Passwords - 10 Tips for Developing a Personal Strategy

Passwords. PINs. Security Codes.

It seems like every place we go online someone is asking us to either validate who we are with a password protected account or asking us to create an account so that we can access something. We are inundated with so many requests for account names and passwords it can become easy to be lazy about the passwords we choose and who we give them to.

As the Gawker Media hack showed us, poor password discipline can lead to a compromise of your personal data security. I’ve compiled a list of tips that can help you become a lot more secure in your online travels.

Tip 1: Don’t Use The Same Password Everywhere
If you use the same password in multiple locations you are going to run the risk of that password being exposed. All it takes is one poorly secured system or an unscrupulous web site operator to collect your email address and password. At a minimum have different passwords for your primary computer login, email account and any financial systems you access (banks, credit cards, etc).

Tip 2: Never Use Simple Words or Dates
“password” is one of the most used passwords in history and obviously the worst possible one to select. Names, middle names, common words, etc. are also a bad idea because a dictionary attack has a much higher chance of success on them. Avoid pet names because with today’s social web most people know the names of your cats, dogs and pet iguanas. Birthdays and anniversaries are also easy to find.

A good password should be at least 10 characters long and contain a mix of letters, numbers and punctuation. Many sites now require at least one of these elements.

Tip 3: Change Your Password Regularly
Open your calendar program and put in an appointment for 6 months from now. If you can make it a recurring 6 month appointment that’s even better. Title it “Change passwords”. No matter how secure you are, at some point you’re going to reveal your password. I once did it with a friend while on IM: I was rapidly Command-Tabbing between an Adium window and Safari, pasting in information. One Safari screen asked me to log in; I entered the password and hit enter, only to realize I had just plopped my password into the IM window instead.

People don’t change their passwords mostly because it’s such a hassle. If you haven’t changed your password in years then it will seem like a lot of work. Do it on a regular basis and it gets easier.

Tip 4: Use a Secure Password Storage Tool
The older I get the more I realize that my brain is not a reliable storage medium. I’m only good for a handful of passwords, especially when I change them out regularly. Rather than just writing the passwords down (see Tip 7 below), I use 1Password. Hands down one of my favorite applications, 1Password securely stores my passwords and embeds itself into my web browser. When I’m prompted by a site to login, 1Password can do it for me. It can also enter my credit card information, personal data, etc.

As a computer enthusiast I have multiple computers and devices for accessing the web around me all day: Mac Pro, MacBook Pro, Windows 7 PC, iPad and iPhone. 1Password can keep all of them syncronized using a free Dropbox account. Now I only worry about remembering one unique password - my 1Password master password.

Tip 5: Share Your Password
Wait, share your password? Yep, you read that right, though only in certain circumstances. If you pay bills online and use your bank or credit card to handle it, does your spouse or significant other know how to take over if something happens to you? If you’re elderly and your kids are next in line do they know what to do? No one wants to think of a world where they don’t exist but in the event something happens to you the last thing you’ll want your spouse or children to have to go through is figuring out how to unwind the personal security you’ve put in place.

Don’t feel comfortable giving your spouse that information? Write your passwords down on a piece of paper. Put it in a sealed envelope. Show your spouse the hiding place for it and explain that’s where your main passwords are, then put a list of the key accounts for bill paying, banking, etc. on a piece of paper and put that some place else. Just don’t forget to update it when you change your passwords.

Tip 6: Lock Your Computer
If you travel with a laptop you should always require your password when your machine is rebooted or when it comes out of sleep mode. If your passwords have been remembered by your computer through something like 1Password this is critical. I do this on my desktop machines as well, not because I’m worried about my wife or kids accessing things (I trust them), but because if a burglar steals my computer while I’m away I don’t want to make it any easier for them.

Mac Security Setting

Windows 7 - Power Options / Require Password

Tip 7: Post-It Notes Are Evil
I actually love Post-It notes for everything except passwords, yet that seems to be the dominant way they’re used by people. If I was personally trying to access someone’s computer and needed their password I’d look for a Post-it note on 1) their display, 2) their keyboard, 3) under their keyboard, 4) in a nearby desk drawer or 5) under knick-knacks on their desk. Is that where you put yours? Don’t.

Tip 8: Resist Public Terminals
It’s great to find public terminals in airports, hotels and other lounges but if you’ll be using them try to only access public information. Checking your e-mail from a public terminal can be risky; is it possible that someone—maybe even the owner of the terminal—has installed a capture program to harvest your login details? Is the browser set to remember usernames and passwords automatically?

If you do use a public terminal make sure you log out, don’t just close out the browser window. You may still be logged in. Also, clear your history if possible. Some poorly written sites will pass your username and password along in a URL.

Tip 9: Know Where You Are
As you are browsing the web you hit a site that contains something you really want to read but it asks you to log in using your Google credentials. It even tosses up this on the page:

Looks legit, right? Make sure you know where you are before you enter login credentials. Check the URL first. Make sure you are accessing the site through HTTPS. If you’re not really sure, click on the little padlock image on your web browser. That should display the security certificate from the site. These kinds of phishing attacks don’t just happen from emails - be aware of where you are before you enter any sensitive data.

Tip 10: Become a Password Activist
If you’ve read through this, chances are you have someone in your immediate circle (family, friends, etc.) that isn’t as concerned about password security. Casually check with your spouse, kids, parents, etc. if they are keeping their passwords secure. You can use every single one of the tips I’ve put in here and be very secure but if your wife or husband has access to the same bank accounts you do and they aren’t as careful, well... you get the idea. Make sure they are.

The bottom line is no one will care about securing your information more than you. Sure, it’s a pain to go through but it’s far more painful to deal with an identity theft. Ask the 100,000 people that just had their email addresses and passwords harvested from Gawker.

Got a tip for helping people lead more secure online lives? Did I miss anything? Please drop a note in the comments. I've got it set to allow anonymous comments so you don't even need to log in!

