You Control review (screencast)

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Guest reviewer Brandon takes You Software’s You Control for a test drive in this screencast, prompted by the companies’ recent MacSanta discount offer. While the 20 percent discount is no longer available, you can still pick it up for ten percent off until Dec. 31.

His verdict: he says it potentially replaces four other applications he is currently using and is very intuitive and easy to use, but the application still has some rough edges. After sending this review, he sent a postscript along to say that he’s not convinced it would easily replace his addiction to QuickSilver. (The future of Quicksilver, though, may be in doubt).

My verdict? I don’t think I would use it much. I get the same basic functionality out of Launchbar, Newsfire, MagiCal, PathFinder, GrowlTunes, and 3D Weather Globe…and I really like these apps. I’m especially fond of Launchbar (to which I am going to write more about in the future). Like QuickSilver, it does so much more than just launch applications (it’s not free like Quicksilver, but that also means it’s future development is more secure). But back to You Control. I think we both agree that if you haven’t invested time and money into other programs and/or are not comfortably locked in to a workflow with other applications, You Control offers quite a few handy, well thought-out features in one convenient package. It’s also particularly nice if you like quick-access menus from the menu bar.

Switched to a mac? Try Linux on that old PC

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I recently completed a project that began with installing VMware Fusion on my Intel iMac and (unexpectedly) ended with an old Compaq Presario laptop running Linux. If you’re an adventurous type and wish to reclaim an old PC, or if you just switched to a mac and now have an old PC collecting dust, read on. In my case, a friend donated an old Compaq laptop to me (she switched to an iMac) so I could use it to test out websites on Internet Explorer. It did the job … but just barely. Windows XP just doesn’t run well on 58MB of RAM! My workflow went like this: launch Explorer, go for a snack, take a bathroom break, play with the cat, then arrive back at the laptop to either (a) load the page I wished to preview or (b) discover the machine had inexplicably froze.

Thankfully, my intel-based iMac is now handily running Windows XP and the old laptop is now obsolete. Or so I thought. On a whim, I installed Ubuntu Linux on my iMac (again, using virtual machine wizadry) just to test it out. I was amazed – it was fast, enjoyable, and very useable. One nice thing about Linux is that the OS shares the same Unix underpinnings as Mac OSX, so if you’ve been using X for a while, you’ll feel fairly comfortable in the new environment. When I started learning more about Linux, I was surprised at the dozens of ‘flavors’ of this OS and the vaster number of open source (free) software applications that run on it (all of which can run on Mac OS too, by the way). I am in awe that there are so many people out there developing this stuff out of sheer passion and dedication. How cool is that?

It was then that inspiration struck. Why not install Linux on my old Compaq paperweight? What a great way to use an old machine, and to learn more about Linux (and Unix) – skills that will make me a better Mac user too. I was not dissapointed. Linux turned my Compaq into a very usable machine that is suprisingly responsive (I won’t say it’s speedy – but it runs like lightning compared to running Windows). For the first time in my life, I actually enjoyed using a Compaq (despair over a Compaq drove me to switch to a mac in 2000!). I now have a risk-free platform on which I can learn about Linux and develop my Unix skills. It also serves, simply, as an extra PC around the house. True, I can also learn Unix commands via the Terminal on my mac (on Mac OSX or using a virtual machine to run Linux), but it gives me greater peace of mind to explore the inner workings of Unix on a totally separate machine. I can try things I would be hesitant to try on the mac. And if I really mess something up on my Compaq (and I already have), I don’t really care. I just reinstall the operating system and try again.

The Linux version I’m using — Puppy Linux — is under 100MB, so it’s quick to reload. A warning to you, though: it took me (a Unix novice with no prior Linux experience) several days of experimentation to get everything up and running on the laptop. Now that I have the process down, I can reformat the partition of the hard drive and reinstall a clean version of Linux in about 15 minutes. But you should know that you may have to get under the hood and expirement to get it working (here, I’m mainly talking about the drivers for your USB plug-ins, network connection, or printer) … but that’s what makes it so much fun. It’s a good way to learn.

To be fair, I think my experience had a lot to do with the Compaq and my inexperience and little to do with the Linux packages I tried (searching user forums, I discovered that many people aptly refer to these old Compaq laptops as ‘craptops’). If you are installing Linux on a newer laptop (newer than my Presario 1200 running at 500Mhz with 58MB RAM) or perhaps on a laptop of higher quality, you may have no trouble at all. I had plenty of trouble. And that leads us to the first rule to follow before you start any project like this: backup any data on the target machine that you wish to keep! I’ll post about how I choose a Linux version to install and the steps I took to get it running very soon. I want to end on this note: you will not get a laptop out of this that can run all your mac or pc applications. You’ll be using freeware versions of applications that do much of the same thing. So what’s it good for? You get a machine for light text work, email, and web browsing on a machine that was formerly unbearable to use. You get to experience an operating system that is increasingly used around the world because it’s free and it works well. And you get a platform on which you can learn Unix. Not bad for a PC I formerly considered trash.

in tip | 872 Words

Lessons on switching hosts, migrating WordPress

I had two problems with this website over the weekend.

