Sunday, December 31, 2006

Best Buy Surprise

I spent a good portion of today hunting down a replacement power supply for a dead server.

Now here's what I know about power supplies: they supply power. Oh, and they have wires sticking out of them. That's all I got.

So, after calling around a bit today, I decided the best thing to do was to yank the power supply from the dead maching and bring it into a computer store. I figured I'd have my best chance of matching it up that way.

The closest place to where I was that even had a shot at providing me with the new supply was Best Buy. You know my feelings about Best Buy, but there were the best option it seemed.

I walked into the store holding this metal box spewing wires and found the first sales agent in the computer department. I expected him to not know the difference between a power strip and a power supply.

But get this - he knew exactly what I needed! He had just built out a gaming box and had just shopped for his own power supply. Best Buy had three or four power supplies available on the shelf, and he picked the one that best matched the specs of the older supply.

I was shocked and delighted. And the story gets better!

I wanted to open up the box and physically compare the two units. He said he wasn't authorized to do this, but maybe the Geek Squad could. Fine, I could live with that.

He took me over to the Geek Squad counter where a bunch of uniformed agents were able to help me. We opened up the box (after I bought it, that seemed fair) and inspected things. Here's the thing - the Geek Squad guys knew what each of the different cables connected in to and why. They actually knew obscure technical details.

I was shocked. I assumed I would have been dealing with some cluless set of reps, and instead, I was dealing with true geeks.

Way to go Best Buy and Geek Squad. What a pleasant surprise.

--Ben

Party Till You Drop

We had a great time at one of Shira's co-worker's party. The food was great, and the desserts were out of this world.

The night included a pay-per-view showing of the Ultimate Fighter Championship. Wow, what a brutal sport. Not my schtick, but plenty of other people enjoyed it.

All in all, a great party and a fun night.

--Ben

Super Wife

What other woman in the world would accompany her hubby to a data center at 2:30 in the morning, to help address a power supply issue? Only one - my wife.

She's sitting here reading the only thing available - a copy of eWeek which has an article about Linux on the Desktop.

She's truly one of a kind. I'm the luckiest geek alive.

--Ben

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Lifehacker - Gone Mobile

Check out: http://lifehacker.com/ on your mobile device. If all goes well, you'll get a mobile version of the site.

LifeHacker is a real gem, and now being able to follow it on a mobile device is yet another plus.

If you follow one blog, follow this one. Oh wait, never mind that. If you follow one blog, make it mine. Then make LifeHacker your second.

--Ben

Friday, December 29, 2006

Unix Tool Of The Day: XMLStarlet

XMLStarlet is a must have tool for dealing with XML when using Unix shell scripts. XMLStarlet allows you to compose tiny XSLT stylesheets right on the command line. Because of this capability, it allows you to bridge painlessly bridge the world of XML and Unix text oriented tools.

Here's an example. Suppose you wanted to get a list of all the recent posts from your buddy's blog. How do you do this? Well, grab their RSS feed and process it, right?

Here's an example of doing just that using a Unix command line:

wget -o /dev/null -O - http://benjisimon.blogspot.com/atom.xml | \
 sed "s| xmlns='[^']*'||" | \
 xml  sel  -t -m /feed/entry -v ./title -n  | \
 nl | head -5

The commands do the following:

  1. Grab atom.xml from my friend's blog
  2. Pre-process the XML to fix an annoying namespace issue (learn more here)
  3. Create an on the fly XSLT stylesheet that loops through each entry element and gets the value of the title
  4. Run the results through the standard nl command, which numbers lines and discard all but the top 5 lines

The result of the above command is:

     1  TSA's Losing Battle
     2  Commutecast #1: Trying it out
     3  Hot Dog Cook-In
     4  Google Hack: Finding Gift Ideas
     5  MP3 Player Update

This doesn't begin to capture the power of XMLStarlet, but at least you get the idea that processing XML doesn't need to be a big 'ol hack.

Naturally, XMLStarlet takes some practice. But, the docs are good, and the results are worth the effort.

If you use XML files and the command line, learn this tool. You'll be glad you did.

Oh, and I should mention, all of the above works just fine on Cygwin under Windows XP too. So you really have no excuses not to take advantage of this slick tool.

TSA's Losing Battle

I was browsing Amazon and came across this list: So you'd like to... Go armed without going to jail (don't ask me what I was shopping for).

The list contains various items you can buy off of Amazon and use as weapons, including a book that describes how to use ordinary stuff as weapons.

A list like this really exposes the flaw behind the TSA hurry-up-and-ban-it strategy. The fact is, you can't make people safe by simply taking away things people have previously used as weapons. Why? Because there's an endless supply.

I have no idea what the solution is to airplane security - I just know that attempting to ban anything that can be used as a weapon is simply not possible.

Surprisingly, while the list contains such make shift weapons as a hair brush and carabiner, it leaves off the really deadly ones like lipstick, bottles of water and worst of all, pie.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Commutecast #1: Trying it out

Gabcast! Ben's Commutecast #1 - First Commutecast

This is my first ever commutecast. For now, it's just me blabbing, trying out gabcast.

