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  • Newsletter Issue #523

    December 6th, 2009

    THIS WEEK’S TECH NIGHT OWL LIVE RADIO UPDATE

    Well, it had to happen. The rapid growth of our two radio shows has finally impacted our Web server rather seriously. Although we have a powerful box with dual quad-core Xeon and loads of bandwidth, the network port was clogged Thursday evening through Friday morning, as downloads that would normally take a few minutes to finish would sometimes stretch a few hours. Our sites also displayed very slowly, and I’m just pleased that very few of you complained.

    The folks at Namecheap told us that as much as 80% of the traffic on the rack on which our server is installed came from you. listeners and readers of all of our online content. That obviously isn’t a good thing when it comes to managing that load, and the network hardware was buckling. So they set up a dedicated switch just for our server, so things should be settling down nicely now.

    However, bandwidth isn’t cheap and expect to be saddled shortly with a larger bill to accommodate the extra traffic. That takes us to our regular plea for donations. You see, advertising only covers a small portion of our financial needs. In this day and age, we’ve had to cut rates to the bone to stay competitive and keep a client’s business.

    Donations? Well, let me put it this way. If every single listener and reader of our online content gave us just $5 per year, we’d have enough income to easily cover all of our expenses and provide a livable income for myself and David Biedny, who works with me on The Paracast.

    But that level of support is a pipedream. It will never happen. Even a one percent response, which is extraordinary, would mean that the people who donate would each have to give us $500 to compensate, and we get far less than that overall. I don’t claim to have any solutions to this dilemma, except that we welcome donations from those of you who can afford it, regardless of the amount. We’re also working hard to expand the list of sponsors and we’d welcome your help. We’ll even pay finder’s fees and commissions to those of you who are able to get us some new clients.

    In case you’re wondering, we paid for the iMac by selling our Mac Pro and its 30-inch display. We also have a Donate button at the end of each article on this site, if you’re interested.

    In any case, let’s get to the shows themselves. On last week’s episode of The Tech Night Owl LIVE, we invited cutting edge commentator Daniel Eran Dilger, from Roughly Drafted Magazine, who ruminated over such matters as the iPhone and some of the controversies about the App Store, Google Android and Google’s Chrome OS.

    Author and Mac troubleshooting guru Ted Landau was on hand to discuss whether we should declare the Mac Pro dead and buried and he also discussed about the various iPhone and App Store approval controversies.

    This week on our other show, The Paracast, we probe the strange world of conspiracy theories, both paranormal and political. Our featured guests include parapolitics expert Kenneth F. Thomas and currency trader Stephen Beizer.

    Now Shipping! The Official Paracast T-Shirt. We’re taking orders direct from our new Official Paracast Store, where you can place your order and pay with a major credit card or PayPal. The shirts come in white, 100% cotton, and feature The Paracast logo on the front. The rear emblem states: “Separating Signal From Noise.” We’ve also added a selection of additional special custom-imprinted merchandise for fans of our show.

    A COUPLE OF BUGS THEY DON’T TALK ABOUT

    So I just set up that brand new 27-inch quad-core iMac, and decided to run a MobileMe Sync. Nothing unusual, right? Well, this is a problem I’ve had for a long, long time, but I haven’t seen many complaints about the situation. You see, whenever I choose the option to include my Mail accounts, Sync has the temerity to reorder my email accounts via its own internal “fuzzy” logic.

    The battle commences. I move the accounts to the order that I prefer, and, on the next run, Sync puts them back in the order that suits it. The solution to this never-ending battle is to simply turn off the option to sync those accounts. Understand that this reordering phenomenon also occurs on my iPhone, but I can’t simply drag and drop the accounts to a different position on that device, so I put up with it. Yes, I know I could just delete the accounts and restore them in the order I want, and perhaps I’ll do that one of these days.

    Other functions seem to run acceptably, or at least I don’t notice any problems worth mentioning. More to the point, I’ve seen this particular symptom for several years, and the transition from .Mac to MobileMe hasn’t changed a thing, nor replacing Macs, upgrading operating systems or simply resetting the sync information.

