Sunday, February 25, 2007

Cygwin and fetchmail

I've been a frequent user of both Cywgin and fetchmail for rather a long time.

For a project I'm working on, I found that it would be very useful to be able to download messages from Gmail to shell scripts running under Windows. So, that means getting fetchmail to work under Cygwin.

This article gives you a pretty quick and easy overview of how to get fetchmail running under Cywgin. Problem is, it doesn't work. Not on fetchmail on my laptop, anyway.

I kept getting an error: "nodename nor servname provided, or not known" whenever running fetchmail with fetchmail -v (the -v meaning verbose -- I recommend always calling fetchmail with -v)

After a bit of Googling, here's what I found: You need to add the following to the /etc/services file on Cygwin:
pop3s 995/tcp

The error message is apparently specific to sites that require SSL to connect. The wording apparently indicates that fetchmail and Cygwin don't know how to establish a POP3 SSL connection, because it's not specified in the services list with a port entry. After I did that, it worked like a charm.

Here's another tip. Check out my .fetchmailrc file:
poll pop.gmail.com proto pop3 and options no dns
user '[email protected]' password 'pwgoeshere' options keep ssl
fetchlimit 1
mda "/usr/bin/tee incoming.txt > /dev/null"


Note some of the things I've changed around here. I set "fetchlimit 1" which downloads only one message at a time, and I set an "mda" setting. This stands for "mail delivery agent." It's made for forwarding inbound mail to some other script or process, like procmail. Here I'm tricking it by using the "tee" command (which simply takes stdin and outputs it to both stdout and the file specified) to take the inbound piece of mail and put it in the file incoming.txt. I added the "> /dev/null" to not bother with the stdout output.

Remove the word "keep" if you don't want it to leave the mail on the server. (I'm using the "keep" option just for testing. I'll have to remove it as I move forward.)

There's probably a fancier way to take a single email via pop3 and put it into a text file for further processing; but this quick and dirty method is serving me well.

If you find any of this information useful, please let me know!

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Which Is Better: Blogger or Google Pages?

Google offers two easy-to-use tools that make it so just about anybody can create a website: Blogger, and Google Pages. Both have their strengths and weaknesses; I’ve created and hosted different sites with each tool.

Here’s a quick, bullet-point rundown of my likes and dislikes for each, followed by a bit of in-depth discussion of what you can and can’t do, with some tips and tricks for each.

Google Pages -- Pros:

  • Create and host up to five websites with one Google account.
  • Comes with 30+ neat looking templates to choose from.
  • Just write-and-go, don’t need to know HTML.
  • Can host regular HTML files if you’ve got an already created site.

Google Pages -- Cons:

  • Websites created have to be hosted under googlepages.com. This means your website has to be mypage.googlepages.com instead of www.mypage.com.
  • As you add more pages, you have to link to them manually. No overall index is created automatically.
  • If you use a redirecting trick to make your webpage show up as www.mypage.com, your organic search engine placement seems to suffer.

Blogger -- Pros:

  • The latest version of Blogger can host custom domains directly. No redirect trickery needed.
  • Easy, word-processor style interface for writing new entries.
  • Built-in RSS feed support.
  • Blogger’s layout modification editor is slick, allowing drag and drop modification of page elements.

Blogger -- Cons:

  • What order each page is displayed in is determined by the time/date it was posted.
  • Blogger only offers a few templates. The default ones are kind of boring.
  • Manual template editing is tricky and NOT for the faint of heart.
  • All sites have the Blogger Navbar at the top, by default.

Templates and “Look and Feel” Modification

The latest version of Blogger only comes with a few templates, while they’re okay, there’s not a ton of them. If you use a default template, your blog is going to look like a thousand others. (Probably far more than a thousand others.)

The template format is open and people can create their own, however, it’s not for novices. I modified spamresource.com’s template to add in a logo and additional graphics, and change the overall look and feel slightly. It took me a long time to do, and I couldn’t figure out everything I wanted to. And I’m not afraid of code. If you’re a superhero with CSS, you’ll feel right at home. However, nobody’s mom is ever going to be able to edit a template or create a new one.

