Archive for November 2007

iPod Touch: the best PDA I ever had

2007/11/30

Why did I arrive to this conclusion so sudden ? After all, I have the iPod for over a month and half now and never really used it for anything beyond podcasts/music/videocasts.

The answer is simple: 1.1.2. The Firmware update that appeared during last sync upgraded the iPod to latest version which (in addition to obligatory bug fixes) brought the long needed possibility of adding an event or modifying an event in calendar or adding/modifying an address card.

With this in place, I can finally use iPod as the PDA – because you will get information about some new address or phone number change most likely when you are not at the computer or online and without this feature, there would no way how to capture it. I tried to use pen and paper – but it is so easy to loose the paper or forget to enter it …

Because all of my calendar data are living in Google cloud, I needed a way how to sync iCal data from my Mac with Google. There are at least 4 different ways how to do that:

1) SpanningSync – the subscribtion based product

2) gSync – very affordable program from Macness.com

3) OpenSource Java based GCalDaemon – very interesting but with fairly lengthy setup

4) using free Plaxo pluging for address book

I was looking into SpanningSync before and even evaluated it, but I think the value of the service is not worth of $25 a year. I would not mind to buy the application for that price, but for paying every year it is too much. Besides, SpanningSync runs your data using third party server, which is another issue – you pay twice: on top of dollars, by giving up control over your data.

The gCal offers much better price/performance ratio – for one time fee of 10 pounds you can use it as long as you wish – or as long as Google does not modify their API. I cannot comment on it’s functionality, because I ended up using the #4 solution.

I have been using Plaxo already for over a year to keep address books between different platforms in sync. It was then the only practical solution how to synchronize Thunderbird contacts, Address book on Mac, Outlook contacts and Yahoo. Now it can in addition to synchronizing address books also synchronize the calendars and added the Google as data source. The contacts synchronization is one-way only (you can load your contacts from GMail to Plaxo), but calendars are synchronized both ways without any issues. Plaxo basic service is still free, if you want premium you can get de-duplication option and synchronization with LinkedIn. Unfortunately – same as with SpanningSync – the value of the service for me is not as high as their price. YMMV.

I have downloaded the addresses from Plaxo, synced them iPod and tested that you really can edit or add an appointment in your iPod and that with the next sync it makes it up to the cloud and shows in your Google Calendar. And vice versa. If you are online, the updates in address book or iCal are synced almost immediately to Plaxo and with short delay to Google.

Few recommendations: after adding Google sync point and setting up the link, do one synchronization and then switch the contact synchronization off (keeping the calendar sync only). Why ? Because your Google contacts contain most likely just a names and emails or even emails only as Google extracts them from the emails arrived. After sync, you will want to clean up and consolidate your data by assigning the newly collected emails to people in your address book and deleting the incomplete records. Without switching the contacts synchronization off, you will have them back and can start the deleting again 🙂 – as I learned the hard way.

It is also important to understand to which calendar are the newly created appointments from iPod added – especially when your settings in GCal and iCal do not 100% match.

Now back to the subject: why is this the best PDA ? I was using several Palm based devices as well as Windows Mobile based PDA’s (one of them – the Toshiba e830 is still being used as eBook reader) and every one could synchronize the appointments and addresses. The largest difference is the Touch user interface – you have to try it to understand. None stylus based Palm or PocketPC came ever close to the simplicity and functionality of the Touch. Not speaking about the beauty of the UI, of course.

Second reason for being the best is the tool chain behind the iPod. Syncing using iTunes and Mac / iCal / Address book is by order of magnitude better user experience that using ActiveSync and Outlook. True, using Plaxo you could move the data from iPaq to Google same way – or maybe the new Outlook is even Google aware – I have no idea because I stopped using Outlook in 2005.

And last but not least reason is that NONE of my previous PDA’s could serve as iPod, show images or video or even surf a Web via WiFi. I stopped using WiFi on Toshiba PocketPC after it was obvious that for 99% sites the pocket version of Internet Explorer is simply unusable. I stopped trying to use it as music player because to play a song you had to use stylus and both hands. And the music stopped when you switched the device off, so instead of enjoying the podcast I was fiddling around with screen light settings to get at least few hours out the batteries.

Now if the iPod had at least small (1-2 MPix) camera, it would be almost perfect … but for that I guess you need to get an iPhone.

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How to show ZIP file content in QuickView (Leopard)

2007/11/28

As time passes, I am discovering more little features that either fill in the still existing gaps from my Windows toolchain or add new features. Today, at Apple presentation about Leopard Client and Leopard Server I have heard great tip.

The QuickView in Leopard is extensible with plugins. One very obvious and very useful plugin is ZIP View that gives you content of the ZIP file in preview without unzipping it. This is finally a workable replacement for Ctrl-PgDn of TotalCommander that allowed to “walk into” archive and treat ZIP file as part of the file system.

