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Got kids that play sports? Learn about concussions

It was bitterly cold last night as my wife and I sat in the stands to watch my son’s varsity lacrosse game against the cross-town team. Many of these kids had competed on the same junior league teams growing up and as a result there is a fierce competition when they play against one another. Pride was on the line and the hitting was hard, the emotions high.

It was late in the third quarter and my son, a 17 year old mid-fielder, was racing to pick up a loose ball. He saw an opponent angling for the ball and had the advantage on him but didn’t see a second one racing in from a sharp angle. Just as he bent over to scoop up the ball the unseen player tried to check my son in the shoulder to knock him off balance but missed and struck him hard on the left side of his helmet with his stick. The ref did not see the blow and play continued.

My son rolled on the ground and popped right back up but didn’t look quite right. He stayed in the game but from the stands we could see that he was not running very well. He also was crouching over a bit once he was positioned. I thought maybe he had gotten the wind knocked out of him.

He stayed in for another minute or so as the ball moved the length of the field then came out when the next mid-field line came in. As we sat up in the stands we were wondered if our son was okay because he didn’t return to the game.

The Late Night Phone Call
The game ran late and we were home waiting for my son to get back from the school in his own car. The phone rang and it was one of his coaches, telling us that my son had apparently suffered a concussion and that they did not want him to drive himself home. The athletic trainers and coaches at our school are outstanding and followed all the right procedures in ensuring that my son was being monitored properly.

When I got to the school my son looked fine, though he was not his usual self. He normally has an easy smile but his look was very serious as he described what happened when the opposing player struck his helmet. First he said he heard an incredibly loud roar, as though a peal of thunder was going off inside his helmet. He also immediately began to see swirling images in his right eye. He felt dazed and had a pretty bad headache though he had never blacked out.

The school’s athletic trainer recommended that we take him to a doctor either now or first thing in the morning (it was now nearly 10pm). Having experienced concussions before with him my concern got the better of me and I drove him to our local hospital. The ER doctor examined him pretty quickly and since his headache seemed to be getting worse ordered a CT Scan for him. They generally are looking for internal bleeding and the CT Scan is a good tool for determining if they need to conduct emergency surgery to relieve pressure from building on the patient’s brain. Fortunately his scan came back clean; no obvious damage.

The ER doctor told me to check on him every 3 hours for the next day, waking him up to see if he was still lucid and that the pain was not getting worse, a sign they may have missed something on the CT Scan.

Later that morning I took him to his regular doctor. By 10am he was actually feeling pretty good; there was no headache unless he shook his head quickly (Don’t do that son!). The doctor told him that he needed to stop all physical exertion until all of the signs of the concussion had gone away completely and then from that point we would wait another week before he would be eligible to play again.

All things considered, this went about as well as it can go for a concussion. The reason I’m writing this blog post is because I’m hoping that if you have kids of your own and they play sports or even have a highly active life that includes bumps and bruises you take a couple of minutes and learn about concussions and their treatment.

The Way Things Were
My own athletic adventures as a kid were usually punctuated by phrases like "Rub some dirt in it" and "Come on kid, you’re ok, toughen up". It was just the way things were. Even now you see TV shows and movies where someone will knock a person out with a quick blow to the back of the skull. The victim will then magically awake later, rub the back of their head for a second and then move on as though nothing happened.

Take this perspective into the modern age of high school sports. Many kids on successful varsity programs train nearly year round, attending camps, playing in tournaments or participating in off-season workout programs. Throw in a dose of parents with competitive backgrounds that want to see their kids succeed and many kids and parents will push hard to keep their kid in the game.

What’s Really Happening
What’s actually happening inside the skull during a concussion is that the brain is twisting, creating torque that can lead to unconsciousness. In addition the brain can bump against the inside of the skull and cause bruises to the brain itself. The CDC estimates that this happens nearly 3.8 million times a year in the US for sports and recreation activities.

It’s critical that as a parent you be able to separate yourself from the desire to see your son or daughter keep playing the sport they love so much and ensure that if they did get a concussion that you get involved. Read through some of the excellent materials the CDC provides on detecting concussions and if you are in doubt take your child to a doctor immediately.

Sounds a little over-cautious? Perhaps. Of course there is the story of little Morgan McCraken, whose parents got her to the hospital just in time to save her life. Then there’s the story of High School football player Max Conradt’s multiple concussions and what happened to his life.

