the code, looking at memory dumps, and using any other debugging tool at hand. More often than not (and without trying to sound too cocky), the problem lay in the interaction of someone else's code not my own - and very often, it would be something as simple as a buffer overflow trashing my space. It would appear that something similar was going on with the iMac, and all those old problem solving skills were required to find the source of the error.

First of all I needed to think what changes I'd made to the system - and there were quite a few. The trouble was that many of them were interrelated. I'd been having some teething problems with Firefox bookmarks (Xmarks) which I was determined to fix. New bookmarks would disappear shortly after being created, or they would have incorrect URLs associated with them. After reinstalling Xmarks to no avail, I decided to trash my Firefox profile and rebuild it to see if that worked. Rather stupidly, on reflection, I added in some new add-ons while doing this. It's much more sensible to focus on solving one problem properly before changing the environment or conditions in which the problem dwells. Although I fixed the bookmark problem with the new profile, the side effect appeared to be the random dropped internet connection. This also teaches us a bit of a lesson, that the perceived problem is not always the right one to focus on. I've been preaching that in my business life for years, but I don't always follow my own (sensible) advice when fixing my computer!

My next step then was clearly to disable the additional Firefox goodies that I'd installed in the new profile, because one of them must be causing the problem. No such luck, the random drop-outs continued. Because the problem wasn't occurring with my laptop, I then decided to copy the Firefox profile from the laptop to the iMac. The random drop-outs continued.

Time to focus on the other differences between iMac and MBP. I run Apple Mail by default on the iMac, only swapping to the MPB when on the road. So maybe this was a Mail problem. I stopped using Mail, and checked mail directly through the internet. The random drop-outs continued. I was relieved by this, as I didn't really want to be messing about with Mail innards. Next I stopped running the Twitter clients, Tweetie and TweetDeck. And still the random drop-outs continued.

Back to Firefox, which by now was the most likely cause of the problem. I toyed with the idea of reverting to Safari, but on this occasion, decided that this really would change the environment completely, so I belayed that idea. I checked the Firefox error console for the umpteenth time, and this time I found something new. There were some 1Password errors visible. 1Password is the saviour of the internet, as it enables you to store passwords, identities, credit card data and just about everything else required to live on-line. However, despite being a brilliantly useful tool, it seems to get an almost daily update. It seems that every time I open the programme, I get the New Version dialog box displayed. I remembered I had skipped an update a few days previously as I was in a hurry to get something done, so I ran the 1Password programme and performed the latest update (I'd missed two versions by now).

And that dear reader appears to have resolved the problem. The iMac has now run for over 48 hours without dropping the connection, I've been able to gently reintroduce some of the new Firefox goodies I wanted to try and I actually managed to get some work done.

The moral of the story ? There are several.

  1. Focus on fixing one problem at a time, without changing the environment in which the problem occurs

  2. Take the time to perform updates when they are offered. There's probably a good reason for doing so

  3. Use a scientific approach to problem resolution and don't assume you know where the problem lies without proving it

To be fair to 1Password, I think there may have been some corruption along the way which caused the issue, and that even reinstalling the original version may have fixed the problem straight away - but I wasn't to know that at the time.

Now about these other problems I mentioned...

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Networking is still a chore

I'm old enough to remember the days when we used to have to connect to networks using acoustic couplers, bits of string, rubber bands and elastic and software without a user interface. The key ingredient was faith. It's fair to say that we have come a long way since then - broadband, mobile broadband, wireless and gigabit ethernet connections do make life easier. Software packages like Network Magic were a breakthrough on the Windows platform, but it wasn't until I started using Apple equipment a couple of years ago that I felt that much of the pain was being borne by the operating system rather than the user. Until things go wrong that is.

Since the MacBook Pro came back from the repair shop I've had a number of niggling problems with the network at the Apple Harvest. It isn't a complicated set-up: a BTHomeHub 2 sits at the heart of the network providing a mix of wired and wireless connections. My iMac is permanently connected via ethernet alongside a WD NAS drive. Both plug into the router via a NetGear gigabit switch, and a Powerlink connection takes the ethernet downstairs from my office and allows me to connect to BT Vision. The MBP generally connects wirelessly, but a spare ethernet connection is available upstairs if necessary. iPhone, iPod Touch and the Hackintosh all connect wirelessly.

The niggles started with iTunes. Having upgraded to OS X 10.6.2 and iTunes 9.0.2, the home-sharing facility stopped working over the wireless network. Plugging the MPB into the spare ethernet port resolved the situation initially but now this has also packed up. No changes have been made to firewalls or other security systems.

The second niggle came with ShareTool which I mentioned in my last blog entry. Whist ShareTool works without issue most of the time, occasionally it can't initialise itself, and a router reboot is required.

Over the past twenty four hours a new niggle has started. The iMac keeps dropping its internet connection. Sometimes this happens after 5 minutes, sometimes it takes 5 hours. The router shows no sign of any problems, and a check against the MPB shows that the Broadband signal is fine and internet access is OK on the laptop. The only solution is to switch the machine off and reboot as certain software packages trying to access the net won't quit to allow a restart.

