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Gradual content creation

Wednesday, September 12th, 2007

I’ve been experimenting around with Twitter Tools and the auto-post blogging tool. They make for an easy way to gradually add content to Futurist Now without having to actually sit down and write a full post. The web links from the day that interest me can go through a workflow into my account, and inane babble about my day fits quite nicely into Twitter. I’ve placed both of these into the new infobits category to make it neat and tidy.

Not that I’ll stop writing real content by any means – just an easy way to share things that interest me day to day.

Update 1 week later: It was a great idea while it lasted, but I’ve pulled the twitter and posts as I’ve gotten a surprising amount of negative feedback from my users. Lesson learned.

Just a little housekeeping

Monday, September 10th, 2007

I did some general housekeeping tonight on Futurist Now. I upgraded to the latest version of WordPress, and to a newer version of VeryPlainText. I applied some of the hacks from the old version of the VeryPlainText theme, but made a few other minor typographic tweaks. I’ve added a few new categories and back-added a few posts into them, but that’s mostly a move to help for some future planned expansion.

Overall not much has changed but just in case let me know if you see anything broken on the site and I’ll be glad to take a look at it – you can just leave some information about what you saw and what browser you are using as a comment.

Of Backpack and information collection

Monday, August 6th, 2007

Yesterday I was introduced to Backpackit and Ta-Da Lists, two fabulous web based information collection and management tools. Ta-Da Lists is the most simple of simple web based task/list management solution, but implemented with a clean and sensible design. Backpack picks up where Ta-Da lists leaves off and offers a full blown web based information capture, search, and management solution.

Backpacks genius lies in its simple interface to import email, notes, lists, and documents and allow the user to organize them into meaningful groups and pages. Entering information can be done through the AJAX powered web interface, or emailed to unique email addresses per page you create.

For the mildly OCD and scatterbrained professional like me it’s a perfect information dump solution. Previously I had accomplished this task with a mixture of desktop search technologies (Spotlight and Windows Desktop Search) and text files. Backpack allows for the capture of my stream of consciousness and later triage and sort information into tasks, savable bits, and ideas.

A web based solution is the perfect answer to my multi-computer, multi-platform lifestyle – all of the power of text files on OS X, OneNote on Windows, and accessible from any browser at the drop of a hat. Each page also has a unique email address making it possible to send notes and todo’s from any email capable device for quick entry on the go.

Backpack tops off it’s powerful information management technology with a well implemented developer API, SMS or email based reminders, and basic calendaring and calendar sharing functionality. I’m hooked on the Exchange/Outlook calendaring solution at work, but were I not chained to the evil empire the calendar looks well enough implemented to live out of.

Ta-Da Lists is likely enough for most people, and is entirely free. Ta-Da offers a maximum of 10 concurrent lists, and a very slick iPhone specific interface for those iPhone owners dying for a task/list solution. Backpack is very iPhone friendly, but lacks an iPhone specific interface which does make it slightly less useful on the iPhone, but Backpack’s power-user interface and abilities to go beyond simple lists into key-worded pages full of lists, notes, images, documents, and emails makes it an easy sell.

Backpack offers a free version which is likely sufficent enough for most users, but for a small monthly fee they will increase the number of pages you can create as well as increase the amount of storage available for you.

Check it out – it’s free for basic use and if you manage information anything like I do you will be instantly hooked.

One week with the iPhone: an in-depth review

Saturday, July 7th, 2007


Now that I’ve spent a full week with the iPhone I wanted to put pen to paper (or should that be fingers to keys) and write a more in depth review than my initial impressions. Needless to say Apple generated a lot of hype with the iPhone and many feared it would flop in the face of near impossible levels of pre-release fanaticism. Thankfully I am glad that after a full weeks usage I can attest: Apple actually pulled it off. They lived up to or exceeded every single promise they made about the iPhone.

