Verified by Visa scandal

Verified by Visa is a mechanism by which the identity of a Visa card holder making an online payment is supposed to be confirmed. In order to pass this additional verification mechanism, the user has to enter certain digits of a previously set password. If the user cannot remember the password (or does not know because he has fraudulently obtained the card details), he has the option of clicking “Forgotten password”, after which he will be allowed to reset the password entering only information that is actually printed on the credit card, plus the date of birth of the card holder (which would be printed on any other document that would have been found in your wallet, for instance). I’m not impressed – are you? Think about it, in a password of 6 to 12 (iirc) characters, including at least one letter and one numerical digit, can you remember which is the 9th character without writing the whole password down? Not convinced that a coherently thinking individual was behind this idea.

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Apple’s Mac mini timing, or, where is the spec bump?

A lot has been written about the Mac mini’s imminent demise, since at least May 2007, and again recently. I’ve never been particularly willing to believe this speculation, because the Mini is the product most in demand for shared desktop computing facilities in educational establishments. In the university I am most recently familiar with, this accounts for at least 100 machines in the libraries alone. That’s not including what individual departments may have in their computing labs (another 100 to 300 maybe?), or any orders by individual researchers, particularly where low spec machines are desirable, e.g. for grad students (scientists sometimes opt for iMacs because they have enough cash, and spare screens tend to be consumed by Windows machines or dual head set-ups; the main opportunity to target here is students who are “visiting” a lab for small projects, either undergraduate or Masters research projects, or grad students visiting from other universities, typically abroad; a completely untapped opportunity is arts students and staff, for most of whom any word processing machine will do, so why not buy a cheap Mac?). If you scale this to the number of universities in just the English-speaking world alone, you can clearly see a market of a size that Apple would want to harvest. In addition, in a “catch ’em young” world, Apple cannot afford to lose those markets – or the revenue it makes from more unusual applications of the Mac mini, such as server farms. The compact size of the Mini remains quite competitive, in spite of being somehow spared the slimming frenzy that Mr. Jobs put the iMac, Powerbook/MacBook Pro, and lately MacBook lines under. I suspect the reason why this myth remains popular is that these educational markets are to a large extent invisible to the tech writers, who tend to focus on street and internet retail rather than large corporate/educational orders or wholesale.

It does not need saying that the anticipation of a longer recession will spur sales of low spec machines, a job description superbly fitting for the Mac mini in its current incarnation. Nonetheless, it may be true that Apple has decided to delay a spec bump until after the holiday season, to not steal the show from its re-engineered laptop line. Remember that at 1.31kg (2.9 pounds), the Mac mini is among the most portable non-laptop computers ever, and will give you much joy as long as you have a screen available in each location you want to use it (e.g. home and office; I also recommend buying a second power adapter as these are somewhat bulky, with attendant unwieldy cables, and take away from the weight advantage; final word of warning: it’s not entirely designed for being lugged around, so do treat it kindly!) So it would be a shame for it to go, and possibly too great a loss to AAPL for them to really consider this step.

A recent macminicolo article has outlined that company’s reasons for believing in a refresh of the Mini, and a response from Apple Insider points to the possibility that the Mini is an efficient way for Apple to divest of old component stock from other product lines (in this case, possibly the Core 2 Duo chip, but it’s not the only candidate I can think of, with the move away from Intel integrated components). As far as the rumours of the demise go, I can only agree with the above-cited articles that the mini is here to stay for some time yet.

Update 2008/12/17: Further evidence that Apple is making the right decision. Interesting tidbit is that the Mac mini has continued to be one of Amazon’s top five selling items, apparently all the way through 2008, in spite of the ageing hardware!

Four features Opera needs

I’ve been thinking about this for a while, and finally decided to make it public. Opera is possibly the fastest browser currently out there – certainly the fastest available in a final release. There are four features that Opera needs so that I would use it. “Bookmark all tabs”, a dropdown selector showing the title of all the tabs (like in Firefox; I know about the tab preview, but gliding over the tab bar is cumbersome), a scrapbook like Firefox’ scrapbook extension, and good ad blocking. As it stands, I’ll probably be swayed to continue with Firefox if they live up to the 3.1 speed promise in the final release. Otherwise it will be a tough call. Hmmm… Webkit? V8? Except for Opera’s exceptional security track record, those other contenders offer nearly the same features.

Ratings of popular reference management GUIs

‘Software is like sex: it’s better when it’s free’ – Linus Torvalds

Ratings

macupdate (mu) versiontracker (vt) softpedia (sp) mean (mu, vt)
BibDesk 4.5 4.6 ni 4.55
Bookends * 4 4.8 3.1 4.4
EndNote * 2 2.2 ni (Mac version
not listed)
2.1
Papers * 4.5 3.4 ni 3.95
Sente * 4.5 4.4 ni 4.45
iPapers2/iPapers ni
Cloister ni ni 3.1
Yep 4 4.2 3.6 4.1

Dashes mean not yet rated; “ni” means not listed on site. Average ratings across mu and vt were 4.55, 4.4, 2.1, 3.95 and 4.45 for BibDesk, Bookends, EndNote, Papers and Sente respectively. Meanwhile, PDF manager Yep is quite popular. Data is from sometime this week.

