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April 23, 2006

Meaningful separation - personal blog spinoff

I've finally gotten around to taking a cue from my brother-in-law's smart idea, and decided to spin off a personal blog. This is a good way to insulate my family and (some) friends from my more technical writing and share more personal stuff with them.

If you know me and don't have the address, let me know, and I'll send it to you. If you don't know me, you probably won't find much of interest in my personal blog. If you want to read both at once, create a feedmix.

I know I'm going to run into situations where I'll want to cross-post, but I'm not sure what is the best way to do this. I guess for now, I'll just post an intro/pointer from one to the other, but I'm curious how others have done it.

April 19, 2006

Embed an OPML browser in your Google home page using Bitty Browser

What?

You can embed an OPML browser like Grazr or Optimal in your Google Personalized home page using Bitty, an embeddable mini web browser.

SCREENSHOT: Grazr and Optimal in Google Personalized Home

 

Grazr and Optimal are OPML browsers designed to be embedded in blog sidebars & web pages.  Usually, embedding one of these in a page requires that you have the ability to edit the page's source or template.  This isn't an option with your Google Personalized home page, but you can circumvent the problem by adding Bitty -- an embeddable web browser  -- as a content  module to your Google page, and use that as a "wrapper" to display your Grazr or Optimal browser.

Bitty can display OPML too, and may be a good choice depending on your needs.  Grazr and Optimal are a bit more purpose-built for the task of displaying and navigating OPML, whereas Bitty is a good general-purpose embeddable web browser that can also display OPML.

Update: 2006.04.25 - I tested this with my Windows Live home page, and it works, but doesn't seem to pass through the parameters I included in the URL for Grazr (e.g. size, run solo). 

Update: 2006.07.03 - Grazr blog: Tom Morris (who just joined the Grazr team) has hacked Grazr into a Google home-pages widget so you don't need to use Bitty Browser as a wrapper for Grazr. 

 

Why?

Embedding an OPML browser in your Google Personalized home page extends the capability of the page by enabling you to browse & graze content without having to navigate away from the page.

This is a good way to aggregate multiple instances of Grazr and/or Optimal that you use on a regular basis, or to ensure you always have an OPML browser handy any time you're looking at your Google home page.  I won't enumerate the potential uses for this capability here, (but free free to share your ideas in the comments) but consider the basic idea that you can setup a collection of several easily-navigable, miniature content sites, all of which are accessible from a single place

Despite the bad rap they often get, I think there's a lot of potential value in personalized home pages, especially with the addition of customizable modules, and new tools & capabilities like these embeddable web and OPML browsers.  More on this another time...

Update: 2006.04.24 - Apparently, I'm not the only one who likes the idea of using Bitty in the Google home page!  Steve Rubel is using it to make his personal mobile wiki always available.

 

How? 

The general idea

Add a Bitty Browser module to your Google home page, and within Bitty, load an instance of Grazr or Optimal that points at the content you want to display. 

 

First, consider how you'll use it 

There are two approaches to using embedded OPML browsers on your Google page.  Each has its merits, and they are not mutually exclusive; in fact, you may want to use a combination of the two.  It's important to think about which approach you want to use before you begin, so you can configure the OPML browser in the appropriate mode:

  • Approach 1: Create multiple instances, each to display specific content
    • Description: Display more than one OPML browser, each with its own purpose or topic.
    • OPML browser mode: When you point the OPML browser at the content you want it to display, select "Run Solo" (Grazr) or "Standalone" (Optimal) to get a clean page with just the browser and no controls.
  • Approach 2: Create a general-purpose instance
    • Description: Use a single OPML browser to load different content at different times.
    • OPML browser mode: Do not click the checkbox next to "Run Solo" or "Standalone", and you'll be able to enter the addresses of different OPML files (and feeds, with Grazr) you want to view.

Grazr and Optimal have different strengths for different uses, so experiment to determine which works best for you using either approach.

