More Java hair tearing

February 4, 2013

Another episode in the war between Apple and Java, with Mozilla/Firefox joining in. I almost wrote “The Alliance”, or maybe “The Axis Powers”. Who are the bad guys?

Late on Friday I got an email from the nice support folk at Liverpool Telescope, warning me that their Phase 2 GUI tool might stop working for me. Checking out their news item, its an issue for anybody using a Mac, and anybody using Firefox. They link to some news items here, here, and here. As usual, not only did Apple do this very suddenly, they did it WITHOUT TELLING THEIR CUSTOMERS. Stuff just stopped working.

My geekier readers will remember an earlier possibly somewhat alarmist post by moi, within the comment stream of which it became clarified that the problems concerned the Java plugin for web browsers, not regular Java Apps using the JRE.  Now the LT GUI is not an in-browser thing – its Java Webstart, which is just a fancy way of providing a link to the latest version of a Java App. Brief panic while I tried out Topcat and Aladin. If Topcat stops working I am fucked. (This is Mark Taylor’s evil plan of course). However, T&A are fine.

It seems Apple stopped any webby-Java things work using the Xprotect list, including webstart. I have no idea what Xprotect is. Alex, you now have permission to pontificate. I hear a dark rumour that if you know which plist to edit you can work round this.

Meanwhile, I have a virtual machine running Debian and the delightfully spartan Enlightenment window manager, and I can carry on loading up more PanSTARRS transients into the LT database…


Update Monday evening. Gets more confusing. The LT folk sent round an email saying that Apple had released a software patch, explained here, and available through the usual Software Update tool. However … no such update was offered to me…  After consulting a few users, it seems people 10.8 never saw a problem at all; those with 10.6 were totally blocked, but are now fixed by the patch; but those of us with 10.7 have not been offered a patch ?

Meanwhile I am playing with about eighteen different Linux window managers to see which one I like best.


Java in crisis?

October 22, 2012

We all use Java every day : stand-alone Java applications like Topcat and Aladin; in-web-page Java applets (Aladin again); and on the server side (e.g. WSA and VSA). But now it seems there is a security crisis; serious people are telling us to disable or remove it. Wuh ? At the risk of boring the ungeeks let me explain how I just stumbled into this understanding. Its a classic tale of confusion, coincidence, and mysterious disappearances.

I am a big fan of Tiddlywiki. Its a personal wiki – a kind of hyper-notebook. You run it on your own computer, or even from a memory stick. Its very clever. Just a single html file, containing both your text, and the javascript needed to edit it. The tricky bit comes when you want to save your changes. That requires your browser to write a file onto your computer – a new version of that single html file. Thats done with Java, as opposed to javascript. You place a file called “tiddlysaver.jar” in the same directory and it does the work. You have to give explicit permission to write onto your disk of course. We ain’t nuts.

So… recently … for reasons I won’t bore you with, I wiped my Firefox installation and made a new one. (Well ok – my wordpress front page widgets weren’t working, and after many tortured days, it was the only fix that worked.) A few days later I tried to update one of my tiddlywiki notebooks. It wouldn’t save. Trawled through various FF settings but couldn’t fix it. So I tried to do my edits in Safari. Same. And Chrome. Same. Oh. Maybe the FF change was a coincidence ? If it fails everywhere, it must be a MacOS problem? Then I suddenly remembered I’d had the identical problem when I upgraded to Mountain Lion. Sensible chap that I am, I’d left myself a wee note. It said “go to the Java Preferences app and tick the box that says enable applet plugin“. So, off I goes. Hmm. No such checkbox. Must have been removed in some recent system upgrade.

Now… a few weeks back I had a hair tearing Time Machine problem. Apparently my backup was going to take 11,158 days. I spent several days fretting about this on and off and wondering what I had screwed up. Then  lo! A new Software Update was announced which amongst other things said “this also fixes a problem some users may have been having with Time Machine backups”. And yea, indeed, verily did the SU completely fix this problem. Grrr. Wasn’t me at all. Wish I’d known.

So… maybe its another Apple SNAFU. Is there a new SU ? Yup. And look! Its a Java update! But … (a) it still didn’t fix the problem and (b) the Java Preferences app has completely disappeared !! I check out the “more detail at apple support” page . This says

This update uninstalls the Apple-provided Java applet plug-in from all web browsers. To use applets on a web page, click on the region labeled “Missing plug-in” to go download the latest version of the Java applet plug-in from Oracle.

This update also removes the Java Preferences application, which is no longer required to configure applet settings.

Click on the region ? What region ? What the hell does that mean?

Then I read a bit more on the Tiddlywiki home page. It seems all the major browsers are clamping down on Java, disabling by default, and making you jump through more hoops. For Firefox there is a specific Tiddlywiki fix – a FF extension called TiddlyFox. So at least I am (temporarily) sorted…

On Chrome, if you try to run an applet like Aladin, you get a banner saying”Java(TM) is needed to run some elements on this page” and there is button labelled install plug-in. This takes you to an Oracle page which says

Chrome does not support Java 7. Java 7 runs only on 64-bit browsers and Chrome is a 32-bit browser.

