No Google Reader? What’ll I do? What’ll I do? (panic)

RSS icons

Are you geeky enough to know what these are?

In my search for an RSS reader to replace the dying Google Reader, I finally settled on Feedly with a few modifications. But that’s me, and I have my own specialized news-reading needs.

What about for the rest of us? In my search, here’s what I found out:

Basically, there are three types of feed reader — actually more, but these are the ones I’m counting:

  • Online use through a Web browser.
  • Offline use through a standalone reader.
  • Via your smartphone or other easy-to-snatch device.

Each one has its advantages and disadvantages:

Browser-based readers are easy on disk space, fairly easy to set up, and you can get your news on from any computer. Your content will be up-to-the-minute. But you need an Internet connection to do anything with it.

Stand-alone feed readers don’t require an Internet connection to read your news. Tag and save your news right there and sync everything the next time you go online. Disadvantages aplenty, though. These readers take up a lot of disk space, and your news won’t be as current as it would be if you were reading online.

Smartphone apps (I’m using Android, but expect the same if you’re using an iWhatever): You can read your news anywhere. Some will allow offline reading. Some, particularly Flipboard, offer a breathtaking graphics-rich interface. Some, however, don’t allow for offline reading (here’s looking at you, Feedly and Flipboard). Those that do will consume a bunch of internal memory, and the more graphics-laden ones will still eat memory like popcorn. Some readers are rough on your battery and cause your phone to run hot.

Each division has its contenders.

Among the browser-based, Feedly gets most of the ink. And they should. They moved the fastest in building new stuff under the hood, and it’s easy to move your Google Reader feeds to this one. Now, you can access it from any browser (via http://cloud.feedly.com) rather than use some browser extension. This means I can use my off-brand browsers — Seamonkey and Opera) to view my news.

Off the top of my head, I can also name The Old Reader, Newsblur, and Bloglines. I’m hearing from some other sites wanting to develop their own, too. Digg (amazingly still alive), AOL (back from the dead) and Facebook all have RSS readers either already active or on the drawing board.

Gee, if RSS is a dead technology, why are so many big-name entities so interested in it?

Offline, computer-based readers are a real mixed bag; some are better than others. FeedDemon is a favorite among Windows users. RSSOwl is pretty versatile, and with a Java base it can run on just about any platform (it’s also really bloated, so there’s that). Linux users (raises hand) can go with LifeRea (have that) and the uber-geeky text-only Newsbeuter (love that).

Android readers run in all shapes and sizes. A quick trip through Google Play will give you more info than you ever needed. Among the better online-only are Flipboard, Feedly, Google Currents, and Pulse. All of these have a beautiful interface and read more like a magazine than an RSS reader.

For offline Android readers I’ve played with FeedDemon, NewsRob and FeedMe. For all the options available, I don’t see a lot of choice. But maybe it’s because of my fixation for offline readers that are not overcome with bloat.

In case you’re interested (snicker), here’s my setup du jour: I’m using Feedly online, with FeedMe as the Android front end. At least for the moment that’s what works best for me. As far as offline PC-based readers, I have the two I mentioned for Linux but don’t really use them.

Anyway, that’s my two cents’ worth. Come visit me enough times for geeky advice, and you might have enough for a cup of coffee.

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Google kills text-message search; do I still have options?

(I knew there was a reason why I kept this blog around. So I haven’t kept it up for a while, but tech stuff still happens and I still have opinions about most of it. This seems to be a good enough topic to resurrect this blog on.)

texting

Who would have thought text messaging was, like, so last year?

While I’ve been crying in my coffee over Google’s decision to get rid of its Reader RSS service, another service was shut down. Very quietly, too.

Google SMS went toes up last month, with very little warning. And although I used the service quite a bit, I didn’t really notice it until now.

Google SMS allows you to send a text message to Google for any number of things, and within minutes you’d get a text message back with the answer.

In truth, I don’t use the service nearly as much as I used to. It’s handy, though.

For a long time, all I had to do to get the weather forecast was to text Google’s text-message number, 466453, and enter my search parameters.

Let’s say you wanted the weather forecast. Key in “weather 29406” — or whatever your Zip code is to get the forecast for the next few days. Within minutes it would come back, and you’d know whether to cancel that picnic.

That’s the service that felt the nip of the executioner’s ax. Suddenly. Quietly. Not even a whimper. Google-watchers were so busy with Reader that they didn’t notice anything else.

It’s really understandable. It seems smartphones are taking over the world; in fact they’re now outselling the old-school talk-and-text phones. Why continue a service that is on its way out?

Except SMS search still has its place.

I use a smartphone. I love it. Great toy, and I get a lot of work done through it. I also can find any number of distractions through it. But I find it’s really faster to get the weather through text message even though my Android phone has an app that takes me right to Google Weather.

