Category Archives: Technology

Technology meets the smoke detector

We needed a new smoke detector. I was tired of having to unplug the current one every time we fried fish 😉 so I thought I’d shop around some and see what features are there. I also wanted to see how these “connected” detectors worked so that you could get an alert if not home. Kidde has an interesting device that listens for the sound of standard detectors and then can communicate with you remotely. I then looked at the Nest Protect (2nd generation, and now $30 cheaper than before they had to disable the “Nest Wave”), and it had some nice features and was the same price as the Kidde device. One appealing feature was that in addition to remote notification, it had the “I’m going to alarm, is this really a problem?” mode (they call it the burned popcorn feature). Also sounded like “frying fish” mode!

So, I ordered a Nest Protect (wired) and set it up. Then cooked Cajun Mackerel, yummy! Sure enough, while cooking the 2nd filet (the stove is less than 10 feet from the detector), the Nest Protect says in a nice voice, “I’m going to alarm, and it will be loud. Do you want to silence?” I did, and it quieted down. It keeps a log of events, it tests itself, it interfaces with and alerts your phone, it can be a nightlight, and it’s very friendly. If there is more than one on your network, it tells you the location of the problem in clear language, with all broadcasting (so say the docs). OK, sure, it generates data and sends it to the mothership to make the magic happen. But if I want the conveniences of technology that’s a price I pay.

I like it so much I ordered a second one to replace the other detector in the house. I’ll follow up with more info as I get the next one online.

Reflections on the Apple Watch

Much ink (metaphorical and physical) has been spilled with regards to Apple’s first wearable device. I won’t attempt to write a comprehensive article, as those are best found in the various trade journals where folks are focused on such endeavors. My contribution here is just my “n=1” sample of myself.

I ordered my Watch (the 42mm Sport model with a black band) on April 10th, so where around mid-morning. Since orders went live at 3am EDT, I knew I’d be well back in the queue, and sure enough, my ship date said “June.” That was OK, though, as I was inspecting my eyelids at 3am and didn’t want to try to get in the first tranche of shipments. I was thrilled, then, to get the notice on May 29th that my Watch was on the move! I got one of the most interesting UPS tracking displays I’d ever seen, as I watched it move from China to the US on its way to Chapel Hill.

  
It arrived around mid-day on Monday June 1st, and I was eager to give it a try. Alas I had meetings for most of the afternoon. I did carve out a few minutes to unbox the Watch and begin the setup process, so I could play when I got off my WebEx’s. The box was heavy and odd-shaped for a watch (long) but I remembered reading about this and the way they came with the band flat. I pulled out, skipped the setup documentation, and fumbled for the power button. As there are only two choices, it was a short search. Voila! An Apple, the symbol of a booting iDevice! I went thru the setup screens, told it to load all the apps matching those that I had on my iPhone, and it worked for a while while I did the same. It occurred to me that the battery charge might be low, but it wasn’t complaining and I didn’t see at first how to find the charge level.

When my calls were done, it was playtime! So I started pushing, twisting and poking. I’d read that the interface was not intuitive but it seemed logical to me. I tried apps, set watch faces, and started to make it mine. Ok, I did cheat. I couldn’t figure out how to find the battery charge. Google. Oh, doh! Glances, and a swipe thru the options. Ok, I couldn’t figure out how to change the world clock time on a clock face. Google. Oh, doh! Just select the widget and then spin the crown wheel to select. Overall, things really did work the way I expected. 

It’s now been about 30 hours since I got the Watch. What do I think? Very cool. Feels good on my arm. I’ve not worn a watch in years, but it’s light and unobtrusive. Battery life? I’ve been playing with it a lot today, and it’s been over 14 hours since I took it off the charger. Battery indicator says 52%, so that’s not an issue. What can you do with it? It does tell time very effectively! It lights up the face when you raise your arm to look. It alerts for text messages, and the voice recognition for reply is better than expected. I’ve made a phone call, ignored a call, and sent several texts. I’ve read a lot of email previews. The Gmail app works nicely with the alerts and has a lot of flexibility , and you can archive messages and remove them from your inbox. Apple’s mail app works well, too, but the way Gmail segments your mailbox lets me control which messages appear on the Watch better. The biggest shortcoming I’ve seen so far is the inability to respond to email, even with a canned phrase. I understand the design decision but I hope this gets updated to add reply functionality. I’ve not tried the exercise app yet, but will do so. MotionX GPS has a nice app that I know I’ll use. I like the timers and stopwatches. The activity monitor will encourage movement and fitness. The weather apps are handy. I’ve added my credit cards for Apple Pay but have not had a chance to use it yet. My phone is a 5S so I’d not been able to participate in Apple Pay and I’m looking forward to it. I like the news alerts from the NYTimes and others. The presentation remote control apps for Keynote and PowerPoint will be useful; I have a projector dongle for my phone, and it’s handy to have a remote to drive the presentation from the phone. 