Links mentioned in this commutecast:

  • Drive Time: A weekly video blog produced during my daily commute - link
  • Hidden Kitchens: Stories and More from NPR's The Kitchen Sisters - link
  • Gabcast - link

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Hot Dog Cook-In

First, a bit of context: one of Shira's favorite foods are hot dogs. When Shira and I make Thanksgiving dinner for ourselves, we make hot dogs. Yes, we like them that much.

So, imagine our joy and delight when Perry gave us Old Fashioned Hot Dog Roller Grill! For most people this would be a novelty gift, for us, it's a new critical kitchen appliance.

As everyone knows, you can't receive an Old Fashioned Hot Dog Roller Grill without busting it out and making some dogs. So that's exactly what we did. We had a cook-in, right there on our living room floor! See:

In fact, you can see photos from the entire event here.

And here's the best part -- the hot dogs cooked by this sucker came out perfect! They really did taste good. So, if you do decide to give someone this device, you'll be comfortable knowing your gift will actually work.

Google Hack: Finding Gift Ideas

OK, I'm a little late on this hack, but better late than never.

I know that about.com typically puts out gift giving guides for their topics, and they cover dozens (hundreds?) of topics. The problem is finding these guides. Unless, of course, you have Google do the looking for you.

So here's the hack. To find a gift suggestion list, simply Google for:

    topic gift ideas site:about.com

After you search, look through the first page or two of results, and you should find at least one gift giving guide.

Here are some samples of what I searched for and found:

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

MP3 Player Update

I mentioned that I was going to upgrade my mp3 player (another $9.99 model). It turns out, the new model (now called the Power Up! Digital mp3 player) is pretty much the same as the old model, with a few minor differences.

As you can see, the form factor is exactly the same:

There's been a slight change (I'm not sure I can call it an improvement) in the firmware of the device, so the menus look a bit different. Also, the translation of the manual has changed. Not improved, just changed. Check out this gem from page 27:

General MP3 customer will suffer "the data divulges a secret" of harassment, don't wish to let own personal data seen by other people, be afraid using hour only have to delete first. Result in very the hemp is vexed.

From today, the encrypted the dish function will resolve this problem thoroughly

I so hate it when my hemp gets vexed.

Even though the manual is absolute gibberish, the controls are plasticky, and the headphones actually made the sound quality significantly worse - I still recommend the device, if you can get it for $9.99. It'll serve as a thumb drive, voice recorder, and mp3 player. All useful things. And you won't feel bad when it breaks in a year or two.

Now that I've got a new device, what am I filling it up with? Here are some of the first items to go on it:

MailChimp: E-mail Marketing

Spam is evil. Permission based e-mail marketing can be a good thing. If you want to do the latter, you should check out MailChimp.

Duct Tape Marketing pointed me to the service, and it looks like it could be a handy way to get the word out about a product or service.

Just, whatever you do, don't spam.

Blogs, blogs and more blogs

Still not sure about this whole blogging concept? Here's what you do:

  1. Head over to Bloglines.com and signup for a free account
  2. Head over to the Z-list and find a handful of blogs to read
  3. Use Bloglines to subscribe to any of the blogs that interest you in #2
  4. Everyday (or week, or hour, etc.) visit Bloglines, and read what's new

It's that simple. You'll find plenty of interesting things to read, and you'll only have to visit one website a day.

Disposable Phone Numbers

LifeHacker has a pointer to this curious service: Criagsnumber.com. I suppose the goal is to allow you to post a phone number in your Craiglist classified without posting your number. Though, Craigsnumber.com isn't actually part of Craigs List.

It's a neat idea and is free, so it seems like it would be really useful.

Now the only person you're sharing your number with is craigsnumber.com, and the question is, do you trust them?

Of course I do, but then again, I trust just about anyone.

Bank Of America: Surpassing Expectations

I finally got around to stopping by Bank Of America to talk to them
about some charges that I was hoping they would waive me.

See, when we signed up for a business account we were told we'd get two years without any fees. There was only one catch: you had to go back to the bank to get the second year's fees waived.

So, I walked into the bank, without any documentation whatsoever of this
agreement. I just hoped for the best.

Here's what happened....

  1. The quick info desk guy genuinly tried to solve my problem, and only when he couldn't did he make we wait in a queue.
  2. The person who helped me with the problem ended up finding me a way to waive all my fees on the accout, for *life*.
  3. The person helping me refunded the $24.00 in fees without me asking if she would do so.

Overall, I'm really impressed. I love online banking, but it's good to know the person-to-person form can be just as useful.

Oh, and I got a lollipop out of the deal. Who could ask for more?

--Ben

Links For Greg

While hanging out with my high school buddy Greg Lavine (of Salt Lake Tribune fame), I kept on mentioning to him that I'd send him a link to what I was talking about. Well, here are those links. Enjoy Greg!

Sunday, December 24, 2006

A Glimpse of the Hirshhorn

Today Greg and I got to hang out at the Hirshhorn gallery in Washington, D.C. (it's part of the Smithsonian Museum). We ended up getting a tour (it was us, and two other folks, so it was an almost private tour) by an art teacher / docent. The Hirshhorn does these tours daily, so if you are in D.C., check the times, as they are worth seeing.

