Ask Different

Countryside in Allier, France

My contributions on Ask Different occasionally leads to people reaching out to me.

A recent e-mail asked why I wrote on the site and what might improve it. I though the answers useful to share more widely. Maybe this train of thought itself answers their question?

Ask Different is a web site focusing on questions about Apple related software and hardware. Its big brother is Stack Overflow; a site where the topic is software development. Stack Overflow towers over the other Stack Exchange sites in terms of size and impact.

Discovering Stack Overflow

I had long followed Joel Spolsky, one of the creators of Stack Overflow, via the the web site “Joel on Software” and the “Business of Software” forum. I discovered Stack Overflow through Joel’s documenting its creation.

Why Contribute?

I do not actively contribute to Stack Overflow. The site does not feel welcoming and it suffers from too many looking for quick fixes, rather than answers. I do not envy the moderators their role.

I do contribute to Ask Different, another Stack Exchange site. Ask Different’s culture has been more welcoming and aims to help users of Apple devices, rather than developers.

Early on I mostly made small edits to other’s questions and answers. Typically improving formatting or fixing typos.

Later I looked for questions related to my areas of expertise. When I noticed long unanswered questions that I could answer; I answered.

Today Ask Different provides professional benefits. I get to tell others about my work and I am helping to create a safe site where I can point customers needing more general advice.

Wild blackberries in Allier, France
Wild blackberries in Allier, France

Own Research

Most of my answers are from hard won experience. I prefer not to answer questions outside of my field of experience or expertise.

Rarely but sometimes I answer opinion related questions in order to publish information in one place that is difficult to find elsewhere.

Improving Stack Overflow?

With regard to Stack Overflow specifically, it is tempting to suggest splitting up the site by development language or tool. But this would not fix the problem of low quality, quick fix seeking, behaviour.

I would examine the role of comments on questions and answers. They have use but are home to many problems.

I wonder if better cross-linking of questions and answers would be useful. The ability to find a question or answer and then navigate around the subject matter. Links outside the site to specific official documentation and tutorials might be useful.

Tractor in a field in Allier, France
Tractor in a field in Allier, France

Contributing Elsewhere?

I have my own personal and business web sites. One of the best investments in my time has been writing recipes for my software.

Plastic Defects in Joby GorrilaPods

Megan took out her Joby GorrilaPod flexible tripod for the first time in a few months. When she picked it up and moved one of the flexible legs, it pulled away in her hand.

Broken Joby GorillaPod
Broken Joby GorillaPod

Three cracks had appeared since Megan had put down the GorrilaPod. It has not been heavily used or stressed. The plastic had cracked with age, not use.

Three cracks have developed over time in the Joby GorrilaPod.
Three cracks have developed over time in the Joby GorrilaPod.

We have previously replaced my GorrilaPods twice but no more. The last replacement failed quickly enough that I now actively avoid the Joby brand. I can not trust even the lightest camera to this style of tripod.

Splitting More Movie Formats

Plants on my desk.

I wrote Movie Splitter for us, my wife and I. We both have point and shoot Canon cameras that capture video in MPEG-4 format. The cameras have a nice feature called Auto-Hybrid. This feature captures a little video before each photograph we take and combines those little bits into a longer video. Over the course of a day or two taking photos, the compilation of little bits grows into a few minutes of treasured memories.

Some bits of video are better than others. We wanted to keep the better bits and remove the others. I wrote Movie Splitter to help us do that.

I published Movie Splitter on the Mac App Store at an unsustainably low price. Like most products on the store, it can never justify its costs.

Since then I have updated Movie Splitter when we wanted specific improvements. Rarely do I added functionality solely because of requests; I can not justify the time.

Recently I was contacted by a customer who had family footage they wanted to split. Their Canon PowerShot G15 camera, it turned out, saved Auto-Hybrid movies in a slightly different format. The request struck a cord with me for a few reasons: my assumption about Canon camera footage was wrong, the request was kindly written, and family footage is valuable.

More by luck than anything else, I have recently been messing around with video encoding for a side project. So my head was in the right place to tackle this problem.

