Thursday, October 05, 2006

The PC that Ate my Printer Paper

I recently set out to configure the PC my girls use for educational games to allow them to print from the PC to our printer connected to our 20" iMac. I had just slogged through getting a WiFi card to work with the Windows box, and was already pretty grouchy. But I figured printing is a solved problem, so what could go wrong? Silly me.

Being a long-time Mac user, I decided to turn there first. I turned on Windows Sharing on my Mac, hoping this would make the next steps obvious. No such luck. There was a comment from the preferences pane about referring to my Windows documentation for configuring a network printer. To me this is a 50/50 split. Part of this is due to the incredibly labyrinthian nature of Windows software, and part of this is marketing on the part of Apple to push people to the simpler solution that a Mac offers.

Then I decided to download Bonjour for Windows. This is Apple's implementation of a zeroconf-like service (Apple contributed to zeroconf but then diverged from the working group for some reason I don't yet understand).

I then downloaded the drivers for the HP C4180 printer, assuming they would be necessary to print to an HP C4180. When I tried to install the drivers, the installer complained that it couldn't find the printer, but gave me an option to install the drivers anyway. I was puzzled about why it would bark at me when it could install without the hardware but chalked it up to the oddities of Windows software. I should have been more suspicious.

Next, I tried to configure a printer with Bonjour, but couldn't find the driver for the C4180 anywhere. Turns out (after about 20 minutes of digging) that the drivers weren't actually installed when it couldn't find the printer. Of course it acted as if it installed correctly. Grrrrrr.

I resorted to hooking the C4180 up to the PC to get the drivers to install. While doing this, I thought to myself "If this screws up my printer I'm going to hurt someone at HP". It might seem odd to be concerned that the printer would be reconfigured in a manner incompatible with the Mac just by trying to install printer drivers while it was hooked up to a Windows machine. But this sort of thing has happened to me and others in the past.

After reconneting the printer to the Mac, I went back to the PC and did a Bonjour printer setup using the newly installed printer driver. Feeling hopeful, I tried to print a test page from Kid Pix, a drawing program for children that was the whole purpose behind this exercise in self-torment.

I spent the next half an hour trying different things, to no avail. Finally, I hit upon just the right Google search and learned that you have to choose the generic Postcript driver on the PC for things to work. So, all that effort to get the C4180 drivers installed was wasted. For this, I blame Apple. They should document clearly that you use the generic Postcript driver when using Bonjour to print to a printer connected to a Mac.

Thinking everything was finally solved, I try to print a test page from Kid Pix. This resulted in a paper jam in the printer. Repeated attempts ("surely the jam was a fluke") produced the same results. So, I embarked on another investigation. Printing from the Mac still works fine. Printing from NotePad on the Windows box works fine. Printing from Kid Pix still produces a paper jam every time. What the heck is going on?

Finally, after some cursing and tortuous preferences dialog comparisons, I made a guess that Kid Pix doesn't have a default paper type. Once I selected a default paper type, things started working. How anyone other than a software developer could get this far and not throw the machine across the room is beyond me.

It clearly isn't Bonjour for Windows, since NotePad printed just fine. What sort of OS would allow you to print without specifying a required parameter? Or if it's the HP printer or driver's problem, what sort of printer manufacturer would not have a default for the value?

I have a new quest: convince my wife we should spend the money to replace the kids Windows machine with a Mac.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Sexy Recession

Tonight I saw no less than four ads for 'sexy' commercials for products. From 'sexy' makup to 'sexy' undergarments, it was a veritable cornucopia of underweight, over-painted, and under-dressed women (and a few leather-coated men). The topper was the advertisement from JCPenny, of all retailers, with few words, lots of innuendo, high heels, and leather coats.

The last time I saw such overt advertising was the Victoria's Secret SuperBowl-advertised online lingerie show that clogged the internet back in 1999. And while that is an interesting story on it's own, I find it a good example of my new theory of predicting recessions: overtly sexual advertising is the harbinger of recessions. As advertising agencies run out of ideas that work due to a cooling economy, they inevitably turn to sex as the path to sales. But it's a last-ditch effort in an already softening market.

Things have gotten increasingly 'sexy' on TV lately and are getting 'sexier' (and I mostly skip commercials with a TiVo, so I may be underestimating the extent). Between that and other indicators, I expect the recession to hit somewhere between April and August of next year (though I hope I'm wrong and it never happens).

Don't go crazy this holiday season...

Thursday, September 14, 2006

The Other Reason Apple now Offers Album Art for Free

With the latest release of iTunes, Apple added some very nice features. Several of them depend upon you having album art in order to make effective use of them. So it's not that surprising that Apple now offers album art through the iTunes music store. It is a bit surprising that they offer free album art even for albums you didn't buy through the music store. While this is mostly to enable the cool new album views in iTunes, there are at least a couple of other reasons.

