Saturday, August 15, 2020

The great British plug meets its Waterloo


WE HAVE LONG been admirers of Apple's diminutive iPod/iPhone power US power adaptor with its minimal volume and folding prongs. Michael even bought a couple on his recent visit to Washington and has equipped them with euro-plug adaptors. Even with this add-on, they are smaller than the normal adaptor.

So we were pleased to see  the UK version of this minimalist approach appearing in the Apple Store this week. This is slim and makes the best of the bad job of the massive triangle of pins we have to put up with. The whole is slimmer than the normal 13-amp plug.

Britain has the world's largest industrial-strength plugs, complete with internal fuses and every safety precaution known to man. You could power all the lights of the Titanic from just one of these gems of over-engineering. Time was, we had neat two-pin plugs and even mini three-pin plugs especially for low-power devices, but they have all been banished by our 'Elf 'n Safety gauleiters. It is encouraging, therefore, to find Apple doing its bit for us mortals owning devices that consume less than 5 Kilowatts.

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Our over-size and over-kill domestic electrical arrangements have so far withstood the conformist pressure from the European Union. While a changeover would be a costly nightmare, I am a great admirer of the standard European two-pin plug system. Sockets take either a round, heavy duty plug with side earth contacts or a simple slim two-pin unit which satisfies the majority of computers and peripherals. 

Meanwhile we British struggle on with our muli-sockets the size of a London bus with a cable of a diameter normally reserved for 20 KW electric cookers. 

The back of your 40-in TV or the underneath of your computer desk normally houses several of these hippopotomi basking in complete safety and capable of dealing with anything that lightning, kids or the downright foolhardy can throw at them. At least we're safe, even if we were to plug in the Titanic by mistake.

Dangerous plastic packaging


THE DIMINUTIVE Belkin Media Reader-Writer, reviewed earlier today, came in the usual enormous tough-plastic display packaging. This colossus measures 29 x 16 x 7cm. The bulky bit containing the card, manual and lots of cardboard, has an internal volume of 1,000 cubic centimeters (same as the cylinders of a small car or a superbike). The card itself has a volume of approximately 10 cc. So the packaging is 100 times larger than it ought to be. This monstrous confection was difficult to carry home and took up far too much space in my bag. And, of course, it is ridiculously wasteful and difficult to recycle. We are being charged for supermarket bags, so why do we get such packaging foisted on us for free?

My biggest gripe isn't with the size, volume or waste. It concerns the near impossibility of freeing the product from the clutches of this unfriendly, sharp, unyielding lump of plastic. I keep an enormous pair of scissors especially for this type of recalcitrant packaging. Even so, it takes great effort and trying to rip open the resulting clean cut is fraught with dangers. It can only be a matter of time before someone chops off a finger on such a sheet of razor-sharp plastic and sues Belkin or whoever for several million. Roll on that day because it will mean an overnight change to more sensible, cheaper and more customer-friendly packaging. 

Although this latest monstrosity from the House of Belkin was in the Apple Store, it is significant that most Apple packaging is a model of what ought to be: small, neat cardboard boxes which are no bigger than they need be. Even the latest 13-in MacBook Pro comes in a box that looks as though it contains nothing bigger than an iPhone. So it is possible, Belkin. Next time I shall consult Messrs. Sue Grabbit & Run, so be warned.

Bloomberg: Why there is no backup


By Michael Evans

RESTORING my 3G to factory settings the other day, I was again struck by the lack of backup for the popular Bloomberg app. This is an excellent news and information application for the investor and it effectively tracks an investment portfolio with lots of available data. However, when disaster strikes and you have to restore (or buy a new phone) there is no way of recovering all the painstakingly entered portfolio details. Re-entering means searching for company names, entering quantity of holding and purchase price. Having learned by previous mistakes, I now keep all this information in a Numbers spreadsheet so I can enter it again with relative ease. 

I wrote to Bloomberg with my comments on this performance (and also asked why portfolio totals are not provided) and I got the following very reasonable response by return:

"We also agree with both of your points and the solution to both problems are planned and are somewhat related. The first issue regarding the portfolio total returns is somewhat complicated because our applicaiton supports equity securities from all of the world's major exchanges, denominated in a wide range of securities. As a result, a straight sum of the values is not sufficient to provide an accurate result. To perform return calculations, it is necessary to know the user's base currency and the dates on which the securities were purchased and the exchange rates in effect on those dates. It is vastly simpler if all of the securities are denominated in the same currency. This may be the most common case and we may show the total if it is true, we just have not done that yet.