Window Controls: Mac OS vs Windows

As I observe casual users working with a Mac (my wife falls into that category) I often see them doing something that is very Windows like: trying to close an application by clicking the close button in the top of the window title. My wife also says she hates the Maximize window button because it doesn’t maximize the window like it did in Windows.

On a Mac the series of buttons in the top left corner of a window are called the Title Bar Buttons. Much like the window controls found in virtually every version of Windows, these allow the user to perform actions on the window they are attached to. In Mac OS they appear as a series of traffic lights in the top left of the window, in Windows on the top right of the window:
This is probably the one area that most people struggle with, and the underlying design philosophy is both subtle and complex, mostly because the buttons feel like they should work the same way in Mac OS and Windows but have some different behaviors.

They are named nearly the same too:

Mac OS: Close, Minimize, Zoom
Windows: Close, Minimize, Maximize

First off, the easy one. The Minimize button—yellow, center orb on Mac—works just like it does in Windows. It minimizes the window. No problem. Want it back? It’s down in the Dock. Click it to restore it.

The Close button—red, left orb on Mac—is a window close button. It closes the current window, and sometimes the application. Applications that quit when the main window is closed include Calculator, System Preferences, and Network Utility. Nearly every other application keeps running after you close the main window. Here is the fundamental difference:

Windows applications are usually completely contained within their primary window. If you want to open two WordPad documents in Windows 7 you start up two WordPad instances, each with its own window, menus, resources, etc. A Mac application that supports multiple documents (any application that has File > New in the menu) gives you an application instance and a window for each document. Closing the last window of a Mac application that supports multiple instances doesn’t mean you want to close the application as well.

This diagram may help illustrate the point:
In Windows if you close Win Doc 1, you are also closing the application associated with that document. In Mac OS closing Mac Doc 1 simply means you are closing the document window, not the application. So in Mac OS, even if you only have one document open in an application, closing that document window does not quit the application.

Side Note: If you are wondering why sometimes the Close button has a dot inside of it instead of an X (like this)

That’s because the document has changes that haven't been saved yet. Save the document and the dot becomes an X again.

Want the application to just quit? Go to the menu bar while the application has focus and select (Application Name) > Quit, or hit Command-Q. Using the keyboard shortcut for quitting applications has become my preferred method.

Finally there is the Zoom Buttongreen, right orb on Mac. Windows users expect to click the Zoom button and have the window go full screen, much like it does on Windows. It does not. First, let’s cover what it does do:

A Mac application determines the minimum and maximum size a window should be based on the resolution of the display and the user interface inside the application. That means that every time you click Zoom the results can have quite a few variables that determine what will happen. Sometimes the application will simply grow in height to the maximum size of the display area (without overlapping the Dock). Sometimes, if there were horizontal scroll bars, the width will change to eliminate them. The Zoom button is a toggle switch. Clicking it a second time will revert the window to its previous state.

Occasionally you will get an application that just maximizes right to the edges of the display (Firefox is a good example of that). The bottom line is, there is no consistency between applications on what Zoom will actually do other than likely expose a little (or a lot) more content for you.

I’ve found that nearly three years into becoming a pretty hard core Mac user I rarely ever hit the Zoom button. In fact, other than clicking it a lot to help with writing this blog post I don’t think I’ve used it in over a year. Since the impact it will have is not predictable, I just grab the window handle and resize it to what I need.

Want to learn more?
I wrote this because people often search for problems to a specific issue and I couldn't easily find something that pointed out the key differences. If you really want to understand how Mac OS applications should work, take a look a the Apple Human Interface Guidelines. Though it is written to help application developers comply with Mac OS standards, as an application user you can get a very good idea of not just how Mac applications work but also why they work that way.

Special thanks to friend and Mac expert extraordinaire Ast A. Moore for helping me put together this post.

Setting up a new Mac for a college student

When my daughter shipped off to Virginia Tech in 2007 we bought her a shiny new MacBook, an ethernet cable and a license for Microsoft Office. Back then I was still a Windows guy so I figured she would need MS Office—that's all I had ever used and that was the same for her. Other than a passing interest in the device I let her set it up for herself. Being a newly minted adult and excited about leaving the nest, she wanted to handle it all herself anyway.

Not being a techie, she installed Office and depended on the core Tiger version of OSX to get through school, which worked fine for her. In the 3+ years she's been off at school I think I've gotten maybe one or two "technical support" calls from her. Lots of calls for extra money so we knew the phones worked, just not a lot of technical issues.

When my middle child—a son starting at James Madison University—needed a MacBook for school I was determined to set it up for him before he took off, giving him some additional software that would make his computing life a little easier.

My son is really a non-techie. It's not that he doesn't know how to work a computer, in fact he's a skilled touch typist and uses his computer quite confidently. It's just that a computer for him is a tool, plain and simple. As long as it gets out of his way when he's trying to get work done (by work I mean accessing Facebook) it makes him happy.

As a result, I gave him the bare minimum that I considered important to get by at school:

Snow Leopard Basics
OS X is a very capable operating system when shipped out in a new Mac, though a couple things require you to intervene before they are actually leveraged.

The first thing I did was purchase a small 320GB USB drive for Time Machine use. The last thing I wanted my son to do was lose his work because of poor backup discipline. Most adults don't even think about backups so expecting a teenager that struggles with basic cleaning and laundry principles to do it is ridiculous. I walked through a couple of scenarios with my son, telling him how bad it would be if his data was not backed up and his drive failed or his MacBook was stolen. All he had to do was keep that USB drive plugged in when it was sitting at his desk and he would be fine; Time Machine would take care of the rest.

The next Snow Leopard "feature" I ensured he leveraged was Software Update. My son is much like my wife; when either of them see this screen:
they simply click the "Not Now" button or close out Software Update completely. I tried to impress on him the importance of keeping his software current and that he should avoid delaying software updates for more than a couple of days. I have no idea if he's actually keeping his Mac current but I'm hopeful.

