Category Archives: Apple

Mac Advice for Switchers

Mac Advice for Switchers

by Richard White



Hey. Okay, so you got this new Mac thing, right? Good for you! It’s an amazing machine, and you’re going to love it.

You probably don’t know this but I’m a Switcher myself. I started on PCs w-a-y back in the day, and did NOT like the first Mac I got. And more recently, I’ve been using Linux for a lot of things, and… well, that’s a Switch too. Every time I switch to something new, it’s a little disorienting before I finally figure out how to make the new thing work for ME.

What follows are a series of tips, tricks, hardware, and software that have worked for ME over the past few years. As they like to say in the online bulletin boards, “your mileage may vary.” Fortunately, most of these things (with the exception of the hardware) can be had for free, or at least on a trial basis while you figure out whether or not it fits you.

I hasten to add that I although you COULD run out and download/buy every one of these programs, that’s certainly not necessary. I typically get a program, play around with it a bit, and then see if it “works for me” before going on to try something else. And I certainly DO encourage experimenting with new software. Downloading and installing programs on a Mac is extraordinarily easy, and there is some wonderful software out there that will do things for you that you didn’t even know you needed to be done. So get out there and play!

I’ll be updating this list from time to time as things occur to me, so… be sure to check back! :)

Here we go…


1. Organize your stuff in folders. It’ll help.

My folders on the Mac look like this:
/Users/rwhite/ # my home folder

Inside the home folder:

By far the most important folder is my Documents, which contains:
About Stacks.pdf # not important
AppleWorks User Data/ # not important
Microsoft User Data/ # important I guess
OmniFocus Backups/ # not super important
comm/ # contains email archives, letters, etc.
down/ # contains stuff I’ve downloaded, including PDFs of articles, movies, etc.
edu/ # big folder containing everything having to do with my teaching
fnc/ # financial stuff: tax records, receipts, etc.
iChats/ # iChat archive
impt/ # important stuff: scans of passport, driver’s license, etc.
media/ # movies and stuff
misc/ # stuff I haven’t filed away yet
othersfiles/ # folders of stuff associated with parents, girlfriend, etc.
photo/ # all my photos, including iPhone
proj/ # ongoing projects: Xmas stuff, a folder for my car stuff, jokes, recipes
snd/ # music files that I’ve created
tech/ # lots of folders here: notes, linux, scripts, google, etc.
trvl/ # folders for packing lists, tickets/boarding passes, maps
wrtng/ # folders for my journals, my trip reports, etc.
www/ # folders for all my websites and related stuff

You get it, right? Nested folders to organize all your stuff. Here’s my edu/poly2010-2011 folder contents:
poly2009-2010 alias # This points to last year’s folder, because I’m always needing to get something from there

I love my folders.

2. Text files for notes
I keep notes on lots of different little things, and stash them away in those folders. I really like Textmate as a text editor, but BBEdit is good too, as is the free TextWrangler (see Software below).

One of the best things I started doing a few years ago was make a text file on my computer where I keep track of software (and authorization keys) that I install on my machines.

3. Backblaze backup service (
Crazy good, and very reasonably priced. See “Hardware” below for more info.


I don’t like to rely on too much hardware. My friend Aaron likes to carry around a boatload of computer crap, but I like to travel a little lighter than that. Stuff that I regularly use, though, and which you might find me carrying in my backpack:

1. USB cable for the iPhone

2. Logitech Anywhere MX mouse. This thing is AMAZING.

3. Dongle (for connecting to a VGA projector)

4. Logitech Wireless Presenter R400 with Red Laser Pointer (again, for presenting)

5. Power brick (if I’m going to be away for awhile)

6. iPhone

Stuff that stays at home includes:
1. Old HP LaserJet 6MP laser printer
I don’t think they even sell this thing anymore, but it’s a beast, and it’s awesome.

2. Laptop cooler/stand (I use this one: )

3. A couple of Seagate 1-terabyte external hard drive ( Seagate FreeAgent XTreme 1 TB USB 2.0/FireWire 400/eSATA Desktop External Hard Drive ), because I’m a freak about backing up my machine. These aren’t my “daily” backup drives, but rather “permanent archive” drives, that store things like old photos, music, and other archives that I simply don’t want or need to carry around with me on my laptop. There are two because even backup drives can go bad, so I have one “main” backup, and one “backup” backup.

4. A smaller 500-Gb hard drive that I use with Apple’s Time Machine backup software. I plug this in about once a week to make a local backup of what I’ve been working on lately.