The bottom line there is a lot you can do with the Watch. I’m eagerly looking forward to new apps and software updates as the ecosystem matures.

I still like ChromeOS but I also like my new MacBook Air

MBA

Those who happen by this blog know that I like Google’s ChromeOS. I’ve got two Chromebooks, and have written a number of posts about ChromeOS. However, there are a handful of things that I need to do that I just can’t do well on a Chromebook. One of the main things is the ability to run Cisco’s WebEx software. Support for ChromeOS has been “coming” for a long time and given that I spend a lot of my day in WebEx meetings, this has been an annoyance. My employer (N2N Services) uses this as its standard, and I found myself sitting with a Chromebook and connected to the WebEx on my iPhone. Also, while Google Docs is great, roundtrip fidelity with Microsoft Office docs is still an issue. Microsoft’s online offerings are getting much better, but are not there yet.  I use KeePass for passwords, and there’s not a version that works with ChromeOS. FTP/SFTP are possible with web-based tools like NetFTP, but kludgy. SSH works with an app, but is kludgy. The Chrome shell is OK for a few things, but want to run cURL? Nope. Can’t run Skype. But, I love the quick boot & online or SSD storage, and the small light form factor. So, I decided to get a MacBook Air.

I’ve got an iMac at home so I’m quite conversant with OS X. But which Air to buy. Yes, I know that refresh time is coming up, but you can drive yourself crazy with that. I decided to get the entry level 11.6″ 4GB RAM/128GB SSD model. I was a bit concerned about the RAM, but after 24 hours of using this, I can say that this is one sweet laptop. The screen size is like my Chromebooks, so no issue there. Boot is very fast, but then again, I don’t boot my Macs often anyway, and return from sleep is instantaneous. Very nice build quality and keyboard. Beautiful screen, even if it’s not as hires as the 13″ MBA. I wondered if I’d regret not going with the 256GB SSD, but after loading everything I want, I still have 85GB or so free. I’ve not had any issues with the RAM, and honestly, I guess swapping to SSD is going to be pretty fast. The weight at 2.38 pounds is nice. The difference between 2.38 and 2.96 on the MBA 13″ is one of the main reasons I went with the MBA 11″.  I’m going to work hard to keep most stuff in the cloud and not on the MBA, and to not try to overload it with things like Xcode 😉 . There’s a sweet spot here with the MBA!

So, yes, I still like ChromeOS and think it’s a great solution for many things…but it’s just not quite flexible enough…yet…

New platform for the Flyfish listserver archives

I spent a bit of time this weekend knocking a job off my digital “todo” list. Back last fall, the old Parallels virtual machine that ran the Flyfish listserver archives finally succumbed to old age. It was a very old instance of Red Hat Linux, but the virtual disk had become corrupt and would not stay up. I had copied all of the data, configurations and programs (WAIS/free-WAIS-sf) to my iMac, but had been procrastinating on trying to rebuild.  I wanted to change Linux distros and I figured I’d probably have to re-make all the programs, and was “looking forward” to compatibility issues when I set it up. However, cold, nasty weather is good for hacking and not much else, so, I started the process.

I decided to run a basic server installation of Debian. I didn’t want any of the GUI and it seemed that this was going to be one of the best platforms to grab a basic installation like this, plus I like Debian and the way the update and program installation work. I first played with it on the Raspberry Pi, which initially came out with a version of Debian. So, I downloaded the ‘Net install ISO (about 280MB), and created a VM.  I then installed the packages I wanted, and set about installing the archive server.

I have almost 25 years of postings to this listserver archived, so it took a few minutes to copy over all that “wisdom.” Then, the Wais configuration “source” files. Then…the binaries for the Wais programs…and they ran! Guess since I built it with gcc and the target was i386, there really weren’t any dependencies from the old platform. I did have to tweak one of my scripts that had a hard-coded path to the cgi-bin directory, which has moved out from under the var/www path under Debian to improve security.

