MonthAugust 2007

A neat problem for Fraser

Fraser has a neat problem at his school (not as a student):

  • Child Protection Policy: Never be behind a closed door alone with a child. Leave the door open.
  • Fire Safety Policy: All doors must auto-close. Never wedge a door open.

Now, you can get around the two above by installing full- or half-glass doors. However, since the school is a listed historic building, we would then be in violation of planning law by changing historic original features.

So it’s a lovely log-jam of competing regulations. Which would you choose to violate, in order to simply do your day’s work?

Umm, I’d go for shutting myself in a room with no children. How about that?

The trouble with Safe Sleep: when Apple makes bad decisions by watching folk who like to hack

“Why does my machine sometimes reboot itself?” asked my wife one day. “I close it, then open it and it’s gone back to restart. Nothing’s wrong, but it just does it.”

A mystery, certainly: what was wrong with her Macbook? Here we are, having had Macs all the way back to a Wall Street model – that’s circa 1999 – when it had always been simple: close the lid, and it goes to sleep. Quickly. And you never open it to find that it’s rebooted itself. Ever.

I searched around for firmware updates and things like that, but none seemed right for the problem – which persisted.

But this turns out to be a case where Apple has copied something from Windows – apparently because some Apple folk have too much time on their hands and surfed around looking for things that Apple users thought they wanted. Which turned out to be things that Windows users had. Which turned out not to be good for Apple Mac users.

Back in November 2005, Andrew Escobar noted that Apple’s new Powerbooks (introduced in late 2005) did the same thing that Windows machines had done for ages: go for “safe sleep”, where the contents of RAM get written to disk when the lid is closed. He figured out how to do it for other machines. (His post has 300 responses.)

I don’t think though that Apple dreamed this up on its own; people had been talking about how Windows had “Safe Sleep” for ages and wondering if they could hack it. I’m sure I’d seen it discussed before. And why did Apple think it was worth doing?

You’d think that Apple had, by now, got over the “let’s copy things from Windows!” thinking. Sure, there was a little bit of it here and there in OS9, even early OSX, but someone there seems to have been seduced by the fact that some Apple hackers wanted to have their machines copy Windows machine by having a “hibernate” function. Except Apple went too far: instead of giving people the option, someone made “hibernation” – where the RAM contents are written to disk (using less battery) – the default. Not just the default, but unavoidable.

The result: my wife, who’s been a Mac laptop user all the way, found that sometimes she’d put her machine down, and when she picked it up again, it had crashed.

Others had had the same problem and been just as mystified, it emerged: Why does my MacBook occasionally restart when I close the lid to have it go to sleep?

And then the backlash, such as TinyApps: “Apple Safe Sleep sucks“.

Joe Kissell finally nailed it for us all with Stewing Over Safe Sleep: the reason is that when you close your laptop’s lid, it *starts* writing the RAM contents to disk. If you move your machine while it’s doing that, the motion sensor kicks in and parks the heads. Result: your RAM state isn’t written to disk. But the machine will try to start from that RAM image on the disk when you open it up.

It won’t find it – and so it restarts. Bye-bye, unsaved work! As Kissell points out, if you’ve got a lot of RAM, that can mean a wait of nearly one minute during which you mustn’t move your machine, on pain of losing everything, in your mobile environment.

Does that make sense? Surely the thing about laptops is that you’re likely to be jumping about with them. And did the Apple folk forget that we always used to laugh at Windows users, who had to start shutting down their machines 10 minutes before they wanted to go anywhere, while the Mac users would close-and-go? Clearly they did, because there’s no GUI to let you change this option.

It is possible – and Joe Kissell has done us all a service by pointing to the way to do it – but the reality is that this was a really bad call by Apple, seduced by Windows-y things that have no value.

What Apple should do is give people a GUI option to change this. You can have “normal Apple behaviour”, or “normal Windows behaviour”. (I wonder which most people would choose?) I’m only surprised that nobody has kicked together a little GUI tool to do this – Midnight might be the one, but it doesn’t seem like it works.

