How a hornet killed my Macbook

Yesterday was a bit of a rough day for me. Nothing seemed to go right…and then a hornet became involved to take it another level.

I was outside doing some maintenance on my snowblower in preparation for winter. You may be thinking, why do this maintenance in late October? It’s not going to snow for awhile, even in New Hampshire! Well, a couple years ago we received a foot of snow on Halloween, knocking out power for three days…so I rather not chance fate. Plus it was a gorgeous ~60 degree day, which certainly beats doing this maintenance when its 40 degrees out or worse.

After a long struggle, I fixed up the snowblower and it fired up first try without issues. I collected all of my tools and brought them inside, along with my can of beer (Sam Adams Octoberfest for those wondering) that I had been drinking. Came inside, put away the tools, grabbed my home Macbook Pro (mid-2010 13″) and my beer, then began catching up on a few things.

I took a sip of my beer and then realized suddenly that something that wasn’t beer entered my mouth. My first thought was to immediately spit the beer and the object out. Unfortunately the Macbook was in front of me and took the brunt of the damage. And there, laying on my Macbook keyboard, was a dead and very saturated hornet. It must have went into the beer can when I was working outside, drowned, and stayed in there until I took a drink. I wish I thought of taking a photo.

For those of you who don’t know me, I’m absolutely petrified of bees, hornets, etc. This took that to a whole new level. And then damn thing killed my Macbook’s trackpad, caping off a frustrating day. The trackpad no longer will click and intermittently stops recognizing my finger when using it.

A follow up post will detail my thought process on a replacement Mac.


Hazel is the ultimate automated file management tool

For years I have struggled on maintaining PDF copies of various important documents (bills, statements, paperwork, etc.). I would occasionally have a day of organizing, but I was wildly inconsistent with how I named my files and folders. It was incredibly frustrating when I needed to find a particular file and had to search multiple folders & naming schemes to track it down.

Yesterday I began trying out a utility I had heard about over the past few years: Hazel. Created by Noodlesoft, it is the ultimate automated file management tool. I am blown away by what I can do now in a totally automated and consistent manner. In 24 hours it has supercharged my file organizing and archiving.

For example, if I wanted to download and save PDF copies of my paycheck, in the past I would do this:

  1. Login to the payroll site.
  2. Click on the link for the latest paycheck to view its PDF.
  3. Download the PDF (which is placed automatically in my Downloads folder by Safari)
  4. Navigate to the Downloads folder
  5. Open the file
  6. Find the pay date on the file
  7. Rename the file in yyyy-mm-dd – Paycheck (Chris).pdf format
  8. Move file to whatever my Paychecks folder I happened to find first.

Now with Hazel, I just do the following:

  1. Go to my payroll site.
  2. Click on the link for the latest paycheck to view its PDF.
  3. Download the PDF (which is placed automatically in my Downloads folder by Safari)

Then, without intervention, Hazel does its magic by monitoring the downloads folder and matching files with all of the following criteria in seconds:

  • The file name (my payroll site is very consistent with its file name format)
  • Whether my name or my wife’s name are in the contents of the file.
  • Searches the contents of the PDF for the word “Regular” so I know this a normal paycheck vs. something else (like a bonus).
  • Automagically figures out the pay check date by searching for the third date in mm/dd/yyyy format listed in the file. Thanks MacSparky for the tip on how to do this!
  • Renames the file to yyyy-mm-dd – Paycheck (Chris).pdf, using that pay check date from the step above.
  • Sets various tags (Paycheck, the current year (again, based off of that pay check date), etc)
  • Moves to a dedicated paychecks folder

Suddenly I have a huge automation win! I cut out at least 5 manual steps from this process, saving as many as 5 minutes per paycheck and now have the following:

  • My file names are all in a consistent, predictable format.
  • My files are all tagged properly.
  • My files are all in the correct folder.
  • My files are all dated properly.
  • My files are now very easy to search for thanks to the file name and the tags.