We e-mailed back and forth figuring out what was wrong and what might make Movie Splitter work. We encountered the normal problems with video: tools silently altered the raw sample footage, sharing large files was a problem, and video file formats are inscrutable.

It took a couple of hours of work but I got Movie Splitter working for them. Their Auto-Hybrid family footage is now split into usable bits and will no doubt bring them joy.

New Formats

For everyone else, Movie Splitter now supports reading and exporting to more formats. I do not know which formats because that is not how this tool works. All I can say is that Movie Splitter definitely works with MPEG-4 but should now work with at least qt and mov video.

Movie Splitter will read any Apple AVFoundation supported video format. The only export formats allowed are those that will not re-encode the original content. The list of supported formats will change as Apple change AVFoundation.

A nice side effect of this “let AVFoundation decide” approach is that Movie Splitter can now export audio only versions of the movie being split. Is this useful? Probably not, but the feature came for free.

Nice Reviews

Despite an appalling average Mac App Store rating for Movie Splitter, I take comfort in most of the written reviews being overwhelmingly positive. Thank you to everyone who has taken the time to comment or leave a positive message. I am delighted to know Movie Splitter has helped you.

New in Movie Splitter v1.4.0

  • Added support all AVFoundation formats.
  • Added export to multiple pass-through formats.

Blossom

Detail of a cherry blossom

Our long established cherry trees have burst into flower this week. The warmer weather has arrived and the garden is returning to life.

Cherry blossom
Cherry blossom
Detail of a cherry blossom
Detail of a cherry blossom
Detail of a cherry blossom
Detail of a cherry blossom

My work is keeping me trapped inside for the bulk of the day but, when I can in the late evening, I am outside.

Detail of plum blossom
Detail of plum blossom

Snake in the Grass

Snake in the grass
Snake in the grass

The texture of the snake gave it away. The light reflecting off the skin seemed out of place, somehow unnatural and unnerving. It took a moment to figure out what had caught me off guard. Once found, my only thought was getting the camera.

Easter Baking and Brambles

Hot cross bun split apart.

After too many years without, this is our first Easter with a proper oven. What better time than to bake some hot cross buns?

Ring of hot cross buns cooling on a rack.
Ring of hot cross buns cooling on a rack.
Hot cross buns cooling.
Hot cross buns cooling.
Hot cross bun split apart.
Hot cross bun split apart.

Spring and Brambles

Spring has officially arrived but the weather has yet to take note. I have never been so keen to see the greenery return to the landscape. The freezing cold has mostly finished, and now wind and rain is easing us into better weather. But not soon enough.

When time allows, I have been busy in the garden. We have decades of overgrowth to tame. The brambles are being particularly challenging. I have cut back the bulk and we have a compost pile four metres long by one and half metres tall. Sadly, this compost is unusable and will have to be removed or destroyed. The brambles will not be wiped out through the composting process and could return if I used the compost later.

A section cleared of brambles
A section cleared of brambles

The garden will take many years to resemble anything approaching our ambitions. The task of getting to that point will be more than half the fun.

Metal Studs and TV Mounts

Range of mounting bolts.

Mounting our television onto our internal wall took more time and effort than expected. Our internal walls have metal studs and thus defy traditional advice aimed at wood studs or brick walls.

We had long planned to mount our television onto the wall. The height of the television sitting on a low cabinet was not enough. When I reclined, my feet blocked part of the screen. The screen needed to be higher.

The house was designed to provide a small cozy area for our sofa and television. A comfy area to sit and relax in. To make the most of the space and to get enough distance from the sofa to the screen, the television needed to be mounted on the wall.

When the house was constructed we took careful note of where the metal studs were in the wall. Now the walls have been covered with plasterboard and painted, these measurements came into their own. We were able to quickly locate and confirm the centre of a metal stud. A cheap stud finder bought for the purpose reassured us long before the first hole was drilled.

I picked a nice articulating television mount. The mount is an arm that allows us to adjust the television’s position and turn it ninety degrees left or right. We could, if we wanted, view the television from the main part of the room.

