Hallelujah, the SuperDuper update to bring Leopard compatibility is now out! (For those who don’t know what the hell I’m talking about, or who might know and don’t use it, SuperDuper is by far the best backup app for Macs. And since Leopard, the latest version of Mac OS X, was released, SuperDuper didn’t work with it, leaving some of us without our backup method of choice.)

This Mozilla bug report thread might very well be the best thread I’ve ever read. There are a lot of developers who truly want to help track down a bug that someone’s reporting, but since they’re unable to replicate the bug, they ask the reporter to test out a few specific other builds, and he totally freaks out, SCREAMS IN ALL CAPITAL LETTERS, and makes various and sundry claims of them ruining his computer. It’s just awesome, a perfect encapsulation of how the internet makes some people go a little batshit insane.

Talk about a fuckup of gargantuan proportions: last night, the co-founder of the webhosting company Dreamhost launched a script to trigger a billing cycle for the 2007 end-of-year, but mistakenly used December 31st, 2008 as the run date, meaning that all accounts had their bills run for the entire year of 2008. And that means that if accounts were set to automatically pay, people’s credit cards were charged and bank accounts were debited for one or two years’ worth of charges, leaving a slew of customers with overdraft and over-credit charges from their banks, not to mention other planned transactions that now can’t take place given hundreds or thousands of dollars in unanticipated charges. (I received over $600 worth of bills from them via email, bills that weren’t auto-paid only because the credit cards they have on file for me are thankfully expired.)

From the sounds of things in the Dreamhost Status comments and discussion forum, despite the fact that the webhosting company is already trying to work through the mistaken charges and reverse them, it’s going to lose a bunch of business over the fiasco — even with reversing the charges, it sounds like most of the folks who’ve been assessed overdraft fees aren’t going to be able to avoid them, at least not without quite a bit of effort and fighting with their individual banks (something for which I’m sure the customers will be oh-so-grateful to Dreamhost). And the scope of the overall problem is made clearest by the fact that Dreamhost’s account management control panel has been down all morning, probably because every single customer is trying to get more information about why their accounts were charged and what they should do about it.

Ironically, the most recent Dreamhost newsletter, written by the same co-founder of the company in his trademark (and tiresome) jokey style, had the following item in it:

4. New Office!
Another important thing I’ve been doing instead of writing newsletters is looking out the window of our NEW OFFICE:
If your next web hosting bill from us is mysteriously tripled, now you know why.

Talk about bad timing on Josh’s part… or perhaps, talk about a good lesson in the error of joking about things that could easily become the catalysts that drive customers into the arms of your competitors.

Wow — the entire Windows Genuine Advantage system is currently down, meaning that every single copy of Windows XP and Vista that tries to authenticate as legitimate is failing the authentication. For users of Vista, this means that the operating system then assumes that it’s a pirated installation and turns off functionality (like the Aero interface, DirectX, and a few other things) — all because Microsoft’s own server infrastructure died. The MS Forums appear to be down right now, but there are reports that the company has promised a fix by Tuesday (wow — three days!), and that users who managed to post to the WGA forum are rightfully outraged by what’s happening.

I’m a person who generally thinks that there’s too much bashing of Microsoft out there, but I have to say that when the company’s anti-piracy features start disabling functionality on legitimately-purchased copies of Windows Vista, all because of an outage on Microsoft’s own end, then every cent of lost business and increased customer support costs is richly deserved.

If the two-day Skype outage from last week was the result of a flaw in Skype’s own software, why did the company only release an updated Windows version of its client? What about the Mac and Linux users — does the robustness of the software on those platforms not matter?

I’ve got a few short takes today, to try to assuage my guilt for being a bit swamped these days (and also to get rid of a few of these tabs in my browser).

Remember the lawsuit Verizon filed against Vonage, threatening to bankrupt the upstart VOIP provider over technology the Baby Bell claimed was its own? It looks like Vonage might have finally rolled out workarounds to all the disputed tech, and also posted better-than-expected financials — which makes me pretty excited, being that I’ve been nothing but satisfied with our service from the company.

