The Robservatory

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Behind the scenes: WordPress plug-ins, take three

This marks the third (one, two) in a continuing series of occasional posts about the plug-ins I use to run the site. Since the last update, things have changed a bit.

  • For various reasons, I’ve had to disable GrowMap Anti-Spambot and Stop Spammers. Anti-spam services are now provided by Akismet, JetPack’s comments plug-in, and Sabre.
  • Sliding Read More also bit the dust, because it wasn’t compatible with WordPress’ built-in Gallery feature.

So much for out with the old…read on to see what’s been added…

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Watch It: The Princess Bride

The Princess Bride Blu-rayThe Princess Bride (1987) tells the tale of a stable-boy-turned-pirate’s journey to rescue the love of his life; it’s based on the 1973 book of the same name.

The film touches on almost every subject imaginable, including pirates, princesses, sword fighting, adventure travel, large evil creatures, good guys and bad guys, true love, death, giants, and even logic-based drinking games. In short, this is not your average kids’ fairy tale—and because it’s not your average fairy tale, it’s a very fun and interesting movie.

There are many wonderfully quotable lines and short tidbits of dialog (You may have heard the most-oft-repeated one: “Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.” … but there are many others. I suggest you not visit that link until after you’ve seen the movie, though; there are many spoilers in that collection.)

The cast includes a number of faces you’ll recognize, even if you don’t recall their names—I found Mandy Patinkin, as the aforementioned Inigo Montoya, particularly entertaining. Cary Elwes, Chris Sarandon and even the late great André the Giant also do a fine job with their roles. Peter Falk narrates (I could listen to that voice all day), in his role as a grandfather telling this tale to his grandson, played by 11-year-old Fred Savage.

It’s hard to describe everything you’ll experience in this movie, but it’s worth experiencing. So if you’ve been avoiding it (thinking perhaps it was just another kids’ film), stop doing so, and give it a look. If you have seen it, but not lately, perhaps it’s time to renew your acquaintance? That’s what I did over the weekend, in fact.

iTunes Store Amazon Details Reviews

How I create digital versions of Blu-ray discs

As I recently wrote about, I’m weird in that I prefer to buy my movies on physical media, versus electronic only. But I also enjoy the benefits that come from having an electronic version of the movie. The recent Frozen Blu-ray release, for example, was perfect: In the box was a Blu-ray, a DVD, and an easy-to-use redemption code for the iTunes digital version.

Other studios, though, want to force me outside the Apple ecosystem, and into the hell that is Ultraviolet. More and more, in fact, this is the norm. Which means I need to make my own digital versions.

For DVDs, this isn’t too troublesome (and well documented), but I’m only buying Blu-ray discs now, and that makes things a bit tougher. (Kirk McElhearn discussed Blu-ray viewing/ripping for Macworld last year. Kirk focused on playback; I’m ignoring playback, and expanding on the ripping tutorial.)

If you’re interested in creating your own digital copies of your Blu-ray discs, read on to see how I do it.

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A simple URL tester for WordPress

One of the issues with blogs is that, over time, links embedded in posts can break. Sometimes they break in graceful ways (redirecting to an acquiring company’s site), sometimes in not so graceful ways (“Site not found!”), and sometimes in downright horrid ways (a porn spammer takes over a URL).

I wanted a way to test any URL in entries I’ve posted here, so a buddy wrote the basics of a tool to query the database and extract URLs from the posts. I took his core, then did some digging on the web, and mangled together a simple PHP app that will scan all your blog posts for URLs, and test to make sure each one still connects.

The results are displayed in an ugly-but-usable table form:

The first column is the URL being tested, and the second column displays the post numbers where that URL can be found. Any highlighted rows reflect dead links; no highlighting means that the URL opened as expected. Read on for the code and a basic how-to…

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A physical media guy in a digital media world

By today’s standards, I’m a throwback, a relic, a technological luddite. Why? Because I enjoy owning movies. No, not “owning” the right to watch a downloaded movie—as you might “buy” from iTunes or Amazon—but owning the actual physical disc that stores the movie’s encoded bits. But why, you might ask?

First off, I like everything about the physical product itself, from the case’s design to the cover art to the inserts in the case. Many are boring and bland, of course, but some are truly wonderful.

Consider The Lord of the Rings Extended Edition Trilogy; the image at right doesn’t do the case justice, as it’s stunning in person. And when you open it up, you’re treated to a wealth of extra content, as seen in these customer photos on Amazon.

