Wednesday, January 31, 2007

XML Kvetching

Dominique Boucher has a nice little article on why he hates XML for DSLs. I, as most people who know me can imagine, am right there with him on all his points.

I'll even add my two cents as to why I don't like using XML for DSLs. I don't XML because it forces you to develop your own language from scratch.

Sure, you're file format starts off simple. But before you know it, you want conditional blocks, and the ability to include and merge files.

My preference is is to embed an already existing language rather than invent one with XML. Why? Because the language will have already solved a bunch of problems that you'll have to tackle eventually with XML. This includes basic things, like a parser for your language, to more sophisticated things, like data hiding.

One of my favorite languages for embedding is Beanshell (I love using Scheme too, but that's another blog post for another day.

With Beanshell's ability to have predefined functions, I can write code that looks like a pretty high level language. As a bongus, I get all the power of Java, has support for conditionals, functions, etc. that I would need to add to XML.

The usual argument against this approach is that Beanshell (or Java) is hard for end users to tweak, while XML is easy. Hogwash. Tell me if either of these seem hard or easy to tweak?

if(isProduction()) {
  logger = new RemoteLogger();
} else {
  logger = new LocalLogger();
}
 <host-configuration>
   <host type='production'>
    <set property='logger' value='RemoteLogger'>
   </host>
   <host type='default'>
    <set property='logger' value='LocalLogger'>
   </host>
 </host-configuration>

I like the first approach because it's a real language - with variables, functions and the ability to express abstractions. If you grow your own language from XML you're only left with two choices: live with a half baked language, or prove out Greenspuns's 10th Rule.

Seth on PowerPoint

Seth Godin has a terrific piece on making an excellent PowerPoint presentation.

For example, I've seen plenty of articles talk about how you shouldn't use bullets on slides, or how you should reduce the amount of text you show on a slide. But, when push comes to shove, it's not always clear how to apply that advice. Seth's recommendations, on the other hand, seem to provide a recipe that one can actually follow.

For example, instead of stressing that you should have fewer chunks of text on a slide, Seth suggests that you provide a detailed document to go along with your presentation. And most importantly, you tell your audience you'll be giving it to them after you're done talking. Like all good advice, this seems obvious once you've heard it. Yet I've never seen this executed before.

If you do PowerPoint, or want to give better presentations, his advice is a must read.

Spouse Tracking on the Cheap

[Ben: 8:30am gets his boodwork done.]

[Shira: calls at 9:10am]

Shira: How was your bloodwork?

Ben: How did you know I got my bloodwork?

Shira: The co-pay went through on the credit card.

Since when did Visa switch to near real time updates of your credit card statement? Forget tracking your significant other with some fancy schmancy GPS device, just watch changes to their Visa card and you'll know exactly where they are.

A few ounces lighter

I just got done giving blood for blood work my doc recommended I get done to diagnose my headaches.

A by product of this is that I'll finally learn my cholesterol.

The nurse also suggested I opt in for the AIDS test, as that's what they recommend to all patients. Besides, she explained, "you can tell your next girlfriend the good news."

I told her if I had a next girlfriend, I've got bigger problems than an AIDS test.

--Ben

Simpsons Wisdom

Here's a great collection of wisdom by Homer Simpson.

Some of my favorites...

  • You can have many different jobs and still be lazy.
  • I may not be the richest man on earth. Or the smartest. Or the handsomest.
  • Never throw a butcher knife in anger.
  • When that guy turned water into wine, he obviously wasn't thinking of us Duff drinkers.

Thanks to The Daily Nooz for mentioning the story and for pointing out their favorites.

JibJab: 2006 In Review

OK, I'm a little late on this one (wait - it's still January, right?!). Here's the JibJab Year in Review for 2006. While not quite as funny as their This Land video, it's still good stuff.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Bubbl.us - Lightweight Mind Mapping

I'm really impressed with bubbl.us. It's a simple, web 2.0'ified, mind mapping utility. You can sketch down your ideas in little bubbles, and then drag them around.

The UI is really slick. With minimal controls you can quickly and easily draw out your ideas. If you want to see a modern UI done well, check out Bubblr.us. Bubbl.us

With no registration required, you can start playing with the application more or less immediately. Give it a try now.

The only catch is that I don't see a way to share the diagrams that you create. But maybe I'm missing something? Or maybe this is just early Beta stuff.

Still, it's cool - give it a try.

Update: Thanks Dave for the typo catch!

ZonTubeβ: YouTube meets Amazon

What do you get when you mix YouTube and Amazon?

Why ZonTubeβ of course! It's a mash up site, where you can browse the music of Amazon, and see the videos from Youtube.

This may be one of the more useful YouTube related sites I've seen, as it gives you a way to get at cool content you might otherwise have missed. Amazon provides the structure and inspiration while YouTube provides the content.

How else would I have come across the video for Kenny Roger's, The Greatest? A classic, if I do say so myself.

Useful Software: Paint.NET 3

LifeHacker made mention of Paint.NET 3, a lightweight graphics program. They offer it up as an alternative to Photoshop or The Gimp.

Hey it's free - so it's probably worth playing around with. Between the cost of Photoshop, and how Gimp isn't (wasn't?) always Windows friendly (what with all those windows and all), it'd be nice to have an alternative.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Misheard Lyrics

Here's a cool archive of misheard lyrics.