    In all fairness to Apple, maybe some characteristic of one of my email accounts, configured a long time ago, is responsible for this problem. Or perhaps I have become far too obsessive/compulsive in my old age and I fret over matters that nobody else cares about.

    The next issue is one that probably should be part of my wish list for 10.7. It’s all about getting proper error messages when something goes wrong.

    The other day, I switched our Time Capsule to use Google’s new free “Public DNS” service, which is designed to replace the one used by your ISP. Supposedly it’s designed to deliver faster and more reliable performance, but I ran into a problem that was not only unexpected but difficult to resolve until I had, shall we say, an epiphany.

    As some of you know, we use Apple’s QuickTime Broadcaster to stream the radio shows. Several hours before an evening broadcast, I will normally run the app to make sure things are working properly. This time, it hung upon launch. I had to force quit Broadcaster, and there was no status message to indicate the real source of the problem. More about that shortly.

    Over the next hour or so, I ran through a normal range of troubleshooting steps, removing and reinstalling Broadcaster, deleting preferences and even using a test administration account, on which no extras are installed, to see if that would eliminate the problem.

    Finally I rung up Apple, and was connected to one of their senior support people who handles products that extend beyond the ones that consumers normally use. But while he was researching the situation in search of some answers, I decided to try one more thing and that was to see if my 17-inch MacBook Pro would exhibit the same symptoms as the iMac i7. Indeed, it did. Broadcaster hung at launch, so I started to think exactly what the app was doing at launch time that would extend beyond the computers, and my solution was Internet access.

    I restarted the Cox cable modem and the Time Capsule with no change. But then I recalled that I had switched to Google’s DNS Friday, after the last show was streamed. It seemed strange that they’d block a streaming service. However, when I changed the Time Capsule settings to include the IP addresses of another independent DNS provider, OpenDNS, and allowed the router to restart to “store” the settings, the problem vanished with the change.

    Now if Broadcaster would have put up a simple status message that it wasn’t able to determine Internet access, I would have saved quite a bit of time with a frustrating troubleshooting process. More to the point, I can understand an app’s nonresponsiveness as a result of a programming problem or a crash, but in situations where external connectivity is involved, why not let us know what’s wrong? So more informative error messages definitely rate higher for Mac OS 10.7 — and certainly for the next version of QuickTime Broadcaster.

    Unfortunately, Google, in its infinite wisdom, doesn’t really want to provide technical support beyond basic setup interactions and troubleshooting. Blocking streaming services isn’t documented in Google’s basic instructions or FAQ — or at least it wasn’t when I checked the site. I wonder if they even realize what they’ve done or its potential impact.

    Now the Apple support person documented my symptoms and the solution. I suppose they could take this up at the senior support levels, and ultimately with Google. Alas, I tried Google’s support numbers to see what they know about the situation, but that service is a sham. All they provide is a simple set of prerecorded configuration and troubleshooting tips. There’s no option to speak to a live person.

    I understand that providing genuine support services can be expensive, and that may be hard to justify economically with a service that is not only free, but free of ads, although Google does evidently track your online surfing patterns. I do think, however, that labeling the feature as “telephone support” is a bit of a stretch, although I suppose it is accurate since you are accessing the support feature via a phone.

    To be fair to Google, their DNS service is quite new. There may be unknown glitches, and it’s quite possibly they blocked streaming services not out of any enmity towards Apple, but simply as a matter of providing decent security.

    In the end, if you feel that your ISP’s DNS is not up to par — and it’s usually impossible to know unless you experiment with some alternatives — I’d recommend OpenDNS as the best service to try. In addition to speeding up Internet access, if usually by unmeasurable amounts, they deliver a fairly high level of security, including phishing protection.