And just to show that serendipity has its uses, I actually discovered the fix for this after having completely failed to solve the problem, and while browsing John Gruber’s Daring Fireball Linked List. And there it was:

My wife’s MacBook was suffering from a problem where, once or twice a week, the machine would just shut down completely when she put it to sleep. She’d close the lid, and a few seconds later, the machine would just turn off or restart. The solution? Disable Safe Sleep. It hasn’t happened again even once.

So far we haven’t taken the step of trying to disable Safe Sleep, because that involves some hacking which I’d be happy to do on my machine (except it doesn’t do Safe Sleep, and I don’t want it) but am loth to do on my wife’s.

United 93: the briefest review

It’s a brilliant film by Paul Greengrass, now slightly better known for directing the Bourne films.

As the Independent review when it came out says

We have watched this movie knowing all along that United 93 is doomed (the plane crashed in a field in Pennsylvania, killing all on board), yet the gruelling exhilaration of these final 15 minutes force on you the impossible, paradoxical hope that somehow these brave people will survive. That hope turns to anguish as we watch other passengers sending their goodbyes and messages of love down phone-lines: the end is coming.

I sat there, urging the passengers on: “Come on! Do it now, do it, do it, you can get them…” Futile, futile.

Watching the film recalled to me the deeply touching piece that I saw Mike McCarthy write on September 12 – to appear on Sept 13 – at the desk beside me about the last phone calls of those who realised they were going to die:

They were the most terrible goodbyes imaginable.

As the four hijacked planes at the centre of America’s terrorist nightmare sped towards their doom on Tuesday morning, several passengers managed to make anguished, frantic or unbearably poignant calls to their loved ones on their mobile phones.

Most realised they would shortly be dead, but even in their final terrified minutes aboard aircraft, with their pilots disabled, managed to shout from the sky the short but essential message, the core of all human relationships: I love you.

Try as one can, it remains hard to imagine the effect of receiving such a call from spouse or from child. The familiar ringing tone. The familiar voice at the end of the line. Then the horrific realisation of what the message is, and the terrible impotence to do anything about it.

He brought it to a beautiful conclusion, uplifting even amidst the chaos – for remember, this was the day after everything had been turned upside down, and we had no ideas quite who our enemies were:

Yet amidst the horror of it, the memory will endure of Mark Bingham, and Thomas E Burnett, Jnr, and CeeCee Lyles, and the others who managed to call those close to them in their final terrifying minutes and give them that life-affirming message in the very face of death.

As they fell out of the sky over America they proved incontestably true Philip Larkin’s simple but unforgettable line: What will survive of us is Love.

The DVD includes extras of surviving family members talking about their loved, lost ones. What survives is, indeed, love.

Could I get a job as a pension fund manager too, then?

Here’s the personal account of a man who, according to this Observer story,

manages more than £2.5bn of equities at F&C Asset Management, including the F&C UK Growth & Income Fund, which is ranked in first place among some 90 UK equity income funds over the past 12 months.

OK, so here he is beginning the week when markets have been having complete meltdowns over the fact that there’s a huge amount of debt leveraged on assets whose value is uncertain because they were spun out of scrip issued on sub-prime (read: crappy) mortgages to people one step above trailer parks in the US. Nobody is quite sure if the “collateral” they hold actually has any value. Ready? It’s

Monday.

On the golf course with business contacts from Cazenove. Lovely weather and nice to be away from the office and the turmoil.

Oh flipping heck. You’re playing golf?

Sometimes the best thing is to do nothing. I checked in with the office a few times on my BlackBerry, though. The state of the markets didn’t overshadow the day at all, and the Cazenove lot were in a pretty jolly mood too.

Oh, that’s nice. Are you looking after my pension too?

Tuesday, apparently, he did a bit of work:

I had a bit of money to invest, so I decided to put it into defensive stocks that are relatively immune: utilities, food retailers and manufacturers. I picked up some shares in Marks & Spencer and AB Foods, which have strong balance sheets. Dividends are also particularly important at this sort of time. I had a graduate with me for part of the day and he was a bit perplexed. I had to tell him it isn’t always like this.

