Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Want a Big Shiny Knob for Your Mac ? Try the Griffin PowerMate...

I’ve had my eyes on the Griffin PowerMate for several years now. It’s one of those gadgets that just exudes elegance and complements any Mac so perfectly. The main reason for not actually buying one was simply because I didn’t know how I would use a big shiny aluminium knob, no matter how beautiful and well engineered.

But a few days ago whilst skimming through Joe Kissel’s book “Take Control of Automating Your Mac” I came across a reference to the PowerMate and I decided to take another look. I found some screen shots of the latest PowerMate software and suitably impressed I decided to go for it. I figured a worst case scenario would be that I’d end up with a slightly expensive (about £35 from Amazon at the time of writing) volume control.

Actually, the worst case scenario, wouldn’t have been bad thing. Whilst I love the sound quality of my Harman/Kardon Soundstick III speakers, I’m not keen on the volume control, especially as I’m so used to the big volume knob  that controls my old Logitech Z3 2.1 speaker set.

The PowerMate is a superbly engineered piece of kit. The finish, feel and balance of the wheel are perfect, the blue LED light is a lovely hue, and there is just enough weight to prevent the device from slipping around the desktop in normal use.

Of course, a big shiny aluminium knob is no use without some software, and the PowerMate 3.1.0 app is compact and easy to use. When first installed it has a default set of settings for a number of standard Apple programmes like iTunes, GarageBand, Safari and Mail, and an overarching Global set.

There are six basic operations for the PowerMate button - rotate right and left,  short and long press, and rotate and press right and left. Using a key modifier like Option, Command, Shift and Control extends this set to an additional 24 operations. Using the software you can assign a ‘library’ function such as ‘Key Press’ or ‘Mouse Action’ or more complex functions like run an Apple Script. The best way to understand how this all works is to look at the default set of commands and use these to generate your own customised set. For example, using the default iTunes command set, I created an equivalent set for Spotify in about 5 minutes. Your only restriction really is going to be your imagination.

There are a few resources on the Internet to help you harness that imagination. A great place is Casey Fleser’s SGnTN site. You will almost certainly need to understand how to set up keyboard shortcuts - plenty of references on the web but try this as a good introduction. I’m also thinking about how to harness the PowerMate with Keyboard Maestro - maybe a subject for a future posting.

It’s also worth spending a minute or two about how to best position your PowerMate on the desk. I’m a southpaw and initially put the PowerMate on the left side of the desk. However, with a trackpad and mouse already resident over there things were getting a bit crowded so I tried repositioning the PowerMate over on the right. This actually proved a much more effective place as I could work the knob without taking my hand off the mouse. But each to their own!

The PowerMate is light enough and small enough to pop into a laptop bag if you’re on the move, and the more I use it, the more I'm left wondering why I didn’t get one earlier. I’m now thinking about buying another one for my iMac at Apple Harvest HQ, although a Bluetooth version is now available (not in the UK yet it seems) and I might have a look at how that stacks up.

Friday, 11 July 2014

The Urge to Tinker and The Domino Effect of IT Problems

Ever had one of those weekends when just about everything related to your home office that could go wrong does, and as a result of trying to fix the issues you end up causing more harm than good?

If your response was "no", then either you are very lucky, exceptionally skilled and methodical, or just plain fibbing!

I recently had the IT weekend from hell. It started on Friday when I realised that Mail wasn’t saving a new Smart Mailbox that I’d created. It got worse on Saturday when I couldn’t get internet access, and on Sunday evening when I lost my entire network I was ready to give it all up and start knitting for a living. In each of these three cases it turned out that the initial problem was not of my doing, but my actions compounded the problems, leading to a domino effect of perceived problems, which I then tried to address causing a vicious circle of IT cock-ups.

