My top computer tools

I’m on the computer a lot (over 40 hours/wk), and there are a few tools I’ve noticed I have on every computer that have become a standard part of my setup.
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  • Firefox
    On my Mac, I tend to use Safari, but at work and on any PC I’m on, I use Firefox. Safari pissed me off a couple of days ago (Flash crashed it again again again), so I set Firefox as my default browser (I’m using it to write this, in fact). It seems that even the worst AJAX-abusing web sites work in Firefox, it’s pretty standard across all platforms, and it wraps plugins well enough that when certain Adobe products explode, the browser just displays “Sorry, the flash plugin has crashed” or similar, instead of crashing itself. Firefox pre-3.6 was frickin’ slow, but 3.6 is about as fast as Safari. Of course, I do lose syncing of bookmarks to my iPhone, but honestly I almost never use bookmarks on my iPhone.
  • Lastpass
    I used to use 1Password, but Lastpass took over because 1Password didn’t work on Linux (it may now, I don’t know). I still run 1Password (Pro) on my iPhone, but that’s mainly to look up passwords that aren’t in Lastpass yet. Lastpass is web based, which makes it really convenient if you end up on a hotel computer and need to log into a web site, and may not have your iPhone handy. Of course, there’s also an iPhone app, but I haven’t gotten that yet. 1Password also requires too much setup: you need to store your password file somewhere and sync it yourself (via Dropbox, iDisk, whatever), and the iPhone sync requires you to manually run the program on your Mac and phone at the same time. See, Winbloz users just went away. Lastpass just lets you store passwords. It handles the syncing (to their servers), and is still secure, because they’re just storing encrypted information.
  • WordPress
    I’ve used a lot of blogging products over the years, starting with straight HTML in a text editor. WordPress has great features, and is the standard for setting up a blog. I use the installed version, which is conveniently a 1-click install through Simplescripts on my current web host. Before this host, I installed it myself (and even wrote scripts to do installs/upgrades automatically before that was built in). Current wordpress is stable, feature-rich, and very easy to use. Themes and plugins usually work with little modification (you used to have to tweak the heck out of things to make a new theme work – “Widgets” fixed that). Updates are automatic like most desktop software these days. The Askimet plugin combined with the “Bad Behavior” plugin stop 99% of my comment spam (which is a huge problem and time sucker if you’re setting up a blog these days). WordPress lets you set up a blog very quickly and easily, and add/change features as you go. In short, it’s quite flexible, but easy to get started with. Although you can use it as a CMS to set up web sites (and I have), it’s really designed as a blog platform, so I wouldn’t recommend it if you’re trying to find a web site builder. If your web site is a blog with some extra pages, however, WordPress is fine.
  • Dropbox
    This is a must on all my computers now. Dropbox’s syncing is impeccably handled, it works on all platforms, and it allows 1-click sharing of folders. I have an “Assistant Share” folder (shared with my assistant and girlfriend), a “Bookkeeping” folder (shared with my bookkeeper), and an “Accounting” folder (shared with my accountant). If I need to get tax documents to my accountant, I just drop them into my Accounting folder, and they’re on her computer immediately. Need to update some procedures for my assistant – I update the document in my “Assistant Share” folder. The syncing is immediate and I have never had a problem with file conflicts (well, I did once, but my girlfriend was copying files into her Dropbox folder and I moved them on mine while they were syncing. Even then, cleanup was pretty quick, and Dropbox didn’t break anything – just moved the files I said to move, while leaving others in place because she’d just put them there). To share a folder, you control-click (or right-click) and select “Share” (the option varies slightly depending on the OS you’re running). Works on Linux, Mac, and Winblows.
  • Ubuntu
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    I had to use a PC for work, and I tolerated Windows for a couple days of instability on it before I borrowed my friend’s Ubuntu CD. I still prefer MacOS X, but if I can’t use it for some reason, Ubuntu’s next in line. In some ways I even prefer it to MacOS. Software updates (for all software) are built in. You can customize the desktop to behave like Windows or MacOS X, or some weird hybrid if you want. It’s almost as stable as MacOS X (although I do run into occasional glitches that require a Google search to remedy). It’s got a good user base, so most issues you run into can be solved by Googling and following the instructions someone’s spelled out. It’s 99% an end-user-friendly OS now, including Firefox, OpenOffice, an iTunes-like music player/store (which even has Last.fm built in), and a host of other applications pre-installed. Getting new software is unique – you go to the “Software Center” menu item and search (or browse by categories such as Office, Entertainment, etc). Most software is free (open-source). Software updates are usually automatic, as when you “download” software, you’re not actually downloading an application, but installing a package description, which then tells the software update tool (“package manager”) to include that software in its updates. Fancy. To the end user, that means that the software just magically stays up to date. Plus, it’s free, and in many cases better than certain commercial equivalents. (I don’t bother with MS Office any more, as OpenOffice runs on PC/Mac/Linux).
  • Netflix
    I don’t know anyone who isn’t a Netflix subscriber, but I figured I’d mention it anyway. I use it both for DVDs and to Watch Instantly on my Mac and the PS3. Netflix jumped in as part of the beginning of the switch from broadcast to on-demand content. (Tivo was the other part).