And what's a misheard lyric? It's like thinking Stevie Nicks, Edge Of Seventeen has the line Just like a one winged dove, when the song really says Just like a white winged dove.

I can still remember arguing with Shira, trying to convince her that the lyric was Secret Agent man not Secret Asian man. Although, since it exists on this site, it looks like she wasn't the only misinformed person.

I've found the easiest way to search the site is to just use Google and search for something like:

site:kissthisguy.com secret agent man

Just replace the underlined part with any fragment of text.

Via: Bits and Pieces

The Simpsons on Blogging

Tonight I caught the episode of the Simpsons named Fraudcast News. It's one that starts off with the town gathered around Geezer Rock. In the episode, Mr. Burns ends up buying up all the media outlets in town so he can control them. All that's left is a small paper Lisa puts out. In the end, she too is put out of business by Mr. Burns.

But, all is not lost! She ends up inspiring the rest of the town to publish their own little newspapers, and as a result, Mr. Burns gives up. And like all good Simpsons episodes, everything returns to the status quo again.

At the end of the show, as the different town members walk around hawking their newspapers the following exchange takes place:

Homer: See Lisa, instead of one big-shot controlling all the media, now there's a thousand freaks xeroxing their worthless opinions. Lisa: I couldn't be prouder.

A thousand freaks xeroxing their worthless opinions - if that's not blogging in a nutshell, I don't know what is.

I'm hardly the first person to pick up on this - other blogs have so talked about this.

I couldn't find any video clips from this episode. But, I did find a bunch of audio clips here. Including this one where Lisa and Burns exchange words and one where Homer pulls an all nighter.

Update: You can actually watch the entire episode here. Thanks, Alex, for pointing this out.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Commutecast #2: Review of a CD and more practice

Here's my latest attempt at publishing a commutecast. I've still got a long way to go before I'm the next Bob Edwards or Ira Glass. Or even the next guy who brings coffee to those guys.


Gabcast! Ben's Commutecast #3 - Review of a book on CD and chatting

My review of How to Help Your Husband Make More Money So You Can Be a Stay-At-Home Mom by Joanne Watson and just chatting about my commute in general.

Gabcast! Ben's Commutecast #4 - Continue previous commutecast

See the commutecast right before this one. Had to pause to call Shira.

Sloppy - Test from another point of view

Sloppy is a clever web testing tool - it allows you to browse any page on the web through a slow connection, like an old fashion 28.8k modem.

This is definitely something you want to try with your site, even if you don't optimize it for slower speeds. Just as it's wise to see what your customers see when you run a brick and mortar store, you should do the same thing for your website.

Sloppy also serves as an example of the easiest Java application I've ever installed. It makes use of Java Web Start which promises 1 click installs for Java applications. And the amazing thing is, it worked!

Studying Sloppying just to appreciate how Java Web Start can be used is reason enough to download it. The fact that it's actually a useful tool is gravy.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Utility Sites to Try

Recently, Red Ferret has made mention of a variety of cool utility sites. These are all going on my I'll-try-it-when-I-get-a-chance list.

  1. Senduit - a simple file sharing program. In just two steps you can post some content at a URL which can be shared with the world.
  2. iRemotePC - remote access to your desktop. OK, this one isn't a utility site. But, it still seems like a handy program to have around.
  3. Guerrilla Mail - sign-up for a disposable e-mail. I love using Mailinator to provide a valid e-mail address to places that I'd rather not share my real address with. Guerrilla Mail seems like another option. These services allow you to get e-mail just long enough to click on the precious confirmation e-mail you've been sent.
  4. Blog Mailr - an e-mail to blog gateway. This one I tried, and didn't have any luck using (the post kept being refused from blogger). But still, it seems like it would be a useful service. Their philosophy is to make writing a blog entry as easy as writing an e-mail. Not a bad strategy.

Meeting Tip

Meeting tip of the day: nothing spices up those all day offsite meetings like a Festivus pole in the center of the table.

Nothing.

Thanks Dave D. for educating me on this.

--Ben

10 Magic Trick Tutorials

10 magic trick tutorials: impress your friends, astound the ladies, get something useful to watch on your video enabled cell phone! Here's a sample:


How To: Quarter Through Soda Revealed! - video powered by Metacafe

and here's 9 more.

Impressive stuff.

Via: Red Ferret

Sharpie Hacks

I usually shy away from permanent markers, as there's nothing worse than grabbing a one when you meant to grab a whiteboard marker (of course, there's a fix for that too.). But, maybe they aren't all bad. ParentHacks mentioned a cool hack for fixing laundry oops with a Sharpie:

as I was repairing the bleach stains, it occurred to me that perhaps there are still people in the world who don't realize that one can repair, nearly flawlessly, bleach stains in clothing, with the new colored Sharpies.

Cool. ParentHacks then goes on to list other Sharpie hacks too.

Looks like it may be time to pick up a pack of Sharpies and start fixing stuff.

Paper Prototyping: Quick and Cheap Design

I'm always on the lookout for ways to present mocked up user interfaces. Why? Because design is hard, and to do it well, you need to plenty of iterations and plenty of interaction.

So I was psyched to read the latest article on A List Apart which talked about Paper Prototyping. Paper Prototyping, is just what it sounds - mocking up a UI in paper. Like...

