Category Archives: Toad Web

It’s all about me, baby.

Zipping up the Internet

Here’s the thing: I keep all my photos in Google’s Picasa. Picasa synchs and publishes to Blogger beautifully but I have been using WordPress and had wanted to switch to Tumblr, which plays beautifully with Twitter, but not with WordPress or Vox. I’m writing this on MacJournal, which publishes to Blogger and WordPress easily, but not to Tumblr, Twitter, or Vox. And getting photos from Picasa to MacJournal is a lot harder than it ought to be. Not to mention the fact that I like to put all my photos on the web using Flickr which is just a pain in the ass to get photos to anyway.

I like to play music in Songbird, which, while not without flaws, has a number of features that I really like. Like publishing to Last.fm and Twitter. Doesn’t play as well with Blogger and WordPress, however.

These days, I surf the internet in Flock – great with Blogger, not so great with Vox, WordPress, and Tumblr. I’ve thought about switching to Chrome because it’s fast and small, but it doesn’t work very well with Diigo or StumbleUpon or Evernote. Evernote is great for keeping notes in, but not great for archiving and I prefer Yojimbo’s tag system anyway, with the result that half my notes are in Yojimbo, half in Evernote and none of them get to and from MacJournal, Picasa, or Songbird as easily as I like.

Let’s just not even mention trying to post to Facebook.

And this is all on a Mac, which makes the seams smaller, tighter, and more automated, and using Quicksilver, which strives to reduce the seams to nothingness. And does nothing to erase my frustration over knowing that there are several suites of software that work incredibly well together (Google, Mariner, BareBones) but also realizing that none of them play nearly as well with software from other companies as they do with their siblings.

So.

What the internet needs now is zippers. If you have several pieces of cloth, cut into squares, and with zippers on all side, the possible combinations you can make are endless. And easy. And fast. I want my software to work like those pieces of cloth. I want to choose the programs I want to use and know that they are going to synch and integrate my data with a minimum of fuss and hassle.

To be fair, people are working on it. The emergence of frameworks (like Adobe Air) and the increasing number of open APIs is helping, but there is still a lot of work to be done. So get to it, internets. Get me some zippers and let me put it all together in the way that best suits me.

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Remember Me

A couple of years ago, a young man named Joe Murphy died from a rare and nasty form of cancer. I didn’t know Joe. Rather, I knew him only from the podcasts he co-hosted and I was a fan. During his illness and after his death, fans of his work made a wikipedia page for him. It was quickly nominated for deletion due to lack of appropriate citations for Joe’s noteworthy-ness. Fans rallied and added sources to the claims made in the article.

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While researching this post, I did a quick check on Joe’s page and found that it had, in fact, been deleted:

Article was nominated once for deletion in 2007 and kept with the assertion that material added during that AFD satisfied notability concerns, However, a review of that sourcing indicates that it does not. One is an obituary in his hometown paper, one is to an XM Radio page that no longer exists (Joe Murphy is not found in a search of the XM site), one confirms his nomination for a podcasting award (he did not win) and one is a band’s blog (not a reliable source). There do not appear to be independent reliable sources that are substantively about this person, rather there are many blogs and podcasts that offer tributes following his untimely passing. Wikipedia is not a memorial and the gentleman does not pass WP:N or WP:BIO. Otto4711 (talk) 13:37, 10 May 2009 (UTC)”

Clicking on the link “not a memorial” brings up the following:

Memorials. Wikipedia is not the place to memorialize deceased friends, relatives, acquaintances, or others. Subjects of encyclopedia articles must satisfy Wikipedia’s notability requirements. Note that this policy does not apply outside of the main article space. Whilst using user space to create a memorial is generally not acceptable, limited exemption applies to the user space of established Wikipedians who have died. At a minimum it is expected that they were regular contributors, and that more than one tenured Wikipedian will have used the deceased user’s page (or an appropriate sub-page) to add comments in the event, and after verification of, their death.”

