How to lose an AirPort Express in under a minute

A couple of friends mentioned the Apple Airport Express to me and it sounded compelling; a super compact 802.11n Wi-Fi base station that could not only serve as a wireless USB print server but could also be used to play my iTunes music on my stereo.

I have long wanted a clean solution for accessing my iTunes collection from my stereo without a big hassle and this sounded perfect. I bought one on for $96 and used my Amazon Prime account to get it here in two days.

The AirPort Express itself is extremely small; about the size of a standard MacBook power adapter. There were instructions inside and a CD containing the AirPort Utility but since I had already installed a Time Capsule I had all of the software ready to go. I simply plugged the AirPort Express into a power outlet inside of our stereo cabinet and ran a mini-stereo to RCA cable from it into one of the inputs on our main stereo receiver. A small green light started to flash so I went over to my MacBook Pro and fired up the AirPort Utility.

There was a new wireless network that I could join so I switched to it and found the new device. So far, so good. The AirPort Utility walked me through a series of questions to configure the device and the next thing I knew it was attached to my existing wireless network and was visible to all of the machines on my network. It could not have been any easier.

I ran downstairs and fired up iTunes on my Mac Pro, where my main music collection resides. Down in the lower right corner of the iTunes window I noticed that I now had a pop-up menu that would allow me to target either my Computer or the cleverly named "David Alison's AirPort Express" for sound output. By selecting the AirPort Express anything I played through iTunes would get pushed out to my stereo now.

I had to play with the volume both on iTunes and at the stereo to eliminate some static issues but was able to resolve that pretty quickly. This was great—my entire music collection was now easily accessable inside of our family room!

Taking Cool to the Next Level
About the only problem with all of this was that since my music collection was downstairs on my Mac Pro I would have to run downstairs if I wanted to select a different song or play list.

Enter the free Remote application for the iPhone and iPod Touch. This Wi-Fi based application loads up on your iPhone and allows you to remotely control iTunes running on your Mac. You simply pair it up and you can control the operation of iTunes right from your iPhone. You can see your album artwork directly on your iPhone too; very cool.

How I Lost My AirPort Express
With everything operating smoothly I was really excited to show Allison how all of this worked. I proudly held out my iPhone with Remote running on it and watched her marvel at our new source of music. Thinking show and tell was over I was about to settle in on the couch to listen to a little Tears for Fears when Allison said:

"David, this is really cool. Can you put that on MY iPhone and hook it up to MY MacBook? I want to listen to MY music!"

Great. I set up the coolest toy I've seen in a while and before I could play a single song all the way through she had claimed the set up as her own. Sure, we have some overlap in our musical tastes but she doesn't care to listen to my 80s rock and I feel the bile rise when some of the "crooners" she likes start belting out their songs.

I quickly got her MacBook and iPhone matched up, then walked away as my shiny new AirPort Express was being used to push Michael Bublé's "Save the last dance for me" out of our stereo speakers.

Oh well, it was great while it lasted. On the bright side my wife is extremely happy.

Got a different way to play your digital music throughout your house? As Roland Orzabal would say, Shout, Shout, let it all out... in the comments.

Quick tip - save your MacBook's hard drive

Recently I've gotten a couple of e-mails from folks that have had problems with hard drive failures in their MacBooks. While hard drive failures are a fact of life with nearly any computer it can be exacerbated in laptops and portable machines where the risk of drops while the drive is spinning is significantly higher.

One of the features I really love about my MacBooks (both my original MacBook and my MacBook Pro) is how reliable the sleep function is; close the lid and the MacBook's screen goes dark and you are ready to run off. The reality is that by default the machine does not immediately go into sleep mode but starts the process of writing the contents of your memory to your hard drive.

This means that when you think the machine is inert, the reality is that one of the more sensitive moving parts (hard drive) is writing to disk. Depending on the amount of memory you have in your machine this may take a while to do; in my case with a MacBook Pro and 4GB of RAM it takes a little over 10 seconds.