My goal is not to frighten you as a parent about yet another thing that can harm your child. Instead my hope is that you’ll take a couple of minutes and learn what to look for if your child suffers a head injury. Serious injury is very easy to prevent if you know what to look for and that knowledge is critical if your child plays a contact sport.

 

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Switching from Windows to Mac – Power users can also play

Lately I’ve been thinking about why I enjoy working with Macs so much. Since switching to Macs from Windows a little over a year ago I’ve tried as much as possible to approach it objectively, calling out both the good and bad as I learned my way around OS X, and recording my findings here in this blog.

It’s easy to cite the UI consistency I enjoy with Mac based applications. As a software developer that obsesses with user interface design I have a deep appreciation for disparate applications using similar controls and metaphors. It’s difficult enough for people to understand the underlying tasks and logic a software application can perform, making them learn different control surfaces is like asking someone to navigate through their own family room after you have rearranged the furniture and turned off the lights; lots of stubbed toes and muttered curse words are sure to ensue.

Instead of the UI, I’m finding the real draw for me has been how productive I am as a power user. As a Windows user I never questioned the Mac’s user interface. It looked “pretty”, a back-handed compliment if there ever was one. What I did not know, and not a single Mac advocate ever mentioned to me for fear of scaring me away (I assume), was that Macs could channel that inner power user like no other machine could.

At any given time I’m running a dozen or so applications, many comfortably set up in their own Spaces window. I can switch between the programs by hitting the familiar Command-Tab. If I need to launch a new application I use LaunchBar, without question one of the best productivity tools you can get for a Mac (Quicksilver provides a similar capability). No reaching for the mouse and hunting for the application I want to run; I simply hit Command-Space, type 2-3 letters and hit Return and my application is loaded almost immediately. If the application is already running it just switches to it.

My Mac Pro serves as my communications center as well, serving up my email through Apple’s Mail program, AIM and Gmail chat through Adium, my Twitter feeds through TweetDeck and my incoming and outgoing phone calls through Skype. If I need to call a number I hit Command-Space, type “call” and enter (or paste) the phone number I want to dial.

If I decide I want to contact someone that’s not visible through Adium I’ll just hit Command-Space and start typing their name. Once their name appears in the LaunchBar menu I can hit the right arrow key and choose either an email address or phone number. If I choose an email address a new mail message is created with them as the recipient and I’m ready to start composing my message. If I select a phone number Skype takes over, gradually muting the John Coltrane track I have playing on iTunes as the phone begins to ring. I hang up the call and the music comes back.

Meanwhile down in my development Space I’ve got TextMate (my preferred programming editor), MySQL query browser and three terminal windows open. In one of the terminal windows I have an SSH session to one of my production servers open and am running a tail on one of my logs. The other two terminal windows are positioned in specific directories so that I can quickly execute commands for my Ruby on Rails based application and monitor the debug output from my local server instance. Safari is open in that same Space with the local version of SharedStatus up and running in it.

I even have Windows XP running in a VMware Fusion instance with Internet Explorer loaded and accessing my local version of SharedStatus so that I can be sure it works properly in that particular browser.

If you are a power Windows user that wants to dismiss the Mac as just a simplistic and trendy consumer machine—something I was guilty of—you may want to reevaluate that position. In my experience I’ve found Macs to be the computing equivalent of automotive sleepers; they look soft and simple on the outside but as soon as you push it you realize it’s capable of extreme performance.

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A new Mac Mini rounds out the house

Well, it finally happened. Late last week my 16 year old son came to me and said "Dad, my HP Laptop won’t boot up". Wonderful. I went to his room to check it out and sure enough the machine was just continually cycling on startup. It would get to the Windows logo and display the progress bar, suddenly show the briefest flashes of a blue screen (so fast it was unreadable), then the reboot and start the process over. I tried doing a safe boot with each of the types available in the Windows boot menu but no luck. I suspect that the hard drive on the machine had started to go and that a key driver file had become corrupted.

I played with it for a while but my efforts were half hearted. This machine was a hand me down from my wife, one that had been a bit flaky in the past. His was the last operational Windows machine still in use in our house. As I looked down on the HP endlessly flailing through the startup sequence a small smile formed in the corners of my mouth. I could finally be done with supporting aging Windows machines, at least the ones parked in my house. I would get him a Mac of his own.

Since he’s a Junior in High School any machine we got him would likely be carted off to college in a year and a half. There may be another generation of MacBooks before that happens (or at least a minor refresh) so I decided to go another way. I bought him the entry level Mac Mini, rationalizing that it would be plenty powerful for his basic needs. I figured that in a year and a half I’ll buy him a new MacBook and claim the Mac Mini as a media center machine.