Being on an arm means much more stress will be applied to the wall. A statically mounted television only has to worry about the television’s weight. A moveable arm might have to deal with clumsy manipulation, pulling, and pushing that makes the static weight seem trivial.

The mounting arm came with three huge bolts, rawl plugs, and a claim to include everything needed. This claim was quickly proved wrong.

The bolts were a shade shorter than our internal walls are thick. Drilling the right depth hole would have meant putting the bolt, not only into our wall, but through our wall and out of the other side.

Supplied bolt compared to our internal walls.
Supplied bolt compared to our internal walls.

Our first unexpected purchase was for suitable bolts. Slightly shorter but no less thick.

I drilled the three required holes. Each one hit metal as expected before escaping into an insulation packed cavity.

Throughout the process we told ourselves we could repair any damage we did. Small holes such as these would be nothing compared to the gaping gouges we repaired before painting the house.

We told ourselves patching and repainting one wall was doable. Not welcome, but doable. We had painted everything else, so one more wall was doable.

Insulation exploded out from the top hole.
Three holes drilled. Insulation exploded out from the top hole.

With three permanent holes drilled into the metal studs, we inserted the supplied expanding rawl plugs. These are the type that, when the screw thread grips, compress the plastic and it balls up on the other side of the stud. Once balled up the plastic can not be pulled back through the smaller channel ensuring a strong hold.

The three fancy rawl plugs were thumped into the wall and we were ready.

Megan held the mount while I screwed in the appropriately sized bolts for our walls. Three loose bolts we had bought from our local hardware store, with now very familiar staff.

Two bolts went in firmly. The third kept turning. However much I tightened the bolt there was always another turn possible. The rawl plug eventually turned with the bolt. Maybe the plastic had expanded and the bolt was now safe.

Megan slowly let the mount take its own weight. It held. For a few seconds. Then the mount tipped forward away from the wall a millimetre and then another. It stopped there. Leaning forward, with too much play in the mount to be trusted.

Megan took the weight of the mount again. I undid the bolts one at a time, hoping each would come back out. They did. The third rawl plug now jutted out from the wall, so no flush finish would be possible with the metal plate of the mount.

Three expanding rawl plugs failed to take hold.
Three expanding rawl plugs failed to take hold.

I used pilers and surprised myself by easily pulling out the turning rawl plug. The other two seemed firmly in place.

We took a moment and chatted nervously about our options. We had expanding metal bolts in the basement. Known as Molly bolts in the USA.

We would try those next. A metal bolt is going to be stronger and better than a plastic rawl plug. A little more serious in approach but better.

The problem of the two remaining rawl plugs worried me. We were boring away an increasingly large hole of plasterboard around the drilled holes. Once broken, plasterboard crumbles easily and every touch makes it worse.

I tried again with the pliers and, using enough force to slightly wobble the entire wall, yanked the rawl plugs out. Disappointingly neither had expanded. The bolt had not triggered the mechanism. Worse, the metal stud had stripped the outer plastic protrusions from the rawl plug. They had been stripped smooth by the sharp metal. Useless.

Had we trusted those two firmer plugs, our television would not have lasted long on the wall.

We now had three larger than planned holes in our once beautiful new wall.

We committed to trying the Molly plugs. We could always fix a damaged wall. I hammered the metal plugs in. The small teeth around the head gripped into the plasterboard.

Three molly style plugs ready to tighten.
Three molly style plugs ready to tighten.

As before, Megan once again took the weight of the television mount and I started tightening the bolts. As I turned the metal plug’s teeth took and then the head snapped. A circle of metal uselessly dangling against the painted side and a chunk of metal plug now permanently stuck in my wall.

The head is designed to come off but not during installation. Not now.

We could fix this one plug.

But it did not take long to face complete defeat. We tried tightening the other two Molly bolts. With each turn the teeth held for a moment and then carved away the plasterboard. Without grip the metal plug and bolt rotated together eating away our wall. No grip, no expansion, and no compression to make the mechanism work.

