the gourmet internet: Navigo and a salmon alfredo on a budget

Lately, times have been tight.

I’ve been rationing my driving to save on gas, and wearing lots of sweaters at home to reduce my home oil burning needs.

Over the weekend I cleaned my fridge because, well, it was empty anyway. But that’s not to say I’ve been starving. No, it seems that when times are most desperate, a dose of creative thinking and a willingness to dig to the very back of the cupboards can yield tasty results.

Somehow, out of what seemed like nothing, on Saturday I cooked up a delicious moose stew with wild rice and potatoes. And on Sunday I threw together a lovely salmon alfredo sauce for the last bit of pasta I had. These were two totally unexpected feasts that generated enough leftovers to get me through the week (though a cheque arrived yesterday that put some of the essentials – like salt – back into my cupboards for further cooking adventures).

This morning I was met with an even greater shortcoming than empty kitchen cupboards: my internet connection was down and Northwestel Cable couldn’t send a technician until next week to fix it. Who can live that long without an internet connection?

After a couple of hours of weeping and lamenting over having missed the Palm WebOS developer webinar this morning, my creative gears kicked in again.

I jetted down to the Northwestel store on 2nd Avenue, endured the ever-epic queue therein, and signed up for a Navigo wireless connection.

At first blush a second internet connection for one household might seem a tad extreme. But considering my data consumption needs, I’m likely to actually save some dough. (Nevermind the fact that my business depends on internet access.)

I regularly exceed the paltry 20 GB data limitation of the Northwestel Cable Ultra package, paying anywhere from $60 to $100 in overage fees each month (an expense which, no doubt, contributes to the state of my fridge). By signing up for Navigo’s Advanced service, I get an extra 10GB of data for just $55 per month. That’s half the cost of Northwestel Cable’s $1-per-GB data overage fee.

More to the point though, I get redundancy. None of Northwestel’s internet access offerings could be reasonably considered stable or dependable, as each of them is well-known to fail regularly (this is the second time this week my Cable connection has failed). So by doubling up on services, I can be somewhat certain of remaining online.

The other bonus is portability. If I ever want to play the über-geek at Starbucks, I can haul my Navigo modem out and surf whilst sipping an Americano. (Note to Outsiders: neither of the Horse’s Starbucks offer Wifi. Go figure.) Of course, I would rather just visit the more-comfortable and better-coffeed Baked Café and enjoy the free wireless broadband there, but I’m just saying

Unfortuantely, though, Navigo is no match for Cable. It’s advertised as performing about one-tenth as well as its sibling service, and my speed test results confirm this:
Compare that to what I’m getting with Cable, which is itself an under-performer (northwestel cable service revisited: it’s still lame in comparison).

But Navigo will probably work well as a backup internet service and as a way to augment my data needs. As long as it helps cut down on my monthly overage fees, I’ll consider the service worthwhile.

So I sort of think of Navigo as that desperate salmon alfredo I threw together with the final remnants of my cupboards’ contents: it’s not my first choice for a meal, but when times are tough, a little creative thinking can often save some cash.

finally, the email client evolves: previews of Postbox and OtherInbox

andrewI’ve used an awful lot of email clients in my time, starting way back when dinosaurs ruled the earth with Eudora. Since then, the desktop email client has remained a staid software category. New products and updates to existing ones tend to merely beautify the email experience rather than improve it.

So email is still a slog as the inbox represents the morning dirge of our daily routines. This is what’s driven many people (myself included) to other forms of more efficient communication like instant messaging, text messaging, and Twitter. But there’s clearly still love left in the world for email, despite the 80+% spam rate.

So it’s exciting when new email clients comes along that are full of new ideas. Two recently caught my attention. One is a cross-platform desktop client, the other is web-based.

Postbox is an evolution of the discontinued Thunderbird client. Apparently when the project got nixed by Mozilla.org, Thunderbird’s developers decided to go independent with their good ideas. Thank goodness they did, because Postbox is a truly out-of-inbox experience.

