Apple Pricing

Apple are getting expensive. Yes, Apple products always are expensive but for the last three or four years prices have been low enough for me to justify moving to Mac from Linux - almost entirely (he said, typing on a Mandriva Linux box).

But lately, between the dollar/pound and other effects, Apple prices in the UK have gone through the roof.

MacBook (plastic): was £700. Decreased to sub-700 post the 15% VAT change.
After the new MacBook introduction, it gained a new Nvidia graphics chip and went up to £719 even though in US$ it was reduced by around 10%.

Mac Mini: up 25% to £500.

iMac: up from £800 to £950.

Importantly, if they had cost this a year or two ago I would not have bought them. The iMac was competitive against even a custom PC - it is not now although its pricing is on par with Dell equivilents.

What about the hidden costs?

The remote is no longer included with the machines. I didn't get one with a MacBook back in September 2008, even, though I did back in January. For the Mac Mini this is important - it is used in the sort of situations where the remote is most likely to be used - media, set top box, etc. I got one with my £800 iMac, yet if I upgraded to the £950 basic model now I wouldn't get one.

Moving on, the display adaptors. You MUST have a display adaptor. Apple use MiniDVI and DisplayPort and you need a special adaptor to connection to VGA or DVI.
For MiniDVI, these were £15 - I have a VGA and DVI for the MacBooks and a VGA on my iMac.
For DisplayPort, they're up to £20. Incredible. I'm all for making a profit, but these is really skimming cash off consumers.

Hard Disks and Memory have always been expensive in the Apple shop, but take a look at the 8GB costs - £800! Consider that they charge £200 for the 4GB removed to install the 8GB in the configurator.

I suppose Apple know what they're doing. I love my Macs. Linux would be difficult to back to full time. Windows is almost completely out of my life. Give it five years and I'll be forced into upgrading in some way... My PowerBook lasted four years and is still in use today, although not by me.



Thank goodness the rich are here to call people hypocritical and stop you flying.


Backing up Business Data

A timely reminder that if you have data that your business depends on, get it backed up properly. If you have personal data that you wouldn't like to lose, you also must back up. has been well covered in the media. It wasn't one of the great players on the web, but had a sizeable user base. Visit the link to see what it has become now that their database has been wiped.

There are many ways to back up your data, depending on budget and 'continuity' requirements. For example, with a PHP/MySQL website such as this you'd certainly pull an image of the MySQL data down to some form of backup device. You might do this daily. But for disaster recovery, this form of backup requires you to build a new server from scratch (or at least the system software), then import your data, then spend the next six month finding and applying the performance tweaks that'd taken you years to discover.

You're talking hours to days of downtime. But you will get back online.

The next level is a complete snapshot of the server. This is most common with tape backups - you place a complete copy of the server's file system on tape - perhaps once a week with daily incrementals, depending on your data sizes and backup overhead. All you need to do now is get server hardware similar to that which you have lost and pull the image back onto the disks. Well, it's rarely that simple. But the expense of tape buys you time - you'll be back up and running in hours - and there are other important advantages including robust offsite backup.

After that, you get into standby servers and clusters. These increase your availability following a failure to the point where a server failure is completely hidden from your users.

Note that these are cumulative backup systems - if you have a cluster, you also have tape backups of at least one typical machine. If you have tape, you also have MySQL dumps.

I have designed and tested and implemented backup solutions for a variety of situations, including PHP/MySQL hosting - both shared and dedicated systems, including PHP server clusters and MySQL replication. I'll shamelessly plug my services here - I'm not looking for full time work but if you've got a need for this sort of system administration consultation for your small business or start-up, then give me a shout. You'll find an email address in the contact link at the bottom of the page.

In contrast to other blogs and news sites, I'd like to discuss the real reason behind JournalSpace's (JS's) failure - the technical problem of data loss seems to have been caused by a human, and the certainly the fundamental problem was human.

JS's manager doesn't seem to be a very technical person. He/she didn't need to be, there were employees to look after that aspect. From the publicly available information it looks like this unfortunate business man has been taken for a ride by a thoroughly unprofessional idiot.

In business, you really need to trust your employees. It's an unfortunate truth that you can't. This is why computer networks get locked down, you can't install software on your work PC, you can't visit Facebook, you're not allowed in the server room, etc.

But there are some employees that you have to trust. The ones who look after the money. The ones who look after your data. If your company is a jewellers, somebody is going to handle the diamonds - will it be the contract cleaner who comes in on Saturday mornings and is a different face every week?

JS has been exposed to a toxic and dangerous employee. I wish they'd name names so we know who to avoid. There are two aspects here:
1. The person was expected to be technically literate. If they're in charge, or the only IT guy there, they need to be better than average. Indeed, they are claimed to have boasted about being smart.
2. The person must be trustworthy. They have your future (your business data) in their hands, you must know that whatever happens, they will try their hardest to ensure its safety.