Editing the elements within your template, however, is smooth as silk. Click on add a page element, select what you want (list, title, picture, etc.), then drag it around on the page to where you want it to display. This makes it easy to create things like additional sidebar navigation links on the fly. Even if you’re not a power user, it’s still easy to add things like a SiteMeter and AdSense advertising.

There doesn’t seem to be any way to modify the overall look-and-feel of a page created with Google Pages. You can upload your own HTML files to Google Pages and link directly to them, however.

Content Creation

Creating new content is very easy with both sites. Just click on new post (Blogger) or create new page (Google Pages), type in what you want, and away you go. Blogger is very “post” oriented – it’s all about taking your written content and flowing it into a pre-existing site-wide template. With Google Pages, it’s more of a page-based environment, where different pages can have a different template, different navigation links, etc.

Blogger automatically creates archive links for you, so people digging around on your site can link to older pages with little trouble. It’s different with Google Pages; no page is explicitly linked to, unless you choose to link to it. So if you have a lot of pages, and you want everyone to be able to find all the pages, you have to manually create an index that links to all of those pages. (It’s not an unwise idea to do that with Blogger, either, but it’s definitely not necessary.)

Adding Advertising to Your Site

Speaking of AdSense, Blogger has built-in integration with Google AdSense. If you don’t know what AdSense is, it’s a neat program from Google that allows you to opt-in to their advertising program. You donate some amount of space on your website to showing ads. Google determines which ads are appropriate, and automatically takes care of serving and tracking them. Google tries hard to target ads appropriately for your site, and it seems like it’s usually pretty spot on. You get paid based on ad clicks.

Blogger’s AdSense integration is a bit limited. It’s a great way to get started, but if you’re even the slightest power user, you’ll probably want to download AdSense code yourself and manually add it to your Blogger-hosted site. I’ve done that on www.spamersource.com, so that I could manually configure it so two ads show up in a specific place in the left navigation. (The default Blogger options for putting ads along side templates can result in a big blob of empty space, or only one ad showing up.)

Using Standard HTML

If you’ve already got a website you’ve created elsewhere, and you want to move it to Google Pages, it’s very easy to do. Just go to the “Uploaded Stuff” section on the right side of the Google Page Creator interface. Click on the “upload” button, specify the file you want to upload, and hit upload. Repeat this for every file you want to upload. It’s not as fast as FTP, but it’s only going to take a few minutes, even if you have a few dozen files to upload.

Most people creating a website this way use “index.html” as the name for the front page (default page) of their website. Google Pages is not smart enough to know to display index.html as the default page. To get around that, you create a “home page” (/home) in Google Pages. On that page, click on a content area, switch to “Edit HTML”, and paste in the javascript redirect below.

<script type="text/javascript">
<!--
window.location = "http://aqphilhey.googlepages.com/index.html"
//-->
</script>

Of course, change “aqphilhey” to the name of your site, otherwise you’re going to redirect people to my friend’s site, instead of yours. After you save this, people who visit http://(yourname).googlepages.com will be automatically redirected to your index.html page.

It’s not possible to host already-created HTML files with Blogger. Blogger manages and creates pages for you; your only control over this process is turning it on or off.

Using a Custom Domain Name

This is an area in which Blogger excels over Google Pages. If you own a domain, you can make it point directly at your Blogger-hosted site by creating a CNAME record pointing to ghs.google.com. This sounds harder than it actually is. My domain registrar (joker.com), the company I purchase domain names from, offers an easy control panel where I just have to click in, select my domain, select “Create a CNAME entry” and then type in ghs.google.com. You don’t know even have to know what a CNAME is. (It’s an alias that makes one server name point at the same place as another.) Most domain registrars offer something functionality similar to what I have available to me as a user of joker.com.

It’s not possible (at the moment) to purchase a domain name and make it point directly at a site hosted at Google Pages. However, there are hacks you can use to work around that limitation. See www.philhey.com for an example of a site I host with Google Pages. In my domain registrar’s control panel, I created a web redirect so that www.philhey.com points to aqphilhey.googlepages.com (the “real” address of the site). This is necessary because sites created with Google Pages have to be hosted under googlepages.com. I use a “frame based redirect” to mask this fact as much as possible. That way, the site appears (to most users) as being hosted under philhey.com, instead of under googlepages.com.