Ok. Fair enough. At the same time, it does seem like the barrier for entry for celebrity-hood is becoming transparently thin. The recent spate of celebrity deaths shows a distinct hierarchy of status, with Michael Jackson at the top and Billy Mays hitting close to the bottom, and yet there has been more than enough material written about both men to qualify for Wikipedia articles easily. The thing is, to take those two examples, Michael Jackson single handedly remade pop music and helped turn music videos into an art form. Billy Mays was a pitchman. He made commercials. (And please note that I am not disparaging Billy Mays at all, I’m merely using him as a recent example.) What Wikipedia’s “noteworthiness” really means is media appearances. Which seems terribly skewed away from people who are actually noteworthy towards people who are merely known to more people, publicly, than the rest of us.

Slate’s recent Culturefest (the Everybody’s Dead Edition, posted July 1, 2009) seems to be pondering related ideas. The three hosts spoke about the modern obituary and how the internet has changed the obituary pages. While they had a number of good points, throughout the whole episode, I found myself thinking about Joe Murphy and Wikipedia. I started to wonder why there was not a resource for the rest of us, why the “little people” should not be remembered as fondly, nor as publicly as celebrities, for whatever value of celebrity one happens to have.

A quick search revealed two sites: Wikiobits and Wikibios.

Wikiobits says of itself: “Wiki Obits has a one simple goal: We live to provide a one-stop site where you can find obituaries and biography information for every person on earth – dead or alive – famous or not, celebrity or not.” A great idea, but at the moment it is a piece of basic Wiki software with very little customization. There is very little to distinguish it as a service or directory. As a test, I ran a search on Michael Jackson and got a table full of biographical data much like I would expect from raw number search engines like Wolfram Alpha and Google Squared rather than an article collection like Wikipedia.

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Wikibios, on the other hand states right on the front page: “Our belief is simple: you don’t have to be a famous celebrity to have a life worth documenting. That’s why we created WikiBios, a place where your friends become the storytellers of your life.” Which is an idea I can get behind. The problem is, is that for now at least, the majority of pages I came across (using the random bio button) seem to be yet to have been filled in by the person’s friends and families. It also illustrates another problem which is that wikis are, by definition, editable by the public at large and, here on the internet, the public is not always as kind and friendly as it might be.

So, while I applaud the efforts, it’s still not what I want. Aside from the issues of getting and maintaining an audience share not to mention the kind of brand recognition that would make these viable, long term solutions, I’m not sure if this is an area that is not better served by LiveJournal or FaceBook or Google Profile. it seems that those three brands have the audience and name recognition to be able to add obituaries / memorials as a valid part of their service; I know there are instances of both LJ and FB users being memorialized on their own pages after death, yet even those are not perfect – they don’t give friends and relatives and fans the chance to both eulogize and research the deaths of their friends in that if you were not connected to that person before their death, you may not be able to access their page on the social networks.

What I mean is, a few years ago, I lost another friend. He was someone I had known well in high school, but had not seen in several years. Then, at my sister’s wedding, we reconnected. A few months later, I read the obituary in our hometown newspaper and there were still so many questions I had that have never been answered. And I have no where to turn. Rob was not anywhere media-ized enough to show up on Wikipedia, nor was he, to my knowledge, on LJ or FB. So where do I go to write about and talk about my friend? Where do I go to read what others have written? If he did, in fact, have an LJ or FB, once he was gone there was no way for me to be added to his friends list so that I could see what others were saying and doing, in short, without a wikipedia page how will anyone know he existed?

Perhaps Google will step into the breach. Perhaps LJ or FB or WikiObits or WikiBios will do something that let’s us all eulogize and memorialize those who were like us and of us and who were never on t.v. long enough to get a Wikipedia page of our very own.

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Essential iPhone Apps (‘Cause Everyone Else is Doing It)

It’s June. That means I’ve had my iPhone for about four months and it has already become extremely hard to live without. In fact, I have no intention of trying to live without it. Not only does it sit in my pocket for most of the day, it recharges right next to my bed every evening. In short, you can have my iPhone when you pry it out of my cold, internet deprived, hands.

On the other hand, one of the single best things about the iPhone is the Apple App Store. And what could be better than sharing out a list of my favorite apps?

So here’s my list of favorite apps, in no particular order. Rather, these are the ones that I use on a regular basis; these are the apps I go to as primary functions in my phone.

