A day for thanks

Today, here in the USA, we take a day to remember all the good things in our lives. We give thanks – each in our own ways – for whatever gifts we’ve been given in this world. We also eat alarming amounts of food and then collapse in the living room to watch TV; which is apparently the evolution of the original meal shared by some of the first European settlers to the North American shores.

I wanted to take a moment to say thank you to all my readers on SociallyWorking.com and Newbie2Mac.com. Thanks for being part of my blogging, and for sharing your feedback and help over the years. I’m still writing, and the blogs get better and better over time thanks to your input.

Never underestimate the power of communication. Digital, verbal, and all the other types that our out there change our lives – usually for the better. Communication can bring the world together, topple dictators, end wars. It can also discover new technology, cure diseases, and keep friends and family close no matter the distances between them.

Simply writing thoughts down on physical or digital paper transforms words into permanent things. Conversation – when shared between two or more people – alters our very lives.

So today, I’m thankful that we live in an age with nearly unlimited communication. We can share information, break down physical and language barriers, and trade ideas with anyone, any time, in any place on the planet and beyond.

Thanks again for inviting me into your browser each week. From everyone here at MikeTalon.com, may you and yours have a wonderful Thanksgiving!

Third party keyboards

Any Mac user tends to get very used to the standard keyboard layout that you get with the included aluminum dealie you get with your new iMac or can buy with a Pro or Mini. While it does work for a lot of people, I found the layout to be a bit too compressed over time. The lack of a number-pad and dedicated home, insert, delete, and other keys become quite annoying to boot. So, I went on the lookout for other keyboards I could use instead, and ran into a problem.

I prefer ergonomic keyboards, but the few available specifically for Mac were outrageously overpriced. Now, I chose that word purposely. I’m not against shelling out a reasonable amount of money for an expensive, but great, keyboard that doesn’t forget the fact that I’m going to be banging away on it for hours every day. This means that I’ll probably have to replace the thing about once per year as I wear the text off the keytops and possibly jam one or more of them over time. Asking me to pay well over two hundred bucks for any keyboard – no matter how ergonomically designed – is just price gouging.

This left me with two choices, a non-ergonomic Mac-specific keyboard, or an ergonomic wonder that’s not designed for OSX, but rather built for Windows or even Linux. I tried out both, and they have their plusses and minuses.

First, the ergonomic boards for non-OSX machines. I looked through about a dozen choices available on major shopping sites and in stores, and settled on the Microsoft Natural Keyboard, as I had been very happy with it when I was still on a Windows desktop, and the vendor (Microsoft) claims Mac compatibility. While they were not lying, there were some problems to be found in this approach. First, there’s no dedicated Command key (⌘). When you plug in or connect any new keyboard that isn’t made by Apple, OSX first asks you to identify which keys are to the left of the Z key and spacebar, and then figures out what your layout looks like. This maps the Command function to the key immediately to the left and right of the spacebar. Typically this means the Windows key gets remapped to Command, leaving Alt (Option on Mac keyboards) and Control unchanged. You can alter all these mappings in your keyboard options if that doesn’t work for you, but the defaults are pretty workable.

All in all, it was an acceptable and workable solution, but there were definitely problems with long-term use of a non-Mac-focused keyboard. First, there’s no native media keys. This may sound like a fiddly little thing, but when you get used to instant media and volume controls, and suddenly have none, it’s annoying as all get-up. Microsoft has their Intellitype software package that can make the media keys on their keyboards work for iTunes, but not for any third party applications. As a regular user of Muse and Musicality, it got even more annoying to hit pause, and find it left the Muse application playing and started playing iTunes on top of it. The same goes with the loss of one-click access to Spaces and the Dashboard, which I use quite often for a variety of reasons and apps. Once again here, Microsoft’s software can compensate for some of these keys, but not all of them (though, see below for a way to overcome the Spaces issue).

Next, I went looking for a non-ergonomic keyboard built for Mac. There’s are honestly not a lot of choices out there. Logitech has a couple, but most manufacturers either make Windows keyboards or generics. After quite a search, I found that Das makes a couple of them. They are most definitely not cheap, but they are about half the price of some of the competition and are very highly respected by the tech community. For those who’ve never heard of them, Das makes keyboards that have the distinctive key-click and overall layout found on older IBM keyboards from the dawn of the modern computing era. The tactile feedback of the key clicks and spacing of the keys makes them very finger-friendly for those of us who type a lot and want to avoid carpal tunnel syndrome; the theory being that the click causes your fingers to ease up on the pressure and not slam into the hard stop at the bottom of the key.