The emphasis with Postbox appears to be on building efficiencies with message composition and received message organization. Tabbed message browsing, common with web browsers, is built in. Even better, though, you can generate search tabs with a single click that highlight certain types of content from email messages.

Postbox Search Tabs

Say you got a message last week with a link in it you wanted to explore, but you can’t remember anything else about the message. A search tab in Postbox can quickly help you narrow your quest and filter out extraneous information. Twice in the past week this feature alone saved me a ton of time.

My favourite feature in Postbox so far, however, has been the Inspector pane. This is a small panel that sits beside each message you receive (it can be turned off) and summarizes the content. Attachments, images, even addresses and telephone numbers in a message will be collected and summarized in the Inspector pane.

Postbox Inspector Pane

This makes it easy to quickly preview and digest the contents of messages. What I’ve found really useful about the Inspector pane, though, is the way it highlights and makes accessible the “unsubscribe” link that email marketers tend to bury waaaaaay at the bottom of their insidious deliveries. My inbox is feeling much lighter after a week with Postbox, just for that feature alone.

Sort of the reverse idea of the Inspector pane, Postbox’s Compose sidebar is a brilliant feature that makes it easy to repurpose content likes photos, documents, and links by making them readily available. It’s the sort of feature that you don’t really understand the extreme value of until you’ve used it a few times and it’s saved you a ton of time slogging through old email in search of that one attachment you wanted to share with someone.

Postbox Compose Sidebar

To aid with organization, Postbox also lets you annotate messages you receive, and tag them with topics. This goes a long way to adding relevance to correspondence.focus_pane_thumb

One feature that doesn’t seem to be fully implemented in the current beta that is particularly interesting: Postbox can post to social media environments. So if you want to share a cool attachment from your inbox to Facebook, Postbox makes that a one-click affair.

Surprisingly, that’s just the tip of the iceberg for Postbox. It has a slew of other great features that are all worth exploring.

However, despite its very creative and helpful feature set, Postbox isn’t ready to knock Apple’s Mail off my system just yet. It lacks some bedrock integration features that I depend on in Mail, such as event and task posting to iCal using the third-party MailTags add-on. And I’m really not too keen on the organization of the application’s preferences, nor on the basic message composition window (it’s still a tad mozilla-esque for my taste).

But there’s one thing that Postbox has going for it: a folder is a folder, and a box is a box (how I’d fix some apple mail interface wackiness). And, hey, it’s a brand new beta app, so there’s no doubt plenty of improvement on the way.

Another email client that shows tremendous promise is OtherInbox

Currently in private beta, OtherInbox seems to be less a general client than it is an efficient and optimized automatic email sorting service that demonstrates some semblance of intelligence.

That sounds pretty minor, but just that feature alone could attract professionals who are just too busy to manage their personal deluge of email communication, but who are desparate to get it organized. I have one client I’m thinking of in particular who, no matter how hard she tries, cannot get control of her inbox.

OtherInbox would seem to be an excellent first step in mastering the beast with a classic divide-and-conquer strategy. I’m looking forward to giving it a try some time.

Although I consider us to be in the twilight of email, it’s still nice to see some new ideas coming to the medium. Products like Postbox and OtherInbox seem to finally promise users some respite from the stress that email inherently brings.

yukoners should consider power independence

Yukon Energy is doing a great job of proving it’s an organization incapable of providing a dependable power grid to the territory (Sixth power outage in four months blacks out southern Yukon). It might be time that the government consider transferring funds from that organization to business and residential projects that seek energy independence.

Those funds could go into purchasing basic implements of energy-self-defence like uninterruptible power supplies (UPS) and battery backups. Then, at the very least, Yukoners could avoid damage to their electronic goods and avoid hours of lost productivity. More to the point, they’d have a better chance of arriving at work on time.

