30 October, 2008

Organize and share travel plans with TripIt

I just learned about TripIt last night, as I was discussing an upcoming conference with a friend. this is a website that I am excited about, even though my travel has dwindled considerably. TripIt is an easy to use trip organizer. The Internet has made it easier than ever to plan trips, make reservations, and send friends and family information about that trip. Until TripIt, though, you still had to keep every booking, every plan, and every detail in its own format scatter over the Internet, in your email box, and on printouts.

With TripIt, you can enter all the data into one place, and build an itinerary that can be accessed from anywhere; an itinerary that can be shared with friends and family; and an itinerary that you can print and have all in one easy to read format.

There are so many easy to use features, it's difficult to know where to start in explaining. In planning my trip, I added my hotel arrival date, departure date, and other data I received when I booked it. When I added my airline info, the hotel information was updated with arrival times based on when my plane landed plus travel time. It also added directions and a map to travel from the airport. Using the airline information, it added links so I can easily go to the airline site and check-in and get my boarding pass.

Now of course the site didn't know that I am planning on taking public transportation from the airport to the hotel, but it was easy to add those details too. I added a new Note, had it entered in my itinerary after arriving at the airport, and added the pickup and drop off information, so I'd have it handy. The Note even supports graphics, so I added a picture of the airport with the location of the pickup location.

With arrival and departures added, each day has its own heading with a small graphic showing the weather forecast and high and low temperatures. It also automatically added a map of the area. I clicked on my first full day, and added my plan for the day (an 8 - 5 conference). It was then easy to copy the plan to the subsequent days. One easier approach would have been a reoccurring option, such as reoccurring meetings in Outlook.

So now I have my trip details entered, and I want to share it. With a single click I can share it with other TripIt members, or a second click lets me add email addresses. My friends and families don't need to be TripIt members to view my itinerary, which makes them happy. I also see in this process that I have a colleague in TripIt who has a trip at the same time in the same area. Now I have someone I can connect up with, when the business meetings are done, instead of spending the rest of the night cooped up in the hotel room.

I'm still not done though. If I want to add it to my calendar, and it support iCal, with a single click I can do that. iCal is an open format, but there are available plug-ins so you can even get it into Outlook. If I want to get alert notifications, I can add them to my RSS reader. Alerts appear to be notifications of itinerary changes made by people that I am following through TripIt -- perhaps that colleague who's going to meet me on the trip.

When I'm ready to go, I can easily print my itinerary too. Before printing, I have the option to select the level of details, such as whether I want the maps or not. Or if I want to save a few trees, I can just use their mobile phone interface, which can be accessed through a mobile web browser and via emailed commands (e.g. "get trip").

Finally, in addition to gathering airline information for you, TripIt has plug-ins for some popular websites such as LinkedIn, Expedia and Travelocity business services, Fandango and TicketMaster, popular hotel chains, and rental car companies. With these linkages, it just makes it even an easier tool to use.

Founded in 2006, TripIt is just a beta product. As I interact with it tonight to write this, at times it seems a big sluggish. I'm sure that will improve. If you want to see for yourself, but you're not ready to sign up or don't yet have a trip to plan, check out TripIt's demo videos. If you're not much of a traveler yourself, but you have loved ones that do travel, have them give this a go and share their itinerary with you.

29 October, 2008

Free AT&T Wi-Fi with your iPhone

Here are the steps to get your free AT&T Wi-Fi on your iPhone:
  1. Activate Wi-Fi from the settings icon on your iPhone
  2. Select "attwifi" from the list of available networks
  3. Enter your 10-digit mobile number and check the box to agree to the Acceptable Use Policy.
  4. Tap 'continue'
  5. You will receive a text message from AT&T with a secure link to the AT&T Wi-Fi hotspot. You will not be charged for the text message.
  6. The SMS link will only be valid for 24 hours at the location it was requested. Another request must be submitted when using another hotspot location.
  7. Open the text message and tap on the link for 24-hour access to the AT&T Wi-Fi hotspot.
  8. Enjoy!
Credit for the documented steps goes to my great colleagues at work.

Happy Birthday Internet


It was 39 years ago today that the first transmission over the new ARPANET occurred. Here's scans of the actual documents that logged the first attempt, which crashed after sending "lo". We've come a long way since those early days of developing the packet switching network we know and love as the Internet.

Happy Birthday Internet!

