Moblogging Bliss: Web Publishing on the Road

This week finds me enjoying some nice spring weather on a road trip down through BC. Save for heavy snow through the mountains in the north, it’s been a brilliant journey.

As you might expect, I’ve injected a good dose of technology into my traipse through this vast expanse of nature, and I’m not talking about a CB radio.

When I see something interesting ­– like a grizzly bear feasting on a moose carcass – I pull out my cell phone and snap a shot. A few seconds later I’ve got it posted on my blog for the world to enjoy (or gag at, as the case may be), direct from my handset.

Yeah, it’s that easy. It’s also that annoying for my family and friends; driving solo can be a boring undertaking and I think they’re getting a bit overwhelmed by the volume of posts I’m generating.

You might be surprised to learn that most of B.C.’s highway system is covered by digital cell access, so I can literally snap a picture wherever I am and have it online in no time.

Web publishing on the run is popularly referred to as “moblogging,” or mobile blogging. In essence, it’s web authoring with your cell phone, and there are a few ways to do it.

Moblogging started out as a creative use for email. Back in the day, you’d get a secret email address along with your blog. Anything delivered to that address would be instantly published on your blog. To put a photo on your site, you’d include it as an attachment.

Email-based moblogging is still very common, but some blogs offer a special software client you can install on your cell phone to make it all more convenient.

My personal blog, for example, is on a free service called Vox. They offer a special piece of moblogging software that I can use to capture photos and videos directly into a blog entry.

The hitch (there’s always a hitch, right?) is that you’ll require a data access package attached to your mobile account. So don’t just get all moblog-crazy and go uploading pictures to your blog before you make sure you’ve subscribed to one of these things.

Although data access packages are expensive (I pay $60 a month for a mere 30 megabytes of data transfer privileges), they’re a bargain compared to what your cell company will charge you for ad-hoc use (usually around $50 per megabyte).

Moblogging isn’t limited to pictures. Of course, you can do straight text, if you’re crazy about mangling your fingers on a tiny keypad. Most blogs can also support video these days, which is especially cool (and especially hard on your mobile data access package).

Be warned that not all blog services have worked out the kinks with mobile video. Vox, for example, claims to offer mobile video publishing, but I’ve never managed to get it to work.

Even at home I’m a moblog maniac. The convenience of being able to instantly publish a photo of my son at the park sure beats screwing around with a PC hours after the fact.

For me, moblogging is also sort of like a journal.

It’s fun to sit down every few days and look over my moblog entries. It reveals a new angle of what I did and often serves to remind me of things I’ve forgotten about.

And on the road, moblogging’s been particularly helpful for keeping track of how much progress I’m not making because I’m so busy screwing around with my cell phone.

Confessions of a Vista Switcher: Into BDU Purgatory

Plane CrashIf Windows were a car, an old geek joke goes, it would be stalling and breaking down regularly, leaving drivers stranded on the road as users of other operating systems continued to whizz past.

After using Windows Vista exclusively for a couple of weeks now, I find that metaphor somewhat inaccurate. First, Vista (combined with its associated PC hardware) is more a plane than a car. It’s bigger and more opaque than any computer system I’ve ever used. At the risk of bastardizing the Tao of Spider-Man, Vista’s moral message might go something like this: with great power comes great complexity.

More to the point, however, Vista’s failures are much more spectacular than a simple roadside stall.

Instead, this metaphorical aircraft literally plummets from the sky in a blazing ball of flames, crashing into a mountainside where it leaves its users broken and bleeding. At least, that’s what happened to me. But I’ll get to that a bit later.

Compared to the environment I know and love best, Mac OS, Vista is a confounding and foreign land.

Like every version of Windows before it, in Vistaland there are things called “drivers.” These pieces of software are required to make various parts of the computer work but they constantly, and inexplicably, fail and need to be fixed. The fragility of this slender thread between software and hardware is emphasized in Vista.

The driver for the wide variety of buttons on my ThinkPad, for example, needs to be reinstalled every day or so as it will just stop working for no reason whatsoever. I’ve called the manufacturer, Lenovo, about this. Their answer is pretty simple (and quite standard these days, it seems): “We don’t know. It probably has something to do with Vista.”