As the article points out, there are all sorts of reasons to do this. It's fast, cheap, and gets everyone involved - even those that aren't particularly technically savvy. If you're creative about it, you can model various user experiences too, such as submitting a form and getting back an error. Perhaps the best reason to go the paper route is because it gets everyone in a room with their laptops off, focused on the task at hand.

While I've done a bit of paper prototyping (mostly simple stuff, like mapping out sites where each page is an index card), I really like some of the suggestions offered in the article. Such as using colored paper, or actually trimming the paper to look like buttons or tabs. Simple, and clever stuff.

This certainly does bring a different meaning to cut and paste design.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

E-mail Merge - The easy way

Lets say you want to send out a whole bunch of standardized e-mails with data provided by an Excel doc. My first solution would be to rig something up using sed, awk, /bin/mail and a .csv dump of the data.

But, as this page shows, it simply doesn't need to be that tricky.

Turns out, Word's Mail Merge functionality (which I haven't used since High School computer class, when Mail Merge was considered slick technology) does e-mail too.

The Word wizard did more or less the right thing - stepping me through creating a template, finding a data source, and sending it off.

One thing to be careful of - when you finally produce your document, Word will send out those hundreds of e-mails on your behalf (via Outlook, of course). It won't just queue them up. So, when you hit that final step, make sure you are ready.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Review: Legal Values in the Jewish Bible and Rabbinic Thought

Check out the title of my latest completed book on CD: Legal Values in the Jewish Bible and Rabbinic Thought. Dull sounding, eh? And it gets worse. It's part of The Great Lecture Library. Excite your mind - Listen to Lectures" series. Ugh.

But here's the thing, this 1 hour lecture, given by Rabbi Saul J. Berman, was simply outstanding. Rabbi Berman had both excellent points to make and a wonderful speaking style to make them in.

The Rabbi's talk was a sort of overview of how Jewish Law compares to other law - both ancient and modern. He clearly explains why the laws from the Torah were, and continue to be, revolutionary.

I simply can't do this lecture justice in this review. It's entertaining, enlightening and educational.

I think this lecture would be especially valuable for those who just don't get this whole Religion Thing; those who think it is primitive or archaic. Rabbi Berman may not change your mind, but he will give a voice of reason and logic in a topic filled with noise and confusion.

I give this CD a 10/10 - it was that good. Find it, and listen to it. You'll be glad you did.

--Ben

What's Up, Doc?

So tonight I had my first doctor's appointment in nearly 3 years. I went to a brand spank'in new Primary Care Physician to talk about a recent string of headaches I've been having.

I'm about 99.98% sure the headaches are caused by stress. (Stress? What stress?!) But what if they aren't? What if my body is trying to tell me something?

So off to the Doctor I went. I ended up in a small 2 doctor office/hole in the wall near where I work. The staff was nice, and the waiting room magazines were up to date.

The doctor did the usual exam'ish type stuff. Thankfully, he found nothing obvious wrong - though he wants me to do some follow up.

There were two memorable parts of the exam:

First, he had this sort of good-cop thing going on. He more or less interrogated me about the cause of my headaches, and questioned if I knew the best way to get rid of them. I really felt like he wanted me to confess to something, but I know not what.

Second, he was surprised and pleased that I provided him with a spreadsheet of the last 20 headaches I had, organized by date and intensity. How else are we going to debug this problem if we don't have data? There's gotta be a pattern here somewhere and we aren't going to find it with my hazy recollections.

Overall, the visit was good - it didn't even give me a headache.

--Ben

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Rethinking the UI - Jitterbug Cell Phone

While thumbing through a copy of Good Housekeeping Magazine, I noticed an ad for the Jitterbug Cell Phone. It's a phone targeted to seniors, and as is immediately obvious, rethinks the UI of a typical phone.

As I just mentioned, I'm always interested to see when folks redesign a commonly accepted UI.

Now, of course, I've never actually played with a Jitterbug Cell phone. But that doesn't stop me from guessing what they did right and wrong with their new approach. So here goes. First, what I think they did right:

  • They ditched the number pad. Gutsy move, but one I like. With fewer choices, the phone is clearly easier to use.
  • They added in a dial tone. Somewhere along the line, a dial tone went from being a necessary part of the phone infrastructure to an important cue. It means, everything's good to go, start doing stuff. By adding something as simple as a .wav file of a dial tone, they are sending the same message. Camera makers do this all the time with digital cameras. They add in that familiar shutter click. Do you need that click? Of course not, but again, somewhere along the line it went from simply a mechanical side effect to actually meaning, poof, photo taken.
  • They give one button access to a human. With call centers being so global, and cheap, I can't imagine it's that expensive to have a bunch of operators standing by, ready to connect you to your own phone book. Who cares if it's not the most direct way to make a call? It gets the job done, and requires only hitting a single button. As a bonus, the operator is again a well understood metaphor.
  • They ship the phone pre-programmed with your contacts. Brilliant! Think about it. The first thing you do after you open up the box on your new cell phone is to do the one of the hardest tasks possible: program your phone book. Why not skip that step altogether by delivering the device pre-configured. Hopefully the device is connected enough to the main office that the operator (see above) can add stuff to your contacts for you after the fact.

And what I think they didn't get right...

