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November 27, 2005

My Digital Toolkit

Writing down the software and services I really like and use on a regular basis is useful for several reasons, including:

  • It's a great way for friends and family to find good tools, and understand why I chose them.
  • When I set up a new computer, I can easily see what I need to install -- or which cookies I need to allow (I use a default deny policy, which is tedious, but worth it) -- to get it ready.
  • Helps me maintain perspective on what I use and why, and prevents the proliferation of applications.  Michael Hyatt just wrote about that problem in his article "Sentencing Applications to Death Row".

This is not a list of every utility I use or like, but rather a short list of what I consider my essentials.  I definitely expect it to change over time.  Everything listed here is free, which I think is amazing, and for which I want to thank the creators/providers!

Online 

  • delicious.com ("del.icio.us") - Keep a record of, tag, and share web content.  You can subscribe to each tag's feed.  I like this social bookmarking service even better than Furl!  More later...
  • Mozilla Firefox - I can't go back to browsing without tabs.  I especially like that Firefox is really configurable!
  • Mozilla Thunderbird - I use this for work, and for its purpose, it does a very good job.  I think it has a lot of potential; again, it's very configurable.
  • Gmail - Free web-based email.  Great user interface, a bit different approach to email, but one that's well thought-out.  Uses tags! (They call them "labels").  I switched and never looked back!
  • Furl - Keep a record of and share web sites, create topic-specific & individualized feeds (Also uses tags, but they call them "Topics")
  • Bloglines - Feed reader/ "news aggregator".  Since it's web-based, you never have to wonder if you've already read something on another computer.   (Needs tags.)
  • Yahoo Calendar - It can send reminders to Y! Messenger, email, and a mobile device's email, which I use all the time.  My wife and I each have accounts, and we share our calendars so we can both always know what's planned.
  • Yahoo Addressbook - Good for what it's designed to do, and when I get around to it, it'll sync to Outlook and therefore, my phone.
  • Wayfaring - Create personalized maps with customizable route and waypoints.  Great for showing someone how to take "the back way", or for showing someone how to take a route that passes a specific point the mapping services may not normally include.
  • Yodlee OnCenter - Similar in concept to a (RSS/ATOM) feed reader/"news aggregator", but for financial info, Yodlee aggregates your financial account information (bank accounts, credit cards, investments, etc.) into one page you can view at a glance.  Some people are (understandably) wary of providing login information for several financial accounts to a single site like this, and it's definitely worth some serious consideration.  On the other hand, it's quite useful to see everything in one place at one time.
  • Odeo - Record audio (in MP3 format) by calling a telephone #.  Your audio file shows up on your personal web page a few seconds after you hang up, and you can share it via email, as a podcast feed (RSS), or by sending people a link to your "Channel" on the Odeo web site.
    • Great for voice memos!  Imagine driving and having an idea you don't want to forget -- just grab your mobile phone, call Odeo, and record it.
    • I've setup an account for my dad so he can record his memoirs.

Offline

  • Picasa - Excellent photo manager, uses tags (called labels) and has decent editing capabilities.
  • Wink - Free screen capture utility for making tutorials/presentations/screencasts/etc.
  • FreeMind - Mind mapping tool.  In beta, but development seems to be progressing quickly and well.  I used to resist mind-mapping, but have found it frees me from focusing so much on hierarchy.
  • Microsoft Notepad - My primary note-taking tool.  I'm a firm believer in the versatility of plain-text.  Yes, it's basic, but it's ubiquitous, fast, and free.
  • Microsoft Paint - A very basic tool, but I use this all the time for basic screen captures; Alt+PrtScr to capture a window, open Paint, paste screenshot, then use Paint to edit and save.  Again, ubiquitous, fast, and free.
  • Multiplicity - Control multiple PCs with one keyboard/mouse, no KVM switch required.  Very nice for quickly moving between my primary & test computers at work.  Copy & paste works too, even for files.

Smartphone

  • Text messaging/SMS - Less overhead than mobile email, but with some of the same benefits, text messaging is perfect for short, unobtrusive communications.  It's especially useful when you don't need to communicate interactively with someone and just want to quickly let them know something, such as during a meeting.  It's great in environments where it's difficult to speak or hear, such as a concert or club.  Text messaging is a really convenient and useful way to communicate, and I don't understand why more people in the U.S. aren't more into text messaging.
  • Google Local for Mobile - Great downloadable mapping and local search application for mobile phones.  It "animates" the following of your route when providing directions, so it's almost like having a GPS-enabled map, except you have to keep track of where you are, since it doesn't know.  I really think this is a good example of a smartphone "killer app".
  • Bloglines Mobile - It's really nice to be able to access my feed reader via my mobile phone.   Bloglines lets you choose whether or not a feed is displayed when you connect via a mobile.

