Archive for the 'geekery' Category

07
May
08

How Google Reader killed my NewsGator habit

I have been using NewsGator products for a while now, maybe since 2000. I’ve used pretty much their entire range of client products, from FeedDemon, the Windows RSS reader, to NewsGator Go! for Windows Mobile, to NetNewsWire on the Mac. Along the way I’ve also tried NewsGator Inbox for Outlook, and very ocassionally use NewsGator Online in a pinch. That’s pretty much their entire offering for reading RSS (i.e. non-servers).

I’ve stuck with them for so long because the integration between all the clients is pretty good, at least my feed status is synchronized across all devices, so that if I read Lifehacker on the smartphone, the same posts won’t show up as unread on the PC/Mac. The one thing I was confused over, though, was their “clipping” mechanism: they seem to have various flavor of it on their various clients, and there is no synchronization of them on the server. So whenever I switch machine, or a hard drive dies, I’d lose all the clippings. All in all, it was still decent.

For the longest time I’ve heard from friends that Google Reader rocks. But I still resisted because their web client NewsGator Online was pretty slow, and I assumed that all web RSS clients will always be slower than desktop clients; not an unreasonable assumption given my experience with web email compared to Outlook or Apple Mail. Add to it that the rich client I used most recently, NetNewsWire, was pretty awesome, and I just didn’t see a major need to change.

Then came the day my MacBookPro was in Apple’s shop for a week, and I was sustaining my addiction on the home Mac Mini. I didn’t want to install NetNewsWire on it for just one week, and so I decided it was high time to give Google Reader a spin. I exported my OPML from NewsGator Online and imported it to Google Reader and started using it. I was blown away how fast and rich the web client was! It wasn’t giving much speed away compared to the mac client at all. In particular I liked:

– Google Reader’s preview was super fast, almost faster than NetNewsWire. I suspect they are caching the posts on Google’s servers given how many users would read the same feeds.
– GReaders preview shows all rich media for the most part, instead of the embargo of flash video in NetNewsWire. Given how often YouTube clips are embedded these days, it sure beats using NetNewsWire and then have to open the post on the default browser. Seeing the video right in the context of the preview area rocks.
– Using the Lifehacker Firefox extension for GReader provides me withshortcut keys that make navigating from post to post, marking articles as read or unread, and bookmarking posts all super efficient.
– GReader surprised me even with the mobile version. It’s not as good as the full browser version, but it’s very usable and doesn’t seem to give up much against the NewsGator Go! on the WM5 Blackjack.
– The trump card though, one that I think NetNewsWire will never be able to match, is the feature to bookmark interesting posts, or as GReader calls it, the Starred Item feature. It’s straight out of GMail. Synchronizing bookmark data across multiple clients (RSS or otherwise) on multiple devices is inherently complicated, have all sorts of failure cases that will occasionally pops up, no matter how good the mechanism is. Maybe Windows Live Mesh will solve it completely, but I kinda doubt it. GReader’s web based approach guarantees data synchronicity. Everything will always be in sync, and I’ll never have to worry about porting locally stored bookmarks from one machine to another. Add to it Google’s implicit promise for infinite storage, their search capability, and it’s hard to give this advantage up.

Ever since my switchover to Mac exclusively, I’ve been finding tons of Mac apps that have amazing design and quality. Honestly I didn’t think NetNewsWire for the Mac can be topped. But the promise of Google Reader is just too alluring, and so for me at least, another desktop app has fallen. Long live the web apps!

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03
Apr
08

Thinking Room

Since I’m mostly working alone these days, communicating via email or IM with my partner, I have had the luxury of working anywhere, anytime. For the last month or so, I’ve found that I work very well when this is the view from my desk:

25F7B22C-E7B3-44F2-BA89-C33BC2198A6C.jpg

It’s actually pretty affordable. Whenever I’m mentally stuck and can’t focus, I drive to Alki Beach and park by the water’s edge, and just yank out my laptop. Between my 3G modem (best thing ever) and an inverter to power the laptop, I can work there for hours on end, and it’s usually some of my most productive time. There’s no distraction, no fridge to raid, no TV to watch, plus that view is just inspirational for writing a spec or business plan or what have you.