  • They don't appear to be integrated with a service provider, like T-mobile or Sprint. If I were T-mobile, I'd be all over this. They would be the only cell phone provider with a senior friendly phone. That means that the kids buy the phone for their parents, and then have to join the plan to get free talk time. Seems like a no-brainer.
  • The phone is a bit too targeted to seniors. What about kids, or even just technologically skittish adults? This should be simply targeted to everyone who can't bother to interrupt their busy lives to learn some newfangled device.

Overall, I think the Jitterbug folks are on to something. I hope it works out for them, and they continue to break all those well established design rules.

Icon Inspiration

I really like the experiment Ro London, of Intersmash, decided to do. He went around to Fortune 1000 companies' websites and collected up examples of common icons they use.

The result, as he mentions, is a great place to start for brainstorming with icon ideas.

I find that icons are one of the trickiest graphical design elements to get right. On one hand, an icon can convey a huge amount of information in just a small, colorful space. On the other hand, how do you come up with a graphically universal way of saying something like Click here for driving directions?

At least I have 300 more ideas to play with and get me inspired.

You know traffic is so bad...

... when I can get a WiFi connection from a nearby house, and Google for traffic conditions.

Yikes. A little bit of snow and things really begin to crawl around here.

--Ben

First Snow Run of the Season

Here I am, after my first run in the snow for this season.

You'll be glad to know, no body parts were lost to frostbite.

Finally, the ice skating rink had that nice picturesque look to it.

--Ben

Friday, January 19, 2007

Christians vs. Muslims, and the Loser is...

This will probably offend someone, but I have to admit, I had a good chuckle. It can't be that bad, as it was posted on a fellow Jew's blog.

Nifty JavaScript Hack

My buddy Igor passed on this entertaining JavaScript hack:

Give it a try, I promise it won't do any damage. Scouts Honor.

  • Visit a page with a bunch of images, like Amazon
  • Cut and paste the following text into your browser bar, all as one line: javascript:R=0; x1=.1; y1=.05; x2=.25; y2=.24; x3=1.6; y3=.24; x4=300; y4=200; x5=300; y5=200; DI=document.images; DIL=DI.length; function A(){for(i=0; i-DIL; i++){DIS=DI[ i ].style; DIS.position='absolute'; DIS.left=Math.sin(R*x1+i*x2+x3)*x4+x5; DIS.top=Math.cos(R*y1+i*y2+y3)*y4+y5}R++}setInterval('A()',5); void(0);
  • Sit back and watch the show

Thanks Igor!

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Job Advice - Focus on the E-mail, not the Resume

It's that time again, I'm looking to hire again (interested? Read this post, then drop me a line!). Last time I was going through this process I used the resumes submitted to me to make some recommendations on how not to get a job.

This time, I'm in just as much awe at the poor candidates that I'm getting so I thought I would offer some more advice to anyone out there looking for a job*. Maybe you can learn from other's mistakes?

Here goes...

  1. Your resume isn't the most important thing you are sending me. Why? Because chances are, it looks just like the one I got 10 minutes ago, and will get in the next 10 minutes. Sure, the dates will be different, and the companies will change, but the list of skills will probably be just as vast, and the list of accomplishments just as impressive.
  2. Attaching a cover letter as a word document misses the point. Back in the day, a cover letter was used to give context to your resume. It effectively introduced you and explained why I should care. It was the first thing I would read. But nowadays, by attaching it as Word doc, you are guaranteeing that I won't see it first. Sure, you'll be able to check the box that says send cover letter, but you won't have accomplished your goal: introduced yourself and add context.
  3. The text of your e-mail that delivers your resume is the most import part of applying for a job. Face it, the e-mail delivering your resume may be your only few seconds to win me over. Think about it: you have my attention while I make up my mind if you are worth pursuing or not. You've got seconds here, so make them count. Do you want to jump up and down and explain to me why you are special, or do you want to silently sit there and point to your resume (which, as I said, isn't that special.). Provide me with high quality e-mail, and you've gone a long way to making a good first impression.

And here's the sad part: of all the resumes I've gotten from Craigslist, not one had a good introductory e-mail. And by good I mean:

  1. Relevant: The ones that did provide text in their resume e-mails (and a bunch were totally blank, with a resume attached!), made it seems like the same cut and paste text that they send off to everyone. If just one person had said something like: as a developer with over 4 years of UI experience I would enjoy the opportunity to apply my skills blah blah blah, they would have my attention in a big way. At the very least, I won't get the sense that they are desperate spammers trying to get a job.
  2. Show your skills: This might come across as cheesy, but still, it's worth a shot. If just one person had said: I understand that designing for SEO and humans can be a challenge, and this is exactly the kind of challenge I love to take on, I would have fallen out of my seat, gotten up, and called that person in for an interview.

There's a bit of good news in all of this. Apparently, most applicants haven't figured this out. So, if you take just a few minutes and craft a relevant, spell-checked, and interesting e-mail when applying to a job, you just might get on the radar screen, when everyone else is falling off.

Update: Apparently, I'm not the only one who's frustrated and surprised by awful cover letters. Dumb Little Man just posted on the same topic. He was really generous and provided 100 ways to write a great cover letter. Make sure to check them out.


*Warning: this may be terrible advice! It may only make sense for small businesses, or if you are applying to a job that I'm offering. I really don't know. Like all free advice, it's worth what you paid for it.

