Tuesday, October 25

The Dilbert Blog: 4th Annual Weasel Poll

The only thing I know for sure is that I don’t have the information I need to make decisions. That’s the problem with having a degree in economics. --Scott Adams

Saturday, October 22

Apple media center? --And my Apple wishes

An interesting article speculating on Apple's future in the Media Center PC business.

For what it's worth, my first reaction when I saw the new iMac was that they should put FrontRow into a Mac Mini with video-out ports. If they market it as a DVD player with a hard drive (which, by the way, also runs OSX), I think it could be a huge winner.

Since I'm pontificating on products I think Apple should make, let me also add that a Powerbook tablet would be awesome. Tablets are the computers that are basically just a touch-sensitive screen, but the ones that exist only run Windows thus far. There are also convertibles, which are basically laptops whose screens swivel around to become Tablet PCs. I'm not sure if the Apple tablet should be a convertible (John C. Dvorak thinks convertibles negate all the coolness of the tablet idea, anyway), but I'd really love to be able to view PDF documents on a screen rotated to Portrait orientation... especially if I had a PDF viewer application that I could use to make notes that are saved with the PDF itself (for example, by saving an additional graphic layer that is superimposed onto the PDF). If I had this, I could cut the number of pages I actually print at work by at least 50%... most of my printing is because I need to look at proofs and scribble edits on them, just to make the edits to the file and print them out again. The MusicPad Pro by Freehand Systems does basically this very thing, but it runs a customized and stripped-down Linux distro. I'd really like to be able to use a tablet that had the full power of OSX on it in addition to viewing and note-taking capabilities.

So, the media center Mini, the tablet Mac, and... the iPod PDA. There are actually very few changes Apple would have to make in order to flesh the iPod out as more of a PDA. Fore example, using only the controls they've implemented already, it should be simple to add a feature that lets you check and uncheck to-do items (as mentioned in the first comment on the iPod nano review to which I linked earlier. It would be very cool if they could somehow include a slide-out QWERTY keyboard or something as well, but any minor ability to perform any sort of input or edit actions on calendar, todo, or contact data would be awesome.

So, Steve-O, if you're listening... I want:
1. an iPod PDA (nano would be even cooler than full-size)
2. an OSX tablet (and a PDF reader that allows recordable edits via the touch-screen)
3. a Mac media center (but this is nowhere near as useful as the other two; it's just cool)

iPod nano review from 43 Folders

Merlin Mann writes what I think is the best and most comprehensive review of the iPod nano that I've seen thus far. And now I want one even more...

Moviefone: The Chronicles of Narnia

5 behind-the-scenes featurettes about The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, along with both trailers that are currently in circulation. Great stuff... I'm looking forward to this movie!

Wednesday, October 19

The Usable Home

The linked article from Lifehacker editor Gina Trapani has some great advice about making a home not only comfortable but also usable.

Monday, October 17

Fat Fingers

There are a bunch of misspellings in product titles and descriptions on eBay. Since it's hard to find them due to the nearly infinite number of ways to screw up words, they usually have lower prices than "mainstream" auctions since many people haven't found them.

Then comes Fat Fingers, a Web service that will search eBay for misspellings of whatever term you want. It will search delete each letter one by one (axopone, sxophone, saophone, etc.), duplicate each letter one by one (ssaxophone, saaxophone, saxxophone, etc.) and even swap consonants with others that may accidentally have been used (saxophome, saxophobe, etc.).

The upshot is that you get to see some auctions that are "hidden in the cracks" at eBay. Happy hunting!

Beware the Web Fads of Yesteryear

This is a nostalgic (but quite sarcastic) look at the fads that were plastered all over the Internet as few as 5 years ago. It makes you wonder what aspects of today's Web we'll be chuckling about in just a few short years.

Sunday, October 16

Google's Privacy Policy In Layman's Words

Google Blogoscoped describes the changes to Google's privacy policy in layman's terms. Obviously Philipp is trying to be funny here, but it's still a good reference.

Thursday, October 13

La Espada de la Noche: Review/Analysis

La Espada de la noche (linked above), by Ted Nash and his band Odeon, is rapidly becoming my favorite album. Occasion, by Harry Connick, Jr. and Branford Marsalis is vying for the top spot as well, but I'll leave a discussion of that one for another day.

