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Friday, November 28, 2008

So much for the linux media center

After a fair amount of fiddling with different options last year I finally settled for a TwonkyMedia server running on Ubuntu on an old (and I do mean old) PC as a basic media server solution. The addition of Grip set to auto-rip inserted CDs made adding media fairly easy as well. This setup worked ok most of the time, though it had a tendency to fall apart at the seems at the precise moment I actually wanted to show guests how cool it was to have all my music served up to my '360 for easy use, and these hiccups seemed to become more and more frequent, to the point where we just started using CDs again instead.

Having recently taken the plunge and switched my home laptop entirely to the latest Ubuntu version (8.10) and tried the Xubuntu and Kubuntu flavours as well, I thought the much zippier Xubuntu would make a great choice for a reinstalled media server. The actual Xubuntu install off the Live CD went perfectly of course (if a bit slowly), but from there things pretty much went pear shaped. Xubuntu doesn't include samba sharing or a remote desktop server by default, the only two requirements I actually have for managing the server (and I don't have a decent connection at home to get these components). Twonky itself also refused to run for no apparently good reason, no matter how many times I uninstalled, reinstalled and tweaked it.

Seeing that XBMC (previously Xbox Media Center) was now available as a Live install (and as an install for Linux, Windows and Mac), I thought I'd give that a try instead. The Live CD ran, though very slowly, but once installed I ran into more problems.

I did start trying to track down solutions to some of these issues, but just can't be bothered to keep at it any more. This is why Linux still isn't ready for the average user. XBMC did really impress me though, and I decided that since Microsoft is no longer even selling games for the original Xbox (except as emulated downloads on the '360) I may as well mod my old Xbox and enjoy the swishy goodness of XBMC as it was intended to be used.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Yes, the US elections matter

A couple of weeks ago, I was surprised by a comment my sister made, she said she was sick of constantly hearing about the US elections, and couldn't understand why everyone was so obsessed with it. As pointed out in one of the recent US presidential debates, international perception of America and Americans took a serious dive over the last 8 years. South Africa is no exception, and the typical opinion of South Africans about Americans is hardly positive. I believe that as a result many South Africans (my sister included) have become largely apathetic to what happens in The States. We are so tired of having American culture shoved down our throats and seeing the American government seemingly shoving around 'lesser' countries in the foreign dealings that we seem to be averse to hearing anything more about them.

The problem is, as much as we hate it, what happens in America really does have an effect on us down on Africa's southern tip. With US consumption as high as it is (despite their relatively small population considering the country's total land mass) there isn't a country in the world that doesn't depend on exports paid for in US dollars. Being such a massive consumer of every resource imaginable, the US also has the means to muscle through deals that affect smaller countries' buying and selling power in the world markets.

Most importantly in my opinion though, the US is seen as a world policy leader by many of the major developing countries. World leaders and citizens are finally waking up to the fact that climate change is a reality, that it is almost certainly caused by human activities and similarly that human activity can be changed to counteract it.

The policy choices made by the next American leadership will not only shape how that country reacts to the threat of climate change, but will influence the behaviour of developing giants India and China. Both of these countries are immensely populous and are only now going through a stage of development America and Europe had the privilege of experiencing while their populations were small enough to not massively impact the rest of the world. Asking these nations to hamper their development while America behaves responsibly to the environment will be difficult, doing so while the US continues to ignore the global consequences of it's people's wasteful lifestyles will be impossible.

I have no doubt that this is the most important election Americans have voted in for at least three decades. The economic and political instability that will forever be George W. Bush's legacy will take radical new policies to repair, and the seriously worrying state of our planet will require leadership willing to make very uncomfortable choices focused on the medium and long term instead of short term re-election goals.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Digsby gets even better

A couple of months ago, I stumbled across Digsby while looking for an app to roll together IM and twitter usage. This awesome app quickly won me over. Besides the expected basic IM support (all major protocols except Skype), it offers:

  • A clean, customisable interface. It doesn't go quite as minimal as what I achieved in Miranda, but the tabbed interface and wide selection of skins make for a huge improvement on many other IM clients. The fact that the skins are all script based makes it fairly easy to get your hands dirty and customise the app even more if you are that way inclined.
  • Contact merging. Joining contacts across multiple networks is as easy as dragging them onto one another and deciding on a name for the merged contact. There are some small quirks with different statuses across networks, but nothing serious.
  • GMAIL, Yahoo, Hotmail, POP, IMAP and  AIM mail support. Each added account has a simple window which shows new mails, with inline options to delete, archive or mark them read to name a few. This great functionality is great for those of us that don't want to keep an email client open and only want to open it when absolutely necessary-but still like to keep on top of things.
  • Integration with Facebook, MySpace, Twitter and now even LinkedIn. A summary window is available for each of these services, with current status, updates from friends and notifications of important events. It's easy to update your status on each of them straight from Digsby too.

The one major gripe I would have had with Digsby in the past was it's rather large memory footprint. As of this week's release however, Digsby now runs fairly lean and mean. All that's missing now is a portable version :)

Friday, September 12, 2008

SA Medical 'care' has hit rock bottom

(My apologies for the long down time, between the hectic deadline at work recently and all Natz' medical woes, it was unavoidable)

As a chronic disorder sufferer I am something of a hospital and surgery veteran. I have 'fond' memories of these institutions reaching back to the days when our government hospitals were some of the best in the world and medical aid administrators wouldn't dream of paying for private hospital care. Of course it has been well over a decade since government medical care deteriorated to the point where those patients with medical aid would rather opt for private care.