National Airport At Night - First Attempt

On my way out for a run tonight, I grabbed my camera and mini tripod, thinking I might snap some photos if the opportunity arose.

As I started off on my run, I decided to run by National Airport to see if I could snap some night photos of planes landing. The shots I ended up with, can be found here.

Here are some of the better'ish shots:

From DCA Airport At Night
From DCA Airport At Night
From DCA Airport A...

Overall, it was an interesting experiment, but I'm not really happy with the results. I guess it was an OK first try, if nothing else, to get the lay of the land.

It's definitely not Tokyo skyline at night quality, but hey, what do you want? I all I had with me with a Canon SD630 and a Gorillapod (both items I could run with and not notice I was carrying).

Better luck next time, I suppose.

Review: Ice Hunter

Ice Hunter, by James Rollins, was my first attempt to choose a book on CD from the Sci-Fi shelf of the library.

That section usually gives me the willies, and leaves me dazed and confused as to what to pick. I can either take out some abridged Star Trek CD, or some complex fantasy story. Neither of which are appealing.

So I tried Ice Hunter.

Turns out, I'm not even sure you could call Ice Hunter Sci-Fi. It was mostly just an action book with a few science twists thrown in for good measure.

Still, there was lots of action, two count them two, side love stories, and plenty of shooting. I was pleased that I was only able to predict one or two of the plot twists, with the rest surprising me - excellent job Mr. Rollins.

As a fun, shoot-em-up distraction goes, this book is a winner. It's not great art, but sometimes one wants a bit more Die Hard and bit less Schindler's List.

I give this book a 8.03/10 for being a pleasant read listen with action that didn't quit.

--Ben

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Things to Read, Podcasts to Listen to

Read or listened to anything cool lately? Share it in the comments please.

Blogger success

Finally, blogger is posting MMS messages from the Pearl.

Update: For some random reason, Blogger has decided to post MMS messages sent by Shira's phone. Over the past few days, sending messages to Blogger was like sending them into a black hole.

So, how does this whole blog from Pearl thing work? Just...

  1. Create a new MMS message on your device, you can easily do this after snapping a photo (see the one above, apologies for the gruesome subject)
  2. Send the MMS message to the e-mail address go@blogger.com
  3. There is no third step

Read more about how it works here

Kosher Food - Just an SMS Message Away

Good news for New Yorkers, Kosher NY has just announced that you can search for Kosher restaurants via SMS.

In Washington, D.C., there's currently only one Kosher restaurant option: Eli's. So, I suppose I could rig up a service that no matter what area you searched on, you got back this same response. (Naturally, Maryland is another story - they have a handful of options there.)

Still, I'm always excited to see Technology and Food mix together.

Via: Textually

Colbert on the iPhone

With all the iPhone hype, it's not surprising that Steven Colbert would get in on the action. Here's his two cents, on the phone (among other things), and as usual, it's quite funny:

BlogThis! works again

Nick pointed out that BlogThis! works with the "new" blogger. As this post shows, he's right.

Thanks Nick for sharing - I've really been missing the BlogThis! functionality.

It appears as though Blogger finally made the the BlogThis! window expand correctly, too. It used to be stuck at a fixed height, which was painful.

Keep up the great work Blogger.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Start 'Em Young

Now that's starting them young! Ben H., you'd fit right in with my family.

David, did I redeem myself by putting a Bears fan on the blog?

Shira's Blackberry Pearl Review

Okay, there were several requests for my thoughts on the Pearl. I felt I should use the phone for more than a day before sharing, but now I am ready. Bottom line, I am very much enjoying this new toy, and it is miles ahead of my old Samsung T809, which I paid an outrageous amount of money for. That said, it is not perfect, as I'll explain below. First the good:
  • I love how I am running a Gmail client, Google Talk and AOL IM all at the same time, on this handy little device that is always with me
  • While the Gmail client doesn't auto-refresh (come on Google, you can do better than that), I do get my Gmail email via regular Blackberry messaging, so I can hear the alert, and then if I wish to respond using the Gmail interface, can do that
  • Blackberry does do messaging well. From one menu, I can choose to start an email, an SMS, an MMS or an instant message
  • The trackball is super. I have an older Blackberry with the scroll bar on the side, but the multi-directional ability of the trackball is really nice
  • I find the keyboard very easy to "two-thumb" on. Also, with its own symbol key to bring up various symbols, I am freed from the world of pressing the "1" key or the "*" key or whatever key it was and scrolling through dozens of symbols until I found the one I needed. Also, the space key is context sensitive, so if you are typing an email address, the first time you push it it will give you an @ sign, but the next time it will give you a period.
  • No complaints on camera quality
  • It was extremely easy to export my contacts from my old phone to Outlook and then import from Outlook to the Blackberry
  • The USB connection for transferring files from the computer to my SD card also worked as easily as it should have
  • Voice dialing works great
  • Bluetooth connected without a problem to both of our cars (Acura TL and TSX)
  • Browsing over EDGE for the most part can be done at reasonable speeds
  • The screen is very bright and very clear
  • It is very slim and lightweight, while still packing in a lot of bang
Second, the gripes:
  • I am currently tracking what I believe, after doing some research, to be a memory leak. That is, when the device runs low on memory, it starts erasing your call log (that was my first clue) and then possibly some other things like text messages. Pulling out the battery and doing a hard reboot does restore the memory, and while doing this every few days doesn't sound fun, it is a relatively cheap, easy fix, that doesn't interfere too much.
  • The calendar and phonebook are traditional blackberry "crude text." They are functional, but don't expect aesthetics (but do you care if your phonebook is pretty?)
  • I was able to go two days on the battery with medium data usage and minimal phone usage. Under status, you can view the battery as a percentage, which for a person like me is dangerous: the battery went from 95% to 90%! It's probably just better to watch the bars on the home screen, but gosh I love precision!
  • Not all of the functionality/menus are intuitive (which is just painful during initial setup)
    • For example, to edit tones on a profile, if you just go to profiles and click on a profile, it will just set the profile on the phone. The first 5 times you do this without scrolling all the way down the screen to see the "Advanced" option, you get very frustrated about the simple process of how to change a ringtone
    • Also, when editing a person in your address book who you have not yet assigned a custom ringtone for, who would have thought that you should click on the icon to add a picture for them to also add a custom ringtone?
So, all in all, I think my only big concern is the memory leak, which, as mentioned, isn't a show-stopper. Ben still doesn't quite have the typing down and he is certainly not ready to rid himself of the Sidekick. But, different phones are made for different people, and I will certainly be keeping mine and being thankful that I don't have a Sidekick.

