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Virtualization, Cloud, Infrastructure and all that stuff in-between

My ramblings on the stuff that holds it all together

Category Archives: Gadgets

Kindle 3 Rocks

I recently received an Amazon Kindle 3 as a belated leaving present from my old team, which was very kind.

I’ve been using it for a couple of weeks now and I’ve been very impressed, I have been a long-term die-hard dead-tree book fan and have a lot of tech-books at home so I didn’t think I would easily convert to the electronic format.

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I also have had an iPad for a while, and it’s transformed (dominated!?) the way my family use the Internet and computers at home so as a net-result I don’t take the iPad away with me on trips or in my bag as they would probably suffer withdrawal symptoms Winking smile.

The iPad is an excellent multi-media device and also has the Kindle application so can do as much as the dedicated Kindle device itself, however it’s also 4 times as expensive as a Kindle and I am that bit more conscious about breaking/losing it whilst chucking it around the country and the Kindle screen isn’t as reflective as the iPad.

I’m sure it’s not just novelty factor but I’ve actually read some fiction, non-related work books on it – which is something I’ve not managed with paper books for some time.

What I like about the Kindle;

  • Very lightweight and small
  • Cheap device
  • Kindle software app for Mac, iPad, PC to access from multiple devices (and an eBook license to match)
  • built-in 3G as a back-up (and no subscription required
  • Calibre app for side-loading PDFs and converting eBook formats
  • Lots of free classic eBooks on the Web
  • very readable screen in all type of light

What I don’t like about the Kindle;

  • More books need to be released to the Kindle, not everything has a Kindle option – I assume there is some rights, publisher issue here so isn’t entirely in Amazon’s control but Kindle with the built-in book store is good for impulse-buy of books, which I am sure publishers would like
  • I would love a dead-tree + eBook Purchase version option, I’d happily pay an extra 20% over the cost of the paperback to have this, then I have a copy for my bookshelf and a copy to take on the road that I can start reading as soon as I purchase.
  • It’s a bit slow, but I can take the trade-off against super-long battery life.
  • You need a case for it, which adds to the cost, I’ve not bothered with one with a built-in light
  • it’s almost criminal that Amazon want to charge a subscription to read blogs on the device, Calibre sort of seems to resolve that.
  • It really needs an RSS reader app, leveraging the built-in 3G/WiFi (but maybe Amazon won’t allow that)

So, go and buy one… that’s my recommendation.

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Be your own Big Brother

 

During my work and personal life I’ve travelled around a lot – sometimes by car sometimes flying, I’ve always held an odd fasincation in being able to visualise where I have been over time and tot up just how far I’ve travelled in a period.

When I started cycling again a couple of years ago I found a neat solution for my cycle routes – you can read a bit more about that here

I really like the Instamapper solution and the fact it has a Blackberry app (Android and iPhone too I believe) so when I recently got a new Blackberry with a built-in GPS, so I thought it would be an interesting experiment to track my movements 24/7 so I could see where I have been as I no longer had a dependency on an external bluetooth GPS.

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It definitely impacts battery life, I get about 24-36hrs out of a single charge on my BB with it running compared to at least 60 without it running.

It automatically starts the GPS at boot so you won’t forget to switch it on, which is a handy feature.

The Instamapper website is great; it lets you export tracks in a format that works with Google Earth and includes timestamps so you can use the replay feature to watch a sped-up version of your trip – especially funny if you got lost somewhere in the car as you can gradually watch you circling and missing your destination Smile

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the web-service simply logs GPS co-ordinates, speed and timestamps from your device and you can split them down into individual “tracks” if you know the start/end times of your journey – I use a 5min sample frequency and the updates to the web-service are buffered if you don’t have a network connection.

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Below are some example tracks; the top one is across a month and included a family holiday to Euro Disney via Eurostar, multiple trips to and from customers and the office and a trip to Derry in Ireland.

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(Phone was switched off on the plane, but maybe leaving the GPS running might be an interesting, if illegal experiment Smile)

If you are similarly minded I’d encourage you to check out Instamapper, and best of all – it’s FREE! Smile

OS X Expose Clone for Windows

 

One of the main things I miss as I switch between a Mac and PC is the lack of decent multi-window manager support in Windows – alt-tab and win-tab are great but I find them cumbersome.

A particular bug bear of mine is if you have to manage multiple terminal services sessions to servers/virtual machines, they are manageable when they are windowed. but if you have a low-screen resolution or small monitor its often more comfortable to use the TS sessions in full-screen mode, this brings with it some window confusion and the annoying pin/not pinned title bar to switch screens using the mouse.

OS X has an excellent feature called Expose which allows you to setup hot corners on the screen or hot-keys which, when activated zoom out to a thumbnail view of all your open application windows – and you can then click on the one you want.

it also has great support for multiple monitors, and stacks of monitors – if you’ve not used Expose/Spaces before check out Steve Jobs introducing it in this video (and take the Mac Fanboy whooping with a pinch of salt :))

 

Now – it’s not exactly the same but I’ve been using an application called Switcher to accomplish some of what OS X can do – below is a screenshot of all my open application windows when I touch a hot-corner

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Clicking on the desktop wallpaper in the background reverts the display to just the desktop (ala show desktop from the taskbar). the most important feature for me is the full-screen TS session – you can have as many of these open as you want and you can just browse and pick them by clicking on the appropriate thumbnail without having to hunt around win-tab’ing via the keyboard or taskbar.

it also has a large range of customisation options as shown below

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Easy.