We got to see all kinds of sculpture, from the interesting to the absurd. I can't begin to explain the meaning behind the pieces, just that they were all interesting. Here's a bit of what we saw:

12 Years

Tonight marks 12 years since the Shira and I had our first date. It was Christmas Eve, and of course we went out for Chinese food at a restaurant named Ho Ho. Tonight we remembered the event by going out for Thai food.

I recall clearly that I had marpo-tofu that night and tonight I had roasted tofu - so not much has changed.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Cygwin + Logitech Quick Cam = Very Bad

So, my trusty cygwin setup on my laptop totally started acting up. All of a sudden, X-windows wouldn't start up, and emacs started giving me an error message like:

apply: Doing vfork: resource temporarily unavailable

What was really annoying was that X-windows wouldn't even give me a meaningful error message.

I finally got a message about "child_copy: linked dll data write copy failed" and typed that into Google. Sure enough, someone else was having this error, and suggested a fix.

The problem? Cygwin and the Logitech Quick Cam software don't play nice together. Simply remove the Quick Cam software from the system tray/startup, and everything goes back to working.

Gosh I love Google.

Update: after applying the above fix, things got better (X started!). But I was still getting random issues. So I ran rebaseall, and that appeared to help too.

Nailed it

After much practice and dumb luck I finally managed to get the ball on the tee.

It was 30% skill, 70% luck.

--Ben

ilities List

Here's an interesting list of things to shoot for in a well designed system. It has the usuals like scalability and dependability, but also ones that I may not have thought of like composability and accountability.

This list could be inspirational in your next design, or may help to explain why a current design didn't work.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

All The French I Needed

I'm going to continue my delayed Switzerland blogging. This time, I'm blogging because the notes I made for this post are in a notepad that's basically full and is going to get replaced any day now.

One of the aspects of Switzerland that surprised me was how little English people spoke. I had (have?) that ridiculous American view, that at the end of the day, everyone speaks English. And of course quite a few people did, but many didn't.

This meant that's Shira's French went from being a novelty to actually being required. To help me communicate, especially on my lone travel day, Shira gave me a handful of phrases she thought I should know. And sure enough, they turned out to be really handy.

In fact, if I were to go to another country where I didn't speak the language, I'd probably learn this list as a starting point. It's a wonderful feeling being able to properly thank some one, or even ask if they speak English in an intelligent way.

So here it is, Ben's dictionary of useful French phrases to survive in Switzerland:

Greetings
bon-jourhello
sah-loohi!
bohn-swahgood evening
ex-scusem-whahexcuse me
Basics
weeyes
no'hno
avecwith
mer-ceethank you
seh-voo-playplease
tray-bee-enhvery good
uh, duh, twah, ktra, sench1,2, 3, 4, 5
Phrases
par-lay-vou en-glay?speak English?
gahrtrain station
jin-eh-say-pahI don't know
chom-bee-enh?How much?
chom-bee-enh minuoot?How many minutes?
Food
fweefruit
fwee-de-mearfruit of the sea (seafood)
pizzapizza
fro-majcheese

YouTube Advice

I just posted my first YouTube video. YouTube does an excellent job of making the upload process as painless as can be. I only ran into one big snag: the video file that my camera recorded was ginourmous, so ginourmous in fact that YouTube (rightfully) wouldn't accept it.

It turned out, the .avi file was over 150 Megs. YouTube has a limit of 100 Megs so I needed to do something if I wanted to post there.

I Googled around looking for suggestions from people as to how they typically compress their videos. Surprisingly, I didn't find much, until I eventually came across a reference to Windows Movie Maker.

Windows XP came through again!, It turns out, XP has its own movie software built in that steps you through the process of creating and compressing a movie. While no doubt not a slick as the Mac version, it was really workable and did just what I needed. And just like my discovery of the Windows Remote Assistance feature,Movie Maker had been there on the Start Menu all along.

So there you have it: if you have a digital camera that shoots .avi files and Windows XP, you should be all set to publish your next master piece on YouTube. Now there's nothing stopping you from being the next Steven Spielberg, or at the very least Senor Spielbergo.

PMA Tips - The Happiness Project

Parent Hacks pointed me to this really interesting experiment that Gretchen Rubin is carrying out. She's spending a year researching, and blogging about tips, theories, suggestions and ideas for how to be happy.

It's like getting a big dose of PMA from a Professional.

She covers topics from why you should smile more to suggestions for defusing a child's tantrum. Ever Wednesday is tip day, so there's some to check back for every week.

This is all part of a book project, and no doubt serves as a way to test her material out before committing it to print. In the end though, it's probably a win-win, as she'll have better material, and I'll have goodies to blog.