Search Engine Placement

This is really important, and you’re about to find out why I just spent a lot of time and effort transitioning some of my sites away from Google Pages and over to Blogger.

Having my website show up only under my preferred website URL is important to me. I don’t want www.aliverson.com to actually be aliversonchicago.googlepages.com (which was the case for a while). There’s two reasons for this: branding and search engine placement.

By branding, I mean the look and feel of the site. When people visit my site, I want it to show up as “mine”, and not as a tiny little portion of Google Pages. If people look in the address bar when visiting my site, and see “aliversonchicago.googlepages.com,” they see the latter, not the former. With the redirect tricks I talk about above, it’s possible to mask this association to some degree. Using a frame-based redirect, most users never notice that a site is actually hosted under googlepages.com. However, doing it this way has a huge negative impact on your organic search engine ranking.

What’s organic search ranking? It’s how your site is ranked and rated by search engines. I’m focusing on Google, because that’s the one that’s most important to me.

When you use redirect tricks to make a website show up as a URL other than the one it’s actually at, Google can’t easily follow the link between the top level of my domain down to where the actual content is hosted. I don’t know why this is the case, but the net result is that when I hosted my sites with redirects in front of them, the majority of the text content of the sites did not show up in Google’s search results. (Note to the nerds in the audience – yes, I know it’s technically possible to still categorize and rank the content in spite of this link – it’s just that it clearly was not happening until I stopped using the frame-based redirecting.)

Google is how people find your website nowadays. If your content doesn’t show up in Google, you’re nothing; you’re going nowhere fast. I write lots of articles on technology-related concepts, pretty specific stuff on narrow topics like spam and blacklists. I expect (and hope) that people find my articles when they search on those topics in Google. If Google’s not adequately cataloging my content, those people never find me. Sure, some people know to go to my website address directly, but those people already know about me. This is more about growing my readership. People search for information on a specific topic, come to my site, and then hopefully like it enough to bookmark it and come back to it later to learn more.

That’s why I’ve moved even this site (which really isn’t something I consider a blog) over to Blogger. With Blogger’s ability to have a domain name point directly at my Blogger-hosted site, the connection between my domain name and my website is made in a way that Google’s much more easily able to catalog my content and return it in response to Google searches on topics I write about.

Which one Wins?

So, which tool am I recommending over the other? That’s a tough call; it really depends on your goals and skill set. If you’re an HTML neophyte and just want to write up articles and post them, Blogger’s the way to go. If you have an already-created site with HTML files and supporting images, Google Pages is a better fit. If you’re a super hard-core CSS nerd and want to create a bang-up template to use with Blogger’s easy text content management system, then that’s the way to go. If you want to play around with static pages and host specific content (images, MP3s, PDFs, etc.,) then Google Pages is likely where you’ll want to start. I use both, and which I prefer for a specific project depends on how much time I want to spend on a site’s look and feel, how much content I have created already, etc.

Designed by Al Iverson

Over the years I’ve done a fair amount of print advertising, website design, interactive media, etc. Mostly simple stuff, as my design goals are (usually) to keep things on the clear and clean side.

Here’s just a few of the things I’ve found online that I designed and/or created over the years, archive courtesy of the Internet Archive Wayback Machine.

RSL – Relay Stop List. I designed and created the website for this anti-spam blacklist.

PDL – Pan-Am Dynamic List. I created a set of simple graphics around a stop sign motif to help this blacklist maintainer give his website a visual makeover.

SpamResource.com (circa 2002). As you can see, I use a lot of stop signs when creating graphics for sites whose focus is stopping spam.

DNSBL.com (circa 2004). I realized this site got lots of traffic, even though I wasn’t doing anything with it. So, I created this simple design template to use as a basis for a new information-based site.

