Monthly Archives: February 2008

Insane Software Restrictions…

So, I’ve given up on not having Microsoft Office installed on my Mac. The new Mac version is out and, except for some insane inexplicable bugs (fix here), most people seem happy with it. I have been able to muddle through now for several months without it. I usually have used the Apple iWork suite (Pages, Keynote, and occasionally Numbers) to open the Office documents that people sent me to read or review. But, whenever I need to edit a document, which is often, I find myself falling back to Office on my Windows Virtual Machine, because I’m worried about incompatibilities introduced by round tripping the document through iWork. And, I don’t really like having my Virtual Machine up all the time. So, Office 2008 for Mac it is.

Fortunately, Office 2008 for Mac is available to me under a campus agreement for free download. Before I could download it, though, I had to agree to a condition that said that I could use the software on a computer at home, but only for work, not to edit personal documents. Are you kidding me? Who installs software on their computer and then differentiates as to whether or not every bit stored on their hard drive is a personal bit or a work bit?

(Note to Microsoft lawyers: I will abide by this restriction by using Apple’s iWork for personal documents. While I did not get their software for free under a campus agreement, neither did they make me accept ridiculous conditions on its use. Believe me, I would be happier if I didn’t have to use your software at all, but that doesn’t seem to be an option. Thank you very much.)

From what I hear, though, installing Office actually dramatically improves the compatibility of iWork, because Office includes tons of fonts that Windows users are prone to sprinkle in their documents. (This is the main warning that I see when I import documents into iWork — font substitution warnings.) I suppose, though, that I am only permitted to use these fonts in work documents. Obviously, then, I should compile lists of those fonts which are acceptable to use in personal documents and those which are restricted for work use only. Maybe I could print it out the lists and tape them to my laptop for easy reference. Yeah, that’s the ticket.

Fatal Flaw

So, this week’s laptop ordeal has revealed a fatal flaw in my one laptop philosophy. If you put your whole life on one machine and that machine dies or otherwise requires repair, then you have a problem. Ironically, this flaw was revealed only a couple of months before dipping my toes into a multi-computer approach. It is definitely changing the way I think about the multi-machine problem.

I have heard of people who keep backup hard drives that are identical to the hard drives installed in their machines. The idea is that if/when your drive dies, you pop in a backup drive and you’re up and running again in no time. As appealing as that sounds, it doesn’t help if the point of failure on your machine is something other than the hard drive.

In some sense, I wasn’t in a terrible place when my computer had to be sent off for repair. I had an old laptop (PowerBook G4) in a box under my desk that I could press into service, and I had a full and recent backup on an external drive on my desk that I could use to retrieve any file that I might forget to copy before shipping off my laptop. Nevertheless, it took me almost all day on Tuesday to get my old PowerBook ready for action.

So, for people like me who are wildly dependent upon their computers, the one laptop philosophy is somewhat flawed. I suppose the obvious solution is to keep a second machine around and keep it up to date, but by the time you do that there isn’t much need for a one laptop philosophy. (If you have gone to the effort to keep two computers in sync, why limit yourself to using only one of them?) Fundamentally, though, I’m coming to realize that high availability computing is a hard problem. (Not that I thought it was easy before, I just hadn’t really thought about it much at all.)

I’ve been thinking about how to manage my soon-to-be-multiple-computer life. I’m getting close to a solution, which I plan to write about here, but it’s much more complicated than I would have thought initially.

Things Fall Apart

Although we had a very nice time visiting my sister, it was a weekend of woe for my gadgets.

As I mentioned previously, two arrow keys (left and down) stopped working on my laptop in early January. This was annoying, but could be tolerated until I had time to get the laptop repaired — a process requiring a minimum of three days. In fact, I had basically decided to postpone the repair until after my MacBook Air arrived in March or April. Then, on Sunday, the 6, Y, and H keys stopped working as well. This made the internal keyboard all but unusable for writing much of anything — I was lucky that my password didn’t contain any of these characters. I called Apple this morning and they are sending a box to ship the machine to them. The box should arrive tomorrow, and I should have my laptop back no later than early next week. So, I spent the day getting ready to be without my primary laptop for the rest of the week — during one of my busiest weeks I’ve had so far this (academic) year. More on that in a bit…

Maybe more disheartening, though, was that shortly after we arrived at the Mystic Aquarium on Saturday, my Canon Digital Rebel stopped working. I had just taken a few shots of the Beluga Whales, and I was about to start shooting Sea Lions when the shutter release sounded all wrong.  It sounds like the mirror is flipping up but the shutter is not opening. The display read “Error 99” or something inscrutable like that. To clear the error, you had to reboot the camera. I tried numerous different things (new CF card, removing the camera battery, etc.) all with the same result.

