The Robservatory

Robservations on everything…


Fake fire … enhanced

To make our winter-air-blocked non-functional fireplace more visually engaging, I printed a huge fireplace image across multiple pages, and taped them to the fireplace blocker. The end result was usable, but definitely not professional:

So I set out to find a shop to print a 36″x48″ poster of the huge image. And because this was clearly an optional project, I wanted to do it as cheaply as possible. After much web searching, I found Poster Print Factory. Their online poster creation tool was easy to use, and the cost ($35 including shipping) was the lowest I found by at least $10.

It took about a week, but the poster arrived and the quality is fine. It’s printed on relatively thick stock, and the image itself looked stunning. So now, our artificial fire has been enhanced by a high quality poster overlay:

So much nicer to look at than the silvery surface of a piece of foam insulation! Anyway, if you’re looking for some inexpensive poster-sized prints, I was happy with what I got from Poster Print Factory.

Span one large image across multiple printed pages

I was looking for a way to print a large image across multiple pages, so I could make my own do-it-yourself poster-size printout. By way of background, I wanted to print a huge virtual fire, to cover a piece of insulation we put in front of a drafty fireplace in the winter. (We don’t like to burn wood, so the fireplace goes unused, but staring at a piece of shiny foam insulation all winter isn’t all that interesting.)

Conceptually, this seemed pretty easy: find a huge image, open it in some app that handles images, and print. What I found is that doesn’t work, at least not in the apps I had at hand (Acorn and Preview). After some web searching, I stumbled across an odd but effective solution: use Excel.

Open a new blank Excel workbook, then select Insert > Photo > Picture From File, and select your massive image. Now when you hit Print, you’ll see the output spans multiple pages. I used Page Setup to select a borderless US Letter size, and printed out 16 pages of a roaring fire.

After some cut-and-tape operation, the drafty fireplace’s insulation became more visually appealing:

Note that this was a “proof of concept” operation, so I printed in draft mode (hence the vertical striping on the printout) and wasn’t overly careful about lining up the pages. I had originally planned to print the final version on glossy photo paper, but instead opted to buy a 36×48 poster-size printout from an online vendor. (I haven’t yet received the print, but when I do, I’ll post about its quality. Until then, though, I don’t want to link to the vendor, as I don’t yet know what I’ve bought.)

I knew Excel could do a lot, but I never thought to try it for printing huge images across multiple pages.

Fun with iTunes’ new math

Unlike my previous incidents with iTunes and iOS devices, today’s report isn’t on a sync problem per se.

It’s more like a math problem which then leads to a sync problem. Here’s the tl;dr version: I have an iPad with 5GB of free space, and I cannot add a 1.8GB movie to it, as iTunes eventually tells me it needs another 526MB of space in order to do so.

During the attempted sync of this movie, iTunes displays some horridly bad math skills; just watch the video to see.

Here’s the video at its full size (1164×1056).

I have no idea how to resolve this, short of restoring the iPad, which I’d rather not do. (I’ve already unsynced and resynced everything, in an attempt to straighten out the math, but to no avail.)

Use your Marketing department to drive away prospects

I needed to install a demo version of Parallels Desktop for Mac to work on an issue some of our Many Tricks customers are having with Witch.

On Parallels’ site, when I clicked the “Try It Free” button, I was greeted not with a download, but with a dreaded email harvester:

Unless I was willing to provide an email address, I was not going to get the demo. To Parallels’ Marketing department, I’m sure this is viewed as a huge win: “Look, if we require an email address to get the demo, we’ll build a massive mailing list of potential buyers!”

But to a prospective customer, what this harvester says is “we really don’t care about your experience, we want to harvest your email address.”

An email harvester is only as useful as what it harvests. And from me, and I suspect many others, it harvested a “I only use this for junk mail” email address. So while Marketing is collecting a huge list of email addresses, that list is littered with any number of useless addresses.

Contrast this approach with VMWare’s Fusion demo download: Click one button, and the download begins. In the past, VMware also collected email addresses, but it seems they’ve realized that building a huge list of mainly worthless addresses is, well, worthless.

Unfortunately for Parallels, using the demo is even more annoying than downloading it, “thanks” (again) to the Marketing department.


Revisiting iTunes/iOS sync issues

After getting my iPhone 6 in early October, I was initially excited by all the cool tech in my new phone. Until I tried to sync it, that is. I eventually got so frustrated that I emailed Tim Cook for help. From that email, I wound up talking to Apple’s engineers, who eventually solved my sync issues—it turns out they were related to duplicates of long-ago-purchased songs.

Welcome to
Sync Hell

And for a while, things were great in iPhone 6 land. Then I ripped a few new CDs, and noticed that they didn’t show up on the phone. Uh oh. Even worse, when I looked at my iPhone in iTunes, the Music section contained hundreds, if not thousands, of the dreaded gray dotted circles.

This seemingly innocent symbol means that the indicated song did not sync—the information about the song made the journey to the phone, but the song itself did not. Argh! Read on to see how I muddled through this issue, with some advice that may, or may not, help you with your own sync issues.