I’ve been slowly working my way through Jane Mayer’s amazing New Yorker piece on the CIA “black sites”, and it’s pretty clear that this is a must-read article for those who wish to learn how far our government has taken its torture of detainees in the all-important war on terror. The worst part of it is that at this point, there’s no question that what the public knows only scratches the surface, and that when tomorrow’s historians uncover the full details of this administration’s assaults on fundamental American liberties, we’ll either be aghast or will have long ago given up the right to express our outrage. (Let’s hope for the former.)

It’s amazing, but Apple really does look to be violating the script.aculo.us license on every single page that’s generated by the .Mac photo gallery. Either that, or they’ve struck some licensing agreement with the tool’s author, Thomas Fuchs — but seeing as how script.aculo.us is released under the extremely permissive MIT license, that’d seem unlikely for Apple to have done.

Cool — I hadn’t put two and two together, but Movable Type 4.0 is using Codepress to provide inline syntax highlighting in its template editors, and has extended the tool so that it recognizes all the Movable Type template tags. A long time ago, I bookmarked Codepress so that I’d remember to come back and take a look at it… looks like I don’t have to do that anymore. :)

Finally, this page might be dangerous for me. That is all.

Fascinating: one worthwhile way to speed up your Windows PC’s boot time, according to Jeff Atwood (whose advice I usually find worthwhile), is to disable any antivirus software. Unless you (a) are incredibly secure in your network’s ability to detect and thwart malware and spyware, (b) are 100% secure that there aren’t any undiscovered vulnerabilities in Windows — and in the software you run on your Windows machine — that would allow code to run without your explicit permission, I’d say that that’s pretty solidly some bad advice there.

Tonight brings a few short takes, since I’ve had a few tabs open in my browser for days now waiting for a chance to get ‘em posted.

  • The New York Times published an incredible article last week about the ways the Karitiana Indians feel they have been misled and abused by various medical research teams who have visited the tribe and made promises in return for participation in research. The Karitiana are a tribe from western Brazil and have historically remained relatively isolated and close-knit, and both in the 1970s and 1990s, both these traits led American medical teams to ask for blood in order to study how disease penetrates through generations of families, promising access to modern medicines and care in return. The tribe never received the promised returns on their participation, though, and recently learned that the collected blood and DNA are now being sold by private companies in the United States and France. Needless to say, they’re not pleased.
  • It seems that DirecTV is about to introduce a sorely-needed feature to their high-def DVRs — autocorrection after fast-forwarding, similar to what TiVos have had pretty much forever. This is, bar none, the biggest annoyance of using the HR20 DVR after having had a TiVo for the last seven years, so I’m certainly thrilled that the feature looks to be coming soon! (I’m also excited about next week’s scheduled launch of the DirecTV-10 satellite, which promises to bring a slew of new HD programming to DirecTV users as soon as they’re able to put it through it’s paces in orbit.)
  • A study was published in this month’s Archives of Internal Medicine looking at the effect of doctors talking about themselves during patient visits, and as I’ve come to expect, most of the news coverage misses the nuance and makes sweeping and indefensible conclusions. The study used fake patients and judged their subjective reactions to physicians talking about themselves during first visits; unsurprisingly, most of the “patients” didn’t feel that the physician’s personal chitchat added much value to that visit. Reuters more or less blew off the “first-time patient” detail in its coverage, implying that there wasn’t really ever a place for that kind of doctor-patient conversation during visits, but the study doesn’t say that, and my personal experience is that with longer-term, established patients who might see you once (or more!) a week, there’s certainly a place for occasional personal comments or observations, all of which can help keep the therapeutic team (doctor, patient, nurse, psychosocial providers, etc.) intact and functioning at its best.
  • Finally, I’m really getting excited about Movable Type 4, which is now in beta — damn, are there some great features lurking in there! If I didn’t have such a complicated setup, I’d migrate over this very second. As it is, though, I probably have an hour or two of work ahead of me before I can get my site into MT4 exactly as I want it to be, so I’ll probably wait a week or two, when I can carve a chunk of time out to make the move. I can’t wait!