Hey, faster is important. At least for me. But then I’m one of those guys who keeps pushing the elevator button to get it to me faster. That does work, doesn’t it? Maybe not. After a while I decide taking the stairs is faster, so I’ll do that.

My hiking buddy Derek is old school when it comes to phones. He admits he’s not tech savvy at all. He has one of those feature phones (what we call a dumbphone) and it serves him well. He’s a text-message monster, and his phone takes good photos, so that’s all he needs.

Full disclosure: Although I like my smartphone, I’m seriously considering shutting it down and using it as a wifi-only system. The reason is that, while it’s great for composing short blog posts and a few other things, it’s a crappy phone. For unlimited wireless Internet Sprint is the only game in town, but its signal strength can’t touch the Verizons of this world. I also find I have trouble hearing the other person on a smartphone; what I usually do is plug in my headphones or other outside speakers and hold the phone like a radio mic.

I still have an old talk-and-text flip phone that I killed when trying to swim with it in my pocket, but I buried it in rice to dry it out and it works fine now. The flip phone makes a smaller package, actually feels like a phone, and works better for voice calls. I’m really thinking of switching my phone service to that.

It’d been a while since I used Google’s SMS service. According to my text log I tried to use it to get the weather on May 9 and didn’t get an answer. OK, I thought, the message got lost in the ether. Happened a lot with Google SMS, so I didn’t think any more of it. Instead, I started using the smartphone apps more to get the weather.

Turns out May 9 was the day Google shut that service down. But I didn’t know that yet.

Anyway, I tried again on June 11 and got the following message:

SMS search has been shutdown. You can continue to search the web at google.com on any device.

Yeah, duh, I know I can search for stuff on Google. Tell me something new.

But this “any device” statement is a crock. You can’t search Google on one of those old talk-and-text phones. I guess in Google’s mind those things don’t exist any more.

 Searching for alternatives

I used to be able to search Yahoo for the weather; in fact I wrote about it in an old post elsewhere. So how’s that one going?

The number is still there; 92466. So I tried that, using “weather 29406” again.

Then got the answer:

Unfortunately we were able to understand your request. Please try again.

Can’t understand? What part do they not understand? So I tried again:

So I tried “weather north charleston sc”

Unfortunately we were able to understand your request. Please try again.

I get it. Yahoo can’t understand my southern accent when I text. Of course this begs the question: Is Yahoo still relevant?

Hey, Google isn’t the only thing on the Internet. With that in mind, how about some of the other search engines?

I checked Bing, Microsoft’s effort to knock the wind out of Google’s sails. For an answer I went to the horse’s mouth, using the Bing search engine. It’s got nice graphics. But as far as SMS search, forget it.

Then there’s DuckDuckGo. It’s my go-to search engine; pretty much like Google used to be before it got too big for its britches. After some checking I haven’t come across any type of SMS search from there; too bad.

Veering away from the search engines, I checked out a few other possibilities.

I also tried ChaCha (242242), asked for “weather 29406 and waited. Then got my answer:

9230: Message sent using invalid number of digits. Please resend using 10 digit number or valid short code. Msg 2114.

So I tried dialing for “help,” following the instructions on ChaCha’s website. Message still invalid, so scratch that.

I also tried yp411, which is actually a yellow-pages site. No reason; just for grins. Didn’t get the weather, but I got addresses for the National Weather Service in the area. Gee, thanks a pantload.

Finding solutions

After a (Google) web search, paydirt. The best SMS search service I’ve been able to find is 4info.

Write this down: The phone/text number is 44636. That should be easy enough; that’s 4INFO on your keypad.

So I tried that. 44636. Then typed in my parameters: weather 29406. Got my answer in seconds:

  • Now 82F 89/76 Ptly Cloudy
  • W:93/79 Ptly Cloudy
  • Th:95/75 Ptly Cloudy
  • F:86/71 Scatt’d T-storms
  • Sa:85/72 Ptly Cloudy
  • Reply 1 for alerts

Now, that’s what I’m talkin’ about.

I opted in on this. According to 4info, I’ll get daily weather alerts at 9 a.m. Pacific time. That’s noon in South Carolina, so this might be useless. By then I’ll already know the weather but the forecasts still might come in handy. OK, I’ll admit to being a weather-watcher. So sue me.

A couple of years ago I subscribed to the text-message service offered by the Weather Channel. Useful, but I got carpet-bombed with texts. I mean all day long. Annoyed me. After getting a gazillion texts telling me thunderstorms were expected (and there was a heavy one blowing up the neighborhood anyway), I cancelled it.

4info isn’t perfect, though. I tried “coffee 29406” because after all that research I really needed some, and got several responses. A Starbucks a couple of miles away (but not the one just down the street from me). And a plumbing company. I’m still scratching my head over that one. The only connection I can make is that coffee ends up joining the plumbing an hour or two after I drink it.

