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Wednesday, January 28, 2009

SOLUTION: misconfigured "TemporaryItems" folder makes Office:Mac 2004 inoperable

This soluion has to do with a bad Mac OS X "TemporaryItems" folder that causes Microsoft Office:Mac 2004, including Word 2004 and Excel 2004, to consistently give error messages and refuse to work normally. I'm writing this down because it's a solution that I was unable to locate through a Google search or haven't seen documented anywhere by anyone. (If it's the latter, I'd be really surprised!)

(Note: the error messages listed are mostly correct in wording/phrasing as what the programs reported. Unfortunately, I didn't screenshot or write them down.)

My computer set-up: PowerPC-based Mac running Mac OS X 10.4.11.

Problem:
A. Microsoft Excel:Mac 2004
A few days ago, when I started Excel:Mac 2004 by double-clicking an XLS file, it gave this error:

'filename.xls' could not be found.

Check the spelling of the file name and verify that the file location is correct.

If you are trying to open the file from your list of most recently used files on the File menu, make sure that the file has not been renamed, moved or deleted.
This was particularly distressing because it's a file that I use everyday and Excel had never had an hang-ups about opening it.

When I tried to open the file manually in Excel (i.e. through File->Open), I got the same error upon pressing the "Open" button.

I decided to try and create a new file. This time, I got a new error message:
Microsoft Excel cannot open or save any more documents because there is not enough available memory or disk space.

To make more memory available, close workbooks of programs you may no longer need.

To free disk space, delete files you no longer need from the disk you are saving to.
This was even stranger because I had gigabytes of space in my hard disk. Something else was wrong here.

B. Microsoft Word:Mac 2004
To double-check, I tried using Word:Mac 2004. Starting it up was fine, but when I tried to open a file, I encountered this error message:
'filename.doc' is being used by 'another user'. Do you want to make a copy?
This was impossible since I was using the one-and-only OS X user account and the file I was opening had never been opened by anyone else or been closed improperly. Like before, I tried creating a new file, and now Word complained:
Do you want to replace the existing "Normal"?
I hit "Cancel" to skip the error, which leaves me in Word. So I closed Word again and now it said:
Changes have been made that affect the global template "Normal". Do you want to save those changes?
Of course, I pressed "Don't save".

Based on the above experience, I surmised that my problem couldn't be restricted to Excel or Word (or PowerPoint, for that matter). It was something more global.

Solution: ensure that there is a working "Home/Library/Caches/TemporaryItems" folder
When working with its DOC/XLS/PPT/whatever files, Office:Mac 2004 needs a place to save the working copies for its own use. These working copies, or temporary files, reside in the location, "Home/Library/Caches/TemporaryItems". If this folder is misconfigured or corrupt, none of the Office:Mac 2004 programs (Word:Mac 2004, Excel:Mac 2004, PowerPoint:Mac 2004, etc) will work.

To recreate a working copy of "Home/Library/Caches/TemporaryItems",
  1. Delete "TemporaryItems" folder in "Home/Library/Caches", if it's there.
  2. Delete "Home/Documents/Microsoft User Data/Entourage Temp"
  3. Start any Office:Mac 2004 program (Word:Mac 2004, Excel:Mac 2004, PowerPoint:Mac 2004. etc.)
You should now have a working "Home/Library/Caches/TemporaryItems" folder and Office:Mac 2004's programs (Word:Mac 2004, Excel:Mac 2004, PowerPoint:Mac 2004, etc.) should not give any error messages.

You can stop reading here, if you want to. What follows is my (long!) list of attempted solutions.

Attempted Solution #1: delete preference files
In Mac OS, deleting the preference files is usually the first and easiest step to solve any problem. So I deleted the Office-related files in "Home/Library/Preferences" and "Home/Documents". No luck there.

Attempted Solution #2: check for corrupt fonts
When I had encountered weird Office:Mac 2004 errors previously, the culprit was usually some corrupt font. So I used Mac OS X's Font Book to deactivate all fonts, then restarted Word or Excel. Nope, the problem was still there.

Attempted Solution #3: repair system permissions and repair disk
Another cure-all in the Mac OS X world: use Disk Utility to repair permissions and the disk itself. Though it's never been proven, repairing sometimes solves problems. Unfortunately, though Disk Utility found a problem with my disk's volume header, Word and Excel still refused to run.

Attempted Solution #4: re-install Office:Mac 2004
Based on some searches, a problem in a required Office installation file could be a problem-maker. The easiest way to solve it was to re-install the whole software. So I did. Luckily, it didn't take more than half an hour. Alas, the problem persisted with this clean installation, even after adding the updates.