In JS's case, the person was neither and unfortunately there was no way of raising alarm bells that this might be the case.

Until, that is, it was too late. The employee was caught stealing, and on being ejected caused damage to servers. I assume something along the lines of deleting system files. This behaviour of someone so trusted is shocking.

At this point, JS should have called in security experts to go over each and every system the employee had touched, but that's easy to say in hindsight. I have work on post-attack forensics and have demonstrated rescuing systems which have been compromised, and then patching holes. In this case a strong security policy would be needed for new and existing employees.

I'm reminded of this from last year:
Would you trust that person with everything you have worked for and built up? It's a shame that such people are not always so clearly marked out by publishing their own career suicide notes.


Seagate FreeAgent on Mac

For my work Mac (I know, aren't I lucky?) I use an external USB hard drive to make backups using Time Machine.

There are several blog postings I can make about this:

1. Time Machine is incredible. It really is outstanding. I've gone nearly two years with Leopard without using it and now I regret not getting into it earlier.
1a. Time Machine can be made to work on Samba shares, and I will share how in a later posting.
2. Backing up to an external hard disk is cheap and very easy. To a large extent, small business can survive with this sort of backup and not need centralised servers and tape (but I actually can't recommend that - my current employer does not follow what I'd call 'best practise').
3. About using a Seagate FreeAgent on a Mac.

This is about number three.

The FreeAgent claims to be Mac compatible. Right there on the box. And generally, yes it is. Plug in, reformat, install software, and go. Not as quick as on a PC, for which it is pre-formatted, but it works.


Here's the problem: the Mac software lacks control over the sleep timer, and the installed driver has a bug which resets the sleep timer to between 60 seconds and three minutes, whether it's in use or not. Click, spinup, click, spinup, click, spinup, ... all day, every day.

There is a fix:

1. Remove the driver. You don't need it. Search your hard disk for System files named 'Maxtor' (yes, this device is a rebrand of something acquired in the Maxtor takeover). Delete the file. Prepare for the Mac to crash as you really shouldn't have just done that.
2. Boot WinXP in a VM, install the software for the drive on that and set the spindown to something sensible (1 hour or never).
3. That's it. Or at least, that's what I did. No warranties.

WTF? 1

Inspired by the daily wtf, I report this:

In my current job, I am working with 'IT Professionals' in other companies. Previously I provided business solutions to business managers - i.e. I was a contracting 'IT Professional' myself.

However there are 'IT pros', and there 'people who work in computers'.

Sometimes this causes me to dispair.

For one particular multi-million dollar solution, we seed a particular database with customer details from a CSV file from another IT system and expect (well, require) the customer to provide that file.

It's really easy; name, account number, email - that sort of thing.

Rarely does anyone get the CSV on spec. For a start, we always, without fail, receive it as an Excel spreadsheet.

One source was a puzzle though. We received the data in comma separated format all right, but this was entirely contained within column A of an Excel spreadsheet, each cell containing a line of CSV data.

The mystery was solved when they sent us a copy containing the source formulas. The IT pro had taken 'comma separated' very seriously. However, instead of 'save as' and selecting CSV, he wrote a formula to take the contents of each column, insert a comma between them and return the result as a string. Something like:




GTK2 on MacPorts

Are you trying to install GTK2 on a Mac from MacPorts, such as for Dia?

The build dependencies are broken as of December 2008. You need to install xorg-libXrandr first.

sudo /opt/local/bin/port install xorg-libXrandr

The error you'll be seeing will be along these lines:

gdkevents-x11.c: In function 'gdk_event_translate':
gdkevents-x11.c:2110: error: 'RRNotify' undeclared (first use in this function)
gdkevents-x11.c:2110: error: (Each undeclared identifier is reported only once
gdkevents-x11.c:2110: error: for each function it appears in.)
gdkevents-x11.c:2112: error: 'XRRNotifyEvent' undeclared (first use in this function)
gdkevents-x11.c:2112: error: 'notify' undeclared (first use in this function)
gdkevents-x11.c:2112: error: syntax error before ')' token
gdkevents-x11.c: In function 'gdk_x11_screen_get_window_manager_name':
gdkevents-x11.c:2721: warning: dereferencing type-punned pointer will break strict-aliasing rules
gdkevents-x11.c: In function 'gdk_x11_screen_supports_net_wm_hint':
gdkevents-x11.c:2821: warning: dereferencing type-punned pointer will break strict-aliasing rules
make[4]: *** [gdkevents-x11.lo] Error 1
make[3]: *** [all-recursive] Error 1
make[2]: *** [all] Error 2
make[1]: *** [all-recursive] Error 1
make: *** [all] Error 2

Error: The following dependencies failed to build: gtk2 libart_lgpl libxslt popt
Error: Status 1 encountered during processing.