My impressions are obviously quite favorable over all, but the iPhone does have a few flaws. Regardless of it’s flaws I think this will be an industry-changing phone and will raise the bars for Microsoft, Symbian, Motorola, HTC, Samsung, and other competitors in the mobile marketplace to produce better phones featuring integration, ease of use, and stability all orders of magnitude ahead of what they now offer.

Things Apple got right with the iPhone:
The experience
Using the iPhone is just plain fun. Apple has managed to take something fairly common like a phone and completely revolutionize it. From the simple fades and transitions between modes to the delete animations the whole device feels very modern and high-tech. It’s a thin and highly attractive device that attracts attention and feels a little like something from a few years in the future – particularly compared to the industrial design of its main competitors. It’s a simple interface to learn (more so than any previous OS I’ve used before – mobile or desktop) and has playful feel that just begs to be explored.

The iPhone provides a fun to use and mostly consistent experience end to end. In all previous smart-phones each different feature had a different experience: you could use it as a phone, or as a browser, or as an email client but each different application and experience has a very different feel to it. With the iPhone you don’t use a phone, browser, or email client – you use the iPhone. Everything feels very well integrated, and intermeshed. It does have a bit of a learning curve for the device as a whole, but once you learn it you can have any of it’s features at your fingertips. The closest competitor they have in this space is the consumer-oriented Sidekick from Danger, but the iPhone puts even that to shame.

The screen
The screen on the iPhone is crystal clear and very high resolution. It features a 480×320 screen (more than twice the resolution of your standard 320×240 screen), but at a very high DPI so text, images, and video looks stunningly crisp. The screen has an ambient light sensor so it’s always the perfect brightness for your environment. The brightest setting is stunning and makes the iPhone’s screen completely visible outdoors in bright sunlight – a feat most phones (smart or otherwise) can’t lay a finger on.

The browser
The Safari browser on the iPhone is simply stunning. Not only can it properly render websites that previously been completely impossible to view on mobile phones, but the intelligent zooming, rotating, JavaScript/AJAX support makes the Safari browser the pinnacle of the iPhone’s applications. While viewing a web page simply rotating the iPhone to either side rotates and re-zooms the section you are viewing. A quick double tap on any section of a web page (for instance a column, image, or form) zooms to that section for readability, and then you can either scroll to other sections or double tap again to go back to seeing the entire website. The Safari browser included in the iPhone even has a multi-window feature allowing you to browse multiple websites at the same time, or handle popups if a site requires them (and it blocks the popups you don’t want).

The advanced Javascript and CSS/DOM included in the Safari browser make some amazing applications possible. People have already written browser based interfaces for SSH, IRC, and other chat programs. Obviously a web application can never be quite as integrated as a thick client can be, but this browser proves it’s a fairly minor distinction at this point. I expect to see a large crop of iPhone web applications springing up in the next few months as developers hone their iPhone web development skills.

Mapping by google, interface by Apple
Apple’s much vaunted Google Maps application delivers as promised. The pinch and zoom features are well implemented, although it’s usefulness is limited without some sort of geo-location feature, be it actual GPS or based on cell towers/Wifi access points. One of the ‘hidden gems’ of the Google Maps application is it’s traffic feature – on the way down to my car every morning a quick click into the iPhone’s mapping experience and I can see which of the freeways has the least congestion for my morning commute.

Talking about talking
When it comes to being an actual phone the iPhone delivers above expectations. Sure, I’ve used better ‘dumb’ phones in terms of signal strength or voice quality, but as smart phones goes this is well implemented and very usable as a voice communications device. Conversations are easy to hear for both parties and the interface for dialing is very slick looking. While you can’t type out someone’s name to call them the scroll by letter feature is well implemented and you can set as many contacts as you want to be favorites and show up on a short list of people to call. Since I use my phone to make and receive calls so infrequently I’ve not found this to be a problem.