Let’s time shift back to Friday. I use Smart Mailboxes a lot. Despite some of my past whinges about Apple Mail, Smart Mailboxes are a simply brilliant and how I’ve missed them in having had to use Outlook for Windows for the last couple of months. On Friday I set up a new Smart Mailbox to manage all the email for my current contract. It only had three conditions so nothing too complex - but I noticed that when I quit mail the new mailbox was missing. This was repeatable behaviour so needed investigating.

There was some indication on the Internet oracle that it was a permissions issue. And since the Smart Mailbox plists in the Mail folder didn’t appear to be getting updated this seemed plausible. However, my Mail is stored on my SD Card (see Bulk Out Your MBA Storage) and the repair permissions button on DiskUtility is greyed out. So, I stopped worrying about my Smart Mailboxes problem and focus on trying to fix the permissions on my SD card. This involved all sorts of shenanigans (including buying a USB card reader) which I won’t go into now, but I couldn’t resolve the problem, and I was beginning to think this wasn’t the cause of my Smart Mailbox problem. But that was now going to have to wait until Saturday as it was time to travel back home for the weekend.

We were up bright and early on Saturday morning and I was all psyched for a couple of hours of troubleshooting with the full benefits of fast home broadband (as opposed to the mobile kind). I fired up Safari and most of my default tabs failed to load - my uStart home page was fine, Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn were all down, Amazon was OK, others were hit and miss. Results weren’t consistent on my iPad - I could see Facebook for example. The network connection looked OK, the wireless seemed to be OK, and one of the boys was playing on the Xbox without any apparent problems. So I rebooted the router which had no effect on anything. I checked the BT Broadband status pages - but couldn’t access them!

For a brief moment I managed to get onto Twitter on my iPad, and it turned out to be a BT Broadband issue with their DNS servers and it was nationwide - although BT weren’t owning up to it. Changing to Google DNS servers helped fix some of the problems; not all of them, but enough to start getting on with resolving my Smart Mailboxes. And at least I now knew that this was a problem beyond my control that I couldn't fix.

In one search I found a reference to the Mail Tags plug-in which had been causing some problems with Smart Mailboxes. I duly removed Mail Tags and the problem was resolved. Re-installing Mail Tags didn’t appear to have any negative effects, so at least that mystery was solved.

By late Saturday afternoon the problems at BT appeared to have been resolved and normal internet service was resumed. Even though the Smart Mailbox problem was fixed, I’d got it into my head that there was a major problem with the SD Card and it needed fixing. I copied my Mail folder back to the MBA flash drive, cloned the card onto an external hard disk and reformatted it. I then returned the system back to it’s previous state. After various iterations of this and still without any idea of what the problem (or even if there was a real problem) I gave up and went to bed.

Everything seemed to be working normally on Sunday morning so I decided to leave it well alone and enjoy the day. With this new contract, my weekends had become like gold dust, and I didn’t want to waste them on chasing rainbow problems.

But on Sunday evening as I started to get ready for the following week I started having major network problems.  Both the Belkin Thunderbolt hub ethernet connection and my private wireless connection were self-assigning IP addresses and not connecting to the internet. The main household wireless connection was OK, as were all the iDevices in the house, so it wasn’t another BT cock-up. I started wondering about the changes I'd made while investigating yesterday's outage. Bit by bit, I rebuilt the network but nothing made any difference. …Until I unplugged and reconnected the power line connection next to the BT HomeHub and like magic everything started working normally in an instant. I should have known better - I’d restarted the power line connection upstairs but not at the source, where it’s most likely to have a problem.

Once you get into a problem solving mindset you see problems everywhere - even (especially?) where there are none. And sometimes, especially when you are tired and frustrated, you just end up making things worse. A few things can help to stop this mindset clicking in:

  • If the system has been working fine and something goes wrong, look outside the system before you start ‘fixing’ it internally.
  • Keep a checklist of common external problems to look for before you start digging in places that you needn’t be digging
  • Stop digging when you find yourself starting to fix problems that weren’t there previously

Sometimes our urge to tinker is overwhelming and it needs to be controlled. Life’s too short and there are enough problems to deal with, without creating new and imaginary ones!