27 October, 2008

Write, fold, mail, and other folding fun

Seems letter writing is dead -- not according to Letterfu. Letterfu.com contains several page templates that you can use to send a letter without using an envelope. The steps are easy:
  1. Find a design template you like
  2. Print it
  3. Write your letter (on the back)
  4. Fold per the printed guides
  5. Address
  6. Add a stamp
  7. Mail
If Letterfu intrigued you, then you might find one of these other paper folding sites of interest.
  • Paperfolding.com is all about origami, from the history to easy lessons to complex origami art.
  • A Paper Folding Project contains instructions for a single design from Paul Haeberli.
  • Folds.net has a collection of links (some broken) to folding instructions for various origami.
So give Letterfu and letter writing a try. Perhaps letter writing isn't quite dead, yet.

24 October, 2008

Firefox drop zones for keyboard-less surfing

As read on Webware, using the Drag & DropZones Firefox Add-on you can now surf the web without using the keyboard. Zones are areas in the visible browser window that are assigned various tasks. To use, select a word or phrase and drag and drop into a zone. The process of dragging applies a set of semi-transparent colored boxes with labels, illustrating where the zones exist.

Drag & DropZones can be used immediately upon installation, as it will auto-assign drop zones on your browser window to your pre-defined search engines that are defined in your Search Engine Manager. Using the configuration manager, you can move the search engine zones around, delete them, and add new functionality. I think the most valuable time saving feature is for users that actually use more than one of the search engines in your search engine manager.

Other functions include:
  • Add to dictionary
  • Back
  • Bookmark
  • Copy
  • Open in a new tab
  • Paste
  • Reload
  • Save
  • View page source
As you can see, except for the search engine zones, most the rest is just duplication of the right-mouse click functions. Watch the demo if you are interested in seeing more.

23 October, 2008

Tab preview and switcher for Firefox

In March I wrote about programs that can improve your alt-tab behavior in Windows. In this 300th blog post, I'm going to share with you a Firefox add-on that works similarly for tabs. With the Ctrl-Tab add-on, press the Control and Tab keys, and you get a preview window of current and other tabs. Continue to press to scroll through and select the tab of your choice.

By default, Ctrl-Tab will order the previews based on last viewed. Use it with the Shift key (Ctrl-Shift-Tab) to move in reverse direction. With a small modification, you can configure it to scroll through in order of the tabs.

Here's how you change the tab order:
  • Open a new tab
  • Enter about:config
  • Search for browser.ctrlTab.mostRecentlyUsed
  • Change the setting from True to False (double-click on True)
  • Restart your browser
Just one more usability improvement to making web browsing a little easier.

22 October, 2008

Add / Change / Delete Systems Properties General Tab

For most of us, we bought our XP computer from a vendor who customized the display of the Systems Properties General tab (Control Panel >> System Properties). Microsoft has made it easy to put your own custom logo and Support Information on this tab.
Go to "C:\WINDOWS\system32" and search for oeminfo.ini. Open oeminfo.ini with a text editor such as notepad to make changes. If the file does not exist on your system, you can create the file. Here's the syntax:
[General]
Manufacturer=The Company
Model=The Model
supporturl=http://CHRISdotTODD.com

[Support Information]
Line1="Customer Care provides support"
Line2="for basic Windows XP questions."
Line3="Please refer to the Warranty and Support Guide"
Line4="for complete support information in your country."
Line5 = ""
Line6 = ""
Line7 = "In the United States, call 1-800-652-6672. "
Line8 = ""
Line9 = "Support is available 24 hours per day,"
Line10 = "7 days per week, and 365 days a year."
You can change to logo by replacing oemlogo.bmp located in the same folder (C:\WINDOWS\system32). The BMP file must be only 256 colors and be 96 x 96 pixels.
That's all there is to it. A great feature if you are supporting friends and family, or for your own support business.