Bloom – Brian Eno’s ambient music maker is a fantastic bit of stress relief kit. The interface is simple, clean, and, if I may say so, pretty. When launched, the app gives the user a blank field of pastel color. Touching the screen will produce a chime or bell, whose pitch and tone vary with where on the screen the user has touched. Generally, the pitch is lower at the bottom of the screen and higher at the top, with tone density going from heavy to light when going from right to left on the screen. Once a sound is produced it repeats itself, along with any others produced in short loops creating ambient, atonal rhythms from the touches the user has made. And the loops can be quite beautiful, and totally relaxing in a very zen way. I find it works beautifully as stress relief during a hard day. If I can find just five minutes along to play with Bloom, things seem much more workable.

Tweetie – A very functional Twitter client, this is probably the one app I use more than any other. (Yes, I am a Twitter fiend.) What I like about this particular client as opposed to the dozens of others available is the interface. I found it very easy to become used to, almost to the point of preferring it to actually using my computer.

Google – How anyone can live without Google at this point is completely beyond me. In addition to gMail, I am a fervent devotee of both Google Reader and Google Docs and I can get all three of those services through the Google app.

Kanji – As anyone who has studied Japanese can tell you, Kanji are one of the hardest aspects of becoming proficient in the language. This app is quite simple, but brilliantly designed. The visual interface is based on Tuttle’s Kanji Cards, with each screen focusing on one kanji. Touching the screen brings up additional information, including the various readings and words that use that character. There is an option in the top right to mark wether or not the kanji has been memorized or not. (It is also uncheckable in case the user has forgotten a kanji or two.) The other great aspect of this app is the organization of the “cards” based on JLPT level or Japanese school grade level. This is just a must have app for anyone who’s studying the language.

Kotoba – Another app I use everyday for studying, Kotoba is, simply, a very good dictionary for Japanese to English and vice versa.

BBC NewsReader – The Beeb’s app is different from other news apps in that it keeps a running update of the stories already loaded into the phone. Everytime you start the app, it begins downloading both recent information and updates to previous downloads. This makes loading pictures and older stories much faster on slow networks. The app breaks the news into three broad categories – Magazine, UK, and Americas. Within that, the user can define what kind of news they’re most interested in. The one thing I’m not quite happy with, especially in comparison to the two other news apps on my list, is that tapping on a story takes you to a BBC page that has to be resized before it could be considered remotely readable. However, for quick access to news that has a perspective different from the U.S. one, this app is a must.

New York Times – The NY Times has received a lot of (deserved) praise for their iPhone app. It serves as a prime example of how newspapers can remake themselves for the web and, in this case, the mobile web. The home screen breaks the paper down into its familiar sections – World, U.S., Politics, etc. From there, users have the option to scroll through stories in a given section or to choose the Latest, Popular, or Saved stories. And it’s this last option that really sets the app apart. The ability to save stories for later reading (as well as being able to e-mai them) adds a necessary functionality that recognizes that being mobile does not mean always having all the time you’d like to read up on the news. Further, the stories are automatically formated for the iPhone screen so that resizing before reading is not necessary.

New York Times Crossword – This is easily the most expensive app on my list. At roughly 10 bucks you have to love crosswords to make this worth the money. What’s more, you have to love the NY Times Crossword as there are cheaper (lesser) apps available in the iTunes app store. However, on the plus side, this is the same puzzle that appears in the daily paper. Players can submit their answers to an online database and find out if they have gotten all the cells correct or not. The controls are intuitive and easy to use; the screen uses a keyboard to input characters, but allows finger gestures for resizing the puzzles and for moving around the puzzle area. The puzzles start at a relatively easy level on Monday and get progressively harder throughout the week. For myself, this is my favorite lunchtime application. I find that nothing wakes my brain up as taking thirty minutes to play through a puzzle before heading back into the classroom.

Doodle Jump – You know those games that take 10 seconds to learn but can eat up hours on end being played? Well, the iPhone has a lot of them and Doodle Jump is my favorite. The object is very simple. Maneuver your Doodle through a series of obstacles to see how high you can take him. The game functions by giving your character an automatic bounce off of platforms; the only control the player has is to move the Doodle from side to side by turning your wrist and taking advantage of the iPhone’s motion sensors. Great fun.

Brushes – This is the newest on my list of must have applications. I picked it up earlier this week after seeing the story where the cover of New Yorker magazine had been made with it. Not only was it a cool cover but the idea that this could be done on an iPhone was pretty spectacular.

