Thursday, December 06, 2007

What Happens When a Business Analyst Day Dreams

I had to put together yet another flowchart yesterday, but discovered some new shapes in Visio and took 5 minutes to map out what my inner-10-year-old wanted to.

(Click the Image for a Larger Version.)

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Proposed new Copyright Reform

There's apparently a potentially dangerous (for consumers) new copyright reform bill about to be pushed through the Federal government by the Conservatives, with little or no opposition. This is a bill that's a virtual clone of the anti-consumer DMCA bill in the states, and one that is basically authored by big US Media Interests. Below is a copy of the letter I sent to my Member of Pariliament about it. I'd encourage anyone to read the links and if they agree, to also talk to their MP.

Dear Madam,

I'm very concerned about reports I've been hearing about Parliament proposing a new copyright bill that will limit consumer freedoms and fair-use rights. From what I hear, the new bill will be a virtual clone of the US DMCA act. This act includes forbidding the use of copy-protection circumvention policy, something which I feel is antithetical to consumers' right to fair use of media. By placing copy controls on media, companies prevent consumers from enacting their fair-use rights, and can enable 'device lock-in.'

For instance, while it is perfectly legal to buy a song from the iTunes music store and transcode the file to play it on a non-Apple MP3 player, one would have to circumvent the copy controls to do so. Under this proposed legislation, doing so would be illegal. This would mean that consumers could potentially have to buy one copy of a song for every device that they own. While companies are not necessarily obligated to make it easy for consumers to copy media for their legal, fair use, I feel that it is wrong to punish consumers for circumventing those protections to make legal copies of copyrighted works for their personal use.

Big media will argue that these laws are necessary to protect and nurture content to be created. Copyright creates incentive for artists and businesses to create media, because there is a potential for financial reward. While this is true to a certain extent, it's also true that the more controls and restrictions are placed on media, the more frustrated consumers will become with purchasing media. This limits the market growth, and in the long term, revenue for the media companies.

Please do not side with the US Big Media lobbies on this one. Fight it. Debate it. It's not a black and white issue, as the media companies would have you believe. It's about consumer rights, and the importance of a flourishing artistic and cultural atmosphere.

Links for more information:

thank you,

Tom Robertson

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Getting rid of Bacn in Gmail

When I first signed up for Gmail, I totally drank the Kool-Aid and took Google's advice: don't delete anything. I had 1 GB of room, so why would I ever need to? Recently that's gone up to about 3GB, and my usage went to 511 MB, or 17%. That's after a little over three years of activity. So at my current level of growth:

17% / 3 years = 6% a year

It would still take me another 17 years or so to fill it up if my math is correct.

But part of me still thought I'd better start tackling the problem now. But what to delete? The thing I love about having all my email archived is looking back at cute conversations I had with my wife when we were still dating, funny threads with my friends, and reference items (more about that later). It's a nice little 'life record' that I think will be really neat to look back on twenty or thirty years from now (if the Internet still exists and doesn't somehow exist in our brains or something.)

So what do I go after? Looking through my mail recently, a lot of what I get is what's now known as "bacn". Bacn is not quite spam, but not quite real email either. It's notifications from Facebook, newsletters from companies, weekly flyers I've signed up to, etc. I even extend it to announcements of plays and other events that friends are putting on that are elapsed. I'm really never gonna wanna see this stuff when I'm old. It's like hoarding junk mail.

So I came up with a pretty good method of deleting. Basically, I started going through my box, one by one. As soon as I came across some bacn, I just did a search for the sender's email address (in Facebook's case, just "") then did a 'select all' in gmail, and hit delete. Then, back to the inbox for more.

It took me about half an hour to do this, going back about three months of emails hunting for bacn. And in that time I deleted 1125 'bacn' emails. Holy shit! I emptied the trash to see how it would affect my space usage, and it had dropped from 511 to 472. That's 30MB cleared in 30 minutes! Nice.

Aside from the space saved, the other good thing about keeping your mailbox free of bacn is it actually makes it so much easier to look at the nostalgic old emails from friends or reference items I want to retrieve later.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Damn you Excel!

And your icon pop-uppery!

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Why we need to move to Linux

I've been a Windows user for a long time now; probably almost 20 years. The reason isn't because of loyalty. I mainly use it for the same reason everyone else does: it comes with the computer, and I get stuck with it because pretty much every piece of software I need runs on Windows. But I know it's not the nicest system to use. Mac OSX gets a lot of things right in terms of usability. And it's pretty. You get the sense that they really think about the end-user and want to make a good experience for them.

But ultimately, OSX has to fail the end-user for the same reason Windows does: corporate interests. Apple doesn't want to make it easy for you to, say, copy music from your iPod to your computer. Microsoft doesn't want to include bit torrent functionality out of the box. Why? Because they don't want to piss off content companies that they're making deals on the side with.

Ubuntu Linux offers you both of those functionalities right of the box. Why? Because those are popular use-cases for the user. People want to do those thigns. Seriously, how many people have you heard complaining about not being able to copy music off their iPod easily? Most people are surprised this isn't something that's available by default.