Besides, I already had plenty of accessories around the house.


With a strategy in mind I headed off to the local Apple store and bought the machine, a 2.0 GHz system with 2GB of RAM and a 120GB hard drive. I brought it home and hooked it up to a 22" Samsung widescreen display I had from one of my previous PCs (now deceased) and let him use the full size Apple keyboard and Mighty Mouse I got with my Mac Pro.

I had a spare 120GB hard drive sitting around from my original MacBook after I upgraded it to a 320GB drive. A while back I picked up a small USB enclosure for it so that I could use it as an external drive; that became his Time Machine device. He’s had an older Logitech subwoofer 2.1 speaker system that generates some really decent sound so he’s got everything he needs to listen to his music. The last piece of the setup puzzle was installing iWork ’09, for which we have a family license.

I turned the machine over to him with a couple of quick pointers: don’t just click the close button on an application’s window, click App Name / Quit. I also explained the Dock bar and the basic concepts around the Finder and how to use Spotlight. While my son can touch type incredibly fast he’s really not all of that into his computer; it’s mainly a tool for accessing his music, the web and writing up papers for school.

Mac Mini Performance
When he first started using it he immediately set about doing multiple things at once: updating the music library in GarageBand (adding in the 1GB worth of stock music from Software Update), adding his music collection into iTunes from it’s temporary home on my internal server and actually listening to music at the same time. These little tasks seemed to bring the Mac Mini to its knees, making it slow to respond. I introduced Davey to spinning beach balls.

I told my son to slow down a bit and not spend too much time exploring the machine to form an opinion while it was doing such intensive tasks. Once GarageBand had finished updating the Mini started to perform at an acceptable level.

iTunes and the Disappearing Disk Space
A couple of hours after he started playing with it he called me over to tell me that it was reporting he was out of disk space. Huh? How could he be out of disk space so quickly? Sure, it’s only a 120GB hard drive but sheesh, he had over 75GB free when I gave it to him.

It turns out that he not only wanted to add his 10GB music collection to his machine but also wanted access to my rather large music collection as well. The problem is the default setting for iTunes. It copies all of the music into the local storage when adding it to a collection:

My collection—which is over 100GB in size—was being added to his local hard drive and he was blowing out his remaining disk space. In addition Time Machine had started a cycle and he nearly blew that drive’s space out as well.

Since my Mac Pro holds my music collection and it’s always on he didn’t need to have local copies of the music in order to listen to it. We changed the above setting, deleted the local copy of the music then re-added everything and it worked great. I also ended up erasing the Time Machine drive and starting that over. After another couple of hours everything was back to normal and running very nicely.

My son is completely into GarageBand. He is by far the most musically inclined of our house and is a pretty decent guitar player. At some point in the near future I want to get his electric guitar hooked up to his Mac Mini so that he can incorporate his own music into his GarageBand work. I have no experience at all with that so if someone has suggestions on the best way to proceed please drop a note in the comments.

Of course Macs have personality and I’m fond of coming up with Star Wars themed names for our computers. In this case I decided to break from my standards and use a name that also acknowledges my son is named after me. His new Mac is named Mini Me.

 

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Switching from Windows to Mac – One Year Later

On February 2, 2008 I was a Windows software developer. I had a house full of Windows based machines and was working on building up my next software company using some of them. I am what you might call a heavy duty computer user; I use my machines to communicate with folks (e-mail, forums, etc), develop software, manage my digital photos, edit home videos, play high end games, etc. Basically I spent most of my waking hours in front of a computer and was fine plugging away on Windows XP.

Something however was missing. It took me a while to figure out but I was simply bored with Windows. Been there, done that, got the t-shirt. Microsoft seemed to have abandoned any attempt at maintaining a uniform user interface and many software vendors were innovating by trying very non-standard UIs. Every time I installed new software I worried that it was blowing up the size of my Registry, potentially subjecting me to Malware and Spyware or installing replacement DLLs for libraries that other applications were counting on.

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Should internet access be limited for employees?

Though I am in the process of building up my next company, this is not my first rodeo. From 1998 up until mid-2006 I—and later my partners—managed the growth of WebSurveyor up until its sale. One of the many challenges we had during that time was establishing not only a culture for our employees but also a clear set of rules governing among other things internet access.