I recently bought a copy of Asimov's collected robot stories, 'The Complete Robot'. I find that I have read all of them before but it's certainly eye-opening to reread them afresh, particularly that I'm now a cynical commercial programmer rather than an optimistic college student.

Asimov, like pretty much all early 'futurologists' and sci-fi writers really did not get computers right. This is nothing against Asimov - I love his work - but it applies generally. Take the original series of Star Trek: machines that could understand every nuance of human speech yet talked in stilted robotic syllables. In the real world it is easy for computers to speak - speech synthesis has been around for decades - but speech recognition is difficult, never mind the ability to make sense of what people intend, something we still are a long way from.

Asimov saw robots and computers as proto-humans. Robots would replace humans by being able to do everything that humans could do - read and write on paper, operate machinery by using human shaped hands, that sort of thing. What has really happened is that humans have adapted to the machines as we have always done with our tools, since the first wheel, the first spear.

Example: We want a machine to read in our mathematics and give us an answer. In Asimov's world (see the Escape short story for an example), the robot would be fed the data on paper, one sheet at a time. In some stories the results are written by the robots by using a pen on paper, much like a plotter.

What really happened? We adapted to the computers. We enter our data directly into them. The machines work on our data in their native languages, because that's what we use. We read the results directly from the computer also. When did you last print something out? I no longer have a printer. The Internet and the web are the greatest examples of this. We don't ask a robot to find us information, which it goes physically out into the world to find and fetch back to us in books and newspapers. We enter the data directly into computers and can call it up instantly, anywhere, and in infinite numbers of copies.

Roboticisation is the future. Asimov was somewhat pessimistic when he predicted people turning against machines. It does happen of course - factories are becoming totally automated and people do lose their jobs. But really people are losing jobs that they don't want to do. Most people are happier working in an office and using their mind than working in a factory where all they do is put the small boxes in the big boxes, twice a second, for eight or twelve hours a day.

I am happier with this also. I don't really want human hands to prepare the food I eat. I have worked in a food related factory - I know that workers don't care what they do with the products, that items dropped on floors are put back on conveyors and that a 16 year old just out of school with no qualifications is more likely not to wash his hands before handing goods than he is to have any sense of hygiene.

And finally I get to the point. I watched this video from the BBC; a tour of the Goodfella's pizza factory. I'm sure we only see the good stuff and everyone is on best behaviour for the cameras, but it looks clean, well run, incredibly productive and above all is packed with efficient, accurate and cool robots.


MySQL 5.1 Released

Quietly, so quietly that Gentoo still doesn't include it, MySQL 5.1 has been released.

In some ways, I think MySQL just don't care anymore. 5.1 took forever to come around and is far from perfect. I really need partitioning which is why I've been watching it. I was intrigued to read this post from Monty (effectively the 'M' of MySQL) explaining what went wrong and what is wrong with 5.1:

I still like MySQL; it's still my preferred database. There's nothing like getting an intercontinental master/master replication running. But I have had Oracle running here for a long time (1.5GB of bloody RAM, for one table, to record a 20 byte row every few minutes - argh!) and I feel it really is time I learned how to use Postgres. I've started to remove my dependancy on phpMyAdmin (my new job is in Python and PHP simply doesn't get installed on any servers, at all) which means I'm far more comfortable using the command line tools, as I should be really. This should help me to make more use of tools like Postgres which don't have anything of the caliber of phpMyAdmin (laugh if you must, but it is productivity that matters to me and PMA is productive in the extreme).


Conservative Technology

Shock news: some users of Youtube post illiterate comments stating how much they hate the new widescreen video format.

This is getting more common. Back in the early 90s, when the Internet was still exploring what it could do, who could have predicted that it would become infested with luddites? If change in technology fears these people so much, they should switch their computers off!

This has also happened with Facebook. Yes, the new Facebook is slow and it takes twice as long to do anything. But had it remained the same, it would have stagnated. No doubt people hated the recent BBC facelift to pure-CSS too. I was put off for a short while, but you know what? When I look at an old BBC news article I am hit immediately with how much easier the new format is to read and navigate.

There is no room on the Internet for conservatism.

That's not to say change is always good - Microsoft thrashing around in its death throws with Vista and Office 2007 is perhaps a good example. Little change for the positive for users; virtually no change in Office beyond the menus and in Visio not even that (let's ignore the half/half situation in Outlook lest I punch my monitor).


Newton's first law...

... states that objects will move in straight lines unless acted upon by an external force.

This also applies in space...
... except that things move in an orbit.



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