For “pizza 29406” I got a pizza place (of course) and that same plumbing outfit. For obvious reasons I’m leaving that one alone.

Despite its warts, 4info seems to be the best solution for finding things via text messages. I’m sure you’ll find some of your own alternatives; let me know.

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Talk to me: Do you still search the Web via text messages? Did you notice you can’t do that with Google anymore? Do you really care? What other options can you share? Leave a comment below.

Posted in How I dunnit, when things go wrong | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

Stop checking your email so much!

More stress. Less focus. Not a good deal at all, is it? So turn off the popup notifier, and designate two times during your workday to check and process email. Here’s the story, from Mediabistro: http://www.mediabistro.com/mediajobsdaily/new-study-reveals-constantly-checking-emails-increases-stress-reduces-focus_b11462

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Are your old programs, files threatening computer security?

Is there a bunch of old stuff on your computer?

Not long ago I acquired a full-sized laptop, which immediately became my frontline home computer. My old desktop (emphasis on old) went into a dignified semiretirement as an always-on music server linked up to the stereo. But that’s another story.

Moving my work files from the old desktop to the laptop became a trip down memory lane and revealed what a pack rat I truly am. I have old correspondence, drafts of novels I wrote and forgot, song lists from long-ago bands, and instructions on how to make my Linux system work with various dialup modems. I mean, dialup modems, how antique is that?

Now I know why they make hard drives so big. The one in the old computer is 120 gigabytes, but now you have hard drives measured in terabytes. I’ll bet most of this required space is just for clutter.

Throw it out, they say

As I write this I’m reading a report by TrendLabs on digital clutter, which is probably something I should pay attention to. If TrendLabs needs a poster boy for this, they can email me at editor@ericpulsifer.com and I can hook them up.

I have programs I haven’t used in ages, .iso files to old operating systems I’ve experimented with, notes for projects that (thankfully) died early, and aborted drafts to old blog posts. If you wish to see a profoundly disturbed mind in action, just take a look at my hard drive.

I’ll admit, there are some bragging rights here. That hard drive has seen service in three computers, with multiple operating system changes and more than one total system crash, and I’ve never lost a file. Never. I guess you can say the hard drive is a testament to ingenuity and dumb luck, but maybe a total core meltdown would be the thing that requires me to actually throw something away.

“The best way to get rid of clutter is to throw it out,” TrendLabs advises. This means programs that are no longer used.

Good reason for that, according to Trends: “Unused programs are often left unpatched, retaining vulnerabilities that bad guys can exploit. It’s important to always patch and update programs that you decide to keep. The same applies to your OS.”

Apps on the computer, apps on the smartphone: Where does it end?

Yow. Does this mean if you’re using Internet Explorer 6.0, you’re inviting trouble?

Here’s the thing: Most malware comes in by way of your applications, and your Web browser is a big culprit here. It’s getting so MacIntosh users are being warned about viruses and junk. Shoot, Mac fanboys used to point with pride at how well protected their computers were (and well they should be, considering the premium they’re paying on them). The real vulnerabilities are in the applications. Even Linux users (raises hand) should take notice here. While malware still isn’t an issue with us penguinistas, the Android operating system — which is basically Linux modified for tablets and smartphones — is getting whacked by all sorts of online badness.

Fortunately, outdated programs are not a big problem with me. I’m pretty diligent about keeping everything up to speed, and many of the programs I use are so new they’re still in beta. So new I’m still playing with the bubble wrap. But I still have the installer files and source codes to many of the old, long-since-updated programs kicking around. Maybe those need to go.

And maybe I’ll need to use them again.

Or not.

While I’m not threatening the storage limits of my hard drives, it’s a whole different matter on my Android phone. Somewhere along the line I’ve gone app-happy, and that low-memory warning shows up on my screen a lot.

Part of this is excused. I’m constantly experimenting, and I write reviews for one online client. And sometimes, after testing something out I’ll delete it right away. But not always. I have a chess game I really haven’t used, several e-readers, more than one text editor, three different Web browsers (though one came with the Android and I can’t easily get rid of it), several different online notepads, and two currency converters (I’m still trying to decide which one to delete). Every so often I’ll go through all the programs and decide which ones to remove.

Dancing naked with Nancy Pelosi on Facebook?

While getting rid of the clutter, it’s a good idea to see what you have online. That’s the part that scares me. The nearly-unlimited Google Mail storage means I save a lot of crap there. My Evernote account is limited but I have more than a thousand messages stored away there. And I’m afraid to look at my Gmail contacts list. Just who are these people?

While doing the spring cleaning, it’ll be worth it to go through the social media sites and destroy evidence. I’m talking about those photos that could stand in the way of you getting that job of your dreams.

Fortunately, I’m OK there. There are no Facebook or Google+ pictures of me at any frat parties. No shots of me dancing naked in a bucket of ice with Nancy Pelosi. You can try all you want, but you won’t find them.