You can modify your MacBook to simply drop into sleep mode immediately by opening a terminal window and running the following command:

sudo pmset -a hibernatemode 0

This means your machine will drop into sleep mode nearly instantaneously. Hendrik, a frequent contributor here and the author of Juxtaposer, pointed me to this excellent article by Rob Griffiths in MacWorld from a couple of years ago. A great read if you want more details on this setting.

If you don't make this change you should keep an eye on your sleep indicator on the outside of your MacBook; don't move the machine after closing the lid until that light is steadily pulsing.

Got a quick tip to help MacBook and MacBook Pro users to keep their hard drive's safe? Please drop it into the comments below.

Time Capsule creates a challenge

I was thinking something was not right with my wife's MacBook. It wasn't because she was complaining about anything; to the contrary over the last week she didn't say anything about the machine. It was quiet. Too quiet.

Last night while I was sitting down watching TV with Allison she finally let it out:

"That new Mac is really slow. My Windows machine was faster."

Wonderful I said to myself, let me see what's up. I grabbed her white MacBook and saw by the dock bar that she didn't have anything running so I started up Firefox. Sure enough, there was a very long delay before the application window appeared.

"See?" she said "It's really slow! It's not just me!"

Apparently I have some deep technical gift, an ability to approach any technology problem in the house and by simply laying hands on the offending device the problem is immediately solved without me doing anything. At least, that's the way Allison sees it and it's just one of the reasons she's kept me around for so many years. My gift had apparently left me.

I quickly scanned around the desktop of the MacBook and noticed that the Time Machine icon was happily spinning away. When I clicked on the icon I saw the little "Preparing Backup..." message. Over the course of the next 10 minutes or so I noticed that it kept spinning and as a result loading up applications was very slow. I tried to kill the process but it would simply not pay attention to me.

I ended up doing a restart on the machine, which took a while by itself. Once OS X restarted and I was back at the desktop I stopped Time Machine and tried loading up applications. Sure enough, everything was nice and fast again.

It turns out Allison's MacBook was having trouble connecting to our Time Capsule. I went through everything I could, including using the AirPort Utility to attach to the TC, checking all the settings and everything seemed to be fine. Multiple consecutive attempts to restart Time Machine and let it run simply resulted in more waiting while "Preparing Backup..." was spinning away in the background. This led to multiple forced shutdowns while trying different settings.

Finally I started to get some error messages:

Which was quickly followed by:

This last one was interesting because clicking the Initialize... button resulted in Disk Utility loading up, which couldn't see the Time Capsule drive.

I decided to start over with the Time Capsule since I had another backup of all of Allison's files. I used the AirPort Utility to erase the Time Capsule drive and start over, then made sure I ejected the Time Capsule in the Finder. I did this because in my scans of various forums I had read that Time Capsule seemed sensitive to drives that were already mounted; it was better to let Time Machine mount the drive as it needed it for backups.

Once I did all of this I started up Time Machine, chose the drive and let it start out as a new backup. Since it had to backup the entire machine it took most of last night and on close inspection this morning the hourly backups were now working properly and the performance was back to normal.

The lesson I learned from all of this is that though I love the work Apple has done with their products, especially making them easy to use for most everything, there is still work to be done. This did not appear to be a configuration problem because I initially had Time Machine and our Time Capsule working just fine; it just suddenly decided to stop working properly, something that my reading last night indicates is a fairly common occurrence.

It also means that I now have to check on Allison's MacBook more regularly to ensure that the backups are happening properly. Given the plethora of Time Machine error messages my other Macs get I was surprised to find that this Time Capsule situation didn't generate any visible errors that my wife would report to me so that I knew there was a problem.

If you've had Time Capsule issues like I have above and come up with a way to solve them that doesn't involve reformatting the TC drive and starting over I'd love to hear about it. Something tells me this may happen again.

