Ode to the Hammer

ThorOlder than humankind itself, the hammer is arguably our greatest and most useful tool. Even better, it’s easy to use and master.

I recently watched a group of kids manufacturing bird houses. It was marvellous how quickly they were able to comprehend a hammer’s purpose and its limitations.

There were problems, of course. When a nail went awry, an adult typically had to intervene and assist in the use of the hammer’s claw.

For the kids, however, the most basic use of a hammer was pure satisfaction in itself. Some of them just pounded pointlessly on a picnic table, making noise and enjoying the solid moment of impact.

In a symbolic sense, the hammer is the simplest and most basic representation of our power as humans, even as it ties us to nature.

The Norse god, Thor, was revered for the power of his hammer Mjolnir. His hammer was regarded as the the strongest weapon of all in the Norse pantheon.

The Soviet Union combined the image of the hammer with a sickle to represent the strength of its ideology and state. In general, communist and socialist propaganda is resplendent with people brandishing hammers in a show of power and solidarity.

The folk song, If I Had a Hammer, ironically enacts the power of the tool to strike down forces that impede civil and human rights.

Hammers are often used symbolically in protest. When Japanese automakers began invading the US in the 80s, Detroit citizens held rallies in which they’d manually demolish Corollas and Civics with claw hammers.

To professionals, the hammer is a personal device. I’ve observed construction workers who have refused to share their hammer with even their closest friend. A contractor I hired once drove back an hour to my house when he realized he’d forgotten to bring his hammer home with him.

We often think of the hammer as a simple tool, but its effectiveness relies on the laws of physics. The hammer is a force amplifier. It converts mechanical effort into kinetic energy, providing massive power to even the lamest of swings.

What’s more, the hammer takes many forms and provides many services. The sledgehammer demolishes. The geologist’s hammer splits rock.

Then there’s the mallet, which is essentially a special hammer designed to moderate force and damage on some materials, such as meat, soft metal, fabric, and leather.

The mallet extends the hammer’s usefulness into new domains.

We play music with mallets on such instruments as timpanis and xylophones.

We  play games with mallets. Think of croquet and polo.

We laugh at mallet gags. Watch almost any Looney Tunes cartoon for some good examples of mallet humour.

The hammer is a source of truth. It is an unambiguous tool that makes no false promises and presents no facade. It does what it does: provides an individual with the additional striking force needed to complete a specific task. It almost never fails.

Compare that to another tool: the modern computer.

In Robert Munsch’s book, Jonathan Cleaned Up, the all-powerful computer that runs the city of Toronto ends up being a mere shell secretly staffed by a little old man who lives inside.

In this tale of a misplaced subway station that is solved by the provision of blackberry jam, Munsch captures the spirit of society’s attitude towards modern tools. We are in awe of them. We very nearly worship them for, like pagans to their gods, we do not fully understand their power.

The question is: do we control the tool, or does it control us?

There is no doubt about who controls the hammer. And, unlike with a computer, the power balance is reciprocal: both the hammer and its user depend on one another for optimal functionality.

The hammer is a timeless tool that tempers human power with the laws of nature. Through the hammer we are reminded of our place in the natural order of things.

And it helps us make really cool stuff, too. Like bird feeders.

Originally published in the Yukon News on Friday, April 27, 2007.

Zimbra and Exchange: Bridges Over Troubled Water

Microsoft and Zimbra LogosNow that I’m a dual-platform guy, my search for Windows-Mac synergy will be constant and earnest.

Of course, one of the first and most important issues is to figure out how to maintain synchronicity between my calendars and contacts, which is no small task.

I’ve spent some time over the past couple of weeks testing out a few solutions in my spare time and I’ve narrowed it down to two, both of which are surprisingly effective and dependable: Microsoft Exchange Server and the open source Zimbra Collaboration Suite.

I’m currently finding Zimbra to be more easily managed and configured on both platforms.