And if you do find those pictures, it ain’t me.

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Avira Antivirus update cripples millions of Windows PCs

Ugh! This is according to Emil Protalinski of ZDNet. http://www.techmeme.com/120515/p59#a120515p59

I always thought virus protection was supposed to clean out the problem, not screw up the computer.

And this isn’t one of those protection systems you download because some unsolicited popup box indicates you have an infected computer; Avira is a real virus-protection program you actually pay for, and (most of the time) get what you ordered.

Just a thought, ’cause I can: Linux = no viruses. But you didn’t hear that from me.

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Being productive when your mind is a veritable playground

If I was to (oh, look at the butterfly) audit the time I actually get down to writing (cool … shiny object!) I’d be amazed I get anything done (the bathroom really needs cleaning). Such an audit (squirrel!) would indicate (need more coffee) that I truly am a hot mess (how are those Angels doing?).

To say I’m easily distracted is a generous description. Although I’ve never been formally diagnosed with ADHD, you can bet I’d blow the scale up if tested. Add to that a mind that never truly shuts up until I’m near exhaustion, life at the terminal gets interesting.

To make it through a productive cycle, I need tools. Major tools, industrial-strength tools.

I read an article by Linda Formichelli, who manages to get a lot of writing done with a mind that, like mine, dashes down far too many rabbit holes for its own good. She’s got distractions aplenty, between her kid and her own mind. Shoot, by comparison I have it easy — no kids — but my mind is a veritable playground.

So how does she do it?

Choose your system. Like Linda, discovering David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD) was a huge step forward, and we both use a variation of this. Allen advocates writing everything down to get it off your mind, then figuring the next action to get things going. Use a capture/organize system you trust, and designate an area to keep notes. For me the Hipster PDA is great for jotting notes on the fly and untangling fuzzy thoughts. Remember The Milk is first-rate for organizing the mess of loose thoughts, and Evernote is my favorite online filing cabinet. Both these online tools are easily accessible from my smart phone.

Eliminate distractions: What distractions? Although it’s practically impossible to quiet down an excessively busy mind, I can shut down the Internet while I’m writing. Even better, I don’t have a home connection, and when I need to go online I can move to my “other” office in the library. I do have music playing when I write, but it does more to blot out external stimuli than creating a distraction on its own. I do draw the line on my favorite all-news radio station, though.

Ditch the schedule: To me this seems counterproductive, but it makes some sense. I seldom keep to my written schedule anyway and end up feeling bad about that. Formichelli suggests a go-with-the-flow mindset here. Anything that moves your career/project forward is a good use of time, and you can apply a more jazz-like play-it-as-it-lays non-structure. I still think that without a real schedule nothing will get done, despite evidence to the contrary.

Dude, is that a squirrel?

All good so far. Except for ditching the schedule I have no quibble with her ideas. But I must add some of my own tools here:

The Pomodoro Technique: This is a fancy way of saying … set a timer! I do my best work in short terrifying locked-in bursts, take a break, then hit another one. As a musician I’m accustomed to playing 45-minute sets with 15-minute breaks, but for writing I’ll go with 25-minutes of pure kick-butt production. When the kitchen timer goes off I’ll stop — even if I’m in mid-word — and take five. Francesco Cirillo, who popularized the Pomodoro Technique, uses a novelty timer shaped like a tomato (pomodoro=tomato). You can learn more about the technique here.

Standing up to work: I love my standing desk. I usually do my best thinking while on my feet or while exercising, and standing up really does help me focus. With music playing I may be swinging from the waist down, writing madly from the waist up. Kind of a scary sight, but I’m not in it for the visual effect. For this I took a wooden wine crate, nailed a top to it to accommodate computer and mouse, and placed it on my desk for a standing-up platform.

Forget yesterday’s failures: I read that the thing that sets relief pitcher Mariano Rivera apart from other mortal closers is a good healthy dose of amnesia. He once said he’s going to stink out the joint sometimes; might as well forget it and fight another day. I’m still learning my way around this one, and I’m real good at dredging up yesterday’s failures and attempting to make up lost ground. But here’s what it means: If I fail to write, say, my 1,500 words today, I should forget about it and do 1,500 tomorrow. Just do my thing and not try to play catch-up — notice I said 1,500 tomorrow, not 3,000. In his 40s, even with his still-nasty cut fastball, Rivera’s mindset is his best weapon these days. He still sticks it to the Angels every time he faces them, so I still hate his guts. But I’m not above learning from him.

That’s a start, anyway. Do you have any special focusing techniques you wish to share? Use the comments section below.

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Tap, slide, tap: Using alternative Android onscreen keyboards

I’ve got a problem with using anything smaller than a netbook. The keyboard and I just don’t get along.