We can figure out one of the reasons by noticing the wording on the Apple description of iTunes: "As long as you have an iTunes Store account, iTunes will automatically fetch available album art for any CD you imported to iTunes." So, Apple wants to make sure people keep their accounts with the store. This makes sense, as the number of competitors to iTMS increases, Apple will need to do everything it can to keep people buying from them.

A second, less tangible reason is aesthetic: album artwork seems likely to push more people toward iPods with color screens that can display the artwork well. I'm betting Apple hopes this will drive buyers toward the upper end of the product line.

Regardless, I'm enjoying looking at the artwork.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

WiFi on Wintel - only a geek could work it out and no one could love it

I recently installed a generic WiFi card in the Wintel PC I retired as a game machine and gave to my girls to play educational games on. Talk about an experience in frustration.

It's not that I was unable to figure it out. I did get it working. And I certainly forgot one thing while doing so that slowed me down for a bit. But the completely opaque manner in which the install went and the total lack of helpful information while troubleshooting the configuration was such a strong reminder of why I can't stand Wintel PCs that it's put me on a quest to replace the girls' machine with a Mac (running Bootcamp if necessary to play any educational PC-only games).

Things started out innocently enough. I opened up the PC and installed the WiFi card. After carefullly hooking everything back up, I turned on the PC, driver disk in hand. Things seemed alright at first, with the hardware wizard finding the new hardware (though it's announcement that it found an 'ethernet controller' presaged many similarly misleading or missing messages). I chose the innocuous radio button that said I had a driver disk (I had one, after all). That's when things started going south.

The new hardware wizard found the drivers. That's right: drivers. Five of them to be exact. They all had wonderful names with seemingly random letters and numbers, and different suffixes. I sighed and chose to move on with the default choice of the first driver. To my surprise, this seemed to work okay. Once I rebooted, the WiFi network 'connection' (which said it wasn't connected) showed up.

I've had some experience configuring wireless connections, due to helping a friend get his wireless connection working at St. Louis Bread Company a couple of years ago, because I've had a wireless network at home for a few years, and I've used WiFi from my old PowerBook G4 for years. Otherwise, I think what I managed to work out in about two hours would have taken days and a great deal of pain.

I knew everything I needed to know to connect to the wireless network, since I manage the wireless base stations that make up the network. I knew the network name (called SSID in technical parlance), I knew the password to join the network, I knew that it was a WPA2 Personal network, and I knew it was within range (the PC was no more than eight feet from two base stations).

The first symptom was that the PC failed to find the network. I knew it was there (the iMac eight feet from the PC and the laptop I could walk around with both could connect to the network fine). I also knew it wasn't a problem with some Mac-only solution, since one of the base stations is a LinkSys WRT45GL (an open-source based router). After about half an out I finally decided to make the base station publish it's network name (less secure but I suspected it might be preventing the PC from finding the network, even though I'd given it the network name).

Sure enough, publishing the network name allowed the PC to find the network. But even though the PC said it was 'connected' to the network, it then asked me if I wanted to connect to it (sigh), and when I clicked yes, it spent about a minute 'connecting' to the network it said it was connected to and then silently failed (no dialog message, no error message, nothing).

Tweny minutes of poking around the maze of dialog boxes, tab panes, and options (with many circular trips through them) finally revealed that the installation had defaulted the card to use 802.11b networking only. I have my network configured for 802.11g only because it helps performance of the network. It would seem to me that the correct default is that which allows the most chance of success (support for both B and G). It was an option, it just wasn't the default. Go figure. I changed the setting to 802.11g only and tried again.

I got almost the same results. This time, Windows claimed to have successfully connected to the network, but any attempt to use the network to communicate failed. There was no error message, and I was disconnected from the network each time I tried to use it. After about 20 minutes I remembered that I had MAC address filtering turned on (so that only the wireless network cards with ethernet addresses I specified could join the network). It took me at least five minutes to track down the network ID on the PC, but once I did I added it to the list of devices allowed to join the network. A similar thing happened when I tried to first connect my iMac to the wireless network. But in that case, I got an error message stating that my computer (the iMac) was not in the list of devices authorized to join the network. Much better than a silent failure.

So, after that change, I was finally able to join the network with the PC. But to my dismay, it didn't automatically connect to the network when I logged in under one of my daughter's accounts, even though I specified in the properties for the network that it should do so. I joined the network, and I think that it's now going to join it automatically from now on. But it's a PC, so who really knows.

