Forget me not, Web2.0 edition

2009/05/23

I stumbled upon this pretty nice little application or service – depends how you see it. It is called reQall (obviously would have been recall, but recall.com as every good domain is taken.

What it does is that allows you to set a reminder in the future to do something – at given time and date: buy X, call Y, do Z. Nothing to earth-shattering about that.

What is neat is the way how you do it. Actually, many ways:

1) old fashioned: use web site, enter reminder. Just type text and reQall will extract both activity (buy / call etc) as well as date and place it in appropriate category. And when time comes you will be notified: either via email, or via SMS or even by some of the IM services. Currently supported are Yahoo, Google Talk, Jabber and AIM.

2) modern: use iPhone app to type in reminder. Same goodies as wit web, only – unlike Web – you have the phone with you available quickly at the moment when you actually need to remember something.

3) modern AND cool: use the same iPhone app, and speak up to 30 second message. It will be converted to text and then analyzed same way as typed text. I am not sure whether it is automated translation or some poor fellas in third world country and listening and typing it in. The understanding is VERY good. It even handles non-native speakers of English with strong accents (like myself) with surprising success rate. I had occasionally some question marks indicating that Person’s name or local place was not understood. For this occasion, you can always listen to your own audio 😉

You can also subscribe to daily jots that sums up your upcoming events.

Best of all: it is a free service. There is a pro version for $2.99 a month which adds some nice features. I am seriously considering to go for Pro just to make sure they can survive – as long as I find that I use  it more than 1-2 times a week, I am in.

Give it a try, it may be worth one small chai latte a month.


Almost perfect backup backup solution

2009/03/24

The double backup word in the title is not an oversight. If I would be talking about “almost perfect backup solution”, it would be Time Machine – which has proven, despite it’s minor annoyances (see this) to be very unobtrusive and functional. As long as you have Mac and Leopard, of course.

What I am talking about here is second level – an offsite backup, that you may need in case you house burns down, gets flooded or your computer with time machine disk gets stolen. I do not live in tornado valley, earthquake zone and crime rate around Westboro is fairly low even compared to low Canadian levels, but anyway.

The product in question is Backblaze and I am happy user since December last year. It is cloud based service, running on (I assume) Amazon S3 and unlike Time Machine it works for all you stuck in Windows world as well. Not available yet for all you brave explorers of multiple universes of Linux, but I guess you would not give up rsync anyway :-).
All you need to do is setup a very low profile client that runs in the background and uploads all that was changed. The initial backup can take few weeks, depending on the size of the hard disk.

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It backups almost everything, except system areas and few excluded file types – like DMG and VMDK (virtual machine volumes). You can define your own exclusions but you cannot  un-exclude the default exclusions.

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Backblaze has quite attractive pricing scheme: you pay $5 a month per computer and can backup as much as the pipes between your house and cloud allow you to push up. The price of one venti chai latte is in my books very much worth the good feeling.

When the disaster strikes and you need your files, you do not have to go the slow route and download multi-gigabytes of data. For reasonable fee, Backblaze will send you your data on DVD’s or even on USB disk. I hope I will never need that :-). For small recovery you can always access files using Web interface.

Because I am curious creature and like to understand how thing work, I was watching its progress for few weeks. Thanks to my curiosity I had several communications with backblaze technical support. I am happy to report that:
a) it exists ! (this is always the case with cloud companies )
b) it is very fast – I got back response in few hours, one day max
c) it is very competent and friendly. The person I communicated with knew the product at the deepest technical detail level.

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Last but not least: privacy and security. Many people are concerned about having their data anywhere except on the server in locked office. I trust strong encryption. In addition to using SSL for transfer, Backblaze gives you an option for aditional encryption on client side – before the data leaves your computer it is encrypted with the key only you know. This way you cannot download the data through Web unless you enter the key and not even Backblaze can read your data.

So why almost perfect ? There are few minor issues. I would certainly like to have more control (and better UI) for both monitoring and management of the files to be backed up. Either GUI client, or simple way to put a file inside directory that would work as .gitignore. Actualy, for a developer, it would make sense not to backup anything specified in .gitignore or .svnignore or .cvsignore files, because if something is not worth putting to source control, it is not worth backup up either.

Other are duplicate files: I have on my notebook subset of pictures, podcasts and music from home iMac. Those files are backup up and tranferred twice. With volume, this becomes an annoyance. Backblaze could based on SHA1 recognize the duplicate files within same account and offer option skip those already uploaded – same way how Git stores each blob only once.

