Mac OS X users: clone your Macs before installing Lion

Not enough people back-up their data. They think nothing can go wrong and they’ll never lose anything. They are WRONG. Professional/advanced users are just as bad. They ‘know’ their computers. They ‘know’ how to fix things. Unfortunately, the only thing they’ll ‘know’ if their hard drive fails is how expensive it is to get the data back through a recovery service—if the data can be restored at all.

My warnings come through experience. I’ve had several screw-ups with data. My worst was at university: my Mac’s hard drive partially failed as I approached my final degree show, and the Mac’s built-in Jaz drive also went nuts. I made it to the end, but only just. Of course, back in those days the price of hardware made backing up costly and so that was an excuse not to bother. Today, that’s not the case at all. You can get a sleek external 500 GB USB drive for 50 quid, such as the LaCie Rikiki. If you’re on a budget, desktop drives are even cheaper. And if you’re running Mac OS X, you have Time Machine built in, and asks you if you want to use it the second you attach an external drive.

Something that can cause data loss is an OS upgrade. This is a major upheaval for a machine and while it’s very rare for things to go very wrong, that won’t be any consolation if it happens to you. But if you have a full back-up of your Mac, the worst that will happen is you’ll waste time. You won’t lose your work data, your digital photos, your music and other important files.

I recommend before installing Lion that even if you’re using Time Machine you also create a working clone of your Mac. This is because while you can restore data from Time Machine, it’s faster and simpler to do so from a clone. I use SuperDuper! for this purpose; it’s a robust, reliable app that costs $27.95. However, the donationware Carbon Copy Cloner is also very good. Once you’ve bought a hard drive that’s bigger than the data you need to back-up (preferably, larger than your Mac’s hard drive), here’s what you need to do:

Disk Utility

Launch Disk Utility and select your back-up drive from the sidebar. At the foot of the window, check its Partition Map Scheme is GUID Partition Table, which will enable you to use the disk to start-up an Intel Mac. If it shows something else, click ‘Partition’, select ‘1 Partition’ from the ‘Volume Scheme’ menu, click ‘Options’ and select ‘GUID Partition Table’. Click ‘OK’. Name the volume using the ‘Name’ field and then click ‘Apply’ to reformat your disk.

SuperDuper!

Launch the app. Select your Mac’s hard drive from the ‘Copy’ menu and your back-up drive from the ‘to’ menu. Select ‘Backup – all files’ from the ‘using’ menu. Click ‘Copy Now’. This will clone your drive, a process that may take several hours.

Carbon Copy Cloner

If you don’t want to use SuperDuper!, Carbon Copy Cloner is also fine for cloning. Select your Mac’s drive from the ‘Source Disk’ menu and the back-up drive from the ‘Target Disk’ menu. Click ‘Clone’. Again, this may take several hours.

Reboot

Once the clone is complete, restart your Mac while holding the Option key (also labelled ‘Alt’) and choose your back-up drive as the boot volume. It will probably take longer than usual for your Mac to start. Ensure the back-up works: test some apps and launch some files. Once you’re done, reboot back into your Mac’s drive.

The above is the absolute minimum any Mac user should do before installing Lion. On doing these actions, you will have your data to the time of the clone safe. If the Lion install goes horribly wrong, you can boot from the clone and continue working. You can also reformat your Mac’s drive and clone the clone back to it.

However, I would recommend using cloning software every single day. Both SuperDuper! and Carbon Copy Cloner offer a feature called ‘incremental updating'; what this means is only files that have changed are cloned each time the app does its business. In SuperDuper!, this feature is referred to as ‘Smart Update’ and can be accessed using the ‘Options’ button in the main pane. It’s also possible to automate back-ups, using the ‘Schedule’ button. (I have my Mac do an incremental clone every day at 8 p.m., when I’m done working.) Carbon Copy Cloner offers similar features, with its ‘Incremental backup of selected items’ setting within ‘Cloning options’, and a schedule that can be accessed using the ‘Save Task’ button.

British readers or anyone who’s happy using Zinio should also check out issue 237 of MacFormat magazine (out this week). It has a major feature on keeping data safe, written by Ian Betteridge. Along with backing-up and cloning, it also offers tips on remote back-up. And while multiple back-ups might seem paranoid, Tap! editor Christopher Phin notes in the article that each back-up merely reduces risk. The more you make (hourly Time Machine; daily clone; remote), the safer your data will be.

