I am a skeptic when it comes to technology. Despite working in the tech field — or maybe because I am — I always expect technology to fail or at least disappoint. But sometimes that instinct is actually wrong! Here are two recent examples when I felt “wow, that was pretty good” about some fairly mundane pieces of computerized equipment.
I should have known to expect trouble when I tried out DataViz ActiveSync on my new G900… the first thing it said was that “in order to avoid problems, we will deactivate the synchronization towards PC Suite”. Ah well. I assumed you could get it back…
But that was not so easy. I quickly realized that ActiveSync was pointless for me, since the setup I have for my data is not “everything on the corporate server, period”, which is the usecase ActiveSync is built for. But when I told ActiveSync to stop synchronizing certain categories of data, that lock it had put up still applied it turned out. With no way I could find to turn it off. So suddenly my phone just did not want to synchronize with my PC.
I just got myself a new phone, having tired of my old P990i getting a bit unreliable. It was only about two years old, but I guess I was pretty rough on it. My new phone a the SonyEricsson G900, and I am actually very happy about it.
Edit: inserted a couple of updates after a couple of more days of use.
I am a skeptic in many ways, especially considering talk on how things are “different” now compared to some “then” (that often happen to be my own generation’s frame of reference). In particular, I react quite skeptically to news that the “kids of today” are completely different from their parents in how they use communications devices and their expectations of work and how the world works. For some reason, I just think “ah well, in the end people tend to be pretty much alike”. Also, I would like to believe that I also use modern communications devices just like the kids do (but looking closely, obviously I do not).
I have recently discovered stackoverflow.com and I must say it is something I very much recommend. The idea is simple, and the details rich and interesting.
The colder season is coming fast here in Uppsala, and it is time to bring out gloves and warmer jackets. Even if we have had some nice sunny pretty warm days (up to 15 degrees Celsius!), we are getting into October soon, a month where there is usually some day of freak snow fall.
Another sign that it is getting colder is the reaction of consumer electronics.
This maintenance is going to take a while:
Annoying, and a bit funny.
Everybody seems to think the launch of the Google Chrome browser is very important and cool. Probably because Google itself is considered important and cool. I am a bit more skeptical about the whole Google thing, they seem to building themselves into a pretty dangerous monopoly company… but there are some interesting architectural and parallel computing aspects to Chrome — and Internet Explorer 8, it turns out.
This might appear as a stretched analogy, but it struck as me as obvious when I tried playing the Lego Racers boardgame with my 3-year old this weekend. The game is ranked pretty low on Boardgamegeek, and deservedly so. The promise and premise is great: use Lego cars to race around a track and pick up new pieces to modify the powers of your car… sounds like great fun. Right? But it is not, and that’s where my analogy with the age of software comes in.
I just listened to another Floss Weekly show, Number 36 where they interviewed Jan Lehnard of the CouchDB project. CouchDB is very interesting, in that it is a database designed for replication, redundancy, and thus massive parallelism. It was initially written by Damien Katz on his own, but now it is an Apache Foundation project sponsored by IBM. The most interesting thing is that Damien decided in 2006 to rewrite the C++ prototype he had in Erlang, and did so in just a few months if I understood my Erlang friends right. So here we have a really good parallel program written in a true parallel language.
I work quite a lot with Wikipedia systems (mostly mediawiki-based) to structure data and make it accessible to other people at my job. Since I happen to love tables as a way to provide overviews and summaries of complex information, I keep creating wiki tables. Editing tables in a wiki is pretty painful, especially when it is time to do things like add columns. Excel is a much superior tool for this purpose, and I have been looking for a tool to let me create tables in Excel and then get a wiki rendering of them for insertion into a wiki. Finally, I have found it! Here, you can find a pretty good Excel VBA macro that lets you select a range of cells and then get a wiki table code corresponding to it on your clipboard, ready to paste into the wiki site. Thanks a million times to the creators of that tool, it is really useful. Note that in Office 2007, you must save documents in .xlsm, macro-enabled, format to be able to save the macro with your file.
One thing that has always annoyed me is that you seemed to have to have a tow bar (dragkrok in Swedish) on your car to be able to fit a bike mount. And tow bars are not that common, there are several good reasons not to get one, like added cost, not usually available on used cars, and that they compromise crash safety to some extent. But to put my bike on a car it seemed that I had to get one. I was thinking about how to build a bike mount that could actually work on a regular station wagon by making use of the cargo rails, in some clever way.