    FIRST LOOK: EPSON ARTISAN 810 MULTIFUNCTION PRINTER

    When I was engaged in heavy-duty desktop publishing, I always had a high-end scanner around, but in recent years, I’ve opted to accept the one that comes with a multifunction printer, since I don’t need to capture images destined for print.

    Indeed, for me and many others, the multifunction printer is the ultimate output device. Incorporating the ability to copy, fax, print and scan, the environmental footprint is modest, since all of these capabilities are crowded into a single box. You might regard it as a perfect accompaniment to an iMac, since both provide the functions that traditionally require a number of separate components.

    However, up until recent years, all-in-one printers meant severe compromises. While the fax function was usually satisfactory, copying capabilities would seldom match that of the old fashioned Xerox, printing would be subpar and forget about scanning. That feature was adequate for family photos, but don’t even think about using that feature for professional work.

    Well, manufacturers have come to realize that there’s a lot of profit to be made in these costlier products, so they’ve gradually improved the various features so that compromises are minimal. Today, the best multifunctions can print documents with essentially the same flair as standalone printers, copying quality is quite useful and scanning acuity is actually decent enough to suit many needs for which you’d normally use a high-end scanner.

    Indeed, the new Epson Artisan 810, which retails for $299.99 (minus the $50 instant rebate currently in effect) is one of the best of the breed. All of the features you expect from a single box that does so many things are present and accounted for, including a 3.5 LCD to preview photos and control user settings, touch capability for most functions, plus the ability to print direct onto special CDs and DVDs without labels.

    The 810 also features Ethernet, USB or Wi-Fi connectivity (Bluetooth is an option), and a relatively compact form factor that is better suited for a home or home office than most of the competition. Maximum advertised print speeds are 38 pages per minute for black and white and color, resolution is stated at 4800 dpi for the scanner, and duplexing (the ability to print on both sides of a sheet of paper) is included.

    As with many of the quality inkjet-based all-in-ones and printers these days, the consumables consist of relatively low-cost ink cartridges or tanks. The 810 contains six, and, as with similar products, if you run out of any single color, you don’t have to suddenly invest in all the rest.

    At 23.1 pounds, the 810 is reasonably light weight as well for such a product. If you opt to register your product — and you should — the standard one-year warranty extends to two years, so you can usually avoid the admonitions from the salesperson or cashier at your consumer electronics outlet to buy an extended warranty.

    One downside with the compact form factor: There’s but a single paper tray with a capacity for 120 sheets of regular paper. Some competing models, such as those from Canon, offer two trays with a capacity of up to 150 sheets each. This may not be a serious issue for you, but if you plan on printing lots of copies, you might consider this a shortcoming. The lone paper tray, however, has an extra slot for photo paper.

    In most categories, the 810 provides good or even excellent performance. Scanning is fast, and image capture is quite good for a product not intended for professional graphics use. Faxes are sent and received rapidly, and copying and print speeds are quite good, even if you opt for the slower higher quality settings.

    One oddity I discovered early on is that the 810 doesn’t seem to support Mac OS X’s Collated feature which, when left in the default “checked” setting, prints the last page of a document first so you don’t have to collate all the pages later. A workaround is to change the page order to “Reverse,” using the 810’s Paper Handling settings in the Print dialog box. While I haven’t received a definitive response from Epson as to when — or if — that shortcoming will be remedied, I simply saved this custom setting as a preset, so it works the way I want.

    The unit is quiet and smooth, except for the usual grinds and grunts from the printer mechanics after a job is complete. Black and white text is reasonably clear, even in smaller sizes, and, as with most Epson printers, color reproduction is excellent.

    So far, I’m quite pleased with my initial close encounter with the 810. I’ll have a further update in a few weeks.

    THE FINAL WORD

    The Tech Night Owl Newsletter is a weekly information service of Making The Impossible, Inc.

    Publisher/Editor: Gene Steinberg
    Managing Editor: Grayson Steinberg
    Marketing and Public Relations: Barbara Kaplan
    Worldwide Licensing and Marketing: Sharon Jarvis



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