Storage and backup

It's decidedly unsexy, but as we move now into an era with more and more home users building up significant amounts of (significant) digital data, secure storage and backup become more important than ever.

I was reading Tim Bray's post on home storage and his dream home-storage-device:

Presenting the Databox · The Databox has one or two cheap-ish CPUs running Solaris, ten or so cheapish disks, and offers a half-terabyte or so of completely reliable, completely maintainable, network-accessible storage for your data, which lives in ZFS, striped and replicated across the disks.

Occasionally, one of the disks might fail. When this happens, you won’t lose any data, but a red light on the Databox will start flashing, and it will send mail to a few designated addresses. When this happens, it’s exactly like when your laser printer starts saying “You need to replace the cyan ink” or “You need to buy a new printer drum”; next time you go shopping, you swing by Best Buy or Costco and pick up another disk unit. When you get home, you open the top of the Databox, pull out the disk with the red LED turned on, drop in the new one, and toss out the old one. Now that I think of it, if you get the interfaces right you don’t even have to have the same capacity disks. If you configured this right, you could be really very sure that you wouldn’t lose data; ZFS should sail through power failures and so on.

I’d sell the Databox with some sort of physical locking attachment like some home safes have; you could screw it to the studs in the wall so that it would be too much work for burglars to take if you had a break-in.

(For ZFS, see here.) There's a link at this post to an excellent, earlier posting by Tim, Protecting Your Data: 'Here are my life lessons on keeping your data safe while assuming that The Worst Will Happen. Some of it is Macintosh-specific, but there may be useful take-aways even from those parts, even for non-Mac-hacks'. It's the best single post on backup and storage that I've read, summed up in his four rules:

The Rules · If you follow these, you almost certainly won’t lose data in any damaging way.

  • Don’t use proprietary file formats.

  • Don’t erase anything.

  • Store everything twice.

  • Do occasional ad-hoc and regular full backups.

The whole thing is a must-read.

Just now, Alex sent me a link to Infrant Technologies' ReadyNAS NV Network Attached Storage (NAS) device (with 4 serial ATA disk trays):

Infrant Technologies' ReadyNAS NV is the latest addition to the award-winning ReadyNAS product family. Network attached storage (NAS) devices enable advanced home and business users to easily share large amounts of data in a cost-effective and power-efficient manner. …

The Backup Button
New with the ReadyNAS NV is the Backup Button on the front, conveniently located next to the front USB port. Simply connect a USB storage device to the port and press the button, and all your data in your backup share on the ReadyNAS gets backed up to the USB device. It's as simple as that. Now if you want your USB device backed up to the ReadyNAS instead, simply change the source and destination in the FrontView Backup menu. The integrated Backup Manager allows you to set up even more sophisticated network backups that you can schedule or be invoked with the press of the Backup Button.

The NV Loves to Play
The ReadyNAS NV fits your office needs like a glove. But take it home, and it becomes the center of your entertainment center. Equipped with Gigabit Ethernet with jumbo frames support, you can be sure that multiple HD streams will play off the NV with no problems. Whether you use your Windows Media Center PC or stream data directly off the NV with a network media player, your videos, music, and pictures will look sharp and stutter-free on your HD displays.

At £419.95 (£493.44 inc. VAT), diskless, this is no snitch, but things have got to the point for us that any significant loss of data would be … a loss of significant data.

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Macs & Open Source

John Gruber's post at Daring Fireball struck me, on two counts. Quoting from John Gruber:

  1. Tim Bray’s “Time to Switch?” is a nice tangent to my “And Oranges” piece from Thursday; he’s considering the same Mac OS X-to-Ubuntu route as Mark Pilgrim, and he lists both reasons why he wants to switch, as well as some of the issues that would make it unpleasant.   
  2. (His three cited “hard issues” that’d make it difficult to switch more or less boil down to seamless hardware-OS integration; the “it just works” factor that has always been one of the biggest differentiating factors of the Mac: sleep/wake-up for laptops that just works; WiFi that just works; and external display and video projector support that just works.)