While Time Machine did its magic and was ensuring his entire Mac was properly backed up, I wanted to make sure he had another tool at his disposal to ensure his documents and class papers were safe. By far one of my favorite utilities, DropBox integrates seamlessly with Finder, synchronizing the "DropBox" folder with a virtual drive up on the web. The advantage is that not only are your documents safely tucked away on yet another medium, they are also accessible from a remote computer by logging in to your DropBox account.

The advantage of having access to your key files while you are away from your own computer is huge, potentially saving him the time of having to run back to his dorm room if he forgot a file. The fact that versioning is supported by DropBox also means that he has at least some history for the document in case he needs to roll it back and there was a problem with Time Machine.

As I set this up for my son I noticed that his roommate—packing a Dell laptop running Windows 7—didn't even have a backup system set up. I hooked him up with the Windows version of Dropbox. I highly recommend Dropbox to anyone whether they are running OSX, Windows or Linux.

A laptop isn't just for work while sitting in a dorm room, it's often used to entertain as well. I've observed my son watching video clips on YouTube, LiveLeak, etc. and having to constantly tap the touch pad area to keep the Mac from dropping into sleep mode. By clicking on the little coffee cup icon in the menu bar Caffeine will keep the Mac from dropping into sleep or screen saver mode in the middle of a passive activity like watching a video clip.

Another great, free utility and it's now installed on every Mac we have.

Free tools are great and another one for a Mac (or Windows machine for that matter) is Skype. Though we talk to our son on the phone pretty regularly having the occasional video chat through Skype makes it feel like he's not really that far away. My wife loves seeing our son's face every once in a while too.

Skype was one of the utilities I was glad I set up before we left the house for school. I could confirm he had his account set up correctly, and we were able to add each other to our Skype directory and make a quick test video call.

While Skype has the option of auto-loading when the Mac is restarted, my son wasn't too keen on that feature. "How about we text one another on the phone and set up the Skype call?"

I've been a big fan of Pages for a while now; it's a great general purpose word processor that fits nicely into the Mac environment, unlike the Microsoft offering. Though the .pages file format is hardly universal Pages itself can save most simple files into a DOC format. For the kinds of papers my son will be producing, which will sometimes include images embedded into the documents, Pages works great.

Keynote is easy to use and produces some really beautiful presentations, though this is not something my son (nor my daughter before him) have had to use extensively.

Numbers is the third leg of the iWork stool and is adequate for very basic work but falls far short of what any power user of Excel is used to. That said, it's serviceable as a basic spreadsheet. Getting all of them in a Family Pack that can be installed on up to 5 Macs in the same household makes it a very cost effective purchase.

As an alternative to iWork you may want to consider some of the great free alternatives out there. NeoOffice is my favorite; it performs reasonably well, can open and write to most of the standard DOC, XLS and PPT formats and comes with a UI that doesn't look completely odd on a Mac.

What's Left
Safari is a fantastic web browser right out of the box so I encouraged my son to use it, even though I personally alternate between Safari and Firefox for development reasons. As far as e-mail, my son's school and personal e-mail accounts are both accessible and very useable from within a web browser. Rather than set up and try to remotely support I figured he would be fine using it through the web.

Though my son's MacBook was of course WiFi equipped, some schools don't have WiFi available in the dorms and actively discourage students from setting up a Wifi network themselves—JMU is one of those schools. Always give them an ethernet cable and get a minimum length of 25'; sometimes the ethernet jack is on the other side of the room from where they will want to set up their desk. Bringing along a couple of power strips and extension cords is also a wise move.

The last thing we did before leaving his dorm room was set him up with a very inexpensive ink-jet printer and throw some spare ink-jet cartridges and a couple reams of paper into a drawer. Fortunately the MacBook recognized the printer as soon as it was hooked up. Once a test page popped out my son started to get a little anxious for us to leave. "It's all set Dad, I'm good. I've got stuff to do!"

We began an awkward transition; my son clearly wanted us to leave so he could start the activities JMU had planned for him. My wife and I kept shuffling around the dorm room, trying to make sure we had everything covered, delaying the inevitable goodbyes. When that moment finally arrived we got through it as quickly as we could. He hugged my wife, gave me a huge bear hug, then we quickly headed out the door.

During the long drive home my wife and I tried our best to be upbeat and happy for our son. Our little boy was now an adult, having to handle things on his own without his parents standing around him. He had a well stocked dorm room, his xBox, a mini fridge full of sodas and a shiny new 13" MacBook Pro. He was ready.

My iPhone rang. It was my son. "Uh Dad? I can't get on the internet."

A quick reboot later and everything was working fine and he hasn't had an issue since then. Still, it was nice to know he still needed me.

Is there an application or service you think a Mac wielding college student must have in order to get started? What did I miss? Please drop a note in the comments.

Trying to lose 30lbs with diet, exercise and an iPhone

By the beginning of 2009 I realized that something needed to be done. We had just returned from a fantastic trip to Jamaica with the entire family, staying at an all-inclusive resort. All-inclusive is code for “eat and drink everything in sight”, and I heartily did just that.

As I reviewed the pictures taken during the trip I was shocked to see how much weight I’d put on over the years. At 45 years old my steady diet of junk food and extremely half-hearted attempts at exercise had converted my body into an awkward pear shape. A professional career of driving a computer everyday meant ready access to snacks and little natural exercise other than pounding away on a keyboard. My fingers were as lean and nimble as ever but that’s where the good news ended.

The stats weren’t pretty: at 5’11” I weighed in at 206lbs, solidly into the overweight category. I wasn’t sleeping well because I snored loudly and suffered from mild nighttime apnea; after lunch I nearly always needed (though didn’t get) a nice long nap. Instead I pumped my body full of coffee and soda to get through it. I was up to size 38 pants and XL shirts, and worst of all my blood pressure was running as high as 153/80. My doctor told me that I would need to get on blood pressure medication soon.

To add insult to injury my wife got us a Wii Fit. After stepping on the evil little device it decided my Wii character needed to look like a friggin beach ball, whereas everyone else in my family had normal Wii characters. On top of that the stupid Wii Fit made a noise that sounded a lot like "Oh My!" when I put my weight on it. I get it, thanks.