Last issue (which is completely out of Backblaze’s control) is your bandwidth. Since I started, I am maxing out my 95 GB transfer limit with Rogers in third consecutive month. Here in Canada, 95GB is max you can get unless you  pay for business connection[1] (which is several times the price of “Extreme plus”). You have some control over the backup upload speed – you can “throttle” the speed and you can also manage schedule (to a limited extend). This may or may not impact you – depending on your bandwidth allocation and size of the data to back up.

All summed – definitely recommended.

Disclaimer: I am not anyhow affiliated to Backblaze product or company. Only reason for this blog is my personal, very positive experience with their product and user support, which I believe deserves to be shared.


Evernote Firefox plugin version 3.0.0.45382 – do NOT update

2009/03/22

Since few months I have slowly switched all my online notebooks to Evernote. In case you are not familiar with it, it is a great service. You can clip pieces of Web pages, type in notes, attach documents and multimedia files (pictures, sounds) and store them online to be always available through nicely done Ajaxian Web interface. The notes can be tagged, organized into notebooks and full text searched. One of the killer features is that for uploaded pictures, Evernote will do OCR and include the photographed tex into full text search

For each platform there is desktop application that seamlessly synchronizes the on-line notes with local database and also allows create notes using thick client interface with all desktop goodies. If you are iPhone users, make sure you get the free app that allows both access the notes as well as capture notes – textual, pictures or voice notes with the GPS information.

The basic service is free and limits you not by storage taken on the servers, but by transfer 40 MB a month, which is a lot unless you do picture notes. The very reasonably priced pro-service increases the monthly transfer quota to 500 MB and gives few more goodies – like PDF and Doc attachments to the notes. I am fairly frequent user and never used more than one half of that amount. To make clipping from the browser easier, Evernote offers Firefox plugin as well as Safari plugin.

The Firefox plugin is equipped with the self-update capabilities. And this is why I am posting this: if you have not updated yet, stick to version 3.0.0.128, do NOT upgrade to latest but far from greatest 3.0.0.45382. The latest version of Evernote (3.0.0.45382 as of today) is definitely a step back. Unlike the .128 which clips the selected text nicely into the Web, the .45382 always opens the desktop application and creates note there. This is only annoying and there is no obvious way how to prevent starting desktop client.

The real problem is that the captured note contains HTML attachment named ‘Firefox clipping.html’ and does not show the clipped text in the Evernote desktop client. To see what you clipped you need to open the clipping in the browser. To add insult to the injury, the quality of clipping is dramatically worse than in .128. The layout is all over the place, and result looks much worse. It is hard to tell whether this is caused by clipping or by different way how to display result.

If you got to the point of bad surprise after updating, here is how to bring back the version .128:

– uninstall extension

– restart Firefox

– download the previous version of the extension (the .xpi file) from here https://addons.mozilla.org/en-US/firefox/downloads/file/47839/evernote_web_clipper-3.0.0.128-fx+tb.xpi and save it on local disk

– in Firefox, open the downloaded file and confirm installation

– restart Firefox

I hope that somebody at Evernote will recognize that the version .45382 was a bad idea and bring back the clip-to-web capabilities (or at least make it configurable), avoid creation of useless HTML attachments and fix the clipping engine. Until that happens, I will stick with .128.


Fix for ‘Sender address is invalid’ error on iPhone 3G

2008/11/24

I started to have this error about week ago, out of the blue. I was not aware of making any changes, but suddenly could not reply to an email, send new email or even forward existing email in the iPhone default Mail application. I am using GMail account and because other clients on different platforms worked OK, I suspected either Rogers or Apple. I was trying several possible fixes (and used Safari and Gmail web access – which is not much fun).

Here is what did NOT resolve the problem:

  • deleting and recreating the account
  • upgrading to firmware 2.2
  • resetting and restoring the phone

Finally, the fix was to switch off all Gmail SMTP servers (for no particular reason there were two) and switch on the Rogers SMTP. To do that, go to Settings, Mail Contacts Calendar, click on account, select SMTP server.