I think everyone should have a quiet place they can go to, not necessarily with that view, but looking out to a view that’s serene and mind-quieting. I’ve read about Kathy Sierra’s Airstream office rig, and I want one. And I’ve got the design all figured out:

Ideally I’d like a 19-22′ vintage Airstream, something like this:

59CaravanerPolished.jpg

And since I’m a mod-head, I’ll have the interior all stripped down to the shell. No plumbing, no cabinets, no dinette set, no beds. I’m ick’ed out by the bathrooms on RVs and so I think I’ll take that out too…I’ll just go to the nearest gas station and Starbucks if needed. Ideally, I’ll have a solar-charged battery system with an inverter to kick up the power to 110v, so I can use it to power electronics. Interior wise, I just want this:

Sent — will.lai@gmail.com (395 messages).jpg

It’s an interior designed by Bosch & Fjord for their client MindLab, as a conference room where people can collaborate. I think the curve walls will be perfectly matched to an Airstream’s shell, plus the immense whiteboard surface will be great for doddling your latest big idea. I’ll add a simple conference table and some chairs running down the middle of the Airstream, hang a projector on the ceiling, an electrical outlet from the battery system, a WiFi access point powered by my 3G modem, and I’ll be all set to do pretty much anything I need to get done.

I think I can put together the whole thing around $5-7K, with alot of elbow grease thrown in, which really isn’t too bad. The only problems are that my house has no room for RV parking, and I don’t have a tow vehicle, both of which can be fixed with more money. If I have time right now I’d actually go for it, but the day is short and this has to stay as a pipe dream for now.

If you have something like this setup for your work, write me a comment!

21
Mar
08

We’ve been TV-free for almost four years now

So ever since we moved back to our house after the rebuild in June 2004, we’ve gone without broadcast or cable TV. Prior to it we were constantly living in front of a TV, watching, dining, sleeping, etc. There were hardly any moments when the TV wasn’t on. Where the TV was, that’s where we really lived. All the other parts of the house were essentially unused. We were that pathetic, and I imagine, not far from the American norm.

So when we had a chance to start fresh, we wanted to just make a break for it. We had originally designed so that there would be no TV in the main living level, and only have TV downstairs. But with all the moving in and settling down, we never got around to calling in the cable guy, or setup the satellite. The Tivo sat in the box with taped shows from 2004. Our big Sony CRT tv sits in a neglected corner hooked up only to the DVD Player and VHS.

The kids (mostly Isabelle, since Camille was only a few months old at the time) watched videos on the computer upstairs, either on a DVD or ripped/downloaded video files. My wife and I just stopped wasting time on Food network (whose shows were getting boring anyway) and any Must See TV. Yes, it was weird for a while, but eventually the cold turkey became the norm and we haven’t looked back (much) since.

I found much more time reading web stuff, blogs, etc. I started reading more books, spending more time playing games with the kids. I’ve stopped wasting time on shows that I don’t really like, but were watching simply because it was on. I think I’ve gained back at least 3-4 hours of productivity time back.

Today, we watch movies on DVD or streamed onto our Apple TV on a projector, a much more intentional event than just the background TV viewing habits of old. We are focused when we are watching something, and not let TV be the condiment to real lives. We do spend an amazing amount of time on the web, and increasingly watch streamed stuff via youtube, hulu, or bit torrent stuff. But all-in-all, it encouraged more play or reading times for the kids and adults alike, and I’m glad we left it all behind.

08
Jan
08

Wow, talk about handy work

Before there was the transistor, vacuum tubes were the high technology of electronics. I’ve never played with one myself, but one of these days may try to build something simple with it. Their warm glow like an incandescent bulb is very appealing in a nostalgic way.

While tubes and transistors are very different beasts in electronic circuits, you can think of their served function as roughly equivalent in scale, i.e. you’ll need one transistor to do the job of one vacuum tube.   Now with a Core 2 Duo CPU of today, you are getting about 300 Million transistors. So to do the same thing in tubes, you’ll need 300 million vacuum tubes. With a tube is about the size of a swollen thumb, and you can imagine the size of the beast that will take to perform what Intel put into the space of a 140mm x 140mm. Now to mention the amount of wiring needed, electricity used, light and heat generated and the infrastructure it would have taken to support such a montrosity.

Now go one step further, and see the video below on the steps needed to make ONE vacuum tube, and multiple it 300M times, and you may just blow your mind:

via hackaday

05
Jan
08

Interesting thoughts from Edsger Dijkstra (Turing Award Winner)

He’s about as far from the School of Hacks as you can possibly find in the field of Computer Science. While I am not sure I subscribe to his philosophy, his philosophy as documented on this video series “Discipline in Thoughts” is very interesting in our age. In particular, his disdain for the tech industries’ propensity to ship Beta or v1 craps and then rev it. It’s worth thinking about:

“You just cobble something together to sell. It need not be any good. As long as you can fool people into buying it, you can always try to make better versions later. So then you get these version numbers, even with decimals, version 2.6 or 2.7. That nonsense. While version 1 should have been the finished product.”