Odeon is an awesome jazz quintet. Well, not exactly jazz... but the group is shaped much like the quintets made famous by Horace Silver. Silver's quintets contain:

  1. Trumpet
  2. Tenor sax
  3. Piano (Silver himself)
  4. Bass
  5. Drum set
However, these instruments are not what is copied in the new Ted Nash album. Instead, it's the roles they play that are carved from the same mold:
  1. Melody
  2. Harmony
  3. Comping instrument
  4. Bass line
  5. Percussion
Each of these instruments, in the quintets of Horace Silver, plays the melody at various times; and, of course, they all take solos here and there.

Odeon is no different in the basic structure, but (get this!) the instruments chose to play the fixed roles are these:
  1. Tenor Sax/Clarinet
  2. Violin
  3. Accordion
  4. Tuba/Trombone/Baritone Horn
  5. Drum set
The only part of the group that's really "traditional" is the drum set, since even the tenor sax plays a role different from its usual place. (This is mostly because Ted Nash is the tenorman, so he gets the #1 spot since he's the bandleader.)

And it works! It's not exactly what some call "jazz," but the instrumentation creates a really neat feel of a tango/klezmer ensemble with a brass band influence. You can click this post's link, above, to go to Amazon and hear some clips from the CD.

It's great stuff, and all the better because it's unusual. Those who know me best are aware that the thing I value most in music is unpredictability, and this novel ensemble are about as unpredictable as it gets without straying into some sort of Schoenbergian serialism. There's even a rendition of "Night in Tunisia" on the album for the jazz devotees, but it's played in a style you've never heard before. I highly recommend it, both as an intellectual exercise in broadening your musical horizons and as a piece of art that's just really good.

More details about Apple's "One More Thing" event

The linked article, over at Daring Fireball, describes in more detail some of the cool new features of the new products that Steve Jobs unveiled yesterday.

I have two main comments:
1. Yes, I agree that this FrontRow technology should somehow be hooked up to a television. Maybe a Mac Mini that's styled a bit more like a DVD player, with Front Row and a TV-out ports?

2. The whole $1.99-per-episode TV thing is cool, but I think it's way over-priced. For instance, each season of the TV show Friends has 23-25 episodes, and they currently sell in boxed sets for $20-30 (depending on how old the season is). That's only about a dollar an episode, plus it's in DVD format with full-screen resolution (not measly QVGA) and the whole "collector's item" stigma since they're in the boxed set. People will think that this "legal TV download" thing is cool for a while, but eventually they'll realize what a bum deal they're getting price-wise.

Granted, the downloadable shows are available the day after the original broadcast, so the speed in delivery (as opposed to a year or two for full-season DVDs to be produced) might make it worth it for some people. I know that, if ABC had put Commander in Chief up on the iTunes Video Store, I would have downloaded the second episode (which I missed for the actual TV broadcast) right away.

Also, another mitigating factor is that the full-season Friends DVDs were $35-40 when they were first released, about $1.50 per episode. Since the iTunes TV shows are immediately available they might be worth it... *if* they had high enough resolution to play on a proper television and not on a 320x240 video iPod screen. But making high-res video available would increase the download time significantly, and in our current gotta-have-it-now culture that might decrease the attraction quite a bit.

Wednesday, October 12

Details from Steve-O's "One More Thing" Announcement

Summary from today's Apple announcement:

New iMac G5:

  1. thinner
  2. built-in iSight camera
  3. FrontRow remote control
  4. Photobooth software (takes pictures via iSight)
  5. Mighty Mouse comes with it
  6. 17-inch: $1299. 20-inch: $1699.

New iPod:
  1. thinner
  2. larger screen (320x240=quarter-VGA)
  3. more HD space
  4. plays video
  5. black and white models, like nano
  6. 30GB: $299. 60GB: $399.

New iTunes:
  1. Version 6.0
  2. Download music videos for $1.99 apiece
  3. TV Shows available as well: Desperate Housewives, and 3 (maybe 4) other ABC shows
  4. Videos are QVGA native resolution
    available now for download (not in Software Update yet)
  5. Oh yeah, and you can also now give songs and videos as gifts via the iTMS

UPDATE: I've got iTunes 6.0 installed now, but the Videos aren't coming. I can see the page for Pixar's shorts, but clicking on the "Preview" button doesn't yet produce a preview of the short film.