5. Backblaze ( ) – This isn’t hardware, but it kind of acts like it. It’s “backup in the cloud,” and their software runs every morning at 1am, backing up my computer to their servers. It’s $50/year to keep an encrypted copy of all your stuff on their computers, and you don’t have to remember to plug it in. It’s probably the best backup solution there is for your local data.


1. Safari
Apple’s Safari web browser is amazing. I also have Mozilla’s Firefox ( ) and Google’s Chrome ( ) installed too, because Firefox may load some pages that Safari can’t handle.

Apple’s email program is just about the best email program I’ve ever used. You’re going to love it.

3. iCal
Apple’s calendar program is NOT the best calendar program I’ve ever used. It’s got a clunky, cumbersome interface that often seems to enjoy getting in the way of entering information, but… it’s integrated across the iPhone, so I keep using it. There are various add-ons that you can use to enhance it, if you’re a calendar geek: BusyCal ( ) is a popular enhancement.

4. TextWrangler ( )
I love text files, and TextWrangler is a surprisingly powerful editor, given that it’s free. TextMate is a popular text editor for the Mac as well, although some people prefer to get by with Apple’s own TextEdit, which has its own advantages. Text editing is high on my list of must-haves, but I admit that most people don’t use them at all. They’re missing out!

5. Microsoft Office
Why do I like text editors so much? Try launching Microsoft Word to write a note to yourself–by the time the bloody thing has opened up, you’ve already forgotten what it was you were going to write. Still, it’s the industry standard, so you pretty much have to have it. And as much as I support the free, open source alternatives–LibreOffice ( ) and OpenOffice ( )–those distributions aren’t the real thing. Of course, Microsoft’s own software isn’t always want one might wish for… :-/

6. Adobe Photoshop Elements
I hate Adobe. There are other photo processing packages available for the Mac, including the free GIMP ( ) and free GraphicConverter ( ), as well as Apple-friendly solutions like Pixelmator ( ). But like Microsoft’s Office suite, the gold-standard is Adobe, and their Photoshop Elements series–a low cost version of their high-end Photoshop program–is amazing.

On the other hand, if you’re not really into doing heavy image editing, iPhoto can do an amazing job with very little effort. And it comes with your Mac!

7. Coda and Transmit ( )
You may not be into the whole FTP/web development game–uploading files, working on web pages, etc.–but if you are, Panic’s Coda (integrated web development and FTP) and Transmit (FTP only) are solid programs.

8. Skype ( )
Audio, video, and text chatting. Awesome.

9. Adium ( )
Great chat software, which integrates just about every chat protocol in a single window: AIM, MSN Messenger, GoogleTalk, Facebook, ICQ…

10. VLC Media Player ( )
If you have a video file, chances are that VLC will be able to play it for you. It works where others fail.

11. Dropbox ( )
If you’ve ever struggled with keeping track of a single file in 3 different locations, or wondered how you can send a 120Mb file to someone by email (hint: you can’t), Dropbox provides 2Gb of online storage, free. Install their software, drop anything you want in the “dropbox,” and it will be synced with any other machines that are connected to that same account. Some people put their entire Documents folder in the Dropbox, so they can access their files anywhere (including on their iPhone). Amazing. You can pay money to buy more storage if you’re a heavy user.

12. Audacity ( )
Free, cross-platform, sound editing. Super useful, and a nice complement to Apple’s GarageBand, which does more-or-less the same thing, but differently.

Nose, Face, Spite. Fast-twitching.

Nose, Face, Spite. Fast-twitching.


by Richard White

The curse of the fast-twitch response neural response (and I’m perfectly aware that I’m mixing a muscle property with brain activity in that metaphor, but go with me on this), is that emotions can blaze along as quickly as thinking does. I like to think that I’m relatively quick in grasping the fundamentals of a problem, or seeing through a tangle of talking points to a logical conclusion, but I occasionally find myself at the mercy of sudden and strong emotional responses to situations.

Ask teacher/fellow-geek Aaron about the little jaw twitch I get right before I freak out. He’s seen me in enough stressful situations to know the warning signs.

I’m not twitching right now, but I was a little troubled last night to read this bit of news from the well-connected John Gruber:

A few months ago, I heard suggestions that Apple had tentative plans to release a developer beta of Mac OS X 10.7 at WWDC this June. That is no longer the case. Mac OS X 10.7 development continues, but with a reduced team and an unknown schedule. It’s my educated guess that there will be no 10.7 news at WWDC this year, and probably none until WWDC 2011.

