A different sort of spring cleaning: keyboards

A pocket knife, Q-tips, a toothbrush, paper towels, rubbing alcohol and dishwashing soap aren’t normal computing accessories, but I needed all six the other week when I gave the keyboards on my iMac, my MacBook Air and my mom’s old 2006-vintage iMac a desperately-overdue cleaning.

2006 iMac keyboard strippedWith the old iMac that Mom had retired in favor of an iPad Air, I had to get the keyboard looking decent before I could think of donating it anywhere. (If I’m overlooking potential buyers for a 10-year-old Mac, please tell me who they are in the comments.) With the other two, I was simply tired of seeing what a slob I am every time I stared down at the keyboard–the iMac’s keys had gotten especially begrimed over the last few years.

On the vintage iMac, the process was no different from the one I outlined in a 2006 column for the Post: Unplug the keyboard, pry the keys off and hand-wash them in the sink, and carefully scrub out the recessed area below. That last task required some painstaking work with a toothbrush to get out all the dirt that had piled up in that recessed area.

On the other two Macs, there was no removing the keys, so I had to use paper towels dipped in rubbing alcohol–it dries almost instantly–to swab the tops of the keys, then run a Q-tip dipped in the same to clean the gaps between them and get some of the dirt off their sides. Of course, now that I look at the iMac keyboard I’m typing this on, I see I missed a few spots.

(The How-To Geek has a guide to cleaning keyboards that should come with a trigger warning for its disgusting photos of Superfund-site keyboards. It does not, however, mention one recourse that I once tried with eventual success: sticking the keyboard in a dishwasher.)

After less than an hour of effort, I had all three keyboards in a state that no longer had me appalled at my own greasy, grimy slovenliness. And I had a renewed appreciation for what should now be a basic rule of multitasking: If you must eat while doing something on a computer, please make that a device a tablet or a smartphone, where you only need to wipe the screen clean.

Possible upside of Safari’s memory-hogging ways? Teaching me to appreciate inner peace.

Sometime in the last year or two, my least favorite three-word phrase in all of computing became “Safari Web Content.” That’s the component of Apple’s browser that appears red in OS X’s Activity Monitor app–normally, you see the address of the Web page being displayed by this process–when it stops responding and starts locking up the rest of the Mac.

OS X Activity Monitor Safari run amokWhich it does all the time, even in the El Capitan release that was supposed to be all about bug fixes. Having spent more than decade in the “classic” Mac OS, in which we just accepted that any errant application could take out the computer, I find it intensely annoying to meet the same problem over 15 years after the advent of OS X and its move to “preemptive multitasking.”

My usual routine when I see OS X once again seize up is to flip over to Activity Monitor–which sometimes requires a wait for Safari to loosen its death grip on the system–and start force-quitting the stuck Safari Web Content processes, if I’m not looking at a screenful of them. If I do see a screenful, I’ll force-quit the whole damn browser.

(Before you say “switch to Chrome,” I find that Safari integrates with OS X better in some ways–and Google’s browser can be a memory hog too.)

This usually leads to lengthy bouts of swearing, about which I’m getting increasingly embarrassed. Yes, I work from home and nobody is around to object to a stream of curses (which was not the case in the Post’s newsroom; sorry, Posties), but I also realize I’m being an idiot. The computer has no feelings; it doesn’t care how many f-bombs I direct at it. And all this nerd rage can’t be good for my health anyway.

So while I wait and wait for Apple’s developers to bring their browser to heel, I am trying to learn to chill. To slowly inhale and exhale and to listen to the sound of my breathing, to look up from the screen so I can gaze at the trees and the sky outside, to stand up and stretch, to in general not give in to the Dark Side. Do you have any advice about how I might better do that? Please share it in the comments.


CES 2016 travel-tech report: Where did the battery anxiety go?

Something bizarre happened at this year’s CES, my 19th in a row: Neither my laptop nor my phone ever got into the red-line zone that leads me to start frantically searching for a power outlet.