It was a new year so I set a very specific goal for myself: I would get down to 175lbs by my 46th birthday in June. That 31lb drop would put me at the weight I was when I met my lovely wife back in 1985, a weight I hadn’t seen on my scale in 23 years. My good friend Jeff had dropped nearly 50lbs in a little over a year so I knew it could be done.

I had the motivation, all I needed were the tools to make it happen.

Diet & exercise are the key to losing weight. Who knew?
Though I’m happy to share the foods I started eating and the exercising I did I won’t go into too much detail right now. Suffice it to say by counting calories, eating quality foods and putting in vigorous exercise I quickly started dropping weight. Initially it came off very fast, then I would hit walls that would take longer to see results.

What I found out about myself was that I was highly motivated by seeing my goal weight and every few days checking on my current weight to see how I was progressing against that goal. I had read some good reviews of Weightbot and figured that since I had my iPhone with me all the time it would be a good tool for helping me track my progress.

The thing I love about Weightbot is that it doesn’t try to be too many things. You enter your height, pop in a goal weight and from then on all you need to do is plug in your weight using a simple dial control. It’s got some great sound and visual effects so it makes it fun to use and even supports a WiFi based Withings Scale for data entry.

Where it comes in handy is when you rotate your iPhone on it’s side and the goal chart appears. Not only does it present you with a chart of your actual progress with your goal displayed, it also gives you a projection of when you will reach your goal weight based on your current weight gain/loss patterns.

I found this view to be a huge motivational tool. I really wanted to make it to my goal weight before my 46th birthday and I could tell early on how I was doing. At $1.99 Weightbot is a great buy and for me was well worth the money.

How I did
Unfortunately I missed my goal weight of 175lbs by my birthday - I hit it four days later. The results of losing that weight and learning to enjoy exercising had a profound impact on me. I went from a size 38 waist to a size 32 and from XL shirts to mediums. My blood pressure dropped dramatically and just a few days ago was measured at 112/71. I continued to drop weight, leveling out at about 170lbs with a measured body fat percentage of 9.9%.

To my surprise (and my wife’s enormous relief) I stopped snoring after dropping the weight. Apparently I carried half that weight in my face and once it was gone my air passages were much clearer and I could sleep silently.

This wasn’t of course because I spent $1.99 on Weightbot; that was just one tool to help me achieve my goal. If you are interested in losing weight and find that you are goal oriented, consider adding Weightbot to your toolbox.

Speaking of goals - I could use your help
A huge part of my exercise regimen has been my newfound love of cycling. Recently I learned about the Tour de Cure, a bike ride to raise money to find a cure for diabetes. My father is a Type I diabetic and since the ride falls on Father’s Day this year I decided I’d jump in and see if I could help them raise some money. I signed up to do the 100 mile “century” ride, my first attempt at that distance.

I’ve been training like a madman lately and am shooting not only to complete it but to do so in less that 6 hours. Would you consider making a donation to the Tour de Cure and sponsoring me on the ride? If so, please click here. All the money goes to the American Diabetes Association and is tax deductible.

Got an iPhone app that is great for helping people keep track of weight loss or exercise performance? Please drop a note in the comments!

Safari 5 Reader - a feature with a direct impact

On a day where the news from Apple focused on the iPhone 4 and new iOS features, the update to Safari 5 was almost an afterthought, so much so that the press release went out a couple of hours before the product itself was even available. Even the first iteration of the Safari page was improperly formatted.

There are a number of updates that went in to Safari 5, not the least of which is improved HTML 5 support. Though performance is reportedly better I have been unable to detect any improvement; benchmarking would be required to see it. The big user oriented feature that's been added is Reader, a view of certain web pages that eliminates all distractions (ads and visual distractions) that draw away from the material you want to read.

When viewing a web page that Safari determines contains an article, a Reader "button" appears in Safari's address bar:

Clicking that will present the web page in a simple, large scale Times font. Images embedded in the article are often included and if the article has a multi-page footer for navigating Reader will suck in all the pages, presenting you with a single, simply formatted view.

I tried this out on a number of different blogs and news sites and the results were great. Not only was it easier to focus on the content of the article it also allows me to print or e-mail the content to someone using that view.

I for one can't stand those animated ads with people dancing around or the bouncing balls trying to get me to see how low a bank's interest rate is. It's great to have a nicely done feature that allows me to pull out the meat of the content and I anticipate Reader will get a lot of use.

Can Reader change how sites are presented?
While add-ons like AdBlock for Firefox have supported this basic capability for many years, this is the first time a major web browser has presented this as a front and center feature. It will move the blocking of ads from a niche area leveraged by the technical minority to one used by a much larger percentage, especially if Internet Explorer and Firefox follow up with a similar feature.

The interesting part about all of this is how it will impact the economics of the web. Many of the more popular web sites support their content through ad revenues, many on an impression model. When a person visits a site the web server will still count the ad as an impression. Initially this means that web sites that depend on ad revenue will not see a decrease in impressions so they'll be safe. Just not for long.

Over time advertisers will see disturbing trends: while they are getting the same number of impressions as before, the conversion rates will begin to decline. Business models that count on revenues from ads with distracting content will struggle to survive.

In many ways this is no different than the popup wars of the last 10+ years. You may remember when not too long ago a visit to some web sites meant 2-3 popup browser windows appearing. Web browsers have all gotten significantly better at blocking popups and as a result most reputable web sites don't even bother trying to put them up.

If Reader becomes a big hit—which I believe it will—it may actually drive the design of many web sites. If a web site wants to maintain an advertising model they will need to present their content in such a way that a user doesn't quickly reach for the Reader button.

This of course won't happen overnight; it will take years before these changes to behavior have a direct impact. Smart folks have a tendency to see where things are headed and plan accordingly. Just a little FYI for those of you that have web sites that depend on ad revenue; those few high-dollar distracting ads you allow may be killing off your web site.