Pardon me, I'm off to go read about packing tips she learned the hard way, and then after that I might read up on Ben Franklin's suggestions for living a virtuous life.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Technology To Try: Windows PowerShell

My friend Alex Chan pointed me to a (new to me) Windows project that just live. I'm going to do my best to blog it without making any obnoxious remarks. Here's what the main project page has to say:

Microsoft Windows PowerShell command line shell and scripting language helps IT Professionals achieve greater productivity. Using a new admin-focused scripting language, more than 130 standard command line tools, and consistent syntax and utilities, Windows PowerShell allows IT Professionals to more easily control system administration and accelerate automation.

Sounds good to me. I'll have to give it a shot.

Oh, I can't resist just one remark: 130 commands? Yikes, that seems a bit slim. I have 906 commands in /usr/bin/ on my cygwin install, and that's with installing only standard tools.

Oh, I can't resist again: finally, Windows has caught up to Unix, circa 1978.

I'm done now. Really, I am. Nice job Microsoft. I look forward to playing with this.

Alex, thanks for the pointer!

Happy Chanukah!

Happy חנוכה (or in English: Chanukah or Hanukkah)! Want to learn more? You can get the facts, jump to the how to or skip right to the gambling (the preferred Hanukkah kids activity). Chanukah celebrates an oil-related miracle, so to recall this we tend to eat foods that make heavy use of oil.

I know, it's tough having a holiday where deep fried sugar donuts are a feature (the recipe calls for 12 cups of oil!).

Here are some snapshots from the candles I light tonight...

Sorry, I couldn't resist making a quick animated GIF at Gickr.

And here's an action shot:

Another Program As Story

Here's another attempt to convey both code and text in one shot.

The solution the author uses is simply to start every paragraph of text with a comment character. As the author explains:

Also, beginning with this post you will notice that the paragraphs all start with semicolons, as if this were a source file. Well you would be correct. In an effort to keep the code in these discussions as real as possible, the entire post starts off life as a scheme source file. Further, every effort is made such that you can merely cut and paste this entire post, text and all, into your favorite editor or directly into DrScheme and you should get precisely the same results as I show in the text.

It's a neat hack that provides for some lightweight literate programming.

Still, I'd love to see a Scheme solution where code was marked off by delimiters instead of the text of the article. I think the Haskell version I found earlier is easier to read and run than this approach.

Jews In Rock - A List

If the Jews in Sports list surprised you, wait till you check out this Jews in Rock list.

Did you know that Paula Abdul was Jewish? Or that Aerosmith had a Jewish connection? Or how about the Bangles? Or Bare Naked Ladies? Or Kiss?

Who knew?

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Tiny Visitor

Today we got to meet a new tiny friend. Isn't she cute?!

Funniest List Yet

The funniest list on Tenspotting yet...

And here's my favorite musical one.

First Wikipedia Contribution

I just made my first Wikipedia contribution ever. I'm amazed how easy it was for me to sign up and contribute.

It's a wonderful feeling knowing that I've added to the body of human knowledge.

Now, let's see if my edits hold for more than a few minutes...

USB Flash Drive Friendly Apps

I just came across this huge list of portable (read: USB Flash Drive friendly) applications.

Whether you want to write your next novel or do some 3D modeling, this list has a piece of software on it for you.

I even added to the list by including netcat and tcpdump for windows. These are two of the most useful network debugging utilities available, which make them great candidates for your flash drive.

I'm thinking a great holiday gift this season would be to not only buy someone a flash drive, but then fill it up with lots of useful goodies. This list should be a great place to get started.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Chuck Norris Facts

I can't fully explain why, but this post of Chuck Norris facts brought me to tears of laughter. That's bad, right?

Including...

  • Chuck Norris' tears cure cancer. Too bad he has never cried. Ever.
  • If you can see Chuck Norris, he can see you. If you can't see Chuck Norris, you may be only seconds away from death.
  • The Great Wall of China was originally created to keep Chuck Norris out. It failed miserably.
  • Most people have 23 pairs of chromosomes. Chuck Norris has 72... and they're all poisonous.

And plenty more. Give it a read and let me know if I'm crazy for finding this humorous.

If Men Carried Purses

Whenever I shop for purses with Shira I can't help but imagine what it would be like if men carried purses.

No doubt I'd have the biggest model possible - one of those duffel bag types that barely pass as a purse. And it would be packed with a every gadget possible - from a PDA to a scanner/printer. It would have a library of things to do, a photo studio, broadcast studio and enough food for a few meals.

Hmmmm...maybe it's better that men don't carry purses.

--Ben

Product Commodity Test

You know a certain technology has really become a commodity for the masses when you find it at the Target checkout line between the batteries and Snickers Bars.

Consider, for example, $16.99 for an SD card and $4.99 for a thumb drive.

We aren't far from the time when the majority of kids toys will claim "SD Card not included."

--Ben

Friday, December 15, 2006

XM Channel 108: Radio Hanukkah

XM radio is offering a twist on the usual holiday radio channel. Along with a slew of Christmas channels they are offering Radio Hanukkah.

Radio Hanukkah - XM 108, is XM's first-ever channel dedicated exclusively to Jewish culture. Airing for the duration of the Festival of Lights from December 15 to December 23, Radio Hanukkah features the best in Jewish music, comedy, Broadway, talk and kids programming.

