About Anything

The personal blog of Al Stevens. Focus is overrated.

Archive for the ‘One Thing Well’ Category

Loving Hipmunk

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Hipmunk screen shot

Hipmunk Screen Shot

My new favorite flight reservation site is www.hipmunk.com.

Maybe it’s because I’m a visual person, but I find the flight display, all on one page, all on the same timeline way easier to use than the long lists that I get from other sites.

The prices look identical as well. Now, I haven’t actually used hipmunk to make any reservations — and Expedia has come through for me a couple of times when I had problems while on a trip — but I’m definitely going to give them a try and hope their UI skills carry over into their travel service skills.

I tried their hotel reservations as well. It has a great map-based interface, but the selection seems a little slim. I was looking for a place in Mexico City, so maybe they’ve yet to fully populate it. Once they do, it will be my first choice as well.

Written by Al Stevens

March 6th, 2011 at 4:39 pm

Daily Reads Moved to Twine

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I’m now able to find my way around Twine, still stumbling, but oriented enough that I’m moving my daily reads. You can find them at:

Twine makes it easy to save a bookmark, image or video. It organize these, along with comments around interests.
But it’s biggest feature is that it makes it easy to share them with other people who share similar interests. Nova Spivak, the founder calls it an “interest network”. It’s at an early stage, but I still find it an intellectually stimulating refuge from the over-hyped and attention-draining worlds of Twitter and Facebook.

Written by Al Stevens

June 3rd, 2009 at 12:39 pm

Drawing with Dia

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Looking for an alternative to Visio? I was. I needed a simple drawing program that was up to the task of doing network diagrams. I found Dia and, even though it’s not yet up to version 1, (I’m using the 0.97 pre-release version) and it’s so far working out fine.

The developers point out that “Dia is roughly inspired by the commercial Windows program ‘Visio’, though more geared towards informal diagrams for casual use. ”

That sums it up well.Libraries include networks, UML, flowcharts, chemical engineering, a small set of isometric map objects and a few others — enough for casual use.

Export formats include JPG, EPS, SVG, XFIG, WMF and PNG.

Dia runs under Unix, Linux and Windows. I’m running the Windows version, which was an easy install, since it came as a binary package bundled in a windows installer. It would be a bit more convenient if it remembered file paths and window configurations from one session to the next.

It’s available for download on the Dia home page: http://live.gnome.org/Dia

Additional shape libraries are available at:  http://dia-installer.de/shapes.html

Written by Al Stevens

March 5th, 2009 at 2:23 pm

LibraryThing — expose your books to all

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I heard about LibraryThing over a year ago, but couldn’t imagine why anyone would want to list their personal books on a public website. I looked at a couple of early reviews, including one by Jim Regan in the Christian Science Monitor (Do Your Own LibraryThing). He pointed out that you could use your online list to file insurance claims, keep track of what you own and keep track of books you’ve loaned to friends. I’ve accidentally bought a book I already own a couple of times, but they were easily returned. If I lost my library, I’d be worrying about bigger problems than the claim for the books and when I loan out a book, I’ve usually already read it, so don’t worry too much about getting it back.

I work with librarians and several of these colleagues are LibraryThing members. They set my views straight. What I’d missed was all of the social aspects that come from exposing your books. LibraryThing has all of the obvious social networking features like discussions groups, reviews, recommendations, and announcements that you would expect in a mega online book club. But if you expose your books (you can keep them private, but most members don’t), you get automatically connected to other members with similar interests. That looked promising.

So I joined — a basic membership is free, but with some limits. A life long membership costs $25, (it’s a recommended amount and you are welcome to pay more) which seemed like such a bargain that I signed up.


I spent an hour adding books. I’m up to 86 — a small number. The largest library is over 23,000 and there are forty over 7,000.

But now, I get loads of recommendations, automatic and member driven. I’ve got 563 automatic recommendations. For each, I can see the average rating, the number of copies that others have, the number of reviews and click why, which gives me a list of the books in my library that LibraryThing used to create the recommendation. Many of these are obvious — Islam : a Short History by Karen Armstrong
is recommended because I have A History of God and The Battle for God both by Karen Armstrong. Some are less so. Churchill, Hitler and “The Unnecessary War” by Patrick J. Buchanan is recommended because I have Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization by Nicholson Baker.

My members recommendations list is considerably smaller and more focused — after all, they are generated by people. An interesting one, that I intend to purchase is After Man : a Zoology of the Future by Dougal Dixon, a children’s book recommended because I  have The World Without Us by Alan Weisman. I’ll read it to my Grandson.

For fun, there is the unsuggester, which suggests incompatible books. First on this list for me is Shopaholic Ties the Knot by Sophie Kinsella, which is a pretty decent example of books I avoid.