07
Nov
07

facebook’s social ads beacon just used me

Update: see the response by kongregate co-founder emily greer in the comments…

like everyone else, i read facebook’s announcement yesterday with interest, but hesitation. techcrunch is already documenting the backlash, but i have one anecdote to add about the Beacon, hmmm, feature. i thought that Beacon is the api where brands can push news feeds to you if you are a fan of the brand. well, my first hand initial experience with Beacon completely spooked me as a user, and has me wondering if king zuckerberg has any clothes.

the web is built around your email as your user id. i, like most users, have an email address that i used to signs up to various sites. i do it with web2 sites that i’m checking out, i do it with sites that i use on a regular basis, i do it with sites that i have passing interests. in this case, signed up to kongregate.com, where i waste many hours playing casual games, and of course the same email is on my facbeook profile. but when i signed up on either of these sites, i never expected that those two islands are going to gang up on me and use me as an unwitting endorser of kongregate’s products. and yet that’s exactly what just happened.

i was playing games on kongregate, and in the middle of a game something pop’ed up telling me that kongregate just added a note to my facebook news feeds. i did a double take; did i just see that correctly? how did kongregate know about my facebook without me doing anything? kongregate didn’t ask me for a facebook id, or whether it’s okay to send something to facebook; it just fired it off. now most sites will send the occassional email “news”, but at least they usually have a checkbox for you to opt out of them at signup. in this case, i had no expectation that this was a possibility, and no opton to turn it off. i dig thru all the kongregate settings and couldn’t find any facebook opt-out checkbox.

not being able to stop the spam at the source, i logged on to facebook. it notified me that with this little box on top of my facebook home page:

facebook_spam.jpg

at first sight, i had no idea whether that notice was about. was it the equivalent of “is this spam and should i proceed?” or was it “the spam already went through, but we thought you should at least know about it.” given the ambiguity, i decided to go check out my profile and read my own mini feed. guess what, it was the latter! it already spammed all my friends without my permission! awesome, way to treat your users!

Facebook_spam2.jpg

i went back to my facebook home page, and now even that notice is gone. it didn’t even obey its own “don’t show me this again” checkbox, which i never checked. now i don’t know where to block kongregate from doing this again. it sure isn’t under facebook’s “privacy” page.

so in summary:

– this is worse than spam, part 1: facebook and in this case kongregate spammed me without asking, and since it’s the wild west, there’s no law requiring them to label things as spam, or the mandatory “unsubscribe” button

– this is worse than spam, part 2: not only do they spam you, the user, they spam you and all your friends on facebook.

– this is worse than anything on the web today: google at least keep it to themselves what they know about you. facebook and their advertisers, in this case, exposes what they know about you to all your friends. if you are a closet gamer (or “worse”), and don’t want all your co-workers or friends to know a particular aspect of your life, too bad.

how on earth does facebook overlook all these privacy issues? was it because of the dollar sign? was kongregate just a renegade and just didn’t obey the rules? but even then, how can facebook betray the trust of its own users and let the “news” be published to all his friends without first obtaining consent (opt-in), or at minimum a notice (opt-out)?

turning facebook users into unwitting endorsers of brands? is zuckerberg on drugs?

26
Oct
07

getting things done, round 5

years ago i read getting things done by david allen (gtd), and found it incredibly simple and sensible. since then i’ve tried many tools to maintain my gtd habit.

i’ve tried:
1. microsoft one note. pro: freeform editing allows quick access. con: only accessible from one pc, inaccessible from smartphone.
2. tiddlywiki and its variants. pro: supports the gtd syste. con: again, local pc only, and slow once it gets big.
3. tiddlywiki + foldershare: same as above but solves the roaming problem from other pc’s. still no phone access though.
4. vitalist or other online todo lists. pro: great for tracking, accessible from phones and pc’s alike. con: slower, too structured.