The culture that I always wanted centered around personal responsibility. My view was to make sure people understood how important they were to the success of the business and to give them the freedom to use their computer as they saw fit to accomplish their goals. We made it pretty clear that objectionable material (a.k.a. porn) was completely forbidden and you would be fired if found accessing it from the office. If an employee wanted to pull up non-work sites that was fine as long as it didn’t interfere with their job performance.

When we had under a dozen employees this was really easy. We worked in cramped offices and none of us had any real privacy, myself included. We were also struggling just to keep the business alive and everyone understood the gravity of the situation; those that didn’t we got rid of as quickly as possible. Our margin for error was incredibly small.

Over time the company grew, in some cases very rapidly, and we adjusted by moving into larger office space and hiring more and more people. Once we started reeling off a string of profitable quarters the pressure changed: we went from being in survival mode into a growth and expansion phase. In addition people had considerable privacy over our old environment, even if it was just the shallow barrier created by a couple of cube walls.

It was in this environment our verbal rules needed to change. The model we went with was to create a pretty comprehensive set of policies in our employee handbook and to continually reinforce our culture in meetings and personal interactions with the staff. We still did not limit access to the internet though, so if someone wanted to pull up ESPN at lunch or chat with some friends through AIM we didn’t have "electronic counter measures" in effect to prevent that.

My New Magic Trick
This did create the opportunity for abuse though. Being a "boss" meant that I suddenly had a new talent: I could walk up to some people’s cube and the second I appeared their browser window would minimize. I became a human minimize button. It was actually pretty comical and in some cases I would pull a "Columbo" and walk a few feet away, then turn back and say "Just one more thing…" to see them minimize the window again. Magic I tell you.

Not everyone did this of course. The people that I respected the most would leave what they had on their monitors up, not really caring that I saw they were actually checking the standings in their fantasy football league or pricing AV equipment for their home. I assumed that those folks were taking a micro-break and besides, they were always my most productive people. They managed to blend the ability to be productive with occasional travels into personal tasks and understood when to refocus on their primary responsibilities.

As a manager we had established a usage policy based on trust and I wanted to see that trust reciprocated. What really shocked me was that this talent (my magical window minimize skill) was not limited to entry level employees. I had senior and very experienced people that had enormous responsibilities do it, in some cases folks that were very recent hires. Needless to say those were not my finest moments as a champion for personal responsibility and usually resulted in a quick "Can I see you in my office for a minute?"

I bring this up because one of the folks that used to work for me, an early employee who I liked and trusted, told me about his new employer. They are a very large company and as a result have a very restrictive internet access policy. They do not allow access to social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter and have heavily throttled/limited access to things like Gmail and certain chat sites. I’m sure this kind of systemic approach not only makes it easier for management to ensure people are working and not goofing off during the day but also to protect themselves against liability issues such as an employee ogling porn in plain view of others.

Question of the day
My question for you dear reader is this: If you work in a company that limits your internet access does it limit your ability to be productive OR if you work for a company that does not, do you abuse it? Anonymous comments are on so use an alias if you like but I would love to hear some unfiltered feedback on this kind of issue. I also think it will help some of the managers and entrepreneurs that read this blog.

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First impressions of the Safari 4 beta

When Apple released the beta version of Safari 4 I thought, "whatever". While I like Safari and find it to be a perfectly capable browser I am hopelessly addicted to Firefox with its extensions and add-ons. Then I started to see some of the articles coming out about the new Safari and two things got me interested: speed improvements and a new UI for tab management.

I pulled down the Safari beta and installed it on my MacBook Pro, which has 4GB of RAM and is running the latest version of Leopard. By default it installed over my existing version of Safari which I wasn’t too happy about. You can uninstall it and it will roll back to your previous version if you need it to but I would have liked to be able to run both concurrently. I’m sure there’s a strong technical reason that’s not an option. Quite a few users complained about problems with Mail.app, especially if they used Growl for notification support. In my limited time looking at it I didn’t experience any problems with Mail. Your mileage may vary.

Top Sites
The first thing that hit me (after the cool animation introducing Safari) was the Top Sites page:


Typical of something from a Finder or iTunes Cover Flow view you can have nicely rendered mini web pages on a large black background that give you a menu of sorts for your most used web pages. While you can "pin" web pages into the view, move and remove those that you don’t like, the current beta doesn’t give you the ability to put a site in that you want. You have to hope it comes up for it to appear in the list and then pin it. Hopefully this is just a function of it being beta software. I was furiously removing sites and hoping Safari would give me one of my more recently visited sites but after a while it stopped offering suggestions (hence the gap where two web pages are missing in the image above).