MAPS RSS. I created the design and graphics in 2000 for the anti-spam blacklist I created and brought with me to MAPS. I really loved this design and it was one I wish I had kept for myself.

MAPS – Mail Abuse Prevention System. A simple design I created in 2000. to fit in with the primarily text-based nature of their existing website. A friend generated the 3d @ sign to our specifications. Later variations added stripes (I can’t remember if that was my idea or not; I do like it though) and some really horrible buttons with an awesomely 70s typeface on them. Yuck.

Radparker.com (circa 1996). Gosh, transparent GIFs were all the rage then. Also, apparently mixing nineteen fonts on one page was pretty cool, too.

Radparker Radio. A website supporting my radio work in 1998.

MNJazz.com (circa 2001). Eventually became solely for use of the Artists’ Quarter, since moved to www.artistsquarter.com

Artists’ Quarter (from 2006). The current version of the site looks somewhat similar (as of this posting), but I suspect it’ll change eventually, as I’ve handed it off to a very capable friend to continue on with the site, since I moved away from Minnesota.

Fun stuff! Kinda nice to walk down memory lane once in a while, isn’t it?

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Chicago Links Page

Chicago Journals/Blogs
ChicagoLand Community
Wassup on the El?
Chicago Carless
Looper Photoblog

Scanner Info
Chicago Scanner Club
List of CTA Ten Codes

Neighborhood/Safety
Joe Moore, 49th Ward Alderman
Broken Heart of 49th Ward
Chicago Police Department

Travel/Transit
CTA Trip Planner
Google Directions
Chicago El Stations in Google Maps
Megabus

Media/Entertainment
Chicago Radio Stations
Chicago TV Stations
Village North Movie Listings


News
Chicago Sun-Times
Chicago Tribune
Chicago Reader


About This Page

I just moved to Chicago in July, 2006. Being new to the city means I have a hell of a time remembering who's in charge of what, where to go for this thing or that thing, and what's going on in town. So, I created this page to help me find the right information, fast. Some of it's important, lots of it isn't. Ah well.

About Me

Hi. I'm Al Iverson.

I've done many varied things in my time. I've created multiple widely-used spam blocking tools. I've worked in radio. I've been a record producer. I am currently the director of privacy and deliverability for an internet company somewhere in the midwest. I work with ISPs, anti-spam groups, and clients, to resolve spam and deliverability issues.

I've been working to stop spam for somewhere around ten years. In 1996, when I talked to people about spam, IF they knew what I was talking about, they thought I was crazy. Few understood why spam need to be dealt with, and even fewer understood what a big problem spam would grow to become. Depending on which numbers you trust, somewhere between 67% and 83% of all email traffic seems to be spam, maybe more, probably not less. Reliable sources tell me that at any given time there's at least 3.3 million (or more) infected computers spewing spam, with another 700,000 or so being discovered or infected every week. This isn't a problem? ISP servers are overwhelmed. People need help to reduce the amount of spam they receive. Companies need guidance on how not to spam. I, like many of my colleagues, will be gainfully employed forever.

I live in Chicago, Illinois, having moved here from Minneapolis in July, 2006. At least, I think I live in Chicago. I travel so much that it's hard to remember sometimes.

My favorite jazz club is the Artists' Quarter, located in St. Paul, MN. I created their website and was the sole maintainer my recent move to Chicago. The site is now in the hands of a capable friend.


I'm a long time unix user and very script/HTML-savvy. I am used to hosting my own sites on my own hardware. A change from my usual practices, this site is hosted with Blogger. Lately, I've been having a lot of fun using both Google Pages and Blogger to host content that I previously would've hand-coded and self hosted. Why? Because I'm busier than I ever have been before, new tools are fun, and Google's tools are fun and time saving.


I write for a half-a-dozen blogs, journals, news sites out there on the 'net. Some of them public, some of them not. In February, 2007, I converted my oldest active domain, radparker.com, into a technology and gadget site. At spamresource.com, I've been posting news and commentary related to spam, since 2001. At dnsbl.com, I do the same, but more specifically covering anti-spam blacklists.