Unfortunately it seems like Switcher isn’t actively developed any more 😦 but it is free – so open to better alternatives but it works for me with the occasional crash

You can download Switcher for free with instructions from http://insentient.net/Switcher/Overview.html

SpinVox: The Future of Voicemail

 

SpinVox is changing the game for busy people..

I don’t know about you but I tend to treat my mobile (USA:cellphone) phone as my personal contact device, in that I use it to manage both my inbound and outbound communications and plug that into my daily work/life workflow.

Because I travel about a lot for business (and in my spare time also) I give everyone my mobile number, rather than a fixed line as its far more likely to reach me and I don’t have to track numerous voicemail/UM numbers, I also gain a unified call log and history on a single device so I can refer back over time to find numbers I would have otherwise lost.

I have a fax to email service for the same reason for the odd occasion I need to receive a fax… I can get it anywhere and file it electronically.

However the fact that people have my mobile number does not (for me at least) set the expectation that I will be at their beck and call, or answer on demand – I make use of caller ID to screen my calls, I’ll make no secret of that; I manage my workflow during the day and quite often other people’s sense of “urgent” is different from my own [unless you are actually my boss of course – when your calls will usually be answered directly], and at the end of the day I need to balance the needs (…of the many) people who want me to do something for them, and my ability to actually do so and carry on with my day to day workload.

So for example people that ring from lines with withheld numbers will almost always be allowed to go to voicemail, unless I am expecting such a call; I know most people have no control over corporate switchboards but I’ve never understood the logic of withholding caller-ID, especially from a large organisation as you can make the number almost anything, even a central or local office switchboard number if you don’t want to expose people’s regional DDI’s. it also works to their advantage as I’ll be better prepared to speak to them if I know what they want to know – clever as I am I don’t always know everything off the top of my head!

This often means I have a fair number of voicemail’s building up to listen to, and unfortunately more often than not the spare time I have to listen to the messages is whilst on a train or car when I don’t have a pen handy to jot down that number – or am more likely to leave the number written on the copy of the metro on the train.

Now, this is where I’ve found Spinvox really useful in the last couple of weeks; it’s essentially a paid-for service that you use to replace your normal o2/Vodafone/etc. voicemail service. you change your divert on busy/unavailable settings to point at an assigned geographical number (in my case in 0208 one, so it’s inclusive in any bundled minutes your tariff includes rather than a national rate 0870, 0845 etc.).

It offers the normal voicemail features where you can call a special number (again geographical, rather than national-rate etc.) to listen to the actual messages and set your greeting message etc.

But the advantage of SpinVox is it’s ability to convert the speech into text, which can be delivered to you either as an SMS text message or an email (my preference).

I was a bit skeptical at first, but I was very, very impressed after using the 7 day free trial. so much so that at one point I doubted that there was any technology behind it at all and that they were employing a large battery of English speaking monkeys to listen in and type it all up… their website assures me that this isn’t the case and they use a tiered architecture of several speech-text engines depending on the content as some are better at number recognition etc. (can’t find the original link to that article so will keep digging)

It also does an excellent job of transcribing phone numbers and extracts the caller-ID from the caller if it’s available so no hunting around for that elusive pen!

If there is a word in the message Spinvox can’t transcribe or has made a guess at it marks it with a “____” or (?) and if you want to hear the subtle intonation of the person who left the message, each message includes a quick code so you just dial the Spinvox retreival number and key in *03 for example and it will replay the message – a godsend compared to the usual next, next, next drudge with most voicemail systems.

For example – here is a real message left for me.. (names and numbers changed to protect the innocent, but if you really can do my extension cheaper than they can – please do call :)).

You received a new voicemail from +4420812312312:

———-

“Hi there Vinf my name is Bob. I’m calling from a company called XYZ Construction. We received your details via our website regarding your extension. I was wondering if you could give me a call back when you get the message. My telephone no. is 0800123123, in order to discuss the project further. Thank you, bye.”

– spoken through SpinVox

———-

Message received at May 8, 2008 1:25:55 PM

If you wish to listen to this message, call your voicemail on +44207xxxxxxx and press *08

For assistance, see www.spinvox.com or email service@spinvox.com

Thank you,

SpinVox

So, back to the point; email delivery of the text content of voicemail messages into my Outlook Inbox allows me to flag, follow-up, set reminders, file, delete etc. and integrate them into my normal daily workflow so I ensure I can manage any resulting actions.

Previously I’ve found where I have had a large number of unheard voicemail messages (due to holiday or long meetings) it takes longer than I’d like to listen to them all; as they often overlap or are irrelevant due to the elapsed time and let’s be honest people (myself included) tend to ramble when they are leaving information in brain-freewheeling mode on an answer machine, or just say it’s X – call me back, which isn’t all that helpful.