Now multiply this across the many different documents you download in today’s world and you can see how tens of minutes a week or even a couple of hours per month can be saved using Hazel.  Toss in some of this magic for documents you scan and suddenly this is a gigantic time & frustration saver. Not to mention the enormous frustration that is now gone of finding the right folder and file name format. It doesn’t seem like much, but it can add up quickly. Quickly enough I’m buying a license today.

iTunes keeps triggering 'allow incoming connections' dialog from OS X firewall

Ran into an interesting bug with Mac OS X’s Firewall. Every time I launched iTunes, I would be prompted by the firewall whether I wanted to allow incoming connections. Every single time I launched iTunes.

Luckily, there is an easy fix according to this Apple support forum post:

Doing so has worked perfectly well for me. However, there may be a specific sequence of actions that will work. Mine was:

1) Wait for the dialogue to appear, then deny access. Quit the application in question.

2) Open System Preferences>Security>Firewall, and remove the application in question from the list entirely.

3) Wait for the dialogue to appear again, then grant access. This should be the last time you see the dialogue.

Problem so far has been resolved!

The backup strategy

For the past few years, I have been using an Apple Time Capsule to have an complete backup updated hourly of my Macbook. It has worked very well and has saved me several times when I deleted files by accident. Luckily I have not had to call upon it in the worst case scenarios such as hard drive death, fire, lost, stolen, etc. I needed a solution to have my backups offsite as well.

I initially thought I could do the old keep a hard drive off-site at all times with a whole backup. That however would require me to remember to do it, which I have proven time and time again I could not. After all, for years I had a hard drive on my desk, but never manually ran the backup.

I decided finally that I should give the online backup companies that have sprung up the past few years a chance. I haven’t heard any downright horror stories involving them. In fact, most reviews I have heard were very positive. Their prices are quite reasonable: $50-60 a year for unlimited backup per computer.

Right now I am trying out Backblaze, which seems to have gotten great reviews from what I can see, has great Mac support, and has a wonderful option of paying to have a hard drive shipped to you with your data. Mozy does not have this option outside of DVD’s (great a stack of 100 DVD’s should be fun to restore) and Carbonite doesn’t seem to have any option outside of download restores.

I am currently finishing up day two of the initial backup to Backblaze. So far so good, I have about 25GB of 99GB backed up, which works out to just about 12-13GB a day. At this pace, I should be backed up completely in about six more days. After that, from what I understand the service continuously backs up any file changes and only the parts of the files that actually change, so future backups should almost be instantaneous.

I will report my experiences with this service as time goes on and I get to use it. Hopefully I will never have to test how good the restore process is.

Lock your screen in OS X

For some odd reason, Apple doesn’t by default give you a quick way to lock your screen when you step away from your computer. I have used the hot corner to activate screensaver option, but here is a cool way courtsey of Art Of Geek to lock your Mac with a simple key command. All it requires is creating a service using Automator that runs a shell script and mapping that service to a keyboard shortcut (ctrl-option-L in my case). Took me 2 minutes to create it.

A computer for most of us

I am really excited about the Apple iPad that was announced a few days ago. It seems like it would solve a lot of computing issues not just for me, but most every day people who aren’t computer experts. This appears to be the first computer that I would feel absolutely comfortable with my grandmother to use, yet powerful enough for me to use it often.

In the morning before I go to work or in the evening when I am relaxing, there is very few times where I do a lot of typing. During these times, my predominate use of my Macbook is for browsing the web, reading Google Reader, checking Facebook & Twitter, and checking my e-mail. Most of my e-mail replies are a couple sentences long at most.

Some times I do this on my iPhone, which works well at these tasks. For me, the iPhone is great for a quick run through of that list above, but not good if I spend more than 10-15 minutes doing this. The iPhone’s battery drains fast, the screen is too small to do a ton of reading, there is a loss of flexibility many of the dedicated apps for these purposes not having all the functionality I may need.