If you download Java 7, you will not be able to run Java content in Chrome and will need to use a 64-bit browser (such as Safari or Firefox) to run Java content within a browser. Additionally, installing Java 7 will disable the ability to use Apple Java 6 on your system.

OK, screw that then. How about Safari ? The Aladin applet seems to run ok. But Tiddlywiki does not. This is because it wants to write to your disk. Some documentation on the Tiddlywiki site told me what to do … open Safari preferences, go to “Advanced” and tick “Show Develop menu in menu bar”. Then a new menu items appears in your menu bar called “Develop” with options for grown-ups. (Don’t forget to open the door marked “beware of the leopard”.) Finally move down that menu and mark “Disable local file restrictions”. Yay !! But guess what. That menu item no longer exists. Somebody really doesn’t want us to do this.

Finally … I started roaming around the interwebs the way you do, seeing if other folk had the same probs. I stumbled over this nice Java Tester Page. This is where I first saw the scary words “Java Security Flaw”…  I then followed the link to this article by Michael Horowitz and things began to make sense … sort of.

It seems there are serious security flaws that won’t be fixed until February 2013. Horowitz says

Java is used by both installed applications and websites. If you only need Java for an application, disable it in all your browsers. OS X users on Lion and Mountain Lion had Apple do this for them (more below). Windows users in this situation may want to consider the portable version of Java available at portableapps.com.   If you need Java for a website, enable Java in a browser used only on the site that needs it. For all other websites, use a browser that has Java disabled.

I can remember back when Java was the next big thing. Now, it’s all but a curse word.

Jeez.  Gordon Bennett. Is it really true ?


The Mac Plus lives

April 10, 2012

The sad story of the Exploding Mac  has a happy ending. Not just those groovy signatures … Number Three Child and I couldn’t see any burned out bits. Methinks maybe something in the hard drive went bang, not the beast itself … I wasn’t watching that closely. So we booted on the floppy … it worked ! Then for reasons I can’t really explain, I reconnected the hard drive and tried again .. it worked too !! Well… so now I have no idea what went bang and smoked … but everything is working perfectly.

Of course this leaves me nervous that it will explode again sometime soon. So I thought I should film it in action first. So there follows a wobbly grainy movie that only the diehard Apple Nuts need watch.

If it keeps working, I suspect I may get hooked on Glider all over again.


Apple flavoured surprise

April 6, 2012

Been having a bit of a sort-out recently. Time and entropy produce mostly sludge, but occasionally from out of the mud one plucks a pearl. I recovered my 1987 Mac Plus from beneath several archaeological layers. Oh this was going to be fun ! I connected the massive 20MB hard drive to the beast, and switched it on. After a very short delay there was a sort of clack and then smoke. I switched it off again… Number three child, The Geek, was disappointed.

Several days later I decided to remove the case and take a look. You never know, maybe there would be a single obvious burned-out component and I would know what to replace. Well, twas not so simple, but removing the case revealed a wondrous suprise … the inside of the case is signed by the Macintosh team ! I took a rather crummy picture. Here is a small section :

Small section of the inside case of my MacPlus, with Mac Team signatures.

Its all explained at this Vintage Computing website, and in more detail at the Andy Hertzfeld section of the Mac folklore website. The Mac Design team had a party at which they all signed a large sheet of paper; Jobs then had the signatures engraved onto the Macintosh case mould. Over time as the design changed, some of the signatures got lost. I can’t find Jeff Raskin on mine, which is disappointing.

Lots of people know this already, but I didn’t, so it was a weird and pleasant surprise.

All I have to do now is find someone who can fix the bugger.


Stay Hungry, Stay Foolish

October 6, 2011

Steve Jobs is dead. Headline news on Radio 4 as I woke up this morning. It feels deep. This is not because of the loss of a technology genius – hell, we all know Apple wouldn’t exist without Woz, the Mac was really Jeff Raskin, Pixar was really Jeff Lasseter etc. Its not just that he was an amazing business visionary – as Jonathan Fay tweeted this morning, “Steve Jobs championed design, pushed the limits of his people, and believed in dreams long enough to see them become reality.”

No. Its the story, the arc of a life lived in public that we all shared – the kid in the garage, the billion dollar success, the casting out into the darkness, the crossing of the Rubicon back into Rome as victor, the battle against cancer. Orbiting Frog quoted from his 2005 commencement address at Stanford. “Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.”

I hadn’t seen this clip before. Its fifteen minutes but well worth a look. He tells Stanford students that the best thing he ever did was to drop out of college, and the second best thing was to get fired and re-think life. And then he tells these bright young things, on a sunny day, at the start of their adventure in Life, that the really important thing is to remember that you will die. He also recalls the Whole Earth Catalog (remember that ?). On the back cover of the final edition it had a picture of a country road, and the words “Stay Young, Stay Foolish”.