But it seems I do not have to invent and build and market this thing myself: it is already available! I found a whole set of varieties from a company called Thule when I browsed a biking catalogue recently. Seems to fit quite a few varieties of cars including even the odd sedan! Good to know that they exist if I ever need to carry bikes regularly.
Last year, we got ourselves one of the best child-related products we have ever seen: a Chariot Carriers Corsaire XL bike carriers. This might sound like marketing hype from their marketing department, but it really is a brilliantly designed product (mostly). At core, it is a carrier with two wheels, seating two children, and which can be quickly turned from a bike carrier into a regular city stroller. For us, this really means freedom! In particular, the freedom to quickly pop down town using the bike, and then not have to carry our son but rather have a decent stroller to push him around in (and to load up with shopped stuff).
This is a short travel tip for the Uppsala-Stockholm area. Yesterday, I used the UL train to get to the Furuvik zoo/amusement park close to Gävle. Compared to the visit we did last year using a car, taking the train was generally a superior experience. And cheap. For 200 SEK, you get two adults + three children, with all rides included. Much cheaper than going there by car and then buying the rides. Not having to spend an hour driving with children is also a clear advantage in my mind, rather you can relax on the train and have fun with the kids. Being tired at the end of the day, I was very happy not to have to drive home.
I finally switched to Microsoft Office 2007 in June this year. I was very hesitant, but I have been very pleasantly surprised by how well the new GUI works and how easy it is to get things done – once I stop trying to do things in the old way of Word.
But every once in a while, you get totally stumped trying to do something that was dead easy in “old” Word versions. Once such instance was a colleague of mine totally failing to figure out how to number the headings in the document. Which is pretty standard in technical writing. It took me a while, but I did figure it out. As I could not find any good link on the web explaining how to do this, here is my take that I hope some other desperate soul can search for and find.
I just saw in UNT that an old colleague of mine, Olle Gällmo, (his personal website is at olle.gallmo.se) professor in Computer Science, has been appointed “Riksspelman”. Which is a very high accolade for a folk musician. I know that Olle has been working on his bagpiping (if that is the word to use) for a long time, taking it seriously indeed. But still, that is really very impressive work! Congratulations, Olle! I guess I have to pick up the record he just got published as well.
At long last, the sync software for my SonyEricsson P990i mobile phone has started to work as it should. I have had an issue with synching of contacts since back in the days of my P900, where for some reason it would delete most of the contacts from my phone when synchronizing. I never managed to quite work out why, but I suspect it had something to do with a combination of contacts being in an unusual place in Outlook, and there being some 1600 of them when I was also synchronizing Outlook with a Salesforce install we used to have.
There were workarounds like forced sync in place that kept the phone very useful. But now, with version 1.5.8 of the PCSuite for Smartphones, it has started to work as it should have all along. Nice. Too bad this is coming pretty late in the life of this phone, got it almost two years ago and after the summer it is time to see what they have got to replace it. The P1i is too similar to the P990i to be worthwhile, waiting for the next-gen UIQ phone after that.
And yes, I do like the UIQ phones. They have their quirks, sure, but they also have lots of nice features. And for me, they tend to just work as you expect. Since I have learnt to use them, I guess. But in any case, next phone is likely also a SonyEricsson P-something.
Sometimes you find this rare gem of a piece of software that just works and that just solves a problem you have been having an itch with for a long time. SnagIT, from TechSmith, is just such a program. It makes doing screen captures and editing them incredibly easy and convenient. It also has some nice extras, like capturing a webpage in its entirety by scrolling the window in Internet Explorer or Firefox. Simple, but a great time saver for me. I feel like I literally saved hours of work time in just a few weeks of using this program. 30 bucks for a piece of software that does screen capture? In my job, a no-brainer. Highly recommended!
I often listen to Leo Laporte’s “This Week in Tech” podcast. It is not particularly focused, but thanks to the quality of the participants it always enjoyable and I tend to end up learning something about general IT and general desktop computing that I did not know before. However, there are a few annoying themes that tend to pop up. One of these is the idea that traditional paper journalism and journalism in general is dead, to be replaced by smart news search engines finding “just what I need” based on my preferences. I think that idea is utterly broken. There is immense value to reading a collection of news and articles put together by someone skilled in the craft, and not just a search bot looking for stuff like what I already know and like.