If you act today, you can even listen to the programming if you aren't a member of XM. Just sign up for their free promotion. Even the promotion has a holiday twist to it:

The normal free trial of XM Radio Online lasts only 3 days, but miraculously we have been able to extend it to cover all eight days of Radio Hanukkah.
Here's a hint for those who've forgotten the special promo code. It is the title of a famous Chaim Potok book about two friends Danny and Reuven. Take the two-word title of the book and enter it as one word as the special Radio Hanukkah promo code.

(For those not in the know: Hanukkah celebrates the miracle that a small crucible of oil lasted for 8 days instead of 1.)

I'm impressed with the job they've done here. The attention to detail, like suggesting that complaints be sent to Kvetch@xmradio.com, shows that someone actually put some thought into this. I only wish I could have mentioned the site sooner.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Chinese Food on Christmas

And what did my family do on Christmas? Chinese food on Christmas Eve and a movie on Christmas Day, of course. What else is there to do?

The Power Of Legos

My friend Danielle is no fool - with four boys she doesn't go anywhere
without a case of legos to keep the kids occupied.

And boy did it work.

I tried to contribute too by offering up my sidekick. It's amazing
how fast the kids mastered Rock & Rocket.

Still, I prefer the lego solution over the high tech one any day.

--Ben

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Engrish: Almost English

Serendipity pointed me to this hilarious website: engrish.com. Engrish is a catch all phrase to describe good attempts by foreigners to use proper English, but that fall a little short.

An example should clear it right up...



I don't usually get a kick out of other people's errors, but this time I couldn't resist. I just know somewhere there's a guy posting in Thailand pictures of Americans making the same kinds of errors.

Besides, with all the errors I make on my blog, I wouldn't be surprised if it was featured on engrish.com.

Programs As Stories

I came across this article that talks about implementing "a Haskell toy to visualize twos-complement binary numbers". I know, it doesn't sound like exciting reading. What's cool about it isn't so much the content of the code, but how the code is presented. The author made use of literate programming to write up this program.

Literate programming more or less reverses the roles of comments and code. Instead of code with delimited comments, it's comments with delimited code. Traditionally, you run one program to extract the code from your source file, and another program to extract the text/documentation.

I haven't seen many uses of literate programming that seemed genuinely useful. But, the above article may change my mind on that. See what I mean:

Almost 30 years ago I wrote code on my Radio Shack TRS-80 to make my 
dot-matrix printer spit out bitmaps of binary numbers, which made 
pretty recursive patterns. This program commemorates that long-ago 
geekery from my early teenage hacking days.

First, we need the bits library:

>import Data.Bits

...lots of code skipped...

I can give foldl an empty string as the starting accumulator value
and my function can concatenate strings onto it: 

>stringify_vals =
>  foldl (\ x y -> if y then x ++ "#" else x ++ " ") ""

Now you might want to try to apply our list of lists to this
function:

...more code skipped...

In the above example, code is marked by a > in the left hand column and everything else is just passed through as text. The end result reads like a story that one can both read and execute.

This whole approach seems like a powerful means of communication. While I can't imagine large systems being written like this, I can begin to see some really interesting possibilities.

And lest you think that literate programming is just for academics, consider that every time you run Javadoc you are effectively practicing literate programming.

Uncle Mark's Gift Guide

Browsing through Cool Tools again tonight I came across Kevin's recommendation of the Uncle Mark's Gift Guide.

What a cool document! The guide is split into two parts: gift suggestions and an almanac.

The gift suggestions are nice because they cut right to the chase - want to buy a digital camera, buy a Canon Powershot SD 30. Want to buy an mp3 player? Get an iPod. He gets more creative than that, and goes as far as suggesting you buy the gift of an empty e-mail inbox for someone. While these direct recommendations won't appeal to geeks, they'll be immensely helpful for the non-techie who wants to buy that special gift.

Then he includes an almanac...which is just what you'd expect an almanac to be: random tidbits of information. He covers topics from how to run a meeting, and an ideal umbrella strategy to how to walk through New York City. It's a pleasant read, and you may just learn something.

As documents go this is a must read, just to be reminded that all documents don't have to follow the same format, style and approach.

What other gift guides should I be reading?

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Simplicity - Another View

As usual, I enjoyed reading Joel Spolsky's blog entry about yet another hot topic: simplicity in software. As Joel explains, it's kinda hip to produce really bare bones software, and offers a voice for why this isn't a good thing.

It's a really good read. If you want to know more though, I'd suggest you pick up a copy of The Inmates Are Running The Asylum by Alan Cooper. In this book, Cooper explores another form of simplicity (and lack of features) in software.

Cooper suggests that a well designed piece of software should have an emphasis on being designed right, and should not compensate for poor (or no) design by simply layering on features.

For some applications, like say Photoshop, this probably doesn't hold true. If you use Photoshop (or emacs for that matter), you want the kitchen sink and then some. But for other applications, like say your music player, fewer features is probably a good thing.