Blond... James Blond

So, it looks like they've picked a new Bond: some blond guy I've never heard of named Daniel Craig. It seems he's often played the villain (most notably in the original Tomb Raider movie), so I wonder if he'll be able to play the suave, debonair, devil-may-care hero with enough panache to be distinguished from the next Bond nemesis.

Tuesday, October 11

Google Reader, Part... um... Three

Well, less than an hour after I posted Part Deux, Google Reader is working for me again. Thanks, guys!

Google Reader, Part Deux

OK, the Google Reader is completely broken for me. I can't see any feed items, and it crashes Firefox when I wait too long hoping that it loads.

Basically, since I decided that I wasn't going to fully "switch," I unsubscribed from all my feeds except one that is infrequently updated. (This way, I figured, going back to check on the interface will mean that I won't have a ton of unread items that I'll have to mark, individually, as read.)

Well, Google Reader didn't respond very well to me unsubscribing from 24 feeds in the space of 2-3 minutes, and now I can't see anything at all. I can see the stuff at the top, and the "Loading" bit with the bubbling beaker, but the browsing interface never comes up.

I know the Reader team are checking the Google Blog Search feed for items that talk about their new product; if any of you sees this, can you see what the problem is? If you need to get more info from me, post a comment to this blog entry and I'll get back to you. Or if it's Mihai that reads this, you've already got my email address... I'm the one you helped to customize your Gmail Tweaks userscript back in March so that messages and the Compose pane always show up with fixed-width fonts.

Monday, October 10

Yahoo launches podcast search site

It's big news, supposedly, since all the blogs and news sites mention it.

I, for one, answer with a great big *yawn*. Odeo eats it for breakfast, especially since it has the ability to turn all of your subscriptions into a single RSS feed that can be accessed from anywhere and only includes the items you haven't yet downloaded.

I'd rather use Bloglines for a podcast client than tie up my podcast browsing/listening in this new POS from Yahoo!.

UPDATE: OK, there is *one* cool thing about it. You can speed up the podcast (up to 2x the recorded speed!) without making the voices sound like chipmunks. You can also slow it down to 0.5x, but who wants to do that?!? But his feature has major caveats that bring it way down on the "cool" scale... you have to be using Yahoo!'s Web podcast player (which means you actually have to be sitting at a computer), and you must be using Internet Explorer on Windows for the feature to work.

This is pretty neat, so you can speed up talk shows a bit, spend less time listening, and still understand what you're hearing. But it's difficult to find enough power for a DESKTOP WINDOWS MACHINE in your CAR...

Google Reader

Google just launched a new online product, a web-based RSS and Atom feed-reader. If you don't care enough to read the rest of this article, here's my synopsis: Great idea, with absolutely horrible execution. For those who are actually, interested, let's see how deep the rabbit hole goes.

First of all, the idea of "tagging" is cool. Also, Google Reader was able to import my OPML-formatted subscription list from Bloglines without so much as a hiccup. It even applied tags to the feeds based on the folders in which I'd categorized them in Bloglines.

That's where the coolness ends. Once you get your feeds into Google Reader, you have almost no customization about how they are displayed. Your feeds all get thrown into one box, stirred up, and spit back out at you semi-randomly. Even telling the interface to sort items by date doesn't even really work: it seems to display items in the order that Google recognized them, so if the feed is polled and there are 4 new items, they all get clumped together in the interface and not interleaved with items from other feeds.

Secondly, it's not particularly smart about noticing whether items are "new" or not. For some reason, it seemed to always see every item in my local newspaper's feed as "new," so I saw 5 or 6 copies of every feed item (and they were all clumped together, I assume by polling interval, in the manner described above).

But I don't even *want* to view items from all feeds in chronological order. I want to look at feeds from one label at a time (and I wouldn't mind if these were interleaved chronologically, as long as it was by posting date). I know you can do this, but it involves clicking on "Your Subscriptions" and waiting for the page to load, whereas Bloglines's "myblogs" interface allows this by default.