I pulled firmly on the bolts and each ensemble slid right out of the wall. Two useless bolts and metal plugs in hand, and one forever entombed in our wall. The entombed metal plug I pushed into the wall cavity and down out of the path of the hole.

A moment of defeat.

We knew we were defeated for the day. After tiding up, we returned the television to the low cabinet. For the next week, each time we watched television three holes stared back at us.

Our chatter at night turned to accepting the television might actually be OK on a nice higher piece of furniture. Fix up the wall and forget it happened.

I did more research. Molly plugs continued to be suggested as a solution. They would have been, had we used a specialised tool to help tighten them up. We know that now but at the time such a tool seemed optional. A lesson learnt.

Molly tools to avoid damaging the plasterboard.
Molly tools to avoid damaging the plasterboard.

With the plasterboard around the holes damaged, we needed a different approach. I found and ordered a box of toggle bolts. Toggler is the brand we stumbled upon first. A clever bar of metal with a plastic widget attached. The plastic widget helps manoeuvre the bar into place within the wall. After that everything is metal bolted to metal.

Box of Toggler bolts and the complimentary wood stud drill bit.
Box of Toggler bolts and a complimentary wood stud drill bit.

When the toggle bolts arrived I was keen to get them fitted and complete the job. Getting them into place was tricky. They wanted a larger hole through the metal stud than I had drilled.

My latest drill bit was not large enough and a sawing action was my only option to widen the hole. The approach worked but felt awful. The toggle bolt needs to go through the hole sideways and then be twisted into place within the wall. The hole thus has to accommodate not just the metal bar but also part of the plastic widget.

After fifteen minutes of fiddling, pushing, and jamming the toggle bolts were in place. They felt secure and I could see they were in place before needing to the screw in the bolts.

I had done this last part with the toggle bolts alone. Megan was out teaching and I was too impatient to wait. Now I had to wait for Megan to come home. Fitting the mount itself was a two person job.

Megan was met by the sight of three protruding plastic strips and a husband keen to explain his achievements.

Three toggle bolts. Top two plastic tightened. Bottom bolt remaining to tighten.
Three toggle bolts. Top two plastic tightened. Bottom bolt remaining to tighten.
Three toggle bolts with plastic trimmed off.
Three toggle bolts with plastic trimmed off.

For the third time, Megan took the weight of the mount. This time, when she let go the mount held. It stayed in place with no trace of movement or wobble. We had gotten away without needing to repair or repaint the wall. The mount was secure.

Television mount secure and ready to use.
Television mount secure and ready to use.

We carefully completed the task of fitting the television to the arm. It took a while before we were comfortable fully extending the arm and placing the greatest strain on the mount and the wall fitting. It all held.

Fully extending the arm was nerve racking.
Fully extending the arm was nerve racking.

Since then we have altered the position of the television only a little. The new height of the screen is excellent and our cozy area is working well.

I am not rushing to drill any more holes in our walls just yet.

Charroux

Looking out from a central square in the village

We visited Charroux with visiting family. The small hilltop village had been recommended to us. Certainly pretty but maybe better in the summer months, than the winter. The small village was quiet with the few other tourists rugged up.

Charroux shield carved in stone
Charroux shield carved in stone
Gatehouse in Charroux
Gatehouse in Charroux
Church tower in Charroux
Church tower in Charroux
Wall mounted sundial in Charroux
Wall mounted sundial in Charroux
Autumnal leaves.
Autumnal leaves.
Hearts carved into window shutters.
Hearts carved into window shutters.

We will no doubt return in the future, when the weather is better.

Medieval Moulins

Above the shops in Moulins

Moulins is the administrative centre of our region. The city is home to the Préfecture de l’Allier and thus a city we have had to visit a few times.

It is a pretty city, with plenty of history on show. An easy place to take beautiful photographs.

Moulins Cathedral
Moulins Cathedral
Rooftops in Moulins
Rooftops in Moulins
Colourful enduit in Moulins
Colourful enduit in Moulins
Medieval street in Moulins
Medieval street in Moulins