Then there’s the infamous UAC, or “User Account Control,” service in Vista. This is the feature that’s supposed to prevent you from hurting yourself by forcing you to carefully evaluate and approve every change you make to your system.

So far, all it’s done is annoy me by preventing the installation of software I actually need. I had to go through a backdoor into my system’s security configuration to turn off UAC so that I could install the drivers for my Lenovo webcam. That sent Vista into a frenzy of excited, whiny messages of doom and gloom. To shut the system up I turned UAC back on, but it held a grudge and continued to misbehave.

And, yeesh, rebooting. I haven’t rebooted a computer this much since last century’s Mac OS 9. Every time I sneeze with Vista it’s telling me to reboot if I want to wipe my nose.

Granted, as a Vista newbie I’m demoted from my traditionally vaulted position of geek all the way down to BDU (that’s “Brain Dead User,” for you other BDUs), so take my comments here with a grain of salt. Or not. My blissful ignorance does grant me a perspective that’s more in line with most other computing mortals.

And I really shouldn’t be so harsh. Vista is young.

When Apple released the first version of its advanced Mac OS X system in 2001, there were a lot of rough edges. I nicknamed it the green banana since it just wasn’t ripe. It would be easy to consider Vista in the same light: a potentially great new system apt to cause intestinal discomfort if consumed in too large a quantity.

With this in mind, a few days ago I decided to abandon Vista and go back to Windows XP on my laptop (as every tech writer is doing these days, it seems).

That’s when Vista started losing altitude fast. I’d made backups of all my files before I commenced a system restore back to XP. Unfortunately, my craft’s wings burst into flames during this transition and we started plummeting: some files were corrupt… or something.

In freefall, the cabin filled with smoke, I called the Lenovo help line. Again, they blamed Vista. The only option was to parachute out of this mess and at least save my own skin.

Like most PC manufacturers, Lenovo doesn’t include restore discs with their computers. Instead, they dedicate a large portion of your internal hard drive to that purpose. With the mountainside clearly in view and approaching fast, the Lenovo tech support agent told me to perform an emergency recovery from that partition.

Then, without any notice, there was a tremendous explosion. The ThinkPad had rebooted to a black screen with a few words: “Insert a bootable disk.” The emergency disc partition was corrupt, too.

“Vista probably did something to it,” the tech support agent cheerfully explained. “We’ll send you some XP recovery discs. They’ll get to you in a couple of weeks.”

While this promise was a salve to my wounds, the naturally impatient tendency of the hardcore geek welled up within me. I dropped the Vista Ultimate install disc into my laptop and started all over again.

Stand back, people. Ever your humble correspondent, I’ll let you know when this vehicle is airworthy.

Originally published in the Yukon News on Friday, May 18, 2007.

Back in Black: The XBox Elite Rocks On

VenomTwo events today embody the spirit of AC/DC: both Spider-Man and the XBox are back in black. Personally, I’m more into reliving the saga of Venom on the silver screen than rehashing some gamehead gear, but this is a column about technology, not comic books (alas).

Besides adopting a Vader-esque personae, Microsoft’s new XBox 360 Elite video game console features only two substantial improvements over its rebel son: a much larger hard drive, and high-definition video cables in the box

This isn’t enough. Microsoft is clearly responding to Sony’s hunkier Playstation 3 with this upgrade. If the Redmond-based monster truly wanted to bury their competition, they should have made at least two other improvements to the XBox 360. Continue reading

Mozy: Backup Cheap Like Borscht

Mozy LogoThey say backing up is hard to do, but it definitely gets easier every day.  It’s especially important to get your data off site so that if your main operational facility is burglarized or otherwise damaged, the resulting data loss doesn’t put you out of business.

Internet-based backup service mozy just released a (beta) Mac-based client that makes backing up data to an off-site location dirt-cheap and dead-easy. It’s also the only cross-platform service that I’m aware of. Check ’em out and make sure your data’s getting off site.