When home users back up their computers, a lot don’t think about the fact that in some scenarios of data loss, those backups won’t do them any good — the scenarios which involve the loss of both their computer and their backups. (Think home fire, or burglary that involves taking the computer and the external hard disk that contains the backup.) For this reason, one tenet of most corporations’ backup plans is that an entire backup set exists off-site from the machines that are being backed up — safety through separation. There are hundreds of thousands of corporations who have the need to manage this process, so as a result, there’s a market of off-site storage providers that’s expanded and matured in a way that supports the importance of the data that’s being moved into storage. The big players have service agreements that stipulate the time frame in which customers can get their data, they provide reasonable guarantees for the safety of the data, and they put quite a bit of effort into meeting these guarantees.

In today’s day and age, home users are installing internet connections with more and more bandwidth, and this has opened up the potential that these users can actually back up their computers to some off-site location over the internet; unsurprisingly, a group of services has popped up to support this potential, services like .Mac, AT&T Online Vault, Mozy, and Carbonite, and even applications like JungleDisk and Amazon S3 which provide the infrastructure to allow users to take a more customized or do-it-yourself approach to online backups. As we’re talking about backups of people’s data, you’d think that these services would provide similar guarantees about the data’s availability and the services’ reliability, yes? Alas, that appears to be a false assumption. Ed Foster, everyone’s favorite griper, took a look at the end-user license agreements for a few of the online backup services back in mid-February, and he was pretty amazed to find that all the ones he investigated disclaimed pretty much any responsibility for the usability or availability of the backups, or even for the functionality of the services at all. (Granted, at least a few of the services he examined were provided for free — so in the end, you get what you pay for — but others are paid services.) That’s a real shame… but I’d imagine that it’s also an indication that there’s a real market niche waiting for the right company to come in and provide the right level of service.

Shannon and I are in London for the holidays, so in an effort to clear off some of the tabs in my browser, here are some of the things I’ve been hoarding in my bookmarks.

  • The guy behind DallasFood.org did an amazing job over the past month figuring out the sham behind Noka chocolates, and published a ten-part series reporting his results. It’s an amazing bit of investigation, really.
  • Security expert Bruce Schneier finally weighed in on the Automated Targeting System, the U.S. government system that assigns each of us a score which pretends to predict the terror threat we pose. Unsurprisingly, he finds it a waste of money, time, and effort.
  • For those of you considering buying a .Mac account, you might want to read John Siracusa’s rant — it’s written from the perspective of a developer thinking about implementing some of the synchronization features of .Mac, but he also goes into some detail about his disappointment with the service.
  • Anil’s obit of James Brown is a must-read. So go read it.

Ever since moving my life onto a Mac laptop, I’ve been using Apple’s Mail.app as my primary email application. In general, it’s a great program, but for someone like me who has a lot of email folders, it’s a bit irritating using its interface to move messages around — there’s a lot of scrolling of the folder sidebar involved, and no good way to shortcut that process. (Plug-ins like Mail Act-On get part of the way there, but are too specific to solve the more general problem.) Imagine my happiness, then, when I saw Adam Tow’s MsgFiler come across VersionTracker this afternoon… it’s the Mail.app plugin I’ve been dying for someone to write! Within two or three minutes of installing it, I paid the shareware fee and dropped Adam a note expressing my undying gratitude; if you’re as annoyed by Mail.app’s folder handling, I might recommend you do the same.

Update: Wow, that’s weird — two people who impress me on nearly a daily basis, Alex King and John Gruber, both feel the same way about MsgFiler!