He Had a Dream

On this MLK day, take a few moments and listen to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s I Have a Dream Speech. Wow is about all I can add:

Sunday, January 14, 2007

The Agony of Defeat

We just finished watching the Chargers lose to the Patriots. Ouch. The Chargers gave them that game with all their mistakes.

Luckily, there was beer available to dampen the pain. And I got to watch commercials (something Tivo deprives me of), which was a treat.

--Ben

Simpsons Clips

While looking for a Simpsons clip, I came across this site. It has quite a long list of a classic Simpsons moments you can view the videos for, including the radioactive dye incident, Marge as a cop, and the French bombing Springfield.

The videos are tiny, and this is probably illegal - but still, classic stuff.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Laptop Surgery

Shira's laptop has been dying lately. Not getting errors, or crashing, but just plain turning off. This is frustrating to say the least. My guess as to why this was happening was that the laptop was getting too hot and triggering the heat sensor. I guess it's better to shut off the machine and than burn out the hardware.

We confirmed this a bit by noticing: (a) the laptop gets ridiculously hot and (b) by running DTemp, a simple program to tell you how hot your hard drive is. Our hard drive was getting over 109F, which I think is way hotter than it should be.

But what to do about it?

Tonight the laptop died again, and I was frustrated enough to actually do something. So what did I do? I grabbed some tiny screwdrivers and started taking out screws. I wasn't exactly sure of my plan, but I figured some value might come from it.

I found the hard drive and memory bays, and everything looked normal. Then I found the heat sink. When I finally removed the heat sink, exposing the processor, I was greeted with the site below.

Yikes! Check out all that dust! So, my theory is that all the dust was blocking the ventilation from the fan, thereby causing the laptop to overheat and shutdown.

I cleared away the dust, and put the laptop back together. And get this, I had no extra parts!

Now we just have to play the waiting game, and see if that helps.

Test...

Shira's having a bit of trouble posting from her Blackberry (review on the way guys, promise!).

This is a test to see if it's the blog or her phone.

--Ben

Update: Hmmm, the Sidekick over e-mail, and Blackberry over e-mail worked. Blackberry via MMS didn't work. Ahh, the joys of mobile blogging. When it works, it works great. When it doesn't, all you can do is create lots of test posts.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Color Inspiration

Here's a simple, and useful idea: 100 Random Colors.

This sort of thing is handy because it gets you thinking about color combinations you may never had imagined.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Battle of the Blogs

One of the things that I found most interesting in this CNN article about the Ashley Treatment controversy, is how the parties are using blogs as the vehicle for discussion.

In fact, the the CNN article is really a quick summary of the relevant parties blogs, and links off to their sites.

Naturally, being a fan of the blogging, I think this is a good thing. It is allowing each of the groups involved to use their own voice to express themselves, rather than having the media interpret them.

The CNN article opens with this powerful statement:

David is a young man with severe cerebral palsy. He can't walk, he can't talk, he can't sit up by himself, but he can blog.

Wow.

While not quite as powerful, the message on Ashley's parent's blog is still important:

Upon much reflection this weekend, we’ve decided that we will continue to communicate via this web site. We politely decline the invitations for direct engagement with the media. The material we have here tells our story in great detail. We appreciate your respect for our privacy.

What excellent examples of using blogging as a serious platform for broadcasting your ideas, in your own words, on your own terms.

This sounds like an issue where people are concerned about who's trying to play God. Well, you know how I feel about that topic.

Tiny Apps

Surprisingly, it was Red Ferret that pointed me to this interesting collection of software utilities. Every app featured on the site weighs in less than 1.44 MB (which, I'm sure kids today don't even know the significance of...ahhh, those spoiled kids).

This seems like a site that would offer yet more candidates for your flash thumb drive.

Oh, and did I mention that most of the apps on the list are free?

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Movies To Watch

Here's a list of movies I should get around to watching. Have a suggestion? Add it to the comments.