You can set up connections with other members, but LibraryThing gives you a jump start by picking 50 other members who have libraries most similar to yours. Click the link and you can see the recent books your connections have added. Thames: Sacred River by Peter Ackroyd was on my first page, which I’ve added to my to-read list.


Set your location and you get a list of local events, many of them hard to find listed in any one place. These range from readings to kids events. In Boston,. there are 3-4 per day. You can also get a lsit of members in your area. Not all members list their location, so this is a short list, but still offers the possibility to connect with like-, or unlike-minded book fans.


LibaryThing was founded by Tim Spalding in Portland, Maine. He articulates strict privacy rules as a core value and strongly supports libraries and independent bookstores. The contents of thousands of individuals libraries is obviously of high value to companies like Amazon — they could really target their suggestions if they knew not what you’d bought from them, but what you owned. Abebooks, an online bookseller is a minority investor in LibraryThing. In August, Amazon aquired Abebooks, which makes Amazon the investor. Spalding has offered strong assurances that LibraryThing will remain as it was, and they seem correct, so I’m not going to worry.

There’s a lot more to LibraryThing than I’ve described, including groups, talk and tags, but it’s better seen by exploring than by reading about it, so sign up and give it a try: www.librarything.com

Written by Al Stevens

November 18th, 2008 at 3:00 pm

Posted in One Thing Well

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Moleskine — going analog and loving it

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I’m pretty digital — I’m facile with an alphabet soup of software technologies and spend hours a day on my laptop. I keep my Blackberry with me day and night. I keep my schedule on a Google calendar and manage a few shared calendars for organizations I work with. A couple of years ago, I started keeping a small notebook in my pocket — one of the wirebound ones from Staples.  It just didn’t cut it. The spiral wire snagged going in and out of my pocket and the notebook’s inherent tackiness only increased as it wore from use.

Then,… I discovered Moleskine. These elegant little notebooks fit in a shirt pocket, open flat, have solid bindings — no spiral wires — and you can get them with grid-ruled pages. The notebook demands a decent writing instrument. I use an Alvin DR03 mechanical pencil with 3mm lead, making it possible to fill the small pages with hundreds of words. I write daily — lists, ideas, meeting notes. Once full, the notebook retires to my bookshelf with a label on the back for easy consultation.

There’s something satisfying about flipping through pages, erasing, annotating, correcting and rereading notes and ideas from prior days ordered by the pages they were written on.

A little Internet searching turned up people who were far more addicted than me — there’s even an addiction scale posted at: http://putthingsoff.com/moleskine-notebooks/. I’m relieved to find that I’m only level 3 on a scale that goes up to 8.

They’re getting easier to find. I’ve seen them in lots of bookstores, but I order mine from the maker at: www.moleskine.com

Written by Al Stevens

November 8th, 2008 at 5:20 pm

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Carbonite — two years of files on my disk and I’m not worried

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Until about two years ago, I backed up important data only if I found myself waking up at night and then I didn’t do a very good job of it. Copying key folders to a file server or burning a DVD were parts of my haphazard solution. When I did need to recover a file, it was always hit-or-miss, digging through the various copies. For some projects, I did use a version control system (subversion), but the overhead and discipline required limited its use to software developments. Everything else, Office files, images, text files and email sat vulnerable to a mistake by me or a disk failure.

Then I installed Carbonite. It’s not free — it costs roughly $50 per year, but it’s so easy to use and provides so much peace of mind  that I don’t give the price a second thought.  It integrates with XP as if it came with it — actually as if someone other the Microsoft designed it. Right click a file or folder to back it up or remove it from the backup and you’re done. To restore a missing file open up the Carbonite directory and select the file — you can restore it, or a previous version.

Restoring a file is not instantaneous — it can take several minutes, or even longer for a big file, but it does come back, usually faster than searching through a bunch of DVD’s or directories on a server for the right copy.

Fortunately, I’ve not yet needed to recover the entire file system ,but I did buy a new laptop and used Carbonite to transfer most of my old files. This was remarkably easy — I uninstalled Carbonite from my old laptop, installed it on the new one, registered my new laptop and the Carbonite directory appeared. It took only a few minutes to select the files I wanted restored and by the end of the day, they were all there, along with easy access to their backups.

It’s available at www.carbonite.com

Written by Al Stevens

March 25th, 2008 at 4:55 pm

EveryBlock — all news is local

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The earliest use of the tagline “all news is local” that I could find was as the title of an article by Peter Osnos of The Century Foundation. Osnos was writing about the closing of several local news bureaus in Rhode Island (www.tcf.org/list.asp?type=NC&pubid=1220). Osnos freely credits the line to Tip O’Neill who actually said “All politics is local”, pointing out “As Tip framed the notion, politicians and newspapers had best remember that their constituents care above all about what is happening in their lives; the big issues writ small.”