Apple’s company-wide focus has since been focused intensely on one thing: iPhone OS 4.1 The number one priority at Apple is to grow mobile market share faster than Android. Anything that is not directly competitive with Android is on the back burner.

Okay. That’s not good.

My deal with Apple is simply this: deliver products that are better than the competition by a factor of two or three, products that make me happily spend top dollar for their outstanding quality and Apple’s superior customer support. Do that, and I’m your fan-boy. Ever since I switched to Apple from the PC world almost 20 years ago, they have delivered on that promise.

And for the moment, I guess they still are, although the iPad isn’t part of that promise for me. Nor the iPod, nor the iPhone. For me, Apple’s superiority has been its hardware and its software, all built around the rock solid OS X, running on top of the Darwin flavor of UNIX. It’s been a great ride, and I owe so much of my own technological workflow to those, and the third-party apps built for that ecosystem.

If Gruber’s intuition is true, though, any significant growth or evolution in that ecosystem has been stunted, as all hands on Cupertino’s deck rush toward the various mobile platforms—iPhone and iPad. I’m not saying that they shouldn’t devote significant attention to that front: I’m an Apple stockholder, and while the rest of the world is struggling to emerge from that “economic downturn”, AAPL is doing just fine, thank you. When I wear my investor hat, I’m a happy man.

But put on my technology hat and I start to get a little worried. Development on the new operating system, as mentioned above, has apparently slowed or stopped completely. And the top-of-the-line laptops haven’t come out with a significant refresh in years. I used to be an an 18-month hardware upgrade cycle, based both on the release cycle from Apple and the amount of stress I put on my machine, carrying it back and forth to school, to classes, to office, to home… The machine I’m composing this post on is almost three years old. It’s serviceable, but… Apple’s development has slowed in this area as well. Let’s see, three years ago… that was just about the time that the iPhone came out.

Apple is currently struggling to serve two masters: the geeks and the public. Not all of the geeks are real happy right now, and some of them occasionally make noises about jumping ship in favor of other, more open, worlds: Google’s Android-based phone systems, Linux (including my personal favorite, the excellent LinuxMint), etc. Sometimes, they come swimming back to Apple, in a classic case of “I’m sorry… you were right… turns out that the grass isn’t as green over there as I thought it was…”

Regardless of what happens, it’s going to be fascinating to watch.

I’ve been told as an investor that I need to be smart, and not think with my heart. For years I’ve invested in Apple more as a result of my strong belief in their products rather than any deep financial analysis. I suppose it’s a bit ironic that, with their stock at an all-time high, I find myself believing in them a little less than I did before.

At least until the new MacBook Pros come out.

Me, next week, when that happens: “Oooooh! Shiny!!! I love Apple!!!”

Ah, the curse of the fast-twitch neuron.

iPad: What’s it to you?

iPad: What’s It to You?


by Richard White

I’ve had my iPad for just about 5 days now, which means I’ve started to figure out a little bit about what it means to me.

The biggest question most people have, before they’ve used it anyway, is: “What is this? Is it just a big iPod Touch?” I think one of the really cool things about this new device—and I think it’s fair to call it “new”; like most Apple products, it’s not technically a new device, but Apple has gone and made this thing so well that it IS new, for all intents and purposes—is that it can be different things for different people.

  • It’s a big iPod Touch
    It plays games and movies like nobody’s business. Two days ago, I made the mistake of leaving it out on my desk at school. When I returned an hour later and started it up, the game “Plants and Zombies” started up, with a “Welcome back, Matthew” opening screen. “Uh, I hope you don’t mind, Mr. White—I didn’t want to mess up your game, so I made my own game account on their,” explained Matthew, a little embarrassed.
  • It’s a small computer / netbook killer
    Netbooks, for some people, have been the ideal device for light-duty computing: answering email, surfing the web, working on cloud-based documents, or doing some light word processing. The iPad does at least the first three really, really well. And it’s a super-sexy chick magnet, so… that’s worth the price of admission right there.

  • It’s a book reading Kindle Killer
    It’s true, the plastic, gray-scale Kindle is doomed. The iPad’s ability to display epub-format books beats the competition all up and down the block. Colors are crisp, the page turn motion is realistic (if that kind of thing is important to you), and their bookshelf metaphor (ripped off from Delicious Monster’s amazing Delicious Library) is stunning. It beats the heck out of sitting in bed reading the dishwater-gray Kindle with a freaking reading light clipped to the screen.
  • It’s a Media Consumption Device
    Music, books, and especially movies are SO good on this. How good? Last night I sat on the couch with my girlfriend and her son watching “WarGames” on this machine, streaming over the wireless via Netflix. The giant wall-mounted flat screen hooked up to DirectTV? Yeah, it didn’t even get turned on…
  • It’s the Next Big Thing
    Awesome 10-hour battery life, a cool running processor, blazing fast graphics, bright screen, razor-sharp touch interface… It all screams “I am the future!” At least if you’re into consuming media.