As a fallback, for many years the private hospitals in South Africa offered those fortunate enough to afford their services excellent care. It seems though that the golden age of private medical care is over as well.

Over the last four months my wife, sister and law and nephew have each unfortunately had need of hospital care. Between them they spent time in hospitals belonging to both of the major private groups in SA (Life and Netcare) and had absolutely terrible experiences.

The horror starts with the admission process. In this age of online convenience and practically unlimited storage, the mind boggles at supposedly modern companies that require their clients to provide the same volumes of information (which are already maintained by their medical aid) every single time they visit. What is even worse is that in Life's case the patient must undergo preadmission. This means that a patient is expected to take additional time to get to the hospital before actually coming in for the procedure, just to fill out these forms to provide information the hospital already has from previous visits. One would think this preadmission process would mean on the day of the procedure itself, the patient would be able to walk in and be led to a hospital bed. Au countraire, it is still necessary to wait in reception for admin staff to approve the paperwork. On one occasion we waited in reception for 45 minutes until Natalie was finally allowed to continue to the ward.

Arriving at the ward, memories of friendly nurses eager to help are spoiled by the reality of nursing staff who insist on finishing whatever important private conversation they are engaged in before acknowledging the patient's existence. The nursing care itself leaves much to be desired as well. The nurses 'caring' for Natalie ignored her pleas for something to soothe a headache for well over five hours, Vanessa's were oblivious to her drip having missed the vein and causing swelling and those looking after baby Dayle missed the fact that he had become dehydrated while under their care.

The surgical success rate instills no more confidence. A routine wisdom teeth extraction resulted in months of pain and discomfort as well as three follow-up procedures for Natalie. To top it all off, she ended up coming out of the last procedure (which had nothing to do with her mouth) with a chipped tooth.

To add insult to injury, as a combined result of the miniscule dental limits imposed by medical aids and the need for those follow up procedures, we also sit with sizeable medical bills.

A quick visit to consumer feedback site shows that our experiences are by no means an exception to the rule, and the templated response to complaints on the site is yet another example of the shortcut approach which seems to be becoming the industry norm. To be fair, the administrative staff at the hospital I complained at has been helpful, but this is after the fact and doesn't help solve any of the problems.

I honestly don't know whether the sudden and massive decline in treatment of patients has to do with massive greed and cost cutting in the industry, lack of training or just staff apathy, but whatever it is needs to be sorted out. We are rapidly approaching a point where our expensive private hospitals are becoming little more than extremely expensive hotels with really big first aid cabinets.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Fully focused and in sync

No this has nothing to do with lame boy bands, but with two great web tools I started using this week.


I previously raved about GooSync, the great synchronization tool dedicated to keeping mobile devices in sync with Google Calendar. Well my complementary year of pro access just expired and I wasn't in a position to pay for a renewal, so I went hunting for an alternative.

What I found was one of the most powerful free services I have ever seen. The developers of ScheduleWorld seem intent on allowing users to synchronize absolutely everything with absolutely everything else. The service allows calendar and contact data to be kept up to date across Outlook, Thunderbird/Sunbird, Evolution, Google Calendar, PDAs, mobile phones, and any service, application or device that supports SyncML. Additionally, ScheduleWorld offers fully featured web apps for editing (and importing and exporting) calendar and contact data, as well as LDAP access to your contacts, RSS or Atom feeds of your ToDo lists and public Fee/Busy links to be shared with contacts.

That's an incredible feature list, and if my use of it over the last couple of days is anything to go by it works well and is completely stable too. With the aid of the excellent SynchWorld Thunderbird addon (which includes a handy contact merge tool), I have my contacts, five Google calendars and a Remember The Milk to do list flawlessly in sync between the 'Bird and my N95. An unexpected benefit of this is that the annoying ThunderBird pauses apparently caused by Lightning's remote calendar updates are a thing of the past, since the SW plugin works just fine with local calendars.

The one criticism I have of the service is the complex and confusing setup process. The huge array of settings and their completely illogical layout, along with bizarre interface quirks are not for the faint of heart. Even the most tech-savvy of users are likely to be left scratching their head when some obscure setting somewhere or apparently (but not actually) correct setting is botching things up. The developers obviously have impressive technical know-how, but they desperately need a user interface specialist on their team.

In conclusion if you have the time and patience to set it up, ScheduleWorld will offer you a means to easily and effectively keep everything imaginable in synch.



Even with the best of intentions, it's tough not to succumb to the lure of the web now and again when some really unappealing task is sitting at the top of your list. Sometimes a little Big Brother control is just what the doctor ordered. FireFox extension LeechBlock offers just that. It allows you to specify up to six 'block sets' of websites and how access to each is controlled by the extension.

Each set of sites can either be manually specified, or read from a file on a server URL. Sets can be blocked according to time of day, day of the week, total amount of allowed time or a combination of the three. The ability to lock access to settings and even to disallow disabling or uninstalling of the plugin makes it possible to really anticipate your tendency to work against your own best intentions.