Consider the screen I get when I open up Windows Media Player:

The most immediate options to me are: Now Playing, Library, Rip, Burn, Sync, Guide. None of this means a dang thing to me, and I'm a geek by trade. I can't imagine what my mom must think when she opens up this program. I'm sure these are all important and useful features - but I just want to play my music, or watch a video.

What Cooper explains in his book is that simply cramming features into an application doesn't make for a quality user experience. Instead, the right features, and fewer of them should be included. This, in the end, will make for a higher quality experience.

Cooper's form of simplicity isn't easy or cheap to attain. Though it is the kind of effort that produces the iPod and the like.

As I said, read the book - it's all in there.

Cool Charity Ideas

Browsing through Keven Kelly's Cool Tools site (an absolutely must read blog), I came across this nifty list of charities he's fond of.

Whether you want to provide amicro-loan or a cow, he's found some options for you.

Shira and I especially liked the Modest Needs site, which offers small loans to help people out of tight spots. With their published list of requests, it's hard not to read them and not want to give. It doesn't hurt that the site seems to come across as really responsible (they send money to the creditor, not person asking for the support) and promises to give 100% of your donation to people in need.

It sure is nice seeing people leverage technology to make this world a better place.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Gift Idea: Air Hogs Aero Ace

Kevin Kelly's Cool Tools blog mentioned this neat little radio controlled airplane. Checking around on the net, it gets pretty remarkable reviews considering it's only $30.00.

Shira and I are always stumped with what to buy kids (and most adults), so this seems like a handy option to have around. I can't imagine you can go too wrong with anything that flies and could potentially cause structural or bodily harm.

What other great gift ideas do you have? Oh, and if budgeting is your thing, you should check out the Get Rich Slowly suggestions for a frugal Christmas (and I assume Chanukah/Kwanzaa).

Guy's Next Book Idea

And here, I was thinking I was being all cool by keeping a 1 page wiki on blog redesign ideas.

That's nothing! Guy Kawasaki has decided he's going to get his next book idea by doing more or less the same thing. He's started a PBWiki site dedicated to capturing ideas about this next project.

He's even gone one step further, and shared the password (it's kickbutt if you're curious) and is asking for people to submit their ideas.

This is risky/curious move that requires just the right amount of chutzpah, which Guy tends to have plenty of. Of course, once a stunt like this has been pulled off, it'll seem lame when the next guy does it.

Of course if Guy really wanted to get input on his ideas he should make use of Tenspotting. That way, he won't just collect the raw ideas, but will see what the crowd's wisdom really is.

Blog Redesign Notes

Now that I've switched over to the Blogger Beta, it's time to think of a redesign for the blog. Not only do I need this to take advantage of some of the features of the latest version of blogger, but just because I'm hopelessly in need a of a fresh look.

Of course I don't have time to work on the redesign, but I do have time to jot down notes. Which is what I've done.

I plan to keep adding/tweaking my redesign notes writeboard until I have things settled enough to actually work on it.

I haven't used writeboard in a while. I was pleasantly surprised to find the site still there and still looking impressive. If you haven't checked it out, give it a peek.

Januine Creations - Blogger as lightweight e-commerce platform

Check out: Januine Creations. It's an example of using blogger to host a tiny e-commerce site (hey, if you can use blogger for hosting a novel, why can't you use it for e-commerce?).

Januine has a few things done well:

  • Frequent posts give people an idea of the inventory and how fresh the site is
  • The shoutbox give people a way to leave feedback/testimonials on the site.
  • The copy serves to connect with and explain the offer

It's creative stuff. The only thing I'd do is touch up the copy a bit - wording like:

NOTICE: Customers are not allow to ask about the material used. Januine Creations guarantee you that we use good quality materials.

Just doesn't give me a warm and fuzzy feeling. And the layout of the site could use some work too. But overall, the idea is a good one.

Lookout Zappos, Januine is coming for you!

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Shoutbox: Comments meet Sign-In Book meets Chat

One feature I've noticed is often on sites that cater to younger audiences is the ever present Shoutbox. A shoutbox is a kind of site wide comment area / sign-in book / chat area. It provides an easy and dynamic way to provide feedback for the site and its members.

Shoutboxes tend to allow only brief messages to be exchanged between users. However, to the generation that communicates in IM speak like lt me knO wen U R out of claS, this size limitation isn't really a problem.

I came across myshoutbox.com which allows you to painlessly setup a shoutbox on your site. I'm considering adding one to new design I put in place when I fully switch to the blogger Beta.

So, give it a try and give me a Shout-Out.

Review: Max's Kosher Cafe

After a marathon eating out fest for Shira's birthday (3 Thai restaurants in 4 days!), she decided to give me a treat and take me to a place she knew I would love.

For lunch today we hit Max's Kosher Cafe (2319 University Blvd, Wheaton, MD 20902). We had your typical kosher food: matza ball soup, a knish and schwarma. The schwarma, which is essentially a gyros, was terrific. It was served in the traditional manner: a bit of lamb, gobs of veggies and sauce all overflowing in a pita.

It's what I imagine a Nick Tahou Garbage Plate would look like in pita form.

Shira earned big points for this surprise culinary adventure.