There are small, medium and large views that hold 24, 12 and 6 web pages respectively. By default this is your home page so it will come up quite a bit, though you can of course set your home page to anything you like. There’s also a little button on the left of the toolbar that gives you quick access to it.

If Apple puts in the ability to manually add my own pages this will be a very nice feature. It would be even cooler if I could create groups of these "top sites".

The New Tabs
My initial reaction to the new tabs was that they were really cool. By moving the tabs into the caption bar Apple has effectively regained roughly 20+ pixels of browser real estate. All the caption bar was good for in the past was as a drag surface and title area anyway. This does create a bit of a challenge though: how do you move the window?

Actually, the same way you did before. Simply single click on any of the tabs—even an inactive one—and you can drag the entire Safari window. As you move the mouse into a tabs area you will notice the close button appears as well as a small textured area to the right of the tab. That textured area allows you to drag the tab out of the browser window and open a new window with that tab as the content area.

The single biggest problem I have with all of this is that if you open a lot of tabs (I often have 10 or more open) then clicking in the caption bar means it’s really easy to accidentally hit a close button on a tab. It’s almost like a game of whack-a-mole except with browser tabs:


Dan Frakes at Macworld has a really good article about Safari’s new tabs: Good or bad? He covers this topic in a lot more detail than I do.

I would love to see Apple add an option that would allow me to turn off the close button for non-selected tabs. That would mean less of a chance of hitting the mole, er, close box on accident. With screen real estate always such a premium I do like the way Apple is tackling this though; it just needs a little tuning. Since this is going to set the standard for OS X tab metaphors moving into the future I’m sure Apple appreciates the gravity of these kinds of decisions.

Performance
The Webkit folks did some major tuning on Safari beta 4; the speed is simply stunning. How much faster is it? If I load my primary blog page (www.davidalison.com), which generally has my last 7 blog posts on it with some fairly complex tables, DIVs, images and poorly designed HTML it takes nearly 4 seconds to completely render in Firefox. Safari 3.2 would complete the render in roughly 3 seconds. The beta handles it in roughly 2 seconds.

Web pages are noticeably snappier and pages that have some of the more complex DIVs for representing things like charts fly up on the page.

Breaking Points and Extras
There is one add-on I use in both Firefox and Safari religiously and that’s 1Password. Unfortunately it needed to be updated once the beta was released; fortunately the Agile Web Solutions folks knocked out an update within days that fixed it. There are other plugins that have needed to be updated as well but most of the popular ones appear to have been patched already.

Macworld recently put together an article on some of the hidden preferences for Safari. There are a couple of items in there that can help you customize Safari a little more.

All in all I’m pretty pleased with this new version of Safari, especially when taking into account that it’s a beta release. I don’t know if I’ll switch from Firefox being my default browser, though if Apple can tweak some of the UI issues and still maintain that incredible speed advantage I may just reconsider that.

What’s your take? Do you like the new Safari?

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SharedStatus.com – easy team management

Since starting this blog over a year ago I’ve been sharing my adventures about switching from Windows to Mac and thrown in a couple of stories about starting up a business. When I left the company I founded in late 2007 (after selling it in 2006) my intention was to take a little time off and then plunge into my next business venture, this blog quickly becoming a way for me to escape working 16 hours a day. Now that the new business is ready to go I would like to tell you about SharedStatus.

First Some Background
In virtually every company I have worked in I have had to conduct or contribute to status meetings. The problem with status meetings is that they can be very inefficient. Since most people manage their personal task lists in their own way they often wait until the last minute before the status meeting to quickly slam together what they have been working on.

In setting out to address this problem I discovered that there were other corollary problems that people experienced. Tasks that were assigned to people in some of those very status meetings were sometimes not being done because the person assigned didn’t realize it was being assigned to them. Other times a critical issue would be revealed in a status meeting that could have been more easily addressed earlier but the issue got lost in a tidal wave of e-mails. Collaboration between team members depended on a long thread of e-mails that sometimes didn’t include the very people that needed to be working on the issue.

The more I dug in to business process issues the more I saw that people tried addressing these challenges but that the tools were often not designed to solve such simple challenges. Project Management systems were plentiful but often were far to complex for basic needs. Other systems—like Lotus Notes and Sharepoint—went far down the path to helping solve these problems but required a large IT commitment and huge expense to make it all work.