So dealing with such a pile of messages, especially when compared to the quick gratification of dealing with normal emails – where you can scan, easily re-read and file, mark for follow-up etc. means dealing with voicemail often fell to the bottom of my priority pile. This, in turn means I risk missing that one important message or take longer to respond to people (yeah I’m a fickle sort of guy – make my life easier and I’ll get back to you quicker… I’m sure I’m not the only one)

In meetings, it’s also ideal – because they’re delivered as SMS or email they also turn up on my Blackberry so I can glance at them during the meeting and make a value/balance decision on wether I should step outside to respond. Doing this in 1:1 meetings might be a bit rude as someone is dedicating their time for your use. But for larger meetings or conferences where you are not always involved or contributing to everything it’s a discrete way of making a judgement call on what requires your current attention.

image Overall I’m very impressed, sometimes I’ve seen it take up to 10mins to deliver a converted message (maybe there really are monkeys involved :)), and it’s a bit annoying that the caller (on my o2 network anyway) gets a “your call is being diverted, please hold..” message rather than just cutting to Spinvox as it does with o2’s own voicemail service – but I guess that’s a network feature rather than Spinvox and it’s not a huge deal.

The billing is interesting, and to be honest I think a little bit unclear, as you are basically signed up once your 7 day trial is finished and I’ve not really had any visibility of how they bill other than a message on the last day of the trial saying my account had been charged £5, call customer services otherwise. I can only assume it’s doing this via reverse-SMS billing – for me, this is handy rather than having to manage another subscription and set of card details, however I could see that bothering some people.

Note: I have a “company phone” and don’t always see the bills, so I’ll probably be expecting a call from accounts at the end of the month to query it!

Another use which I hadn’t thought of is for deaf and people with hearing problems, this is ideal as they often make heavy use of text and email to exchange information as they are often unable to call people directly as not everyone has a minicom type setup, I see they are offering text to speech services

They also have a variety of blog/social network interfaces on the way; I don’t think these would be much use for me, but you never know… it takes a while to type these things up, but I’m pretty sure it’s clearer if I’m forced to think about what I’m writing than if I were allowed to ramble at a translator 🙂

In summary it’s an excellent service, and one that I would be happy to pay for myself (even if the billing process is a little unclear, to me and the other user’s I’ve polled anyway) I wonder how long before this technology is adopted by the carriers themselves… it’s got to be the next step, everyone I know hates normal voicemail. most current Unified Messaging systems I’ve seen don’t offer this type of functionality, they’re still geared towards dealing with audio content.

Lastly, one feature that could be quite useful is a web based system for listening to the actual voicemail messages from a PC, rather than dialling into the Spinvox system – although I wonder if I really would use this, it’s so accurate in converting the audio!

Steve Richards blog on work/life balance has a good post on dealing with email overload, that could be extended to take on management of voicemail if you combined it with SpinVox as I mention above – it all ends up in one place which allows you to manage it… rather than drown in it.

I’m not the only one finding it useful, some further reading from other SpinVox Users…

http://www.atmasphere.net/wp/archives/2008/05/14/with-spinvox-im-reading-your-voicemail

http://darlamack.blogs.com/darlamack/2008/05/how-did-i-live.html

http://www.womworld.com/nokia/3305/spinvox-a-lifeline-for-busy-users/

http://davestronach.wordpress.com/2008/05/02/spinvox-voicemail-to-text/

Universal Power Supply for all your Electronics

 

Engadget has a write up of a great new idea here, a universal and intelligent power brick from Green Plug that is capable of charging devices and shutting down when complete to save the planet, as well as display how much power is/has been consumed.

it’s an excellent and long overdue idea; unfortunately it requires the devices themselves to be aware and compatible – this area of technology cries out for an open standard to aid adoption in the same way that interfaces like USB and Ethernet have become ubiquitous.

I wonder  if the “green” lobby and consumer awareness of efficient power usage will help to encourage this and push it on the market place, although it does look like the Green Plug technology is a single vendor owned and licenced solution, rather than an open standard – which would make buy-in from manufacturers difficult.

Getting buy-in from the major, competing manufacturers to adhere to a public standard must be an easier approach than a single partner – who could thus obtain a monopoly.

Although, as Engadget point out all the device manufacturers currently make a fortune from selling replacement power supplies so will they really be that bothered?

I for one would be happy to pay £50-75 UK pounds for a smart, universal power supply and for my various electronic devices to come without one in the box – I would simply buy one or two chargers as I need (maybe one for home one for the bag).

Even better if the charger is like a USB hub and can connect/charge several devices at once (ideal for a travel scenario), adopt the interchangeable plug method that Apple and Blackberry use for their chargers to support different countries/outlet types.

Reduces waste, power consumption and the big box of random and unidentifiable power supplies I have in my study!

Sadly this much collaboration between competing electronics companies for a “standard” doesn’t always have a good history (Betamax/VHS HD-DVD/Blu-Ray) ah well, I live in hope….