The plugin is free and can be found at the developer’s site. The same author also wrote a Folder view plugin which replaces the mostly useless large icon with preview with icon and list of the files. His blog is mostly in Japanese, so it is hard to say what other treasures are there :-).

Installation is very simple: just copy the .qlgenerator files to your ~/Library/QuickLook (or to /Library/QuickLook if you want to install them for all users).

The server presentation was really interesting, I will get back to it in other blogpost.

Why it is probably bad idea to have Skype always on

2007/11/25

no, not because of the memory it takes or CPU cycles burned (does not really matter when you have 4 GB notebook with Core2Duo).

Few days ago, a good friend from old country (well, technically not anymore as he also moved within the EU) made me aware of this presentation “Silver Needle in the Skype (link points to fairly large PDF file) by Philippe Biondi, & Fabrice Desclaux.

To fully digest and fully comprehend the content requires way more time than I am willing to invest – and to make meaningful arguments for or against conclusions does require much deeper special knowledge. It is interesting view into the deep internals of how Skype works and also provides very interesting references to tools available for this kind of exploration. I am not going to stop using Skype just because there is a chance that Skype could possibly be a backdoor or something not so innocent. There can be after all perfectly honest reason for all the obfuscation and anti-disassembling measures – to protect the IP against competition. Or it can be in order to hide something else ? We will probably never know.

But I am not letting Skype start as the machine boots anymore and shut it down after I am done with my call. In other words, you will not find me online on Skype very often :-).

Phaser 6120N rocks !

2007/11/23

Today I picked the printer I have mentioned yesterday – Xerox Phaser 6120N. It is somehow more bulky than the ML-4500, but boy, does it work !! From all available connection options (parallel port, USB, ethernet) I have of course chosen ethernet. Printer after switch on spent about 5 minutes doing strange and weird noises, initializing itself and then spit out a page with its DHCP-acquired network address.

To assign different IP address (so that it does not change) was very easy: go to http://192.168.x.x/ – whatever is printed on the status page and follow the Web instructions under ‘Network’. Set new IP, disable the automatic IP settings, wait for printer reset (and new status page) and you can go on setting the clients.

Windows installation is very smooth – drivers are on the CD – and does not even need a reboot. As a nice surprise, the CD also contained PPD files so that now I have the printer accessible from CUPS on Linux as well. And as usual, Mac installation was pretty non-existent. The printer does not support Bonjour, but somehow both Mac’s found it using AppleTalk – yet another thing I know not enough about and need to look up. So finally, all computers around my house can print reliably, in color without going through the hoops. Hooray !

The most amazing surprise was when I tried to print a photo. I have done it before and generally, laser printer comes nowhere even close to what you can get out of the photo inkjet – especially with proper paper. Now here I could not believe how good was the result: on plain paper, without any special calibration or color magic, the picture looked very close to an inkjet output – only waterproof.

This source is certainly not impartial, but anyway shows difference in fine details of output. I am no expert, but the printouts look certainly very good to me!

Disadvantages ? Beside the size, the printer is a bit noisier than ML-4500 when it prints. Other than that, none other issues found yet.

Little pains of switching

2007/11/22

I have been running the Unix only workstations for over a week now. During this week, I have managed to clean up and convert two Windows boxes to VMWARE virtual machines, but actually had to resort to use the VM’s only in two cases. Everything else worked just fine.

The first case was requirement to review an non-trivial Excel file. Normally, Numbers does very decent job when it comes to loading Excel files and for the most the remaining cases, the OpenOffice (in it’s more polished Cocoa version NeoOffice) works just fine. Well – as long as you do not open spreadsheet with pivot tables. In my case, the spreadsheet contained pivot tables and charts based on these tables. Numbers warned during import that this feature is not supported and the converted spreadsheet was very good looking – nicer that in Excel, but not quite so functional :-). Strangely enough, the charts were imported OK but lost the drill-down capabilities. After trying out the NeoOffice, the imported spreadsheet had retained some pivot capabilities of the original, but lost charts completely. The only resort was falling back to Office 2003 in virtual machine and using Excel. Fortunately one of the two VM’s created from old hardware had Office 2003 installed, so that worked out OK.

The other case of “works only with Windows” was the Active X control used by our VPN to get access to internal network. There is no alternative, so to get to our internal Wiki, JIRA or timesheet system, I have to start Windows in VM.