I’m not that guy, though—I’m not the media consumption guy. I don’t typically play games on my computer, except for the World of Warcraft years… but there’s no app for that on the iPad. I don’t usually watch movies on my computer. I do record movies on my camera and edit them on my laptop… but you can’t do that on the iPad. I surf a little on the web, but I also create content for the web… and you can’t easily do that on the iPad. I edit Word documents, and you can’t do that in any serious way on the iPad. I do computer-based presentations (PowerPoint/Keynote) for my students… and the iPad has only limited functionality in that area.

I talk a lot about workflow, so what I’m saying is this: I like the iPad in a lot of ways, but it’s not as useful to me for my own workflow.

Not yet. I’m willing to wait a bit.

In the meantime, I’m not the only guy who’s trying to figure out if this is “my thing.”




by Richard White

So… yeah. I bought an iPad.

I pre-ordered, and got in line at 6am to hang out with some other really nice people, including Carlos, the youth minister to gang-bangers, and Abraham Peters, who graciously took a picture of all of us standing in line, and the German guy from London, who happened to find himself in the States at the right time and managed to buy a reservation from some guy on Craigslist.

I bought two iPads, actually: one for myself, because I’m an Ed Tech guy, and I have a feeling this is going to be a Very Big Deal. And one for my Dad, because this thing is so made for him.

Picture my Dad, hunched over in the cold, drafty office, reading the online New York Times every morning on an ancient computer screen. Eventually he gets up, rubs his lower back, and heads off into the kitchen where he’ll make some breakfast, sit down at the table, and settle in to read the local newsrag, a pitiful thing that barely qualifies as journalism.

The iPad was made for my Dad. Now, he’s eating his eggs and reading the New York Times online on the blazing bright LED screen, flipping through articles, and emailing me the ones that he especially likes. It’s business as usual… only infinitely better.

We sat on the couch and watched an episode of “Glee” together—he’d never seen it before, and absolutely loved it. We set up Netflix streaming for him. We looked at the books in the online bookstore. At the rate we were going, I’ll be surprised if he ever gets on the computer again, unless it’s to sync his most recent photos to the iPad. Then he’ll unplug, them pack up the little tablet, and take it to my Mom to give her a slide show on the thing.

As for me and my iPad? I’m not as much of a convert. You can read the excellent comments of David Pogue, or John Gruber, or Andy Ihnatko, or this excellent article at Ars Technica, and they say more or less what I say: it’s fast. It’s beautiful. It represents, for many people, the future of computing, where our devices are powerful, and simple, and seamlessly integrated into our lives to the point that we have a hard time remembering what life was like without them. I don’t doubt that that’s going to happen. In fact, I hope it happens—I have a little money invested in Apple, and my son is starting college next year.

But as of this writing, it doesn’t seem to be my thing. It’s a great machine for consuming content, there’s no denying; YouTube never looked so good. But for content creators like myself, or anyone who needs a little more control over their computer—anyone who wants to drive a stickshift—the iPad’s automatic transmission is probably going to be a frustrating experience.

  • Want to read a PDF document? You’ll have to email it to yourself, or use a third-party app to get it onto the iPhone’s hermetically-sealed file system.
  • Want to edit a Word document? You’ll have to buy the $9.99 neutered version of iWork’s Pages, open up the document in that, edit it, then “Save As…” a Word document, plug in your iPad to your main computer, use iTunes to Export a copy of the document, and then fix any fonts, formatting, or layout that got changed in the process.
  • Want to backup your files? Well, you sort of back them up every time you sync, although you can’t actually restore an individual file. You can make a copy of a file from the iPad (for a limited number of applications) by exporting, but you’ll have to go through and do that on a file by file basis. There’s no facility for backing up the entire machine and restoring individual files.

I don’t want to complain too loudly; any device manufacturer on the planet would KILL to have a product like this in their stable. And I totally get that this is going to be a hit.

Facebook’s a hit, too, though. That doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s something that fits my lifestyle, or my workflow.