No, you’d hope to be working on his golf swing. Or serve – see later.

Wednesday:

Had a blood test in the morning as I had deep vein thrombosis earlier this year; fortunately everything was fine. Got into the office and invested a bit more money.

Good grief, that actually sounds almost like work.

Thursday:

I had lunch with a French colleague called Catherine at Jamie’s wine bar near our office. We sat out in the sun and I took a break from thinking about markets, but we spoke in French all the time so I was exhausted by the end. This was the worst day on the markets, but the key is, how much does it affect the real economy?

And especially wine bars. Don’t forget the wine bars.

Friday:

A strong finish on Wall Street last night so I expected the market to open firmly. In fact it was slightly down, rallied, then came off again. I played tennis at lunchtime and was coming back when I had a call saying the US Federal Reserve had cut the discount rate.

Flipping heck. Golf, wine bars, tennis. Can I too get a job as a fund manager? The salary sounds attractive, of course, but it’s the hours and things which sound attractive, I have to say.

I’m constantly reminded of the story

“Once in the dear dead days beyond recall, an out-of-town visitor was being shown the wonders of the New York financial district. When the party arrived at the Battery, one of his guides indicated some handsome ships riding at anchor. “Look, those are the bankers’ and brokers’ yachts.’ To which the naive visitor replied, ‘Where are all the customers’ yachts?'”

(Which also shows the value, dear friends, of asking seemingly obvious questions…)

Slightly late but: Bob Keefe was right and pretty much all the Mac blogosphere (including Gruber) was wrong (updated)

It seems Apple had an event the other day. (I dunno, I was on holiday.) And in the Q+A afterwards, a journalist – it has to be a journalist, you’ll see – asked Steve Jobs why Apple’s gear, despite having Intel chips inside, doesn’t carry those “Intel Inside” stickers that you see all over the place.

Before you go on, did you *know* what the answer was before the question was asked? That is, did you know *why* Apple was turning down the marketing benefits that accrue to companies which use the Intel Inside sticker – which are substantial? Pause, and answer honestly.

If you didn’t absolutely know why, you were wrong to pillory him. That means Gruber and Macuser, Macalope and others. You didn’t know. You assumed. You guessed. You presumed. That ain’t factual journalism. It’s jackass-y to take the piss out of someone who’s doing a better job than you. (In fact, I call on Gruber to recall his Jackass award. Investigation is never jackassery.)

One could almost argue that given that Apple’s directors are obliged to maximise shareholder value (all directors of public limited companies are, by law), and that putting those stickers on would increase the profit margin (at a given price) of Apple machines, it would be almost necessary for Apple to use the stickers. (Here’s some help: “Over the years, Intel has spent more than $3 billion to subsidize OEM marketing programs that promote their own brands, along with Intel’s. (That little five note “Intel sound” you hear whenever you see a Dell, HP, IBM or Lenovo ad on TV means Intel has paid roughly half of the cost of the ad.)” Intel’s official history of the campaign doesn’t mention the money it puts in.)

And I’d bet too that if it did, and Macbook and Macbook Pros and iMacs and all had those stickers on, then the Apple blogosphere would have given a collective shrug and said “Well, everyone else does…”

So if you didn’t know, then Bob Keefe was asking a question that you didn’t know the answer to. And that’s one of the functions of journalism: finding out stuff only some people know and telling it to lots of people. You generally find that you don’t learn unless you ask. The stuff that people offer unprompted to tell you is usually the least useful. That’s why journalists – though not bloggers – often skate over the bumph in press releases and look for the “meat”.

Plus there’s a technique to Q+As, especially those with lots of journalists, that bloggers simply don’t know about because they don’t have the experience. One person asks a question, gets an answer: that might prompt someone else, who knows a little about the subject being answered, to glimpse a gap or a change between what’s been said and what’s been said before to the same question. That leads to a new angle to probe, until you start to open up angles that weren’t obvious before. It’s like the middle game of chess – tactics, responses, new tactics, result. We’re feral beasts in the media, remember? That’s why we work best in a pack, chasing the prey, nipping its legs until it falls over and we can feast on the flesh. (Pauses.) Intellectually, of course.