Review: Novatel Wireless Ovation U720 USB Modem: Part 1


I've been a customer of Verizon Wireless for around eighteen months now, using their PC5740 PC Card to get online to work remotely from just about everywhere I've traveled to. I bought it when I lived in Minnesota, where I spent a lot of time in bars, grabbing a cheeseburger while catching up with the insane workload leveled at me by my last employer. Since that time, I've moved to Chicago, and changed jobs to one where I travel quite a bit. And when I'm not traveling, I usually work from home. Our cable's gone down on occasion, and the Verizon card has saved my bacon, allowing me to stay up and running. I've used my “Wireless Broadband” connection in San Francisco, Las Vegas, Chicago, Indianapolis, Washington DC, San Diego, and many other places, over the past year or so. When I travel, I rarely spring for the in-room internet access any more; just pop-in the Verizon card and I'm on.


There's a few drawbacks. One, the connection is occasionally fussy. They have a fall back to dialup-quality connection, and I end up on it enough that it just drives me crazy. Second, your computer has to have a PC Card slot to be able to use the card. That means no support for macs, desktops, or ultra-portable laptops. In our home, we have all of these. It would be nice to be able to connect to the wireless broadband connection from my tiny Sony Vaio U750 while traveling, maybe to connect to my Slingbox and watch something recorded on the Tivo. Can't do that, though.


I'm always on the lookout for new devices and new ways of doing things. While doing a random Google search a couple weeks ago, I ran across this. It looked too good to be true. Wireless broadband (or mobile broadband, as Sprint calls it) over USB? Reading the reviews, it looks like something everybody's been waiting for. Was it too good to be true? I decided that I'd check it out, and if it works as well as claimed, it's going to replace my Verizon Wireless card.


I ordered the USB modem from sprint.com last week, and the modem was delivered to me a few days later.


The device itself is just over two inches long, about an inch and a half wide, and about five eighths of an inch thick. It hangs out of the side of your laptop, attached to a USB port, or you connect it up via an included cable. The cable has two USB connectors for the computer side of the connection. This is to draw more power, sometimes necessary to get you the strongest connection and maximum throughput.


Click here to read on...


Part 1 of 3 | Part 2 of 3 | Part 3 of 3

Review: Novatel Wireless Ovation U720 USB Modem: Part 3


Part 1 of 3 | Part 2 of 3 | Part 3 of 3


Another Day, Another Try


The next day, Friday, I decide to use the Sprint connection for work. It fires up fine, and the VPN connects with no issues. I do my usual work thing all day long, and don't see a lot of problems. 90% of the time I'm in Outlook. If I'm downloading something it's a large Excel file. If I'm uploading something, it's a large attachment to an email being sent out of Outlook. I'm not sitting there with a timer, but I don't really notice any issues, either. It seems to work fine. The fact that I have a USB modem hanging out of a USB port is a bit of a concern; I wonder how many people are going to accidentally break off the USB connector. I connect it with the included cable, instead. Later that day I get knocked off a couple times as the cable comes loose. Work's a big frenetic and I don't have time to play with it now, so I switch back over to wifi and my cable modem.


On Saturday, I try another round of tests. In the living room of my apartment, here on Chicago's north side, I plug the Novatel modem into my older laptop. It's an Averatec 3200 series, with 512mb RAM, running an AMD Athlon XP-M processor at 1.53 GHz. Not very fast, but it should do fine for this.


I head over to www.speedtest.net to fire up some download tests. I repeat the same series of tests on both the Sprint USB modem and the Verizon Wireless card. The Sprint connection is fairly even throughout the testing; approximately 550kpbs down, around 120kpbs up. Testing the Verizon Card turns problematic. The connection first puts me online with “NationalAccess” instead of “BroadbandAccess.” This means it couldn't lock on to the faster connection, and so it's put me online via a dialup-comparable connection. Yuck. The testing confirms that. I know from fighting with the Verizon connection before, sometimes it's going to be fussy and nonresponsive. So, I reboot the computer. This makes it clear up and I'm able to connect and do the same tests via the Verizon connection. At first, the upload side of the test keeps timing out. I wait about a half hour and try it again from my home office. This time the download speeds measured are quite a bit faster than what I was seeing with Sprint. At least 1000kpbs, with upload speeds around 100kbps.