The Professional for Mac was the one I went with myself. The Mac-specific key layout and full media key support was exactly what I was looking for, and I have indeed found that typing stress is reduced when using the clicky keys. It also helps that they keyboard is wired – which is a major thing for me. I find no reason to use a wireless keyboard, as the travel distance of the keyboard on my desk is so small that any cord can easily accommodate me. So I don’t want to have to swap out batteries every week when the keyboard isn’t mobile in the first place on my desk.

This isn’t to say that they keyboard is without fault. There’s still no Dashboard or Spaces keys, but I can use Control + Right and Left arrow keys to flip between Spaces, including the Dashboard. The keyboard itself is also incredibly noisy, and can be heard when I’m on my telephone handset or headset as I clack away taking notes on the call.

I suppose, unless you’re ok with the native keyboard that came with your system from Apple, there will always be some trade-offs. The choice is between ergonomics at the cost of full hotkey functions; hotkeys but no ergonomic layout; or spending a ton of cash on a keyboard that isn’t really any better than the lower-cost alternatives in terms of build quality.

Experiment, ask for recommendations online and from friends, and if at all possible; try out a few in a store before you buy. See which combination of look, feel and functions you think will work best on your desktop. Remember, you’re going to be typing on this thing – a lot – for quite a while, so it’s best to find one that works for you instead of the other way around.

Metadata can be a pain

We deal with metadata every day of our lives – often without ever realizing that we’re doing it. Metadata is simply the file attributes, geo-location tags and other items that get stuck to other data; like files and emails. For example, whenever you send an email, there is a ton of metadata that is invisible to you unless you tell your email client you want to see it. In the background, your client and the email servers that handle the mail along its route tag bits of information to the email package. Things like where it originated, what servers it is relayed through, if it has been tagged as spam or suspect, etc. Normally, metadata is harmless and in many cases even necessary. Sometimes, it becomes a major problem.

The problem was illustrated earlier this week when Oprah Winfrey tweeted that she loved her new Microsoft Surface tablet. Granted, the tweet itself wasn’t all that shocking or special; but the metadata exposed that the tweet wasn’t all it appeared to be on the … well.. surface.

In essence, the metadata stuck onto the tweet by the Twitter software Oprah used to generate the message let everyone know she had actually sent the tweet from an iPad. So the further notation that she’d bought twelve more to give as gifts was undermined by the fact that she wasn’t using one herself, and the claim of it being one of her famous “#FavoriteThings” was somewhat hollow.

In this case, the metadata was embarrassing, but (with the exception of the marketing implications for Microsoft) not harmful. In some cases, however, metadata can be far more problematic. For example, in addition to tagging tweets with the client you are using, your twitter software most likely sends along your physical location co-ordinates as well. This feature can be turned off in the client and on the twitter website, though many people forget to do so or acknowledge and allow it without realizing they’re doing it. This means that you can say you “just arrived at work” and your tweet might betray that you’re actually across town. It also means that anyone who views your tweets can track where you are and where you’ve been. Certainly not good news for those who value their privacy.

Twitter isn’t alone in having metadata that can be more problematic than most realize. Nearly all Social Media tools have geo-location available, and will tag your posts with that data unless you tell them to do otherwise. Email encodes the route that the email took between sender and receiver, along with time and date at each hop across the Internet. This can become a legal issue if you’re claiming that an email was sent on a certain date, but the metadata (in this case the header information) shows that it wasn’t. Cameras will tag photos with anything from the settings used to take the photo (commonly called EXIF data), to the date and time of the snapshot, and even location if your camera has a GPS feature. Even mobile devices can be problematic, as the carrier can track where you’re logging in from at any time. Even when the phone or mobile device’s GPS is disabled, carriers can get an approximate fix on your location by figuring out which cell towers you are transmitting to and from.

Now, this is not to say that metadata is a bad thing in and of itself. EXIF data is extremely helpful in photo editing, and phone GPS/geo-location systems can help save your life if you are in an accident or have an emergency situation. Foursquare uses metadata to identify where you are in the world, and the whole purpose of that app is to let people know where you are. Knowing what tweets, posts, and emails are replies and forwards/RT’s is extremely useful, and it’s all held in tags. Metadata also helps track spam, organize files on your hard drive, and control the spread of malware. It really is a neutral technology that can be used for good or bad purposes, depending on the situation.

