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Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Tools of the trade, on the go of course

There are a couple of things that programmers cling to like rabid dogs when it comes to the way they work (no I'm not going to talk about coffee brands). One of these is their choice of text editor. I don't mean the full blown IDE they work in (though some do choose to just edit random bits of text in those as well), I mean the lightweight application they use to edit the odd script or batch file, as a secondary clipboard and for other such necessities. There are many contenders out there, and for many years my product of choice was TextPad, largely due to it's excellent macro support, command result capturing and pre-bundled integration with Java (which I was using extensively at the time).

SciteAndLuaHowever last year I was slowly won over by a friend's editor of choice, Scite. It's command support trumped TextPad's, and while TextPad stubbornly refused to give in to our attempts to make it properly portable, Scite handles such mangling quite admirably. Admittedly TextPad still wins out on bulk processing of text files due to it's macro support, but that is hardly an everyday occurrence.

Sometime between then and now, PortableApps rolled their own version of Scite, so when I went looking to update my aging version of the editor I was saved the minimal pain of portabalizing it myself. Some nice little features have been added to the editor as well, such as code folding. What's more is that Scite now easily supports Lua scripting within the editor (though a minor tweak to the lua properties file for the portable version is required). Since we use lua extensively in my current project this is a huge bonus. The entire portable 'installation' of Scite, including the required lua executables, is under 2.5MB, so it's suitable for pretty much any portable device in use today.

If your text editor of choice is starting to get a bit bulky, and outliving it's usefulness, give this awesome little editor a try.

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Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Keeping busy when the lights go out

With the power situation in SA worsening, the news is full of enquiries into who's fault it is and how they should be punished. In this trying time I thought I would follow Leo from Zen Habits' example and find something positive in it. For me this upside is that one really has to come up with other ways to keep entertained in the evening than staring at the idiot box-which Natz and I were doing anyway. So without much ado, here's a short list of things to keep you busy when you're load shedded, possibly by candle light:

1. *Censored* someone

This is a family friendly blog, I'm not going to spell it out-but there's a reason there is a spike in the localized birthrate nine months after any major blackout ;)

2. Talk to someone

If #1 is inappropriate, there's always good old fashioned conversation. Not instant messaging or SMSing or small talk on your cellphone-start up a serious conversation on something. Argue it out, pick the topic apart, practice the fine art of conversation. Sit down and really talk to your kids about their day, to your partner about their ambitions, your mom about her worries, anything.

2. Play something

No, not video games (unless you have a charged DS or PSP), I mean the good old fashioned  board games. Remember playing monopoly and scrabble as a kid? They're just as much fun today, and if you really need an incentive you can add alcohol to the rules.

3. Make something

Mechano, Lego, puzzles, or some kind of home craft. Again these were all fun and challenging when we were kids. They are still fun, haul them out, dust them off and get stuck in-you'll be amazed how time flies.

4. Read (or write) something

Remember books, those things with words on them that didn't use pixels? People read for hundreds of years by candlelight-and despite what your granny told you they didn't all end up squint. Pull one of those dusty old volumes off the shelf and start re-training your brain what it's like to imagine what a fantasy world might look like.

Alternatively, how about writing? When last did you write a letter to a loved one? That novel you've always wanted to write? Microsoft would have you believe otherwise but you don't actually need a word processor to do this stuff.

5. Grow something

If you have a garden, great. Go spend some time in it-yes even in the dark. If you don't, bonsai are fascinating and time consuming-and they don't need to be plugged in. Cash strapped? You'll have something in your kitchen that will sprout given some soil, water and fertilizer.

6. Go somewhere

If it's still early enough to be light out, take a walk, get some air. If it's a weekend and the blackout 'spoiled' your afternoon of sport watching, go find a park nearby and make your own damned sports! :)

Any other suggestions that could be added to the list?

On a related note, Zen Habits is running a guest article on combating boredom, go check it out. Also, a new gaming blog has just been started by a buddy of mine called Gaming in the Dark, get over there and pass some of these tips on to him ;)

Tuesday, January 15, 2008


Funny how I have lived in Africa all my life, and yet I had no clue what Leonardo DiCaprio was talking about when he used this supposedly well known phrase in Blood Diamond. Ironically enough, I see it is now gaining some popularity in local online forums. Trust the Americans to give us a new phrase to describe ourselves.