Back to the Sprint connection. Trying different sites on www.speedtest.net, I get quite a bit of variance in connection speed. For some of the sites, it does actually note transfer speeds in the high 900s – pretty close to the Verizon speed.


I think I've still got a few days to decide whether or not to keep the Sprint Novatel USB modem, or send it back. Right now, I'm leaning torward sending it back.


Pros:

  • USB Connection. Works on macs, desktops, ultraportables, anything with a USB port and driver support.

  • Easy to configure. Stable connection.

  • If you're in a “Rev. A” EVDO market, it's probably faster than Verizon Wireless.


Cons:

  • Unless you're in a “Rev. A” EVDO market, it's slower than Verizon Wireless.

  • USB connector feels cheap; I worry about it breaking off.

  • When in use, you've got a two inch device hanging off the side of your laptop.


If you've got a mac and desire a wireless broadband connection, this is the way to go. If not, and you don't live in a market served by Sprint's upgraded network, I wouldn't bother. You'll probably be happier with Verizon.


Part 1 of 3 | Part 2 of 3 | Part 3 of 3

Review: Novatel Wireless Ovation U720 USB Modem: Part 2


Part 1 of 3 | Part 2 of 3 | Part 3 of 3


Activation


I've heard horror stories about Sprint's customer service in the past, but I figure every big company has issues now and then.


I call the activation phone number. The magical lady in the wire said I'd be on hold for less than three minutes. After slightly over four minutes, a rep picked up, but then had to put me on hold again. I'm now eight minutes into this call. The rep's computer just went down, and we're waiting for it to come back up. Not exactly off and running. I don't remember what the process was with my Verizon Wireless card, but I suspect it was just plug the thing in and go. I ask the guy if we're still waiting for the computer to come back up. He says yes. At 9:42, the call disconnects.


Okay, calling back, we'll try again. This time the voice tells me we'll be on hold for less than ten minutes. Well, I'm on my Skype phone, and it's not costing me by the minute, so I guess I'll live, but it's not exactly converting me into a happy Sprint customer. This time around, it only takes about three minutes for a new rep to come on the line. This one has a working computer, and the process was pretty easy. Tell her who I am, and she gives me a six digit code to unlock the USB modem device. Drop it in, and we're off and running. Total length of time on that call was just over five minutes.


Installation and First Use


Setting up the software was easy enough. First thing it wants to do is download a sizable system update. This goes a bit faster over wifi than over Sprint's network, but installs just fine and away you go.


Browsing the web hasn't impressed me yet. I don't know if they utilize any caching. I surf on over to CNN's website and watch the bottom bar in Firefox, as CNN preloads a bunch of images. It seems a bit slower than I'm used to. I slide over to my desktop computer, connected via wifi to my cable modem, and do the same. It gives me a second to contemplate life while it preloads images, just like on the Sprint connection. Maybe it's not too bad after all.


I'm wondering how this compares to Verizon Wireless Broadband. I live in Chicago, which is a "Rev. 0" EVDO market-- Sprint hasn't upgraded their network to the new super-fast "Rev. A" spec here yet. That means, based on what I've read so far, that performance should be fairly similar to what I'm getting today with my Verizon card.


I set up two laptops side by side. My older laptop gets the new Novatel USB device, and my newer one gets the Verizon Wireless card. I start them both up. This is the first time the device has been hooked to the older laptop, so it wants to download a software update. While waiting and watching the download meter, it tells me I'm getting about 26k/second on the update being downloaded.


While I wait, I log into a website on the Compaq laptop, over the Verizon Wireless connection. I start a download of a 7.3 megabyte MP3 file. According to my unscientific methodology (watching the progress bar in Firefox's download window), I'm getting around 108k/second. Uh oh. If the numbers are to be believed, so far, the Verizon Wireless card's a lot faster. But, this laptop's a lot older and slower--let's hope the Sprint connection is being affected by that.