In fact it’s a little dicey with the small built-in netbook computer. I use all my fingers (10 at last count) to type, and it becomes a crowd awfully quickly.

So how did I get along with writing stuff on the Android phone?

The short answer is, I don’t. Not well, anyway. If I didn’t insist on a slide-out keyboard with buttons I could feel, I’d be in trouble. Even so, thumb typing doesn’t come naturally to me but this is a fair compromise.

As far as the built-in onscreen keyboard, forget it. Can’t get it to do what I want. And this keyboard modification called Swype, where you drag your finger from key to key, I can’t make a lick of sense out of that. What I think I’m typing and what actually goes on the screen are two completely different things.

For a solution I went back to my Palm Pilot days.

While I had a plugin foldout keyboard for my old Palm, it wasn’t always convenient. Or accurate. But I had an onscreen keyboard called MessagEase that I liked. Nothing more than nine blocks on a grid, MessagEase allowed me to punch out al the letters fairly quickly with a stylus. I remembered this piece of software and, while looking for an alternative keyboard I wondered if it was still around. It was, and it’s well maintanned and ported to the ‘droid.

And still free.

Sold.

I’ll grant you, there’s a lot of work on the front end. MessagEase isn’t QWERTY, or even dvorak. The layout is really strange, and on a small screen the keys are hard to see. It’ll take a lot of patience and many typos. But it does make sense, and if you have the patience it will pay off for you.

I don't think everything's to scale here. Most Android keyboards are smaller and most fingers bigger but you get the idea.

With nine keys you can hit only nine of the letters by just tapping, so those letters should be the most frequently used. The letters E, T. A. O, and N are the five most-used letters, and those are among the accessible nine. The ohers are R, I, S, and H. Take a look at the graphic; you’ll see.

As far as the other letters, you hunt for the one you want. Hit that key and slide your finger towards it. For example, F is in the upper left corner of the S key, so hit S and slide toward that corner where the F is. C is on the left side of O, so hit that and slide to the left. You can adjust how far you need to slide; I feel I only need to slide a little bit myself.

The biggest drawback I saw on the old Palm version — besides the learning curve — was that all that stylus dragging was rough on the screen and eventually left some real trenches in the coating. I imagine it would be the same on the ‘droid except it works better with just a finger. As long as I keep my index finger clean and dry, I’m OK.

So how fast is MessagEase?

I can’t really answer. I’m used to it, so I’m fairly quick on it. I find it lots faster than typing on the onboard default screen keyboard, and I’ve been using QWERTY for about 45 years.

I’m still faster when I use the slide-out keyboard, but for the ability to dash off a quick note without having to flip the phone over and slide the keyboard out, I’ll take that trade-off. When I type on a regular-sized keyboard even MessagEase can’t touch it, though.

BIG7KEY has the same idea, but ...

I’ve tried another alternative keyboard for the Android, BIG7KEY, and while the principle is the same (different layout, though) there’s that same learning curve. I can’t adjust BIG7KEY like I can MessagEase, and it’s not as compact on the screen. I have to slide a whole lot more to hit keys than MessagEase, and after a paragraph or two I’m plimb wore out. Worse BIG7KEY vibrates a lot and totally annoys me. I’ll go with what I’ve got, thank you.

By the way, I wrote this blog post on the Android — like I do many of them — and did most of this one with MessagEase. I probably wouldn’t recommend it for long stretches — the screen’s getting a little grimy and my left index fingertip is buzzing like mad right now. But for short notes, calendar entries and the occasional 140-character screed on Twitter, this may be the onscreen keyboard for you.

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Posted in How I dunnit, Quick and dirty | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

New sites, old browser: How do they look?

This is Facebook. Really. Trust me.

I got a real kick out of a humor site that showed videos of how our most popular Internet stops would look in another era.

Like picture Facebook done up in all its Windows 95 glory, or Twitter as little more than a BBS — that’s a bulletin board service for those who aren’t old enough to remember those things, which seems to be a vast majority of Web users.

Just for fun I plugged a few sites into my own personal wayback machine just to see how they’d look, and leaked some results to a few social media friends.

Backgrounder

My first halting miles on the old Information Superhighway were in early 1995, when Windows 3.1 was the top-of-the-line operating system and version 95 was still a rumor. But my computer wasn’t even that advanced. I had an old 8088 processor with Hercules graphic card and 2400-baud modem, all running DOS 5, and dialup was the way to go.

I dialed in to a service provider using the now-defunct Procomm, and the service provider hooked me up with Lynx, a text-only browser developed by the University of Kansas. Images were easy to pick out on the Web pages; they were the things that said [IMAGE].

What’s so cool is that Lynx is still around, and it has a small but rabid following. I have it on my Linux computer, and I find it great for speed-surfing when I’m dealing mostly with text. I generally like a small, fast browser — Opera is my usual — but Lynx is faster. Name your favorite fast browser and Lynx will still probably leave it in the dust.