SL Africa

Anyway, Africa is actually the theme of this post. A recent initiative by a social development company based in Cape Town called Uthango was recently brought to my attention by one of my newsfeeds. They aim to use Second Life as one of many modern tools to effect change in Africa. One of the parts of this initiative is a sim in Second Life called SL Africa that will be (duh) African themed and provide real information and a real insight into life in Africa in a new and interesting way. I had an interesting chat to Uthango's Dorette Steenkamp (Alanagh Recreant in SL) about the project yesterday, and she started to show me around but I had to cut the visit short due to other commitments. I have been wondering about how I can get involved in something altruistic, and when I first read about SL Africa last week I thought I had to at least investigate. We'll see if there's some way I can constructively contribute. I was actually saying my goodbyes when Eskom rudely interrupted with a power cut in our area, which brings me to another TIA item..

Power spin

If you search for "load shedding" in Wikipedia, you are redirected to a topic on "Rolling blackout". That is an indication of Eskom's fundamental approach to the current power supply crisis in the country: deceit, and yes I said crisis. When there are parts of Gauteng that are seeing three 'load shedding' sessions of at least two hours in a single day, there are problems (sorry, no links, this is pure hearsay from Radio 702).

The thing is, we get it. Most reasonable South Africans understand there is a problem and that they need to modify their use of electricity.  We understand that it's unavoidable that they will be affected at some stage, and while it's inconvenient we understand that we have to deal with it. Of course it would be a hell of a lot easier to help Eskom if they could help us just a teeny bit.

They have a load shedding schedule on their website, but it is entirely useless as actual blackouts often have nothing to do with the projected timetable. How many South Africans have access to the internet anyway? How many businesses can be reasonably expected to make use of a system like that-even if it was accurate? Eskom needs to do two things here. First and foremost, plan and get an accurate and honest schedule sorted out. Second, make it publicly available in media that are accessible to most people, and here are just a few off the top of my head:

  • Newspapers, provide them with a daily schedule which their readers can reference.
  • Radio, with the same schedule radio stations could provide timeous warnings 15-30 minutes before blackouts are scheduled to occur.
  • Cellphones, recent estimates put our cellphone using population at more than half our overall population! Give users a tollfree number to call or an SMS notification service to subscribe to that will send them advance warning of power cuts in their area.
  • Television, we already have a power supply status indicator on public TV, why not extend that to include notification of areas that can expect powercuts in the next half hour or so.

None of these are complex systems, many are already in use for commercial purposes-so why not for something this essential to keeping homes and businesses prepared to deal with this situation?

Friday, January 11, 2008

Blu:yes Back:no

I'm certainly in no position to buy another console right now, and if I did it would probably be the Wii, but let's imagine for a moment I was deciding whether to drop a couple of grand on a PS3. Two developments this week would have a serious effect on my decision-making.

Bye-Bye backcompat
One thing Sony definitely can't claim over Microsoft on their new gen (no, it's not next gen anymore, the machines are all at least a year old!) console is a larger game library. One would think they would jump on anything that would at least make the game selection on the PS3 seem larger. Backwards compatibility is one such opportunity, yet Sony is apparently giving up on it completely. Sony have announced they they will be dropping the 20GB and 60GB (backwards compatible) PS3 models in favour of the 40GB (non backwards compatible) model in Japan. I very much doubt they will be following different paths in other regions, so I'm sure it's only a matter of time before an equivalent decision is made for the US and Europe. Some argue that backcompat is no big deal, and I'm sure for a lot of people it isn't.. I'm not one of those people. There is nothing game wise that I particularly want to play in the PS3 library, absolutely nothing at all. My main interest in the system is for it's media capabilities and it's ability to play all the great PS2 games I missed out on. I very much doubt I'm the only one for whom this would be a deciding factor.