I felt strongly that there was an opportunity to create a solution that was incredibly easy to use and focused on the core issue: tracking tasks, collaborating with others about those tasks and quickly generating status reports. I wanted to produce a product that was priced in such a way that small businesses could easily afford it and that as it scaled up within a company the costs didn’t get outrageous. Finally, I wanted to handle this as a web-based SaaS product, so it wouldn’t require a big IT involvement in order to get it up and running and anyone with a web browser would be able to use it.


The solution I came up with is called SharedStatus. The primary focus of this tool is to give managers, project leads and team members a simple, lightweight framework for capturing tasks that need to get done, collaborating with others on performing those tasks and quickly generating status reports for team and project meetings.

In SharedStatus most everything revolves around the concept of a task. You can create a task for yourself, view it in your dashboard or in a status report and mark it as complete when you are done. With multiple people in your account you can begin to see the advantage of SharedStatus because you can take any task you create and assign it to another member of your account. That person can either accept or decline the task; once accepted you can view and comment on the task—much like people can view and comment on a blog post—adding information or details that both people (task owner and assignee) can see.

A task can also be associated with a project, which opens other collaboration capabilities. Every member of a project can see all of the tasks that are associated with that project and make comments on them, providing an easy way for project members to help one another with tasks and eliminate the huge threads of e-mail that tend to get generated during the course of a project.

Finally, SharedStatus can optionally support the concept of a supervisor, allowing a manager to quickly see each of their direct reports and the tasks they have assigned to them. Their Dashboard is updated to show each of their direct reports and any critical tasks that they may be working on.

At the heart of SharedStatus is a notification system which each user can customize. They can be notified by e-mail or SMS message when a task they own is changed, accepted, commented on, etc. Users don’t have to keep SharedStatus up and running in a browser all day to have it help them.

Status reports are also a central theme to SharedStatus and can be accessed quickly from a user’s Dashboard, generating a list of the tasks that have been recently completed and a list of tasks that are due in the next time frame.

That in a nutshell is SharedStatus.

If you work in an environment where you need to manage a team of people and would like a simple, light-weight solution for keeping your team on the same page and quickly generating status reports I would appreciate you checking out SharedStatus or letting others in your network know about it. I have priced SharedStatus to be extremely affordable; it is only $2 / month per user ($20 / month minimum) and includes a 2 month unlimited user free trial.

You can get started with SharedStatus right now by going to www.sharedstatus.com.

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My new favorite free utility: Dropbox

Lately I’ve been playing with Dropbox, a free utility for Macs, Windows and Linux based machines. It’s a pretty simple concept; an internet drive that allows you to sync your files between multiple machines. There is really not too much to using it; a small application is installed that monitors a folder on your hard drive (normally placed in the user’s home directory but you can put it anywhere). Dropbox monitors changes to that folder and if a file is updated it is pushed up to your virtual drive on the interwebs. If you have multiple machines with Dropbox installed and pointing to the same account then they will automatically pick up the changes.

While this sound like something that can just as easily be accomplished with a network share, the nice thing about Dropbox is that the files are automatically copied to the machine’s local drive. In my case I have three physical machines: a Mac Pro, a MacBook Pro and an HP Slimline that serves as an Ubuntu workstation. In addition I usually have a Windows XP instance running on my Mac Pro using VMware Fusion. As I am currently working on some file importing routines for my product I am jumping between machines frequently; now if I make a change to files I need globally I see this little notice pop-up on each machine:

Mac (Growl notification)

Windows XP

Linux (Ubuntu)

So if I make a change anywhere it is auto-reflected wherever I need it. If I then grab my MacBook Pro for a meeting and the place I’m going doesn’t have internet access I still have a locally updated copy of the files that will be updated as soon as I get back to a live connection.

If you are away from your machine and need access to those synchronized files you can log in from anywhere and download the files from your account. You can also place your files into a public folder that will allow you to share them with others, though I haven’t tried that feature yet.

Dropbox comes with 2GB of storage for free; you can upgrade to a 50GB version for $9.99 / month or $99 / year. I’ve had it running on all of my machines for about a week now and have been impressed with how easy it is to use.

Got a great solution for keeping files synchronized on multiple machines? Drop a note in the comments, I’d love to hear about it.

