Category: Tech

Goodbye Posterous, Hello WordPress

I’ve been a Posterous user for over 3 years, having used them to host all my sparsely updated blogs. It came as a bit of a surprise this week when their founder Sachin Agarwal announced that the company had been bought by Twitter. From the press releases, the acquisition appears to be more about buying the people rather than the product. All good for the Posterous staff I think, I’m pleased for them if it works out. However, where does it leave the users? This particular statement on the announcement makes me think that all development on the current Posterous Spaces platform will stop and will eventually get killed off.

Posterous Spaces will remain up and running without disruption. We’ll give users ample notice if we make any changes to the service. For users who would like to back up their content or move to another service, we’ll share clear instructions for doing so in the coming weeks.

A company actively encouraging users to backup and find another service is a sure sign this thing isn’t going to be around for much longer.

As it turns out, this was fairly good timing for me. I’d been considering moving blogging platforms for a while, but with no immediate need to do so, I’d put it off. This announcement gave me the push required.

While I’ve been a fan of Posterous, I’ve also been frustrated by its lack of flexibility. In addition, I also wanted more control over my data, I wanted to own it rather than have it in the hands of someone else. This has been an issue for me with many services over the past couple of years. For example, the proprietary format of notes in Evernote led me to start using Simplenote and Notational Velocity, for the simple reason that I can move my data elsewhere if required. So when it came to choosing a new blogging platform, the key thing was self-hosting. The natural choice was WordPress, it being so ubiquitous and easy to install. Using this guide by SQL Server guru Brent Ozar, I was up and running in no time.

I’ve consolidated both my personal and SQL Server blogs into one, all the SQL content can be found here. Now I just need to get back to writing again…but this will probably have to wait till I finish my Creative Writing Open University course in the summer. My words are at a premium!

I chat, I message

Since I stopped using Windows as an OS for personal use, almost four years ago, I also gave up using IM chat programs. Back then, I was a fairly big user of MSN Messenger, but when I found the Mac version at that point to be flaky to say the least, I ditched it completely. And I didn’t miss it at all. Apart from using Skype for remote work purposes, I’ve shied away from almost all other chat programs.

On Thursday last week, I had read an article on Lifehacker about IM app Adium, and various plugins that were available for it. I decided to fire it up and connect it to my Google and Facebook accounts. To give me something to compare it against, I did the same with iChat – an app I’ve never clicked on since the day I got my first MacBook Pro. I found both apps to be pretty much similar in functionality, certainly for my uses, there was nothing to compel me to use one over the other.

Later that day, Apple announced Mountain Lion, their upcoming version of OS X. Included in this version will be a number of iOS-like features. One of them being Messages, the new version of iChat. The beta was released that day. Quite the coincidence I thought. Messages has one very compelling feature: integration with iMessage for iOS. This means that any iMessage conversations on iPad or iPhone can be carried on in Messages and vice versa. Having used this for a few days I’m certainly liking it. It puts iMessage at the centre of instant communication for Apple users. More importantly it means I can use the full size keyboard rather than having to tap away on the iPhone screen all the time!

This kind of app convergence across desktop and mobile devices is certainly seems to be the way forward. While it has it’s detractors, I’m all for it, and excited by it. Although it could do with some consistency – will the iMessage app on iOS open up and start supporting other IM protocols, such as Jabber and AIM? I’d like to think so.

If instant messaging becomes ubiquitous across devices and operating systems, the question begs, where does this leave email and SMS? 

Kindling

So Amazon announced their new Kindle range this week, which included the new Android-based tablet, the Kindle Fire. I really like the current Kindle device, but I’m not sure how I feel about the new products yet. It seems a touch half-baked to me, and there are some design decisions I really don’t understand.

iPad Competitor

In the non-techie media there has been much talk of how the Fire is a competitor to the iPad. I believe this thinking is all wrong. The Fire is purely a media consumption device. Whereas the iPad can be used as a device to create content as well as consume it. The two are not the same, although they are broadly marketing to the same people. I do think the Fire could impact iPad sales, but not to the extent that some so-called experts believe. The Fire to me is more like a portable media platform rather than a mobile computer.

Pricing

A lot has been made of the $199 price tag for the Fire. No doubt it’s an excellent pricing point. Likewise, the entry model being £89/$79 puts that into the “disposable” device category. But as Dave Caolo of 52 Tiger points out, the cost price is a touch disingenuous, due to the fact that the device does not even ship with a charger.

Design

The new Kindles have done away with the hardware keyboard, a great move in my opinion. It’s one of the worst things about the current Kindle, making it look rather dated. The base Kindle model is now 30% lighter, and is a touch smaller. However, this change has impacted the battery life, which is halved to one month, storage space (also halved to 2GB) and means the device no longer has any audio capability. It’s an interesting trade-off, given that the current Kindles are extremely light anyway, did they really need to make it any less heavy? I always thought the two month battery life was a huge selling point for a dedicated book reader.