I’ve still got a bit of cleanup to do, including collecting and indexing the postings from 7/1/14 to the present, but that’s a simple task.

The old thing took just a couple hours to set up. Check it out at archives.flyfishlist.org!

An exemplar of the “assembled web”

I spotted an article in Forbes by Dries Buytaert, the creator of Drupal, in today’s scrolling twitter feed. I’ve dabbled a bit in Drupal, creating a few sites, but aside from looking at the PHP to debug a few things and trying a few patches, never really got technically below the level of installing and configuring modules. Even some of the more technical things in Drupal GUI configuration, such as creating content types and views to retrieve and present that content, are still done with boxes, radio buttons, checkboxes and lists. If you think about it, you are dealing with something that’s close to the MVC paradigm without having to write code. Buytaert says an individual without coding experience can “…use an open source CMS to assemble a site by simply snapping modules together…” That’s the essence of the assembled web. We know, in a fairly intuitive manner, how to create a personalized experience on our smartphones and tablets by selecting and configuring apps from an app store. This is really the same philosophy, just rendered on a server to allow others to access your content. There’s an app (or module or plug-in, depending on the CMS and its terminology) for that, to allow anyone to create on the assembled web. It really takes the Web back to its roots as a person-to-person sharing service. Berners-Lee envisioned it as a tool for sharing information between researchers, where individuals were creators and consumers.

The catch in all this is that it’s quite promising and almost there, but it’s not quite as seamless for the users as we’d like. WordPress is a bit further along this path than Drupal, I think, especially with the ability of current versions to maintain and update the “apps” (plugins, in WordPress-speak, and even some core updates). Drupal 7 doesn’t auto update, and the upcoming Drupal 8 won’t either, at least initially, insofar as I can tell. Some think that this is a bad idea anyway, in that it could lead to a massive compromise of servers. In my humble opinion, I think that the risk is actually greater of not updating sites, having seen the result of many compromised WordPress instances. It’s a double-edged sword – the easier it is to use a tool and create content, the lower the bar for the technical competency to do that, and the greater need for software that updates itself, as less-experienced (and read less paranoid as well) site owners simply don’t appreciate the need to keep things current. Drupal has a steeper learning curve (it doesn’t do much out of the box, unlike WordPress), thus the folks that run Drupal sites tend by necessity to be more technically literate and are thus more attuned to the need to patch/update (this is not to disparage the many, many very competent WordPress admins doing great things with the software, it just that it’s so easy to use and get started, that it’s an attractive target vector for compromise of less-well-maintained sites; this site runs on WordPress which I religiously patch and update!).

Buytaert is right that the the assembled web is the wave of the future, and he’s also right that it’s not a threat to the livelihood of (some) developers. However, the days of hand-crafting HTML are over, and there is a slice of work that has been squeezed out. Developers and integrators that understand the add-on technology and economy will thrive, just as those that have created apps have helped smartphone and tablet ecosystems to thrive and driven the sales of those devices. The assembled web makes it easier for everyone to share and publish creatively. It’s not quite point & click, but is asymptotically approaching that goal. I think that the tail is still a bit long, however, and getting to Buytaert’s vision of “…a marketer could build a site for a new product launch without relying on the engineering team. An entrepreneur could launch a company site without hiring a webmaster…” will take a while longer yet. That marketer or entrepreneur can get started, but the devil is always in the detail, and it’s not quite “fire and forget” on setting up a site…but it’s getting closer.

Mailbox app (iOS)

I was cleaning up my Dropbox account today, and in the process stumbled upon a new app called “Mailbox.” It’s done by Dropbox, via an acquisition of a small app developer. I signed up initially to get 1GB of free storage added to my Dropbox quota, but I’m actually quite intrigued by the app. You may why another email app (and my friend and colleague Paul Jones says “why email” but that’s a different story) but I am really intrigued with the simple way this app works and helps to quickly dispose of a great deal of email. It’s not a regular email client. It doesn’t provide you access to all your Gmail folders/tags (and currently only part of the “all mail” archive). It only works with iOS and Gmail at this time. It’s focused on helping to manage specific interactions with mail with a goal of clearing out your inbox and focusing on what needs attention. Its gestures are intuitive and highly effective. It combines a function I’ve used before with different tools (email ticklers, using Nudgemail) but does it more intuitively and in a more flexible and integrated fashion. Yes, you “give up more privacy” by allowing their servers to pre-process your mail (they claim it’s unreadable there, caveat emptor). However, if I wanted my email to be private, I’d a) encrypt it and b) not put it in email anyway 😉 .