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Switching to an ergonomic keyboard – the Microsoft Natural 4000

When I bought my Mac Pro last year I used it to replace my Windows XP system. Since I already had a great pair of Samsung 204B displays and a Logitech Mx510 Gaming Mouse that I really liked I figured I’d just keep using them. I personally couldn’t stand the Apple Mighty Mouse – I love all the buttons I get on the Logitech too much and with SteerMouse I could customize it as much as I liked.

The remaining item for input was the keyboard. My Mac Pro came with a full size aluminum keyboard and typing on it was acceptable. Since I had been using a MacBook quite a bit up to that point in time I wanted to use a Mac style keyboard, one that had the keys aligned properly for Mac users. Windows keyboards generally have the following keys along the lower left side:

 

 

 

Full size Mac keyboards on the other hand use:

 


The swapping of the the two keys between the Control and Space Bar means a lot of fumbling for different keys, especially for a heavy keyboard user like me. Since I’ve now ingrained into my hands the physical location of the keys I decided to give my old Microsoft keyboard a whirl.

Back in Black
I became addicted to Microsoft ergonomic (split) keyboards nearly 10 years ago and have owned a variety of different versions over the years. My latest one is a Microsoft Natural Ergonomic Keyboard 4000. While the name is unwieldy the keyboard itself is a joy to touch type on. With a raised wrist rest and natural feeling home position for my fingers I can very easily drop my fingers to the keyboard without looking and just type away. This was not the case with the Mac’s aluminum keyboard; if I pulled away from it to grab the mouse I didn’t always drop on the right key position; the tiny indentation on the F and J keys were easily passed over.

That’s not the case with a split keyboard. Your hands have a tendency to just fall right into place because of the angle for the keyboard. The split in the middle mimics the angle your arms approach the keyboard and the keys themselves are not laid out in a straight line; they curve gently to mimic the reach of your fingers.

I dusted off the keyboard and plugged it in to one of my USB ports. The Mac Pro couldn’t figure out which keyboard it was and asked me a couple of questions but after that I was able to get it up and running quite easily. I was shocked to see how quickly I could type on it compared to the aluminum keyboard, especially when I was jumping between tasks.

The first problem I encountered was the position of the Alt/Option and Command keys. Fortunately System Preferences has a Modifier Keys dialog under the Keyboard & Mouse section for switching them around:


While this worked fine there was one other little quirk; the Microsoft Natural Keyboard doesn’t have an eject key. There are tons of extra keys on this baby but an eject button just wasn’t a requirement.

It turns out Microsoft has an OS X driver for the Natural Keyboard that seems to work well with my Mac so far. It provides some decent remapping of keys and I was able to make the dedicated calculator button serve to eject the CD tray:

Now that I have my keys mapped properly I am ripping through work like crazy and typing faster than ever. The only downside is that I have this little Windows Start key sitting there that I would like to have labeled Alt / Option–which is what it actually does–and the Alt key should be named Command. Since each key on this keyboard is custom fit they aren’t interchangeable. It appears a Bic Permanent Marker is able to cover up the incorrect name for the key. All I need now is a small Command and Option sticker to drop in there and I’ll be set.

If anyone can think of a decent solution to my key cap naming problem please let me know through the comments below.

 

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Categories
Parallel Desktops

Skitch makes it easy to annotate pics

Though Skitch has apparently been around for a while now I didn’t hear about it until I saw a Merlin Mann’s video on how he has his Mac desktop set up. For those that don’t follow Merlin’s stuff you really should.

Since I tend to write about software that I find for my Mac quite a bit I drop in a lot of screen shots. Since Macs have an excellent built in screen capture capability I often just used that, pushing Command-Shift-4 to activate it and drop the resulting capture as a PNG on my desktop. I would then take the PNG and load it up into my graphics editor (usually GIMP), then crop or edit the image. If I wanted to annotate the image with highlights or callouts I would use the line drawing tools which were a bit of a challenge.

This is where Skitch really shines. You can capture an image just as easily as with the built in Mac capture tools but this give you an editable surface that allows you to quickly crop, resize and annotate the image with really simple tools.


I won’t go into too much more detail because Michael Warf created a really excellent little video a while back walking through the features of Skitch, including the picture sharing that’s included with the service:

Skitch Video Review from Michael Warf on Vimeo.

On top of all this Skitch is free. If you know of a better solution for screen capture than what I’m getting with Skitch please drop a note in the comments below.

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Categories
Parallel Desktops

Reflections on my first Mac

With all the talk of the 25th anniversary of the Mac I started to wax nostalgic about my original Mac experience.