My wife and her switch to Mac

I had anticipated that I would be writing a lot about my wife's experiences using her "new" MacBook. After all, it's been two weeks since I got her the machine, yet she has barely touched it by my standards. The reality is that computers are just not that important to her. She's an experienced teacher with 8 years at the same school under her belt and for the last two weeks has had to do little more than e-mail and web based activities from home. She averages just under an hour a day on the machine right now.

She is also becoming mildly amused by my regular queries about how she likes her MacBook. Her standard response?

"It's great. I love it."

There have been moments where she has struggled with the machine however. She did offer up that she doesn't like the Delete key. Why? Well, she's used to using a Windows based delete key that deletes forward, not backwards. Backspace is what she expects that key to do. I assumed that she simply had a problem with the name of the key—it still performs the same action that it did under Windows and sits in the same position.

I then realized something I had overlooked for years; my wife likes to delete backwards (er, forwards). She always had a full size keyboard available to her and as a result would actually place the cursor—either with the mouse or even using the arrow keys—to the left of the word/character she wanted to delete and then strike the Delete key on Windows.

That little snag could be easily solved by planting a full size keyboard on the machine and letting her whack away at the Delete Forward button that full size Mac keyboards have, or teaching her to hit "fn" and then hit the Delete key. Instead, I'm going to spend a little time retraining her keyboard skills to adjust to using the Delete key properly.

She's apparently been doing this since she learned to type on her father's ancient IBM PC with the original keyboard. Old habits die hard.

Minor Mail Struggles

Allison is a Gmail user and for the last couple of years simply used the web interface to access her account. Since I'm also a Gmail user I decided to set her up the way I am; using Mail and the IMAP interface to manage my Gmail inbox.

I like that Mail uses the base Address Book, which she is very fond of since she has everything in that because of her iPhone.

The problem is that she uses Gmail a little differently than I do. I am a tag / folder nut and like to have a pretty empty inbox. As a result I tend to drag messages that I have finished working with or responded to into the appropriate folder in Mail. Since Mail takes the tag model that Gmail has and emulates it as folders that works great for me.

Allison however does not use tags or folders. She would simply select all the e-mails and hit the Archive button. I don't know of a way to do that without having to load up the web version of Gmail.

If anyone has a suggestion on how best to adjust Mail to use Gmail and leverage the Archive feature please drop a note in the comments. I'd also be interested in hearing from anyone that uses Gmail on their Macs and what they are doing to make it work besides just loading up the web interface.

Playing with iPhone pictures - Juxtaposer

One of the cooler aspects of writing this blog has been the people that have come around to not only give advice but tell me about some of the cool stuff they are working on. Hendrik Kueck has been commenting on this blog for a long time now. Hendrik is a software developer and when he told me about an iPhone application he was working on I became very interested in checking it out.

His product, Juxtaposer, is a fun little application for mashing two pictures together quickly and easily. Hendrik has done an outstanding job creating an easy to use interface, one that feels very natural for the task. You can take a picture directly with the camera and start mashing away or you can grab a photo from your library.

Basically you set a base image and a top image, then start hacking away at the top image. The tools included are very basic but are perfect for doing the task at hand. It literally takes a minutes or two to put together images. If for example you wanted to see what your brother would look like with his dog's head you can whip it up quickly:

Right now Hendrik has Juxtaposer available on the App Store for only .99 cents. Hard to go wrong at that price and in return you get one of the cooler party toys for an iPhone.

8 months after switching here are my favorite applications

As I've now crossed the 8 month time frame since I got my first Mac it's time to update the applications that I use regularly. When I made my switch I made a real effort to find native Mac replacement applications for everything I use and for the most part I have been successful in that.

I'll list these applications in the order in which I find myself using them and will include internal OS X applications as well. Many of these applications are related to the way I am using my Macs now, which is starting up a new company. I am doing lots of development, marketing messaging and content creation, building spreadsheets, etc. and am in front of my Macs anywhere between 12 and 16 hours a day.