Derek Powazek calls it the Columbo technique, and he’s absolutely right: there are no stupid questions, only stupid (or dismissive, unhelpful) answers:

As a consultant, I often find myself asking questions that, on their face, may seem stupid. That’s because terminology varies so much in organizations. When I say, “What do you mean by branding?”, it’s not because I don’t know what the word means, it’s because I want to know what the client thinks it means.

It all kind of reminds me of Columbo. If you’re too young to remember, it was a detective show where a bumbling detective catches the bad guy because everyone generally thinks he’s too dim-witted to do his job. Keefe should hang a photo of Columbo in his office after his sticker question.

(I remember Columbo. The most brilliant series, only equalled by House. I wonder if Columbo-as-doctor could work?)

O’Keefe himself is amazed, and gives his own (good) reason for asking the question. Unfortunately, as keeps happening, people then don’t bother to consider his reasoning, but just start from the same place they were, and criticise him. (Sadly, that group includes John C. Welch, who one can usually rely on to have an accurate, if not restrained, perspective.)

Update: the point had been made back in January 2006 that Apple hadn’t signed up – but that didn’t answer the why part of it. Keefe was still right to ask the question.

Instead, Macjournals has it right: can you think of a question that will prompt a response from Jobs that isn’t completely rodomontade?

What questions do you think Steve Jobs is going to answer?

He doesn’t talk about the past, and he doesn’t talk about future products. He ruled out talking about iPods, iPhones, and the music business because it was a “Mac” event. Read Macworld’s coverage of the live event and look at these other killer questions that people asked Jobs at the event

  • Does the iMac have a future now that more and more people are buying laptops? (Hint: Jobs had, within the hour, announced three new iMacs)
  • How is Apple’s relationship with Google? (Who really expected an answer other than “Fine, thanks for asking?”)
  • Is Apple going to make a multitouch-operated Mac? (Jobs called it a “research project,” noting, as have many others, that it’s not clear the concept makes sense for the normal orientation of a display. In other words, he didn’t rule it in or out.)
  • Is it Apple’s goal to surpass Windows in PC market share? (They’ve only been asking this question for 22 years, so who really expected a no-win yes-or-no answer? As Apple has done for decades, Jobs said they’re focused on making the best products possible.)

really are the typically dumb questions that do get asked at Apple pressers. The sort that the Appleblogosphere applauds but which don’t advance our knowledge one bit. Hell, Fake Steve Jobs could answer them as accurately.

Later update: I’ve added comments in italics to various of the comments below where I think they need one. And your challenge, before you hit that comment button, is: besides your comment, tell us the question you would ask Steve Jobs to get an insightful response. I’ll see if I can channel him for ya.

Update bonanza: Jason Snell at Macworld admits that it’s all gone wayy out of proportion, and confesses:

Of course, I asked my own question that day — a clarification about iWork ’08’s Excel compatibility — that elicited a one-word response from Jobs: “No.” (Turns out I shouldn’t have been asking about Excel Macro support in Numbers. If I had asked Jobs about AppleScript support instead, I might have struck gold: turns out Numbers is completely bereft of scripting support. Drat!) By the standards of many of Keefe’s critics, I am also a total loser, because I asked an uninteresting question that could’ve just been cleared up by Apple PR later. Okey dokey.

Yup, getting there, Jason. When you’re interviewing chief execs and their near-tos, you need to get your weapons ready, be prepared. It’s the Wimbledon final and you’re up against the pros. Are you?

And so let’s sum up many of the comments here: sure, the News.com piece has been cited three times (once by me – you folks don’t look at embedded links, eh?). As I said, because I read it, that piece does not answer the question of “why not”. It’s vague. And as Gary Marshall notes further down, times change. I asked Jobs about video on iPods a few weeks before Apple launched one. And his answer was noticeably prevaricating compared to those he’d given before. Which was a clue that it was indeed on the way. Journalism lies in little gaps like those. Or in big stupid-seeming questions which lay bare the underlying thinking of a person or company. Like Bob Keefe’s one.