The restaurant itself was good for what it tries to be: an every day eat'n kosher establishment. I give it a 9/10, though that's mostly because there's almost nothing else to compare it to.

If you keep kosher, or want to try a traditional Israeli meal, this is a must eat-at location.

--Ben

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Holiday Gala

Every year Smitty and Amy's holiday part sets the gold standard for these type of events. The food selection is always incredible (my overhead snapshot just can't do it justice) and tonight was no different.

Shira and I had a great time, and I was especially fortunate to find a fellow geek to both chat with and learn from.

What a great way to kick off the holiday season.

--Ben

Friday, December 08, 2006

Handy Site: Online Stopwatch

Here's Online-Stopwatch's claim:

Everybody needs an online stopwatch at some point -- and there's never one around! Well... Now there is! online-stopwatch.com

How right they are. Ever since I found this site on Google's homepage widget directory I've been a fan. It's now part of my utility site list (along with goodies like tinyurl).

I just love how the site does just what it claims, minus the ads and clutter.

In fact, here's more-or-less the entire site embedded in this blog post:

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Guest Blogger Gareth: Customer Service Done Right and Wrong

My friend Gareth was kind enough to share this story with me, and allow me to post it here. It goes along with my other stories about customer service.

For my wedding anniversary, my wife ordered me a Bosch 12" Single Bevel Composite Miter Saw, per my request. Like many things on the web, Amazon had the best price going (about $250) along with a shockingly low $6 shipping charge for this wonderful 55 lb item. It took a few weeks for my new toy to get to me, but eventually it did on Wednesday. When I arrived home after work, I saw no sign of a big box and assumed it hadn't been delivered yet. Au contraire, as UPS had apparently dropped it off on my front porch at 1:18pm according to their package tracker. Sure enough, a call to UPS confirmed this and subsequent visits to the neighbors did nothing to help me find my package. While on the phone, UPS indicated that I could not file a claim myself, but would have to do so via the shipper (Amazon); swing and a miss. A visit to the Amazon website for the customer service number led me to handy feature which allows you to input your phone number and have Amazon call you back IMMEDIATELY. Upon picking up the phone, I waited all of about 30 seconds before being connected to a real person; not bad for 4:30pm at this time of year. After relaying the story of my lost package, my British-accented friend quickly arranged for a free replacement to be shipped out to me with delivery scheduled for two days later!

A few hours later, the doorbell rings. My friendly UPS driver has just dropped off a large box with "Bosch" written on the side. When questioned as to why the box was reported delivered at 1:18pm, he indicated that he had scanned the bar code, but forgot to take it out of the truck until now. Laughably, he then asked if I had called it in to the UPS station.

Another call to Amazon using their online caller dowitchey, and at about 7:30pm it takes all of about 45 seconds to reach an real person. After chuckling at my story, he politely asked me to hold while he attempted to cancel delivery of my replacement toy. Shockingly enough, he was too late and the saw was on its way. I was asked to simply refuse delivery and have it sent back to them, and then thanked for my honesty.

So on one side, UPS not only gave me the runaround by unexpectedly delivering my package six hours after they said they had, but also required me to make a call to another company before they would provide any assistance. On the other side, Amazon replaced my $250 item without question, had it on its way inside of three hours, and had enough customer service staff to keep its customers from having to wait on hold forever during the holiday shopping season. Not to mention, I didn't have to wander through some sort of touch-tone maze just to talk to someone. Way to go Amazon!

Thanks, Gareth, for the contribution! -Ben

Definition: Workus

Here's a brand new word I just invented: Workus

Definition: wor-kuh s:

  1. The process of working intently
  2. A contraction of work and focus

Usage: You should workus on bug 1783 - it's really critical

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Need A Corrupt File?

You simply never know when you'll need a corrupt file so that you can blame the computer, not yourself, for not getting work done.

Thanks to FileDestructor.com you can create any size Office document filled with nothing but realistic looking garbage in seconds.

How Handy.

Via: Adverblog

Review: Thread Across The Ocean

Thread Across The Ocean, by John Steele Gordon, is the story of the laying of the first transatlantic cable. This telegraph link provided for the first fast transmission of data between the US and Europe.

Perhaps surprising, this book isn't really about the power of global communication. The value of that is more or less assumed. Nope, this book is all about dealing with failure. And I mean big failure.

In this case, you had a company that was dealing with the brand new technology of under sea cables and managed to have, and cope with, every setback possible.

From cable construction issues to simply having it snap while laying it across the bottom of the ocean, this was Murphy's law in practice. And when, in an instant, the cable snapped, so did any chance of success. Time to go back and face the investors, and raise yet another round of funding.

The fact that they never gave up is a testament to both their vision as well as their chutzpah.

The neat part is all that you can learn from their adventure. The project demonstrates first hand how iteration, testing, contingency planning, R & D and formal process can take a potentially impossible problem and make it realizable.

Without these aspects, as their first attempt showed, the project would never have succeeded. Contrast that to their final attempt to lay the cable, which made the exercise appear almost easy.

Next time you are on an tricky project, pick this book up - it'll be a fun read and might inspire you to try something a bit different to do the impossible.