If you don’t want to read everything, here’s a tl;dr version:

  • My iPhone sync issues returned, along with a huge-fake-but-limiting amount of data shown in Other.
  • There’s a known-to-Apple “very slow performance” issue in iOS/iTunes that can make some iPhones sync very slowly (fixes have been made, but not yet released).
  • A factory restore failed to complete until I rebooted the iMac.
  • After the restore, the sync worked, but I still had a huge Other category.
  • After the iOS 8.1.1 update, the huge Other category vanished.
  • I had to manually unsync/resync a number of songs to clear their gray dotted circles.
  • It may help to do a voodoo dance, sacrifice three Nokia phones, and rub your stomach while patting your head before syncing.

Read on for the gory details…except maybe for that last item, which I totally made up.


A useless analysis of OS X release dates

Updated and republished for the OS X 10.10.1 release; skip it unless you really really care about all the OS X releases. Originally published on November 14th, 2005.

Below the break is a table showing all major releases of OS X from the public beta through the latest public version, which is OS X 10.10.1 as of November 17th, 2014. Note that this release marks the 84th release of OS X (counting major, minor, and released-then-yanked updates). Wow.

Note: Click the ⓘ symbol to read Apple’s release notes for a given update.


Seeking clarity in Retina iMac desktop images

I’ll admit it: I’m a desktop image (nee wallpaper) addict. I love to use a wide variety of images, and change them often throughout the day, just to keep my work environment fresh. On my two external displays, I use iPhoto images—general photos on one, kid pictures on the other. But for the main iMac screen, I prefer to use photos taken by others—typically stunning landscapes and cityscapes from all over the world.

With the arrival of my 5K iMac, however, my existing collection was no longer sufficient. Yes, they were all 2560×1440 images, which matches the “apparent” resolution of the Retina iMac. But in order to make that image fill the Retina iMac’s screen, it’s first scaled up to 5120×2880, then displayed by OS X at 2560×1440. As a result, my desktop images aren’t nearly as sharp looking as they were on my old 27″ iMac’s display.

As an example, here’s a segment of two versions (2560×1440 and 5120×2880) of the Sydney Skyline, as screen-captured when set as my Retina iMac’s desktop picture. As you move the divider bar right, you’re revealing more of the 2560px version; move it left, and the 5120px version takes over.

After scrolling back and forth a bit, you might be thinking these pictures are identical, and I’m just seeing things. While I may be seeing things, the pictures are not identical. (Compare some closely-spaced lights and the crispness of vertical lines in each image to spot the differences.)

Read on for a closer look at the image, which really shows what you’re losing by using a 2560x1440px desktop image on a Retina Mac…as well as a list of places I’ve found that have 5120x2880px images available.


Yosemite’s constant clattering clutters Console

For those who aren’t familiar, Console (found in Applications > Utilities) is an application that shows you what’s happening beneath the lovely skin of OS X. Open the application, and you’ll see a combination of status and error messages from any number of sources.

If you’ve never looked at Console before, you might be surprised by just how much stuff gets written there. But with the release of Yosemite, things have really taken a turn for the worse—the amount of stuff written to Console is greater than I recall for prior OS X releases.

As a test, I set up a new Yosemite virtual machine, installed ScreenFlow (and nothing else), then launched and interacted with a number of Apple’s apps for two minutes while recording the screen. The results are quite sobering; here’s what two minutes of Console logging looks like, reduced to a 10-second movie:

As you can see, there are a lot of Console entries in just two minutes.


Encrypt files then backup to a cloud service via script

Most cloud services tell you that their data stores are safe, that your data is encrypted in transit and on their drives, that employees don’t have access, etc. For the vast majority of the stuff I store in the cloud, this is more than good enough for me—the data isn’t overly sensitive, and if someone were to hack their way in, all they’d get are a bunch of work and personal writing files and some family photos.

For other files—primarily financial and family related—those assurances just aren’t enough for me. But I still want the flexibility and security that comes from having a copy of these files in the cloud. So what’s a paranoid user to do to take advantage of the cloud, with added security, but with a minimum of hassle?

The solution I came up with involves using local encrypted disk images and a shell script. Using this script (and some means of scheduling it), you can automatically encrypt and back up whatever files you like to a cloud service.


Use two CD drives to import multiple CDs into iTunes

I happen to have two external drives connected to my iMac—one that reads and writes the usual mix of CDs, DVDs, etc., and another that includes Blu-Ray playback (but not ripping). Today I discovered that you can use both drives at once (sort of) to speed up multiple CD rips. Here’s how it works.

When you have two drives in iTunes, you’ll see one CD icon in the iTunes 12 bozo bar—that’s my name for the row of device controller buttons seen at right.

Click on the CD icon, though, and you’ll see both inserted discs are available:

There really isn’t a trick to using two drives at once in iTunes, other than saying “Yes” when this dialog appears onscreen:

iTunes won’t actually rip both CDs at once, but it will queue the second CD up, and start ripping it automatically when the first one finishes. As soon as you see that changeover, click on the CD icon and switch to the just-imported CD.

Eject the just-imported CD, insert the next CD to rip, and say “Yes” again when iTunes asks if you’d like to import it. Repeat as necessary, until you’re done. I imagine that if you had three CD drives, this would work just as well—I can’t test that assumption, though.

While not fully automated batch ripping, this process does let you make relatively quick work of a stack of CDs—for those of you who (like me) still prefer such relics of a prior age.

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