Though my blog got a lot of page views last year because of my switch from Windows to Mac, the reality is the little white MacBook I bought in February of 2008 was not actually my first Mac. From ’83-’84 I worked at a small retail computer chain in Southern California named Sun Computers (not Sun Microsystems). We sold IBMs, Compaqs, DECs and Apples.

When the Mac was introduced Apple provided special training to the authorized dealers and I went off for a day of presentations in early ’84. At the end of the presentation Apple gave us all forms that allowed us to purchase one Mac directly from Apple for a ridiculously low price. We could get a 128K Mac, an Image Writer dot matrix printer and a padded carrying case (for the Mac). To be honest I don’t even remember the price, though it was considerably lower than its $2,500 retail price; so low that I quickly took them up on the offer and bought the machine, maxing out my one and only credit card in the process.

Keep in mind that in today’s dollars the retail price was over $5,000, a princely sum of money for a 20 year old geek to be spending on a computer. Though I had been spending a lot of time around various computers that Mac was a completely different animal. It’s hard to appreciate how much better it was than the DOS based PCs of the day.

It took a while before the machine was actually delivered—a couple of very, very long weeks—but when it finally came I remember spending countless hours playing with MacWrite and MacPaint, the only two programs that I had available. I would happily jam my Mac into the padded carrying case and take it with me the first couple of weeks I had it, though that got old fairly quickly. My girlfriend at the time was unimpressed with the machine, likely because I wasn’t paying attention to her when I was using it.

The lack of software and the paltry 128K of memory meant that my first Mac quickly got less and less use. There were only so many MacWrite documents and MacPaint images I had the energy to do. Software started to trickle in to our store for the Mac over the late spring and early summer but it was expensive and I was already tapped out because of the cost of the Mac. In September of 1984 I landed my first job as a programmer working with DOS based PCs and my Mac quickly became expendable. I ended up selling the machine to buy a PC clone so that I could continue to learn the programming tools I was using during the day.

For the next 24 years I rarely touched a Mac, spending the vast majority of my time on DOS/Windows and later various Linux flavors. When I finally did rediscover the Mac last year it was a great experience; I felt like a kid again, exploring all the new features (well, new to me anyway) and playing with the wide range of software that is now available.

With all the coverage about the 25th anniversary of the Mac’s launch I’ve been looking at original announcement videos and news stories and for just a few minutes I am that 20 year old budding computer geek, carefully removing that original Mac from its white box.

So what about you? If you are a Mac user when did you get your first Mac?

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Categories
Parallel Desktops

iStat Server – remotely monitoring your Mac

I’ve always been a big fan of iStat menus, the freeware system monitoring utility. It’s a great way to quickly see what’s going on with my Mac, whether it’s CPU, disk or memory utilization, temperature, etc.

Bjango, the iPhone side of iSlayer (producers of iStat menus), has recently released iStat Server, a free Mac application that runs in the background. It sends your Mac’s system monitoring information to your iPhone for actual monitoring. On the iPhone side you buy the $1.99 iStat – System Monitoring application, which then connects with your Mac and displays your monitoring information on your iPhone.

If you want to remotely monitor one or more of your Macs for the ridiculously affordable price of $2 then this is a very cool set up.

The first step is to download and install iStat Server on any of the Macs you want to monitor. Once installed and running you will get the main iStat Server window:


It will display a code that you will need to enter on your iPhone once you connect; mine is currently locked so it displays as asterisks.

The next step is to download and install iStat – System Monitoring (ISM) from the App Store. Once you start that application up you can either monitor your local phone’s resources:


Or you can connect to any of the Macs you installed iStat Server on. If they are on your local network ISM will detect them automatically. If you are using remote servers you can manually add them, using the IP address and port number they are broadcasting their information on.


Viewing a server that’s running iStat Server gives you a great view of the monitors you would normally see with iStat menus, including consolidated CPU utilization, memory, disk usage, networking traffic use and every temperature that you could ever want to see.


Rounding out SSM it also includes a Ping and Traceroute utility as well as the ability to free the memory on your iPhone and send your iPhone’s unique identifier or MAC address through e-mail.

On the iStat Server side you don’t need to leave the application window open or even keep it hidden; just quit the application and it will continue to broadcast iStat server data until you uninstall it. On my Mac Pro it uses just under 3MB or real memory.

If you really want to monitor your Mac’s performance from virtually anywhere (assuming you’ve set up your Firewall / router), iStat Server Monitoring is an excellent way to do it.

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