I do not remember entering any of these servers, so they must have been created automagically when creating the GMail account in the Mail app. The Rogers account that works is all greyed out, the username and password is set to optional and the part of URL showing is smtp.rogerswirelessdata.c…

Because I have disabled BOTH Gmail server, the Default settings now shows under SMTP ‘No Server’ – but it works 🙂


How to save local copy of YouTube video

2008/11/20

If you want to watch YouTube video on the plane (and Google TechChannel has some amazing collection of videos), here is how to save it to disk, without any tools or third party program, using just your Mac and Safari out of the box.

Go to YouTube page and select video you are interested in in Safari. While playing, press Option-Command-A which opens Activity window. Locate the video stream – it will be the largest item in the list. Double click it, which causes Safari to download it.

After finish, go to download folder, locate the file (usually named get_video) and rename it to SOMETHING.flv. Open with any FLV enabled player – VLC works like charm.

At the end usual disclaimer: you should always make sure you do not violate copyright law or law of the country you reside in. I am not recommending or endorsing any behaviour that would cause violation of copyright law, merely describing interesting technical feature of a popular browser ;-).


Sane version of Twitter

2008/11/18

Since few weeks we have started internally use an interesting microblogging tool named Yammer. It works very similarly to Twitter, which means that you are posting very short posts, focusing on the stuff you are doing or working on. Unlike with Twitter, Yammer is company oriented and your posts will be visible ONLY to the recipients that share your company’s email address.

Yammer is free service with interesting business model: everybody can join your company’s network (if that person has proper email address), but to gain administrative rights, you have to pay dollar a month per user. I actually like this approach because it gives hope that the service will be around and available next year 🙂

Yammer offers browser version (very nicely done, btw), desktop client for both Mac and Windows and (finally) very usable iPhone application. This means that you can follow and communicate with your colleagues even while sitting in the bus or train. You can also post by email and receive posts via email, if you choose so – either as individual emails or as daily summary.

Latest update added option to create groups for really focused communication and managing the channel noise.

So far the uptake and experience within the company was very positive. What I really like is that it allows good alternative and communication middle road between instant messaging (which is too interactive and thus too distracting) and emails (which is too little interactive). It helps create better information flow and keep in touch with people that are out on client’s location – which is very important for a professional services organizations like us. It is also extremly important for distributed teams, and because my crystal ball foretells strong likelihood of geographical expansion in very near future, it may become even more useful.

Too bad this service (or Twitter for that matter) did not exist back in 2003 – I could have used it a lot while working in distributed development team spanning 6 timezones.

Recommended.


About time to break the silence

2008/11/16

Several people asked what is going on with me: no blog posts for almost a month, litlle presence on Gtalk / MSN. It is simpler to answer this way that write same email over and over.

Unfortunately the reason for being quiet is not that I am taking time off and enjoying myself somewhere in Caribbean on a secluded island without internet connection. Those who know me well also know that I would never go somewhere without access to Web for longer period of time than week – and even that would cause serious withdrawal issues. I am in Ottawa or Montreal or somewhere in between – physically or virtually.

Also – I am OK and am doing great as well. Main reason why the blog was quite neglected for last 6 weeks is actually rather lame: work.

We have landed pretty large project with quite ambitious deadline. It is very exciting opportunity in eCommerce space, based on latest and greatest ATG Commerce 2007.1. This project was great opportunity to explore new features and update my ATG skills. If you know the framework, enough said. If you do not know ATG, it is in eCommerce space something like Ferrari or Lamborghini in cars – very powerful with many unique features, rather exclusive and consequently quite expensive. Enterprise Java in its very serious incarnation :-). I have spent lot of time on this project and have gained a lot of interesting insight not only in areas related to coding, but also in deployment, release management, clustering and so on. It absorbed me so completely that I stopped blogging, limited Web surfing, put my Ruby/Cocoa experiments on hold. I am way behind in my podcast listening (all in total, accumulated over 15 episodes only in TWIT network podcasts itself).

So what has changed that I am back ? Did the project end ?

Nope, quite the oposite, we are hitting QA phase which will be followed by Phase 2 enhancements and busiest time is still ahead of us, as we will be live and selling for this Christmas season. And also few more projects are on the horizon.

I simply realized that with the strong upward trend of our business (we had record month in October, November looks also very strong) and very exciting things in our immediate corporate future, I cannot simply put life outside of work and my other “pet projects” on pause and hope I woud get back to it later. Because there will always be much bigger demand on time and deadlines and challenges and delaying can very well be cancelling them.

Rather than postponing the “rest of it”, I am actively searching for better ways how to intertwine these two worlds. I will keep you posted about the progress 🙂