And what's with the backwards feed list? I want to view items oldest first, but there's no option for that. The whole reason for blogs showing up anti-chronologically was so that you could easily see above-the-fold that the page had new items. Now, with feed-readers, we are able to see only unread items, so we should at least be able to see them in their proper order. Sure, some people got used to the backwards order, but there should at least be an option to make it display the other way.

And I don't know how my personal feeds are being cached (for example, Library ELF, Odeo, and My Comic Alert!). A system of viewing other people's reading lists has apparently been unearthed, though it's not operational yet. (The link goes to a conversation on the Google Blogoscoped forums about Google Reader). I don't want people having access to those sorts of things. What about people who view their unread gmail messages via RSS? I'm sure they don't want to share their account details if they've put them right in the feed address.

Also, aside from these usability issues, there's a pretty bad bug (which is sort of a usability issue in and of itself). Items can only be marked as unread if you move from that item to another, like in Outlook's "mark as read when viewing another item" capability. This means that, if only one item is displayed onscreen, there is no way to mark it as read because there are no other feeds items to "move to."

So, the upshot of all this is a set of feature requests:
1. Show labels on the mainpage.
2. If you're going to pretend to sort items by date, interleave the items in multiple feeds by their posting date.
3. Tell us how the polling works, and learn to distinguish items you've seen from ones you haven't. Also, let us choose how to treat updated feed items (like the Ignore/Display as New option for individual feeds in Bloglines).
4. Include an option to show items oldest-first.
5. Tell us how items are cached, and allow some sort of option to remove personal feeds from the globally-accessible cache (like the designation of public/private in Bloglines).
6. Fix the "stays unread when only one item" bug. I suppose you could start the page with no items showing at all, and mark an item as read when the user selects it (the "j" keystroke could automatically select the first item in the list).
7. The "V" keystroke, to view the source article of the current feed item, is an awesome idea. However, it forces a new window to open in Firefox when it's used. Make the method it uses to call the link more standardized so that I can set the browser to automatically pull the source in as a tab in the background.

In general, I love the idea. The system of displaying feeds and allowing keyboard navigation is superb. It's also great that the aspect ratios of images don't get screwed up in blog posts, which is one of Bloglines's great problems. However, there aren't enough customizablity options, and the preferences we're stuck with just don't float my boat. I'll keep using Bloglines for now, but I'll check back often to see when (because I know it's not an "if") the Reader gets better.


You know how you always think of more things to say as soon as you hang up the phone? Well, I just published this entry, but there are another couple of things I forgot to say.

1. You can't unsubscribe from a feed unless an item from that feed is in the viewing pane. (Also, what happens when you unsubscribe? If it was cached, and you were the only subscriber, does that feed URL stay in Google's cache to be found by some other Reader user?
2. Changing the size of the text in the window (i.e., through the TextZoom extension in Firefox), borks the display a little bit. The text wraps wierdly, and the vertical space gets all misaligned. This should be more like Gmail, in that an increase in font size keeps the screen pretty much like it was, just a bit larger.

Saturday, October 8

John C. Dvorak

My goodness, this guy is great. I didn't know much about him until I started listening to Leo Laporte's This WEEK in TECH podcast (where John C. Dvorak is one of the regular panelists), but I got intrigued by his intelligent and slightly offbeat look at technology and the world in general.

The link in this post goes to the page on PC Magazine's website that lists all of John's recent columns. I recently ran across one of his pieces via Google News, and I was hooked. On the podcast he's kind of the guy who sits in the corner and doesn't say a whole lot until he's pontificated a bit and worked up a really awesome way to hit the audience with pith and wisdom, but reading an entire article by this guy is a hoot. He's smart, funny, and a bit sarcastic (my wife compared my description of him to Kelsey Grammer's inimitable Frasier Crane, which gets the idea across pretty nicely).

I've got five of his recent PC Magazine articles that I found particularly poignant, but rather than link to them all as separate blog posts I figured that I would have just one "Mega-Dvorak" post this time. First off, an August column entitled "Knowing Too Much," which is about the information Web sites can find out about us just through our casual browsing. By the way, this site can get about the same information as Dvorak says he gets. However, since joining Blog Explosion, I get so many hits I don't ever even look at individual entries in my log anymore. I just look to see where my visitors come from and what links they click on from my blog.