July 19, 2011. Read more in: Apple, Helpful hints, Technology

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How to boost the chances of getting your iOS game reviewed

I’m Contributing Editor to Tap! magazine,  Future Publishing’s spiffy and chunky iOS magazine. I look after the games section, and I therefore get quite regular emails from developers and PRs, asking how they can get games reviewed in the mag.

Ultimately, there’s no way to guarantee a slot in Tap!, bar releasing a totally amazing game (i.e. along similar quality lines as World of Goo HD and Strategery), but there are a number of ways you can at least boost your chances. None of these things are rocket surgery, but it’s amazing how many devs utterly ignore them.

  1. Let me know about your game. Email me or get in touch on Twitter. If I know about your game, there’s obviously more chance of it getting coverage.
  2. Send me a promo code. Bizarrely, this surprises many devs, but, yes, send me a promo code and your game is more likely to make the cut, simply because something that’s good and had a quick test beats something that might be good but that I’ve not tried.
  3. Be responsive. If I email you and ask something, get back to me in good time. I’m not suggesting you need to be at my beck and call, but when I’ve a question about some stupid bug or issue, it’s in your interest to say “actually, we’re releasing an update tomorrow that fixes things” (whereupon I’ll rereview the product) than nothing.

Devs also do themselves a massive disservice in general regarding their App Store pages, wrecking discoverability. I have an RSS feed that pipes in every new iOS game release and I check every entry, to make a shortlist for Tap! Some games are overlooked or discarded because they don’t immediately make it clear what the game’s about. So, some handy tips:

  1. Your first App Store grab should show gameplay. It should be an in-game shot that shows your game at its best. If you’re showing a title screen, or, God forbid, some kind of options screen or social-networking bollocks, you just scuppered your chances of coverage by at least 50 per cent. (And if you’re dumb enough to not include any gameplay shots at all, I don’t even want to look at you.)
  2. Your description should start off with an extremely succinct overview of what your game’s about. Don’t get clever and don’t start by boasting how Game Blog No-one’s Ever Heard Of (dot com) gave you 4/5 and thought your game was “the dog’s doo-dahs”. Practically every game gets a good review from somewhere, but I don’t care about that—I want to know what your game’s about. (By all means include snippets of reviews, by the way—just don’t lead with them.) Note that this and the previous tip will also benefit you regarding snaring customers—make them excited right away, and don’t make them scroll.
  3. You should make it amazingly obvious how to get in touch. You have company and support links on your App Store page, so bloody well use them. And don’t link them to nothing. If I’m reviewing 30 games for a single issue of Tap!, I’m not going to waste an hour tracking down each developer. Link to your Twitter or an email address, or if you link to your website, make damn sure there’s a very obvious means of getting in touch with you. Also, ensure you check your incoming pr@ (or whatever) address more than once in a blue moon.

All these tips may seem obvious, but when I constantly hear how developers are pissed off at a lack of mainstream coverage of their games (or how unfair the App Store is, because big companies get more coverage), it’s amazing how many make almost no effort to fix things in their favour. The second set of above tips would maybe take you a half-hour to implement, but they could be the difference between your game being ignored entirely and it getting a two-page spread in a magazine.

March 7, 2011. Read more in: Gaming, Helpful hints, iOS gaming, Technology

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New York Times legal team tries to kill RSS reader

One of the craziest online screw-ups by a media company is currently playing out. Pulse News Reader by Alphonso Labs is a visually engaging RSS reader for iPad. Rather than being primarily text-based, it aims to pull in imagery for each article, providing a more aesthetic and elegant experience than competing apps when you’re working through feeds.

Pulse has been riding high: it’s well-rated in the App Store and Apple CEO Steve Jobs mentioned it at WWDC on Monday. But then things started to go crazy. The New York Times wrote a story about Pulse, but this only alerted the publication’s legal department, who forced Apple to pull the app.

Twitter went mental, bloggers were in uproar, and the app returned. Had sanity prevailed? Nope. Times spokesperson Robert Christie told the world: “We think it has been reinstated by error, and we have asked Apple for an explanation.” In a totally surreal twist, the Times itself is now covering the ongoing spat.