When I do it on my Macbook, I gain the most functionality, but I lose the simplicity and efficiency of the iPhone approach. I get a bigger screen, the ability to type incredibly fast with keyboard shortcuts, better battery life, the ability to run many applications at the same time. There is a price for this though. I easily get distracted with many applications running at the same time. The applications can be incredibly complex, buggy, and unwieldy at times, some with code bases that date back 20 years or more. I would argue that laptops themselves are bulky (even the traditionally very thin Apple laptops) and can have heat issues that can make using one uncomfortable.

How do I see the iPad solving these issues? By taking the best of both approaches.

The iPad gets the bigger screen but still extremely portable, as thin as many books or a new notepad. I can just hold it with my hands, not resting it on my lap. I gain the huge speed and simplicity benefits of an iPhone like touchscreen interface, yet with the bigger screen the applications can be more complex if needed like their laptop cousins. There isn’t the heat issues, the battery is far better than any laptop (10 hours),  a faster processor than phones that doesn’t have to worry about handling the complex desktop Operating Systems like laptops. There is even accessories so I can do camera imports and manage them on the device.

For those morning and evening browsing sessions that I do nearly every day, the iPad would be perfectly suited for them. Of course there will be tasks that my laptop with a full desktop OS would be better suited for. As beautiful as the new iWork apps are for the iPad, I wouldn’t want to work on a complex spreadsheet on it from scratch. I wouldn’t write this long blog post on an iPad (unless I used the keyboard accessory…hmm). Managing my music and video collections will still need that computer, as they would have a tough time fitting on even a 64GB iPad. Plus I don’t even know if an iPad can sync its library with an iPhone yet.

That is not even getting into the added benefits the iPad gives to common people, like:

  • Security: there hasn’t been one virus or high-profile security breach for iPhones (excluding jailbroken ones). This is despite the iPhone being an obvious target for hackers given its dominance.
  • App Store: one stop shop to finding applications, applications get updates easily, and reviews to know the apps are good or not.
  • No multitasking: What? A feature? For those who get easily confused about multiple apps running, sucking CPU and battery life, this is a feature. It took months for one family member of mine to realize that they should quit applications instead of just closing their windows and leaving them running. My grandparents have a hard time keeping track of one application, never mind 5. Keep it simple. In the end, I bet limited multitasking will be introduced, but not until Apple gets it right.
  • Flexibility: Apps make this device work far longer than any computer would normally last. Those special digital photo frames you can buy? Get an iPad, dock, and it doubles as one when you aren’t using it. Plus higher quality display and more storage.

I predict that the iPad will become the computer of the future for the common people, while being a valuable companion for geeks who really do not need to use a full desktop computer every time they need their Internet fix. I know I will be in line for one, my mother is also wanting one too.

I know I said I would not do it, so I did it.

I know a few weeks ago, I said that the iPhone plans were overpriced. Ok, that is putting it mildly…I flipped out. I also said I could not get one until December due to my Verizon Wireless contract.

Yet yesterday, my wife and i purchased two iPhones. Yes, you read this right, we bought two iPhones. What gives? That is about as close to a flip flop as you can get.

Alright, I have to go to my defense on this one. A few factors are at play here:

  1. My wife’s 2G iPod mini is on its last legs and showing signs of dying. That means shelling out at least $150 for a new iPod to replace it.
  2. My 2G iPod nano is starting to act flakey (freezing when trying to play a song for example), with firmware restores not helping.  That means shelling out another $150.
  3. We hated our cell phones with a passion. They were not due to be replaced until December though.
  4. I have issues at times remembering appointments, events, etc. that I agreed to attend. I really need my calendar with me. I hate paper calendars…I lose them all the time, forget to bring them with me, or just forget to use them.
  5. Some phone called the iPhone came out with a new model. You have may have heard about it.
  6. I worked out the budget to pull off using an iPhone family plan. Am I completely happy about it paying this much for a plan? No, but we determined it would be worth it.
So we had a choice. Spend +$300 on new iPods with a chance of buying iPhones in December, or pay $160 in ETF fees with Verizon and then pay for two new iPhones ($299 white 16GB models). In the end, we ended up about $140 in the positive if you assume we would have otherwise gotten new iPhones in December anyways. Why pay for new iPod’s when we were going to get new iPhones within 5 months anyways?
So my wife and I are now in the possession of two new 16GB iPhone 3G models. What is the verdict?
  • The touch screen takes some getting used to, but I am getting the hang of typing real quick and my wife seems to be doing well with it too. I can type with two thumbs pretty quickly now. I could see if someone sends 100+ e-mails a day from it where it maybe a problem, but even my decent e-mail needs seems quite doable.
  • The UI is absolutely gorgeous and easy-to-use. In fact, so easy-to-use that we occasionally say “that’s all you have to do?” when doing a particular task. Like being able to mark phone contacts as favorites and just press the home button twice to bring it up.
  • The App Store is amazing. There are already some great applications on there (I will write later about what I installed) and the potential is there for so many more. There are also some quite huge duds on there (the Mobile Banking application from Bank of America is beyond horrific).
  • AT&T coverage is really hit and miss in New Hampshire. I can already tell it maybe an issue. A positive is our home is fine coverage wise. We went out to the New Hampshire seacoast (our state’s lone 17 miles worth of ocean views) and the beach we settled in had maybe 0.25 bars if the breeze died down for a moment. So a day of catching up on reading blogs on the beach was thrown out of the window. On the way home, we stopped by a place for some ice cream and where there used to be coverage in our Verizon days is a big black hole now.
  • Speaking of AT&T coverage, there is no 3G coverage in New Hampshire, so that means we have to deal with EDGE unless we find a Wi-Fi access point. EDGE is slow but usable in my belief. Rumor has it is that the Manchester, NH area will get 3G in the Fall, so hopefully that comes true. In the meantime, I look forward to going to Boston soon so I can try 3G on the phone.
  • I have subscribed to several video podcasts now. They are going to be great to watch during my lunch breaks.
  • The iPhone will use my iPod connector in my car, but suggests I use airplane mode. I can say no and it works, the only thing is my stereo system in the car could receive interference from the iPhone. A quick test shows that it seems to work fine. A good test will be my commute tomorrow.
  • Best feature on the iPod application: the ability to easily turn on shuffle when in a playlist. Why this was never added to the regular iPods is beyond me.
  • Google Maps with GPS on the iPhone rocks. We used it both on the way to the beach and on the way back to look up locations of everything from ice cream shops to grocery stores.
  • Organizing my contacts and calendar on the iPhone? Priceless. Already worth the price of the iPhone.
Anyways, that is a good initial review of my thoughts on the iPhone. It is by far the best phone I have used. It has some minor quirks and I know AT&T is going to be tough to deal with for two years, but it was worth the price and effort to switch over.

A few extensions for Firefox 3 on Mac OS X

Firefox 3 has gigantic improvements for Mac users, but they left out a few things that would have made it fit in better. Here are a few extensions I installed to make Firefox 3 on Mac OS X a little more Mac like.

  • Fission – Combines the address bar and progress bar like Safari. I like this since it is easier to notice when a page finishes loading.
  • firefox-mac-pdf – Ever wanted to view PDF’s in the browser like Safari? This extension is the first PDF viewer to integrate into Firefox on Macs (Adobe Reader works if your lucky and if you like bloat). It uses PDFKit (the part of OS X that handles PDF’s) and works just as slick/fast as Safari when it comes to handling PDF’s. For an early version, this works very well.
  • Favicons on Firefox 3 for Mac – Mozilla for some reason does not like having favicons on the bookmarks toolbar for Mac versions of Firefox. This fixes it.

There are also themes for Firefox 3 that look more Safari like.

Add Favicons on Bookmarks Toolbar for Firefox 3 [Mac OS X]

Great tip on Lifehacker for how to add favicons to the bookmarks toolbar in Firefox 3 for Mac OS X.

One of few things I do not like in Mac versions of Firefox is the fact that there is no favicons on the bookmarks toolbar. I am a visual person, so having favicons on the bookmark toolbar really helps me pick out bookmarks quickly. This resolves that issue.

If your interested in voting for the bug in Bugzilla regarding this, the bug # is 348719.