My phone is only a few months old and so offers much better battery life than its predecessor, but my laptop is the same old MacBook Air I’ve had since 2012. Maybe I’ve learned something about power discipline; maybe the butt-in-chair time required to write all the stories I owed to various clients ensured sufficient opportunity to keep my devices topped off.

CES 2016 gadgetsI’m going to go with the second explanation.

Also strange: I never needed to break out the travel power strip I always bring to CES.

I did have one lesser power scare: I left my phone’s charger in a restaurant, and it’s not like I can count on random passerby having a USB-C charger. Fortunately, I’m not a complete idiot and had an extra USB-C adapter cable on me, and the restaurant’s staff found the charger and had it waiting at the hostess stand when I stopped by the next evening.

But while the electrons may have been obliging for once, other tech annoyances persisted. OS X’s curiously inept multitasking left my laptop locked up by runaway browser processes more than once (does the phrase “Safari Web Content” make your blood boil too?), while my phone twice showed a no-SIM-present error that I elected to dispel with a reboot.

Bandwidth was mostly fine except for Thursday, when neither my phone nor the two LTE hotspots I’d been testing as part of an update to a Wirecutter guide could get any useful bandwidth in the Sands. I had to camp out on a chair next to a loading dock to get back online.

The Nexus 5X’s camera was a massive upgrade over the Nexus 4 imaging hardware I carried last year, but I still took the bulk of my photos with my aging Canon 330 HS. I’m pretty sure that this is my last CES with this camera–although it still takes better photos overall than my phone, its lack of a built-in panorama mode is annoying, and I’m sick of invoking its photo-plus-video “Hybrid Auto” mode by mistake.

While I’m figuring out what camera will replace this Canon, I also need to think seriously about the software I use on my computer to edit and share pictures taken with a “real” camera. Apple’s Photos is a good image editor, but as an organizer it’s awful. Because its broken sharing feature ignores photo titles and descriptions when uploading images to Flickr–and because you can’t right-click a photo in the app to jump to its Finder folder–I had to export all 74 shots in my CES album to the Finder, then drag and drop them into Flickr from there.

If Apple doesn’t fix this app, I need to use something else. But what? Please share your own suggestions–and no, I’m not going to buy Photoshop for this–in the comments.


El Capitan errata

Ten days ago I upgraded my MacBook Air to Apple’s new OS X El Capitan, and a day later I did the same on this iMac. The experience has been a little rocky so far:

El Capitan beachball cursor• I’m still seeing the spinning-beachball cursor way too often, and for steps that shouldn’t particularly tax either computer’s processor or flood its memory. Having it look different does not help.

• While Mail no longer randomly bounces me months back in a particular folder when I select it, it’s exhibiting a more annoying malfunction: When I move or delete messages in either of my Google Apps accounts, they pop back into their original inbox for a moment before being swept away a second or too later.

• Time Machine still can’t do math. On this iMac, it’s complaining that the backup volume is full–even after I’ve removed more than 150 gigabytes of data from its backup set. Dear Apple: I am not interested in buying a new hard drive because your backup utility doesn’t know how to subtract.

OS X El Capitan about box• Some random malfunction has caused every item in Address Book–both individual contacts and contacts groups–to get duplicated. I’m going to assume this is iCloud’s fault.

• Safari continues to randomly pop tabs into their own separate window. This bug has now persisted through different OS X releases, and I know I’m not the only one to complain about it. Alas, its cause and how to end it remain mysteries to me.

• Safari remains vulnerable to locking up the entire machine when Safari Web Content processes start to gobble memory; short of force-quitting Safari, my only remedy is to bring up Activity Monitor and force-quit the offenders, one at a time. But hey, at least I can finally silence the audio that started randomly playing in some other tab.

I had hoped that this deliberately incremental release of OS X would bring a renewed and overdue focus on software quality in OS X, but so far I’m not seeing it. Are you?