Attempted Solution #5: re-install Mac OS X 10.4
This was the last resort and it took me about three hours to get my Mac OS X environment restored to the way it was originally. (Reinstalling the operating system, including the updates, took about an hour. Copying files and reinstalling other software took about another hour.)

And success! It worked! No more error messages in Word:Mac or Excel:Mac. My trusty ol' DOC and XLS files opened as usual with no problems. And no other weird messages on quitting.

I was content to leave this as it was... until it happened again. Aaargh!

Now I had to remember what I'd done since it stopped working properly. Had I installed any new software in the last few days?

Attempted Solution #6: downgrade QuickTime from 7.6 to 7.5.5
QuickTime 7.6 was one new software. I had read of some software conflicts with it, but nothing related to Office:Mac 2004. Still, there was no harm in downgrading and trying it. Alas, it did not eliminate the problem.

Attempted Solution #7: create a new OS X user
Another "last resort" solution. I created a new user, logged into it, then started Excel and Word. Both worked flawlessly! This narrowed the problem down to some files within my "Home/Library" folder, since each user has its own Library.

Comparing files/folders between the two, I couldn't find anything that was different. My original "Library" folder had the same essential contents as the new user's. So I copied files/folders out of my original "Library" folder. No luck, I still had the Excel and Word errors.

Attempted Solution #8: delete contents of "Home/Library/Caches"
And then I stumbled upon this quite by accident: while copying files back into my original "Library" folder, I decided to not copy the "Home/Library/Caches" folder. Which meant that the "Caches" folder in my original "Library" folder was now empty.

And Word and Excel started with nary a complaint!

I then used a couple of other programs, then tried to start Excel. The problem returned! I went through the programs I'd used and two stuck out: Safari and Firefox.

Attempted Solution #9: remove Safari's caches
Safari had recently been upgraded to version 3.2.1, another new piece of software. Unfortunately, removing its stuff in the "Caches" folder did not eliminate the problem.

Attempted Solution #10: disable Firefox's add-ons/plug-ins
Starting Firefox 3.0.5, I disabled all of its add-ons. In its "virgin" state, I knew from past experience that it couldn't be messing up the "Caches" folder. Unfortunately, this didn't work... until I decided to just see what was inside the "Caches" folder itself.

Attempted Solution #11: delete misconfigured "TemporaryItems"
I found one strange item: "TemporaryItems". It was a folder, but was not "working" as a folder, i.e. I couldn't list its contents. So I deleted it, then restarted Excel. No go. However, I found through trial-and-error that I could recreate a "proper" "TemporaryItems" folder by deleting "Home/Documents/Microsoft User Data/Entourage Temp". I don't know how/why it works, but it does.

While leaving the "TemporaryItems" folder open, I started Excel by double-clicking an XLS file. Excel worked perfectly well again! And now I noticed that it had creating a temporary file in the "TemporaryItems" folder.

Breakthrough:
Of course! Word and Excel had complained of low memory or all of the other crap errors because it couldn't save its temporary working files!

True Solution: remove software that misconfigure "TemporaryItems"
I later found out that it was an erroneous Firefox add-on, Weave 0.2.7, which had caused all of these problems. Apparently, it was either deleting incompletely the "TemporaryItems" folder or was creating it improperly. Whatever the reason, it was messing up my system badly. Needless to say, I'm keeping it disabled.

I hope the above is useful for anyone who encounters the same problems as me. Hopefully, I've stuffed enough keywords to make it easily searchable.

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Sunday, January 25, 2009

When the phone battery dies...

(I had wanted to write a product review, but that will have to wait while I deal with this little "crisis".)

Just last night, I had one of those moments when I realised I was truly a citizen of the mobile phone world. When the phone suddenly stopped charging and the device itself refused to start up, I had a real moment of panic. Not because the phone (or, most likely, its battery) was possibly dead, but because all of the data that was stored in it couldn't be accessed.

And I needed to access that data NOW!

The mobile phone has become a really indispensible device and it's due to its convenience. SMS makes sending and receiving short messages relatively painless. New numbers can be saved to the phone with a few keystrokes. And with phones doubling up as cameras and music players, lots of favourite pictures and tunes are stored in phone memory and/or memory cards.

And all of these can be lost when the power dies. Almost all phones require a working battery to operate. Even if a battery-less phone is connected to a wall outlet, it usually will not work. And that means that the data stored in the phone is effectively locked up. Without a working power source, my phone essentially became a data-filled brick, useless and useful at the same time.

Of course, I could easily buy a new battery, pray that nothing else in the phone's circuitry had given up the ghost, and stop ranting on my blog. But this was in the middle of the night, when the shops were closed, and I needed to find a contact number urgently. And though I sync my contacts with my computer regularly, this particular number had been saved to my phone after my most recent sync.

