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The Northern Spy
October 2003

Navigating Through Fire and Rain

Rick Sutcliffe

British Columbia's worst ever forest fires turned to heavy rain and floods this month. Likewise, the Internet fires that burned a month ago have given way to the normal wash of junk eMail promising everything from eternal life in this body to better sex, mortgages and joint bank accounts with Nigerian gangsters. And if you want off the list, click here and we'll send you ten times as much trash. There must be a sucker signed up every millisecond for there to be anyone left who hasn't brushed off this nonsense long ago.

Surely the law of diminishing returns has set now that every person, dog, and parakeet on the planet has received forty thousand copies of every possible permutation of scamspam and MS virus. Or is it still worth it to send out twenty billion phoney pleas for money or thirty billion worm attachments in the hopes of inducing one poor ignorant soul to part with his or her credit union account, sanity, or hard drive?

No fear the Spy, for he sits behind firewalls, filters, and a Mac, but the mere fact of being connected to the net has become a threat. Will eMail (and even the Internet itself disappear under the torrent of vandalism? Are there any honest people left doing business out there? Would you both drop Nellie a line, please? Don't bother sending me eMail; it won't likely make it through filters that now remove more then 97% of all that arrives at the server.

And, don't give us that line about free speech. Your right to that ends at our overflowing inboxes, terminated by our right not to listen to your trashy, phoney promotions. Oh for the kinder, gentler days of the original Internet. But, of course, that was before the web was invented, too.

From the rooftops

Before leaving the subject of eMail, however, the Spy notes that in one or another of his personae he occasionally receives rather hot, or delicate personal messages--not spam, but genuine eMail from people who discuss sensitive or confidential matters as though their eMail were private.

It's not of course. Suppose the typical eMail message traverses six systems between sender and receiver, each one part of an establishment with an average of four techie types on hand at any one time (more next shift). Any of those more than thirty people have access to the message contents. Many more could request and receive access if they wanted to. And, they often do, to settle lawsuits, divorce cases, or criminal investigations. For such reasons, most organizations file all eMail messages transmitted through their systems against the day a process server might show up at the door and demand they be delivered over for scrutiny.

So, unless the eMail you wrote to your porn site webmaster, paramour, bookie, sex shop proprietor, terror organization, or the FBI is either heavily encrypted or can be safely shouted out to an average classroom or small church full of people, don't send it. You'd effectively be making an almost unlimited number of copies.

Much the same is true of your surfing habits. It's one thing to end up at a questionable site by accident (very rare, but theoretically possible; it's happened to me once.) But if your pattern of surfing is to visit sex sites, sooner or later that will become public knowledge, for the electronic trail is there for any reasonable competent person to read your character like a book.

Fer instance, the Spy also wears the hat of hostmaster over at WebNameHost.com. System logs can tell him who is mailing what to whom, and were his machine in the line of packet transmission between you and your surf destinations, it would be a simple matter to watch all that you do.

That is, the basic premise of the information age is that anyone can find out anything about anybody. Forget privacy. There's nothing private except a communication not made, only rough estimates on degrees of publicity. A verbal conversation conducted on the telephone is quasi-private (less so if on a cell or wireless), as is a letter committed to paper and burned after being read. A personal verbal chat is as private as the absence of bugs in the room and the reliability of the listener. But the only private communication is silent prayers; everything else one says or writes has public potential, eMail moreso than most.

Is the loss of privacy a bad thing? Not if one has nothing to hide. Can anything be done about it? No. We have to get used to the fact that everything we do or say is a matter of public record, and act accordingly. Since nothing can be hidden, perhaps people will become more transparent.

Where's the beefs?

It had been the Spy's intention to revisit the advocacy thing by doing research on Mac vs Windoze total cost, productivity, and satisfaction studies. However, this is proving harder than anticipated, and may have to wait a month or two. Not that there's any shortage of opinions out there, but the only available research favours the Mac so one sidedly in nearly all categories that he wanted some countervail. However, so far he hasn't turned up a single study purporting to demonstrate a Wintel advantage over the Mac (other than nominal speed and initial purchase price, both of which are easily subsumed in related factors). Anyone know of such research?