Let's make the comparison more apples-to-apples. I remove the Novatel USB device from the older laptop and plug it into the newer one. While downloading a second MP3 file, this one 7.6 megabytes in size, I seem to be getting only about 56k/second. Still not that great, compared to the Verizon Wireless Card. At this rate, if this is the best this device can do, I'm calling Sprint for an RMA number tomorrow.


Checking the box, I see that the Novatel device comes with a special USB cable. It takes up two USB ports on the computer end. I guess this is to give the device more power from the USB bus, to help it make a better connection. I plug it in with that cable and fire it back up. The speedometer in Firefox flops around, but ends up settling down at about 62k/second.


Okay, let's try the other computer. I plug the Verizon Card into my older laptop, and fire it up. I download one of the MP3 files I had downloaded from the other computer, and again, it's averaging at least 126k/second. It's actually up to 140k/second by the end of the download of the 7.3 megabyte file.


So far, not so good. But am I testing the bandwidth speeds correctly? At that point, I set it all aside for the day.

Continues here...

Part 1 of 3 | Part 2 of 3 | Part 3 of 3

Friday, February 16, 2007

Brookstone 5-Day Wireless Weather Forecaster

The short version of this review: This little device is cool.

The longer version: Is it $89 cool? I’m not a hundred percent sure, but it seems like it very well may be.

What is it, you ask? Why, it’s a clock, and a magical fancy weather device.

Remember the ambient orb? It was a weird little globe that out a few years ago. A coworker got one of them for his birthday. Via received radio waves, connected on the back end to a website, you could set it to change color or flash depending on different variables. If the weather took a turn for the worse, or if your stocks tanked, the thing blinks or changes color and you consider yourself informed. Interesting, but strange. This weather device is apparently a descendant of the orb, based on the fact that the instructions for the weather device direct you to ambientdevices.com to register the device, the home site of the ambient orb device.

So, I said that the weather device was magical, and I wasn’t kidding. I’m not going to focus too deep on the technology behind this, because I don’t know a ton about it, and I don’t need to. I do know that it works via radio waves. Somehow, the device knows where it’s located, or the radio signal is localized to different regions in the country.

Basically, you just take the thing home, put batteries in it, and you get the weather from AccuWeather.com. It tells you whether or not it’s raining or snowing, if it’s windy or cloudy, and the current temperature. It has today’s high and low, and it also displays the forecast for the next four days, including high and low temperature and weather predicted. If it’s going to snow on Tuesday, the thing will tell you.

It, of course, also tells you the current time, which it also obtains via magic (either over the radio signal, or via the WWV signal that every other auto-setting clock in the US uses).

This thing is pretty amazing and convenient. We keep ours in the bathroom. That way, while we’re getting ready for the day’s activities, we know what the weather’s going to be like when we head outside. I bet these make great gifts too – if you’re a friend of mine, it’s probably on the short list for what to get you at next Christmas.

Pros:

- No monthly fee. Purchase the device and you’re set. (Unless you want weather from some other city; see below.)

- Put batteries in and forget it. It takes a few hours to first gain its bearings and then you’re all set.

- It knows where you are automatically. Take it with you to California, and it’ll work there too.

Cons:

- It only works in big cities. Make sure you check the coverage map before laying out the cash for it. If you live in the middle of nowhere, you’re likely to be disappointed.

- You have to pay extra if you want it to receive weather data for some city other than your own.

- The device becomes a fancy plastic paperweight if Ambient ever goes out of business.

Click here to buy it now from Amazon.com.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Skype + IPEVO Free-1 USB Skype Handset

I admit it. I'm a Skype geek.


Even though Skype is no longer free, it's still the best deal in town. For only about fifty bucks a year, you get unlimited inbound and outbound phone calls in the US and Canada. Skype still feels a bit “in beta” sometimes – there's no outbound caller ID, and sound quality suffers as your net connection suffers, but these are bugs that'll get worked out eventually. And, it couldn't be any more convenient. Plug a headset into your laptop, whether you're in Topeka or Tanzania, and calls to your local (home) phone number ring through to you.