CameraBag – While the iPhone camera is not the best cameraphone available, apps like CameraBag make it a lot of fun. I won’t say too much about it here as I have already written about it and posted photos I took using the app on this blog.

Text – I live in Japan. Japan is somewhat notorious for preferring phone based e-mail to text messaging. In fact, my last three phones did not have texting software on them at all. So having a phone that can finally text, combined with Softbank’s data plan which lets users text each other for free, is really, really, cool. Having texting available means I feel like I can finally keep up with services like Twitter and the now, sadly defunct, I Want Sandy, in the manner for which they were designed.

Stanza – People are still skeptical about the value of ebooks but this app should push at least a few people decidedly into the “for” column. Stanza works with several different online services to download books to the phone, where they can be read offline, one screen at a time. I’ve found that the small screen makes books feel longer than they are, but, on the other hand, that the rapid pace with which the screen changes makes them just fly by. In short, while this is not my favorite way to read, it is an acceptable and convenient way to read.

WordPress – Obviously, I’m a blogger. Not quite as heavy a blogger as I once was, but I do still enjoy keeping a blog up and running for those occasions when I want to say something that won’t fit into 140 characters. That’s where WordPress’ iPhone app comes in. It has a nice, clean design that makes it easy to log in and update any blogs you have hosted on WP. This is kind of a no brainer for anyone who has both an iPhone and a WP blog.

Wolfram Alpha – One of the best features of the iPhone / Safari combo, in my opinion, is the ability to put a bookmark on the home screen of the phone. What this means is that when I want to search for something on Wolfram Alpha, I do not need to open up Safari and scroll through my bookmarks. Rather I just touch one icon and there’s WA, ready for input. And while I’m not a heavy WA user (not yet anyway) I have been curious about the service and wanting to try it out. So, while the individual site may change, eventually, the capacity to keep it right on my homescreen won’t and that is something that I just love about the iPhone.

MLB.com’s At Bat – I’m not much of a sports fan. I enjoy watching the games but I don’t really keep up with the statistics or even the player rosters too much. But I love baseball. I love the romanticism and history associated with the game and I do try to keep up with at least the Padres every season. At Bat makes it much, much easier to do so. The app provides schedules, play by play, recaps, standings, stats, photos, live game coverage, and soon, live video streaming of games. The only downside is that those clever bastards at MLB.com have decided to charge by the season, rather than a one time fee. Still, as a way to follow baseball that doesn’t require you to be in front of your t.v. at a set time or wading through tons of newsfeeds, this is the app to get.

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Wolfram Alpha

wolframalpha.pngWolfram Alpha has been around for a few weeks now, having debuted to a squawking chorus of voices. The initial reports from Mashable and Lifehacker sounded intriguing and promising but the talk on podcasts like TWiT and the virtual water cooler that is Twitter was more confused than relevatory. The single most coherent and reasoned explanation of / musings on was on Buildings and Food (a great site anyway).

The first question most people had was, what is Wolfram Alpha? The answer is that it is a knowledge computation engine, whatever that means. From the website:

“Wolfram|Alpha aims to bring expert-level knowledge and capabilities to the broadest possible range of people—spanning all professions and education levels. Our goal is to accept completely free-form input, and to serve as a knowledge engine that generates powerful results and presents them with maximum clarity.”

Wolfram Alpha was designed by mathematician Stephen Wolfram; the database/search functions are based on the programing language Mathematica which he also designed, way back when.

Taking the play-with-it-until-it-breaks approach exemplified by Gina Trappiani’s original Lifehacker post, here are the things I learned via WA.

I am 33 years, 10 months, and 8 days old today.

I live 5663 miles from my mother’s house, which itself, is 243.4 miles from where I went to university.

My name, Joel, has some interesting data attached to it: there are currently 222,373 people sharing my name. It was most popular as a birth name during 1979 / 1980.

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By comparing my first and middle names, we learn that my middle name is much more popular as a given name than is my first name.

Arizona became a state 97 years ago. Its highest point is Humphrey’s Peak at 3850 meters, while its lowest is the Colorado River at just 21 meters.

The average lifespan of American men vs. Japanese women is 75.92 years to 85.59 years, meaning that my wife is going to outlive me by ten years. But we already knew that.