Late results: two-year-old vs slot-loading Wii drive; adult vs three-headed screw

So now the two-year-old has moved on from putting his sticky fingers all over DVDs (say goodbye to Chicken Run, gunked beyond repair before I could make a copy) to sticking things into any available DVD drive.

Which now includes the Wii, conveniently placed so that he can insert the game DVDs (acceptable) and then some small grey plastic Playmobil items. I came in the other day to find a small grey sword – small as in the size of your fingernail – sticking out of the Wii’s nice easy slot-loading drive. And a little digging found another. Put a disc in: “Can’t read disc”, said the machine in puzzlement. Clearly, there’s some more Playmobil in there.

So, options: take the thing to get it serviced; or try to take it apart myself and extract the extra item. No quibbles on that: I’ve got years of taking things apart behind me, and have the extra screws that didn’t seem to have a home when I was putting the things back together collected somewhere in case I find some place that needs them.

So I got to work on the Wii. Plastic flaps lift off. Check. Pozidrive (you know, Philips or crosshead) screws – teeny tiny, but operable – removed and put somewhere safe. Check.

Little tiny screws that.. hmm, don’t seem to respond to my tiny Pozidrive screwdriver. Try the jeweller’s flat screwdriver. OK, then, the smallest jeweller’s screwdriver. Still no dice. I examine the screw more closely. WTF?

It’s the evil sucker in the picture. A three-headed screw? Who ever heard of that? It’s weird. It’s clearly Nintendo having a go at preventing anyone taking their machines apart.

But no worry. I’ve ordered the part having seen the guide to taking it apart.

Apparently this part is the “tri-wing” screwdriver. And I’ve taken dozens, hundreds of things apart and never come across this. Oh well, one up for people making screwdrivers. As to whether I can then get the little bit of grey plastic out.. we’ll have to see.

Harry Potter and the niggling inconsistencies

OK, so I’ve finished Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – the seventh of seven books. How odd: for the first time in a couple of years I haven’t got a Harry Potter book to look forward to reading to someone. Though I’ve now started reading them (from Goblet of Fire) to the second child.

But since I had Goblet of Fire to hand, I thought I’d re-read it, or at least its ending, which I thought was the most dramatic of them – though to be fair, they all have a remarkable finish.

And there I came across a couple of points that struck me as surprising – because they were inconsistent, or at least hard to explain logically.

First (and stop here if you haven’t read Goblet of Fire, and want to): Harry finds himself and Cedric Diggory at the cemetery, whisked there by the Portkey.

“Kill the spare!” said a high voice. (That’s Voldemort, who’s not quite corporeal yet but can manipulate a wand, according to the first chapter – odd, that.) And Diggory, being spare, is killed. Later Harry and Voldemort duel, and those Voldemort’s wand has killed return, briefly, including Diggory. (Well, starting with Diggory.)

But: who used the wand? Did Pettigrew (aka Wormtail)? Why? Doesn’t he have his own wand? If not, if Voldemort did it, why did he say what needed to be done?

Second: after surviving that, Harry is back at the school. It’s time to go. And the horseless carriages come up. And he gets into them to get onto the Hogwarts Express.

But: in the next book (Order of the Phoenix), on getting off the train to go to school, he sees the deathly horses – which you only see if you’ve seen someone dead, as Luna Lovegood also does (it’s one of the things that brings them together). Except – he’d already seen someone dead in GOF. Diggory. The same person whose deadness means he sees the horses in OOTP. (Yeah, enough of the acronyms, I agree.)

So, a couple of inconsistencies across two books. I haven’t looked to see if others have spotted these too – surely they have …

(looks) – what am I saying, there are entire areas of sites devoted to them. Apparently on the thestrals issue, HM JK Rowling says “You can’t see them until the death ‘sinks in.'” Mm, nice one, JK.

..although my one about the killing of Diggory doesn’t seem to be there. Then again, it’s a very small haul from the thousands of pages and the entire alternate universe that JK Rowling created. Fantastic stuff. Though I hope that in the paperback she just leaves out the last three words of the last book. Really, they’re unnecessary.