On a gentler note, Apple continues to shower new products on eager customers who cannot wait to congratulate themselves for making the decision to go with a company that still has life, breath, innovation and profits, not to mention good press. The G5 desktops have shipped, the new G4 portable iteration is available, and only the new servers remain under wraps. Panther is available, and will probably have its first rev by the time these words hit the light of day.

Apart from hardware and OS, however, not much has changed. The Spy still runs Online Bible, MPW, NisusWriter, and FileMaker in classic mode because aspects of their functionality are unavailable in X. Online Bible and the p1 (MPW) compiler promise X versions either before the end of 2003 or soon now. NisusWriterExpress remains a partially finished product lacking many of NisusWriter Classic's features, and FileMaker six wants to convert databases into a format that cannot be read on legacy OS 9 machines (that cannot be upgraded to the new version) still running FM version 4 (of which the Spy still uses two. After all churches cannot buy new hardware very often.)

The bottom line: Why would the Spy scrap his old and sometimes balky but functional sixteen inch Poulin chainsaw for a brand new one if he can't at the same time upgrade to a twenty inch bar and a bigger engine so as to cut thicker logs? Better to file the old chain one more time, then buy a new chain to last till the old girl coughs out her last cloud of smoke and sawdust. (Obviously he has another life to live and other decisions to make. Now, where was that bottle of chain oil?)

One could make similar arguments about OS X itself, but Panther's finder improvements go a long way toward answering this complaint. Having the list of disks (and anything else one desires) available in every Finder window is a tremendous navigational aid. It falls short of true utility however. So also does the uni-dimensional dock, which lacks sufficient real estate for navigating a power user's complex machine.

Drop or Drag

Until recently, the Spy employed Sig Software's excellent Drop Drawers to fill in the gaps and speed up travel about the system. However, Drop Drawers has always been somewhat fragile, trashing its preferences and corrupting drawer information somewhat too often to be termed truly robust. (To recover, quit and relaunch, log out and in, shut down and restart, or trash preferences and rebuild them, in escalating order of desperation. Sometimes, throw away a drawer and build a replacement. No, the Spy does not know why.)

So, when frequent unexpected quits and corrupted preferences recently became frequent enough to interfere with the workflow, it became time to consider alternatives. The Spy dusted off his old serial number for competitor James Thomson's (TLA Systems) Drag Thing, installed the latest copy and gave it a whirl. Turned out in the two years he'd left it in the bit bucket, a major upgrade had been declared so a small fee was due to unlock all the features (including the very first one he tried to use).

That tended to, Drag Thing turned out to have almost all the functionality of (and somewhat more configurability than) Drop Drawers. One exception was that Drag Thing does not have clips, that is dock slots containing text that is inserted into the current application on clicking. OTOH, it does have the option to have a trashcan on the desktop, and a preconfigured dock displaying the currently mounted drives, something Drop Drawers requires one to do manually. Moreover, it allows a preconfigured dock with a panel for every currently open window, which is a nice new navigational touch. Finally its docks can individually be changed to drawers should the user desire. Neither product allows drags to a folder or disk icon in a dock (drawer) to open the folder and permit navigation, then drop the item. Ah, well.

Is drag Thing more stable than Drop Drawers? So far, yes. It is also has a (IMHO) richer selection of configuration options for colour, texture, sounds, and hot keys. So despite the slight shortage of functionality (partly balanced off), give the lad an A for this effort. Recommended, but with the usual caveat emptor that the reader do his/her own due diligence. After all, if you share the Spy's opinions and tastes entirely, one of us is redundant.

All in all, Panther, with a little help from its friends, is gradually becoming as friendly an OS, and as easy to get around in, as OS 9 was. Since it has far more power, speed, and out-of-the-box utility in other areas, it is now a must buy. Oh, and did the spy mention 64 bits? And, Windows fans could try Panther for a sneak preview of Longhorn, supposedly coming in 06 or 07, though we're not sure which century.

'Nuff said for this month. There's a candidate to interview for a full time tenure track position at the university, web sites to update, exams to mark, hosting customers tickets to attend to, and characters in the next novel in his Irish Christian SF series to rescue from a jam.

--The Northern Spy

URLs referenced

Sig Software (Drop Drawers) http://www.sigsoftware.com/

TLA Systems (Drag Thing) http://www.dragthing.com/

WebNameHost http://www.WebNameHost.net

Arjay Books http://www.ArjayBooks.com

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Last Updated: 2006 11 08