Isn't it ironic?
One of Apple's big pushes on the iPhone / iPad front is to create a highly useable ad supported model for "free" applications called iAd. So basically Apple has said "We think your web sites have a horrible ad model and presentation. We're giving people a way to avoid it". At the same time they are saying "We really know how to advertise. Here's a new way to do it."

At least they are consistent.

An open letter from a cyclist to 99% of drivers

The news always seems to be carrying some story about a cyclist and a driver getting into a fight or of a cyclist being struck by a car while they are riding. When these stories are discussed in the comments section of a news site tempers flare and heated arguments about sharing the road break out. The pattern is so consistent that you can predict it pretty accurately:
  • Cyclists hate drivers that don't give them enough room on the road
  • Drivers hate cyclists that use roads they didn't pay for
  • Cyclists hate drivers that don't pay attention
  • Drivers hate cyclists that see stop signs and traffic lights as optional
  • Cyclists hate drivers that think bikes can't be lawfully ridden on the road
  • Drivers hate cyclists that slow traffic
The number of arguments leveled at one another is the ultimate fodder for Interweb trolls but the consistent pattern I see is the hatred part. As a vehicle driver and dedicated cyclist I'd like to take a slightly different approach to this:

Dear 99% of Drivers:

In the last year I've put close to four thousand miles on my various bikes, a large number of them on public roads in several states. While I have encountered my share of drivers that either don't see me or don't want me on the road, you were not one of them.

You pulled your vehicle as far over as you safely could to give me the room I need for both of us to share the road together.

You waited an extra 5 seconds to let me pass before making that right turn that would have cut me off.

On that narrow country road you stayed behind me when we approached that blind curve or hill until I could see ahead to tell you the road was clear and that you could pass me safely.

You weren't composing a text message on your cell phone at the same moment you began to pass me on the road. Or ever while you were driving for that matter.

You saw me trying to cross a busy road and safely slowed down, flashing your lights to let me cross without disrupting the flow of traffic or making the people behind you slam on their brakes.

When you pulled up to an intersection to make a right turn you didn't automatically push the nose of your car out into the area my bike was riding in.

These are just a few of the things you did to help us both safely share the road. I don't know if you could tell by seeing me on my bike but I'm a father, a husband, a neighbor, a son, a brother and a friend. I do know that you saw me as a person, not as an obstacle that needed to be overcome. Your awareness of your surroundings wasn't limited to the interior of your car.

In return I promise to do my part. I'll continue to keep as far right as I safely can. Sometimes I have to swing out a little further into the road than I like because I've had people open their car doors into me. I may hold you up on narrow roads but I want you to safely pass me as soon as possible; as soon as I see that you can pass I'll wave you forward and if I can pull it off safely I'll wave to you or give you a thumbs up. I know you're just following the law but that doesn't mean I don't appreciate it.

Sure, there are still lots of drivers out there that don't understand how fragile a person on a bike is and there are lots of cyclists that disregard common courtesy and the rules of the road as well. The reality is they are a minority, and hopefully a shrinking one.

This letter isn't directed at them though. It's directed at you. Thanks for sharing the road with me.


For the last several years my blog has focused on switching from Windows to Mac and the occasional posts on starting a new business. These are both topics I intend to continue with, I just want to mix in my passion for cycling and exercise as well. I'm always looking at technology that I can use with my Macs, iPhone or iPad to make my cycling and exercise experiences better and hope to write about that as well.

Restore from backup - bringing a Mac back with Time Capsule

My brother called and told me my mom was in the hospital. At 80 her health has been declining pretty rapidly so I immediately booked a flight to California, planning to spend a week there to help my brother with both her and my father. Needless to say I had a lot on my mind as I rushed to the airport in the wee hours of a Tuesday morning last week.

Back at home my wife's MacBook sat at her desk, left on overnight like she often did so that when she woke up in the morning a quick shake of the mouse would brighten the screen and allow her to check e-mail. From what I can tell in the hourly backup logs, at roughly the same time my aircraft lifted off the runway the 120GB hard disk in her MacBook crashed.

When I checked in with my wife that night to update her on my mom's status, she told me that her MacBook was dead.

Me: "Dead?"
Allison: "It's just got a gray screen. I've tried restarting it and that's all that comes up."

Of course, this has to happen when the only techie in the family leaves on a weeklong trip. Fortunately for us my wife's MacBook is backed up regularly using Time Machine pointing at a Time Capsule. To make a really long story short, I tried to get our 14 year old daughter to install a replacement drive into the MacBook. The salesman at BestBuy sold her the wrong drive so after trying to jam a PATA drive into a SATA slot, she gave up until I returned home.

Bringing Back a Dead Mac
When I came home from California I promptly returned the incorrect drive and picked up a Western Digital 320GB black drive instead. Fast, high capacity, good reviews and I've had excellent luck with WD drives in the past. The installation was a snap as I've done this before.

I did encounter a problem when I first tried restoring my data though. Having purchased a number of different Macs over the last two years, I had quite a few OS X install disks lying around, including several for MacBooks since my wife and both daughters have them. Apparently I was using the wrong one because it would not allow me to do a restore from the Mac OS X Install Disc. Once I figured out the correct disk everything went much more smoothly. If you have multiple Macs you may want to label your disk sets to ensure they match up w/ the right Mac.

First I used Disk Utility to format the drive as a single large partition using Mac OS Extended (Journaled). Next, from the OS X Installer menu I ran the restore utility. By following the prompts I was able to select our Time Capsule and choose the correct bundle on it for my wife's machine.

Though I normally access the network from her machine using WiFi, I took a standard ethernet cable and plugged it directly into the Time Capsule to help speed up the process. It ended up taking about 3 hours to restore her machine. Once restored a quick reboot returned her machine to its pre-hard-drive-crash state.

The Importance of Backups
Do yourself a favor right now: check the status of your backup and—if you're the techie in the family—do that for all the computers in your home. Make sure it's running properly and that you have a basic game plan for the day your primary (or secondary) hard drive fails. Your hard drive will eventually fail. It may not happen for ten years, several months or as you are reading this but it will eventually fail.