I’m slightly bastardizing the designed purposes of both of these environments as groupware platforms. In essence, Zimbra and Exchange are all about sharing information amongst a team or company, and I’m simply leveraging them to make my OS platforms become friends. But, as we all know, with technology you do what you gotta do to get the job done.

For Microsoft Exchange I’m trying out a hosted solution from mail2web.com, using an Outlook 2007 client on my PC and Microsoft Entourage 2004 on my Mac . It works very well for the most part. (Mail2web.com provided software and licenses for both products in the subscription cost.)

Surprisingly, however, I found account configuration on the PC very complex and error-prone, despite (or perhaps, due to?) a configuration script mail2web.com provides. Furthermore, mail2web.com’s instructions for configuring Entourage are for an older version of the client and require much interpretation and testing.

I also have some complaints about how Entourage can only display desktop and Exchange calendars separately – there’s no way to overlay these two environments in a common interface. This problem lead to some embarrassing double-bookings recently. Furthermore, every time I send an email using Entourage I receive an LDAP error message; this is apparently a recognized bug in the way Entourage communicates with the Exchange contacts database.

I’ve long been interested in Zimbra as an alternative groupware solution to Exchange, and decided to give it a try as well. I signed up for a hosted account with OnDeckTech. Zimbra offers self-configuring sync clients for both Outlook and Apple’s OS-based Synch technology, which provides it direct access into Address Book and iCal. (Personally, I slightly prefer Apple’s native iCal, Address Book, and Mail applications over Entourage.)

What blew me away was the flawless installation and configuration of the Zimbra sync client on both platforms. This was particularly satisfying in the Windows environment, where the Exchange account configuration was borderline painful and prone to breaking often.

The maintenance of sync between the three environments (Windows-Zimbra-Mac) is likewise stunning. As quickly as I make changes to a contact or calendar item in one environment, the Zimbra conduit updates it in the two others (assuming internet access, of course). In a week of testing, I haven’t had a problem.

Zimbra lacks in some areas, such as in the synching of tasks, but Microsoft Entourage doesn’t synch tasks with Exchange Server anyway, so the criticism in this case is slightly unfair.

Both environments are very effective, but I’m finding Zimbra to be a slightly better and more dependable solution to inter-platform my needs.

The Internet Goes Old Skool

GlobeBack in the day, when networks were private, gated communities that you had to pay a fee to enter, you could get around them with single-word navigation. Want to view the news in AOL? Type “news.” Crazy about rugby? Just type the word.

Then came the interweb with its dub-dub-dub and dot this-and-that, elements which really offer little pragmatic benefit.

Well, OpenDNS is kicking it old skool.  They’ve introduces a shortcuts service that enables you to configure and browse the interweb likes it’s your own private CompuServe. One word network navigation is back in style. Nice. The w on my keyboard is breathing a sigh of relief.

Investors Forcing Apple to Think Green

I Love My Mac. I Just Wish it Came in Green.MacWorld reports that Trillium Asset Management, an investment firm that specializes in socially-responsible investing, has tabled a resolution for Apple’s annual meeting on May 10 to have the company remove hazardous chemicals from its products.

Steve Lippman, vice president of social research at Trillium, pointed out that Apple is simply failing to live up to the environmental standards being set by other PC manufacturers like Dell:

“Apple has just lagged,” said Lippman. “They have said they are addressing the issue, but they haven’t set any timetables.”

Apple, in their traditional fashion of ignorance, is attempting to suppress the motion. The company has filed a no-vote argument with the SEC.

Apple, I love ya, but pull your thick head out of the sand!

Mac and PC: It’s a Black and White World

Darth VaderIn last week’s Geek Love column (An Elegant Device Offers Reprieve from Our Paper-Happy Culture) I cracked a funny about the semiotic qualities of the Mac and PC platforms, as represented by the two models of Fujitsu’s excellent ScanSnap desktop scanner.

The idea that PCs are “black” and Macs are “white” is a well-established concept based on the industry’s most popular models of each platform’s hardware. But is the division that simple?