While complete corporate web lockdown really can suck, if you need a little help in imposing self control when it comes to your browsing habits, give LeechBlock a try.

Friday, August 01, 2008

Where have all the heroes gone?

There is no shortage of people and organizations prepared to pronounce the evils of movies and video games. I'm usually the voice of reason arguing why these naysayers are being paranoid and sensationalist. For once though, I'm the one concerned about the negative effect about entertainment media. I'm worried that they are doing far worse than desensitising us against violence, but rather against our own ambitions. While watching the excellent Lions for Lambs a couple of weeks ago it struck me how skilled hollywood has become at manipulating our feelings, easily leading us from a sense of terrible loss, to proud patriotism, to self-satisfying anger at injustices of all kinds. While this is great for story telling, I worry that it takes away the drive for us to fulfil the need for such emotional extremes in the real world.

What if by making easily available a quick fix of bold heroics in Saving Private Ryan, or activist achievement in Who Killed the Electric Car we are actually suppressing the need that would normally lead us to go out and really make a difference in our community by acting. Similar concerns were recently raised about Guitar Hero killing off real guitar heroes (though it was shown the game was actually increasing interest in making music). This may seem like a far fetched idea, until one considers how complacent we have become about everything. Sure, people will moan around the water cooler about the latest shocking revelation of refugee mistreatment on BBC's website, or government dawdling when it comes to climate change, but then they go home and turn on the TV, and all is forgotten in a blur of manufactured experiences.

The world's population now numbers in the billions, an order of magnitude greater than just a hundred years ago, yet do we have a proportionally greater number of heroes? There are certainly those that go out and make a difference, both in their communities and on the world stage, but they are far outnumbered by the zombified masses that would rather feed their need to 'make a difference' by watching someone do it on TV.

It also seems as if the dwindling number of heroes in the world are fighting an impossible army of villains who take advantage of this mass euthanasia of people's drive to make a difference. Corporate leaders and corrupt government officials are free to destroy the world as the people that should be rising up to challenge them rather watch an episode of Battlestar Galactica or lead a heroic raid in World of Warcraft.

I don't think it's any coincidence that as I have spent less time playing video games and watching TV I have become more and more aware and saddened by the state of our world, and also more driven to do something about it. And doing something feels good, it feels a lot better than watching someone else do something in HD widescreen. Perhaps if more people tried replacing some of their screen time with real activity time we could begin to solve some of the terrible problems our world is facing.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Twitter: Why bother?

When I posted on microblogging a while ago, I said I would leave the discussion over the value of microblogging for later. Well later is here :) I have now been using Twitter (and some of it's cousins indirectly through various aggregation services) for a couple of weeks and I thought I'd comment on what value I've found in the idea.

The first impression of Twitter is that it's a colossal waste of time, and just like Facebook or any other social utility, it can be. It's one more thing to monitor, or that will plague you with frequent notifications. It's also one more thing that can be a target for constant tweaking and fiddling, which is more time not spent on things that 'matter'. In my short experience with Twitter, it's also broken a lot, so one might wonder what the point of using any online application with frequent downtime might be.

It does however have it's positive aspects as well, and here are a couple of them:

  • Free SMSes from your desktop: With Natz and I both on Twitter, and her cell details set up on the service, I can easily SMS her from any of the third party desktop Twitter applications by sending her a direct message.
  • Great tool for simple news on your site: If you have a personal or commercial site which you want to update with really short, simple news updates, a Twitter account and the Twitter gadget code may be just what you need.
  • Great integrated tools: Twitter's API has been heavily utilized by third parties to provide great services. One good example of this is Remember The Milk which allows you to add items to your todo list, modify them and receive reminders and lists via Twitter. Combined with Twitter's SMS connectivity this makes for a very powerful productivity tool.
  • It's less distracting than web surfing: This may seem like a strange one, but if you crave just a tiny bit of an online fix before getting down to real work in the mornings, scanning Twitter updates on a desktop tool like Twhirl or Digsby is far safer than actually opening up your browser (which might just lead to much more wasteful browsing).
  • Gain new insight on people: It may not be productive, but it's just plain interesting to see what people get up to every day.

It all comes down to whether any of these outweigh the potential trap of yet another social network. In my case I think they do :)

[Update: 19/08/2008]

Oh well, so much for the most compelling reason to use Twitter. As of last week, Twitter no longer sends outgoing SMSs on their UK number, which was also used for pretty much everyone outside of the USA and Canada. They are looking into carrier agreements to try and make a plan, but I somehow doubt SA will be high on their list of priorities.

Friday, July 18, 2008


While high oil prices undoubtedly have advantages for the environment and society in general, forcing many commuters to finally realize that public transport is the way to go, those of us that don't have that option are suffering somewhat. When you have no choice but to pile into your car every day and hit the highway to get to work, there's not a hell of a lot yo can do to escape the high price of petrol.. or is there?