Now, we can get into the ethics of piracy, but at the end of the day, I don't think that software companies should be dictating what you should and shouldn't be doing, especially when the only reason they're doing so is because content companies don't like it. And remember, it's not illegal to copy music from my iPod onto another computer I have. That's fair use. And Bit Torrent doesn't necessarily need to be used for piracy. It's like selling a VCR that won't record because it might be used for piracy.

Sure, Ubuntu doesn't offer MP3 playback out of the box - a hugely popular use case for users. But that's a trade-off. It means they can distribute it for free without being sued. And at the end of the day, moving to open source codecs is really better for the consumer: it makes things cheaper!

The world of open-source software I think is always one that is going to do things in the best interest of the user. Even if the total package isn't there yet, give it time. It will be.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Automatic Online Backups... made easy

So we all know we should backup our files, right? Especially these days when all our music and pictures are stored on our box, it's really more important for the personal user than ever.

Now, you could get a removable hard drive, and set up an automatic backup there. Fine. But what if you get robbed, and the robber takes that nice shiny drive sitting next to your computer? Even if it's hidden, what if your house burns down?

For me, it's pretty obvious you've got to go online with your backups. Not only are you protected if your house burns down, your data is backed up on servers by trained professionals. So a lot of things really have to get fucked up for you to lose your data.

Sure, there's the security concern. Fine. Some guy could look at your files. For me, I don't care. I don't have naked pictures of myself on my machine and I don't really have anything that's embarrassing or even sensitive info like my credit card number in my backup files. Sure, I guess I'm exposing myself to some amount of risk, but I generally trust these data center guys.

So... now that you're sold on online backups, what to do?

1. Sign up for Amazon S3

This is a data storage solution from Amazon. I won't get into specific numbers, but it's cheap. You can keep gigabytes there for pennies a month. The cost is so low that it would take about ten years of having the service before you'd have payed for an external hard drive, and we all know one hard drive probably won't even last that long. And there are open API's, which mean that applications can access your data (provided you log in with your password and key. Amazon's such a big company that I definitely trust my data with them. But now that we have it, how do we do backups? Well..

2. Get JungleDisk

JungleDisk is free, as in beer, and it sets up Amazon as a drive on your machine. So now you have a letter drive that's your Amazon S3 account that you can write data to. Sweet. There's some rudimentary backup stuff in JungleDisk, but it's only a 'full backup', which means every time it runs the backup, everything you specify is uploaded to Amazon again. Since you do pay (small) data transfer fees to Amazon, this isn't great. So...

3. Get Cobian Backup

A backup application that's free, as in speech and beer. It's a super easy application to set up a task to do nightly, weekly, whatever, backups. And you can do incremental backups. This is pretty key. It means it's only backing up what's been changed. So you save those Amazon S3 data transfer fees. Sweet.

Now all you gotta do is sit back and relax as you try that Vista install, knowing your data's always going to be out there in the ether somewhere...

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Low Rent Google Calendar/Outlook Sync

If you don’t feel like installing framework or shelling out money for an Outlook/Google Calendar syncing app, try the low rent method.

1. Create a new Gmail account, and a Calendar account with that address

2. Share that new calendar with your current Gmail address
3. When you’re setting up any meeting in Outlook, just cc the new Gmail address
4. The appointment will automatically show up as tentative in the new calendar.

5. If you’re making an appointment in GCal, just do the same, in reverse: include your Outlook email address. The appointment will automatically show up as tentative in your Outlook calendar until you accept.
6. If you’re accepting a meeting, just forward that request to the appropriate email account for automatic tentative adding.

Sure, this isn’t as elegant as an automatic sync, and it doesn’t handle moving of appointments very well, but it’s a great low rent solution that would probably also work for iCal, Thunderbird, etc.

Friday, January 12, 2007

iPhone Rant (Or Rave)

Another entry on the iPhone. The New York Times alone has had about ten stories about iPhone, which is pretty unprecedented for a gadget that was announced only 3 days ago and isn't even out yet. Now, I'm pretty sure everything's been said that there is to say about the device, so normally I wouldn't bother posting about, but this Toronto Star article caught my ire.

Basically, the article is saying that in Japan, the iPhone isn't such a big deal, because they already have phones there that can play music and surf the Internet. Well, guess what? So do we! I'll concede that Japan's phones are usually more advanced than those in North America, but I'm pretty sure they haven't got anything like the iPhone there.

See, the iPhone isn't about all the features it has it in. There are any number of phones out there that I could go out and buy right now that have music playing, email, Internet surfing, etc. But the whole point of the iPhone is it doesn't get bogged down by those features it packs in. It makes everything really easy to use. Every phone I've ever had has had a pretty disastrous and irritating UI. The whole point of the iPhone is that it's easy and pleasant to use.

And for those saying it will only sell because it looks nice, they're wrong. The RAZR looked great, and did get a lot of sales because of it. But ask someone who owns one how they like their phone, and they'll say they're really bothered by it. Ask anyone who has an iPod what it's like to use, and they'll say it's great. I think a lot of those burned RAZR users and devoted iPod users will be lining up for, finally, a nice experience using a phone.