Be aware that metadata exists, and question what metadata is being attached to tweets, files and anything else you do in the digital world. Turn off geo-location anywhere and for any app you don’t want reporting on your whereabouts; and ensure that your cameras, mobile devices and other gear aren’t storing (or broadcasting) data you don’t want them to tag to your photos, posts and files.

Metadata isn’t a bad thing, but it can be used for unwanted purposes. Know about it, control it, and try not to tweet about a particular tablet from a competitor’s platform.

What is the big deal with Scott Forstall leaving Apple?

Late last week, Apple announced that Scott Forstall was leaving the company. Many newbies to Mac, iDevices, and Apple in general may not know what the big deal is. Well, here’s the story:

Scott Forstall was an integral part of the design team for many Apple products. Not all of his decisions, however, were well received by the general public. They were also not well received by other bigwigs at Apple either, which led to the current situation.

Forstall was a huge proponent of a design theory called skeuomorphism, which is – in short – application of physical-world textures to digital vision. Basically things like the leather texture and stitching on things like the iPad calendar and some of the icons (like Find My Friends) on other iDevices are a great example of this design philosophy. Textures and “look and feel” points from real-world objects (desk calendars and leather covers) are applied to purely non-physical concepts (digital calendars and icons). For some folks, the merging of the real-world and the digital world makes software more humanized and easier to relate to. For others, the “window dressing” takes up valuable screen real-estate and doesn’t offer any true benefit.

Until recently, most people had seen and used desk calendars and blank notebooks with physical covers to write things in at least at some point in their lives on a daily basis. Today, there is an entire generation who’s gone mostly paperless, and may not even relate to the skeuomorphic attributes of these software platforms at all. Yeah, they look nice, but they don’t add anything to the software for those folks and detract from the overall surface area that can be used for more important information.

Johnny Ive and most of the other Apple designers wanted to move in the direction of cleaner lines, with digital-focused interfaces that were recognizable both to people who worked on pen-and-paper objects and software. When the tipping point came, Ive’s group outnumbered Forstall’s group, and he was out the door.

Things also went south because Forstall was in command of the high-profile failures of Apple Maps and other mis-steps in iOS 6. The very public failure of those apps, combined with a power loss in his design philosophy meant his days with Apple were numbered.

So what does this mean for the average Apple gear user? Not a whole lot, overall, but many little things will change. Software on the Mac and iDevices will start to lose the little real-world texture touches we’ve seen over the years. That process started back with Leopard, but will become even more prevalent now. Lines will be cleaner, sharper, and more digital – with more useable screen space taken up by information and data, instead of leather and cloth textures.

Scott Forstall will be missed. Some of those skeuomorphic touches were quite beautiful, but in the end, cleaner lines and less window dressing will make devices more useable and functional. No one can debate that this is a good thing for Apple gear users.

Be careful not to post Personal Info, no matter how much you want to.

It’s Election Day here in the USA, and lots of folks are upset about lots of issues. Many have decided they will spout off by posting photos of themselves voting, or protesting, or just generally upset about things. Sometimes, that’s good, other times, it is VERY bad.

Don’t post photos about your Voter ID opinions – especially if that opinion photo includes your ID.

It should go without saying, but posting photos of your ID is a truly bad idea. Never post photos of your passport, your driver’s license or any other identification documents. They can be used to glean information about you that you would probably rather not let people have.

Feel free to write about your experience. Blog about it, check in on Foursquare from your polling place, but don’t post photos of your ID. Ever.

Don’t post photos of your ballot.

Not only does it defeat the premise of a secret ballot if you go and post it online, but in several states (like New York) it’s actually illegal. Specifically, posting photos of a “ballot that has been prepared for voting” is a no-no in many places around the US.

Discuss the candidates, give your opinion, even tweet who you voted for if you really want to; but don’t photograph your ballot.

Do not take photos in your polling place.

While it may not be illegal to do so (though it may very well be in your city), it’s a very bad idea to take pictures while you are around or in your polling place. The reason is simple, there are about 100 other people in the room besides you, and many would not want their photo taken. Unless you get permission from everyone in the room (unlikely) and get it in writing (nearly impossible), you should not be taking photos.

Again, check in at your polling place (without a photo) and take pictures outside of the “No Electioneering” posted signs. That should be far enough away that it’s public space and outside the realm of personal voting space.

Play it smart today. Go and vote, exercise your rights and responsibilities every year and elect those who will represent you. Just don’t share photos of it on Facebook, Twitter, etc.

Use your words instead, they are just as powerful and much less likely to get your identity stolen or get you in trouble with the law – at least until you vote someone in who will change them.