Hypermiling is a growing movement worldwide which utilizes non-aggressive driving to improve vehicle fuel efficiency. By slowing down, anticipating traffic movement and not madly racing from robot to robot and stop to stop (where you'll have to waste energy braking anyway) the mileage achievable on a tank of fuel can be stretched quite significantly.
Interestingly enough while some extreme hypermiling tricks such as rolling through stops and drafting could potentially increase your accident risks, the simpler methods such of those mentioned above are actually likely to improve road safety. You'll be safer and saving money.
I started my own minor hyperkiloing (stupid imperial systems..) experiment a few weeks ago. I limited my speed to 100km/h on the highway and strictly sticking to the speed limit in other areas. I don't accelerate rapidly away from stops and pay attention to upcoming stops, coasting to slow down instead of rapidly breaking.
Yesterday was my first refuelling since I started made these changes and I was pleasantly surprised. While the R525 to fill my 50l tank was hardly cheap, I got some satisfaction out of the fact that instead of getting my usual ~650km to the tank, I had squeezed an extra ~90km out of it and reached ~740km! My daily commute is 18km one way, so with the current petrol price of R10.50/l here are a couple of ways to look at this improvement:

  • That's an extra ~14% out of my tank, that's just over R70 worth of fuel.
  • It's an extra 2.5 full days worth of extra work commuting per month.
  • Annually this will save ~1.6 tanks of fuel, which is ~81l of petrol or ~R850 (probably much more as oil goes up).
  • My mileage has improved from ~13km/l to ~15km/l or..
  • In the popular alternate notation from ~7.6l/100km to ~6.7l/100km.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

KNRA Cleanup and Snare hunt

Natz and I visited the Klipriviersberg Nature Reserve for the first time in May when they had one of their guided bird walks (they have one every month, check out their calendar). It's a surprisingly large reserve (the largest in the Joburg Metro) and besides being beautiful has an impressive array of fauna and flora and even an archaeological dig site! Not bad at all considering how close it is.

Well a reserve of that size obviously takes some maintenance, and part of that is occasional cleanups (stupid litterers) and snare removal excursions by volunteers. There will be one this Saturday July 5th, starting at the Silent Pool entrance (map here). Any extra hands would be welcome, and it's a great reason to get out in the open and away from overpopulated (and overrated) shopping malls. To quote Sue of the reserve association:

Suggest old clothes, comfy shoes, own water and lots of energy

For more info, there are contact details on the reserve's site.

Three bags full[Update: 10/07/2008]

We went, we saw, we collected. Andrew joined Natz and I as we split from the main group to collect on the opposite bank. We quickly filled the three bags we had on us. We found a dodgy, stereotypical old boot too :)

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Vodacom injecting a banner into mobile sites

Bannerized Twitter

This morning while I was in a doctor's waiting room, I thought I'd pass the time by checking out twitter and some other mobile sites. To my surprise I found Vodacom has started injecting code for a banner into sites I visit with my standard phone browser.

Link expired!

What is worse, sites that require logging in (such as Twitter and every single Google mobile site I use) are broken by this meddling, this is the error page displayed when trying to log onto any of these pages.

This is (in my opinion) a really unethical practice on Vodacom's part. Mobile screen real estate is limited enough as it is, without having extra text and images wasting more space. It would be understandable (not the broken logins, of course) if I didn't pay for data, but I pay per meg (and 3g data isn't cheap to start with) so this is really unacceptable.

Fortunately the industrious guys on the MyBroadband forums have already picked up on this and found a solution, just remove the proxy on the phone's internet connection. The following step-by-step instructions posted by joelus do the job on his Nokia E61, my Nokia N95, and presumably all Symbian Nokia models:

Cleared proxy Non-bannerized Twitter

1) Go to 'Tools' on the menu
2) Go to 'Settings'
3) Go to 'Connection'
4) Go to 'Access points'
5) Open the vodacom access point - On mine it was called Internet.GPRS
6) Go to 'Options' - 'Advanced Settings'
7) Remove the Proxy serv. address
8) Viola, no more banner!

Alternatively, using Opera Mini bypasses the problem altogether.

[Update 26/06/2008]

It turns out this is part of a Vodacom effort to make browsing easier for users by reformatting sites designed for desktop browsers, similar to Opera Mini. Apparently Vodafone already does this elsewhere. Unfortunately they didn't have the foresight to warn developers of this (see the thread linked above, at least two mobile app developers complain about the effect on their products).

There are some other nasty side effects as well. Nigel Choi and Luca Passani describe the effect this proxy level reformatting has on sites that automatically redirect to mobile versions, essentially bypassing the mobile redirect and rather serving up a mangled version of the desktop design. The discussion regarding the 'service' is getting rather heated, with the general feeling being that this should be an opt-in system, or at least have an opt-out option.

[Update 27/06/2008]

This is spreading to a couple of different threads (here, here and here) on MyBroadband, and it seems certain applications are affected as well. Simondingle reported on Twitter that Fring is broken thanks to this ballsup and Zandberg on MyAdsl reported at least 14 sites and apps that are broken as well. Last but not least it seems that all downloads over 1Mb in size fail as well.

The bog slow SA press has started picking up on this at last, ITWeb mentioned the customer complaints and concerns in their article on it yesterday.

This really is shocking, Vodacom is essentially using the public as subjects for an alpha test of their technology. Apparently even their support staff are now suggesting the droves of irate customers that complain to disable the proxy setting on their phone if they can (some models don't allow manual modification of connection profiles).