 

5 steps to embed an OPML browser in your Google home page:

  1. Use Grazr or Optimal to "skin" an OPML file, and copy the address of the resulting page.
    • Here's where you would select "Run Solo" (Grazr) or "Standalone" (Optimal), depending on the approach you chose above.
  2. Go to the Bitty Browser configuration page and select "contents/home page" from the "Customize" section:
    • Bitty Browser config 01
  3. Enter the address of the skinned OPML file you created in Step 1:
    • Bitty Browser config 02
  4. In the "Add this Bitty Browser:" section, select Google:
    • Bitty Browser config 03
  5. Google will ask you to Confirm that you want to add Bitty to your Personalized Home page
    • Bitty browser config 04

After you add Bitty to your Google home page, you can easily change it's Home Page (the address of the page it initially displays) using the "Edit" link on the module:

Bitty browser config 05

This is an easy way to switch between the two approaches discussed above, and experiment with loading different content n the OPML browser without having to re-add the Bitty module to Google.

Of course, you can use Bitty to display much more than an OPML browser on your Google home page, it just happens to be a perfect solution for this problem.  I really appreciate that the developers at Google, Bitty, Grazr, and Optimal are providing these tools & services, especially that they're doing so for free!

April 06, 2006

How to take a screenshot in Windows

What?

Screenshots are a valuable tool for any level of computer user, but many people think creating them is difficult, or requires special software.  In fact, they're easy for anyone with basic computer skills to create, using software that comes standard on every Windows computer.

The tools:  (Alt + PrtScr) + Microsoft Paint

 

windows screenshot tools 

Unfortunately, many people don't realize how easy it is to take screenshots, and end up using the wrong tools that produce larger than necessary images in formats that aren't suited for email and the web.  Fancy screen capture software does have its place, but for basic screenshots, it's overkill.  Using the right format guarantees everyone will be able to see your screenshot right in their email programs and web browsers.

Once you memorize how to do it, you can create a screenshot and add it to an email or blog article in less than a minute.

 

 

Why? 

Screenshots provide an easy way to share or keep a record of what's visible on your computer at a particular instant.  They improve communication by adding a visual component; as they say, a picture is worth...

Once you see how fast and easy it is to take a screenshot, you'll find it often comes in handy for a variety of uses, such as:

  • Creating clear how-to and help documentation with visual examples
  • Showing someone exactly what you're looking at on a computer
  • Quick-saving something when you don't need or want it in editable form (e.g. receipts from online purchases, airline itineraries, maps)
  • Sharing desktop & browser configuration tips
  • Showing off your high score on web-based video games

 

How?

Take a screenshot in 5 easy steps:

This looks long, because I'm including a lot of detail, but it really is just the quick five steps in bold below.

  1. Select the window you want to capture
  2. Press "Alt+PrtScr"  to take the screenshot
    • (Press and hold the "Alt" key, then press the "PrtScr" key.)
      • This key combination should be easy to remember, since "PrtScr" stands for "print screen".
    • This copies the image of the selected window to the clipboard.
    • "Prt Scr" alone will take a shot of the entire desktop
  3.  Open Paint
    • Shortcut: Press the "Start" key + R and type "mspaint":
      • screenshot of run dialog with mspaint
    • Paint isn't fancy, but it's on every Windows computer, takes no time to load, and can handle basic tasks like highlighting and adding comments.
  4. Paste the screenshot
    • If you don't want the entire window:
      • Select the part you want (Paint defaults to the Selection tool after you paste an image.  Just press the "Esc" key to cancel the selection of the entire image; you'll see the dotted border disappear.)
      • Copy it
      • Use Ctrl+z to undo the paste of the initial screenshot
      • Paste your selection
  5. Save the file
    • You'll be prompted to enter a filename and specify the file type:
      • screenshot save as PNG example
    • Saving to your Desktop makes it quick and easy to find, for instant emailing or posting on a blog, though I recommend filing it somewhere meaningful after using it.
    • I've standardized on the PNG format for screenshots; it doesn't degrade image quality and produces a small file size.  See "When and how to use internet image formats" for good information on this topic.

April 04, 2006

del.icio.us Tip: Subscribe to your "links for you" feed and use the "for:" tag to send links to other users

 What?delicious logo

The "for:" tag enables del.icio.us users to send links to one another.  Subscribing to your "links for you" feed from your del.icio.us account ensures that you automatically see links people send to you this way.