One little bit of advice: do yourself a favor and give Firefox 2.0 RC3 a try. Over the past month or two, a few people have told me how much faster the new version of Firefox is when compared with the current v1.5, but I didn’t believe them until I finally got around to installing it last night — it’s amazingly peppy, and it’s been rock stable on the few machines on which I’m now running it. I’ve always found the page rendering part of web browsing to be a bit lethargic on my Macs; Firefox 2 feels comparable to Windows browsing, which is mucho mejor. It’s good enough that I’m changing my default Mac browser back from Safari to Firefox.

(And since my biggest fear about the upgrade ended up not being a big deal at all, I’ll mention that all of the extensions I use regularly — the Google Toolbar, Firebug, Greasemonkey, the del.icio.us extension, the Web Developer Extension — have updates available which are compatible with the new Firefox. The only extension in my installation that didn’t have a Firefox 2-compatible version was Live HTTP Headers; it’s not one I use on a day-to-day basis, though, so I’m OK with leaving it out of my install until it comes up to speed.)

For me, part of moving onto a new job has always been getting electronically settled-in — getting my new email address, figuring out how to connect to my centralized file shares (and asking which of them get backed up regularly!), and learning what other network resources are available for me to use. In my new job, I’ve picked up that keeping my calendar on the central Exchange server is going to be more than a little bit useful… and that it’s probably time for me to figure out once and for all how to make the mishmash of calendars and schedules in my life work together in a way that’s actually usable.

At this very moment, I have bona-fide calendars living in too many different places — on the aforementioned Exchange server at work, within Google Calendar, and on my PalmPilot. Each lives where it does for a reason; the Exchange server is obvious, the Google calendars were started by Shannon and me when we realized that we were desperate for a way to coordinate our lives, and my PalmPilot calendar is my original life planner, with information going all the way back to August 10th, 1998. I also have a few different interfaces for the calendars, like Outlook, Google Calendar, and iCal. Since iCal is the repository for the Palm information (thanks to The Missing Sync) and can pull in the Google Calendar data, it’s as close to a complete picture as I can get in one app… but since it can only read from Google Calendar, and can’t write back to the service, I still have to switch to a web browser a million times a day to add and update that information. As a whole, the situation is as suboptimal as things can get, and I’ve spent the past few weeks trying to figure out a solution that might help me bring everything together in as seamless a way as possible. (Given that I’ll have an additional tool added into the mix in the next week or two, I’m anxious to solve this!)

My ultimate dream setup would be to have my work calendar live on the Exchange server and synchronize to Google, to have my personal calendar living at Google, and to have the ability to use any of the interfaces — Outlook (and Outlook Web Access), GCal, iCal, the BlackBerry — to view and update any of them. Right now, this is hampered by Outlook not natively doing the GCal thing, by iCal only being able to subscribe in a read-only way to GCal, and by me not having the BlackBerry yet (so not knowing what the heck it can do). Something like Remote Calendars might help me on the Outlook/GCal side of things, but it looks like it’d require a Windows machine running Outlook 24/7 in order to make it work the way I want. As for a two-way link between iCal and GCal, there seem to be a lot of stupid hacks out there, but nothing close to prime-time (which is surprising given that the Mac has an extensible synchronization app, iSync, to use as a foundation). I’m not sure that I’ll ever be able to make all these apps play well together, but I’ll fill in the blanks as I try to figure it out.

pushing prerelease software down the pipeline

Wow, do the folks at Microsoft have some balls. My Windows XP desktop box alerted me about a high-priority system update today, an update which turned out to be a new version of the Windows Genuine Advantage Validation Tool. I’ve been asked to install updates to the tool a few times in the past, but this was the first time I’ve also been asked to read and consent to an end-user license agreement. I guess I was teased by the novelty of a license for Microsoft’s anti-piracy tool, so I read a little bit of it, and noticed that it prominently proclaims to be is pre-release software. What the f*@%?