This my friends is the life of an entrepreneur in start up mode.

I am completely addicted to the Spotlight / QuickSilver / LaunchBar model of activating applications and documents and more importantly tying them together in helpful ways. Virtually everything I do starts up with Command-Space and LaunchBar has proven to be a solid and stable companion for me.

I would be severely limited without Spaces. The ability to have my windows arranged properly for each of the tasks at hand is incredibly powerful. Running on a Mac Pro or even my MacBook Pro with 12GB and 4GB of memory respectively means I can keep everything up and running and get to it in an instant.

Though I still use and like Safari I spend the majority of my time in Firefox. I have Foxmarks installed and it keeps my book marks synchronized between my Macs and my Ubuntu workstation. The add-ons for Firefox are incredibly helpful, especially those that help in web based development.

Once again, I nearly forgot to mention 1Password because it fits so seamlessly into my workflow I often forget that it's there. Between remembering my passwords but also securely keeping track of my sign-up information and credit cards, 1Password helps me complete most forms very quickly.

Since I work from my home I keep in touch with my friends and family through instant messaging. With accounts on AIM and Google Talk I can use Adium to consolidate it into a single application. I like the compact way it presents itself and the ability to quickly search through previous conversations gives it an edge over iChat.

I have several e-mail accounts and the Mail app does a decent job of consolidating them into a nice, single place. Though the IMAP performance with Google's Gmail can be trying at times, I like the interface for Mail and enjoy the integration is shares with the Address Book.

Preview / QuickLook
One of the things that I love about OS X is that it includes a very nice file viewer in Preview. I don't have to load Adobe's bloated Acrobat Reader in order to see PDF files and it handles many of the formats I need easily. I lump QuickLook in there with it though it's more of a Finder extension than an application. Being able to simply select a file in the Finder or on the desktop and hit the space bar to see a quick preview is very handy.

I've long been a big fan of true programmer's editors and TextMate is one of the best I've used. The best part of TextMate? The numerous bundles available to make the most of everything programmers do on a regular basis easier. Since I'm doing my development work in Ruby on Rails I've gotten heavily into the great bundle available for TextMate. We're also using Subversion as our source code management and the bundle for it in TextMate is great.

I recently wrote about how I've set up my office phone around using Skype and I've really enjoyed using it. Occasionally I have problems with calls to land lines, though that's pretty rare. Combining Skype with LaunchBar is a game changer in my mind; my productivity around phone based activities is easily triple what it was with a conventional land line and it costs a fraction of what it used to be.

Address Book
The address book–especially since it synchronizes with my iPhone—is great. I also love that it is accessable from within LaunchBar, allowing me to simply find a person in the address book by hitting Command-Space and entering their name, then selecting one of the contact models I have for them (phone, e-mail, etc).

Since adopting the iPhone I also switched to using iCal as my full time Calendar. The integration between the iPhone and local iCal makes it very convenient.

I am one of those people that likes to have music in the background most of the time and with iTunes 8 and the Genius playlist feature I find myself exploring my music collection far more than I ever did before. Combine that with syncing up my iPhone and it's a great application in my book. I added GimmeSomeTunes to iTunes and now I get more cover art and I get a nice pop-up with song changes showing the current artist, title and cover art.

I often find myself trying to look through older videos I've collected from a range of different video camera formats over the years and always seem to be able to play them with VLC. Though the video quality is not as polished as some other viewers (QuickTime for example) it always seems to be able to view the file, which is what I really care about.

RSS feeds are how I stay up on current events in technology, finance and sports news and NetNewsWire provides a great way for me to keep everything in one place. I wish the built in browser supported Flash and video so that I didn't have to open some pages in Firefox but other than that little nit I always have NetNewsWire up and running.

OmniGraffle Pro
I used to use Visio on the Windows platform and when I switched to Mac I needed to find a replacement. OmniGraffle does exactly what I need and has proven a fantastic tool for creating wireframe renderings of the application pages I then build. There are a lot of templates available for it and I'm also using it for building data models.