I give it an 8.1/10.

--Ben

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Firefox Addon To Try: Clipmarks

Today I came across Clipmarks, a Firefox plugin, while looking for the CSSViewer Plugin (which, by the way, is an awesome plugin which every developer who touches CSS should be using).

The Clipmarks idea is a really cool one - when looking at a page, you can tag bits of to create a clipmark. These clipmarks are then stored, annotated and shared on a central server. You can even add a clipmark-roll to your blog so that people can see what your surfing and clipping.

I haven't had a practical reason to use the plugin yet, but from what I can tell, it's really well done and should be handy. A kind of easy to use scratch pad.

I've started a Top Ten Must Have Firefox Addons list. How sad is that I don't even use 10 addons - how ungeeky can you get?

Click here to get add your suggestions to this list.

80's Games and Toys - How much do you remember?

Here's a site to test your knowledge of 80's games and toys. Do you remember any details of the Smurfs or He-Man? Now you can put all that knowledge to good use!

I didn't get My Little Pony then, and I don't get them now.

Hmmm, this sounds like the makings of a tenspotting list.

Via: Adverblog

Unix Hack Of The Day: Hex to Decimal filenames

Today I needed to convert a bunch of file names with hex values in them into files names with decimal values in them. And here's how I did it.

First, to do the actual math, I used bc - the standard Unix command line calculator. bc does all sorts of neat things, and among them, display values in a different base than they are input in. You can do the following in bc:

bc 1.06
Copyright 1991-1994, 1997, 1998, 2000 Free Software Foundation, Inc.
This is free software with ABSOLUTELY NO WARRANTY.
For details type `warranty'. 
ibase=16
1
1  ; response
2
2  ; response
A
10 ; response
10
16 ; response

Next, to pick apart the name of the file so that I could rebuild them with a different filename, I used sed. I did something like:

prefix=`echo blah_AD.txt | sed 's/^\(.*\)_.*/\1//'`

This says to replace the entire string with the text leading up to the first _. The result here would be blah.

Finally, I wanted to take the converted decimal numbers and pad them with zeros. I did this by making use of the printf command. This looks like:

 # printf "@@ %04d @@" 32
 @@ 0032 @@

To put it all together, if I had a directory files like:

 something_1.txt
 something_a3.txt
 something_b9.txt
 something_cc.txt

And I wanted to end up with:

 something_0001.txt
 something_0163.txt
 something_0185.txt
 something_0204.txt

I would do

 ls *.txt | while read filename; \ 
   do prefix=`echo $filename | \ 
   sed 's/\(.*\)_.*[.]txt/\1/'` ; \ 
   hex=`echo $filename | sed 's/^.*_\(.*\)[.]txt/\1/ | tr a-z A-Z` ; \ 
   dec=`echo "ibase=16 ; $hex" | bc` ; \ 
   mv -v $filename `printf "%s.%04d.txt" $prefix $dec` ; \ 
  done

Simple, eh? Maybe not. But with practice, you can be cranking out commands like the ones above without even thinking about it.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Restaurant Review: Saran Vegetarian Indian Cuisine

Shira and I learned about Saran Vegetarian Indian restaurant (5157 Lee Highway, Arlington, VA) last night, and as one of her birthday dinners, decided to try it.

It's 100% vegetarian menu, which means I can (and will!) eat everything on the menu. This is always a big treat for me.

The menu selection was large, offering Northern and Southern style dishes. I can't remember the last time Shira and I were at an Indian restaurant and saw something we'd never heard of. Well, tonight was different - we both got to try something new, with more things to try in the future.

The dining experience itself might be considered a little rough around the edges. There's nothing like being served room temperature tap water to get things off to a poor start. But I'd like to write aspects like this off as part of the local charm of the place.

Overall I'm quite pleased with this find. The big menu and better location than other all veggie places makes it a hit in my book. The fact that their starter menu contains more deep fried yummyness than a burger joint doesn't hurt matters either.

I give them an 7.9/10.

--Ben

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Top Ten Lists with a Twist

One of Ideas2Executables' projects is officially open to friends and family (and if you are reading Ben's blog, he considers you a friend or family). The site is tenspotting.com, and while we can't take credit for the idea, we did help implement it. The site is the brainchild of Gavin Purcell (of tvinjapan.com fame) and is a really cool take on the top 10 list, if we do say so ourselves.

The site can be used for top 10 lists of any kind, from Top 10 Greatest Athletes Ever to Top 10 Microbrews. (And, of course, there's Ben's favorite, Top 10 Simpson's Characters.)

Among the neatest features of the site are the ability for anyone to edit any list, a drag-and-drop interface for rearranging lists, the ability to insert a dynamic view of a list in your blog, and finally, the ability to get a shared view of the list which gives a view of the list with everyone's opinion.

Here's a list in action:

You can see Ben's version of this same list here.

Don't forget the disclaimer that this is in Friends and Family beta mode. If you find bugs, let us know, and be gentle with it!

A special thanks to Jordan Rose for contributing to the design and to Alessandro Colomba for developing the SISCweb framework which powers the site.

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