Pretty much every PC maker works almost exclusively in black. This is particularly true of Dell, a company that even offers black printers. Apple, of course, offers the iconic white iBooks and iMacs. Whether these tonal qualities have anything to do with the constant references to Microsoft’s status as the “Empire” is pure conjecture (and don’t even consider Bill Gates as Steve Jobs’ father).

What I find interesting, however, is the premium value that users of each platform place on the colour of the others’ hardware. Mac users, for example, have demonstrated themselves to be more than willing to cough up extra cash just to get a black iBook. And the white case of Toshiba’s elegant new Vista Tablet PC, the Portégé R400, demands a premium price tag, despite its being arguably underpowered.

Is this colour-envy? Or are we witnessing a breakdown in the natural order of computer hardware? And what’s next? The Mac OS on a PC computer?

We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto.

The Prettiest Web Browser Ever: Shiira

Shiira IconIf you’re in the mood to try out a relatively new web browser experience, try downloading Shiira 2.0, which was just released this morning. Without a doubt, it is the most attractive web browser ever created. Its interface is elegant and understated, exhibiting an excellent combination of minimalism and discrete functionality. It’s doesn’t really offer any revolutionary new capabilities, such as you find in Flock. But that’s okay. In a sense, Shiira is the traditional web browser perfected.

Produced in Japan, Shiira is based on Apple’s WebKit, so it offers the same essential functionality as Safari. However, it offers some very useful features that put it ahead of the default Mac OS browser. Borrowing a page from Omni Group’s also-excellent OmniWeb, Shiira presents tabbed web pages visually in a bar along the bottom of the window (these can be presented as regular tabs, if you prefer). However, moving a step beyond that, Shiira can do Exposé, just like the Mac OS. This feature presents all of your tabbed web pages full-screen simultaneously. The web browswer also has a very nice full-screen mode.

It’s not an empirical evaluation, but I’d say Shiira feels faster than either Firefox or Safari. The total user experience is excellent and well-thought out functional tweaks enhance usability. For example, instead of being hidden away in a menu or drawer, Shiira’s bookmarks are omnipresent in a semi-transparent “heads-up display” (HUD), just like you’d find in Apple’s iLife apps. It’s minor thing, but it screams, “why didn’t anybody else do this before?”

Shiira makes Apple’s own Safari look and feel long-in-the-tooth, and Firefox is downright garish in comparison. But that beauty doesn’t come at the cost of functionality and Shiira offers an advanced web browsing experience. It’s stable, fast, and uniquely capable. In every sense it’s a fully-qualified replacement for whatever web browser you’re using now

An Elegant Device Offers Reprieve from our Paper-Happy Culture

Fujitsu ScanSnap S500MPeople that know me know I hate paper.

I lose it. I forget it in my pants on wash day. I lose it. It gathers in meaningless piles. It blows away when you open the window. It can be dropped and lost. Water ruins it. It can get really heavy in large quantities. It can be misfiled and lost. It rips.

The myth of the “paperless office” has been with us for years, but like a knight in a quest for the grail, I seek that state with undying devotion. Now, thanks to a device I picked up a couple of weeks back, I am much closer to my dream. Continue reading

Tired: Skype, Wired: Jajah

JajahI’m happy to declare that the sun is setting on the lame world of Skype. Anyone who uses this crap technology regularly will certainly join me in this rejoicing.

A relatively new internet-based telephony service, Jajah, is somewhat similar to Skype in that it provides dirt-cheap or free (between Jajah users) international telephone calls. The difference is, with Jajah, you’re not tethered to your PC or Mac for the duration of the call, and there’s no software client to install. All of a sudden Skype just seems so old fashioned.

With Jajah, you initiate the call using your computer, and Jajah hands it off to your regular landline or mobile phone. What’s great is that the initiation interface is very flexible. There’s a plug-in for the Mac OS Address Book, for example, so you can start a call by clicking on a contact. If you’re a Firefox fan you can install an add-on that enables you to click on any phone number on a web page to kick-start a call.

Hit Jajah, people, and prepare to send Skype where it belongs: the trash bin.