17 October, 2008

Favorite websites, new to me

The Internet is flooded with websites, more bad than good. Just the shear number of sites, even if they were all good, makes it difficult to find those sites that are relevant to you right now. With that in mind, I thought I would share some websites that I recently found, that I believe fall into the "good" category.
  1. The Best Article Every Day
    Day-to-day the articles on this site do not typically go together, which is the power of this site. It exposes you to new things all the time. Take for example the article from October 16, 2008 -- it's about 28 different free file storage websites. The article on the 15th of October has 78 ways small businesses can save money. Quite diverse, both offer value.
  2. NirSoft
    NirSoft has countless software utilities from password tools, to network tools, to browser tools. Definately a site for geeks.
  3. How to Clean Stuff
    Maybe your microwave smells like burnt popcorn. How to Clean Stuff has a way to clean up that smell. Maybe your son came home from school with gum in his hair. How to Clean Stuff has an answer for that too. Categories include tech gear, your house, carpets, clothes, and more. Check it out.
  4. Earth Album
    Earth Album is a Google Maps and Flickr mashup. Select your favorite part of the world or a place you want to checkout, and see photos taken from there. It's easy to spend lots of time here exploring new places.
  5. Tag Galaxy
    Another Flickr mashup, this time with Papervision 3D, Tag Galaxy is a fun way to explore Flickr photos based on their tags. Start with a tag of your own or pick a favorite one. The result will show you popular additional tags on photos that have your first tag. For example, start with "mountains". Photos with "mountains" also have these tags: snow, nature, trees, and water, to name a few. Click on one of those, and start viewing photos.
Thre you have it, just 5 of the many "good" Internet sites. Enjoy!

16 October, 2008

The value of DRM

As you may recall I wrote in September about the latest company to drop DRM, Walmart. I think we all agree that dropping DRM is a good thing, but in Walmart's case, as with Microsoft and Yahoo before them, they were also planning to turn-off their DRM servers, punishing those who bought the DRM'd music through their online store. Again like Microsoft and Yahoo before them, Walmart had a change of heart and has decided to leave their DRM servers running, at least for now.

So this is a good thing. At least for Microsoft, Yahoo, and Walmart they have owned up to their mistake and they are not penalizing their customers, who supported them during their DRM mistake, any further.

For those companies that are still pushing and supporting DRM, heres a short comic of the greater problem they are causing. They're putting their own customers between a rock and a hard place. I ask, "Why would you do this to people who have interest in your products?"

Facebook in real life and the website is down

What would it be like if your life was like Facebook or another social network? You might find acquaintances from long ago showing up at your door. This first video helps you see what that might be like.

The first video is from some blokes in England, Idots of Ants -- they are Benjamin Wilson, James Wrighton, Elliott Tiney and Andrew Spiers. This is just one of many videos available on YouTube by the Idiots.

If you have a tech job, many others likely do not understand what you do. Of course you spend most of the day playing computer games. And when your non-technical colleagues have technical problems, they are all the same problem, caused by the same thing, requiring the same fix. In this case, it's because the website is down.

I hope you enjoyed these video shorts as much as I did.

15 October, 2008

Create ringtones from your own MP3s

I found a great, free site that will take my mp3 music and create ringtones. With audiko.net you can search for existing ringtones, upload your own mp3 or enter a URL of an mp3 or YouTube video. The ringtones should work with most phones including the iPhone.

When you upload a file, it takes only a few minutes to process, and then you can select the music segment that you want converted to a ringtone. The one problem with the entire process is that you cannot play your uploaded file, so you need to determine on your computer or mp3 player the time mark to start and stop the clip. Audiko.net is able to process files so quickly because they only use the first 75 seconds of a clip, which should be fine in most cases.
If you opt to use a YouTube file, the process takes a bit longer, but still works. Of course with YouTube, the audio is not likely to be as good as what you can get from an mp3 file. When the ringtone is ready to download, you can get it in mp3 format, m4r, (the iPhone format), or amr (older phones).

I create 4 new ringtones in less than 15 minutes; check them out:
  1. Bring It On Home - Willie Dixon
  2. Harpin on a Riff Instrumental - Charlie Musselwhite
  3. That's My Partner - Elvin Bishop & Little Smokey Smothers
  4. The Thrill is Gone - B.B. King with Gary Moore (from YouTube video)
Enjoy your new ringtones.

13 October, 2008

Wells Fargo login not secure enough

Updated 17-Oct-08.
Some good news on the Wells Fargo security front.

  1. Though the ignoring of extra password characters is still true, you have to exceed 14 characters before you see this behavior. A 14 character password is sufficiently long enough where this should not be a significant issue.
  2. The reason behind the case insensitive username and password is so the same system can support phone interaction as well. Though this lowers the security level, it is compensated for by limiting failed logins to 3 attempts. After the 3rd failure, the user must contact the bank before they can try again.