Further on the topic of the iPhone as a phone the new Visual Voicemail feature is stunning. Rather than having to call up my provider and navigate through Byzantine phone menues with a dial-pad AT&T sends the voicemail to my phone using the data network, and I can browse, play, replay, call-back, and delete all without calling my voicemail. The Visual Voicemail feature brings more of an email paradigm to voicemail and makes someone like me who usually HATES voicemail find it pleasant to use and entirely tolerable.

In addition to making voicemail a pleasant experience Apple chose some highly tasteful alerts. When an SMS, calendar alarm, or missed call occurs the lock screen displays a visual history since last unlock on translucent blue pads. Sadly emails (and their subject lines) are not privy to the same unlock screen notifications and must be accessed via the email application.

The mail client is a well implemented piece of software. While it’s still not perfect. It’s better than all mobile email solutions I’ve seen, and a good number of desktop mail clients. It lacks true push capabilities with most email servers making the iPhone not the ideal solution for many enterprise customers, but it more than makes up for it in my book with near perfect IMAP support. I can have it check my inbox regularly (every 15, 30, 90, or 120 minutes) as well as browse my entire IMAP hierarchy and browse my last 10 years of mail, pulling down emails and attachments from the server on demand.

Many of the initial nay-sayers of the iPhone were focusing on it’s virtual keyboard. Having come from several years of QWERTY phones I myself was more than a little worried about this. Luckily Apple pulled it off and I’ve found that after a few days of getting the virtual keyboard into my head I actually like it as much as a physical keyboard. While it lacks tactile feedback it does offer the ability to change the keyboard depending on the task (adding a .com button to the keyboard while in the browser for instance), and it’s predictive text corrects pretty much every ‘fat finger’ mistake I’ve thrown at it. After a while you learn to just trust they keyboard and grind away at typing as fast as you can and magically what you meant to appear on screen does – just be prepared for a couple of days of re-learning the skill of typing on QWERTY thumb boards.

The iPhone as an iPod
The iPod portion of the iPhone is extremely well implemented. It’s more intuitive than even the 5.5G iPods which preceded it. While I barely use Coverflow at home in iTunes I’ve found it to be a very natural way to browse the 20 or so albums that I have selected to bring with me. There are other nice touch based interface tweaks which make selecting music easier, and allows for a ton of eye candy. I have a few minor complaints about the iPod interface, but I’ll leave those for the ‘what Apple missed’ section later in the article.

There are a lot of nice audio touches like slowly fading the music when a call comes in, and pausing the music entirely when you accept the call. When you hang up the music un-pauses and gracefully fades back in. Most alert sounds (new email or a calendar event for instance) are accompanied by the music fading down just slightly to make sure you hear the alert but without jarring you out of your music listening experience. These touches make using the iPhone in a car with an auxiliary input or iPod integration fun and far less jarring or complicated than dealing with a separate iPod and phone.

The iPhone features a standard headset jack so you can theoretically use it with any headphones, not just the manufacturer provided ones like so many phone manufacturers force you to by using a non-standard jack. This let’s the audiophiles of the world ditch the built in earbuds for some high end headphones. Doing this loses out on the built in microphone, but gains a lot of quality. So far the audio quality has been fantastic and even when hooked up to my high-end home stereo system the output sounds great! See the ‘what Apple missed’ section below for some more comments on the headphone jack.

The network for the iPhone is both a good thing and a bad thing. The inclusion of EDGE data (it’s faster than dial up was way back in the day – but not by that much) for getting the internet from ATT&T was a surprise, and makes browsing out on the road somewhat painful. Luckily Apple made up for this by adding a great WiFi implementation. The handoff between WiFi and EDGE is seamless if you have previously approved a wireless access point, and the WiFi power consumption actually appears lower than EDGE to me.