The typing I do, the websites that I design, the video editing I do, the podcasts I record, the DVDs I rip, the music I record and mix, the presentations I deliver, the programming I do… none of those exist in the world of the iPad in any meaningful way.

And yet…

It’s a very import development, technologically, and I’m looking forward to seeing where we go from here.

It’s an exciting time to be a technologist.

“Give it away, give it away, give it away now!”

“Give it away, give it away, give it away now!”


Richard White

We’re talking about wireless access today, with thanks to the Red Hot Chili Peppers for pleading our case so succinctly. Wireless access at high schools needs to be freely, openly available. Here’s why.

1. Schools exist to help students learn, and learn how to learn.

… and increasingly, that learning requires—or at the very least makes use of—the Internet. From videos of science demonstrations to textbook websites, from email to social networking, from “just surfing” to last-minute instructions during a teacher absence, our students are growing up in an increasingly sophisticated world that asks them to be technologically savvy, and requires them to be able to manage multiple short- and long-term tasks. Even if you, Hansel, still keep your appointments in a Day Planner, spilling a little trail of paper-based reminders behind you wherever you go, that’s not how the rest of the world works now. Students do work—homework, reports, research—on laptops, and some students bring those machines to school in order to get additional work done. Then need to be connected to the Internet!

Why, as educators, would we stand in the way of that?

2. A closed network is futile.

Students who are unable to access the Internet via a computer may easily do so through a cellphone, and increasingly via dataphones such as the iPhone, the “Google phone” (HTC Nexus One), and the like. We’re not protecting them from Facebook, or instant messaging, or Twitter, or porn. We’re just making it harder for them to do the things that they do need to do.

The Zona Rosa Café, not far from my house, refuses to offer a wireless signal for its patrons. The owner states that he doesn’t want “that kind of café”—he wants one that’s more interactive, more social. He’s free to run his business as he wishes, of course, but you can guess what his clients, many of them students, do: they sit there typing away on their non-networked computers, or surfing the Internet anyway on their phones.

As educators with a progressive stance on the use of appropriate technology in a learning environment, why would we cripple our students with less-than-complete access? What does it say to our students when they can get a better Internet connection on their own cellphone than they can through an over-filtered school laptop?

We’re not protecting them from anything. We’re just making it inconvenient, and making ourselves look silly in the process.

3. The iPad is coming.

In the humble opinion of many of my fellow, tech-crazed, educators, we’re about to witness a revolution. Apple’s new iPad—available within a couple of months—promises to do to the the plastic, gray-scale Kindle what the iMac did to the PC, what the iPod did to the MP3 player, and what the iPhone did to the cellphone industry. It’s going to leverage people’s familiarity with the power, convenience, and now-familiar multi-touch interface of the iPhone so that the iPad becomes the most successful media player on the planet. Publishers are lining up to deliver iPad customized content, including newspapers (hoping desperately for something, anything that will save their failing industry), and publishers of textbooks (overpriced, and increasingly just downloaded illegally via Bittorrent by cash-poor but tech-savvy college students). Educational materials are a natural for the iPad, and at least one teacher I know of has both a) received a grant to purchase three of them for his classroom, and b) begun the process of developing his own educational materials, to be delivered on the iPad.

Although some models of the iPad are going to have 3G capability, the lower-priced versions (hello, Education Market) are going to have network access only via wireless Internet. Students who want to take advantage of these devices are going to need access to networks, and schools should have a responsibility to provide it, unfettered and unfiltered. (One of my colleagues, using a filtered laptop to search for the lyrics to an old Bob Dylan song, had his search refused by overly-protective software; the text “It Ain’t Me, Babe” contained a dangerous, porn-related keyword.)

So there you have it.

The tech guys at my school work harder than anybody I know to configure the network, deliver computers, assist teachers, and foster the use of technology at my school. They are knowledgeable (not surprising), social (for IT guys!), friendly (really!), and never fail to come through, whether it’s diagnosing a network problem in the middle of class or answering their work phone even when out sick for the day. But I’ve come to believe that they’ve got better things to do than spend their day re-doing proxies and managing MAC address whitelists.

Will there be problems with opening up the network? Absolutely. Students will have to learn how to behave responsibly on the network at school, and sysadmins will need to keep an eye on use (and potential misuse) of the network, as they always do. But opening up the network puts the responsibility for using it wisely squarely on the shoulders of the students—where it should be—rather than on overly twitchy content filters.

Most importantly, though, it gives students the freedom and the power to become more active participants in their own learning.

And that’s what school is all about.