So that’s a few of my favorite non-obvious tools. I also use the iPhone, running Shazam, Omnifocus, Now Playing and Siri on my home screen. (Now Playing is there to add movies to my Netflix queue when I see cool previews). Shazam is awesome for figuring out “what’s that song”, and Omnifocus is the best GTD-based organization software for Mac/iPhone (although the lack of a Linux version is problematic for me – if there was an equivalent web-based tool with an iPhone app I’d use that instead).[ad#Adsense]

iPhone 4: “Now with less cancer!”

[ad#Adsense]Apple obviously cannot state the true reason for the much-hyped signal-strength reduction “flaw”.

The truth is, it’s not a flaw at all, but a life-saving feature. The media seems to have forgotten the research stating that cell phone radiation causes cancer. The iPhone 4 features a new sensor that detects how tightly you’re gripping the phone/antenna. If your hand is covering a sufficient enough portion of the phone/antenna, or most noticeably bridging the break between the two antennas, the phone automatically decreases the signal strength to protect you. If you release your gorilla-grip on the phone and hold it with safe, minimal contact, or add a buffer between you and the antennas, the phone can continue at standard strength.

Obviously Apple cannot advertise this feature to the public, as tag lines such as “kills you slower than the Droid” and “Now with less cancer!” perform poorly in focus groups. As a result, Apple must deal with unfair bad publicity. But, in the end, it’s a strategic business move, because the iPhone 4 customers will live longer than Apple’s competitors’ customers, allowing them to buy more phones in the future.
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Faux Security

I’m really tired of what I call “faux security”. You know, inconveniences written off as “for your security”?

I’d like to get his basic principle out there. Please repeat it, remember it, email it to your bank (through their “secure” messaging feature…), etc:
Less Convenient Does Not Equal More Secure!

In fact, the best security is transparent to the person who is allowed to do something, and completely impossible for the person who isn’t.

Faux security is dangerous. Because it’s so complicated for you to, say, log in, you feel that it must be difficult for anyone to log in. However, the complexity frequently opens up gaping security holes.

Some examples I’ve seen:

  1. A “secure” apartment building in which I used to live.
    Ooh, it was so secure. Call box, elevator key, cameras, alarms in the units, the works. Big deal. Even if there wasn’t someone to follow in, there was an easy-to-climb fence into a hallway about 20 feet to the right of the main door. My friend used to make it a point to get to my door without me letting him in every time he’d come over. The alarm in the unit was only triggered by the front door, and even then I don’t think anyone actually responded. It was all designed to look secure. All it did was add inconvenience. If you were going in the “right way”, you had to use your garage opener, then your key in the garage door, then your key again in the elevator, then again in your door, then turn off your alarm. The wrong way: jump the fence or follow someone in, go up the staircase to the roof (unlocked for fire safety), jump down onto the balcony (made easy by the stepped/sloping roof), and slide open the balcony door (probably not locked due to the false sense of security).
  2. Your bank
    This one frequently pisses me off – bank’s “secure” login requirements. I generate extremely secure passwords. But when a bank requires me to follow stupid, random password requirements (or use a simple pin but have to click it on my screen, verify a picture, remember my customer ID, etc), it creates a scenario in which I can’t remember how to log in. That means I need an alternate way of remembering this information. Therefore, somewhere outside of my well-secured (and convenient) method of storing login info, I have to store my bank’s stupid login requirements. Less convenient, probably less secure. Because really, if you store your logins in your browser and lock your computer, what are you going to do with login information that you can’t store in your browser? It’s probably going to end up on a post-it note… (note: products like LastPass and 1Password provide alternate ways of securely storing this information, but you frequently still need manual interaction with them, causing you to display your login information on your screen for everyone in Starbucks to see…)
  3. The airport
    This is my biggest pet peeve. I understand that they need to react to events to make people feel secure, but the real thing stopping something like 9/11 from happening again is the passengers, not the TSA. (i.e. someone rushes the cockpit these days, they get tackled by passengers). Securing the cockpit is a good idea, and the security screening is partly secure, but mostly faux-secure. Think about it for two seconds and I bet you can find a menacing instrument you can bring on a plane with which to threaten passengers. That’s all the 9/11 terrorists reportedly did. And none of the TSA’s current inconvenient restrictions prevent that. In fact, since “terrorism”‘s purpose is to cause governments to change things (i.e. cripple the airline industry), one could argue that it worked. And that pisses me off. I just hope that behind the scenes, they actually know what they’re doing and just aren’t telling us (which would be secure…).