Debian GNU/Linux junkies among you can grab Lynx easily in a root command shell by typing:

apt-get install lynx

and you’re in the candy store. Lynx runs in a command shell, so already you know it’s going to be lightweight. But it’ll also show what I saw online back in those days, provided those sites (hint: none of them) actually existed in 1995.

It took some gymnastics and a lot of cookie crunching, but I got to Gmail. Don't read it, it's private.

Let’s have some fun

Facebook is by far the most popular website, but in my Lynx browser it sure looks different.

By default, when you pull up a website Lynx will ask if you want to accept cookies — those little text files a website installs on your hard drive. These cookies help the site remember you, but they’re also tracking you. So if you’re paranoid this might actually make you want to hurl. Or at the very least you’ll want to put on your tinfoil beanie when you go online.

Reading email is a breeze once you get to it.

Lynx stopped me several times while loading Facebook for a cookie check — would I accept? I didn’t count, but Facebook loads close to five cookies while you wait.

But looking at Facebook, nearly everything was there. I could tell who had a birthday that day, and my timeline was as it should be. Different type colors show who posted what, and the links were just as clickable as ever. To move around from link to link you use your tab key (shift-tab to move backwards) and your right arrow key to activate a link. You don’t even really need a mouse, though your mouse wheel will speed-scroll through the site.

I was surprised how good Twitter looked.Twitter’s not as graphics-heavy as Facebook, so the Lynx interface is much cleaner. It also loaded a handful of cookies onto my hard drive (get used to it, my paranoid friends), but in all it’s a site that would acquit itself well in any era. Even on a BBS.

My Gmail site was a tough one. It uses a lot of Javascript, which all but the most advanced browsers would puke up on. But getting to the puking-up point I counted 11 cookies before I ran out of appendages, and then the whole thing stopped. But I opted for the HTML-only Gmail, it tossed me a bunch more cookies, and finally went into the site.

Again with Gmail, you can speed-scroll with the mouse wheel and move around with the Tab key through your list of mail. Opening up individual pieces of mail you can do all the Gmail things: Reply, archive, delete, mark it with a star.

Easy, fast-loading ... what could be better?

My main blog The Column renders pretty well in Lynx. Part of it may be because of the WordPress infrastructure, but mostly because I like to keep things relatively simple. To me a well-designed site is easy on the gingerbread and shiny objects, heavy on the good content, and built to load quickly.

Always thinking of you ... no cookies or nefarious code on my website.

My business website, also designed for simplicity and fast loading, rendered just super in Lynx. And say hey and by the way, no cookies involved with either of my sites, so you can surf without worry of being tracked. There are enough creepazoid sites out there already, thank you.

Google Plus is just plain hard to look at on Lynx.

Of the other sites I tested, Wikipedia didn’t look half bad while Google+ was about as hard to look at as Facebook in Lynx. So they probably wouldn’t have done so hot in the early 1990s.

But then again, would anyone have cared at that point? On dialup the loading times would have been ridiculous anyway. While you’re waiting for those to load, might as well wait for an operating system or browser that could handle the flashiness and bloat of those sites.

Here's the Wikipedia page about Lynx, on Lynx.

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Why I keep using my ‘obsolete’ netbook

Going digital these days: Netbook, Nook, laptop. The smartphone is being used to take the picture. There's still no room for an iPad here.

I love my electronic toys, so it stands to reason I’d be running over people in line to get an iPad or one of those tablet-type computers.

While this may change at some point (witness my heavy smartphone use after I’d decided I wasn’t interested in one), right now I’d have to say I can’t be bothered.

What’s not to love about tablet computers? They’re small, weigh next to nothing, and you can do many of the things that you can do on a real computer.

A few days ago a friend of mine, a musician, picked up a refurbished iPad for little bit of nothing. This is an aftermarket unit, about one or two versions behind the latest/greatest/what’s-hot-now. So far he likes it, but for him it’s a one-purpose device. He got it so he could download .pdf music charts for onstage use.

For me, though, a pad isn’t on my shopping list. I think I’ll stick with my netbook.

My what? Netbooks? Those things still exist? Aren’t those kind of … well, last decade?

For those who forgot, netbooks were a hot computer toy from a few years back. Basically, they’re a mini-laptop with a tiny screen, temperamental touchpad, a keyboard not designed for human hands, and barely enough power to defend themselves. They were cute, but extremely limited. Microsoft wasn’t really sure what to do with them — keep XP alive or release a crippled mini version of Windows 7 just for those devices. Linux became a go-to operating system for many of these netbooks because Microsoft wasn’t quite on top of the game there.

To listen to the trend-watchers, netbooks were merely a transitional piece of equipment. They held the mini-computer spot just long enough for The Next Big Thing to evolve. If you believe what you read, the iPad killed the netbook.