It turns out I’m not the first person to notice this — over at InfoWorld, Ed Foster picked it up and turned it into a Gripe Line post last week, and found a lot of other problems with the license as well, including a ban on users uninstalling the software, and a clear statement saying that Microsoft will not provide any support for the software. Looking at the Microsoft Knowledge Base article about the update, there’s no mention of it being pre-release software, and the Windows Update installer never notifies users (in a way other than buried in a EULA) that this is an optional installation of less-than-adequately tested software for which users will receive no support and no uninstallation capabilities in the case of problems. I find this all — the pushing of pre-release software out as a high-priority Windows Update, and the inclusion of terms in that software which make it hard to stomach — pretty odd and incredibly sleazy.

A ruling came out of the Florida courts yesterday that’s managed to pique my interest a bit. In the case, a group of accused drunk drivers requested access to the program code for the breathalyzer that was used to document their blood alcohol levels; the court agreed with their request, and ordered the state to provide them with the code. The kicker is that the manufacturer of the breathalyzer claims the source code as a trade secret and is refusing to surrender it to the state, meaning that all of the drunk driving convictions obtained by using the device can now be called into question (and potentially overturned).

To me, this makes perfect sense. If a tool is going to be used to document some fact that’s used to make decisions about right and wrong — criminal and legal — then that tool better be as transparent as possible so that experts can be sure it works the way it’s advertised. In medicine, we would never make clinical decisions based on experimental or unverified test results; in fact, there’s an entire certification process through which new laboratory tests must be put before they can be used to make clinical decisions, and that process forces the people who develop and manufacture the tests to open their processes up to independent experts for verification. Why should the criminal justice system treat tools used to gather evidence in a different manner? (This is all the more important in the Florida case, as the breathalyzer in question has a questionable accuracy record (PDF), and was even subject to a recent software recall.) Conversely, why would a police department feel comfortable using a tool that operates in a completely hidden, unverifiable way?

It makes me happy when rigorous scientific standards find their way into places they logically belong.

Digital photography maven Rob Galbraith has written a good quasi-review for Aperture, the professional photo workflow app announced by Apple early last month. I’ve been reading a ton about Aperture over the past few weeks, both because of the weblog world’s jittery excitement about the product (as is usually the case with anything manufactured or authored by Apple) and because I’m becoming more and more frustrated with the shortcomings of Apple’s consumer-level entry in the arena, iPhoto. Aperture looks like, in some respects, it’ll be the Real Deal — version control for any photo imported into its library, internal handling of each camera’s RAW files, management of embedded caption information, reasonable color management, and a workflow which acknowledges that many people will continue to use external photo editing apps (e.g., Photoshop) to work on files that are managed by Aperture. I agree with a few of the downsides mentioned by Galbraith, though, like that Aperture doesn’t have the ability to manage photos that aren’t on a currently-accessible disc and that it’s reasonably clear you’ll need a pretty fast, dual-processor Mac (with a huge hard disk!) to take advantage of Aperture in the first place. Looking at how far iTunes and iPhoto have come from their version 1.0 days, though, I’m still excited to see with Aperture 1.0 (if I can corral a Mac that’s up to spec) and put it through its paces a bit.

It looks like Mint now has a license, and while it’s a great start, it seems to still be silent on a few important questions. There’s nothing in the license about whether buyers have the right to upgrades (but oddly, the license contains definitions of both “update” and “upgrade” at the bottom, making it clear that there’s a distinction between the two and implying that buyers will be entitled to one with their license but will have to renew in order to have access to the other). There’s also no mention in the license of technical support (whether buyers get any), duration of use (whether there is any limit on the time period during which buyers use Mint), or the use of personal information (which is almost always covered by some additional privacy policy document, but also usually mentioned in the license). There’s a restriction on using Mint “to provide services to others,” but no corresponding commercial license that would allow that, and no obvious way for a web host to offer Mint to its customers even if it had the customers pay the license fee themselves.

Like I said, this is definitely a good start, but it highlights how difficult it can be to write for-sale software as an independent programmer. I certainly don’t think that Shaun has omitted anything from the license on purpose; rather, it’s likely that he was caught in the whirlwind of excitement about his new web app, and is now having to figure out how to split his finite time amongst the seemingly infinite need to fix bugs, handle payment issues, field support requests, and figure out the terms by which he’s releasing Mint to the public. It’s not a position I envy!

