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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.


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