Here is nice example of what such a bleak world would be missing…
Just last week I found the group “Universal Poplab“. A Swedish trio making nice pop music in a style that is quite reminiscent of classic 1980’s Synthpop. Which I happen to like. How I found it? Pure serendipity of the kind that will never happen in a world of agent-based targeted search and information. I was moving the car to the garage, and just tuned in to P3 on the radio. Where they happened to interviewing the group and played some short bits from their hits from recent years (hits that had completely gone me by, as I tend to be quite out of touch with cultural developments since we had a child a few years ago). “This is brilliant” I thought and logged into iTunes and bought a record immediately.
Without that purely random act, I probably would never have found out about them. There is so much good stuff out there hidden in enormous mass of indifferent stuff that the only really good way to get a handle on it is to let someone better informed tell you. Not some search bot. I guess this qualifies for “Rant” status.
This is way off-topic and not very relevant to anyone located even remotely far from Uppsala. But my favorite summer beer is back for another season. Slottskällans Bryggeri here in Uppsala (in which I was a shareholder in an earlier incarnation before the reconstruction a couple of years’ ago) has once again decided to a run of “Vit“, their local idea of a German-style Weissen. It is a perfect summer beer, and a good beer any time of the year. Get it while supplies last, seems to be fairly limited in production.
Slottskällan is a true microbrewery, despite recent increases they are still producing only enough to cover the Uppsala and Stockholm markets, and some special orders from some places more distant. Their customer list is a good hint for good places to find their good beers.
I just found out that my favorite Windows XP PowerToy is built into Windows Vista. To get to a command-prompt located in any folder directly from the Explorer, follow the instructions found at a Microsoft MSDN blog: Tim Sneath : Windows Vista Secret #1: Open Command Prompt Here. Very useful. But why not make it more obvious than “press shift while right-clicking?”.
One common use-case for multicore processing on the desktop and elsewhere is “doing many things at the same time”. You could be running many user-interface programs at once, like the “typical today’s teenager template” of tens of IM clients, web sessions, email conversations, music and video players, downloading movies, etc. Or it is a more business-like background indexing of harddrives, backups being taken, downloading large business files, compiling software, updating source code repositories, etc.
I have been doing both of these modes to some extent, and the main problem with them at least on a PC is that while the processors might be good at multitasking and sharing the CPU load, my IO system is annoyingly non-parallel.
A question that pops up quite often when computer architects and representatives from firms like Intel encounter a crowd today is but just what do you need more computing power for????. Most regular users are fairly happy with the speed at which they process words, surf the web, read email, do IP phone calls, crunch numbers in Excel, and other common tasks. It is hard to perceive the need for more speed in everyday tasks, unlike a decade or two ago when you could definitely ask for improvement. I remember scrolling a page in PageMaker on a Mac SE (8Mhz 68000). You counted the clicks and waited for the screen to jump, redraw, jump, redraw, stabilize… quite a different experience from working with modern computers and far more complex software that still responds instantaneously to almost any work.
A short update to the previous posting on how to compress video for the nano.
It turns out that the “iPod video” profile of Nero Recode is half aimed at showing video from your iPod on external devices. That’s the only good reason for the “high” resolution. I typically got a video size of 15MB per minute with these settings, which quickly fills up even gigabytes of space.
Using the “iPod Video-AVC” profile instead is optimized for viewing on the Nano itself and not on some external device. The resolution is down to 320×200-240 depending on source aspect ratio. And the resulting files are only about 5MB per minute, much more manageable for carrying a large video library on an iPod. I cannot see any difference in the quality of the output…
Update (2007-September-23): The default iPod-AVC setting has some issue with rapid cross-fades between scenes. To get around this, I set the quality settings to “2-pass” and “highest quality” in the detailed settings you can make in the second screen before moving on to actually encode things. This created very nice looking video that had no problems handling even the previously broken fades.
The cost was even more compute time. I think the current settings takes some 5 to 10 hours per material hour to encode (on my Athlon XP 2700+, not exactly a screamer by current standards).
This is not in my self-assigned range of topics, but I like when other people put up their helpful notes of how to accomplish some task that I am researching. Thus, I feel obliged to do the same when I have tested something reasonably new.
The task at hand here is “how to get video into an iPod Nano”.
The register report “IBM embraces – wtf – Sun’s Solaris across x86 server line” is a very appropriate headline for something quite surprising. The day before this happened, we discussed the announced announcement and said “nah, it can’t be about operating systems”. The idea of IBM in-sourcing Solaris for x86 just felt like the kind of thing that was in the same realm as flying pigs, freezing hells, and similar unlikely events.