The trouble with all these problems is that they are intermittent and therefore difficult to repeat and to diagnose. It's also true that network diagnostic tools are not for the faint hearted, and will generally lead to more questions than answers. The whole language of networking seems to be designed to baffle and obfuscate, even more than other IT disciplines. I understand quite a lot of what is going on, but I feel for the average home user who won't have a clue. (I recently sorted out a friends PC networking problems but to this day I haven't got a clue what was going on - only that I fixed it, and it hasn't happened again...yet).

In an attempt to sort out some of these problems I've stopped trying to run ShareTool, and have just discovered that the developer has posted an awareness of an incompatibility between the current version of ShareTool and OS X 10.6.2, which shouldn't really have come as a surprise. Credit to the developer for his rapid response and acknowledgement, as it means there's no point in me continuing to try to establish what's going on and ripping even more hair out. [Update 12.Nov.2009 17.15GMT - ShareTool is not to blame for the internet connection failure, so still need to find the culprit. Drat !!]

I guess the real point is that the industry as a whole needs to step back and bring networking support into the 21st century, to make the whole experience less painful and allow us to be more productive. I don't see why it should still be rocket science in this day and age!

Sunday, 8 November 2009

Despair and Joy

A couple of weeks ago we had yet more kit failure at the Apple Harvest. I'd been staying at my girlfriend's house for a couple of days, and had taken my MBP with me as I had some work to do while I was there. It was also a chance to check out some new software I'd purchased - ShareTool - allowing me to access my home office iMac from anywhere in the world via the internet. More on that later...

On the second morning, disaster struck. The MBP had been asleep during the night; an oversight on my part as I wouldn't normally leave a laptop plugged in and turned on. When I went to wake it up there was a blank screen and no light in the Apple logo on the lid. However, a quick check using the iStat app on my iPhone showed that the machine was actually booted and working normally, apart from the rather significant lack of video. More bizarrely, when I tried to screen share from my girlfriend's iMac (yup I've made a convert of her too!), everything was fine and dandy. So the good news was that it wasn't a complete system failure. iStat, by the way, is an essential and cheap diagnostic tool for anyone with an iPhone and Mac hardware.

Some research on the internet into the problem suggested that there were other folk suffering similar problems, some of which were traced back to a faulty graphics chip, and that Apple were offering free fixes, but it was difficult to tell if this was the same problem I was experiencing. Whilst the internet is a great place for getting ideas on how to resolve certain problems, more esoteric issues are much more difficult to track down. I guess it's similar to using witness descriptions of police suspects where no two individuals will provide an identical description of the baddy (unless it's a stitch up!).

Having had a new display fitted earlier in the year, I decided to check with the supplier to see if they could throw any light on the matter and more importantly whether the display was still under warranty. All credit to the guys at the Square Group in Derby who answered my email very promptly. They suggested bringing in the machine for inspection (£56.00) but gave me some hope that it may be a simple fix. The bad news was that the display was now out of warranty, but if it was a display issue there may be some grounds to pursue Apple.

Last week, I finally managed to get into Derby and dropped the machine off. I hadn't realised how much of an extension to my life the MBP had become as I seemed quite bereft without it. I duly paid my £56.00 inspection fee, and anxiously waited for a phone call, which came three days later.

In short, yes, it was bad news: complete logic board failure. My mind started racing, replace the board at horrendous cost, or ditch the MBP and buy a new one - neither really affordable options at the current time. The service manager went on..."but Apple have recognised a problem with that particular model and have provided a replacement free of charge which we have now fitted, and we have decided to refund your inspection fee". Good job it was a phone call otherwise I'd have probably tried to kiss the guy. (I've not had much in the way of good news recently!). Faith is also restored in Apple, as it was beginning to fade quite dramatically.

So I should be able to pick up the machine tomorrow morning, and that not so little void in my life will be filled again. It doesn't quite end there though, as while I was in the shop I asked for a quote for putting a replacement hard drive in the iMac (see blog entry from 28-10-09). I was quoted £56.00 for the inspection fee and the cost of the new drive, which was considerably less than I had anticipated. My only issue is how to get a whopping great 24inch iMac into Derby from where I live using public transport, and not damaging it even further.

Regular readers of this blog will know how much I value good service, so this month's service award goes to the Square Group in both Derby and the service centre in Alfreton. No actual prizes I'm afraid but a bit of free advertising won't go amiss I hope, and I might use the refund to buy a Magic Mouse. Just for the record, I used to use "the other" Apple supplier in Derby, but gave up with them because of their dire customer service.

By the way, ShareTool worked like a dream, and allowed me access not only my iMac but also the NAS device attached to the network, and the USB drives attached. Simple to set up and use, although I had some firewall issues with Integro's NetBarrier X5 which I managed to resolve reasonably quickly through trial and error and probably more luck than judgment. Recommended.