Installing Windows 10 on an old, slow ThinkPad: success, mostly

I asked for trouble Thursday night and didn’t get it: I installed Windows 10 without first backing up the PC, then I blithely accepted every default setting during the setup, and things pretty much worked out.
Windows 10 desktop with notificationsThe machine in question was the ThinkPad X120e I bought in the spring of 2011. It got me through my first year of freelancing, but I’ve since relegated it to fact-checking duties when I cover a Windows topic. Its cut-rate AMD processor is too slow, and the SSD I put in place of its original hard drive–mostly as a research project–is short on space after I reserved a partition for a Linux install I have yet to undertake.
(I should have spent extra on a more robust configuration. In my defense, I was unemployed at the time.)
But even a slow, wheezing laptop running Windows 10 had to be an upgrade over a slow, wheezing laptop running Windows 8. So after waiting a day for Microsoft to deliver the free Win 10 upgrade I’d reserved, I used Whitson Gordon’s tip at Lifehacker to download it myself. The Get Windows 10 app had already confirmed my ThinkPad was compatible, leaving my only required pre-install chore clearing out room on the SSD. The disk-cleanup wizard got maybe a quarter of the job done, and I took care of the rest by moving out some old videos.
After the installer checked for and downloaded some updates, I went ahead with the installation at 10:36 p.m. Here’s my log of what happened next:
• Step one: yet another round of checking for updates.
• Actual install, in which I went with the default of keeping personal files and apps, began 10:42.
• 11:16: First reboot.
• 11:18: “Upgrading Windows: Your PC will restart several times. Sit back and relax.”
• After being seemingly stuck at 88% of the copying-files stage, another reboot at 12:04 a.m. put me at 30% complete overall and in the “Installing features and drivers” phase.
• 12:22: One more reboot.
• 12:36: After another reboot, the machine welcomed by name and asked if I wanted to use Microsoft’s “Express Settings.” Sure, why not?
• 12:39: “Hi. We’re setting things up for you. This won’t take long.”
• My one moment of anxiety: “It’s taking a bit longer than usual, but it should be ready soon.” Below it, in smaller type: “Don’t turn off your PC.”
• 12:47: Voila, the computer booted into the Windows 10 desktop!
Windows 10 storage settingsThis was nothing like my nightmarish experiences loading the preview version of Windows 8 and the insanely prolonged installation of the final build–I feel tired just reading my notes about that ordeal. This upgrade also went by faster than Windows 8.1’s installation, which somehow dragged on for two hours and 35 minutes.

Two days later, the ThinkPad seems to be running fine and is unquestionably more pleasant to be around than when it ran Win 8. The only real issue I’ve seen is that Cortana is slow to respond and hasn’t talked me to except when I was adjusting a few of her settings. I don’t know why that is but am not inclined to work too hard to fix it, since this laptop is overdue for an upgrade anyway.

On the other hand, I only see a few Windows 10 laptops with USB-C power inputs. (Have I mentioned I don’t like proprietary AC adapters?) So maybe I’ll be spending a little more seeing how Windows 10 runs on this old thing. I suppose this also means I should finally pick a Linux distribution to put on that spare partition.

It’s 2015, and I still use RSS (and sometimes even bookmarks)

A couple of weeks ago, I belatedly decided that it was time to catch up on my RSS reading–and try to stay caught up on my Web feeds instead of once again letting the unread-articles count ascend to four-digit altitudes.

RSS Twitter Google Now iconsAfter a couple of days of reacquainting myself with using various RSS apps to read the latest posts at my designated favorite sites, I had another overdue realization: Much as Winston Churchill said of democracy, RSS remains the worst way to keep up with what’s new on the Web, except for all the others.

“Really Simple Syndication,” a standard through which sites can automatically notify an RSS client about each new post, is old-in-Web-years and unfashionable. But it retains a few core advantages over its alleged replacements. One is control: my RSS feed only shows the sites I’ve added, not somebody else’s idea of what I should know. Another is what I’ll call a tolerance of time: A site that only posts an update a week is less likely to get lost when it occupies its own folder in the defined space of my RSS feed.