Over the past two days, it’s been hard not to notice the excitement around the world of weblogs about Mint, Shaun Inman’s new web stats app. I’ll admit that after reading some of the posts by Mint’s beta testers, I was firmly in the camp of the intrigued; the application appears to provide a nice, modern interface to the stats about website usage that I currently view using the very capable but reasonably archaic Webalizer, and Mint’s incorporation of Ajax appeals to the web designer in me that likes to follow the leading-edge examples of current technology. But it didn’t take long for my excitement to wane — in fact, it came crashing to the ground as soon as I realized that Mint costs money (the reasonable sum of $30) but doesn’t have a license that tells you what you’re getting for your money. There’s no license available on the website pre-sale, and from the accounts of about three or four people who’ve bought it over the past two days, not only is there no license available on the website post-sale, there’s no license included in the downloaded app either. So to date, those that have bought Mint have done so not knowing if they have the right to use it indefinitely, if they’ll have access to support, if they will be able to move their installation of Mint to another domain name in the future, or even if they’ll have access to new versions or updates.

After all the uproar over the change in terms of the Movable Type license back a year and a half ago, I figured that webloggers had figured out that licenses matter, and that they should pay at least half a mind to the terms by which they were agreeing to use products that they integrate into their websites. Alas, it appears that a year and a half is enough time for people to forget those lessons.

In response to an irritating problem I’m having with my two new Mac servers, I called Apple for support today, and have to say I’m less than impressed.

First, to explain the problem: both of my machines are wired on a network, and while the network has the capability of serving up IP addresses via DHCP, I have to configure the addresses manually on these two machines. (They both require specific addresses that are mapped to specific hostnames, and the networking people currently don’t provide a way to make sure a certain machine gets a specific IP address via DHCP. I know, it’s stupid, but alas.) Since setting up the machines, I’ve noticed that every attempt to resolve a DNS name takes between five and ten seconds, which makes surfing the web painful. I debugged the problem as best as I could, which included running tests using every single nameserver that exists on our network, manipulating the Ethernet link settings using every possible combination of options, and setting up a packet sniffer to see what what happening at the network level, all to no avail. The last thing I did was (temporarily) switch to DHCP for getting an address, and lo and behold, everything worked beautifully. I changed back to using a manual address and everything broke again; I again switched to DHCP and the problem evaporated. I then switched to manually entering the exact same settings that I obtained via DHCP, and name lookups took forever, and I was stumped. (It turns out that a lot of people are stumped on this one — just visit Apple’s discussion forums and search for “slow DNS” to see what I mean.)

So, I called Apple and got a first-line support rep. He quickly — within about 90 seconds — recognized that he had no idea what I was talking about, and about five minutes into my call, he transferred me to an “upper-level support rep” who would be able to further help me. This upper-level support rep, though, turned out to know absolutely nothing about networking, and started to spout total fabrications at me faster than I could even write them down. My three favorites:

  • “It sounds like the problem is in looking up names from the network, and as you know, this is something that doesn’t have anything to do with what an operating system does. We just provide the software that is on your computer.”
  • “When you use DHCP, you’re using a technology that is much more complicated than ‘regular’ DNS, and you should expect things to work differently.”
  • “This behavior is by design, sir — looking up host names takes longer via DHCP because it uses an entirely different technology to do so.” (This was my #1 favorite, and led me to ask him if my car should drive any different when I fill it with gas versus when a station attendant does the filling. He didn’t get it.)

Throughout the phone call, I kept trying to find ways to remind the rep without being rude that I’ve been working with networking technologies for almost 15 years and that he wasn’t making any sense. He just kept reiterating that it was “unfortunate” that I didn’t like his answers but that that “doesn’t make them any less true.” I finally asked to speak with the next level of support, and this is where he sealed his fate — he said that there wasn’t anything beyond him, and that while he’d be happy to “note in my help ticket” that I was dissatisfied with his answer, there was no further level of support available to me. I suggested that that was unlikely to be true, and he said that it was again unfortunate I didn’t like his answer. At that point, I verified my ticket number and said a polite goodbye.