As more and more of our lives are captured digitally, backups are more important than ever. If all you do is set up Time Machine to point at a remote drive at least you have something to fall back on.

And for those that are interested, my mom is doing much better. My brother and I moved our parents into assisted living apartments. They have help with meals, medical care on site and lots of other folks to interact with. It's the ultimate backup system for the elderly.

Do you have a backup technique you use that may help others? Please share it below!

The Accidental iPad and How I Use It

When Steve Jobs announced the iPad a few months ago I didn't think "Wow, I gotta have me one of those...". Though I was intrigued by the form factor and slightly motivated by Steve Jobs' demonstration of the device, it didn't scream out at me as something I needed. I was actually more amused with all the criticism surrounding the choice of iPad as the name for the device.

I yawned and went on with my life.

Nearly a month ago I walked in to our local Apple store with my family. We weren't looking for anything in particular, just letting my kids fawn over the Mac hardware as we thought about buying a MacBook for my son before he heads off to college. I asked one of the Apple store employees if they had an iPad I could take a look at. He handed me an 8 x 6 inch card with a picture of one on it. The device was far thinner and lighter than I expected.

He then asked if I would like to reserve one.

Me: "No thanks"
Apple Employee: "There's no commitment. It just means that we'll have one here for you in case they sell out. That way you can come in on launch day and be assured you will have one."
Me: "Uh, nah, thanks"
Wife: "Well, maybe you should sign up in case you really want it."

My wife is usually the uber-frugal one when it comes to technology purchases. I'm the good cop, she's the bad cop. She is the voice of reason when the "I WANT IT" klaxon sounds off. When she flashes the green light—which she clearly was doing—I jump before she reconsiders.

Seconds later I had a 16GB iPad reserved for April 3, 2010. Besides, there was no obligation, right?

Launch Day
The morning of April 3, 2010 passed without incident. I didn't find myself in a line outside the Apple store, nor did I feel this overwhelming need to run out and buy an iPad. The impulse of signing up to reserve one didn't translate into the action required to go out and get one. I read my news feeds, saw people writing about it and was mildly interested.

I was driving by my local Apple store—really, just happened to be in the area—when I decided to pull in and actually see an iPad in person. I walked past the abandoned rope line and cart full of water and cookies the Apple staff had put out to cater to line standers.

Inside the place was mobbed. There were people queued up to see the demo iPads several layers deep. I looked over people's shoulders and watched them play with the iPad for a short while before I became impatient, went to the back of the store and asked that they sell me my reserved iPad. Within 10 minutes I was walking outside with my new iPad and an Apple case for it.

It all happened a lot faster than I expected. I blame my wife for not talking me out of getting one.

Using the iPad
There are hundreds—likely thousands—of reviews on the iPad already. I've found the vast majority of them very accurate and reasonably consistent on features and functionality. The bigger issue to me is, what role does the iPad really fill? Is it something you would find useful?

I'm on my computing devices all day. I have a large, dual monitor Mac Pro for software development. When I'm on the road I carry along a 15" MacBook Pro. I also carry a 3GS iPhone. Between these three devices I had pretty much every need covered.

All of three days into owning an iPad I've found a niche for it that works great for me: information consumption. Here is how I'm using the iPad:

In the morning I flip open the case on the iPad, set it up at a slightly elevated angle and fire up e-mail while I eat breakfast. I rarely respond first thing in the morning; I just delete the useless e-mail and file away the informational stuff, which the e-mail client on the iPad is perfect for. When I'm in the office is when I actually respond unless it's very trivial. I then fire up my iPad based Twitter client, currently Twitterrific. Since I follow lots of news oriented feeds I'm able to quickly scroll through items and catch up on the news. If I find a link to a story that I want to read I tap it and Twitterrific displays it in a windowed browser.

This is where the screen on the iPad comes in handy; it doesn't feel at all cramped. Though I always marveled at my iPhone's screen resolution, it suddenly feels highly constrained next to the iPad:

Could I use my MacBook Pro for this? Sure, I could. It just feels so bulky. Could I use my iPhone for this? Yep, sure can, though I trade in supreme portability for a tiny little screen.

The iPad has a super long battery life from what I can tell so far. I charged it to capacity on the initial sync and have been using it pretty heavily for the last 3 days, yet as of this moment it's sitting at 25% capacity. It means that I've been treating it more like a book, leaving it out to be grabbed as I need it, not constantly tethered to a power supply like my MacBook Pro is.

As a result, I kept the iPad handy throughout the day, grabbing it when I wanted to quickly scan sports updates or read through news feeds. This is the ultimate lazy Sunday, information appliance I've ever seen.

I even fired up the iBooks application and—after playing around with some of the ancient free books available—bought a new title (The Pacific by Hugh Ambrose). Using the iPad as an e-book reader is very nice; the text is far more readable than on a Kindle, though I have only tried using it in shaded areas. I don't see sitting on a sunny beach and reading on the iPad unless you have a large umbrella handy. Way too much glare.

Summing It Up
Whether an iPad is right for someone is obviously a very personal decision; will you use it enough to make it worth the investment from a cash and time perspective? On the want versus need scale an iPad falls far more into the want category. It is far easier to justify a laptop or smartphone than an iPad since they are accepted tools of modern information workers. Will the iPad become a tool of the modern information professional? Perhaps, though it's not likely to happen with this initial version.

My experience three days in is that I am really enjoying my iPad and see that it has added a quality to some parts of my daily routine that were missing. I'm looking forward in the coming months to exploring the various applications available for the iPad as well; the few that I have played with have been very useable and take full advantage of the iPad user experience.

I'm really glad my wife talked me into getting one.

Thinking of getting an iPad? Not sure if it will work for what you want to do? Got one and using it in a unique way? Please add a comment below!

Macs and Failing Hard Disks - an early detection tool

The other day I was sitting at my desk when I started to hear a faint clicking sound. I pushed the noise out of my mind for a while and continued to work on the task at hand. Before long the clicking started to get louder and louder; it was clearly a consistent mechanical noise and was coming from under my desk, right where my Mac Pro is parked.