  3. Bray also suggests — and this is something he’s pitched a few times before — that Apple ought to release the source code to several of the applications that come bundled with the OS … releasing the source to these apps would be a risk. Not a risk with a catastrophic downside, but a risk nonetheless. And the potential upside — the best case scenario from Apple’s perspective — wouldn’t result in any additional sales. So why take a chance? Why mess with a strategy that has proven to be lucrative?  You can argue that this sucks, that it ought to be us, the users, whose interests matter most. And that you shouldn’t have to pay $130 to upgrade your entire OS if the only new features you’re interested in are in just one of the bundled applications. But that’s not how it works. Apple is a for-profit corporation, and Mac OS X is one of their most profitable and most successful products.

    … developing good software takes time and talent, and time and talent cost money. Some portion of the revenue from sales of Mac OS X goes back into funding development of future versions of Mac OS X.  This is the dichotomy between closed and open source software development. I’m right there with Bray regarding the frustration of using an app that’s very cool and really good but that there’s just a couple of small things that I’d rather see done differently or better, but which I can’t fix or change other than by petitioning the developer to implement my suggestions. … But while open source software is, by definition, eminently tweakable, it also, in general, is less likely to get to the point of being very cool and really good in the first place. (E.g. where’s the open source calendar app that’s as simple and uncluttered as iCal?)  Of course there are exceptions, like, say, Adium, the open source Mac OS X chat client that a lot of people flat-out prefer to iChat. It has a most excellent tab implementation and supports a bunch of IM platforms that iChat doesn’t, like Yahoo and MSN. Or Camino, the excellent Mac-native offshoot of the Mozilla project, and which compares pretty well against Safari.  But no one is trying to make a buck by selling licenses or upgrades to Adium or Camino. Open source software tends to improve in small, steady, frequent increments. Established commercial software tends to improve less frequently but in large gulps so as to entice users to pay for upgrades.

Why to go Mac-wards (he's nailed three things that I've noticed).  And why open source isn't a mantra that yields a universal panacea.

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Having some fun today with the tiny Holux SiRF Star III chip-set receiver, the GPSlim 236. The size of a matchbox, it is breathtakingly smart. PocketGPSWorld has a glowing review (the photo comes from there):

'… if you are considering a GPS purchase then you should not consider any other chipset. The performance improvement is massive and makes a GPS system very much more usable as a result. The time to first fix (TTFF) and high sensitivity of this chipset makes use practical in areas such as inner cities, when worn around your neck on a lanyard with a smart phone solution and any other use where marginal reception conditions make it difficult for other lesser chipset's to function. … This has become my Bluetooth GPS of choice ever since I first began using it. I thought I could never again be amazed at the places a SiRFStarIII receiver would work in yet the GPSlim 236 once again sets new boundaries in terms of performance. It is a well designed unit, small and light and sits nicely on the dashboard thanks to its rubber feet although I have taken to throwing mine in the glove box or even leaving it in my briefcase where it works just as well! I've given it 99% because nothing can genuinely be 100% perfect and it would be nice to have the Mouse USB cable included but that really is nit picking in the extreme.'

Nav4All has an excellent offer on: you can buy the GPSlim 236 for €69.50 and enjoy free Nav4All until 15 August.

This post by Charlie Schick led me to Nav4All and the receiver. Nokia are about to produce a new GPS device, but can't we have them built into the phone?

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Wireless networking blues

So much to say, so little time … and then a week's worth plus of wireless networking problems. I think very highly of Belkin Pre-N gear, I really do, and have had a Pre-N router running smoothly for some months in one venue.

So I was more than disappointed when I aborted my attempt to upgrade to the Pre-N router-modem after 36 hours of near-sleepless efforts to get it to work. Then, in another venue, I tried to install a Pre-N router on a new network.  Two days of frustration passed, along with many minutes of conversation with Belkin's helpline people — who are charming, but seem to be reading the manual as they go.

That router goes back to Amazon, and Amazon turn out to be the bright spot in all this: they give me a link for a label I can print out for the courier and issue me a new, replacement router within 30 minutes — dispatched to me within an hour or so and actually with me the next day. It works and, finally, I get the router running as I want it to run — in access-point-only mode.