I’ve not mentioned the Touch yet – the new $99 ($149 for 3G) touch screen Kindle. I’m not entirely sure where this model fits in to the scene. It’s a middle ground that I don’t really get. The Touch and the Fire both introduce a design change that makes zero sense to me – the buttons on the sides to turn the pages have been removed, so page navigation is done purely by the touch screen. The easy-to-access hardware buttons gave the Kindle a usability that reading apps on the iPad, for example, could not compete with. I really don’t understand the thinking behind this move.

Amazon have done some really good and exciting things this week with these announcements, I reckon they’ll sell a shed load of the base and Fire models in the run up to the holiday season. I’m more tempted now for the base Kindle myself – as a dedicated “one thing well” reading device, it’s at a compelling price for a very good product. I’ll be interested to see the Fire close up and get a feel for it, although it’s not something I’d personally be interested in (as an iPad owner). When the new devices start shipping next month, we’ll start to see how consumers feel about the design changes, and whether Amazon is onto another winner with the Fire.

Enjoying Technology

From ShawnBlanc.net:

The iPhone, iCloud, iPad, iTunes, OS X Lion, Apple TV, and the MacBook Air are, in a way, one single product. And they are today’s quintessential example of technology that is extremely usable, extremely simple, and evokes great delight.

This sums up how I feel about technology at the moment. All the devices and apps that I use congregate and communicate pretty much seamlessly. I’m enjoying using technology more than I ever have.

Getting down with Markdown

You know sometimes you keep hearing about something, about how great it is, yet for some reason, you decide to ignore it and not bother checking it out? Well that’s pretty much what I had been doing with Markdown till this week. Almost every text editor I looked at on the Mac and iOS app stores mentioned support for Markdown, tech guys I respect either wrote about it or talked about it in podcasts. Yet somehow I felt it was something not for me, something I didn’t need to bother with. I’m pretty sure I know why I didn’t want to check it out. One was simplicity; I like the ubiquitous text file, the ability to open it in pretty much any program in any OS. I like that I don’t have to worry about formatting, or waste time trying to get it to look right. It’s all about the content. Complicating things by adding markup tags was of little interest to me. The other, main, reason was that I’ve had bad experiences with markup tools in the past. Mainly with a wiki editor I used on a contract a few years ago. The experience was terrible, having to use nonsensical characters to format the text, which rendered the content, in it’s raw form, completely unreadable. The end result usually looked okay, but I’d waste so much time looking up tags, adding them in, then previewing the output. I really didn’t want to go down that route again.

I’m not exactly sure what it was that made me decide to Google Markdown, even though it was only a few days ago. But I’m very glad I did. Two things struck me immediately about it that I fell for big time. One; the simplicity of the syntax. Simplicity is something I always strive for. I don’t have neither the time nor the inclination to learn complex or unintuitive software these days, certainly not if it’s going to be primarily for personal use. So I was very pleased to see just how straightforward Markdown is to use. Take a look at the Syntax page; it’s all there, nicely explained, with everything easy to find. After a quick play with the syntax (using SimpleNote), I was up and running and ready to write. Win!

The other thing that sold it was the fact that even when your documents contain Markdown syntax, they are still readable in that format. This was a goal of the project, as the developers state in the project philosophy:

Readability, however, is emphasized above all else. A Markdown-formatted document should be publishable as-is, as plain text, without looking like it’s been marked up with tags or formatting instructions.

How good is that? Having the ability to easily read and write Markdown compatible documents without requiring to preview the output is a killer feature. People with zero knowledge of the syntax would still be able to comprehend the content with no problems. There is an example of some raw Markdown text here.

I’m pleased to see that there are plenty of apps, both native and web-based, that support Markdown. Two services I use frequently, the afore-mentioned SimpleNote and Posterous both deal with it out the box, and the Notational Velocity fork, nvAlt, also supports it. But today I was turned onto Byword on the Mac App Store. This minimalist, lightweight text editor fully integrates Markdown, and is a joy to use, especially when used in full screen on the Macbook Air. I’ve found my new go to writing app! And only £6.99, a steal!

Markdown is truly a project that hits the mark for me, and one I’d recommend anyone who writes, particularly for the web, to check out.