[Update 30/06/2008]

And the issue continues to draw attention! FMTech are carrying an article about customers' unhappiness regarding this fiasco (this blog even got quoted, though not directly credited). It seems from the article and a letter posted on the nicharalambous blog that the Internet Society of South Africa (ISOC-ZA) are getting in on it as well, and have condemned Vodacom for the move. Interestingly they note that Vodacom may well be 'blocking' sites and applications that may be offering services which 'threaten it's business' and are calling for Vodacom to disclose all sites which they block.

On MyBroadband's ongoing thread about the topic (13 pages as of writing!), Vodacom's online representative admits that they "did not expect so many 'problematic' sites". He admitted "In speaking with the other Vodafone countries who implemented this first, they pretty much had the same experience". Surely it would have made sense to include these other company's 'white lists' from the get go? I'm pretty sure many of the major problem sites (such as Twitter and Facebook) would already have been identified by them?


[Update 10/07/20080

This whole issue seems to be slowly cooling down, with Vodacom having made a concerted effort to deal with users' complaints. This is case-by-case though and I do have to wonder how many less-savvy user have just been assuming they are doing something wrong and just not reported site problems. In the same thread mentioned above on MyBroadand, Vodacom's representative claims that "first results that came back from the lower-end handset user surveys gave a 88% 'improved' browsing experience". I'd love to know how frequently their respondents make use of anything other than the VLive site though. I did particularly enjoy his comment hon how they (Vodacom) have been hit by this problem:

I think we can now officially declare Vodacom to be properly beaten up, sh@t out, kicked in the groin, spat at, made out to be idiots and general achieved status slightly lower than snail poo on how we deployed this thing......

Made out? I'd prefer to think they were idiots about how they handled it and stubborn ones at that. At least there seems to be steady progress.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008


Due to a recent combination of a lack of focus on a Friday afternoon, the temptation to optimise Natz' always-in-contact behaviour and some gremlins in Twitter's systems I recently tried out a couple of microblogging services and tools. I thought I'd write a quick summary of each of them with pros and cons as I see them. This list is by no means comprehensive, there are loads of similar services and tools out there, but these are the couple I tried. I'll leave the debate about the value (or lack thereof) of microblogging for another time ;)


Twitter is a microblogging service. Arguably the most popular service of it's kind, and probably the one to bring microblogging into the mainstream, Twitter is the epitome of simple. Type in a message of 140 characters or less, hit enter, and all your followers see the message. Replies and direct messages to specific users are possible too.

+ Simple as it gets.

+ Supported by loads of external apps and extended by third party service to add things like pictures and location mapping.

+ Integrates well with existing habits (SMS and IM)

- Stability over the time I've been using it is hardly impressive.


Plurk is a microblogging service. Similarly to Twitter, Plurk allows users to submit short status messages, but maps these on a graphic timeline and adds the concept of a conversation, as well as a karma score for activity on the service and a verb system.

+ Groups related messages in conversations.

+ Having a 'score' encourages users to be active and social.

+ Integrates with IM.

- Support from related services is limited, and application support is nonexistent.

- Replies in conversations are initially hidden, making a quick overview impossible and overcomplicating the service.

- Verbs really seem like a pointless addition and further complicates things.



HelloTXT is a social networking update service. The service aims to remove the pain of updating all your social networks, including microblogging services. The dashboard allows quick submission of updates to various services for non-members. Members can customize the services displayed on their dashboard and store the login details for each of their services.

+ Non-members can easily test out the service before signing up.

+ Support for a wide range of networks.

+ Mobile version of the site.

+ Support for sending images.

+ Individual services can be enabled and disabled for each update.

+ Email submission of updates.

+ SMS submission of updates.

- No IM integration.



A social network updating service. This service is very similar to HelloTXT, and has very similar network support. It is currently in limited beta, with beta codes available on request.

+ Support for a wide range of networks.

+ Mobile version of the site.

+ iPhone optimised version of the site.

+ IM integration.

+ Custom triggers to easily direct updates to specific networks.

+ Email submission of updates.

+ Multiple posting profiles to control which networks updates are sent to.

- No image support.


Twibble is a mobile twitter client. Twibble displays tweets from friends as well as submitting tweets. It has an interesting focus on location information, making it a good match for a phone like the N95 with an integrated GPS.

+ Easy to post tweets and view friends' tweets.

+ Easy integration of location data, including realtime GPS data.

+ Stable and quick.


Also a mobile twitter client. In the same vein as Twibble, TinyTwitter's distinguishing feature is that it downloads friends' profile pictures.

- Easy to post tweets and view friends' tweets.Friend profile pictures.

- Unstable and buggy.


Shozu is an excellent all round content submission tool. In addition to all it's other cool features (some of which I've covered here), it supports both Twitter and TwitPic. You can submit updates to Twitter and view friends' recent tweets. IF only it had a complete, integrated feed of your and your friends' tweets it would be a great option.

+ Easy to post tweets.

+ Twitpic support

- Clumsy separate views of your and friends' updates.



To round up, if it's not obvious from the above my choices would be Twitter, Twibble, HelloTXT or Ping.FM (they each have their advantages) and of course Shozu. Plurk really just overcomplicates things and TinyTwitter is inexcusably buggy.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

We (apparently) don't need no biodiversity

Dot Earth has an extremely sad story about two species that are now officially considered extinct. These are not some obscure insect or microbe, but rather the Caribbean Monk Seal and Yangtze River Dolphin. Specifically in the case of the dolphin, a letter from government biologist Robert L. Pitman points out that this Chinese water mammal was wiped out not due to being hunted for food or some other need, but simply because of human lifestyle. The following quote is eye-opening and saddening:

Sorry if I got a little emotional here, but the disappearance of an entire family of mammals is an inestimable loss for China and for the world. I think this is a big deal and possibly a turning point for the history of our planet. We are bulldozing the Garden of Eden, and the first large animal has fallen.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Listen to this!