I popped my head down there and sure enough, it sounded like one of my 4 hard drives was starting to go. Usually if you hear a clicking sound coming from a hard drive its demise is imminent. I blasted out a quick note about this on Twitter and my friend Ast recommended that I try running SMART Utility to see where the problem was.

SMART Utility for Mac scans the internal hardware diagnostics of a hard drive to quickly determine its health. Using the data collected on the hard drive itself as well as a custom algorithm it can help predict when a hard drive is starting to have problems and may need to be replaced. It's like an early warning system that can give you a chance to pull the data off a drive before it's too late.

I pulled SMART Utility down and ran it and sure enough a Growl warning popped up:

When I took a look at the main SMART Utility screen there was a failing drive:
My Backup drive was having some issues: 375 errors and a reallocated bad sector. This 1TB drive is my primary backup for Time Machine; with that drive potentially compromised I started to panic. With all the documents, photos and digitized home video I've collected over the last 20+ years I was worried if one of my primary drives went down I'd be in serious trouble.

Fortunately for me I had an additional drive that I kept in my Mac Pro to serve as a spare. SMART Utility recommended that I replace the drive so I reset Time Machine to point at my spare drive and let it run, backing up the drive overnight.

The next day I shut down the Mac Pro, preparing to pull out the bad drive. It was only after I powered down my Mac that I realized I could still hear that clicking sound that started this little adventure. How was the drive clicking if it didn't have any power?!?

Well, it turns out it wasn't one of my drives that was doing the clicking; it was an older UPS that was also parked right next to my Mac Pro. The fan in it had started clicking—that was the sound I was actually hearing. I proceeded to kick the UPS until it stopped clicking.

(No, really, I did. Kicked it like a soccer ball. It ended up getting quiet for about 10 minutes too. Ultimately I ended up having to replace it anyway. No nasty comments from the People for the Ethical Treatment of UPSs, please.)

An Important Lesson
While the clicking sound wasn't actually the problem it did prompt me to test my drives. Had I known that a tool like SMART Utility was out there I would have bought and run it a long time ago. Sure, the drive SMART Utility identified hadn't completely failed yet and is technically still serviceable. That said, the data I have is far too important to store it on a drive that shows signs of having problems.

SMART Utility is a nice little app, can diagnose all of your drives in just a few seconds and costs $25. Highly recommended.

Oh yeah, if your drive starts to make a clicking sound I wouldn't recommend kicking it until it quiets down. That's only something you do with a balky UPS. Got a tip for keeping your hard drive healthy? A utility you recommend for ensuring it's safe? Drop a note in the comments.

Switching to Mac - Two Years Later

It's now the two year mark for my switch from Windows to Mac. Over the last two years I've gone from a Windows developer exploring the Mac as a compliment to my Windows and Linux machines to a full time Mac user that spends the vast majority of my time in OS X.

I didn't wake up one day and say "Wow, I hate Windows. I'm going to switch to Mac". I bought a little white MacBook, put it on the desk next to my primary Windows machine and started playing with it. Though technically underpowered compared to the dual screen, custom built PC I spent all of my time on, I found myself constantly reaching over to the MacBook to use it. The environment was fresh and new to me and I began to really enjoy the user interface consistency that OS X and the vast majority of Mac applications shared.

For such a small device the performance was excellent too; though it was the least expensive of the MacBook line of computers it didn't feel like a compromised machine. Applications loaded quickly and I could run several large applications at once and see very little performance impact. In the past when I purchased the least expensive Windows based laptops the machine was barely usable out of the box; it needed to be cleaned of all the "extra" applications and within a month of using it the performance would start to deteriorate. Not so with the Mac.

In relatively short order I went from having a MacBook to purchasing a Mac Pro, which replaced my primary Windows desktop. Whereas the MacBook was quick, the Mac Pro was—and still is—remarkably fast. With dual 2.8Ghz quad core Xeons and 12GB of RAM, I was suddenly able to run a huge number of applications seamlessly.

The bottom line is I'm really happy I decided to "try out" that MacBook two years ago. Computing—as a software developer the place I spent a huge number of my waking hours—became fun and exciting again.

Tips For New Switchers
Over the last two years I've learned a lot about helping people make a successful switch from Windows to Mac. Here is a quick summary of some tips that can help you or someone you know make the transition easier, along with some links to blog posts on the topic:

1) Learn the keyboard
As a touch typist the first problem I had when I started using a Mac was adjusting to the keyboard. A Mac has a Control, Option and Command key to the left of the spacebar, Windows has Control, Start, Alt in that same spot. The more advanced a keyboard user you are the more time it will take you to adjust. Keys like Home and End exist on a full size Mac keyboard but they don't perform the same actions they do on Windows. Backspace and Delete swap labels but not functionality. All of this leads to a lot of missteps initially; invest the time to learn the keys.

2) Be prepared to deal with MS Office files
Nobody at Apple would ever want to admit it but for now DOC, XLS and PPT files are the common language of the business world. You will want to find a solution to open, create and edit Microsoft Office files quickly and easily. The most obvious way to handle this is to get the Mac version of Microsoft Office. While I personally have it installed on one of my Macs, lately I've been using Neo Office to handle those types of files. Though technically you can use iWork to handle that, creating DOC and XLS files in Pages and Numbers requires extra steps that make it a challenge.

Blog Posts: I hate my Mac!

3) Learn about DMG files
If you download a new application over the web chances are it will be packaged up as a DMG file. A DMG file is a disk image and presents itself like a physical CD / DVD would when it is loaded up on your Mac. TUAW has an excellent 101 style overview of them. DMG files are important because of tip #4.

4) Learn to install applications
If you are coming from the Windows world you will need to adjust to how 3rd party applications are delivered on Macs. In Windows most downloaded applications come in the form of a self contained setup program. Double-click it and it starts an install wizard. On Mac you will generally receive a DMG file (see tip #3 above). Inside it may be a PKG file; which can be double-clicked to start an installation program. In some cases the application will just be contained in the DMG file; you drag that into your Applications folder to "install" it. The process is simple once you learn it but not obvious if you are new to Macs.