Some things implement security well, such as:

  1. MacOS X
    Secure keychain coupled with secure login. Easy to use if you’re you, near impossible if you’re not. It’s also simple, which means things don’t fall through the cracks (like the jumpable fence…). Ubuntu Gnome has a similar keychain. You can also generate truly secure passwords (long, with special characters).
  2. LastPass and 1Password
    1Password adds a bit of inconvenience, at least in the iPhone app (2 passwords required to get to items), but overall is well designed. LastPass is also simple, and lets you fill in those stupid bank password fields, so you can use real passwords and not write them on a post-it.
  3. Office tap cards
    Lots of secure office environments use simple transponder cards. Tap it on a pad, and you’re in. Simple if you have the card. Hard if you don’t. (Better would be a fingerprint scan, but hey, there’s always “better”).

So, start complaining when you see faux security and remind them:
Less Convenient Does Not Equal More Secure.

Avoid car accidents and never run out of toothpaste

What do avoiding car accidents, being on time, and successful inventory control all have in common?

Buffers.

People aren’t precise. Everything we do has a margin of error. It’s cool and movie-like to drive as fast as your mind, and car, can handle, or run in the door just in the nick of time for something important; but in the real world, chances are that you’ll get pulled over, or hit something, or arrive at the important event just after it started (or 30 minutes late).

There are natural limits in the world: the fastest your car can go, the fastest your mind can process information, the actual time the meeting starts, the actual amount of toothpaste in the tube. If you pass those limits, it’s too late: your car breaks down, you hit something you didn’t expect because you didn’t see it, you’re late for your friend’s performance, or you run out of toothpaste.

There’s an easy way to have those things almost never happen: set a different limit, and treat it as your actual
limit. Drive around the speed limit (you’ll notice other people are doing it too). Stay 2-3 seconds behind the car in front of you. Stop at the yellow light (it’s a buffer, btw). Have an unopened tube of toothpaste in a drawer. (When you need to open it, add “toothpaste” to your shopping list.)

The difference between your limit and the “hard” limit is a “buffer”, or a layer that protects you from the hard limit (just like those yellow barrels on the freeway stop you before you hit the hard cement wall). The buffer means you won’t get a red light ticket (or accident), or a speeding ticket, or run out of stuff.

You can also apply it to car maintenance (avoid breakdowns), your checking account balance (avoid overdrafts), and on and on.

You’ll find that once you’ve relieved the pressures of pushing the limits in mundane areas, you’ll suddenly have time, and mental freedom, to spend on more exciting things. This might take some getting used to, as you’ll have a void of time and thought to fill. Then you can push the important limits: your fears, your comfort zone, and why you’re spending time on this earth.

Using Public Transportation in Los Angeles (with your iPhone/Android as your guide)

So, for some reason after returning from asia, I became obsessed with public transportation, and was determined to learn how to use Los Angeles’ obscenely difficult public transportation.

The net result of this is the location-aware, bookmarkable Metro Trip Planner mobile site, which, unlike Google Maps, includes ALL the LA area busses and trains, and calculates fares. Works on iPhone and Android phones (2.1 or higher). Should work on any phone with a decent JavaScript implementation and GeoLocation integrated into the browser. (Not sure if your phone has it? Try the link…). On the iPhone, click the “+” button at the bottom of your screen and “Save to Home Page” to make it accessible as an app. I think the Android has a similar capability.

The site is simply Metro.net’s mobile trip planner with a bunch of JavaScript that gets your current location and lets you add bookmarks (which are stored in your phone using a cookie – never sent anywhere).

I wrote it because I got tired of having to choose between the speed and convenience of Google Maps and the accuracy of the Metro Trip Planner. Now you can access the Metro Trip Planner fast, find out where you are, and how to get where you want to go in a few taps.

Hint: The trip planner accepts major landmarks, including “disneyland”, various shopping malls, etc. Try entering one as your destination.

Enjoy!