I picked up iWork and have become completely committed to using Pages. I find it much easier to deal with than Word though there is a bit of a learning curve if you're a heavy Word user like I am. I really like the layout controls in Pages and the overall UI is far less complex.

I am rather reluctantly using Numbers. I say reluctantly because I've found the transition from Excel to Numbers much harder than the transition from Word to Pages. Excel has so many little quirks that I've become used to that are not in Numbers that I find myself constantly having to think about what I need to do instead of just doing it, which is unlike most of the other software I use on my Macs. My current use of spreadsheets is a bit infrequent so I don't have too much time to spend learning it.

Though it can be a bit quirky at times it's open source and free, which means it costs FAR less than Adobe Photoshop. My needs are minimal and I use Gimp mainly to clean up images and in some cases combine a couple of images on different layers. Version 2.6 was just released on October 1 though I haven't bothered to build it myself so I'm still using 2.4. Sure, it requires X11 and is not a traditional Mac UI but it works really well and the price (free) is unbeatable.

Terminal / Bash Shell
Between using SSH to pop into my remote production servers and using the shell to run Rails commands I spend a lot of time in the shell. I always have several tabs open in the terminal, either ready for a command or running a local server so that I can easily monitor status.

iStat Menu
Whether it's because I need to see where memory is being used quickly or to see the temperature on my MacBook Pro, iStat Menu gives me instant updates. If something is acting strange on my machine a quick glance at the menu bar tells me what's up and one click later I can see what all the activity is about.

I've found myself using TextEdit more and more lately. When I have a quick list that I need to keep or need to push some relevant notes to the task at hand up I'll just pop open TextEdit and scribble away. Small, fast and included in the OS; what's not to like.

Though it took me a while to get adjusted to using iPhoto instead of Picassa on Windows, I have made the transition. I love the integration with the rest of the OS as well, especially with drag and drop targets and the ability to select my background image directly from my iPhoto catalog.

When I need to move blocks of files to my remote servers I tend to grab Cyberduck and transfer away. It has simple, no-nonsense interface and it does what I need when I need it.

MySQL Tools
Between the MySQL Administrator and the MySQL Query Browser I have pretty much everything I need to work with my local copy of MySQL without having to resort to the command line. If you do any local development and run an instance of MySQL on your machine then you should have these tools at your disposal.

VMware Fusion / Windows XP
As my development efforts have come along I've needed to pull up my product in Internet Explorer and VMware gives me a great way to do that quickly. On my Mac Pro I've found that it's easiest to just keep it running all the time so that I can get to Internet Explorer quickly to do some testing. I still prefer Windows XP over Vista, if for no other reason now that it's memory footprint is smaller.

Time Machine
Always running in the background, Time Machine is not an application I actively use very often but when I do it jumps right to the top of my list. I've had files that were not under version control that I horribly mangled and was able to get back because TM was there to catch my mistake. Now if I could just get that stupid Time Machine error to stop I'd be a happy guy.

On My Shortlist
I've found most of the applications I need but I still have a couple more to get through. On the development side I would still like a decent XHTML / Web editing tool. To this day the best general purpose HTML editing tool I've ever used was HomeSite on the Windows platform and it has set the bar for what I am looking for. I've played with the evaluation version of Coda and it's pretty close but before committing to it I would like to get more feedback on what people like and recommend. I just need a lightweight editing surface that can help build up the XHTML code with helpers, perform quick previews, decent XHTML reference, etc. I like to write in the actual code, not in a WYSIWYG style design surface.

The second thing I am looking for is a decent financial management package. I bought iBank and have been using it and while it is an attractive Mac centered UI design it could be a lot better. A friend recommended I take a look at Jumsoft Money. If anyone would like to share their experience with that, or anything else in the personal finance category, please drop in a comment.