They could also fund small projects that implement alternative energy solutions on a very local scale, such as are being implemented by Ericsson and Orange Guinea Conakry in Guinea to power mobile phone base stations (Ericsson, Orange deploy solar base-stations in Africa). The solution improves dependability and slashes energy costs in half. But that’s just one example of energy independence in a rural environment. There are dozens more.

Such funding, either through tax credits or straight subsidy, could spur a new industry in the North and would probably introduce a reliable energy system simply through the element of competitiveness. (After all, what does Yukon Energy have to lose by being lame? Nothing.)

Yukon Energy’s apparent ineptitude is a multi-year fiasco that just gone on too long (Protect Yourself from Yukon Electrical this Winter). The single-provider infrastructure isn’t serving Yukon residents adequately and it’s time to consider alternatives.

got a problem? just blame microsoft (so says the Guardian)

Everybody knows that I’m no fan of Microsoft as a company or its software. But even the Evil Empire is due the benefit of the doubt, so I always get a bit peeved when people take the easy way out by tossing blame its way just because it’s the biggest target around. Like Guardian pundit John Naughton recently did in a column that touches on this whole Facebook-Uconnect valuation-by-lawsuit fiasco (Need to read between the lines? Microsoft Word can help).

Last summer Facebook was taken to court on charges laid by CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s old schoomates at the now-defunct rival social networking site Uconnect. Facebook managed to privatize the trial as the discussions centred on the company’s value, which is a sensitive popular lucrative matter. 

Last Wednesday the Associated Press revealed that one of their reporters had come across the original transcript from that closed hearing and managed to extract the parts that were supposedly redacted. When TechCrunch reported on it, they called it, “the greatest hack ever” (The AP Reveals Details of Facebook/ConnectU Settlement With Greatest Hack Ever). Our intrepid Mr. Naughton referred to the AP reporter as “ingenious.”

I don’t know when recognizing the rookie mistakes of underpaid, undertrained administrative workers became so deserving of such superlative. Whoever produced the final PDF that was publicly published on the US Federal District Court’s web site is the one truly due recognition, for the lamest hack ever: instead of securely redacting the text, they just tried to mask it by turning the font colour to white. That’s akin to a toddler making herself invisible by covering her eyes with her hands. Really, people, any self-respecting parent knows the kid’s still there.

But smelling Blair-era Redmond-blood, Mr. Naughton jumped all over this like a rhino in heat and wildly claimed that, “the culprit was our old friend Microsoft Word.” 

Wait a minute. The document in question is in PDF format. The layout sports a sexy UNIX terminal flair. And a quick peek at the PDF’s properties reveals that it was produced by an application called “candce.” That doesn’t even rhyme with Word.

The worst part is that Mr. Naughton cranks out some seriously dangerous advice with his closing words:

The moral is simple: if you want to publish sensitive documents in electronic form, convert them to plain text or PDFs first.

Ouch.

If Mr. Naughton had deigned to put down that wee dram, rise from his arm chair and travel to his PC to perform even a modicum of research before writing those words, he would have very quickly learned that Word wasn’t even in the room when the truth was set free.

But screw the facts. Provocatively emasculating Microsoft with empty verbiage is so much easier on your constitution.

Guardian, you should be ashamed.

still waiting for the anti-mac

 

The Magic Cap interface, from the seminal 1996 article The Anti-Mac Interface by Don Gentner and Jakob Nielsen

"The Magic Cap" interface, from the seminal 1996 article "The Anti-Mac Interface" by Don Gentner and Jakob Nielsen

I was drawn back to a 13-year-old article by Don Gentner and Jakob Nielsen this morning, “The Anti-Mac Interface,” and realize that, despite the prescience of its content, operating system designers really haven’t learned much in the last decade or so.

By and large, the metaphorical nature of Windows and the Mac OS is still deeply flawed, being based on ever-more archaic symbolism, and the lack of object-based context continues to constrain the user’s ability to efficiently manage information.