Those of you who either know me or have read QDN for any length of time know what I did next — I promptly looked up Apple’s corporate number in Cupertino (it’s (408) 996-1010) and called. It was immediately answered by a polite woman who listened to my 20-second blurb and put me directly into the “escalation department” queue, and under a minute later I was speaking with someone who was quite apologetic. He took my information and got me to a network support engineer who actually did know what he was talking about, but didn’t seem to believe that my problem was an operating system-related thing until I pointed out all the discussion forum threads about the issue. Even then, it wasn’t until I decided to disable IPv6 on one of the machines — and saw a brief name resolution speed increase — that he was willing to entertain the notion that OS X could be part of the problem. We agreed that I’d continue to test things out over the weekend and that we’d touch base again next week with an update.

In the end, it was only my willingness to continue to push (and to make a long-distance call to Apple HQ) that put me in touch with a support engineer who knew his ass from a hole in the wall. Given that fact, I’m certain that for every person like me there are 50 others that don’t get beyond a clueless rep who’s unable to admit his own ignorance and unwilling to grant access to the next level of support. In the end, it’s sad, because Apple’s left with customers who are frustrated, tech reps who continue to dish out bad support, and operating system bugs that remain unfixed — the worst of all possible outcomes.

I’m keeping this post as a running list of the applications I’m running on my Powerbook that might need to be updated when I install Tiger (OS X 10.4) next week. Truthfully, it’s a list of the applications that I use on anything more than a once-yearly basis, with information about whether the author has released a Tiger-related update. If anyone has more information about anything listed, or I’ve noted something that isn’t correct, feel free to leave comments!

As soon as my TiVo downloaded the latest operating system and enabled TiVoToGo, I downloaded the trial version of Sonic’s MyDVD that includes support for burning the TiVo files to DVDs. For the most part, the software worked — despite an incredibly slow transcoding process, out of the ten or twenty shows that I tried to burn to disc, only two or three of them failed. (I wasn’t ever able to get MyDVD to burn non-TiVo videos to disc reliably, but that’s another story entirely.) All in all, I’d have to say that at the end of my trial period (last week), I was just where Sonic wanted me — ready to send them money to buy the full version of MyDVD.

Alas, that’s when I started reading the TiVo Community forums, and came across a post that described someone’s experience with what happens when a computer’s clock accidentally gets changed during a MyDVD trial period. After resetting the clock to the correct date, MyDVD still wouldn’t work; uninstalling and reinstalling it didn’t fix the problem either, and Sonic didn’t reply to requests for help. In the thread, someone mentioned that installing MyDVD created a few registry keys and directories on their computer that referenced “PACE Anti-Piracy,” and I filed that little fact away to look into later, before deciding whether I’d buy the software.

Today’s when I looked into it, and I’d have to say it’s opened my eyes a little bit. It turns out PACE Anti-Piracy is a company that develops applications which can enforce trial periods and other restrictions on downloaded software. That’s all fine — companies should be able to release trial-period software without knowing that they’re going to lose business to people who figure out how to get around the restriction — but it also turns out that PACE does a bit more. According to this page by an end-user and PACE’s own documentation (PDF file), the software installs a kernel-level driver onto your Windows machine, does its best to blend into the woodwork (the device driver is named “TPKD”, the support files get buried in a common-apps directory, and at no point in the its process of validating a trial period does it display its name or other information to the user), and uses some method of compiling unique information about your computer in order to do its anti-piracy thing. And there’s no obvious way to get the PACE Anti-Piracy software off of your computer once it’s there.