 
When someone sends you a link using the "for:" tag, it shows up on your "links for you" page in your del.icio.us account.  (The page used to be called "for", but was recently changed to more clearly communicate its function.)

delicious links for you

 

Why? 

The "for:" tag is a great way to send links.  If you aren't monitoring your "links for you", you could be missing things people are sending to you.

I don't know how commonly people use the "for:" tag -- and its inherent privacy prevents us from looking at others' accounts to find out -- but I suspect it's underused.  Even if this isn't popular now, it may become reasonable to expect people to check their link inbox nearly as often as their email inbox.  This could evolve into the equivalent of an email inbox.  Note that while "links for you" is effectively an inbox, it's distinct from the del.icio.us concept of the "inbox".

I make this speculation conscious of the fact that this way of sharing is limited to del.icio.us users.  Remember, all Yahoo! users will likely soon be able to use del.icio.us with their Yahoo! account, just like any other Yahoo! service.  That plus the non-Yahoo! del.icio.us userbase is a substantial network for sharing!

People will increasingly recognize these and other benefits of sharing links this way:

  • It's the right system for managing links - Email can be a good way to share links with specific individuals, but if your recipient is a del.icio.us user too, using the "for:" tag gives you both the benefits of the service you're already using; one designed to manage links.
    • You can see what tags the sender associated with the links, so they're in context
    • It's easy to copy them to your own account.
    • It produces a feed, which is arguably a more appropriate and efficient (in most cases) way to share links than email.
  • Targeted sharing reduces information overload - The "for:" tag enables you to create individualized feeds for sending links to specific people.
    • People are likely to pay more attention to links you tag explicitly for them.
    • Subscribing to the feed of just those links might be more appealing than subscribing to your entire shared links feed, since it would likely be lower volume.
  • Adequate privacy - Most everything about the "for:" tag is invisible to anyone but you and the recipient.
    • Others can't see the fact that you tagged something "for:username".  NOTE: Doing this does not make the link private; only the fact that you tagged it "for:" someone is hidden.
    • The feed is "private" but not authenticated.  It's just got a long string attached to it, presumably to make it unique and somewhat obfuscated.
    • I had no problem subscribing to mine with Bloglines.
    • I think the degree of security it provides is totally reasonable, and people should know better than to expect serious privacy in feeds and social bookmarking services at this point anyway.

How? 

It takes very little effort to monitor your "links for you":

  • Copy the feed address into your favorite feed reader, and you're done!

Speaking of "how", it's a good idea to think about how you use the ability to send links to other del.icio.us users; remember, people can choose to be antisocial toward individual users!

April 02, 2006

Use Grazr to "skin" OPML files and feeds

What?

Grazr logo

Grazr is a good front-end for OPML files ("live outlines") and feeds.  When you publish or share an OPML file, offer a way to see what it contains by using Grazr as a service to "skin" the content.

The typical way I've seen people using Grazr is to embed it into a blog sidebar, but it can also be used as a service, to skin any OPML file or feed you want to publish or share.  This means you don't have to embed it to get a lot of value from using it!

I'm going to focus on outlines (OPML files) here, but as Adam Green points out, Grazr works directly on RSS too, making it a great way to share feeds as well.  The majority of feeds people publish and share are generated from blogs, so people already see them in human-readable form.  OPML files don't have an equivalent; they're typically published "raw", with no formatting.

Why?

This is a great way to share outlines and feeds so they're immediately useful to the reader.  Grazr makes it easy to quickly preview the content without having to commit to subscription.  

People are starting to publish OPML files, which is great, but:

  • Many (most?) people aren't familiar enough with this technology to see the benefit of it.
  • Most of the OPML files I've seen recently don't include a useful way to see what they contain.
    • Sure, the reader can click and see them as rendered by a web browser, but this is about as valuable to most people as looking at HTML -- fine for those who are learning or know it, but not very useful otherwise.
  • Seeing OPML rendered in a human-readable form makes it much more useful.