Reading this article on the eve of new versions of both Windows and Mac OS X, one can’t help but be disappointed by what Microsoft and Apple are delivering. The 1996 article closes with these words:

Realistically speaking, such a complete redesign will take some time to appear. Even if the full system were not to appear for several years to come, it is necessary for detailed research to begin now to develop the needed features and to collect usability data on how the Anti-Mac characteristics should be shaped to truly meet users’ needs.

Surprisingly, 13 years has not proven to be long enough. And there seems to be little promise of any significant computing evolution on the horizon.

ny times “article skimmer” harkens back to sunday paper browsing

New York Times Article SkimmerBack in the day when I lived in an urban community with a weekend newspaper edition, Sunday morning was a treat. I’d get up, shake off a hangover, prepare a greasy plate of eggs and assorted other fridge detritus, then sit down at the table for a marathon read that always started with a skim.

By “skim,” I mean I’d perform a cursory scan of pretty much the entire weekend edition and make mental notes of the stories I actually wanted to read in full. Then I’d go back and start all over, diving into each story one after another. Alas, when I moved north, that essential quality of the urban Sunday morning was left behind. 

This is probably why I like RSS (Really Simple Syndication) so much. RSS is a great way to scan news by reviewing headlines and summaries without the muss and fuss of a full-on web site GUI. I use the tab feature in my browser to prepare each article for deeper consumption: if a summary catches my interest, I command-click it and the full story is downloaded to a new browser tab in the background.

I use Google Reader for my RSS-consumption, but the endless scrolling list is monotonous, and it lacks any sort of visual appeal. Indeed, as with so much of the Google experience, it is a drab, utilitarian affair.

So I was pretty stoked to discover the New York Times new “article skimmer” interface. It’s modelled after the Sunday morning ritual that urbanites everywhere enjoy and, as a digital environment, it improves on the Google Reader eterna-scroll.

The grid layout is pleasant, and the presence of thumbnail images refreshing. There is a useful set of keyboard commands for efficient navigation, and the traditional section-based (i.e. topical) structure enables a real feeling of that weekend newspaper tradition.

In a way, it’s really just RSS laid out pretty. But that’s okay. While RSS is a great way to consume news and information quickly and easily, the experience is modeless. The New York Times’ article skimmer preserves the efficiency of RSS, but combines it with an enjoyable and memorable experience. Here’s hoping Google catches on.

the microsoft store: it’s just too easy to poke fun

When Microsoft announced today that it would be opening retail stores modelled after Apple’s successful venture, they left themselves wide open to all sorts of critical response.

The best comes in a post by Brennon Slattery on the Today @ PC World blog, “10 Ways Microsoft’s Retail Stores Will Differ From Apple Stores.”

My favourites:

2) The store will have six different entrances: Starter, Basic, Premium, Professional, Enterprise, and Ultimate. While all six doors will lead into the same store, the Ultimate door requires a fee of $100 for no apparent reason.

and

5) Store hours are undetermined. At any given time the store mysteriously shuts down instantaneously for no apparent reason. (No word yet on what happens to customers inside).

But, damn, I’m still waiting for that fabled Microsoft car to hit the scene. The recession may be the perfect opportunity for Microsoft to not only go retail, but to buy up a Detroit automaker (cheap!) and make that happen. I can see it now: the Balmermobile. And the horn will sound like a screaming banshee.

why obama must invade canada (hint: it’s about breakfast)

snowbirdWhile out shopping the other day, I noticed two significant changes in pricing on essential consumer goods:

  1. the price of gas has gone down to 88.9¢ per litre
  2. the price of real maple syrup has gone up to $29.84 per litre

Clearly the war in Iraq has had a net positive effect for consumers.

President Obama: consumers of pancakes, waffles, and slices of french toast everywhere need your help. Please, invade Canada and focus your attacks on Ontario and Quebec. The fate of breakfasts around the world rest with your efforts on this matter.

I trust you will do the right thing.