For the Also-Perplexed, the best webpage I've come across for this is from Netgear (and, oh does it make it looks so simple): here. It seems that, amongst other factors, it is peculiarly important to turn off router-modem, access-point-to-be and laptop and go make yourself a much needed cup of tea whilst the machines forget all about their previous addresses and roles. Machine residual memory …

Ah, this all takes me back to my first engagement with "modern" computers some 12 years or so ago. The hours of frustration and, back then, the discovery (the hard way) of how vital a backup is.

I hate computers when they behave badly. Alex tells me that it's fun and a challenge: it's certainly the latter. He cites Scott Adams: 'if it ain't broke, it doesn't have enough features yet'. I traded him Douglas Adams quoting Bran Ferren: technology is 'stuff that doesn't work yet'.

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Dual-booting Apples

I've been away in Paris and missed the official announcement from Apple about Boot Camp:

More and more people are buying and loving Macs. To make this choice simply irresistible, Apple will include technology in the next major release of Mac OS X, Leopard, that lets you install and run the Windows XP operating system on your Mac. Called Boot Camp (for now), you can download a public beta today.

Over at Daring Fireball, an excellent essay on Boot Camp by John Gruber:

Right now, it’s a dual-boot situation, which is obviously less than ideal. It’s not hard to imagine, though, that the version of Boot Camp Apple is building into the upcoming Mac OS X 10.5 (a.k.a. Leopard) will be a concurrent virtualization tool — i.e. that Windows (and perhaps any other PC OS) could be hosted within a running Mac OS X session, obviating the rather annoying need to reboot to switch between OSes.

Do I know this? No. But it certainly seems like the obvious direction for Boot Camp to take, and it’s certainly technically possible. E.g. earlier today, their hand presumably forced by Apple’s release of Boot Camp yesterday, Parallels released a public beta of their $50 Workstation virtualization system for Intel-based Macs. It’s like Virtual PC except, because there’s no need to translate between the PowerPC and x86 instruction sets, it executes the hosted virtual system at native speed. I think it’s a safe bet that Apple plans to include something like this with Mac OS X 10.5, for free.

And this points to the rather delicious conclusion that Apple is casting Windows, including Vista, as the new Classic. Boot Camp portends Apple’s intention to become a Windows-only PC manufacturer no more than Classic served as a hedge against Apple’s commitment to Mac OS X — that is, not at all. … This is a move of supreme confidence — Apple relishes the comparison between Mac OS X and Windows XP, and Microsoft has shown enough of Vista via its widely-available beta seeds that Apple quite obviously isn’t afraid of that comparison, either.

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Mindmaps, mobility and … just doing it

Thanks to Scott for the tip off (and demo, a few weeks back) — MindManager from MindJet. It took two other nudges, though, before I found myself going off to find out more about this product.

Christian Lindholm blogged about going back to paper and mentioned MindManager:

Lately I have used MindManager X5 which is fantastic mindmaping application, Lifeblog solves many note taking problems as I make notes with the camera phone. A key problem is that my Transformer (Nokia N90) does not give me idle text input and does not allow for mind mapping, web clipping, nor sketching.

I have lots of unstructured data that comes my way, I need to record it and be able to tag it and find it later. I know this is a need lots of people have. I know there are hundreds of products created to fill this demand. If the PC could be a bit smaller, have longer batterylife and wake up in 2 sec. I would use it more for unstructured data collection. 

For my Retro solution I opted for the Moleskin Japanese NotePad in A6 which I modified by cutting out pages which I complemented with a thin notepad A6, where paper is thinner and some can be teared away. For input I acquired a Muji pen with multiple pens, it has black ink, red ink and a 0.5mm pencil. This allows me to make small mind maps with some highlight colour.

(I'm interested in following up the Muji pen — is it this one? The Moleskine: I'm already a devotee.)

Next, and last, I came across Lars Plougmann posting a brilliant MindManager mindmap of Tom Coates' Carson Workshop's The Future of Web Apps talk (click on the image below for a full size version; original Flickr link here; CC Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license):


In fact, I now find Lars has posted to Flickr all eight of his mindmaps of the day's talks, and he's written about MindManager itself here. There's an old PCMAG.COM review (of vn 5.1) here.