As much as some might gripe about the EDGE data connection it’s obvious that they did it for battery life. 3G networks like AT&T’s HSDPA network use far more power than EDGE modems do and would have significantly reduced the fantastic battery life the iPhone offers. On my old AT&T 8525 (an HTC Hermes) I was lucky to get 12 hours of use out of my phone between the occasional phone call, some web browsing, and a few hundred emails. The iPhone makes it through all that (and a lot more web browsing because the experience is so much better) and still has 40-50% of it’s battery life left at the end of the day. Apple quotes 8 hours of talk time and over 24 hours of music playback – very impressive numbers for any phone.

The camera
The 2 megapixel camera included with the iPhone is definitely a camera phone and can’t hold a finger to a dedicated camera device it still takes some impressive photos. Like all digital cameras it does best in bright, evenly light scenes, but even in unevenly lit scenes (like the shot below) come out looking halfway decent. The iPhone camera falls flat on it’s face in dimly lit scenes though, and produces something that could be considered modern art of sorts: black canvas with slightly less black blobs hovering over it like ethereal souls from our ancestors.

Antique car

YouTube is nice, although unless you are within range of a WiFi access point be prepared to both wait a long time and get very poor quality video. The fact that the videos are encoded in both EDGE and WiFi friendly versions is a nice touch, but the limited availability of the YouTube library is a bit annoying at times.

And one more thing: syncing
A final slick little touch iPhone has over previous iPods and competing media-centric smart-phones is that you can sync an iPhone to multiple computers at once. For instance I was able to sync my iPhone with a Windows PC running Microsoft Outlook to get my contacts and calendars onto the iPhone, but sync music, podcasts, and video from iTunes on my mac. This is a slick little touch and one that will make it easy for people to keep their contacts at work, and their media collection at home.

Things Apple missed with the iPhone:
No IM client
No instant messaging application. The SMS and email clients are very well implemented (chat bubbles aside in the SMS client) but with todays youth generation ditching email for IM I’m surprised to see it not included at launch. I am guessing that iChat will be one of the earlier software updates – sadly that will likely continue with the chat bubbles, and be AIM only – a tough pill to swallow for a heavy MSN Messenger network user. The good news is that various clever web guru’s are already working on hacking IM, SSH, VNC (done by my uber-geek friend Nate), and IRC onto the iPhone via web interfaces.

No 3rd party applications
No SDK for building full blown iPhone applications for 3rd parties yet. A lot can be done with a Safari web application, but there are a lot of Mac applications that I think could port fairly well to the iPhone – Adium, Ecto, and NetNewsWire to name a few. Hopefully Apple will amend this shortly and release a full blown SDK for the iPhone to the legions of hip cool Mac developers.

iPod niggles
The iPhone features a standard headset jack so you can theoretically use it with the headphones of your choice. The only problem is that the headphone jack is recessed slightly more than normal headphone jacks are so some headphones require an adapter to work properly. I was able to trim down the rubber hump on one of my headphones with a sharp knife, but for my metal tipped Grado SR225′s and Etymotic ER-6′s I’m out of luck until I get my hands on one of the adapters.

Another miss is that while locked in iPod mode the unlock screen fails to show a scrubber (a bar representing the track with a ball on the track to show the current play position), the length of the track, and other information so I see everything about a track without having to unlock the iPhone. It’s nice that the unlock screen shows my album art and the current time, but I’d like to get more information about the track I’m listening to than just the name.

It’s also mildly annoying that while playing audio you can have the scrubber or the rating of the song visible but not both at the same time. I have a large music collection and I’ve been working to slowly rate it all for future use – with the current iPhone music interface it takes several more ‘clicks’ than I would think necessary. These are both such minor gripes that I’m almost certain Apple will address them in a future build of the iPhone software.

More connectivity
The inclusion of slower EDGE data rather than AT&T’s high-speed HSDPA connection. AT&T ramped up their EDGE network for the iPhone at launch to 200kbps, which is 2-3 times faster than dial up, but nothing like the 700-1,000kbps connections I regularly saw with my HTC Hermes on AT&T’s network. I’m listing this as my last “thing Apple missed” because with the seamless transition to wifi, and increased power consumption of HSDPA I think Apple may have made the right decision in the short term – but keep an eye out for a 3G iPhone once the chip-sets become more power-friendly and as battery technology improves.