This list was inspired by Simple Movie Reviews

$100 Laptop UI - Another Fan

I was pleased to see that Coding Horror's Jeff Atwood pretty much shared my same views about the $100 Laptop UI, code named Sugar. He even went as far as downloading an emulator and running it, so check out his thoughts for more details that I provided.

As Jeff says:

I've been disappointed in the lack of GUI innovation over the last decade. Sure, Microsoft and Apple take small jabs at each other every couple of years. And the Linux community apes both companies, occasionally throwing in a curveball of their own. But when was the last time anyone tried a radically different UI on the desktop? The Sugar UI featured in the OLPC appears to finally break from the well worn conventions of Windows and MacOS.

I feel especially strong about this, as I tried yet again, to explain to a friend over the phone where stuff goes when you download it in Windows XP. The typical conversation goes like this this:

Did you check your desktop? Nope, not there, eh. Hmmm, How about My Documents? Ooh, a miss again. How about My Photos? My Media? My Music? Oh crap. Just try downloading it again, and read me exactly what's on the screen.

You'd think after all these years, and gobs and gobs of new and confused users, someone would have caught on that this whole folder metaphor just isn't intuitive. And simply slapping the phrase "My" in front of a folder does remarkably little to help matters.

Cool Music Source: Amie Street

BoingBoing pointed out this clever music site: Amie Street. They choose how much to charge for a particular song based on how popular it is.

The unknown stuff is free, while the tunes others have recommended can go for as much as a $1.00 a song.

They also position themselves as a progressive label by giving 70% of the profits to artists, and not taking the rights to their music.

This seems like a much better solution to the problem of online music sharing, than say, suing your listeners. But hey, what do I know.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Accomplishment of the Evening

Pretty sad when my biggest accomplishment at work tonight (and I'm still at the office....) is untangling one of those metal-link-puzzle-dealies.

Still, I'm pretty proud of that. So, maybe the evening wasn't a complete loss?

--Ben

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Online Family Tree Software -- Suggestions?

I'd like to setup an online family tree. I'd like it to be something really simple where all my relatives can go and add in the records they know about.

About all I can find that seems appropriate is Tribal Pages. But that site seems very 1998, and doesn't seem to provide support for having multiple people edit one tree. There must be something better out there, no?

There's plenty of desktop software out there, and plenty of websites where you input your records and then connect them up with other records on site. But that's not quite what I'm looking for.

Do you have any suggestions?

Powering the iPod Generation

From The Boys - Silver Diner
From The Boys - Silver Diner

We had a fun time eating brunch with Danielle and The Boys. We gave The Boys mp3 players for Chanukah. Within about 3 minutes of opening the package they had them more or less all figured out.

What can I say, there are just brilliant kids.

From The Boys - Silver Diner

See all the photos here.

Test From Pearl

Here is our first blog post from Shira's new Blackberry Pearl.

Ben is fighting off phone envy as he types this messsage.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Shaq Shoes - Celebrity Goodness?

When I hear about basketball stars and endorsements, the first thing I think of is the craziness surrounding Air Jordan sneakers. Wikipedia even mentions cases of kids being robbed at gunpoint for these shoes.

Given this backdrop, I was psyched to hear from my friend Danielle that Shaq has his own line of shoes, but he sells them through - get this - Payless.

And from what I can tell, it's true! You can indeed buy a pair of Dunkman By Shaquille O'Neal Court shoes for $16.99.

What a mensch. I don't know anything else about this guy, other than the fact that he used this opportunity to reach all kids, not just the rich ones.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Car Whiteboard Hack

It occurred to me the other day that the windows in my car would probably serve as reasonable dry erase surfaces. After a quick test, I confirmed that you can indeed scribble on the glass and easily wipe it off (works on monitors too, but that's another hack for another day).

Sure enough, all the windows in my car can now be used as whiteboards! (Insert joke about finally making windows productive.)

I'm sure this both (a) obvious and (b) a very bad idea, but it seems like it could be useful, and being a whiteboard buff, how could I resist?

As a somewhat serious application, I can imagine writing the address I'm searching for at the top of the wind sheild so that it can serve as a poor man's heads-up-display. I'm also thinking it could be handy for reminders too.

I can't wait to sketch out an updated database schema, or UML diagram at a stoplight!

--Ben

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Kid Friendly Stories For Your Mp3 Player

ParentHacks pointed me to this list of sites that provide free kid-friendly stories in Mp3 format.

It seems like it would be smart to have a few of these loaded up on your PowerUp! player, ready to entertain kids and adults alike no matter where you are.

This also seems like yet another candidate for your thumb drive.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

T-mobile Caller ID Tip

Here's a tip if you have a T-mobile cell phone. By default, the name on the account is the value that shows up on land-line caller ID. This means that when I call someone, Shira's name is the one that comes up on folk's caller ID.

Turns out, T-mobile can customize your caller ID on a phone number, by phone number, basis. Just dial 611, and ask to speak to a representative. Simply tell them you want your caller ID to be a specific value for your phone number.

We just asked them to customize my ID a few minutes ago, and it has yet to take effect. But, in theory, it'll just update in a few hours.

I should have changed the caller ID to something slick like Emacs Boy or Linux Geek, but I chickened out and simply changed it to Ben Simon.