One solution that we have planned that would solve the problem above as well as the storage issue, is to link the list of securities on the MyStocks, to the securities in the Portfolio Tracker on our Bloomberg website. The portfolio tracker is a free widget which performs many of the calculations described above and it could serve as a central repository for the securities which would then be stored so that they would be backed up in the event that your device fails and is initialized.
Hope this helps."

Bloomberg is an excellent application and is highly recommended; it will be perfect if they can implement these changes in the near future.

Bento file location gripe


LISTENING to Leo Laporte's Tech Guy netcast today, I was reminded of a long-standing gripe when applications save data to places other than the Documents folder. Leo was talking about Windows at the time and he mentioned that there were still some badly behaved programs which save data to the Program folder. In Macspeak this would be the Applications folder and I have not come across any apps which insist on doing this. 

But I have come across a number of applications which save their datafile to an Application Support folder inside the user Library folder. I don't like this and I prefer to have all my data stored somewhere easily accessible, usually in the Documents folder. Apart from other considerations, this also helps with backup since it is quick and easy to copy the Documents folder. The Library folder tends to be quite large and contains a lot of stuff that doesn't change daily.

Fortunately, in most cases you can simply move the datafile to a location of choice and it will be found there next time you load the program. Recently, I've taken to storing regularly accessed data in my Drobox folder on the desktop so it is accessible on any of my computers.Box_bento2_grande

I do have one application, Bento from Filemaker, that does not allow a change of database location. Data is automatically saved to the Application Support folder and cannot be moved (at least, not without Bento refusing to find it afterwards). 

In the early days of Bento, which is otherwise an excellent simplified database program, I took this up in the Filemaker forum. The problem was recognised but no solution was promised. So I was disappointed to find that the updated Bento 2 still insists on choosing a data location with no option for change. 

As a result of this I am using Bento less and less and am gradually changing over my records to spreadsheet format in Numbers so that I can store the data in Dropbox. I've improved my efficiency as a result because I can view and adjust the data from any computer. I am still mystified why Bento, probably alone, stick to this unusual restriction. 

Application overload


It is just so easy to download iPhone applications that most owners have page after page of apps, many of them seeking to do the same job. I see there are now over 10,000 applications to choose from. Many are free (which surprises me, given the amount of work that has been done) but the majority are cheap (under £5). 

It's fortunate I am not (yet) into gaming. Everyone else seems to be. But so far I have restricted my downloads to what I consider productive or useful applications. I like to be organised. I have tried several check-list or shopping list programs, a clutch of book readers (more on that in another post) and two or three outliners and mind-mappers. At first I was a kid in a candy store but I've now realised I have a large number of applications that I acquired in enthusiasm but have seldom used. 

Here is my current list of most-frequently used apps for the iPhone (and iPhone Touch). These are the ones I use every day without fail:

  • Omni Focus, a superb task manager and GTD (Getting Thing Done) application that synchronises seamlessly with OF Desktop on any number of Macs. This is by far the best GTD system for iPhone and Mac users.
  • Evernote: This is without a doubt the best note-taking system which can be synchronised (via the web) with Macs and PCs or can be accessed on Evernote's web site.
  • iBlueSky: Simply the best mind-mapping app for the iPhone. Maps can be exported into PC or Mac systems such as MindJet Mind Manager.  
  • Bloomberg: An essential free app if you want to keep up with financial information or check your portfolio during the day.  
  • NetNewsWire brings together all your RSS feeds and is a quick way of browsing all news sources. 
  • Splash Money: I have been a long-time user of the Splash Wallet suite on Palm and Windows Mobile devices, so it's good to find Splash Money, Splash ID and Splash Shopper available for the iPhone. All synchronise with desktop applications. I use Splash Money daily to enter cash transactions. At the end of every month I transfer the totals for each category of expense to my main accounts system on the Mac (MoneyDance).  
  • Mental Case: A quirky one here. Mental Case is a fantiastic flashcard application for studying anything. I'm currently using it for improving my Greek and have downloaded a large number of flashcards from the Flashcard Exchange. 
  • Typing Genius: No doubt, this is the best typing tutor for the iPhone keyboard. I've increased my two-thumb typing speeds and accuracy dramatically in the last two weeks.  
In addition to these stalwarts I have a dozen or so excellent applications which I use less frequently; but I know they are always there on standby in case I need them. We've come a long way from the days of Windows Mobile and Palm.