I'm sure I'm not the only person who has faced this problem of a powerless, inaccessible mobile device. As the mobile phone becomes more and more ubiquitous, I think there has to be a better alternative to retrieve its data without needing a working battery inside it.

While I take a moment to find a new phone battery, I'd like to hear what you have to say. Have you encountered this issue (powerless mobile phone with inaccessible data) before? How did you overcome it, short of getting a new battery?

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Friday, January 16, 2009

Apple and Steve Jobs - tied at the hip

Steve Jobs recently wrote a letter to his colleagues stating that he'll be on sick leave for the next few months. Almost immediately, the stock market reacted negatively and Apple's share price fell.

Look, I know Steve Jobs is pretty awesome at his job. He is deserving of his cult-like attraction due to this marketing genius. And he's been able to lead a company that makes its own path, rather than follow the one most travelled.

But this recent news has to make you wonder about the long-term viability of Apple. The last time Steve Jobs left Apple, the company basically floundered with a few missteps (Newton? eWorld?). Luckily, it already had its loyal followers and was able to stay afloat till Steve Jobs returned and re-galvanised the company.

Today, Apple is in a safer position with three strong product lines - Macintosh, iPod and iPhone. Yet, industry observers still think of Apple only in terms of its CEO.

So what's gonna happen when Steve Jobs quits -- or worse? After all, no one lives forever.

I'm sure that Apple's management is already working on this issue. At least the company appears to be in the safe hands of Tim Cook. Now it just needs to convince the rest of the world that Apple does not depend on one man.

Wishing Steve Jobs a quick and painless recovery!

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Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Palm Pre - the (i)Phone for the rest of us

Every once in a while, a device comes along that captures the public's attention. Last week, it was the Palm Pre. Amid all of the new-fangled devices introduced at CES in Las Vegas, the one that broke through the media clutter was the Palm Pre.

Already, tech pundits are calling it the device that will save Palm and its ailing namesake mobile platform. Of course, people still remember when the name "Palm" was synonymous with Star Trek-like personal digital assistants (PDAs) that made it easy to record contacts, appointments, notes, etc.

Now, the Palm Pre looks set to re-capture that legacy. Its webOS is supposed to make it easy for anyone with Web programming skills to design apps for it. Of course, that's what people also said about Apple's Widgets and Microsoft's Gadgets, and I've yet to see these apps from the average Web designer.

Nokia, too, is already pursuing this Web technology-based platform for mobile apps with its Web Runtime (WRT) platform (for S60-based phones). So perhaps such apps are nothing new to serious mobile app developers.

But just as it's not rudimentary to port a Windows program to the Mac, I expect that developing for Palm's webOS won't be trivial. What will make a difference, though, is if Palm is able to enforce that its webOS-based apps employ the familiar ease-of-use of long-time Palm apps.

The Palm platform has always had this quirky nature of being simple (or even simplistic) to use. Even as Microsoft churned out advanced versions of Windows Mobile and the Symbian platform matured and now with the iPhone and Google Android, the Palm generally remained the same.

Of course, critics will say that that's what held the Palm back as the smartphone market took off. (That and basically poor management at Palm.) On the other hand, I think that if Palm can make its Pre really easy for even grandparents to use, then it will totally change the smartphone landscape. It may even have the potential to make smartphones a mainstream platform, rather than reserved for the geeks.

Here's wishing the Palm Pre in making a dent in the (smartphone) universe!

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Wednesday, January 07, 2009

New iPhoto features - Facebook/Flickr tagging

I'm quite excited by iPhoto's new feature that incorporates Facebook and Flickr tagging. I think most people would dismiss this feature as trivial, but I see it as very useful for consumers.

For a long time, Flickr has provided an unsupported plugin for iPhoto, so that we could upload photos directly to Flickr. And in spite of Facebook's pervasiveness, I don't remember seeing an iPhoto plugin for photo uploads.

Now, Apple has delivered... and more! I enjoy tagging, for one thing, it'll be easier for me to refer back to old photos and recall the faces there. The normal method has been to store the photos in my computer, manage them through iPhoto, then upload them to Facebook/Flickr, switch to Facebook/Flickr, open the photo, then tag them.

Yeah, it's such a pain, I'm surprised no one had complained about it!

So now I can tag my photos in iPhoto directly, and when I upload them to Facebook/Flickr, the tags get passed along as well! And apparently, iPhoto can sync the tags with Facebook (and maybe Flickr too? I don't recall that bit in the keynote.)

With iPhoto's Faces feature, I think that will make tagging easier and more fun than ever. For Mac consumers everywhere, I think that this will be a boon!

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