Next, an article from September 6th entitled "Podcasting: The Next Big Thing. This is about the recent emergence of podcasts as a news and entertainment media, and about how they will eventually eclipse major broadcasters. Leo Laporte describes podcasting as "TiVo for radio," and in fact many radio stations are releasing podcast feeds of their shows. Of course, he also mentions how the TWiT podcast will likely take over the world one day. Interestingly, he mentions that it seems that many, many people are getting into podcasting in some way, but they all seem to think that nobody else knows about it.

Another column, entitled "Microsoft Should Confuse The Market More," is just pure entertainment. This is like stand-up comedy for nerds. Since Microsoft has announced that it will publish seven different enigmatic editions of Windows Vista (the successor to Windows XP due out next year), Dvorak riffs on the marketing opportunities that Microsoft could have by tailoring a different edition of the new OS to every niche segment of the population. You just have to read it.

"The Hard Drive and Human Behavior" waxes a bit philosophical. In it, Dvorak muses about how the proliferation of hard drive space in today's computers (which renders the maintaining of a neat and tidy desktop computer unnecessary) is partly to blame for the mess on his physical office desktop.

Finally, a column from this past Monday is called ""The Future of Advertising." In it, he describes Google's targeted ads and how beneficial they are. For instance, when he enters a search query about DVD media, he gets ads in the right-hand column detailing where he can buy blank DVD discs. This is, as he says, a useful feature. However, the developers of Interactive TV who want to provide you with targeted ads based on your viewing preferences are creating an intrusion... because, when you sit down to watch a TV show, "YOU'RE NOT SHOPPING." Read it. It's hilarious, and it's insightful.

John C. Dvorak also has a blog at dvorak.org/blog (if you've heard even one episode of TWiT, you know this already). It's titled "Dvorak Uncensored," and it's just a tad too "uncensored" for me. He goes off on weird tangents, sometimes, gets a bit political, and pretty much just rants about whatever is annoying him. I like his writing a whole lot better when he's got his "journalist hat" on for PC Magazine. He also writes a column entitled "John Dvorak's Second Opinion" for MarketWatch. That link goes to an RSS feed of his MarketWatch columns, because I couldn't find a page dedicated to his stories like PC Magazine has for him.

In any case, read this guy's work. It's great stuff.

Friday, October 7

Firefox 1.5 is getting closer... UPDATE

Firefox 1.5 Beta 2 has been released (see above link).

The TextZoom extension seems to work a little better in 1.5b2, but it's still erratic. However, I found a version of the TextZoom extension that seems to work well with FF 1.5. It's a French translation which must have been slightly updated when the language was changed. You can find it here.

There's another extension called zoompersist that's supposed to change the text zoom level on a site-by-site basis, but I can't get it to install (the code that defines the extension as a unique program is invalid).

UPDATE: I was able to install zoompersist, and it's basically the same thing as TextZoom without the ability to fine-tune the zoom ratio. So I think I'm going to stick with the French TZ until momokatte makes an official update.

Now all I need is an update of the Gmail Tweaks script for Greasemonkey and I'll be able to run FF1.5 full-time!

Wednesday, October 5

Dell sells a true "white-box"

According to an article from CNET, Dell has begun to sell a true "white-box" PC. "White-box" refers to the computers that were once called "IBM-compatible," then became known as merely "PCs" (which should really be called "Windows PCs," since a Mac is still a Personal Computer), and now include all the build-it-yourself machines that run Windows, Unix, and the brazillion flavors of Linux that are around these days.

So this new PC from Dell is shipping with a Pentium 4, 512MB of RAM, a 128MB ATI Radeon video card, and a *completely blank* 80GB hard drive. This is awesome... and a genuine "first" for computer sellers. Rather than forcing people to pay for an operating system (Windows), which many power users are deleting from their machines as soon as they're unpacked, it's a true plain-vanilla machine. It comes with a CD copy of the open-source operating system FreeDOS, but users are free to download any of a number of free operating systems for installation on their new Dell Dimension E510n.

Rock on, Dell!

Monday, October 3

Wireless Power! Really?!?

This is awesome. I've been dreaming of wireless power for quite some time. Splashpower has done it by creating a "SplashPad" that you can place devices on and they will receive power without being physically plugged in.