Sure, you can get the same thing on iTunes, for the same $49.99…but you can’t experience the product’s physical extras, nor easily share them with someone else. All you can do is share the onscreen experience with others. Try using the Lord of the Rings maps while watching the movie, for instance. It works, but only if you’re using a computer while watching the movie on a TV or another computer.

Or consider the three-disc Blu-ray edition of Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone that comes in a very nice case, with printed inserts. (Again, the customer photos show more than does the stock Amazon photography.) You won’t get this experience with the digital-only alternative.

I guess I’m just hooked on the tactile feel, appearance, and “solidity” of the physical media. But that’s not all.

I also like that many movies offer multiple versions; so for movies that appeal to adults and kids (i.e. Pixar), we keep the DVD version with the kids’ stuff, and the Blu-ray version in the “parents only” collection. I also like taking discs to friends’ homes for movie parties, or just loaning them out. None of this is easily possible with a digital-only movie.

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking “Just another luddite, afraid to make the digital jump,” right?

Actually, that’s not it at all: I love the digital versions, too, because of their flexibility. I can “take” them almost anywhere, and watch them almost anywhere. But I want those versions in addition to the physical versions, not in lieu of the physical versions. That way, if something happens to the authorizing agency down the line, my movies won’t all vanish in a puff of digital smoke. If I can’t buy a movie with a usable digital version, I just make my own (but that’s a story for another day).

I do make exceptions at times, of course. When Apple sold a bunch of movie collections on the cheap, I took advantage. And recently, I discovered that I can get an HD version of the not on Blu-ray Real Genius, but only via the iTunes Store. So I’ll be purchasing that, as it’s not likely we’ll see a Blu-ray version any time soon.

But outside of those exceptions, I will always (until there’s no way to do so) prefer to purchase the physical version of a movie over the digital-only version. Call me a throwback, a dinosaur, a stuck-in-the-00s guy if you must, but I love my physical media plus digital versions; I really find it’s the best of both worlds.

The Apple tax Apple laws Apple are Apple the Apple problem

Sorry for the bizarre headline, but I wanted to make sure I got the proper clickbait, er, SEO, er clickwhoring, er, credit for the following insightful observation. Which is this:

The author, one Lisa Sanders, states that she’s now boycotting Apple due to their tax avoidance strategy:

Apple, it’s over. I’m breaking up with you. Because of your tax-ducking ways, I won’t buy another phone or computer or tablet or even song from you.

I hope Lisa is just as willing to give up products from Microsoft—I guess she’s going to Linux?—which sheltered over $60 billion dollars in 2012, more than Apple’s $54 billion that year. And she better not buy that Linux box from Dell, which sheltered $16 billion in 2012. And she better not use MySQL on that machine, because Oracle sheltered $21 billion. Also, no Western Digital hard drives ($5 billion). Oh, and those shoes? Better lose the Nikes, as they sheltered $6 billion. Credit cards? Citigroup ($36 billion), Bank of America ($19 billion), and JPMorgan Chase ($22 billion) are out; I guess Lisa is going cash-only.

All of the above data was found within 30 seconds of starting to search the web; the source for the numbers is Which Fortune 500 Companies Are Sheltering Income in Overseas Tax Havens? by the Citizens for Tax Justice.

Yes, Apple shelters taxes. Yes, it’s very good at it. Yes, it sucks that they aren’t paying their fair share. But the reality is that nobody in the Fortune 500 is paying their fair share. Why? Because they owe it to their shareholders not to do so. Lisa almost got that with her mention of Rand Paul:

At last year’s Senate hearings, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky said that it would be malpractice for Apple to pay a penny more than the minimum its accountants say it owes.

That’s exactly it, but not just for Apple, but for any publicly-held company. Just when I’m thinking she’s going to get it, she…goes 100% the wrong direction:

Perhaps Paul feels that the company’s fiduciary obligation outweighs its obligation to help support the nation that made and continues to make its profitable activity possible.

That’s how he feels because he’s correct: The company’s fiduciary obligation comes first, at least when compared to “voluntarily paying more tax than required.” Companies like Apple already benefit the country to a tremendous degree. How? By employing people and paying them good wages. Those wages are taxed. The things people buy with those wages are taxed. Add up all those impacts, and Apple (and the others) are definitely helping the economy.