If you're bored of your looping MP3 playlist (those are all legal, right?), here's some interesting listening material for you.

Lay off the stuff

I've posted about The Story of Stuff before, and also about Colin Bevin aka NoImpactMan. Well recently Rebecca Clark, a Methodist preacher from the states gave a great sermon preaching the same lose-the-stuff concept and emphasised the advantages. She also mentioned Colin's project and challenged her congregation to try abstaining from some of their stuff for a couple of days. Whether you're a Christian or not, this is a great sermon to listen to, and if you are a Christian you'll find it interesting to hear the Bible does indeed back up the 'less stuff' mantra. The sermon page can be found here, or stream the MP3 below.

Gamasutra Podcast is back!

After the GDC Radio Gamasutra Podcast had to be put on hold for a while for personal reasons, Tom Kim is back in the saddle at last. For this edition he's interviewing Gamecity director Ian Simons, and I have to say it sounds like an awesome event and I wish I could attend it! Ian also has some interesting views about the industry and how we continually compare ourselves to cinema. Check it out on GDCRadio or stream it below.

Monday, June 02, 2008

Climate doubters insert

This is a video I picked up on NoImpactMan. It's an insert from a Canadian TV station on the misinformation campaign funded by big energy companies. It  unfortunately doesn't reveal much, but it's nice to see the media is catching on to this FUD from the energy corps instead of propagating it.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Some great ideas

Do your bit

I'm currently working on a community service website that I hope will be up in a month or so. Working on the site has had my mind buzzing about other useful community site ideas, one was a site to link people with charities or organizations that would help them get involved. It turns out it's such a good idea, it's already been done :)

ForGood is a local site that does just that. They offer suggestions and resources for concerned locals that may be looking for a good cause that could use their skills. These causes are not only related to environmental issues, but to community security, health and education issues as well. Pay them a visit, sign up, and find somewhere to apply your skills and make a difference!

Upgrading already

I'm a self confessed geek, I love gadgets and I'm always wishing for some upgrade or other. Of course now that I don't use my PC for gaming, opting for console gaming instead, I really don't need to upgrade nearly as often (or at all if I'm to be really honest with myself). Many of us could quite easily forgo those unnecessary PC and laptop upgrades if we just applied some common sense and put the effort in to get our existing hardware back to it's peak. LoveThe1YoureWith is a website that preaches exactly that method, and offers some advice on how you can get your PC up to scratch again without replacing the whole damned thing (and adding to the scary amounts of e-waste rapidly being added to our landfills). They carry a (pretty corny) video to get the idea across:

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

No Impact Man asks for reader support before talking to bigwigs

The awesomely inspirational Colin Beavin (AKA No Impact Man) has a meeting scheduled on Friday with Jerrold Nadler, Congressional representative of New York's Eight District to chat about climate changes and request his support on the issue by introducing a new resolution to the House of Representatives, support a green job creation policy project and pass a letter on his behalf to the house speaker and assistant whip.
He is asking for readers to support this effort by emailing letters to him by Thursday. While this may seem to only affect the Americans, policy makers in developing countries such as our own do look to the developed nations for policy examples, so any decisions there have the potential of influencing change here as well. Head on over to Colin's blog and follow the instructions to send in a mail. Note the following suggestion for international contributions:

Meanwhile, those of you who aren't American citizens, please put "From a world citizen to whom American policy makes a huge difference" in the subject, so that I can deliver them but keep them separate.
And before you shrug this off thinking you don't have anything to offer, remember we really CAN make a difference!

Thursday, May 22, 2008

CoolPlayer and a PortableApps update

Music on the go

I am a big fan of the current generation Winamp, I love it's excellent library tools (especially the query language) and portable support. Of course that's all good and well at home when I want to easily copy a fresh collection of music onto my portable drive, but when I'm working all I want is a simple player with half decent playlist support that doesn't hog resources. Winamp has been ok in that role, but it's a bit resource heavy and it's lack of support for the media keys on my keyboard is a touch irritating.

Well as of yesterday there's a new player on my Seagate Freeagent called CoolPlayer. It's an open source audio application that the awesome guys at have repackaged in portable format (and renamed CoolPlayer+ Portable). It's a simple player that has a playlist editor, equalizer, and skin support. The included PortableApps skin has a minibar mode which is nice, but more importantly it natively supports my media keys, which means I don't need any kind of visual interface at all. I set it to remember it's playlist info and play on startup, and it's a simple case of launching from the media key and just getting on with work.

Resource wise, while playing (with a pretty large play list) CoolPlayer and it's portable wrapper combined don't even register as far as CPU usage, and their memory footprint is consistently at 115k. I've only been using it for about a day, but in that time I haven't seen a single sign of instability, which is another plus. This is definitely one to add to your portable toolkit.