My goodness run, don’t walk to buy an iPhone. I bought it with reservations – particularly about the EDGE data, yet everything else about the iPhone makes me feel so warm and gooey inside that I’m keeping the iPhone for sure. The iPhone will revolutionize the mobile industry and for once I’m pretty damn proud to be an early adopter and on the bleeding edge of tomorrow. I can’t wait to see some of the new phones Apples competitors will be coming up with in the next few years, and what kind of long term impact the iPhone will have on the mobile phone market as we know it – consider the bar officially raised!

The iPhone is the first phone I’ve ever used that works as advertised, offers a great mobile web browsing experience, great battery life, and is fun to use. I give it a solid 8 out of 10 Stars of Sparky, and would have given it the 10/10 Stars of Sparky had the iPhone featured a true SDK and high speed data out of the box.

Mindcamp 4

Sunday, July 1st, 2007

Although Mindcamp 4 was smaller and shorter than previous Mindcamp’s it was in no means inferior. Due to the difficulty of getting a good venue and crowd on the July 4th holiday weekend there were less than half the attendees we normally get, and the event was shortened to 11 hours from it’s normal 24.

I personally was glad it was changed in such a way – being as tired as I’ve been of late meant I likely wouldn’t have gone had it been the full meal deal. Doing most of the day however was perfect, and I got to go get my geek on with fellow Seattle techies without straining myself.

One things that surprised me this time was how well Apple is hitting their target market with the iPhone. Mind camp was 2 days after launch, and more than 15% of the attendees had one. Admittedly world has been waiting for this phone for quite some time, but it was still rather shocking to see that many of them all together at once. There were a lot of discussions of not only what a world changer this device will be (and of course nerdy details as to help enable this through cool use of it’s technology), but also a good explorations of its weaker points.

More to come on the iPhone – I’m still wrapping my head around all the little details and don’t want to go into the full rundown of my opinions quite yet, but suffice to to say most of it will be positive!

A bump in the wire

Wednesday, June 27th, 2007

I just had my million dollar idea and I’m all but giving it away in an effort to make the web safer – just give cut if you make your fortune on it. While plugging in a network cable I realized that the cable itself needs to be smarter and able to help filter and protect its user from network attacks.

For a long time software firewalls on computers have been problematic for many reasons. While they can be helpful in keeping malware and hackers out of a computer once something has breeched the firewall in even the tiniest of ways it’s possible to disable or subvert a software firewall to enable further attacks or malicious use of the machine. This is the reason most businesses put their trust in hardware firewalls – a hardware solution is much more difficult to remotely disable and can do a much better job of filtering both incoming and outgoing traffic.

While businesses with IT professionals can manage and maintain a hardware firewall with little muss or fuss it’s often beyond the average consumer. Many consumer grade routers offer firewalls and in addition offer a level of security by putting users behind NAT (Network Address Translation) which helps mask them from the Internet as a whole. These routers help, but not everyone has a router at home, and even a router can be tricky to set up.

What is needed is a smart network cable with a simple built in firewall. Imagine a cable with a “bump in the wire” which contained a small embedded OS which performed simple firewall and content filtering duties. It of course would be difficult to offer an enterprise grade solution from something this simple, but even the most basic filtering would make helping secure a computer as easy as plugging it into the wall. Because the cable would offer a hardware solution it would be far easier to not only prevent incoming attack vectors, but also if the attached computer does become compromised common outgoing ports used by malware could be blocked.

To take this kind of solution to the next level the cable could be offered as a managed service. The bump would be automatically updated by a server side component which could manage ports for their users and adapt the firewalls rules to new malware that has been identified in the wild.