Monday, September 11, 2006

You won't see me mongering 9/11

I had forgotten that today is 9/11 until I checked Goggle news. This is going to be one painful news cycle. I hope it dies down before the end of the week. I hate news mongering.

17" MacBook Pro Screen Flex and Drained Batteries

More than a year ago, my friend Brad Shuler gave me a strip of paper with some little bits of some kind of plastic on them. He told me they were to keep my 15" PowerBook G4 from having its lid pop open while in a backpack or shoulder bag. When this happens, the machine can come out of sleep and end up draining it's battery completely.

The idea behind these little do-dads (called Wildeepz by their maker) is to bridge the small gap between the screen and the rest of the laptop when the laptop is closed. By creating positive pressure, as slight as it may be, they keep the lid lock engaged and prevent the lid from popping open and waking the laptop.

I had completely forgotten Brad gave them to me, and it hadn't been an issue until I recently got a Mac Book Pro of the 17" variety. Then I had my first drained battery the other day, and my conversations with Brad came rushing back. I still didn't remember he'd given me some of them, so I was debating whether to spend the $17 for the ones from Radtech or try to find some equivalent. Much to my surprise, I was organizing all my computer boxes and gear (a long-delayed task) and found the little strip of Wildeepz. Two little do-dads later and my 17" MBP is protected from unintended wakups and drained batteries.

Open Source Router

As part of a project to move my noisy Power Mac G4 to the basement (see my blog entery Silence is Golden), I recently bought a LinkSys WRT45GL. This is a 4-port ethernet and WiFi (802.11g) router which is hooked up to my DSL line and provides a firewall and port forwarding for the G4. I know that Kevin Heifner got this same router and immediately installed Thibor's HyperWRT version of the firmware. I don't use Vonage, and Skype has been working fine for me, so I didn't go so far as to replace the stock firmware (yet).

This router has the distinction of being built on top of a Linux kernel (interestingly, it was only after someone figured out that the firmware was based upon Linux that the firmware and technical details were released: the wikipedia for the WRT45GL).

I don't know if I'll ever replace the stock firmware with one of the open source versions, but it's nice to have the option. I doubt I'll try to do anything about it unless I run into a problem caused by the current firmware that isn't addressed by a stock updated from Cisco and is solved by some open source version with very high stability. I don't mind spending time setting these sorts of things up, but I do not want to maintain them on a regular basis.

By the way, I was amazed at the level of detail about the WRT45GL available from wikipedia. There's another blog topic for some other time.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Silence is Golden

I recently got a new 20" iMac (yes, recently enough to be saddened that they just came out with a 24" model). Since I got the new machine, I've been working to make a place in the basement where I could move the six year old Power Mac G4). The G4 is the mail server for the family domain and will eventually host a family web site.

I finally got that project completed today. It involved running ethernet cables to the attic and basement (solid masonry homes substantially decrease the range of WiFi), putting a shield along the stringers for the basement stairs (to prevent dust, crud, and dropped objects from falling onto the computer), and getting power to the location.

The actual move of the computer was anti-climactic, which is a good thing. Shut it down, disconnect the wires, move the UPS, move the computer, monitor and keyboard, and hook everything back up. A small hiccup with the outlet having a loose wire was quickly solved and everything 'just worked'. Of course, this was after about two months of on-and-off work to get networking cables run and tested, get the dirt shield created, etc. I ran into a problem with attenuation of the Ethernet signal that required me to install a 5-port ethernet switch in the basement. Just goes to show you that 'cat-5' wiring isn't always really 'cat-5' (whether it was not up to spec to begin with, or whether I crimped something and created a problem will probably never be known).

With the G4's (notorioiusly loud) cooling fans no longer generating dBs, the study where the iMac is located is now soothingly quiet. Tonight, while I was fighting with the PC the kids use to play computer games, it was noisy again (the PCs fans are even louder than the G4s). But after I shut that off, I sat in front of the iMac and enjoyed the quiet. In fact, it was so quiet I could hear the sound of a cricket outside the study window trying to foster a next generation before the end of summer.

As for the girl's PC, configuring it to use a WiFi card and to use the printer attached to the iMac was a blunt reminder of just how crappy PC hardware and software really is. But that's a story for another day.

Now, I have to figure out how to convince my wife to let me buy a 24" iMac and give the 20" iMac to the girls. Then we'd be PC-free once again.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Parallels and the Mac: Friendly Frankenstein

So I've been working with Parallels Desktop for Mac lately and it's a rather nice package. It does most of the things you'd want and does them well. Today I discovered that the full-screen mode is just a big window with no border or with the border outside the visible region of the display. As a result, you can Cmd-tab to other Mac applications and the full-screen Windows VM is still there. You can even bring up Expose and Dashboard.

It's quite the strange sight.