The last issue encountered has not really anything to do with platform change, but it was triggered by this, so here it goes. Back in 2002 I purchased very small and handy laser printer Samsung ML-4500. It worked well for all those years, happily attached to my Windows desktop machine which (being always on) shared it for everybody in home network. Of course, up to the point when that desktop machine was decommissioned. Because ML-4500 is parallel port only printer, has no USB, first issue was to find a machine that actually still has a parallel port (most of new machines do not). By lucky coincidence, my NAS Linux system had parallel port – so I dived into new adventure of configuring CUPS printing system under Linux and sharing the printer via Samba. Which was much easier that it may seem – hats off to Linux hackers. The ML-4500 was part of the CUPS printer’s database and was recognized right away. Only small hickup was disabled parallel port in BIOS – but after this got corrected, things worked OK (thanks to Peter for the hint).

So now I can print from Linux, can even share the printer but still cannot print from Windows or Mac. Why so ? If you try to attach the printer from Windows machine, Windows wants to install driver. The ML-4500 is not in the default driver database. I still have the original CD from Samsung, but attempt to install driver fails with completely useless error message. Updated driver is nowhere to be found. I do not remember how I did install the driver back in 2002, but nevertheless, the machine is gone. Even if I do have the driver inside VM, I do not have VMWARE installed on Linux (and do not plan to do so). So for now, only way how to print from Windows notebooks (or Macs) is to create a PDF file on the client, save it to server and then use CUPS to print it out from Linux. What a pain …

How I see it, the days of ML-4500 are counted … especially when my favorite hardware supplier has very nice color laser network printer for a great price :-).

Crossing bit boundaries

2007/11/19

Today is a special day for this blog as two bit boundaries were crossed. This is post number 256, which means that I have used all 8 bit numbers for numbering and jumped into nine bit space. The byte is not enough any more – vive la 0x100.

Another boundary crossed today is number of hits as tracked by WordPress (which does not count my visits). In this case the number reached and crossed was 0x8000 or 32768 decimal, which brings us to upper half of the 16 bit address space. From today, full 16 bit counter must be used – and it must be even “unsigned short int” :-).

Not much blogging during weekend as I am still catching up with my de-cluttering project, enforced on me by the renovation – both in digital and physical world. The goal is to reduce number of physical computers in my office by three – to four from 7. It is unbelievable how much time it takes to clean up 4 year old Windows installation, remove all the junk and back-up what needs to be preserved. For every removed physical machine, at least one virtual is created, therefore the absolute number of used IP’s actually grows …

So far, I managed to get rid of old desktop (AMD Athlon 1800, 1 GB RAM, 2×120 GB HDD), even much older desktop running Win2000 used as Oracle DB server (P-III Celeron 400 MHz, 384 MB RAM, 40 GB HDD) and last one to clean up is another P-III – former Linux Samba Server (120 GB HDD, 512 MB RAM if I am not mistaken). I have tried out the VMWare convertor and created 10 GB virtual machines from both desktop and Oracle server using VMWare importer It is amazing how much faster the virtual machine runs on a Macbook Pro than it did on old hardware.

Oh btw, if you are in Ottawa and want two old P3 machines absolutely free for any charity or other worthy purpose, email me at firstname dot lastname at gmail. Machines are in good working condition – but without Windows. If it is for charity or school or something similar, I am willing even to help putting on a Linux distribution and deliver them to your place – if it is in reasonable distance between downtown and Kanata. The only quite fast machine – Athlon – is already gone, my son grabbed it to build some sort of digital TV recorder using Myth-TV. I do not watch TV, but I am quite curious how it will work.

Book recommendation: Seth Godin – Small is the new big

2007/11/16

On previous weekend I had great opportunity to spend a lot of time listening to books and podcasts. The opportunity was long drive to Quebec City and back, plus the two days spent walking around with camera, taking pictures, enjoying the differences in style and architecture and listening to Seth Godin’s book – Small is the new big.

There is nothing in this book that would actually require to drive almost 500 km one way – you can comfortably get the same benefit out of it without moving out from your favorite sofa, walking around your neighborhood or on a treadmill (hi Joel). The real reason being in the capitol of La Belle Province was Skate Canada – Grand Prix competion in figure skating. And while my wife was watching Jeff Buttle, Joannie Rochette and many others – which is her favorite leisure time activity, I was walking, taking pictures and listening – which is mine.

The book is very well suited for listening while taking pictures. It consists of short comments on large number of topics – business and life related, presented in alphabetical order. This allows to do frequent stops for shots without loosing the context. If you now think that it must be boring to listen something resembling a lexicon you are wrong. Seth is original, often provocative and inconventional, sometimes “common-sensy” obvious, but never boring. I was very surprised how interesting can be a book from an expert in area of marketing – something that I never had any admiration for (or high opinion about). If you are hardcore techie like me with the same prejudice again something so non-geeky and slippery as marketing, give Seth a chance – you may be surprised.

Recommended.