First, I was unable to view or send files to this site for over 48 hours. I was able to see my files via the online ‘control panel’ of my web host. However, I could not connect using HTTP (viewing from a web browser) or FTP (transferring files using an FTP application). I only had this problem for this specific website. My internet connection was working just fine, and I could connect to my other sites without a problem.

Second, when I viewed the files for this site via the online host ‘control panel’ of my web host (during the period of no-access, I could still see the files this way and only this way), I discovered that my style sheet…the one I had painstakingly and lovingly created over weeks…was zero kilobytes in size. All of my CSS information was gone. My most recent backup was a week old, and I had changed a lot during that week. Mea culpa. I probably will never know why this file was erased. It could have been an FTP transmission error, it could have been the fault of the (previous) company hosting this site. The point is it does not matter – I should have had it backed up.

I’m happy to say that my problems are solved. My connection is up and running on a brand new web host. I decided to switch to a new host as a result of this bad experience. I also have my style sheet back in order, which I had to manually re-create. Here are the lessons learned.

Lesson #1

If you’re having a weird connectivity problem, check your router first (if you have one). It turns out my problem was not with my service provider, but was with my router. For some reason it was blocking my access to this specific server space on my web host only. My host (1&1) never figured this out, and I wasted a weekend talking to tech support. All they could tell me was that it must be my problem because they could not find any errors on their end (more on how they told me this later).

My solution was not as simple as resetting the router. I tried this early on. I unplugged it, then plugged it back in. I rebooted my mac. I tried to force a change to my external IP address in case that address was being blocked by 1&1. Nothing worked. Then, over two days later, I thought, ‘Hey, what if I plugged my Ethernet cable directly into my primary mac?’ If you are a network-saavy person, perhaps that would have been the first thing you might have tried. For me (definitely not network-saavy), it didn’t occur to me to take the router entirely out of the equation. Why? I had online access for all my macs in the house through this router, and I could access all sites … except this ONE SITE. I thought resetting it would fix any issues.

At any rate, my connection worked just fine after I connected my ethernet directly to my mac, and now I had isolated the problem to my router. The lesson here is this: if you try resetting your router and rebooting your mac and you still have a connectivity problem, it’s worth a shot to take your router out of the loop to see if that helps (and thus isolate your problem). This is easy to do and it’s a good first step before you call tech support. In my case, I discovered that there was a firmware update available for my router (I’m using the Linksys WRT54G). Once I updated my firmware, the problem was solved. I’m not sure if the fix was the firmware or because the firmware wiped out some corrupt settings or data. In either case, I learned that there is no way to tell if you router is up to date unless you go online and manually check. There’s no auto ‘check for update’ feature in this wireless router model, at least.

Since we’re talking about routers, I’ll add that a hardware router is your best firewall defense – it effectively hides your internal addresses and devices from the outside world. In other words, all the outside world sees on my home network is my router – nothing else. It’s worth getting one, in my opinion; and it’s necessary if you want wi-fi in your home and/or you are sharing one connection with multiple macs). The built-in Mac OS firewall is good (don’t forget to TURN IT ON – it’s not on by default when you install Leopard!), but you’re first and best line of defense is a hardware router. My Linksys was cheap ($50) and it’s worked well for me, save for this weekend. When I’m in the market for a new wireless router, I think I’ll go with an Apple product. Why? Ease of setup, ease of configuration. Period. If you have a Linksys, you know what I mean. The browser-based interface isn’t very intuitive. (Note to Linksys wireless router owners, check your web-based admin panel for the link that says ‘firmware update’ if you find you need such an update. It’s pretty straight-forward).

Lesson #2

Choose a web host carefully.

Cheapest is not always best. I know this to be true, but I admit I choose 1&1 because of the price. I have to say it worked well for me until I needed support. I called 1&1 three times this weekend. Each time, a live person answered the phone within a minute. That was impressive, but my experience went downhill from there. When I called 1&1 on Friday, I was told to wait four hours before trying to connect to viewfromthedock.com and it would probably work. When I tried to get a bit of an explanation of why this might be so, I was told that I must have been trying to connect to my files too many times in too short of a period of a time. Because of this, my IP address was temporarily blocked. I thought this was strange, since I was doing nothing out of the ordinary. Alas, twelve hours later I had the same problem. I called 1&1 again. This time I was asked to try a ‘traceroute.’ The tech support guy then proceeded to explain how to do this on a PC. When I said I was on a mac, he told me to forget it and that my issue would be sent to ‘Level 2’ tech support. I was also told I would be contacted. Lastly, he told me to wait for 24 hours until I tried to connect to my site again. Quite frustrating. I was annoyed that I still could not transfer files to my site. And I was annoyed that my use of a mac seemed to stop tech support dead in their tracks – this despite me telling him that I knew how to do traceroute and could take a screenshot for him of the result. By Sunday night, I had still not heard from anyone, so I called again. This tech support helper seemed to have no prior knowledge of me ever contacting 1&1. I don’t blame him, of course. I do fault whatever tracking system they are using. All he could tell me was that the problem was likely located at my computer, not with 1&1. This was actually quite helpful, and led me to the router solution. I then switched to 1&1 to Bluehost.