Review: Hidden Kitchens

Hidden Kitchens was an NPR series about, well, hidden kitchens. And what is a hidden kitchen? It's any tiny, improvised, non-obvious, ad-hoc, temporary, underground or otherwise discrete food preparation area.

And as the series explains - these kitchens are everywhere. From the guy selling authentic tacos from his truck, to small town yearly rituals, to prison cells.

While this may not sound like the most enthralling topic, the tales are nothing short of amazing. This is story telling at its very best. The CD itself makes use of every NPR radio trick in the book to keep the stories interesting, and yet continually transition you to the next one.

If you are curious why radio isn't going to be extinct anytime soon, just give this recording a listen and you'll hear why.

The stories really are remarkable. Just the collection of interviews centered around the George Foreman Grill are worth the price of admission.

I'm proud to say that even I have a connection to a hidden kitchen. One type of kitchen the CD specifically mentions are the little food stands that pop up at Dead and Phish concerts. These are supposed to be hippie oriented affairs, where veggie meals can be had for super cheap. My brother, for years, used to (still does?) pay his way to Phish concerts by selling grilled cheese at concerts, participating in one of these ad-hoc kitchens for a few days. Who knew hidden kitchens were a family tradition?

This book is excellent, I give it a 9.7/10 for an all around excellent audio experience, with a healthy dollop of hope and comedy tossed in

--Ben

More $100 Laptop Details

I just came across this article which includes some more juicy details about the $100 Laptop project. Apparently, the laptop will be running a totally custom UI:

To that end, folders are not the organizing metaphor on these machines, unlike most computers since Apple Computer Inc. launched the first Mac in 1984. The knock on folders is that they force users to remember where they stored their information rather than what they used it for.

Instead, the XO machines are organized around a "journal," an automatically generated log of everything the user has done on the laptop. Students can review their journals to see their work and retrieve files created or altered in those sessions.

That seems like a really smart move, as it's been way too long since someone re-thought out this desktop metaphor we use daily, especially from an educational/kids perspective. I also appreciated the comments about teaching kids MS Office:

"In fact, one of the saddest but most common conditions in elementary school computer labs (when they exist in the developing world), is the children are being trained to use Word, Excel and PowerPoint," Negroponte wrote in an e-mail interview. "I consider that criminal, because children should be making things, communicating, exploring, sharing, not running office automation tools."

This agrees with the classic Logo take on education: kids should be programming the computer, instead of the computer programming kids.

I'll still be amazed if they can pull this project off, but considering they've raised $29 million, they must be at least on the right track.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Portable Unix Tools

I just stumbled on this collection of Windows ported Unix commands. What's nice is that they aren't dependent on Cygwin or any other libraries. This would seem to make them ideal candidates for inclusion on your thumb drive.

Just think, next time you sit down at a Windows box, you'll have goodies such as sed, awk, wget and touch available.

This is handy, if only to get a versions of zip, gzip, bzip and unrar that can be used without first digging around on the net.

Whiteboard Idea: Write on the world

Here's a nifty hack from Make: turn a globe into a blackboard you can jot ideas on.

What a cool way to eek out more whiteboard space without using up a wall.

Bye, bye Flickr, Hello Picasa

As cool as Flickr is, there are few things that make it annoying as a regular photo sharing site.

First, the whole concept of a photostream is wickedly cool, yet doesn't quite jive with way I take photos. Why? A photostream presents images in newest-time-first. Which seems like a good thing, except, it means that you view a photo session in reverse by default. Which means you see the end of the trip first, then the beginning. Not exactly the desired effect.

Second, while flickr tags are neat, often what you want is a simple grouping of photos, an album, if you will. By default, flickr allows you to create like 4 groups of photos, and if you want more than that, you need to upgrade to a pay account. Yes, you can approximate a group of photos with a unique tag, but even that gets old.

So, what's a guy to do? Well, switch to Picasa, of course.

Picasa is Google's answer to photo organization, and their newest addition, web albums, does exactly what I want. It allows me to easily upload and organize photos using the Picasa desktop software, and then trivially push them to the web. By default, Picasa allows you to have as many albums as you want. And it still offers such nice features as the ability to blog your photos easily.

If you have a Gmail or Google account already, then you are just a click or two away from having a Picasa account.

For web album software that just works, give Picasa a try.

To see Picasa's web albums in action, click here to see a test album.

Monday, January 01, 2007

DC Traffic as Art

Here's my interpretation of DC traffic as art:

See a bunch more here.

I'm so ready for the Hirshhorn.

On Playing God

The question of whether or not one is allowed to play God came up in a recent Ask The Rabbi letter. I think the answer given is pretty remarkable:

Regarding the question of whether man has the right to play G-d, as in many instances of genetic engineering, some claim that it is wrong to play G-d. The Jewish perspective, however, is that since man was created in the image of G-d regarding intelligence, morality and free will, he is intended to be G-d’s partner in creation. To that end, G-d intentionally left the world incomplete in order to involve man in its betterment and refinement. Therefore sickness, poverty and other suffering need not be accepted passively. On the contrary, it is G-d’s will that man intervene to improve the world.

From the Jewish perspective then, not only is it not wrong to play G-d, but we are actually supposed to play G-d to the extent that doing so will benefit and improve the world and humanity.

Brilliant, just brilliant.

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