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There are also a number of things I couldn’t find. For example….

A search for the average rate of oxygen consumption used by SCUBA Divers at one atmosphere resulted in this:

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Searching for the average lifespan of labrador retrievers brought back no results at all, only a suggestion to search on the word “dogs.”

Searching for “ the average number of e-mail addresses of teenagers” likewise brought back no meaningful results.

And finally, there are the Easter Eggs (which I found via this post, and this follow-up post on Mashable):

In the meantime, WA has released it’s first update, which has a few changes to the system, namely updating the linguistic structures recognized so that more queries will be returned. (Again, Mashable has the full list.)

In the meantime, Google has its new Google Squared, and Microsoft has launched Bing, both of which aim to change and modify how we search the web.

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Songbird

While it isn’t quite ready for prime time, Songbird is an excellent music player with the potential to be a one stop music application.

The biggest thing that differentiates Songbird from other library managers like iTunes is the built in browser. Based on the Mozilla engine, the browser works just like any other, only that when you surf to a music site, Songbird automatically searches the site for .mp3 files that can be downloaded and arranges them in a window at the bottom of the screen. This makes reading music blogs a whole lot cooler as you can immediately download the file you are reading about (if it has been posted to the site). Legal issues aside, it is a great way to find new music.

The initial download comes with a few bookmarks preloaded; there are a ton of music sites and blogs that are greatly enhanced by viewing them through Songbird. Some of my favorites are Muxtape, eMusic, and Gumdrop.

Songbird also recently added their own version of Coverflow, letting users scroll through their library by album cover, much like in iTunes. While this is very cool, there are still some issues – like getting all the album art – that need to be worked out.

Hopefully, too, future versions will add video support and better integration with the major music shopping sites as well as podcast management. For now though, Songbird is a decent player and library manager but it is not quite a replacement for iTunes. Yet.

*I’ve written about Songbird before, here.

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Testin Y’all Testin

Nevermind this post. Seriously. This is just a quick test of the WordPress application for the iPhone. We’ll have to see what this looks like and take it from there.

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The New York Times Crossword for iPhone / iPod Touch

There is something compelling, even obsessive about a good crossword puzzle. And the New York Times is one of the best crosswords around. So finding out that they had put together an app for the iPhone was fantastic news. However, the price tag, a hefty $10, left a me little cautious. After all, once bitten, twice shy and while the NY Times had yet to bite, plenty of other applications had.

A quick glance through the online reviews assuaged some of my fears and I purchased the app.

It has been worth every penny so far.

The first, and most important note is that this is the NY Times Crossword, just as it appears in the newspaper, delivered straight to your phone every day. The puzzles are generally easier at the beginning of the week and the weekend puzzles are slightly larger. The puzzles are difficult but doable, the clues are clever, and the app is easy to use.

Although it does take a second to load, once it’s up, users are given options to Play, Connect, Rankings, Extras, and Help.

The Play option, naturally enough, takes users right into the main area of the application. From there, players can continue they puzzle they had been working on, choose the newest (daily) puzzle, or browse through the archives. Once inside a puzzle, the options are useful and clearly defined without an distractions or unnecessary information cluttering up the onscreen real estate.

Players can check letters, words, or complete puzzles, with the option to fully unlock each puzzle 24 hours after it has been released. Some of the more useful features include using the iPhone’s multi-touch option to resize the screen, making it easier to highlight the correct space, and being able to circle letters for easy reference. Other, lesser features, include being able to “write” with a pen or pencil, although both allow the player to change their answers, and reading a list of clues.

The Connect feature adds a bit of sociabilty to the application by letting users compare themselves to other users via a “Legends” page as well as maintaining a profile. The profile area lets users track their daily stats and provide a bit of information about themselves. Related to the Connect menu is the Rankings menu, allowing users to view online scores and to (again) check their daily stats.

Under the Extras menu, users can view the front page of the New York Times and check the Magmic Social Network, etc.

The one negative is that at $9.99, the application is quite pricey. Especially when there are $.99 crossword puzzle applications available in the iTunes store. However, when you consider that a subscription to the print edition of the New York Times can run $50 a year, and even the online edition is $30, $10 for the crossword and the free NY Times news app seems like a bargain.

All told, the New York Times Crossword is a fantastic application for crossword lovers.

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