Sunday, May 25, 2008

cmd key confusion

When I picked up an old 12" PowerBook G4 last fall (just in time for the launch of Leopard!) I wondered how long it would take to become familiar enough with keyboard shortcuts under OS X such that they'd become reflex actions. Not long at all, as it turns out - especially once I worked out that the Command key on a Mac is similar in concept to the Windows key on a PC.

After several months of switching between Windows PC (at work) and a Mac (at home), I find the daily transition fairly seamless - with one exception. I use keyboard shortcuts fairly often when browsing, especially to jump to the browser Search and Address fields. Jumping to the Address field in Safari is Cmd-L, so after an evening of web surfing I find the first thing I do the next day at work on my Windows PC is hit the Windows-L key combination - which logs me out. It's been months now, and I still do this every two or three days! Argh!

Sunday, May 18, 2008

ted, this case is closed

I've been excited about receiving a TED 1001 home energy meters for two weeks now. I downloaded and skimmed through the TED manual to see what the installation requirements were. I Googled online forums to learn how I might connect the TED display unit to my home Linux server and archive energy data. On Thursday, I received a new TED on loan that I could use for the energy efficiency experiment I had in mind. Even better - with the Victoria Day long weekend, I figured I had plenty of time to install the metering unit and test out communications over the power lines to the display unit.

Then I opened my electrical panel and found this:

The main service conductors come into the panel from the top left, just below the yellow sticker. These bad boys are thick and sturdy, and placed far too close together for me to get the CTs clamped on. Better yet, I can't de-energize these cables in order to feed them through the CTs - that would have to be done on the BC Hydro side of the circuit.

So that's it - the monitoring experiment case is closed. BC Hydro does offer reasonable historical billing data, however, so I may still grab coincident weather data and run a quick model to check the efficiency of my home. The TED will be passed on to some lucky colleague at work to play with - I hope their electrical panel is easier to work with than mine!

Friday, May 09, 2008

email purgatory

As mentioned in a previous post, I'm a fan of desktop search engines like Google Desktop. With files at home and at work numbering in the tens of thousands, I can't imagine any other way of quickly finding what I'm looking for. I often still organize files into directories by project or category, but also often find that even if I remember exactly which folder I've placed a file in, it's faster to retrieve it via search rather than drill down five folders to get it.

I used to have rich hierarchies of folders for storing work email messages, but now I rely primarily on just two - Keepers and Purgatory. The vast majority of messages I receive at work are either (a) messages I can scan and delete immediately, (b) messages I wish to keep for reference forever, or (c) messages I wish to keep for reference but which have a limited "shelf life". The realization that this third "Purgatory" category exists has helped me prune down my inbox tremendously. I found that I wanted to keep many messages with information that was useful over a span of weeks or months, but that after that period, the information was "stale" and no longer needed. I now drop such messages into the Purgatory folder, which has a simple Outlook archive rule - delete all messages older than 6 months. This sliding 6-month window lets me keep messages while they are useful and prunes out those that are not.

A final note - a number of new tools are arriving to help people organize and find their email, one of which is Xobni, an extension for Outlook which uses social connections gleaned from your email to help you find messages and information about contacts. The Xobni Insight extension beta recently went public, but I had a chance to participate in the private beta a few months ago. My verdict? Although the organization by social context was cool and the email stats were spiffy, I still found my self gravitating towards Google Desktop to find messages. If I wanted to find a recent message from Joe, I found it faster to hit CTRL-CTRL to bring up the Google Desktop search box and type "from joe" rather than find the contact in the Xobni sidebar in Outlook.

Sunday, May 04, 2008


My first computer (everyone has impossibly fond memories of their first computer, don't they?) was a Radio Shack Colour Computer. With 16k of RAM. For the kids out there, that's not a typo - I'm talkin' 16 kilo-bytes of space to drop code into. Friends helped me double that to 32k by piggy-back soldering additional DIP-style RAM chips on top (except the address/strobe pin - that we bent and connected to some address/strobe line on motherboard). Yup - those were the days...

The reason I wanted a computer in the first place was so that I could code - I'd been fascinated with the concept of creating my own programs ever since buying a book on programming in Basic and reading it cover-to-cover the year before. I messed around with several little programs from that book (like Hunt the Wumpus) but the program I was most proud of creating was a Tron-style light cycles game for two players. I remember it taking forever to get several timing delays just right!

I never really coded much after leaving high school. Sure, there were Fortran and Pascal and other courses that were part of the standard engineering program, but those courses were never fun in the way coding the Tron light cycles game was. Assigned projects were just that - assigned by someone else, to write a program that didn't "scratch an itch" that I had myself.

The release of Google App Engine has sparked my interest in programming again, especially a style that I'll call franken-coding. I expect many see cloud platforms such as GAE as low-cost ways to host the comprehensive applications that they wish to write and deploy. I'm more interested in the new kinds of mini-applications that will be enabled by the zero-cost approach taken by GAE. Think Unix-style tools, but for the cloud - the equivalent of grep, cat, etc, but for web applications. While some folks may draw satisfaction writing everything from scratch, I'm quite happy to stitch together such mini-applications to accomplish a task.

I'm tempted to make my first GAE application a Tron light cycles game...