If you want a  lighter  Steve moment,  try this.  As ever, timing is all.


Geek Tour

September 13, 2008

My daughter’s friend Lewis is here to visit. He’s a computer whizz-kid – eighteen and already has his own business building web sites – so he was pretty excited coming to Silicon Valley. I bought some McIntosh apples specially for his arrival. Apparently they were the favourite apple of Macintosh inventor Jef Raskin . (I was disappointed. In the McIntosh. Not the Macintosh.)

Yesterday we did the geek tour. Lewis had already found the garage at 367 Addison Ave where BillDave HewlettPackard started in the fifties, and the Facebook Offices in University Ave. (The HP garage is officially California historic landmark number 976). I had told him that Steve Jobs lives a few blocks away in a modest house, but we don’t know where. Today we drove past the Googleplex on Amphitheatre Parkway, and most important of all, went to the Apple Campus at 1 Infinite Loop Cupertino. It is HUGE. I was ready for a giant corporate building of some kind, maybe some surrounding greenery, but there is street after street after street of Apple buildings. Seems to be half of Cupertino. I was going to call this post “a visit to the Mothership” but when we dropped in to the company store I found there were T-shirts for sale that said “I visited the Mothership” so suddenly that all seemed obvious. Lewis loaded his bag with goodies.

Americans tend to tell you they don’t have any history, and that they are jealous of Europeans and their ancient buildings. The truth is that Americans are obssessed with history, and the place is crammed full of the stuff. Its not a quaint museum thing. Its real and resonating. Years back when I lived in Massachusetts you could walk round the Freedom Trail or drive out to Concord and practically feel the Minutemen breathing down your neck; people were debating whether their precious freedom was being eroded. History happens fast. The modern world started here in the nineteen fifties, accelerated in the 1970s, and again in the 1990s dotcom boom. As soon as I got here, people told me about the Homebrew Computer Club that used to meet in the Panofsky Auditorium.

Of course, if the HP Garage is the birthplace of Silicon Valley, and the Apple Campus is the Mothership, the Stanford Campus, where all that useless academic research goes on, is the Queen Bee. Sorry about the gharssly mixed metaphors, but there’s got to be a lesson there somewhere.


The Pale Face of Stanford

July 6, 2008

Your correspondent is now in Silicon Valley. My tour of duty as Head of Physics is now over, and I am starting a year long sabbatical at SLAC. My main aim is to kick-start some collaborations with LSST folk, especially on the database side, but its also exciting to be here just after the launch of the gamma-ray space telescope, GLAST . Meanwhile I will also keep working on the VO. AstroGrid has a tradition of being more or less location independent, and it has been noted that I will be working in the same time zone as our official night-owl, Dave Morris.

The story at SLAC these days is in some ways similar to STFC-land, and in others very different. They have had to lay off 200 staff, the B-factory has closed down, work on the ILC has been halted, and the famous tunnel, the straightest object in the world, has been turned into a light source, the LCLS . Less particle physics, more chemistry, biology and materials physics. However they are also diversifying into astrophysics, which is why I am here. This builds on their experience – the GLAST Large Area Telescope (LAT) is really like a particle physics detector in space, with silicon strip trackers and a calorimeter, and the LSST data rate is a drip compared to Babar, let alone the LHC.

Here is another interesting distinction. A Senior Person told me he gets worn down by endless reviews of SLAC, which go on and on and nobody really takes any decisions. Much of our problem with STFC has I think been that the decision making has been too brash and bold….

Meanwhile, we are under pressure to prove our economic worth, as discussed in various comments on this blog over the last few days. Well, SLAC didn’t invent the Web, but it was the first meeting place of the Homebrew Computer Club which is where Jobs and Wozniak got started, and to whom Bill Gates addressed his Open Letter to Hobbyists. The street that SLAC is on, Sand Hill Road, contains an amazing density of venture capitalists. And of course Stanford as a whole is a hot house of ideas moving out from science to industry. Brin and Page built the Googleplex as close as they could to the Alma Mater.

Stanford itself originates from sentimental philanthropy. Leland Stanford was a self made California millionaire. The Stanfords were the Posh and Becks of their day, with newspapers full of stories of their opulent lifestyle in San Francisco. They also had a huge farm down south of the city in nowhere land. Tragedy struck the family in 1884 when their son died of Typhoid on a trip to Florence. So in the spirit of the times, they created the Leland Stanford Junior University in his memory.

So of course I knew none of this three days ago, but the mythology and historical resonances of a place like this are a kind of vapour that you can’t avoid breathing. Gets a bit mawkish sometimes though … Exploring the campus, I found the Cantor Art Centre. It has some good stuff, and a room full of Stanford memorabilia, including Leland Junior’s plaster death mask. It just sits there on the wall reminding you of the Victorian image of death. Milky white, hair neat, eyes closed.


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