Any public Fortune 500 company is tasked with returning maximum value to its shareholders; that’s why the list of abusers is so long and deep. Any company not taking advantage of legal tax reduction strategies isn’t maximizing wealth for shareholders.

The problem isn’t the companies, it’s the tax law.

If we want to fix the problem, we need to fix the law that’s allowing the behaviors. Period. Boycotting Apple because they’re very good at taking advantage of legal loopholes isn’t going to make them pay more in taxes. Change the law, though, and Apple (and everyone else) will do so, because none of these companies are willing to break the law to lower their tax bills.

A look at the first eight years of macosxhints.com

I was cleaning out some old images from the site, and found over 150 apparently unused images. Whoops, that’s what nine years of bad housekeeping will get you.

One of the leftovers, though, was kind of interesting. At some point in time, I graphed the number of hints published each day on macosxhints.com, from launch through 2008—a total of 12,051 hints.

Even if unlabeled, it’d be pretty easy to figure out where the major OS X releases occurred (except for 10.1, not sure what’s up with that?). And you can see a general downward trend in hints per day, as the OS became more established (and more locked down) over time.

In any event, I thought it was an interesting chart, and figured I’d toss it into a quick post instead of just sending it to the dustbin.

Control is the key to avoiding needless dialog boxes

Over the weekend, I wrote myself a little AppleScript program that makes it much easier to create license files for our customers. (Given my lack of knowledge on AppleScript, I’m quite happy with the result.)

To make it easy to use on all my Macs, I stored the finished result in Dropbox. I tested it using my MacBook Pro, assigning it a global keyboard shortcut using Butler. It worked great; as soon as I typed the shortcut, I’d see my “Which program?” onscreen dialog, and all was good.

When I got back to my iMac, I used Butler to point to the same script on Drobpox, and tested it. I was very surprised to see that, instead of launching my app, OS X presented this dialog box:

Confused, I pulled out the MacBook Pro, and tested again…and again, it worked fine, launching without any confirmation dialog.

After many minutes of hair pulling, I figured out the problem: On the MacBook Pro, I had assigned the shortcut as Shift-Option-M; on the iMac, I decided that it’d be easier to type Shift-Control-M, so that’s what I used (intending to change the MacBook Pro to the same shortcut). As soon as I removed the Control key from the shortcut, my application loaded without the confirmation dialog.

I’ve been unable to figure out why this happens, but if you’re launching AppleScript apps via global shortcuts, avoid using the Control key in those shortcuts (unless you like needless confirmation dialogs, that is).

Watch It: Real Genius

Real Genius [DVD]I cannot recall the first time I saw Real Genius (1985), but it wasn’t in the theater.

Whenever it was, the movie made enough of an impression that it became one of my fave comedies—something that’s still true today. I owned it on VHS, I own it on DVD, and if it comes out on Blu-ray, I’ll probably buy that, too. (I noticed while writing this that the iTunes version is listed as HD, so I may have to invest in that one.)

The cast is a bunch of names you’ve never heard of, except for a very young Val Kilmer. The plot centers on two geniuses at a college, working together on a laser project that just happens to have military applications.

There are any number of hilarious mini sub-plots running through the movie, and Val Kilmer is very funny as the older genius at the college. Toss in a guy living in the basement below the closet, a lottery fix, a sexy woman on a mission, ice skating in a dorm hallway, and a slew of one-liners, and you’ve got a recipe for a very entertaining 108 minutes of movie fun. Thought provoking? No. Well-developed plot? Not so much. But fun? Yea, it’s got that to spare.

iTunes Store Amazon Details Reviews

Do Dropbox droppers do due diligence?

Apparently Dropping Drobpox is a thing now, because Condoleeza Rice has been named to the board of directors. I’m aware of at least two prominent people (Chris Breen and Mark Frauenfelder) who have publicly discussed their Dropbox departures, and I assume there are many more.

First, I admire these folks’ convictions and follow-through on those convictions. For me, Dropbox is too ingrained in what I do to make such a switch. Additionally, I don’t believe someone sitting on the Board of Directors of a company is reason enough to change my practices relative to that company’s products.

However, for those who feel strongly about Ms. Rice, I assume they’d want to avoid any companies that have directors with similar backgrounds, right? In order to make such decisions, they need to do due diligence on any company whose products they might like to use.

To ease that task, I put together a brief list, based strictly on companies having board members involved in the military-industrial complex, and who may have been active in the same timeframe as Condoleeza Rice.

The first entry in the list may be somewhat surprising…

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