MindManager is described by MindJet as software that transforms 'brainstorming ideas, strategic thinking, and business information into blueprints for action, enabling teams and organizations to work faster, smarter, and with greater coordination. It extends core mapping functionality with a host of simple tools–collaboration, distribution, administration–making it easy for business professionals to quickly deliver bottom–line benefits enterprise–wide'. I am keen to get cracking with the program and the educational discount (c 70%) makes it not too hard to take the plunge.

So I've got hold of a copy and will take it for a spin shortly, followed by sustained use over the coming school holiday. If it lives up to its reputation, I expect to be seeking to use it with students next term.

Now I just need to work out which Tablet to buy — for all that 'unstructured data collection': the Lenovo ThinkPad X Series (the X41), or Motion Computing's LE1600/LS800 (LE1600 reviewed in PCMAG, the LS800 reviewed by Laptopmag). Bit by bit, it's becoming possible to be connected productively wherever I go, on and off campus, and … to get things done. But I, too, find that paper plays a vital role and I take my notebook and a pen with me as often as I can (or remember).

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Little boxes

John Naughton's column in today's Observer has an entertaining couple of final paragraphs about Apple's new TV ad and Intel's gobsmacked reaction:

'The Intel chip', it burbles. 'For years, it's been trapped inside PCs, inside dull little boxes …'

These preceding paragraphs are the meat, though:

The move to Intel processors takes Apple into uncharted territory. For the first time it will be possible - with a little bit of tweaking - to run Windows natively (without going through a software emulator) on a Mac. The prospect of so-called 'dual-boot' Apple computers - ones that can run both Microsoft and Apple operating systems - now seems real. This could be good news for people who run PCs, not because they love them but because an application essential for their business only runs under Windows.

It's more difficult to see what the upside of this would be for Apple. It might mean that it sells more computers and finally penetrates the corporate marketplace - hitherto a Windows-only zone. But the impact on Microsoft would be negligible, because people will still need Windows licences if they wish to run a dual-boot machine.

More troubling for Apple is the prospect that its operating system and applications software can now run natively on (much cheaper) PC hardware. The company is set against this, but already programmers have hacked it and it is difficult to see how Apple could stop the practice. If it catches on, Apple might see sales of its computers decline as those who admire Apple software but dislike its hardware prices get the best of both worlds.

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The Apple honeymoon

Surely it's got to end?

I'm thinking seriously of buying a PowerBook once the new ones are out — I'm following Jeremy Zawodny's line of thought. BUT meanwhile, and for other reasons, I can't believe what Apple is getting away with. My sons' iPods have broken down not once now, but twice in their first year of use (and I hear similar stories from other users). Twice my sons have had to go through the 40 minute phone call to Apple UK, clearing the various hurdles before their iPods get sent back to base for repair. Once these warranties are finished, that's it: when they break down for a third time, buy a new one … Or not. Apple have lost two future customers here, so disillusioned are they with the gap between the hype and the reality.

Dave Winer's just posted this:

The user interface on iTunes is awful. It's the worst piece of crap I've ever used. People would tell me when I was a Windows user that it was because the Windows version of iTunes is crap but the Mac version is easy. Well, both programs are head-up-butt impossible to figure out. The user model makes no sense. When is something on the iPod? How many copies of the music do I have? Where the fcuk are they? How do you delete something? Is it really gone? Why does it wipe out the contents of the iPod when I don't say it's okay to?

I don't understand how they get people to buy so much music on their store, I wouldn't give them a dime. I buy the CDs and scan em in. Someone bought me a copy of Alice's Restaurant as a present when I got the new iPod. Well that was gone in less than a week, never got to play it once. What did I do wrong? I swear, I have no idea, and I'm a professional software designer. What about the poor schnook who is just a user?

I'm reminded of Douglas Adams:

… ‘technology’, as the computer scientist Bran Ferren memorably defined it, is ‘stuff that doesn’t work yet.’

Merry Xmas to one and all.