Not to mention, if you work in technology, and/or have cool friends, you'll be able to convince other people to sign up for Skype, too. Then you can call each other completely outside of the telephone network, and talk completely for free, even if neither party is signed up for a Skype In or Skype Out phone plan.


It makes my laptop into the world's largest cell phone that works anywhere you've got wifi (or wireless broadband). I travel all the time, and it's great to be able to hop on at a Starbucks or in my hotel room and take care of all of my calling needs without using up cell phone minutes. And when I'm working from home, it's my business phone. Let's face it, in this modern age, who has a land line any more? I sure don't. And I'm not so good with keeping track of my cell usage. I seem to run over every couple of months. So, to get around that, I use Skype as often as possible.


But, for casual calling, a headset is annoying. It uses up your headset port and microphone port. Not a big deal with the microphone, but for the headset, it blocks your speakers, making it tough to listen to iTunes or soma fm while you're waiting for a phone call.


IPEVO FREE-1 USB Handset


That's where the IPEVO Free-1 USB Handset for Skype comes in. I've had this for a few months now, and it works really well. Load the driver, plug it into a USB port, and suddenly it's not Skype – it's just a phone. Pick it up, dial a number, hit go, and away you go. Hit the Skype menu button, and up pops a list of your contacts for you to scroll through. Hit dial and the call is connected.


When I first got it I was afraid it'd seem cheesy and too lightweight for every day use. I was wrong. The thing looks small, but it's big enough to be comfortably balanced in your hand. It sits face up or face down when not in use. The microphone is at the far bottom, just past a bit of open space. This is supposedly to help reduce echo when talking. I'm not sure if it actually has any affect, but the sound quality is great. People come through loud and clear, and people can hear me just fine.


The best feature about this is that you can configure Skype, and your Sounds control panel, so that Skype will always use the handset, and other apps will always use the computer's normal speaker and microphone ports. That way I can have my speakers connected to my desktop's line out connection, but still have Skype up and running, without any interference.


I've only got a couple of peeves with the handset. One, when the phone rings, the ringer isn't quite loud enough. If you're in the same room as the phone, it's fine. But, if you're three rooms away and have the stereo on, you're never going to hear it ring. Second, there's no headphone plug. Just about every cell phone and cordless phone has one of those little mini-plug ports to plug in a hands free headset. Why doesn't this device have one? Still, these are minor quibbles, and overall, I'm very satisfied with it.

Why www.radparker.com?

So I suppose you're wondering why this site is at www.radparker.com.


Well, truth be told, there really isn't that great of an answer. But, the domain's got a lot of history, being over ten years old. So let's talk about that instead.


This was actually my second website address. I first had parker.com, which I sold to Parker Hannifin circa 1995. I ran parker.com, and then (after the name change) radparker.com as a hobby web host and internet service provider, mostly hosting websites for friends and various businesses. Some of it strange and interesting, some of it strange and not so interesting.


Some of the things I created and/or hosted:

  • A website I designed for a restaurant located in Columbia Heights, MN. I got free pancakes whenever I wanted in exchange for that one.

  • A website I designed for the Artists' Quarter jazz club in St. Paul, MN.

  • A widely used anti-spam filter I created that morphed into the RRSS and later became part of a commercial spam filtering product.

  • A website for an Alpaca farm.

  • A little site now called Pitchfork. It was first hosted here -- back then it was called “Live Wire.”

  • The playlist archive for a radio show I hosted back in 1998.

  • An online 'zine created by a friend called “the noodle.”

  • I hosted the website of a friend who was sued by Microsoft in 1997.

  • This cool site by Chris Gregerson called Phototour of Minneapolis.

  • And many other random things here and there.

I was working as a graphic artist and prepress engineer way back then. That led to a unix administrator position, then a job directing a spam project for a spam filter creator. That happened at the beginning of 2000, and right about that time I divested myself of most of the users of radparker.com and it's been more or less my private vanity domain since then. Haven't had a lot to do with it of late, so here we are.


What does “radparker” mean? We'll have to save that story for another day.



(ETA: This blog content used to be hosted on www.radparker.com, another domain of mine.)