Simple and transparent to the user, and yet another layer of security in this wild west we call the Internet. Am I a genius for coming up with such a simple but effective idea, or is the idea flawed in some way that’s escaping my exhausted mental state right now?

The experience of art

Monday, June 11th, 2007

Three way cross bw

In thinking about my photography I often muse on how to exhibit my art. A proper exhibition is something I’ve never actually done, but may be doing at some point in the future.

I think of what kind of control I would like over the environment, the speed at which people moved through it, the lighting, the music, and so on. Obviously having this level of control allows an artist to complete his message, to really forge an experience out of it.

On the other hand most of my art gets displayed on people’s computer screens. It gets displayed in the manner which my viewer wants, on their schedule, their location – they control the experience. As the artist loses control over his (or her) artistic experience the viewer gains it.

Tools like Flickr and Youtube have opened up the viewer centric experience allowing almost any artist to throw their creations up on the net, available for anyone to experience on their own terms, and do with what they please. Our technological society has even created Creative Commons usage licenses to grant and communicate rights from the artist to the viewer.

Strange thing is I’m not entirely sure which one prefer. Part of me thinks that people can enjoy art more if they are in the right mindset – and when I control the environment and experience I’m more likely to help them into that mindset. Part of me thinks people would enjoy art more on their terms, in their favorite coffee shop with their laptop, or at home in the den on the big screen.

Which do you prefer? Does it really matter? Is it the work of art itself that matters more than the setting, or are both the design and the viewing experience combined required to make ‘art’?

Catching up

Friday, May 4th, 2007

Recovering from my pneumonia is becoming more and more grating of a task. I’m finishing up the antibiotics today, but the lingering cough and “run down” feeling is really starting to get old. Combine that with the fact that I’m ridiculously busy trying to catch back up after missing nearly a week of work and personal appointments.

Aside from recovering my health I’ve been relaxing with video games quite a bit, and doing some reading. I finally beat Super Paper Mario for my Wii, and have been getting back into Oblivion for my 360. I had managed to put down the Oblivion addiction a while back, but with the Shivering Isles expansion out I’ve found myself spending more and more time in Cyrodill. I’ve built (yet another) new character and am focusing on trying to work through not only the new expansion pack, but also all of those miscellaneous little quests that I’ve never bothered to go through – shadow over Hackdirt, Aleswell, and other little one-off quests that really add some depth to the game.

Aside from gaming my reading has been quite interesting. I picked up a copy of Inside the Machine, and illustrated introduction to microprocessors and computer architecture by Jon Stokes. It’s an interesting read and offers a nuts and bolts view of how a computer works from the ground up. I’m about half way through and am simply fascinated by the view it’s giving me into the “world of the machine” that so often slips under the average computer user. Modern computers, operating systems, and programming languages have done a beautiful job of abstracting hardware from software, but the hardware still exists, and knowing how it operates has given me some insight as to why some weird things in the more abstracted levels “work the way they work”.

Unix is cool

Thursday, March 22nd, 2007

Last nights rebuilding of Marbles the macbook was a surprisingly easy, quick, and pleasant experience thanks to my recent work with bash scripts for syncing. In the past 6 months I’ve written a number of syncronization scripts to help keep my notebook up to date with my desktop machines and ensure that no matter what machine I’m using it always has the most recent version of my data.

All this scripting paid off via the side benefit of making the rebuild almost entirely painless. It look less than an hour to reinstall OS X 10.4.1 from the DVDs that came with Marbles and then run software update to get it upgraded to 10.4.9. Once that was done I hooked into the gigabit network, copied over a few applications, ran my update script and Marbles was back in action.

I remember back in my Windows days how rebuilding a machine and moving data over could be a day long saga – no more of that for me though – an hour and some Unix hackery is all you need now!

Now I just have to keep my fingers crossed that rebuilding fixed whatever system corruption I had that was causing the system hangs to begin with.

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