Here’s a catch, though. Tablet computers are great at consuming Web content. As far as producing it, though, they’re not in the ballpark yet. Shoot, they’re not even in the city where the ballpark is.

With a pad, you can surf all your favorite sites and maybe compose a few lines of text — enough for a tweet or a Facebook status update. But if you wish to kick out your daily 1,500 words you might as well stick to your desktop or laptop.

Or netbook.

Have you tried typing on a pad yet? I mean extended typing, like a few thousand words at a stretch? I haven’t, and I’m not really looking to try.

My experience with pad-type devices is limited to my Android phone, which doesn’t count. It does have the default on-screen keyboard, but let’s extend that a little bit. An iPad onscreen keyboard is bigger than a smartphone keyboard, but still much smaller than the one on a netbook. And what’s this typing-on-glass thing?

I like to feel something move when I type. I don’t bother to look at the keys half the time, so on a pad I’m never sure if I hit the right virtual key until I see the results on the screen. Sure, you can set the keyboard to vibrate under your fingers when you hit the virtual keys, but that’s not the same thing. Not even close. Plus, I’ve discovered I hate a grubby screen. There’s just something about it that bugs me, and I’d feel the need to wipe it off every few keystrokes. Ych!

When I picked up my smartphone, I made sure it was one with a slide-out keyboard. It’s small, but the keys move and I can feel when I’m on an actual key. I’m OK when it comes to thumb typing, though I’ll never be as fast or accurate as when I’m using a real keyboard with the keys that go up and down.

To me, typing on a screen is akin to the story of jazz pianist Bud Powell drawing a full-sized keyboard on a wall with chalk when he was incarcerated and practicing on that. You’d need a really fertile imagination — the kind that only comes from long periods of isolation — to make that work.

A netbook keyboard is almost too small if you touch-type, and it’s still a lot bigger than an iPad or Android pad keyboard. It took me a while to get used to it, and when I move to my desktop keyboard later it still takes me a couple minutes of adjustment. I really can’t see using a printed keyboard with adult-sized hands.

I’ve checked all over Android’s tools and have yet to find a decent text editor for writing. There are a couple that are OK; Jota+ is probably my favorite of the bunch. But when you’re used to an industrial-strength text editor (Vim or emacs) or a heavy-duty word processor, it’s a rather poor imitation.

I reckon I can plug a real keyboard into a smartphone or tablet, or use Bluetooth to link the devices. But somehow the idea of toting around both a ‘pad and keyboard seems self-defeating when you’re on the go. Might as well stick with the netbook than do that.

So the whole thing works like this: If you’re a passive receptor of Internet goodies, a pad is great. If you’re an active creator, a netbook or laptop is much better.

A friend of mine recently picked up a netbook with an Android system loaded in, and she loves it. The unit is about the same size as my Acer Aspire One, and it has both a touch screen and keyboard. It’s not as portable as a tablet computer, but it has a keyboard. Shoot, it’s got everything an Android pad has, and you can actually write on the durned thing.

But there’s no reason you can’t make your netbook into a hybrid of sorts. There’s a version of Android that you can allegedly run on your netbook, and I tried it out the other day. It works, kinda sorta, but the user interface is all phone. You can use the mouse to mimic the touchscreen aspects, but it doesn’t always translate very well. The display also has this tendency to flip over sideways for no particular reason. With some functions it keeps asking for a memory card, completely forgetting there’s a whole hard drive right there. It’s a nice toy, but you’re better off taking a lightweight Linux distribution (Puppy Linux, Bodhi, or a stripped-down Debian) and going with that on your netbook.

Especially if you want to actually create something.

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Posted in Computer hacks | 3 Comments

Making my first computer work: Staples and hanging wires

My first computer looked something like this. I didn't, though.

I’m seeing occasional articles about how the computer has evolved over the past couple of decades (as if anyone really needs any reminders), and I got to thinking about my 1995 setup.

That was kind of a watershed year for me. That’s when I first telecommuted.

At the time, I had a really primitive computer. I picked it up used for little bit of nothing, and at first I was reluctant to get it. My then-wife thought it might be a good idea to get a computer, and in truth I bucked it. Didn’t think we needed it. Man, I hate being proved wrong.

Eventually I took a job at the Mohave County Standard, a weekly newspaper that was trying to force its way into a crowded market. The only thing we had going for it was that we had our own presses, and the boss man was smart enough to admit he didn’t know anything about journalism. This job was in Kingman, Arizona, I lived 40 miles away in Bullhead City, and the commute (over a mountain) threatened the limitations of my car’s cooling system. I could count on the overheat light kicking on as I crested the mountain.

Rather than usher the car into an early grave, I began telecommuting.

The wife and I lived in a mobile home with a spacious living room, and it had an alcove that became my office. The desk and computer were there, and the phone jack was on the other side of the living room. But that was just one of the design challenges.