I have since surfed the web and found several things to try, so I will try those first, but I am not optimistic.  If that doesn’t work, then I will investigate having the camera repaired, but I am doubtful that it can be repaired for less than its current value (which has fallen considerably since I acquired it almost five years ago). I was already dreaming of a significant camera upgrade in the next year, so I’m not likely to invest more in repair than the camera is worth. Unfortunately, we don’t have the budget for an immediate camera upgrade, so in the meantime I might look at a point-and-shoot.

Travel Thoughts…

So, we took our first airplane trip with Charlie this week to visit my sister and brother-in-law in Connecticut.  I had a business meeting in Boston on Thursday, so that was a good excuse to come and see them.

I decided not to get Charlie a seat on the plane, but to go infant-in-lap, which is free, because I’m cheap like that.  With a single, one-hour flight (no connections), I just couldn’t see spending $300 or 25,000 frequent flyer miles so that he could have his own seat.  Especially when this travel option will only be open to us for a few more months.  He tolerated the flight up fairly well, for a boy who isn’t keen on the idea of sitting still in our laps for an hour.  We’ll see how he does on the flight back tomorrow.

Traveling with an infant does not fit well with my attempts to travel lighter.  We brought his pack-n-play, so that he would have a place to sleep, so that’s a good, bulky 25 extra pounds right there.  The one place that we tried to economize on the packing was the car seat.  This turned out to be a bad plan, which is the main reason that I am writing this post.

Rather than bring along a car seat, we decided to rent one along with our rental car.  I figured that this would save us the hassle of lugging the car seat through two airports, plus would provide the convenience of having the seat ready-to-go upon arrival at our destination.  It wasn’t cheap — almost $50 to rent the seat for 4 days — but I figured it would be worth it, especially since the trip wasn’t costing us much, otherwise.

So, I was a little surprised when we arrived at the rental lot to find no seat in our car.  The guy at the counter in the terminal had called ahead to the lot about the seat, but apparently they hadn’t actually done anything about it.  So, Becky went inside to find our seat while I loaded the rest of our luggage.  A few minutes later, she came back with a car rental guy carrying the car seat.  He informed us that he couldn’t install it; this was not allowed by company policy.

While I vaguely understand the lawyerly reasoning behind this policy, it is completely insane.  Installing car seats is not a particularly easy task, which is why most of them are improperly installed.  (I have seen this in several surveys, but am too tired to go looking right now.)  Asking weary travelers to install an unfamiliar seat in an unfamiliar vehicle is practically begging to have the seats installed improperly, perhaps leading to the injury or death of a child.  Training rental company employees to properly install car seats would take maybe two hours per employee.  Isn’t the safety of children worth that?  I visited the Blacksburg Police Department about three times to have my car seat installation inspected during the first year of Charlie’s life.  The first time, I had done a lousy job.  By second and third times, though, I had figured it out.  (I went back the third time because we had a new model of car seat.)

Moreover, if the rental car company employees were installing the seats, the company would have the incentive to buy higher-quality, easier-to-install seats.  What I got for my $50 was a Cosco seat.  We went to Walmart on Friday to pick up some supplies and saw virtually the same seat on sale for $50.  I’m willing to concede that any seat that meets regulatory requirements is adequately safe, if properly installed.  But I can tell you that the difference between the $50 Cosco seat and our $200 Britax seat is ease-of-installation.  The Britax goes in and adjusts like a dream; the Cosco seat is more like a nightmare with straps that refuse to cinch down no matter how hard you pull on them.

I don’t know if all car rental companies have this same insane policy — we rented our car from Alamo — but I am not planning to find out.  (I’m happy to listen if someone knows of a rental company that will install a car seat for you, though.)  Next time, we’ll take our own seat.