5) Time Machine is your friend
Go out and buy an inexpensive external hard drive that you can use to run Time Machine, the backup program that comes with OS X. It's seamless, backs up your machine every hour and quickly allows you to either grab an older version of a file you've recently modified or perform a complete restore on the machine. I don't need to use Time Machine for restoring files too often but when I do it's a glorious feeling that I've got backups when I need them.

6) Learn about windows
I'm not talking about Windows the operating system, but the windows in OS X. In Windows when you want to close an application people often just click the X in the top right corner of the window. On OS X the majority of the time clicking on the little red circle that turns into an X when you hover over it will also close the window of the application but not actually quit the application. Maximizing a window in OS X doesn't make it full screen like it does in Windows.

7) Find some great applications
OS X is a pretty complete operating system and comes with enough applications to get any web oriented person up and running. That said, there are tens of thousands of applications that you can use to make the most out of your Mac experience. Over the last two years I've cataloged the applications I've found and without a doubt those are my most popular blog posts. Whatever your interest is, chances are someone has created a nice little application to service that need.

Hopefully this will help some of the more recent switchers out there. You can grab a complete list of my Switching to Mac blog posts (currently at 71) by clicking on the Switching to Mac label on my blog.

Have a tip for helping a recent switcher adjust to a Mac from Windows? Drop a note in the comments below!

Using Mac Preview for a quick slideshow - fail

I generally like to put up blog posts that talk about cool things I've discovered on my Mac, or problems I've overcome and how I did that. This time it's about a pet peeve I have with my Mac: quickly viewing a group of images. I believe there is a tiny change Apple can make that would have a huge impact on usability, especially for non-technical users.

Preview is a very cool part of OS X. Small and light, I can load lots of different files and off I go, scanning through them quickly. As a technical person I appreciate the way it works when viewing a group of files; I select them, pop-up the context menu (Right Click for me) and select Open. Preview loads them up and off I go. I can happily navigate through the selection or throw together a quick slideshow from the Preview menu.

Where this breaks down is for the non-tech user. My wife was looking through a large collection of images this morning on a shared drive that I have. She navigates to Force (my Mac Pro), selects a shared Photos folder, then navigates down to the folder of images she wants to see. So far so good.

The first thing she does is double-click on an image, which loads it up into Preview. This is a natural act for virtually any non-technical person; you see a file you want to view and you double-click on it. Great! Then she wants to see the next image. The navigation within Preview doesn't work because by double-clicking on an image she has only selected a single image. It's only if she has selected a group of files that Preview allows any navigation between those files.

As a software developer with a UI background I understand the importance of having objects behave consistently. Select a group and perform an action on them. Got it.

Where this breaks down in Preview is that non-technical users don't grasp the concept of collecting a group of items and performing an action on them. By navigating to a folder they already have gone into a collection of items. Why should I then have to select all of those items before performing a group action on them? This is especially true with an application that is designed to help a user quickly scan through files without having to load a large app to see them.

If I want my wife to use Preview to view all of the images in a folder I need to tell her to navigate to that folder, click on the first file in that folder to ensure it has focus, press Command-A to select all of the items (or click-drag the mouse on all of them), then press Command-O to open them. She does this once every month or so, not often enough that she's going to remember it.

Other Options
Of course there are other options here. I added a Quick Look button to her Finder window by Right-Clicking on the toolbar area, selecting Customize Toolbar... and then dragging the Quick Look icon to the toolbar area:

Now she navigates to the folder, selects the file and clicks the little eyeball. Quick Look is even faster than preview but has a small problem: if I click the Full Screen button it loses the ability to navigate through the rest of the images. She uses a white MacBook so the screen is not very large; I told her to drag the Quick Look window to a larger size (it resets every time you switch to a different folder) so that she can see it better.

Use Cover Flow
An option I tried for her was to use the Cover Flow view. While it's very obvious how to navigate, the small size of her MacBook screen and the large areas of screen real-estate used for navigation controls leaves some pretty tiny images.

Just use iPhoto!
I use iPhoto on my Mac Pro and that's what I use to browse my photo library. So why don't I just have my wife use that? There are two options for her using iPhoto: the first involves her importing all of the images I take (and I take a lot) into her local copy of iPhoto. That's far too much work when all she really wants to do is quickly browse through the last month of photos that have been taken.

The second option is that I have iPhoto loaded on my Mac Pro and share the my collection. This presents two problems: sharing a 40K photo sized iPhoto library over a wireless connection is... S...L...O...W. It also means I have to have iPhoto loaded at all times on my Mac Pro in order for it to be accessible. Both are non-options for me.

Use a Different Application
When I posted this little Pet Peeve on Twitter I got a couple of responses. @Eaglesdontflock suggested that I used a program called Phoenix Slides, a donation-ware application that puts up blazingly fast slide shows. I tried playing with Phoenix Slides and came away very impressed, so much so that it will be a different blog post in the next couple of days.

Ask that Apple change Preview
Yeah, ok, it's a long shot but one of the things I can do is ask Apple to change the behavior of Preview at some point in the near future. So here you go Apple:

If I load up a single file in Preview I would like the navigation controls to be enabled as though I had selected all of the files in a folder. Let me navigate through all of them. This is only true if I selected a single file.

Too much? Then if I load up a single file in Preview, let the Slideshow feature work on all of the files in the folder. Seriously, why even offer the Slideshow option when only a single item is selected?

Will this break a UI model? Well, it's really only a change on a single application: Preview. It doesn't imply that all applications need this behavior. Since the goal of Preview is to quickly and efficiently scan through files I would think this would be a great little change and in keeping with the purpose of the application. If it's too much then make it an option in the Preview preferences. At this point I'd take a terminal hack to make it work that way!

As always, if you have a suggestion for a better way to handle this please drop it into the comments below. I also encourage you to follow me on Twitter. Sure, you'll get a lot of other non-Mac stuff but hopefully you'll get some value out of it as well.