Screen Sharing with Alfred’s Help

Now that I’ve got a few Macs hanging around my house (I think they are breeding), and only the one monitor, I’ve been using the Screen Sharing capability of OS X a fair bit.  While this is a quite excellent little tool, it’s hidden away in the System/Library/CoreServices folder, rather than in Applications, so not what you’d call easy to find.  It can be kept in the dock, but my preference is to keep the dock fairly sparse, so I started using ScreenSharingMenulet, a quite nifty little program that sits in the menu bar and lets you choose what Mac you want to start screen sharing with.  This worked great till I started using Alfred – it seemed wrong to be unable to use this quite wonderful tool to fire up screen sharing.  So I dipped into AppleScript and created the following script (Zoidberg is the name of the Mac I want to screen share with)…

    tell application “Screen Sharing”
        activate

        tell application “System Events”
            keystrokeZoidberg.local
            keystroke return
        end tell
    end tell

Then I fired up the Extensions tab in Alfred Preferences, chose the AppleScript extension and gave it a name (Screen Sharing).  I then pasted the code above into the AppleScript text box and gave it the Alfred keyword of SSZoidberg, with the Background box checked.

And simple as that, I can start screen sharing with just a few Alfred keystrokes, no trackpad or mouse required.  Lovely!

Going Paperless

I decided to try a small workflow experiment this week and try to go paperless both at work and at home.  I’m a big notetaker and scribbler, and I’ve normally got two or three notepads on the go at the one time.  Having purchased a Griffin stylus for the iPad last week, it felt like a good time to try and ditch the paper and go digital.

I started the experiment while working.  Usually, I have an A5 spiral lined notebook, in which I’ll write down such things as to-do lists (for the day and/or week) and anything interesting that I come across.  I also have a few pages of A4 printer paper, which partially sit under my keyboard.  These sheets are used for sketching diagrams, flows, processes, data lists etc.  The first thing then, was to get rid of all this – the notepad and pen were left in my laptop bag, and the A4 sheets, once checked for anything I’d need, were thrown in the shredder.

Away from work, I carry with me almost all the time my ‘writers notebook’ – a small black Moleskin with a pen attached, which I use exclusively for noting down any ideas, brainwaves and observations that may, at some point, be used for some sort of writing project.  I’ll be honest, while it has been an incredibly useful thing to have, I’ve found it a real pain to carry around and remember.  

So what to replace all this paper with?  Well, I wanted to be able to take both handwritten and electronic notes.  For handwriting, the iPad was the only real option.  I already had Penultimate installed, which works great with the stylus.  I’d read good reviews about Notes Plus, so I bought that as well.  I started off using the latter, as it had some more features that I initially found useful, such as shape recognition, handwriting zoom and password protection.  I soon found this app to be unusable however, for one reason – lag!  Seriously this is unbelievable, it’s a good second behind what I actually write with the stylus.  Also, the lines are very angular and ugly.  In fairness, I didn’t really notice this until I tried the Bamboo Wacom app which was released last week.  The response and smoothness of this app is fantastic, a lovely writing experience.  I couldn’t go back to Notes Plus after trying it.  But the Bamboo app is a first release and has, well, bugger all features to be honest.  So back I went to the previously ignored Penultimate, where I was pleasantly surprised to find that the writing experience was very smooth there too.  And that’s what I’ve been using ever since.  There is no handwriting zoom, so my notes are in rather large writing, but it’s not like I’m going to run out of pages to write on.

A couple of things I really like about Penultimate for handwritten notes:

  • I can email any pages or entire notebooks I want to keep to Evernote 
  • I can quickly change the colour or thickness of the “ink” I’m using, excellent for making certain things stand out

For electronic (or keyboard input) notes, I fully intended to use Evernote, as I’ve been using it for a couple of years.  I’ve gone through phases of using it for text-based note taking. Recently however, I’ve been finding it less than useful for certain tasks.  While it’s a great repository for PDFs, URL and web snippets, it’s actually not great for just taking quick, simple notes – one main reason being, it’s horrendously slow, in all its forms (desktop, web and iOS apps).  As I mentioned in my previous post, I started using Notational Velocity, syncing to SimpleNote (and ResophNotes on my work Windows laptop).  I can’t say enough good things about this, it is lightweight, simple and fast as hell.  The SimpleNote iOS apps are near perfect – both open in no time, so I can quickly tap in some text and I’m done, in less than the time a more fully featured app would take to open (are you watching Evernote devs?).  This is ubiquitous text capture at its finest.