Why? I had actually been pondering a move to this hosting company for a while. This gave me the push I needed. Bluehost is known for good customer service, and they are known to be mac-friendly. The biggest reason for me, though, is that they support Ruby on Rails development. 1&1 does not officially support this. Since I’m trying to learn Ruby on Rails, it made sense to jump to a host with good built-in support. Price-wise, it’s not that much more expensive if you sign up for the two-year package. I’m not crazy about the two-year lock-in, but it did lower the price to the equivalent of $6.95 a month. That equates to $50 more than 1&1 for a two year time block. Not too bad. The control panel is a little confusing. My friend Brandon, a Bluehost user, pointed this out. The vote’s still out for me. I can say that I love the ease with which one can backup files and databases with Bluehost. As you might imagine, I checked out this feature first! I’ll post on my Bluehost experience more at a later date after I’ve used it for awhile. I think the web is lacking good third-party reviews of hosting services. If you’ve ever searched for an independent review of a web host, you know what I mean. Search engines generally return dubious ‘top 10’ lists — I say ‘dubious’ because I don’t trust these sources.

Lesson #3

Transferring a WordPress installation from one host to another is surprisingly simple.

The easy part is copying all your WordPress files from the old server to the new one. There’s nothing to it: you just copy them over. The more difficult part is transferring your MySQL database. Conceptually, it goes like this: you copy all of your files over. Then you export your MySQL database that holds all your WordPress posts, comments, etc. Then you import that information into a new MySQL database on your new host. Lastly, you change your WordPress configuration file so it properly points to this new database (if you use WordPress, this is the same wp_config.php file that you modified when installing WP. I’ve included four screenshots here to illustrate what this looks like. Note that your host may have a set-up that looks different than mine, but the options will be the same if your host uses MySQL and phpMyAdmin. For a quick checklist, check out these WordPress Codex instructions.

Lesson #4

Develop your site design locally on your mac, then transfer the finished theme over to your live site. Fortunately, this is easy on a mac. Why did I not do this for my site? I actually did, but once I uploaded my ‘finished’ theme I decided to totally change it. I was lazy, in short. I decided to just kept editing my live WordPress installation directly on the server using the Panic Transmit. The easy mac solution for running a virtual server on your mac is called MAMP. It’s dead simple to set up. It includes a dashboard widget that allows you to easily start and stop your local server. What a cool tool. And it’s free.

That’s it for this post. Oh, and don’t forget to back up your data .

Up and running on my new host

The site is back in full working order now. Since I had to re-create much of my style sheet, I couldn’t resist tweaking the design a bit, too. I think I’m really done tinkering with it for now. Now on to the content!

Come back tomorrow for a discussion about my experience transferring this WordPress installation and a MySQL database to a new host. It was easier than I thought it would be. I’ll also share why I switched from 1&1 to Bluehost.

Bad weekend

If you happened to stop by the weekend, you may have either not been able to access this site, or you could see it without any CSS styles. You may also note now that the site layout is a little screwy. The reason is that I had some big problems over the past 48 hours with my host. The problems were bad enough that I decided to change hosts.

I finally regained access to this site just a few hours ago. I immediately transferred all my wordpress files to my new host, miraculously managed to export my SQL database from the old and reimport it to the new host. Everything seems to be working, but I’m too tired to get my style sheet all back in order tonight (most of it is back in order, at least). You see, my styles were mysteriously erased on my old host … the CSS style sheet itself was still on the server, it was just devoid of all data. 0 kilobytes. So, I had to use the last styles I had, which were quite out of date (my fault). Long story short, View from the Dock is now ‘docked’ at Bluehost.

I should have everything back in order soon. I’m going to backup my remote files now!

Holiday season software deals

It’s the time of year for mac software promotions. MacSanta just kicked off yesterday. This site offers daily 20 percent discounts on selected applications each day until Dec. 24. And over in Europe, mac developers have put together the “Give good food to your Mac” promotion, offering discounts up to 70 percent on a sliding scale (the more apps you buy, the better the discount). There are some really good applications on this one … and only six days left before it ends. And one more … I just discovered that MacUpdate also has a promo for the next eight days … 10 apps bundled together for $50.