PortableApps updates to 1.1

Keeping with the portable stuff, the PortableApps launcher and backup apps have been given an 'official' update to 1.1. The new features in the released have been tested through a few beta versions so it should be pretty stable. Now being referred to as the PortableApps 'platform', three installation flavours are available:

  • The "Platform" installer (1Mb) has just the launcher and backup app
  • The "Suite Lite" installer (35Mb) adds portable versions of Firefox, Thunderbird, Sunbird, ClamWin, Pidgin, Sumatra PDF, KeePass, Sudoku, Mines, Coolplayer and AbiWord.
  • Finally the "Suite" installer (113Mb) includes all of the above except AbiWord is replaced by the full version of OpenOffice.

The full suite in particular is an impressive showcase of the technology. Fully installed it takes up a measly 350Mb and provides fully functional web, office, media and security apps and throws in a couple of games for good measure!

The full new feature list includes multilingual support, wallpaper swapping, a movable menu, support for higher resolutions, a tray right click menu, personal picture, eject button, and other goodies. The global shortcut is an awesome addition!

Monday, May 19, 2008

Who says we can't make a difference?

The push on palm oil consuming companies like the one I mentioned last week targeting Unilever is seeing some serious success. Last week Unilever called for a ban on further deforestation, and this week the Indonesian Palm Oil Association bowed to that pressure and agreed to stop levelling forests and instead make use of already available land (why the hell they didn't already do that is beyond me).

Friday, May 16, 2008

Told you so

Last week in my Effective Internet Lockdown post on using RSS feeds, I suggested Google Reader as an excellent aggregator. It seems I'm not alone in my choice of reader, as a recent poll of's readers revealed Google Reader as one of their six favourite readers. The final poll to narrow the selection down to an overall favourite already has Reader winning by a mile. Go and check it out for a decent list of other readers as well, some web based and some installable.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Dove, good for your skin-or is it?

We've all seen the Dove ads on TV, typical soap and cosmetics fare with slow motion views of beautiful woman using Dove on their flawless skin and proclaiming the difference it has made and how much healthier their skin looks and feels.

Well it turns out that's a really short lived effect. Global warming has this pesky habit of drying out your skin, no matter how much dove you apply to it. As it turns out that lovely moisturizing bar is contributing heavily to deforestation (to make space for palm oil plantations) which is in turn releasing huge amounts of carbon into the atmosphere and removing the means to process it.

GreenPeace, Friends of the Earth, and other organizations are running a campaign to get Unilever, manufacturers of Dove and many other popular consumer brands that utilize palm oil from unsustainable sources, to call for a stop to such deforestation and instead buy from responsible suppliers.

Watch their video on the problem below, and then visit their action page to see how you can help!

Friday, May 09, 2008

Effective Internet Lockdown: RSS feeds

One of the key points in my Effective Internet Lockdown: Good Habits post was to use RSS to control your browsing habits. RSS (Really Simple Syndication) is effectively a collection of technologies that allows you to get content from your favourite websites without having to actually visit the site (and get distracted by all the links and ads). A decent RSS feed aggregator (an application or service that brings all your RSS feeds into one place) is an excellent tool for managing your browsing.

When choosing a solution for my needs, my guiding needs were:

  1. Feeds must be easy to manage.
  2. Rich content in feeds must be supported.
  3. The workflow must not interfere with my own work.
  4. As a bonus, access from everywhere would be nice.

I settled on a combination of Google Reader and the excellent AideRSS to meet these needs.

Feeds must be easy to manage

Built in feed support in Firefox means that adding feeds to Google Reader is a simple case of clicking on the feed icon in Firefox's address bar and choosing Google Reader. Management in reader is really intuitive with drag and drop functionality, easy deletion of feeds and nice extras like tagging, starring and sharing.

AideRSS comes in for feeds that I suspect may be a bit post heavy, with loads of unnecessary posts coming through daily (think SlashDot or Digg). It allows you to enter a feed (or choose one already set up by others ) and get a limited feed for only the most popular posts.

Rich content support

Being browser based, Google reader supports anything the host browser does. This includes images, audio and flash based video (such as YouTube).

Non-invasive workflow

Since there is no app installed with automatic notifications, this is a given. Google reader is there when I need it in my browser, gone when I don't need it. I actually tend to use the compact reader gadget for iGoogle more than the main reader interface, so it really fits in well by just being a part of my homepage. The gadget presents a scrollable list of all new feed item headings, and clicking on one opens up a 'speech bubble' with the item contents (also scrollable).

Access from anywhere

Free Image Hosting at www.ImageShack.usOnce again Google manages to come up trumps on the mobile side of things too, meeting the bonus requirement. The mobile version of Google reader is as clean and simple as all their other mobile apps, presenting the user with a list of the ten newest items and additional links to see more items, mark items read, view tagged items and star individual items. It's a great way to pass the time while waiting for a dentist appointment.

Tools are not enough

RSS can be just as addictive as normal browsing, and explicitly adding feeds to your aggregator can inadvertently 'commit' you to reading every post. This is a trap a surprising number of people fall into, and with the ease of subscribing to feeds the list of items begging for your attention can grow quickly. It's important to get comfortable with the idea of just marking everything unread and start with a clean slate. Just as you really don't have to read every single article in the newspaper or listen to every single half-hourly news broadcast on the radio, there's nothing wrong with damming the flood of digital information and starting over!