So having been working without paper for over a week now, will I continue?  I think I will, certainly for the short term.  It’s not quite a perfect workflow as yet, there are still a few issues. One being that I still have that self-consciousness when I’m using the iPad in a meeting; yes, I feel like a bit of a dick.  The other thing to get used to is the handwriting, writing with a stylus must be an art form, my handwriting looks even worse than it does with pen and paper, something I thought was not possible.  Still, it’s only me that needs to decipher it…

Enough For Me

Inspired by the Enough podcast and Minimal Mac site, both by Patrick Rhone, I’ve been thinking about how little software I’d need to do all the things I need to, both for work and leisure purposes.  I’ve been patiently waiting on the new Macbook Air refresh, as I’m looking to replace my 15″ 2008 Macbook Pro.  I’ve still not decided if I’m going 11″ or 13″, although the latter is looking more likely.  The base SSD size is 128GB for the current models.  That doesn’t seem very big, but I think I could easily get away with it, and have plenty to spare.  In fact, I’m sure the 11″ 64GB model would be fine too.  So what would I install?  Read on…

First up, without a doubt, would be Google Chrome, my browser of choice.  I made the move to Chrome a couple of years ago from Firefox and it has went from strength to strength.  Firefox was way too slow and clunky back then, and I really don’t miss it at all.  I’ve never liked Safari either, I did try it for a while, but found it’s features too limited.  Chrome is fast, extensible and fits perfectly into my workflow.

So that’s the browser sorted, what about email?  I’m a Gmail user, and the web client is excellent, but it’s nice to have a dedicated desktop application.  Sticking to a minimal “one thing well” theme, my client of choice is Sparrow.  I’ve been using this since the beta, and I love it, it gets better with every update.  Mail.app, Thunderbird and Outlook are all too heavy and they don’t play particularly nicely with Gmail for my liking.

1Password would be next.  I use strong passwords generated and stored by 1Password, without it I’d never remember how to login to most sites, as each password is different.  Really couldn’t get anything done without this most excellent piece of software, well worth the investment, which at $39.99 is nothing compared to the added security it gives you.

Next up is a fairly new app for me, but one that has completely changed the way I use my Mac in the short time since I installed it.  Step up Alfred!  Kind of a hard app to describe, as it does so much, but it’s a productivity app/launcher which has turned me into a serious keyboard ninja.  With the paid-for Powerpack, it’s an incredibly powerful and extensible piece of kit.  An absolute must have.  Already I’m finding it odd when I work on machines where it is not installed.

I’m a big Twitter user (I’m @grapefruitmoon), but I’m not keen on their web interface.  So Twitter for Mac would go on too.  I’ve tried a few client apps, but I like the simplicity of this one.  Others such as Tweetdeck are too busy for my liking, just too much going on.

Dropbox is another must have.  The ability to sync my documents across all machines and also be able to access them online is essential, and Dropbox does this perfectly.  I don’t use a great deal of the storage space available, but Selective Sync lets me choose exactly what folders I can sync to each machine, meaning I can save a bit of space if required.

For note-taking, my go-to app has been Evernote, but recently I’ve started experimenting with Simplenote and Notational Velocity.  I like the simple text-based format of the latter, very simple to use and importantly, very easy to get data in and out.  I still like Evernote and use it for PDFs, links and image-based notes.  But the issue with getting data out is one that bothers me somewhat, I’m really not a fan of proprietary formats.  I’m not overly impressed with their iOS apps either, editing text based notes is not as simple as it should be.  Simplenote on the other hand is perfect for this.  Anyway, for the time being, I’d be installing both.

One of my most favourite Mac apps is Scrivener.  For me, this is the best writing tool out there.  It’s not the kind of app I usually take to, given that it is extremely feature-heavy, but it makes writing, in it’s many forms, an enjoyable experience.  The ability to sync via Dropbox makes it a surefire winner.

OK, music and media next.  With such a small storage capacity, I’m not looking to keep any music, photos or video locally.  So Home Sharing via iTunes is a given.  When I’m not on my local wireless network, I’d use StreamToMe to get back to my media server.  And I’ve recently subscribed to Spotify Premium for streaming.  I like Spotify, but I really want to love it; however, the glaring holes in the catalogue frustrate the hell out of me.

So that’s pretty much it, that’s essentially what I would need.  For full on work purposes, I would really need VMWare Fusion, as I mainly work with MS SQL Server, but that’s not reasonable for a laptop with little storage.  I’d consider installing the various flavours of Navicat for connecting to remote SQL Server, mySQL and PostgreSQL instances.

Other apps I’d consider: Writeroom (nice distraction-free writing app, although not an essential if I’ve got Scrivener), MacJournal (good journalling app, but could use Simplenote or Evernote for the same purpose) and Skype.  I don’t particularly like Skype, but it’s probably the most widely used VOIP and chat app available.

Compiling this list has made me realise just how little space and processing power I actually require these days.  I’m conscious that I’m running a way over-powered Mac Pro at the moment, and I really don’t need that much kit.  When Lion is released, I’m going to experiment with using a Mac Mini as my main desktop.  I’ve already gone from a two monitor set up to one (24″), and I’m not missing the second one at all.  Streamlining and minimalism is the way to go!