So in this specific case, I installed MyDVD and had no idea that I was also installing another company’s application that includes a kernel-level driver and doesn’t include any mechanism for uninstallation. The MyDVD website omits this fact, as does the email that I received with my trial serial number and the clickwrap license to which I had to agree during the installation. Hell, even the Sonic privacy policy talks about their use of updater software that sends out information about your computer, but is silent on the fact that they also install another company’s apps alongside their own that could be doing pretty much anything. (Where I come from, they call that spyware.) This all doesn’t sit well with me; I guess I’ve swung from being a ready, willing Sonic customer to being a person who’s unlikely to spend any money at all with the company unless they clean up their process of giving customers complete information.

Count me in with Norvy and Cory; I’ve been successfully using Quicken 2001 for the past three and a half years, and if Intuit really intends to disable my ability to use it online come April, then what I interpret that as is telling me that I can’t trust them to sell me a product that I can count on. Intuit says that they retire products in this manner in order to “focus resources on enhancing our products and providing support for more current versions”; my version of that statement is that I’m going to retire my patronage of Intuit in order to focus my support on companies that don’t pull the rug out from under me.

In an effort to perhaps save people the seven hours I wasted this weekend, I share these two secrets with you:

Let’s back up a little bit. Shannon and I went down to New York City this weekend, to watch Alaina (and Dave and Meg!) run the Marathon, and to help my brother and sister-in-law get settled into their new apartment. One of my jobs was to get their wireless network set up, and since they needed to extend the range of the network a little bit, to figure out the best way to do this. While I’m comfortable enough hacking my way around Linksys access points and getting them to serve as repeaters, I figured that I shouldn’t subject them to alternative firmwares and dodgy power boosting, so I read a little bit about the options and settled on the WRE54G as an extender for their Linksys 802.11g access point.

Now, to set up a WRE54G, you have to run a proprietary application on a Windows machine that is connected (wirelessly) to the access point you want to extend. This seemed simple enough, so I powered up one of their laptops, verified that the Linksys PC card could talk to and use the access point, and then ran the setup app. It immediately complained that it couldn’t find the wireless card; oddly, I could then open up Internet Explorer and surf the net with reckless abandon, so I knew that there wasn’t really a problem with the wireless card. As a result, I figured that the issue had to be related to running an older version of the PC card drivers, and headed over to the Linksys website for the latest version. After installing them, though, the computer wouldn’t use the wireless card at all, and kept throwing up weird error messages (some new application, ODHOST, could not stop bitching and moaning). They also wouldn’t uninstall, crashing during the uninstallation process.

I spent a LOT of time trying to debug this, including spending 45 minutes on the phone with two Linksys tech support agents who couldn’t grasp that their uninstaller was crashing. (Them: “But why don’t you just uninstall them?” Me: *whacks head against marble countertop repeatedly*) The agents ended up concluding that there was nothing they could do to help, and that the best they could do was have someone else call me back at a later, unknown date. (*whack whack whack*) I finally tracked down this Broadband Reports thread in which someone else wasn’t ever able to get them working on Windows ME, and a lightbulb went off; I asked my brother if he had held onto the original CD that came with the card, and when he dug it out of a box, I reinstalled the drivers on it and everything went back to working fine. Of course, I was still unable to run the WRE54G setup application, the problem that got everything rolling in the first place.

I decided to try their other laptop, which runs on Windows XP. This time, the setup application ran fine through the first few steps, but when it got to the place where it scanned to see if it could find the WRE54G, it crashed every time and left me without a wireless connection at all. The connection came back when I rebooted, but the crash was reproducible every time. I again decided to give a driver update a chance, and made some progress — after that, the setup application was able to scan all visible wireless networks to try to find the WRE54G, but it claimed that it was unable to find it. I reset the device, to no avail, and then just gave up.

The whole time I was working on the equipment, my brother kept asking how Linksys expects normal customers to be able to set this stuff up. And after my experience, I can honestly say that I haven’t a clue — between their drivers and setup applications being incompatible, their drivers plain not working, and their buggy setup and uninstallation utilities, it’s impossible for even a seasoned network professional to get everything working, much less a casual home user. It’s a shame; Linksys is owned by one of the best networking companies in the world, and I’d expect better of them.