But at least it does Blu
In the PS3's favour, Warner Brothers this week announced that it will be dropping Toshiba's HD-DVD format and instead focus on Blu-Ray as it's high definition disk of choice. This just ads to the growing list of Blu-Ray only studios and is quite possibly the final nail in HD-DVD's coffin. As far as console sales go, this can only be good for the PS3, though with MS having stated previously that they would support Blu-ray on the '360 if it turns out to have a clear lead, the possibility of a blu-ray addon drive for the Xbox 360 or even a 360 SKU with an integrated Blu-ray drive is not too remote.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Nokia loses it's way again

It looks like someone had to go and ruin the customer service good start which Microsoft and Nimbuzz started. Last month I updated my N95 to the latest firmware to take advantage of the sorely needed memory management improvements, and it really did the trick. Unfortunately it came with some nasty Nokia Maps related surprises.
The first was that the incredibly useful tracking functionality had been removed. This allowed you to plan a route, show it on the map, and then have the GPS track your location. In the absence of a (premium) voice prompt service subscription, this was an effective way to navigate with the GPS. This is now gone, possibly to force owners of the (already expensive) N95 and other GPS model phones to pay for a subscription to the prompt service (at around R800 for the year). Mean, sneaky move on Nokia's part.
The second issue, which has now rendered the GPS all but useless for me, is their new PC Map loader software. The entire Nokia suite has been 'upgraded' to use the new .Net framework, and besides the issues this introduces as ranted about by, this makes it impossible for me to use the application. Why? Well because it seems Microsoft can't manage to keep their updates website functional, and for the last week at least (that's how long I've been trying) which hosts the installer has been on the fritz!
Honestly, if I were running Microsoft, I'd fire everyone but the Xbox (software) and Windows Live Writer teams and start from scratch! No wonder Bill is bugging out soon..

Friday, January 04, 2008

Veggie patch

I may not have access to windows live writer, but at least with shozu i can make single image posts easily. Here is a shot me the vegetable patch that is has so far given we a good couple me hours me enjoyment-and some really good butter lettuce. We've got beans, onions, carrots, cauliflower, snap peas, cucumbers, mealies, pumpkin and watermelon in there as well but we planted quite late in the reason so only time will tell if we get anything decent from them.

Posted by ShoZu

Double w00t!

It looks like a good year for customer service already. Four days into the year and already I've had two problems sorted out.

Writely so

I moaned in a previous post about the the Windows Live installer making it impossible for me to install the new version of Windows Live Writer. Well as luck would have it I am writing this post in the new version of Writer. Kudos to Joe at Microsoft for sorting me out with an installer that works. Keep up the good work, nice to see the borg still has some humanity to it ;)


Next up on the pat-on-the-back list is Diana from Nimbuzz. After trying the mobile client I was curious about the PC one. Not only was an installer for Nimbuzz rapidly made available that doesn't fall over thanks to the proxy here after my complaint, but is already directly linked to on the Nimbuzz site.

Now that I actually have Nimbuzz for the PC, I can do a quick review of both versions. Nimbuzz got my attention as (another) multiprotocol mobile IM client. In this case it supports Google Talk, MSN/Live, AIM, Yahoo, Skype and Jabber. It is supposed to work with MySpace and Facebook as well-but that functionality appears to still be under development. Nimbuzz is one of those that requires you to register with them (red light for the privacy-paranoid), so there is functionality available over their network as well such as a simple PM like messaging system and the ability to 'Buzz' other Nimbuzz users' phones to tell them them to come online.

The approach of both a mobile and a PC client is interesting. The PC client looks inspired by Skype (which I'm not fond of to start with), and it still needs a heck of a lot of work. The overall look and feel is clunky, with simple functionality such as being able to resize chat windows missing. The core chat system does of course work, and as always it's nice to have all contacts from one place in the same list, but they definitely need to take some lessons out of the Trillian, Pidgin and Miranda books. The contact window shown on the right has most of the bells and whistles expected these days, but the actual chat window is a very different affair with a very inefficient design space wise and zero customizations available. Avatars do not even seem to work at this stage (though there is an area reserved for them and a default image).