Popularity

iusethis mu d’l’s mu d’l’ current version sp users download.com (dl) dl last week
BibDesk 565 23550 942 ni 253 0
Bookends * 97 43753 1005 28 814 6
EndNote * 78 18931 686 ni 26375 240
Papers * 327 10747 718 ni 253 0
Sente * 42 15304 56 ni 677 0
iPapers2/iPapers 10 2572 1,795 0 ni ni
Cloister 2 ni ni 10 ni ni
Yep 870 68267 2467 47 42 1

For iPapers2/iPapers, the iusethis users of iPapers and iPapers2 were combined.

Seven Mac trialware outfits you ought to know

  1. Panic – makers of the highly acclaimed FTP client Transmit, and all-round web creation suite Coda. They have some free stuff.
  2. SmileOnMyMac – they have a couple of brilliant utilities, my personal favourite being TextExpander. Also recommend looking into BrowseBack.
  3. Ambrosia – search utility iSeek for quick access to popular general or topical search engines (e.g. Google or IMDB), and deep system software for video and audio capture, and arbitrary iPhone ringtone upload.
  4. Rogue Amoeba – more and similar deep system software, including stuff for audiocasting wirelessly or to the web.
  5. DEVONtechnologies – sell a suite of software that includes a desktop web search engine (it uses your CPU rather than Google’s and gives slightly different results), an application that combines bookmarking, PDF management software, and general file management in one interface (called DEVONthink), and a note taking application. I haven’t been able to make up my mind over whether I’d profit from using any of their software, but their search utility is good when you need more results than Google provides (but it’s not better than Google, it just returns a different set). Also haven’t been able to verify for myself that they have useful artificial intelligence in their software – which they claim. They have freebies.
  6. Unsanity – makers of the well-known ShapeShifter application. Many of their applications are concerned with bringing back useful features from Mac OS 9. There’s some free stuff as well.
  7. Freeverse – quite a ragbag of applications, including several applications for diverse graphics and audio creation tasks, as well as the free “Think!” – a window-shading app. You’ll also find a whole bunch of Mac games on their site which are quite entertaining.

Update: Mac OS X apps I will probably buy

This is an update to an older post of mine. I was curious whether I would still fork out for the same things that I said I would a year ago – and whether I’d actually have bought any of them. NetNewsWire, which I bought before making the first post, is now free, so we can scratch that off the list. Other than that, the list remains pretty much as was

  1. Text Expander – this is very, very likely to be my next buy, even though it does mess with the paste buffer. I got Typinator in one of my bundles, and I’m not even going to set it up, because I know it doesn’t do cursor position, so it loses out in the coding department, especially.
  2. Little Snitch – haven’t bought yet, but it’s a wicked utility indeed.
  3. Path Finder – still thinking about buying this.
  4. Parallels Desktop – still the best way to run Windows – even, by the looks of it, beyond VMware Fusion 2.0. Parallels still has the most seamless file integration, something so far overlooked by Fusion, which relies on shared folders that you have to specifically set up. So you’re always shuffling files around. Not good. Parallels FTW. And yes, I bought it as part of the mupromo bundle (about which otherwise, the less said, the better).
  5. CSSEdit – elegance incarnate. This was sitting on the substitution bench at my last commenting, but I bought it as part of MacHeist. Still loving it as ever.
  6. Mathematica – haven’t bought yet. Still a possibility.
  7. Transmit – I now think that I will end up buying this eventually. One of those really powerful and still usable apps for the Mac, every bit like Path Finder.
  8. Delicious Library – What a gem, except I don’t have a camera, may not buy one soon, and I’m not convinced that version 2.0 is so much better than the original. I might give it a spin, though. Maybe there is a way to downgrade if necessary.

And if I ever got serious about web design, I would add the following:

  1. SubEthaEdit – still looks good, but getting pushed further down the list. Is now getting competition from several open source efforts, but seems to still be the best of breed in spite of everything. For one, it has syntax highlighting for every language with a shaking stick attached.
  2. Coda – I think this would be a good investment if I got serious about web dev. Not likely to happen right now.

On a further note, I’m still looking for a tabbed, syntax-highlighting text editor that recovers an entire crashed session (not like Vim, where you have to remember which files you were working on to have them re-open). Also, Cocoa would be nice. I was working with Smultron for a bit, but I’ll have to ditch it because it kills my files when it/the OS crashes (yes, surprisingly, Tiger does crash – I’m sure Leopard does, too). I’m also beginning to think that BrowseBack is kind of a neat idea.

Revival of patronage

It’s now clear to me that with our capacity to distribute large works of art, such as books, music, and films, to global audiences of millions, and many computer programmers’ opposition to paying for digital goods (resulting in quick breaking of any digital rights management system yet deployed), that we will have a re-emergence of patrons who will support artists for recording albums, writing books, and making films. It is also possible that these patrons will be corporate bodies rather than individual persons, especially in the early days of this cultural trend. Once audiences have become fully accustomed to TV and online ads, such sponsorship will be the best way to reach audiences disenfranchised from traditional media, whose advertising already communicates little about the product and services portrayed, and instead tries to appeal to emotions, which can be seen as deceptive. Additionally, it is clear that many corporations are wealthy enough to pay for high quality works of art and may prefer this opportunity to not be limited to the typical duration of a TV ad. Agencies that put corporations in touch with promising artists stand to make good margins, and will be a desirable employer. Most of the actual trade will be carried out online. As an example of this trend, I would cite the TED conference.

Addendum, same day: I also think it’s likely that this will raise the quality of pop culture, as patrons with economic interests won’t want to be associated with mediocre contributions. More education and genuinely witty entertainment, less l’art pour l’art.