The third, maybe most important feature: Nobody owns RSS. When Google shut down Google Reader, I could export my subscriptions and move them to any other RSS host. I went with Feedly and have since been contentedly using that site’s free iOS and Android apps and the third-party Mac program ReadKit ($6.99 then, now $9.99).

I know many people now employ Twitter as their news feed, but I can’t make that work. I love Twitter as a social space, but in practice it’s been a miserable way to get the news. That’s not the fault of the service or its interface, but because it’s full of humans who often get excited about the same things that are really important to them in particular. The result: constant outbreaks of banter about inconsequential-to-normal-people developments like the addition of custom emoji to a chat-room app.

Twitter does help me learn about things happening outside of my usual reading habits, alerts me to breaking news hours faster than RSS and provides an incredibly useful way to talk to readers and hear from them. And yet the more I lean on Twitter as a communications channel, the worse it functions as a news mechanism.

(Facebook… oh, God, no. The News Feed filter I need there most would screen out all updates sharing outside content, so I’d only see things written, photographed or recorded by friends instead of an endless stream of links to content posted in the hope that it will go viral.)

Google Now’s cards for “Research topics,” “Stories to read,” and “New content available” can serve as an RSS substitute in some contexts. Unlike RSS, they’re not stuck with your last settings change and instead adjust to reflect where Google sees your attention wandering and where readers have clicked at the sites you visit. And unlike Twitter, these cards don’t get overrun with me-too content.

But relying on Google Now puts me further in Google’s embraces, and I think I give that company enough business already. (I’m quasi-dreading seeing cards about “RSS” and “Google Now” showing up in Google Now, based on my searches for this post.) It’s also a proprietary and closed system, unlike RSS.

I do appreciate Now as a tool to help me decide what sites deserve a spot in my RSS feed–and, by virtue of Feedly’s recent integration with Google Now, as a way to spotlight popular topics in my RSS that merit reading before others.

Safari favorites headingAs I was going over this reevaluation of my info-grazing habits, I realized that I haven’t even gotten out of the habit of using bookmarks in my browsers. Yes, bookmarks! They remain a major part of my experience of Safari and the mobile version of Chrome–thought not, for whatever reason, the desktop edition.

Mine are embarrassingly untended, littered with lapsed memberships and defunct sites. But they also let me get to favorite sites by muscle memory and without excessive reliance on auto-complete (less helpful for going straight to a particular page on a site) and search (like I said, Google gets enough of my time already).

And my bookmarks would work better if there weren’t so many of them. I really should edit them today… right after I see if my signature file needs new ASCII art.

“Damn you OS X autocorrect,” corporate-brands edition

I know, I know: Making fun of autocorrect fails is not new. But the automatic spelling correction in OS X is something else, courtesy of its apparent inability to figure out that my starting a word with a capital letter suggests I might be typing a proper name–say, a reasonably well-known online brand’s name–and that a little more deference would therefore be in order.

OS X autocorrect preferenceYou can argue that autocorrecting “Glympse” to “Glimpse” is fair game. But what about the following replacements I’ve seen OS X make?

“Etsy” to “Easy”

“Roku” to “Rook”

“Waze” to “Was”

“Ooma” to “Roma”

Meanwhile, it took a long time for Apple’s desktop operating system to stop auto-correcting Dulles Airport’s “IAD” code to “iAd,” as in the advertisement-serving system in iOS.

People’s names are, of course, just as much fair game to OS X’s autocorrect. When I was live-tweeting the Federal Communications Commission’s net-neutrality vote, OS X kept trying to change FCC commissioner Mignon Clyburn’s last name to “Cleburne.” Perhaps it has an undocumented fetish for that Texas town of 29,377.

I have to ask: Isn’t this the sort of bossy intrusiveness that an earlier Apple justifiably mocked during Microsoft Word’s Clippy era? And then I must wonder: Why haven’t I shut off autocorrect already–in System Preferences’ Keyboard category, click “Text” and uncheck the “Correct spelling automatically” box–instead of whining about it yet again?