The mobile client is a much more impressive application, and probably has the best interface approach to multiple simultaneous chats I have seen so far in mobile, with a pseudo-tabbed system that can easily scroll between chats by pressing left or right. The small, simple and clear fonts in both the contact list and chat window make for excellent use of the mobile screen, and being able to collapse chat groups makes a lot of sense. In addition to the protocols supported by the PC version, the mobile client optionally imports your phone's contact book to be able to initiate calls to them. This is very much like Fring's approach but the designers of Nimbuzz made some very sensible design decisions that made their app much more practical to use. The one thing keeping me from using it as a full on contacts list replacement is the lack of a search box. If the contact list had an inline text box that pruned the list as text was entered (like the N95's native contact list) Nimbuzz would take over one of my shortcut keys. Finally the app is stable. This should go without saying, but as mobile IM clients have been getting more complex of late, it seems to be more and more difficulty to find one that doesn't occasionally crash for no particular reason. Nimbuzz has yet to crash on me and that's a big plus as far as I'm concerned.

Overall the Nimbuzz mobile is a fantastic multiprotocol client, certainly the best I have tried to date. The PC client on the other hand is way behind the competition, but could certainly catch up if the same clean approach was taken as that used in it's mobile sibling.

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Wednesday, January 02, 2008

New Year Resolution and stuff

Happy New Year all, and a belated Merry Christmas. I'm not usually big on resolutions, but I thought I'd try for one or two this year. The relevant one for this post is that I am resolving to write at least one blog post a week-even if it ends up being a quick three liner from my phone at 11:59 on a Sunday night :) That may actually be a very practical approach since my home network is once again sorted out. We get an excellent wireless signal throughout the house, and I got the wiring through the roof done over the holidays as well so we now have proper network points in both studies and the TV room.

Windows Live notWriter
As much as I wanted to do a decent post with a photo or two from the past couple of weeks (like one of our veggie patch which is coming along really well) I'm afraid Microsoft had other plans. As mentioned in a previous post, I enjoy using Windows Live Writer to write my posts, rather than Blogger's web based editor. When I fired it up the other day to write a post, I was greeted with a notification that it would soon expire and I should update. I promptly headed over to the website and downloaded (what I thought was) the installer.
It turns out this was nothing more than a fancy installshield mutation hooked into Windows Update with a list of Windows Live products that could be installed, including Writer. Upon choosing the required product(s), the installer then begins trying to actually download them-and that's where things fell apart. After patiently waiting for a pretty green progress bar to move across the screen, and then move across the screen a second time with the informational text informing me the install is taking a bit longer than expected, I was finally presented with a completely nondescript failure message and a "Try Again Later" button that just placed the installer on my desktop so I could waste my time again whenever I felt up to it. When will Microsoft stop over-complicating things by trying to make them simpler? Just give me the damned install file and let me install the damned program. Nice start to 2008 MS, trying to win over more fans I see? For now, I'll make do with email posting-and without embedded images, and for that reason I'll hold out on the more personal posts.

Google is noteworthy
On the other end of the sensibility and usability scale is (surprise, surprise) Google. They've taken another of my favorite tools, Google Notebook and made it better. Besides the labelling they snuck in under the radar at some stage, they have made a proper mobile version available-and as with the mobile version of Google Calendar, it's damned smart. Visiting on your mobile browser, you'll see all your notebooks in trademark minimalist Google mobile style. These can be browsed to and notes can be added as expected. The really nifty and deceptively simple addition though is the Mobile Notes notebook. On the main notebook mobile page is a text entry box that allows you to simply go to the site, add an entry for later organization, and leave. The bookmark to this site has now replaced my Nokia notebook shortcut on my N95's standby screen and I'm happier for it :)

You can Tube on the go
Another wicked mobile app I ran into recently was the brilliant emTube YouTube client for S60 devices. Combined with our wireless setup at home this makes for a great way to view funny old 80s TV ads and other important cultural material like Robin Williams explaining the origin of golf. I've yet to combine this with the TV out on the N95, but I suppose that's worth considering too. We've found that the N95's screen is actually better for watching youtube-type stuff than the PC as the videos tend to be about native resolution for that device.

Stream powered PSP
With the latest PSP firmware Sony once again reinforced it's usefulness as a media device. This update saw the addition of internet radio to the handheld's massive list of functionality. The addition came in the form of a flash based client that appears to have been designed by drunken monkeys with a fetish for old electronics. Despite the utterly stupid user interface design, the client does the job and soon after applying the update we were enjoying StreamingSoundtracks anywhere in the house or in the garden. Awesome!


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