If you are an iOS and Gmail user (and want an extra gig in your Dropbox) check it out. It might work for you…

Poking my Raspberry Pi again

It’s been a while since I did much but periodically check my Raspberry Pi to see if it was still working. However, I recently updated all its software and decided to try a few more things. I’ve more or less decided that I’ll just stick with my forte, software, rather than try to solder stuff and leverage the GPIO pins. I appreciate the ability to interface to the physical world, but soldering is not in my wheelhouse 😉 . I’ve read recently about using the RPi to act as one’s internet presence rather than using a hosting company. That way you have complete control over your server. The RPi takes so little power and has no moving parts that letting it sit and run is not the same as turning your old clunker PC into a Linux box for the same purposes. I loaded up WordPress on top of the LAMP stack and was pleased with the ability to easily set up a blog. It’ll likely never see the light of day, but I could, if I wanted, port the contents of this blog back to the RPi pretty easily and open up the webserver/blog to the world. It’s mostly a MySQL database restore…

Fun stuff! I’m looking forward to brushing up on my tech skills soon when I have a bit more time to play with this stuff…

The era of the consumer touch-screen Chromebook is upon us

In December (which is very soon!), per Engadget, you’ll be able to get a touchscreen Chromebook for $299! I’m disappointed that it doesn’t have 4GB of RAM, but that’s a concession, I’m sure, to keep the price under $300. I’ve not seen much definitive telemetry yet on memory upgrades on the C720 series Chromebooks (I added 4GB to my C710-2833 earlier in the fall). Traffic on the Chromebook Central site implies that the memory is not upgradeable on the C720’s but the Acer website for the C720’s says that there are 2GB and 4GB models, and that the 2GB models have a max of 4GB. Check back on Chromebook Central to see what the hive mind says about upgrading memory on the C720’s. I assume if you can upgrade a C720, that a C720P can be, but that may not hold true.

The bottom line though, is that it’s exciting to see touch coming to such an inexpensive laptop!

VueScan – getting an old scanner to work on Mavericks

I had an old Canon USB scanner sitting in my home office and had wondered how to get it working with my iMac running Mavericks. I also have an ancient parallel port Canon scanner and an elderly Fujitsu ScanSnap on an old WinXP Gateway PC. Whenever I wanted to scan something, I had to fire up the old XP box. There had to be a better way! I googled around a bit, and stumbled across VueScan. I downloaded the code (in demo mode, it puts a watermark on the output, but you can use all the features) and was amazed that it very efficiently drove the old Canon. At $40 for a basic license (cross platform, PC, Mac, Linux, and up to 4 systems), it was more than I was hoping to pay, but it got me a scanner with a lot of software functionality for less than buying new hardware. Plus, it appeals to my “green” side, trying to keep old electronics functional without sending them to the landfill. I knew I’d kept that old scanner around for a reason. I’m just beginning to play with the functionality of the software, it’s very full-featured. If you find yourself trying to bring an old scanner to life, or if you are just unsatisfied with the software that came with your scanner, check out VueScan.

New Chromebooks

More new Chromebooks are trickling out. This week, HP announced their new ARM-based Chromebook (uses the same processor as the Samsung XE303, introduced a year ago), but more interesting, I believe, is the first formal announcement of an Intel Haswell-based system (a modified version, with less cache and lower speed, so it doesn’t carry the Haswell branding), the Acer C720. This system should have performance equivalent to standard Celeron-based Chromebooks (i.e. a bit better than the HP) and phenomenal battery life (in the 8-9 hour range). It also has 4GB of RAM, which makes a significant difference in Chrome OS performance. Rumors are that new Chromebox announcements are right around the corner as well.

As always, you need to understand what a Chrome OS device is and is not in determining if it’s right for you. It does not run Windows. You cannot install Windows programs on it. It does not run Mac OS X. It runs a variant of Linux, but you do not have administrative rights and can only install software from the Chrome Web Store, or run web-enabled applications from a hosted site. However, if you live your technology life in the cloud, and in particular if you have embraced the Google ecosystem, it’s an amazing device. Cheap, simple, foolproof.