In listening to Security Now, a TWiT Network netcast, staring Steve Gibson and Leo Laporte has reported over several episodes in September that the Wells Fargo online login is not as secure as it should be. This report came from users of Secuirty Now.
  • The first report was that the password would still work if it had extra charcters at the end of it. It was not determined to whether the length was ignored after a specific number of characters or if it ignores anything longer than your password length.
  • The second reported issue is that the password is case insensitive.
  • The third report is that the username is case insensitive.
As of the last episode that I've listened too (September 11th), there has been no reports of correction. I find it real disappointing that a bank, of all websites, would have these types of security vulnerabilities. With poor security practices used by typical users, these vulnerabilities make it much easier to guess usernames and passwords.

If you are a Wells Fargo customer, I would recommend you let them know about the security problem at a minimum, and change banks if you do not see reasonable effort to correct this.

10 October, 2008

Obama, McCain, and Net Neutrality in Popular Mechanics

In an effort to tell the stories of Obama and McCain and their positions of Net Neutrality, Popular Mechanics put together a great article describing the various issues involved in the Net Neutrality debate. Though too late in the game for Obama and McCain to devote time to sitting down and discussing with Popular Mechanics, they did get enough information to know the general positions -- Obama wants enough regulation by government to provide an open Internet while McCain does not want government involvement. Popular Mechanics summarized it as "John McCain is against Net neutrality and Barack Obama is for it."

The Popular Mechanics article does a good job describing the role of the ISP and the so called "last mile". We're reminded about the ethical issues around conflict in interest the ISPs have. For example, the ISP can provide a slower or throttled bandwidth, which would impact VoIP (Internet telephone) from 3rd parties while making sure their own VoIP solution has plenty of dedicated bandwidth. The same situation applies to video from 3rd parties versus videos provided by the ISP -- the ISP can make sure their product always perform better.

My position is that if you are an ISP, you should not be allowed to also be a content provider -- the conflict of interest should not even be a part of the equation. Do not allow companies to put themselves in a position of conflict, as history has shown us that they will make a decision that is not in the best interest of the customer.

Back to the Popular Mechanics article. The piece is finished with a discussion over where might wireless technologies fit within the Internet and Net Neutrality framework, if they do at all. And, whether Internet service should be considered a utility like electricity and water. The utility question is the fundamental difference in position between Barack Obama and John McCain, where Obama seems to put the Internet in the utility camp and McCain does not.

As much as I always worry about too much government involvement, I do think the Internet should be considered a utility, and therefore have some regulation that has some guarantees for all of us. Again, recent history shows us that many companies put their interest ahead of the average American, regardless of the ethical issues. If we want the Internet to be open and usable for all Americans, the government needs to take a more active role to make sure that happens.

Make sure you let your position know and vote in November.

09 October, 2008

Speed up Firefox with pipelining

Here's just one way to improve the performance of Firefox, through enabling pipelining. Pipelining is having the browser send a subsequent request before receiving a response from the prior request (standard behavior). Pipelining also provides the facility to include multiple requests within a single packet. Mozilla reports the highest potential performance gains for those web pages that have a higher latency rate. Here's how to configure Firefox:
  1. Enter about:config in the URL bar
  2. Click the warning button
  3. Enter "pip" in the Filter -- this should reduce the list of options to four items
  4. Click on the Value field for the following two entries and change from False to True
    • network.http.pipelining
    • network.http.proxy.pipelining
  5. Click on the Value field of network.http.pipelining.maxrequests and set the value to 8
  6. Start enjoying a faster Firefox
If you set the maximum requests for pipelining too high, you could actually see or just perceive a slower response time, so if you really want to maximize the performance gain some experimentation may be in order. This difference is influenced by the network performance, response of the remote server, and latency to name a few, therefore requiring the experimentation.

Map a drive while in the Command Prompt

If you have ever tried to switch to a UNC name while working with the Command Prompt, you have found that it can cause you a problem. What you need is a mapped drive to the UNC path. Using pushd, you can accomplish this. pushd will map to the last available drive (i.e. Z:) and automatically switch you to that drive mapping. Here's the syntax:
  • pushd \\server\share\path
    For example, \\mycompanyserver\commonfiles\project1
Of course when you're done, you may want to unmap that drive. No problem, use popd. With popd, it will switch you back to the path you were on and unmap the drive letter. Here's the syntax:
  • popd z
This is a great solution for those batch files that require a drive mapping, but you do not want to keep the mapping alive all the time.