 

November 25, 2005

Photo tip: Auto Contrast can improve photos taken through a window

Summary: Taking digital photos through an airplane, car, or building window often produces relatively poor results.  Auto Contrast is a quick and easy way to really improve digital photos you might otherwise not have considered worth keeping or sharing.

Ania and I recently went to Europe and we took several pictures through the window of the airplane.  We didn't expect much, since they were taken through a multi-pane window, but there were some shots we wanted to capture nonetheless.  As expected, they didn't turn out too great.  Later, while processing the pictures with Picasa, I decided to see what the "Auto Contrast" button would do.

It turns out, that single basic fix changed many of our pictures -- some through plane and car windows, others not -- from blah and faded to quite presentable!  Look at the difference between these two photos:

   Top: Original image
Bottom: Same image with Auto Contrast applied

 

I'm sure most photo editing tools have this functionality, but I can't speak for the results other tools' Auto Contrast fix may produce.  I really like Picasa (another free tool from Google), so it's the example I'm using.  To use Auto Contrast in Picasa, just double-click on the picture, and choose it from the "Basic Fixes" tab on upper left:

You may or may not like the way this fix changes a given photo, but it's worth trying it on more than you might think; it often makes a nice improvement.  I'm sure some photography "purists" will say this changes the image too much, or in the wrong way, but they probably don't run into the problem of poor contrast much anyway!  In my experience, Auto Contrast -- at least as implemented in Picasa -- usually improves the photo, especially if it was taken through a window.

One major benefit of using Picasa; Auto Contrast and other photo modifications (even cropping) are implemented as filter layers which can be applied and removed any time (as long as you're using Picasa).  This means you can try several changes at once and undo as much as you want without having to worry about the original, which Picasa preserves intact.  Nicely done, Picasa developers!

My blog has moved; please update your subscriptions!

 

What?

My blog has moved, and I figure the best way to make people aware of this is using my blog!

Update: 2006.02.09 - I decided to get my own domain name.  My blog's permanent home is:

http://jameselee.alwaysaskwhy.com/blog/

 

Why?

FortuneCity, the company that ran myblogsite.com (where I had my first blog) decided to get out of the blog hosting business, so I migrated to blogharbor.com, their recommended alternative.  The migration was fast, and so far seems to have been done flawlessly, with the notable exception that all of my links to my own articles still point to the "myblogsite.com" domain; that's actually a pain, since I've referenced my own articles quite a bit.  I may contact their support department and see if they can do a quick s/myblogsite/blogharbor/g on all my posts...

I'm not sure I should have to pay for blog hosting anymore than I have to pay for email, but I need to do some more thinking and research before reaching a conclusion about that.  For now, I have BlogHarbor's 30 days of free trial until I have to really decide.

Aside from the post editor, which I don't like, I very much like this blog hosting platform, so I hope to end up somewhere that either provides it or something better.  If you know of a better platform (see my post on why I like myblogsite.com, which mainly was about the platform), drop a comment!

 

Update: Since writing this, I moved to Movable Type on Yahoo Web Hosting, with my own domain name, so a lot of the above no longer applies.

November 11, 2005

Gentlemen, lower your toilet seats!

My dad brought me up to be a gentleman, and one of the things that includes -- if you share a bathroom with women -- is putting the toilet seat down after using it.

Bemis has made it easier to be courteous with their Slow-Close toilet seats, which lowers either or both the seat and the lid slowly and silently after you give them a nudge.  You just start the seat closing, let go, and you're done.

 

We just moved into a new (to us) house, and we replaced the former owners' toilet seats with these right away.  The convenience of being able to put down the toilet seat with so little effort almost certainly violates some chivalric code of required difficulty and sacrifice, but this is one of those small advances in modern engineering that deserves to become ubiquitous.  If you have a reason to get new toilet seats, these are definitely worth consideration.

As a bonus, the seat also has quick-release snap hinges, so you can easily remove the entire seat for thorough cleaning.