Of course, my dream of wireless power is for more than cellular phones and digital cameras, and it's for greater distances. I'd love, one day, to be receiving power from the wall wirelessly from anywhere in the house (and powering devices as large, hopefully, as my Powerbook). I think that one day outlets will be rendered obsolete, and wireless power will be so good that you just have to bring a device into your "powered" home and it will immediately attach to the available wireless power source. Just like computers can automatically connect to wireless information networks.

Saturday, October 1

'Minimum Text Size'

It didn't work smoothly. The text elements didn't stay proportional to each other, since all smaller text was bumped up to the same minimum size.

I guess I'll have to wait for TextZoom to get updated for 1.5 before I will be able to upgrade.

Firefox 1.5b1 - Update (Verdict - much better, but not ready yet)

I just tried Firefox 1.5 beta 1 again, and I'm really impressed. A lot of extensions have been updated, but I'm still not quite ready to make the switch (I downgraded back to 1.0.7 to write this post).

I can get almost everything I want out of the new browser, except for a few Greasemonkey scripts. TextZoom isn't yet updated for FF1.5 (because momokatte, the extension's author is notorious for dropping off the face of the planet for extended periods of time and hasn't yet gotten around to it). It's possible to install TZ by either modifying the extension's install.rdf file (which I mentioned previously) or by a new method I'll explain later on in this post. Well, it's new to me, anyway.

In any case, TZ still works only erratically. Pages accessed via the https:// protocol don't follow your zomm percentages. However, I found that telling the browser to keep its minimum text size to 15 point (accessible by clicking "Advenced..." in the Font preferences) helps to make all text readable. This has the added benefit of leaving sites alone if their text is already big enough.

There is a new version of Greasemonkey for FF1.5b1 (v0.6.2) at the greaseblog, but it changes the way scripts work and breaks many of them. The Secure Gmail, Gmail Tweaks, and Gmail Smart-Delete Button are all broken with the new version of Greasemonkey. Secure Gmail makes sure that you're always running gmail via the encrypted https:// protocol, Gmail Tweaks adds a "persistent searches" similar to OSX10.4's "Smart Folders," and Gmail Smart-Delete adds a "delete" button to the interface that is grayed out except when email is selected or opened. Gmail Tweaks also includes a feature that allows you to switch between variable-width and fixed-width fonts; I have modified the script to make fixed-width the default.

Installing most other extensions is a lot easier than I thought. You don't have to unpack the extension, rename a file, and repack it. It's much easier to just go to about:config from the address bar and add in a new preference value. Right-click inside the window and add a String value called "app.extensions.version." Initially make its value 1.0, buy you'll probably play around with it while you're installing extensions. What this does is change the value that extensions look at to see if they're compatible with the browser. So if you're installing an extension that only installs on versions 0.7+ to 1.0, just give app.extensions.version the value "1.0" and it'll install without a hitch even though the browser is actually version 1.5. One of the extensions I use would only install on versions 1.0+ through 1.0+ (which seemed pretty silly to me), but changing the value to "1.0+" made it work perfectly.

Firefox 1.5 is *almost there* for me. I'm not sure if the "minimum font size" will be an acceptable solution, so it may take until TextZoom is updated for me to be fully comfortable with it. Also, I'm going to get in touch with the authors of the Greasemonkey scripts that break to see if new versions can be issued. The Greasemonkey extension developers say it shouldn't be much of a change to the scripts themselves, so hopefully that goes smoothly and quickly.

Oh yeah, and one other thing. FF1.5 changes the default behavior when you click on the location bar. 1.0.7 and below all select the entire text of the bar when it is single-clicked, while 1.5 just inserts a cursor. I like the old way (it makes it easy to just select all and type in a new destination address), so I searched around in about:config and found a way to change it back. If you change "browser.urlbar.clickSelectsAll" to "true" (just double-click it), it will go back to the earlier method.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available by emailing the author (use the link above).

The Geek Code desperately needs updating, but in any case here's mine (as of 2010-02-28):

Version: 3.12
GIT/MU d+(-) s:+>: a C++> ULXB++++$ L+++ M++ w--() !O !V P+ E---
W+++ N o++ K? PS PE++ Y+ PGP t !5 X- R- tv+@ b++ DI++++ D--- e*++
h--- r+++ y+++ G+

If you really care about knowing what that all means, you either know the code already, or you can get it decoded for you here.