Nokia's SmartPhone revolution

The Nokia N70 is a fine, fine phone. (I was fortunate to be sent one as part of Nokia's 360 SmartPhone Study.)  Jason Fried sang its praises last month: 'overall the N70 is the best phone I’ve ever used'. Marc Eisenstadt produced a very informative posting of his experiences with one (a 'Swiss-Army Phone') which is also a vade mecum for all phone buyers:

… there are some specific factors you need to consider when purchasing a ‘modern multi-purpose mobile (smart)phone’, and which don’t get mentioned in many reviews … :

1. Grab without thinking: If you have to think twice about whether to carry a gadget with you on Errand X or Trip Y or Meeting Z, then it’s too big. The N70 is an absolute winner on this front …

2. Thumb-centric vs pen-centric operation: if you’re making the jump to a smartphone (i.e. phone with PDA functionality), one key attribute you should consider is whether you prefer to enter short items with your thumb or with a pen …

3. Satisficing beats moving goalposts: when Nobel-prize winner Herb Simon invented ’satisficing’ in 1957, he meant (among other things) that people had a great gift for trimming a search space opting for solutions that were less-than-optimal but ‘just good enough’. Since Moore’s Law means there will always be a better gadget around the corner, and indeed the special-purpose gadgets (MP3 player, camera, etc) will get better even faster than an all-purpose Swiss Army Gadget, you just need to decide on your threshold of ‘just good enough’ acceptability for the features you want, and go for it.

… the N70 is a good all-rounder. The era of ‘jaw-dropping surprises’ is over: the fact that the N70 can do so much of what it does, and so well, ought to amaze us, but our expectations keep growing and we are increasingly hard to impress. … what are my biggest gripes?  Just two:

1. If you are a text-messaging fanatic, you will be unhappy with the N70: the keys are too small, and, most importantly, the ‘Clear/delete backwards key’ is in the wrong place, certainly for right-handed users. For me, this is an acceptable tradeoff given the good screen size and compact size of the phone (all things considered).

2. Scrolling through news/articles/messages/emails of more than, say, 30 lines in length is annoying because there is a ‘discontinuity jump’ as each new segment is rendered, which makes it hard for your brain to ‘do the right thing’, the way it can when scrolling even longish articles on most PDAs. …

So, there you have it.  Now to deploy my new productivity tool (by ignoring it). … Don’t get me wrong, this is one gorgeous phone! By ‘ignoring it’ … I mean ‘letting it blend unobtrusively into my activities, without fuss’.

I agree with Marc on his plus point 1 (but see below) and gripe number 1. As for one-handed (thumb-centric), my experience is that using a SmartPhone when busy makes one-handedness desirable. I'm not yet satisficed (?) with the camera: at 2 megapixel it's much better than what I've had before, but I still long for the day when I can leave my digital camera at home and just take my phone. And I have another gripe about the keypad: the menu/option keys are too close to the green and red (left and right) phone keys and also don't feel sufficiently different to the touch. I've mis-hit these a number of times now.

The N70 does seem to be a huge step on from the 6630 in the clarity of its software. (I haven't tried to work out why, but it immediately felt more intuitive and less like being parachuted into a jungle.) Its ease of navigation and use has encouraged me to run things on it such as LiteFeeds (RSS for mobile devices). I'm pleased with LiteFeeds, particularly as feed-reading on a mobile has been problematic until recently. (FeedBurner Mobile Feed 2.0 is not yet available, but I'd like to try it when it's out.)  Mobile Gmail works well. Audio-only podcasting is a no-no, but video can be done: see here (and there's a pdf guide here).

If I hadn't got the N70, I'd have been looking at the N90 (which Ross has blogged about here) — a far bulkier but very interesting transformer phone. My recent phones (SE P900, Nokia 6630) have been on the heavy side, and the N70's lightness is a delight. (If Christian Lindholm's right, mobile phones will soon be wearable, and the PDA will be a separate item again. And check out Nokia's 770 as reviewed by Russell Beattie and his challenge to Silicon Valley.) However, Ewan Spence's All About Symbian review of the N90 concludes:

To sum up, the N90 is Nokia’s first true cameraphone to focus on the camera, and it’s all the better for it. Yes, the unit has a number of quirks in the design, but the software, the operation and general polish of Series 60 continues, and makes the N90 the high-end phone of the moment in both Nokia’s N range and in terms of smartphones in general. It might be marketed with the camera as its killer feature, but with Series 60 it covers all the bases, and covers them well. Right now, there’s no solid reason to not look very, very seriously at the N90.