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Gone fishing

Well i wasn't exactly off fishing, but we did head down to the coast for a good week long break-hence the lack me posts. We mostly shut out the outside world too-no tv, radio or internet (other than email and facebook-nat is now safely a complete geek!). I'll dump more photos on flickr next week, we disconnected the adsl at home for now and i'm not paying 3g prices to upload all those pics ;)
Treasure hunt
One great new activity we did try out this week was geocaching. It's like a treasure hunt with a gps, and when you track down the 'cache' you log your find and possibly swap an item of your own for one in the cache. I suppose it qualifies as an augmented reality game on a huge scale (essentially a planetary scale, since there are caches hidden all over the world). We found our first 3 caches this holiday and were led to some great spots in the process. Check out for more info.

Posted by ShoZu

Monday, April 21, 2008

Lightning quick update

The awesome Lightning plugin for Mozilla's Thunderbird mail client recently received a really nifty update. The full list of changes is impressive, but the three that I'm most chuffed about are:

An event list or 'unifinder' that shows a table view of upcoming events based on a date and word filter. It's sort of like a persistent inline search that can be sorted by a number of fields.

Category colors are now shown next to an event box, which really neatens up the whole look of the summary view, and makes it easier to immediately focus on the stuff relevant to your current context (work, home, etc). I mostly use this lightning view and my events come from various different Google calendars, so I'm really chuffed with what is actually a relatively small change.

Several performance improvements, which seem to be quite obvious in the main calendar view. It definitely seems like my events are being pulled from Google a lot faster.


I don't use the task functionality, but considering some of the improvements I really wish someone would develop Google Notebook integration for lightning notes (or that Google would launch a standalone Notes product), similar to the Google Calendar provider because I'd love to use some of this stuff:

A full-on task mode with filtering similar to the calendar mode, and previews similar to the mail mode.

Easy conversion of mails, events and tasks into each other by just dropping items onto the mode toolbar buttons.


Why this plugin isn't yet a standard part of Thunderbird is beyond me..


Thursday, April 17, 2008

Revamped and rearing to go

I've installed a new template (as you've most likely noticed if you aren't reading this in a feed reader). This has taken quite some time, so I won't have anything 'useful' to post before next week-when I hope to post on the use of RSS feeds to control your browsing. I do have two short notes though:

I have been diligently practicing my Tai Chi since February and I'm really enjoying it, though I'd really like to start taking lessons again. As luck would have it, an actual Shaolin monk has taken up residence in Benoni and is offering martial arts lessons-including Tai Chi. How cool is that.

The other thing is less positive. I have been doing a lot of reflection and realized that I want to become an active environmentalist-a passion of mine when I was younger that I lost touch with. Do you think I can find an organization anywhere nearby that I can work with? Not a damn! So yeah, suggestions would be welcome.


Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Scary story

The Story of Stuff is a concise, well written mini-documentary that exposes the true nature of the shopaholic consumer lifestyle many of use lead. It shows in an easy to grasp, straight-to-the point way why this culture of consumption is unsustainable, and how the droves of stuff we buy on weekend shopping trips -and most likely dump within six months- is destroying not only the environment we ultimately depend on to survive, but also the people that help to create it. The video provides some really eye-opening statistics and is bound to have you thinking twice about your next purchase (and hopefully every purchase thereafter). The full video can be downloaded from the site, and some teasers are available on YouTube, including this one:

Friday, April 04, 2008

Effective Internet Lockdown: Browser applications

When I discussed Internet Lockdown habits, one of the major practices I mentioned was to kill online applications when not in use. Email and instant messaging are obvious culprits in this regard, but a web browser has even larger time wasting potential. This can be a problem when your everyday workflow involves the use of web based applications or HTML based documentation. My solution is to run these applications in a browser that strips down all potential for stumbling from your tool or reference site to other, potentially time wasting, sites.


Click for full size image

Prism is a Mozilla labs webrunner application that strips the browser down to it's bare essentials. After installing prism, setting up a new web application simply involves specifying the URL and a name for the application and deciding where you would like the shortcut to be placed. Clicking on the new shortcut opens a completely minimal browser with no address bar or tool bar, containing your web app as if it were running normally in Firefox.

Click for full size image

I use this approach for everything from our SourceForge installation to Google Notebook and documentation for Lua and Ant. I've found it has made an enormous psychological difference allowing me to safely use web applications without negatively affecting my focus.

GooSync adds task 'sync'

The Google calendar synchronization tool GooSync has had a new feature added to it's premium service: Task synchronization.  The naming is somewhat misleading, in the same way as the "contact synchronization" feature, since neither of these actually synchronize any data with any Google service. What they do is store the information on their own servers, acting as an easy to use backup service.

GooSyncAlso like the contact tool, the lack of real synchronization is compensated for with the ability to manage tasks on the GooSync website, allowing a user to add new tasks or edit or delete existing ones. This is a nice convenience, however it doesn't quite make up for the need to still enter tasks manually into Google calendar. No additional setup is needed on a device already configured for GooSync use, which makes utilizing the new service as simple as carrying out a normal Sync.

Task synchronization/backup is hardly a feature that would convince someone already on the fence about purchasing a premium subscription, but it is a nice bonus addition for those that are already paying for the full service.


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