Google has since appropriated the line to describe their ability to customize news feeds based on location. In their words, “we analyze every word in every story to understand what location the news is about and where the source is located” (googlenewsblog.blogspot.com/2008/02/all-news-is-local.html). When I enter my zipcode on the Google News page, I do get a list of stories that are generally about my area. The problem is they are compiled by those same news organizations that, as Osnos points out, have closed their local bureaus and no longer actually report on anything local. Without real local news sources, how can news be local?

EveryBlock really is local. Their sources do include major newspapers but go far beyond them to include community weeklies, government sites listing building permits, crimes, and restaurant inspections as well as local specialty publications and local blogs and even further include sites like Yelp, Craigslist and Flickr. Led by Adrian Holovaty, who developed the ChicagoCrime (which is now part of EveryBlock) the team has integrated it all.

If you’ve ever walked by a work crew in your neighborhood and wondered “are they cutting into a gas line, removing a buried gas tank or or adding fiber?”, it’s here. Just check out the the street use permits. Crimes, photos, public housing, restaurant inspections can be quickly browsed, in map or list form and provide a real feel for what’s happening, where it matters most — in my neighborhood.

All this detail could be uselessly overwhelming if poorly presented. EveryBlock makes it easy to find what you want and fun to explore. One or two clicks click gets you a list of either what you want or where you want. But this is about “local” and “local” means maps. Zoom in to your neighborhood and pick a category — all of the relevant items are there, on the map ready to roll over and read.

There is a small problem, EveryBlock only covers Chicago, New York and San Francisco, so I can’t actually use it for anything that matters to me here in Boston. I eagerly anticipate it’s roll out in my fair city. For those of you in one of the three they currently cover it’s at www.everyblock.com.

Written by Al Stevens

March 16th, 2008 at 9:51 am

newsflashr — News the way it should be. In a glance, in depth.

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Hiawatha Bray raved in the Boston Globe today about newsflashr, a site that ranks newsfeeds transparently. I tried it and left it up in a Firefox tab all day. It’s effectiveness is a direct result of it’s simplicity. Select one of the topics: world, business, elections 08, technology, science, health, showbiz or sports and you get a cloud of “hot news topics” where, according to Gal Arav, the company founder:

– the size of the hot news topics corresponds to the number of news headlines
– the color of the hot news topics corresponds to their freshness

At a glance, you can see what’s going on. Today, under politics, “prostitution ring” was growing larger and staying red. One click and I was reading all about Spitzer (aka Client 9).

I’ve been a fan of Google reader until now, but this wins hands down. The “newsflashr cloud” is a much higher bandwidth way to see what’s happening. For the traditionalists, they have a feeds view, but I can’t see why anyone would use it.
Their site is www.newsflashr.com

Written by Al Stevens

March 10th, 2008 at 5:02 pm

Simple Weather

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Weather’s important but I avoid using weather.com because of all the ads. Simple Weather is the way to go: www.simpleweather.com. A single page, crystal clear, shows the day and week in a glance. A search box gets you right to the forecast want, or you can add a “/zipcode” to the end of the url. Buttons, current conditions and forecast widgets can be made on the site and added to yours. A single ad is the only distraction — let’s hope they keep it that way.

There’s a wap 2.0/html version at: www.simpw.com.

For complex weather info (in the US anyway), I’ll stick with the National Weather Service (www.weather.gov). The Forecast Discussions show how the art mixes with the scienceto create those simple summary pages.

Written by Al Stevens

February 14th, 2008 at 1:03 pm

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PuTTY gets tabs

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By the end of the day, I’ll have five or six PuTTY windows open, intermixed with other apps. Alt-tabbing between them is a minor hassle, but still annoying. The annoyance level crossed a threshold yesterday, so I went on a web search and found that someone else was driven came up with a solution: PuTTY Connection Manager. It corrals multiple PuTTY windows into a tabbed and paned frame. Arranging the separate instances is a simple drag and drop operation. In addition , it includes an encrytable data base to remember your connections, so that opening one and logging on is a single click operation. It’s downloadable from puttycm.free.fr.

To get encryption, you’ll need to download a separate dll and drop it into your putty connection manager directory. At the first start up, it asks you where PuTTY is, so make sure you’ve got it installed. Verson 0.6 is recommended. My first attempts to open PuTTY instances from the Connection Manager left them stuck in the task bar. There’s a timing tweak under Tools >> Options >> PuTTY. Setting it to 200 ms did the trick. Individual hosts also needed a bit of timing adjustment so that the username and password appeared were presented to the proper prompt. Right click on the connection and select configuration to adjust those.

Written by Al Stevens

February 13th, 2008 at 1:46 pm