But back to light-and-thin: on the near horizon, the slide form factor N80 looks very interesting indeed. All About Symbian had a preview of an early version of this phone:

… in slide closed mode, the phone at 95.4 x 50 x 23.4 mm is essentially the smallest Nokia S60 phone yet. As a slider it is a few mm thicker than a monoblock such as the 6680, but this is hardly noticeable. It is bigger and heavier (134g) that the other modern S60 Slider, the Samsung D720, but that is a reflection of the extra functionality found in the N80. …

High resolution screen support makes a real difference – physically the screen has not changed in size, but the increased density of the pixels results in a much crisper display. … The new S60 browser, based on Safari's WebCore and JavascriptCore components, is also found on the N80. The 'minimap' feature allows you to see a full page at a glance and navigate around it, while other new features include 'visual history' and support for RSS feeds. … In use, the browser is much faster than Nokia's previous efforts (and) will start to change the way people think about browsing the web on a mobile device. Previously, sites aimed at PCs were only accessible using SSR (small screen rendering) technologies and this had usability problems since it was always limited by the intelligence of the re-rendering algorithms. Higher resolution screens, together with minimap, mean that it is possible to quite comfortably view any web site on the phone.

A 3 megapixel camera, Flash Lite, improved Java support, Nokia XpressMusic, UPnP and Wi-Fi (to name just a few of its features — possibly Skype connectivity, too!) add up to a very powerful mobile device:

With features such as UPnP (play music on any device anywhere wirelessly), Bluetooth 2.0 (wireless stereo headsets), 3G and Wi-Fi Connectivity (music download/purchase over the air) the N80 is the most feature rich and powerful digital media playback device on the market. Imagine the reaction that wireless headphones, wireless music sharing and playback around the home and over the air song download and purchase would get if they were features announced in a new iPod and you can start to grasp the significance of the feature set of the N80.

The smartphone is often touted as the ultimate convergence device, and the N80 is just one more step along that road. Nokia made it clear they see the N80 at the heart of the digital home with UPnP, with its auto-discovery and remote control properties as the enabling standard. But it is also clear that this is just the first stage and we can expect to see increasing integration with other devices around the home in the future, which will be achieved through the Digital Living Network Alliance (DLNA) 1.5 guidelines (which aims to enhance interoperability and user experience). All About Symbian

I blog all this because I am personally interested in what these slender, hand-held devices can deliver but I also believe that they will alter fundamentally the way schools and students operate. Moreover, although they are as yet so much the playthings of the richer countries these new generation phones have the potential to make the world more equitably connected — and for education that is also very exciting.

Or, if you prefer, as AAS concldues: all this is 'a story of four years of development in which the smartphone has moved from the initial concept smartphone to a series of feature-rich and powerful multimedia computers which will sell 100 million units in 2006. For the consumer electronics industry, it is an unprecedented story of product-line creation, growth and success and one that is largely unnoticed by mainstream technology pundits'.

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Satisfaction not (yet) guaranteed

Dave Winer:

Jeremy Zawodny had a bad experience with iTunes yesterday too. You know, reading his story actually makes me feel better. The bad part about it is that I was looking forward to watching a movie on this little hand-held marvel. Watching a movie on the subway in NY and seeing what people think. Apple is very seductive. But also flaky. The joy of it will wear off, for sure. And when the initial experience is so disappointing, you gotta wonder if the whole thing is worth the trouble. The same thing happened with the Apple laptop and the desktop I bought. But then it also happened with the Sony Vaio. But it didn't happen with my new Toyota earlier this year, or my Lexus, which I bought in 1999. Both worked flawlessly. It seems the computer industry hasn't gotten to the stage yet where it can really deliver delight to users.

Jeremy Zawodny's post caught my eye earlier today:

In summary, do not upgrade from iTunes 4.9 to iTunes 6.0 if you value your time, music, and sanity.

Steve Jobs, you owe me an apology.

For a company that's built a reputation on stuff that "just works", this is unbelievable. You're lucky I can't use anyone else's software to put music on my iPod. I don't look forward to spending the next 3-4 weeks re-importing 500 CDs into your buggy software.