I just had a nice vacation in the Estonian town of Pärnu. Pärnu is a really nice little town full of summer visitors and still with lots of local character.
Getting there, however, was less pleasant than it could have been, thanks to Tallink where we booked the trip and the hotel nights in Pärnu.
When we booked the trip, they told us that there were convenient buses from Tallinn to Pärnu, and that we did not need to bring a car. They also booked us on a nice brand-new integrated hotel containing a “water land” and spa services, and being located very close to the beach. Sounded perfect.
As it turned out, some of these things fell through:
- The buses to Pärnu left from the central bus station in Tallinn, which is not close to the docks where the ferries arrive, but rather some kilometers away. It would have been nice if this had been clear from the start. Instead, Tallink representatives and information made sound as if the buses left directly from the docks, or at least in some place very close by.
- The staff on the ferry to Tallinn did not know about the direct local buses from the docks to the central bus station (a tip: it is bus number 2, which stops right outside of terminal D. Or walk some more and take tram number 2). They gave us confused and incorrect information as how to get to the bus station. At least they told us where the bus station was…
- At the last minute (one day before departure) it turned out that our main hotel was overbooked and that we would be given a different hotel. After some discussions they also promised us entrance tickets to the water land in our booked hotel. However, it was not clear how this was to work out in practice. Or if our new hotel was any better or worse than the one we were booked on initially. Customer service gave the impression that all would be handled at check-in in their terminal in Stockholm.
- When we checked in in Stockholm, we did get hotel vouchers for the replacement hotel. But for a double room, not the suite that was what they had said initially. And the check-in personell had no idea about the entrance tickets to the water land. “there is no note of that in the computer system”. We got to talk to a supervisor who told us that things should work out, wrote a note to the hotel on a copy of our booking, and had the good sense to give us a name and phone number to call would they not.
- Once we arrive in Pärnu, the hotel that we were staying at did provide an envelope containing the tickets to the water land that we needed. The hotel was also recently renovated and very fresh (it was the St. Petersburg hotel, in a carefully renovated 16th-17th-century building in downtown Pärnu). The location was more convenient for eating out and shopping, if a bit more removed from the beach (20 minutes walk rather than five).
Thus, in the end, things worked out and we got decent value for our money. Even so, it is still annoying how Tallink handled things, especially since the fixes are mostly in precision of communication and should actually be cheaper for them to do right.
So how could Tallink have done better in our case (and quite probably in general):
- Run their own bus shuttle from Tallink to PÃ¤rnu and other interesting destinations. They do that in Sweden, so why not in Estonia? We would have been happy to pay some extra for a bus conveniently arriving at the docks to take us straight to the destination.
- Present correct and complete facts about each destination on the phone and on their homepage. If they refer people to the bus service to PÃ¤rnu, do provide a time-table, a map on how to get to the main bus station, and a map of the end location to help you find your hotel. After all, Tallink have local staff in Tallinn that can easily find out for you.
- Have their customer service staff be precise and clear. In the end, things did work out and we were not cheated of our vacation. But the details like the standard of our replacement hotel, how the water land tickets would work, and similar simple things could have been clearly communicated from the start. That would have saved them lots of phone service time, and us a bunch of unnecessary annoyment and anxiety.
Finally, the main drawback of a trip of this type where you spend a night on the ferry each way is that the ferry trip takes a lot of time from the vacation. This would not be so bad if it was enjoyable time, and they are trying to give off the impression that it is kind of a luxurious experience to travel on their modern ferries to Tallinn. And mostly it is nice. Going on a ship where you can walk around and have lots of space is vastly superior to inhuman modes of transport like long-distance air travel or car trips. For the kids, having a dedicated playroom is great.
But since the length of the trip makes it necessary to eat dinner and breakfast onboard, the food is quite a important component. And here Tallink and most other Baltic ferries I have tried fall down by simply providing fairly taste-less and disappointing fare. The tradition of a grand buffet is great in principle, but something makes it so that each course is cheapened down to its simplest least tasty version. Creating a rather disappointing experience overall. And there is no indication that the a la carte restaurants are any better. So for now, you eat because you have to and not as much because you enjoy it.
Why this is the case, I don’t know. Either they think their customers do not care or cannot tell a good meal from a poor one, or they lack pride in the kitchen, or they are saving money by using the cheapest stuff they can get away with, or something else.