07 October, 2008

Remove the DRM from iTune purchased music

Most of us who have purchased iTunes music know that we can remove the DRM from the M4P audio files by burning the music onto a CD. But if you have a large collection, this can be very time consuming -- though having your music backed up to CD isn't a bad idea. For those of you who do not relish the idea of bacing up each every track, there might be a solution available for you.
  1. This first program, MagicISO, will convert up to 3 minutes per song for 14 days without purchasing -- I tried a song under 3 minutes and it seemed to work fine. You can buy it for $30 or get it free when you buy a 3rd party item or service through their site. For example, you can get the 2009 Entertainment Book for $25.
  2. Your second option is NoteBurner -- a $35 software that will allow you to burn to a virtual CD, and then back to MP3s. This batch converter works with iTunes, Windows Media Player, RealPlayer, Winamp, and SonicStage.
  3. Another option is TuneBite. TuneBite appears to play and capture, getting you an exact copy. I think there could be a risk of error if ran on a slow computer, though. Its trial captures the first 1 minute, which worked without a flaw on my testing. It also has other features such as capturing YouTube videos. This software runs for $27.
  4. If you're looking for something for free and you are running iTunes 7 or earlier, you might try myFairTunes7. I couldn't test this one as I am on iTunes 8, but it looks promising. Being that this is an open source project, it wouldn't surprise me if it eventually had a version released that supported iTunes 8.
  5. Another option for iTunes 7 users is QTFairUse from DVD John. This program has received a lot of press, as every time iTunes got a new release, this program has been updated. Again, this is a potential program that will have iTunes version 8 support before too long.
So there you have 5 good solutions. If you still want to do it the Apple way, here are some instructions on how to burn a CD at a time.

If you're looking for alternatives to iTunes for the source of your music, Sony just announced an agreement with Dada.net, selling DRM free tracks for only $0.66. Perhaps you want a bigger collection? Try Amazon.com's music store. Rock on.

Update 12:30 pm 07-Oct-2008: I might also add that some songs are available through iTunes (iTunes Plus) that are DRM free.

03 October, 2008

One spell checker to rule them all

Many applications we use come with built in spell checkers; with F7 being the most common way to execute the spell checker. With more and more web based apps, I seem to find myself occasionally not having a spell checker or the spell checker is cumbersome. For me, this no longer is a problem.

I have been using a free product called Enso Words from Humanized for over 6 months as my spell checker. Here's how simple it is:
  1. Highlight what you want to check (ctrl-A to select everything)
  2. Hold the Caps Lock key down and start typing "spellcheck". In my case, just an "s" is enough to put spellcheck in the top of the Enso list.
  3. Release the Caps Lock key
  4. If there are no misspellings, Enso Words will tell you so. If there are, a window will open with your text, and the misspelling will be highlighted.
  5. Click and hold on the misspellings to see possible correct spellings.
  6. Select the correct spelling or select Learn. Alternatively, you can type the correct spelling.
  7. When you are completed, hold the Caps Lock key down and start typing "done"
  8. When you see Done at the top of the Enso list, release the Caps Lock key
Eight steps may seem like a bit much, but not really. Once you get used to using it, it is a fast process.
You might be wondering why do you need to start typing "spellcheck" -- that's because Enso Words has other options too. Perhaps you're reading a PDF and you don't know a particular word. Enso Words can look it up for you using the same easy steps: (1) Highlight the word; (2) Hold Caps Lock and type "define" ("de" brings it to the top); (3) and Release Caps Lock. This opens a webpage on Answers.com with a definition of the word. Enso Words also contains a thesaurus look-up and character and word counters.

The makers of Enso Words has also created another free Enso branded product, Enso Launcher. With Enso Launcher, using the same technique, you can launch your favorite applications and website. Watch for a future blog post that covers some of the many features of Enso Launcher, or take my word for it and get it at the same time you get Enso Words.

The printer has not yet responded Error

I recently noticed a new problem with Word and Excel opening rather slow -- on a new laptop no less. And when I was connecting through our VPN to the office, I would get an error message, "The printer has not yet responded... Continue to wait?"

Turns out there was a problem with my default printer definition in Windows being corrupt. I delete the old definition and created a new definition (Add Printers and Faxes) and the problem has gone away.

02 October, 2008

DRM needs the boot

I ran across a great article on Royal HeHe2-ness from guest blogger Ian McLean about DRM and why it needs to go. Why Its Time To Kick DRM To The Curb give a good perspective on the options for digital media companies and consumers. Mr. McLean re-enforces the fact that honest folks are impacted, while the less honest have a better product. Further he also points out that in many cases there are free alternatives that are as good or nearly as good as the expensive DRM software packages. Give this article a read.