(see bottom of post if you want to know the details of each system that I’ve tried)

recently though, i found something i really like. it’s called taskpaper, by hog bay software. (sorry, mac only.) i’ve used their earlier product before, a word processor called writeroom, which is so retro-simple that there’s no toolbars, no menus, and have the look of a text only terminal back in 1980’s, with green text on black background. writeroom’s m.o. is to strip away everything that isn’t necessary for focused writing. and so instead of worrying about all the gadgets, formatting, etc, you just focus on the text you are writing. it worked like a charm for me, and i adored the minimalist philosophy.

well taskpaper takes that philosophy and applied it to gtd. it’s a stripped down editor, with only two features distinguishing it as a gtd enabler: it allows a simple “:” or “-” character to designate a line as either a project or a task, respectively, and format the item as such. now you can quickly glance and know which line is a project grouping, and which is a task under that project, something that’s not so easy in notepad or textedit. the second feature, which is equally if not more genius, is the simple automation of tags. if you type “@text”, then the word “text” automatically becomes a tag. you can use it to group tasks together, as in the gtd system of contexts, such as @call, @computer, @errand. but you can also create your own system by just naming tags the way you see fit. once tags are created, you can quickly filter down the document to show only those of a particular tag. and so you can quickly bring up all the items that are “@call” and make your phone calls.

oh, and for tasks, they give you a checkbox for each task so that you can tick things off as completed, in which case you get a satisfying strike out effect for that task. mission accomplished.

and that’s pretty much it. that’s the entire feature set. add one more thing and it’ll probably start to feel rigid or bloated. remove one feature and you may as well be using an editor. and yet, everything is easily accessible via a single key, be it “:” “-” or “@”, making things super quick and lightweight.

i really like it after a week of daily usage. right now i’m using it as a scratchpad for brainstorming, and still uses vitalist for tracking given its reminder functionality. but it’s already allowed me to think through a project’s many steps and capture it quickly, which means i’ll be more prepared to make progress on all these projects.

if the developer jesse grosjean is reading this, i do have two requests:
– autosave the taskpaper without making me hit ctrl-s. that’s one of the best innovation of one note.
– i’d like to see a “back” button in addition to the “home” button. Sometimes I click on a tag filter and wants to undo it, but hitting home doesn’t quite feel right.

——————————————————————-
various systems that i’ve tried:

first, i tried simply using microsoft one note, and while it’s incredibly flexible, it completely lacks any structure and is a pain to keep track of everything manually. plus the fact that it doesn’t roam beyond my laptop, which is a major inconvenience. i tried supplementing it with paper+pencil, but never having one place where every action is collected is a major drawback. eventually i stopped doing it altogether.

then i tried tiddlywiki (and its many variations, some dedicated to gtd), which is a single page wiki that’s entirely implemented using javascript. it allows some automation with tags and project names, which solved the manual organization problem of using essentially a text editor in one note. but, the one page local .html file that is the tiddlywiki doesn’t roam between work and home.

and so i supplemented it with foldershare, which was a microsoft acquisition that synchronize folders across machines, mac or pc. tiddlywiki + foldershare turns out to be a pretty good tandem: i’ll add an action to tiddlywiki at home, which creates a new version of the html file. foldershare then dutifully copies that html file to my other machines, and so i can go into work and still have my latest gtd list.

this combo lasted me about 1-2 years, until i tried some of the tiddlywiki variants because of the allure of even fancier automation around @contexts, dashboard views, etc., and found that to get the automation I seek, the javascript for the automation has become incredibly slow. for stuff that is supposed to help me be more productive, it’s ridiculous to expect people wait for the tool to do its work. after a round of trying 3-4 variants of tiddlywiki, i gave up gtd again. which means my productivity went to pieces.

when i found that i really needed to get organized again, i had upgraded to a smartphone , and now have the capability to be online pretty much constantly. i thought it’s time to try some web to-do list solutions and get rid of foldershare as a crutch of synchronization. at first i tried remember the milk, which was kinda clunky. lifehacker pointed me to vitalist, which adopted the gtd system and have many support for it. it turns out to be a good choice because its ui is pretty sweet, reliable, and they do a good job supporting mobile web browser. i paid up and became a subscriber, and have been using it for last 3 months to good effect.

but one thing i didn’t like about vitalist, or for that matter any hardwired gtd system, is the ability to quickly create a list in a free-form way. when i was using one note, i could create a task as easily as typing in some text in a bulleted list. the ease with which I can add, delete, edit, and cut-n-paste the lists was great, and really facilitated me in flushing out a list. with vitalist, however, it’s a few ajax moves to create a new item, and it just isn’t as speedy as typing. as a result, i have every immediate action tracked in vitalist, but often beyond a week out i’d have no idea what i need to do next to complete any given project.

so, again, i’m finding myself needing to supplement my gtd system under vitalist. i need a scratchpad of sorts that’s simple, quick, and lightweight, to brainstorm the steps of a project so that i can lay out the steps in one spot. sure, i can use a text editor, but i have to format things myself, which i hate. and there’s no tagging of items, no relationship between items. it’s just too raw.