The computer itself was ancient. It was a Leading Edge with a racehorse-fast 8088 processor, monochrome display and Hercules graphics card. It had a modem, which made a whole bunch of noise as it connected via phone lines at 2400 bytes per second. The system specs, as I remember them:

 

  • 512K — that’s kilobytes — of RAM.
  • 42M — megabytes — of disk space.
  • Mouse: A two-button type, no wheel. I had to cheat that into the system, using an adaptor to plug it into a serial port.
  • Ports: One serial port, a parallel port, a place to plug the display in, and a phone jack. Nobody heard of a USB port yet.
  • File storage: On that dinky hard drive, or on 5.25 disks. Be careful about bending them. First time I saw one, I tried to open it like an envelope. Didn’t work.
  • Graphical interface: Huh? The DOS command line, though I found a freeware program called InContext that was a bit more intuitive.
  • Internet: Didn’t really exist yet.

The printer sat on my bookcase, and it was one of those screaming dot-matrix types. In full production I might as well have worked in the press room of the Standard; it probably would have been quieter.

This printer let you know when it was working. LOOOOOUD!

I already had some decent freeware on the computer: PC-Write, one of the better word processors of the era, and Procomm, a communications terminal that allowed me to “talk” to the computer at work. Keep in mind this was before the Internet, and only doctors and dope dealers had cell phones.

Being a forward-looking couple, we also had a cordless phone and answering machine, one of those kinds that took mini cassette tapes.

That’s when I needed to do some modifications. I got a Y connector for the phone jack, a staple gun, and the longest phone cord I could find. I think it was something like 25 feet. The phone console sat in one corner of the living room, so I snaked the phone cord from there, ran it up to the ceiling, stapled it in place, and dropped it back down to the desk — a real butt-ugly layout.

Another challenge. The old computer had an old DOS operating system, and the office computers were Macs. Back then the two just didn’t talk to one another. My boss Matt, who was every bit as goofy about technical toys as me, put an old PC (Windows 3.1) in a corner of the office for his communications unit, though I was able to strip my copy down to straight text and upload it into the Mac anyway.

Finally everything was set up, and I was ready for the big day. I put all my copy into one file (done.doc) and stripped out all the code so it would just be straight text. Then I got on the cordless and called Matt.

“You ready for copy?”

Matt made the adjustments on his end, told me to go ahead, and we hung up. I then fired up Procomm and typed in my first message. Matt answered, his words streaming across the screen.

“OK,” I typed. “Here goes nothing.”

Uploaded done.doc to Procomm and waited. And waited. The modem made random noises. I must have been in another world while staring at the computer screen; the wife was checking me for vital signs. She should have been used to it by now. When I’m working on something I’ll have that look on my face and the rest of the world doesn’t exist. She often thought it was terribly funny to play pranks on me — such as tying my shoelaces together — when I was that locked in. Good thing she never thought of giving me a hotfoot.

“Got it,” Matt typed back. “Looks good.”

Duct-tape hackery at its best. I later set things up so the other reporters could send me their copy from their living rooms, I’d edit it and three-corner it to the office.

Still hadn’t figured out how to handle hard copy. The best I could do there was make friends with the folks at the local drug store, where they had a FAX machine. OK, between FAX transmissions and long-distance calls from Bullhead City to Kingman my office expenses got a little high, but it was still a whole lot more convenient than driving.

I wanted one of these.

Later that year, working for another newspaper in Indiana, I worked up a similar system. Taught one of the office people to play catch when I sent copy from my living room. But I later figured out how to work both ends of the transaction, using a program called Telnet. I’d compose my news late Sunday nights and put the computer on receive mode so the computer would pick up the next phone call. I’d then drive to the office, let myself in, and call home. Pick up my files, process them, print them, lock up the office, go back home.

Fun days. But in 1996 I discovered things like the Internet and email, so I didn’t need to go through all those steps.

It’s funny when I think about those days. Now in 2012, I do my writing on the home computer, save it to the SD card on my cell phone, and I have some options from there. I can send the copy directly from the cell phone, or take my netbook to one of my online offices (Trident Technical College or the local library) and complete my work.

The home computer — a fairly new laptop — is a whole lot more advanced than my old Leading Edge. So is the netbook. Shoot, my 10-year-old desktop, hard-wired into my stereo and being used as a music server, is way advanced over that Leading Edge. And its RAM is measured in megabytes.

Even my phone, running Android, is a major technological improvement. That in itself blows me away. A device I carry on my hip has immeasurably more power than my first computer, and it even makes phone calls.

I do kind of miss having those wires stapled across my ceiling, though.

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Sources:

Slahdot: Comparing today’s computers to 1995’s

Paul Thurrott’s Supersite for Windows: Blast from the past: Buying a computer in 1995

Old computers: The museum

 

 

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