John Palfrey recently wrote about his a-ha moment in "Getting OPML", and provided the example of toptensources.com, which publishes OPML content.  Check out how their Science News section looks as a raw OPML file, vs. the same OPML content, skinned by Grazr:

Raw OPML vs Grazr skinned 

How?

One of the nice things about Grazr is that the developer made it easy to use as a service — something that differentiates it from some of the other current OPML browsers —  by providing a simple way to plug in the address of a feed or live outline (OPML file) and see it in a Grazr "panel":

SCREENSHOT: Grazr as service

Method 1: Copy, Paste, Publish

  1. Copy the URL of an outline or feed.
  2. Go to the "Create a Grazr" page (hint: click the bottom of any Grazr), paste in the URL, and click the "Display this URL" button.  (You can configure your Grazr's font, viewing mode, etc. at this point.)
  3. To publish a link to the Grazr-skinned version of the outline or feed,
    1. Find the "Save your Grazr to a Web Page" section, and click the "Type of Web page" drop-down list.
    2. Select "Generic Web Page".
    3. Find the "Grazr URL" section, click the URL to select it, then copy and paste it.

Method 2: Create a link by hand 

  • URL syntax: http://grazr.com/gzpanel.html?file=http://address-of-your-feed-or-OPML-file

Using either method, you can customize the size of the panel.

 

Now What? 

  • Publish the Grazr-skinned link alongside the raw OPML file - When you publish an OPML file on your blog or website, add a link next to it that says something like "Graze It!", with a link to the Grazr-skinned version alongside the raw OPML.  Don't remove the link to the raw OPML; that's still useful as a separate link.
  • Here's a "Graze It!" button - I made a button that I plan to use for publishing my outlines.  Note that this button is not Grazr-specific.  Rather, it's specific to the concept of grazing.  For grazing, I happen to like Grazr most among the current OPML browsers I've seen (though others are useful too, depending on what you want to do), but this idea could apply to any that can be used as a service and allow users to link to a rendered version of an OPML file.  You're welcome to copy this button and use it on your own site (I'd prefer you do that vs. linking to my copy):

    Graze It button

     

    Update: 2006.09.19 - The Grazr team developed their own, Grazr-specific button:

    Grazr button 

  • Tag & share it - To share an OPML file, use your favorite social bookmarking service to tag & share the Grazr-skinned version.  I've created a "grazr-skinned" tag so I can easily find these links.

What the heck is Grazr? 

Grazr is an outline browser that you can use to view OPML files, and graze feeds.  It's designed to be embedded in blog sidebars & web pages, but can also be used in standalone mode as a service, to provide a front-end or skin for OPML files and feeds.  You can read more about Grazr in the FAQ.  Marshall Kirkpatrick posted a list of various ways to use grazr.

 

Is Grazr meant to be used as a service?  Yes!

I don't know if the developer of Grazr meant for the "Try Grazr" interface to be used as a service.  You can see from the URL that the sandbox is under "/api", but it's possible he intended for it to simply be a place to preview it so you can choose whether or not to embed it in your own page or blog sidebar.  I hope he'll comment and say it's ok to use it this way, because it's a great tool, but also a valuable service! 

Update: 2006.04.02 

Mike, the developer of Grazr, responded and said yes, this fits with his approach in developing the tool, which "involves allowing people to discover new and interesting uses for Grazr".  Thanks, Mike; your attitude will continue to encourage a lot of innovation.  And yes, please do feel free to use the button on the Grazr site!

The thing is, plugging an address into a form is easy, and that's all it takes to use Grazr to skin an OPML file or feed.  This is much easier than embedding it in a blog sidebar or webpage, and enables people who don't have that option to benefit from Grazr. 

In addition to making it easy to share OPML files, this is a great approach for people who want to experiment with creating OPML files.  When I first heard about Grazr, I went through the work to embed it into a web page, then point it at different OPML files I was learning to write.  I'd have saved a lot of time & effort by just using Grazr as a service.

 

This also works with other outline browsers

As I mentioned above, you can also do the equivalent of what I described with other outline browsers that can be used as a service.  Bitty Browser and Optimal, are two other very useful outline browsers that can do this.   I'll leave the details as an exercise for the reader.