So what did Pulse do to anger the Times? Apparently, it had the audacity to ‘frame’ the site’s content when a full article was accessed, and it’s also a commercial product. The Times’s legal brains and talent (and I use those words loosely) decided this breached two of the absolute no-no terms regarding Times content. The fact that Pulse acts like almost every other RSS reader and Twitter client out there doesn’t entirely seem to have escaped the Times, but in one of the most boneheaded pieces of reasoning I’ve ever seen, Christie said that if other commercial RSS readers were making use of Times content, they were most likely doing so under an agreement with the The New York Times Company.

This is clearly bullshit of the highest order. No RSS reader developers gain permission/agreements with content providers, because doing so would take years, and there’s an assumption that feeds are provided freely, so you can access content. Still, this is The New York Times Company, and I had a run-in with its legal team in the late 1990s when I had the sheer cheek to ask permission to reprint (with full accreditation and a link) on my non-commercial site a single gig review from the Boston Globe. (Net result: a price-list and a legal threat for something I’d not even done.)

So, The New York Times Company, here are my helpful hints for you. Choose one of the following:

  1. Stop using your heavy-handed legal morons to drag your company back into the 1990s, and recognise that if you provide RSS feeds, applications are going to—shock!—use them. And, you know, some people making apps that do might even want to eat, and so they’ll charge for their product (like you do), but they’re not charging for your content, you utter dimwits.
  2. Remove all your feeds, which deals with the problem nicely, since no evil RSS readers and Twitter clients will then be able to ‘frame’ your content in the manner you find so abhorrent. Of course, you’ll then be called Mr Stupid of Stupid Town in the Stupid Corner of the Stupid Bit of the internet, and you’ll lose a load of readers, but, hey, you brought that on yourselves.

June 9, 2010. Read more in: Helpful hints, News, Opinions, Technology

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Helpful hints for the BBC and anyone else who doesn’t understand British electoral process and current coalition arguments

Given that someone at the BBC appears to have flicked the Universal Stupid Switch and engaged the Screw Impartiality Field, and with the right-wing press now in a total frenzy over the possible collapse of a Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition, here are some handy helpful hints for anyone who thinks this is all so unfair:

  1. The United Kingdom is not a presidential system. This country does not and has never elected a Prime Minister. We elect MPs, who form voting blocs, and those blocs then form the government. Typically, one of the senior members of the biggest party becomes Prime Minister. Sometimes this person is known before the election and sometimes not. Regarding Gordon Brown specifically, he was returned after the 2010 election with one of the biggest majorities in the UK, and so the only ‘election’ for him that mattered was not only sound but also extremely solid.
  2. Our head of state is the Queen, not the Prime Minister. And she’s unelected, natch.
  3. The Tories did not ‘win’ the election. The only way one could conceivably say a party ‘won’ a British election was if it got a majority of the vote and/or a majority of the seats in the Commons. The Tories got neither. They got the most votes (although by a smaller margin than people seem to think, because most people aren’t bothering to, you know, read the figures), but that’s all. That’s not, under the UK system, a ‘win’.
  4. The Tories do not have a mandate to govern. The Tories seem to think it’s terribly unfair that they’re not already running the country, but the unwritten constitution of the UK deems that they should not even have first dibs in trying to form a government. As Prime Minister, it’s actually Brown who could have had first crack at forming a government, unless he’d resigned. That he didn’t was an astonishingly sly political manoeuvre from Brown. The Liberal Democrats were able to fulfil a campaign promise (talk first to whichever party got the most seats), and the Tories showed their hand, which Labour could then better.
  5. Clegg isn’t two-faced. The Daily Mail today unsubtly calls Clegg two-faced due to him having the audacity to speak to Labour and the Tories. He only said he would talk to the Tories first (against tradition—see point 4), not that he’d definitely do a deal with them. In fact, it would be utterly irresponsible and undemocratic for the Liberal Democrats to not speak to Labour and weigh up the options. Also, ignore the Tory press’s chants of the Liberal Democrats being self-serving regarding the PR red-line. PR threatens the Tories, hence why the Murdoch machine is spooked. It would be far harder for the Tories to get into power under a PR system (although not impossible if the party modernised a little). From a UK standpoint, though, PR will return MPs more in line with what you voted for, which should be the aim of a modern democracy.
  6. The Tories have not offered the Liberal Democrats anything worth a damn regarding electoral reform. It’s clear from news reports that until Brown said he’d quit later this year the Tories had offered the Liberal Democrats nothing on electoral reform. They’ve now offered a referendum on AV, a system that would change the balance of the Commons, but not by a great deal. It’s not proportional representation, and it can in some cases actually boost seat numbers for larger parties. To that end, this isn’t compromise by the Tories—it’s a gamble that the public will get angry at the Liberal Democrats for not accepting it, because the public doesn’t realise the offer is worthless.
  7. Labour has offered the Liberal Democrats something worth a damn regarding electoral reform. Labour’s offered AV not as a referendum, but as a bill, which should get through the Commons with the help of other minority parties. They’re then offering a referendum on PR, which, presumably, would enable us to move from AV to AV+ or STV. I would expect any Lab/Lib ‘contract’ to ensure there’s no Labour-wide anti-PR campaign.
  8. A Lab/Lib coalition wouldn’t necessarily fail. The numbers are such that a Con/Lib coalition would be strong if everyone followed the whip, but it’s clear that unless the Liberal Democrats were contractually obliged to follow all Tory policy, that wouldn’t happen. A Lab/Lib coalition would have the backing of ‘partner’ parties from Northern Ireland, and you can bet the SNP would back things it’s interested in and just ignore those it’s against, in order to ensure PR happens. Yes, the coalition would find it tougher to get things through, but it wouldn’t be impossible (see the SNP in Scotland, ruling as a minority, but still getting things done). And if PR happens, the coalition could call a snap election and be returned with a much more solid number of seats, even if its vote-share dropped. The pity here is that Labour’s apparently too arrogant and stupid to work with the SNP, which would ensure a larger working majority. The more things change…
  9. A Lab/Lib coalition would have the backing of the majority of the electorate. 52% voted for these parties. It would therefore be the only recent government to govern with a majority backing. By contrast, the Labour party secured just 35% of the vote in 2005, and 41% in 2001. In fact, unless I’m mistaken, the last government with an electoral majority was the short-lived Lab/Lib coalition in 1974 (56%), and the last time any single party was elected with the backing of the majority of the electorate was in 1931, when the Conservatives grabbed a huge 55% on their own.
  10. What’s happening now is what should be happening. We are talking about the future of our country. We shouldn’t be hoping things would be sorted over a weekend. Even in countries that have had coalitions for decades, it still takes days of negotiation after an election to figure out the way forward. With new coalitions, the process can take weeks, but that’s to ensure things will work and that they will be stable. This is important for the United Kingdom, so, please, the media and the moaners, just let our politicians get on with it. Better that they take a week to get things right than rush into an agreement and screw everything up.

May 11, 2010. Read more in: Helpful hints, News, Opinions, Politics

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Disney screws with UK cinema market yet again, Odeon caves

The BBC reports that Odeon’s reversed its decision to boycott the upcoming Alice in Wonderland film “following talks with Disney”. If you’ve not followed this story, Odeon got narked after Disney announced it was to ignore the standard ’17 weeks to DVD’, dropping the gap by four weeks. This, argued Odeon, would screw over UK cinema chains by setting a new benchmark that would reduce their potential revenue.

Disney’s stance is that by getting the DVD out sooner, it’ll reduce bootlegging. I have two helpful hints to Disney in this regard:

  1. A brilliant way to stop bootlegging is to stop screwing over the international market. If you release all of your films at the same time everywhere, rather than many of them in the US first and six months later everywhere else, people will be more likely to rush out to see them, rather than reading about them in some mag, twiddling thumbs for a few days, reading more online reviews from the US, getting impatient and then torrenting the films. Note: happily, this will also deal with the ‘disappointing international box office returns’ you keep whining about regarding Pixar films that are out on Region 1 DVD by the time they finally arrive in cinemas in the UK and elsewhere.
  2. You cannot bootleg a cinema experience. It’s pretty clear that many films—including a lot of those by Disney—are as much about the environment and the big screen these days as the story. To that end, reducing the potential amount of time films stay in cinemas by at least four weeks is stupid.

February 25, 2010. Read more in: Film, Helpful hints, News, Opinions

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