Posts in Category "Cool Tools"

Cool Tool Monday: GPS Navigation Systems

I missed Cool Tool Friday last week because I was on vacation, so I thought I’d sneak in a Cool Tool entry on a Monday. This week I’m excited about GPS navigation systems, and in particular, the Garmin iQue 3200. I’ve had the iQue for some time now — probably about four months — but taking it on vacation reinforces how cool it really is. I drove 4 hours to the beach, drove around a new area for a week, drove home, and drove some relatives to a distant airport I’ve never driven to before, and didn’t get lost once (except when I wasn’t using the GPS). But not getting lost is sort of a given with a GPS, I think, and isn’t really the biggest advantage since even if you had directions scrawled on the back of a cocktail napkin, you probably wouldn’t get lost. The real advantages are:

  1. Never having to get directions. Just hop in your car and go, whether you know where you’re going or not.
  2. Automatic rerouting. If you miss a turn, the device will reroute in a matter of seconds, and fix your mistakes for you.
  3. Location-based services. Don’t know about other GPS devices, but the iQue has a very comprehensive database of locations which you search for by all kinds of criteria, which means you don’t even need to know where you want to go so much as what you want to do.
  4. Always having a map. Even if you aren’t using your GPS device’s ability to route, it’s nice looking at a map of where you’re going. You can see landmarks around you on the map that you can’t see through your windows, and quickly evaluate shortcuts to avoid traffic problems.

The iQue is a handheld GPS rather than one that actually installs or is integrated into your dashboard. Since I drive a Jeep with a soft top, everything that might be overly tempting has to be removable and small enough that it can be locked in a console or glove box, so the iQue is perfect for me. In-dash units have a lot of advantages (always available, larger screen, integrated antenna), but the iQue actually has several advantages over many in-dash units (fast processor, expandable memory, handwriting recognition, PDA functionality, portable). As always, in a perfect world, I would have one of each, but as it stands, I’m pretty happy with the iQue.

Any other satisfied GPS users out there?

Cool Tool Friday: Stock Tickers

It occurred to me one day how useless it is to get stock quotes via SMS on my cell phone once a day from Yahoo! since one particular snapshot wasn’t telling me much. I could follow broad trends, but when it comes to making serious decisions, snapshots of delayed stock quotes are pretty useless.

I decided to install a stock ticker this morning to keep myself a little more current. (Ironically, it’s a bad day to be watching the market!) I settled on wStock for OS X which is a free utility that scrolls symbols and fluctuations across your menu bar. It’s free (which was my #1 requirement), and although the quotes are delayed (as all free quotes are, I think), I’m much better able to keep track of trends throughout the day.

I usually have to try several different applications before finding the best one out there, so I thought I get some feedback from you guys. Can anyone recommend a good stock ticker for OS X? What about Windows, for when I’m over on that side of the fence?

Macromedia News on Your iPod: Day Two

We’ve really gotten a tremendous response from the community on Take-Away, the project Mike and I launched yesterday which allows you to read and listen to Macromedia news on your iPod. Thanks for all the great comments and suggestions!

I probably should have mentioned that Take-Away is still in “beta”. That’s just a fancy way of saying that while it should always be available, occasionally things might not work perfectly. In fact, I have spent my morning fixing the first two bugs found in production:

  1. The generated MP3 files were being generated at a speed which is not compatible with the MP3 decoder built into the Flash Player, so the feeds were being played at 2x speed. While that’s great for productivity, and didn’t do much for comprehension. I have Robert Hall to thank for getting me on the right track toward fixing this issue, and now, you can play the generated MXNA MP3 files through Flash (has anyone built anything that does this yet?).
  2. As you might imagine, I have to do a significant amount of processing of feeds and posts before converting them into sound, most of which is done through regular expressions. I use a regular expression to remove URLs so people don’t have to sit there and listen to these long, 200 character URLs being monotonously read to them, however it turns out my expression was overly greedy, and was sometimes eating pieces of other people posts along with the URL. That’s fixed now, too. (For those of you who had your posts verbally mangled, sorry!)

Let me know if you see any other issues, and keep the great comments and suggestions coming!

Cool Tool Tuesday: Macromedia News on Your iPod

We’re a little early for Cool Tool Friday, but I think this is a cool enough project that I’m bending the rules a bit. Mike Chambers and I just finished putting together and launching an application we’re calling Take-Away which not only lets you read MXNA aggregated news as notes on your iPod, but also lets you listen to it, as well. The application checks over 300 Macromedia-related weblogs for new posts every hour, and regenerates the appropriate MP3s and note files. If you drive to work, listen to Macromedia news on your stereo. If you ride a bus or a train, read the news. If you work from home, play with it just for fun. And if you don’t have an iPod, this is as good a reason as any to go get one!

See the Take-Away page for more information, and let me know if you have any suggestions for future versions.

Cool Tool Friday: Firefox Search Engine Plugins

Having a search field embedded in your browser’s toolbar is nothing revolutionary anymore. I mean, come on, it’s August 2004 already — who actually goes to Google to use Google anymore? But extending your browser’s search functionality to tons of other searchable sites I think is still pretty cool, and worthy of a Cool Tool Friday quick mention.

If you use Firefox, choose the “Add engines…” item from the search plugins drop-down box, then go crazy installing search plugins. Having tons of search plugins installed saves you from having to actually go to a site before using it. Throughout the day, all those clicks you didn’t have do and pages you didn’t have to load can really add up, translating into more time working, which, of course, is what we all want, isn’t it?

I currently have plugins installed for Amazon,, eBay, Froogle, Google, a few specialized dictionaries, macosxhints, Macromedia, Slashdot, and my favorite, TinyURL. Anyone have any indispensable search plugins they want to share?

Some additional resources:

Cool Tool Friday: Tumult HyperEdit

I’m writing this post right now with an application called Tumult HyperEdit. HyperEdit is a relatively light-weight and simple HTML editor whose primary feature is a live, real-time preview pane. It’s no replacement for a tool like Dreamweaver, but it has certainly found its place among my toolset.

The preview pane actually updates as you type, so you have constant visual feedback. I haven’t tried any type of complex layout yet, but so far, for relatively simple HTML documents, I have found the workflow to be a very useful. The preview pane uses Safari’s rendering engine, so it’s very quick and very compliant.

There are a few other nice features like code snippets, PHP support (you can actually execute PHP scripts), and the ability to link to external CSS files. There are a couple of features I would like to see added, though:

  • Code completion. Nothing fancy (this thing needs to remain as light-weight as possible, I think), but it would be nice if, when I opened a tag, a closing tag appeared. (To be fair, one can use code snippets to achieve similar functionality.)
  • I’d like to be able to have my code snippets in drawer rather than a separate window. The one thing I don’t like about OS X is that you tend to have too many windows floating around.
  • I’d like to be able to link to CSS files using a URL rather than having to have them in a local file. It would be nice to be able to write blog posts while referencing my style sheet on my weblog server.
  • Finally, if I double click on something in the preview pane, it would be cool if the editing pane jumped to that piece of code.

Don’t let a couple of feature requests discourage you, though. This is a tool definitely worth checking out.

Cool Tool Friday: I Now Have the Coolest Watch in the Country

Ask some what the coolest watch is, and they might tell you the Suunto x9. Others will may prefer the new Timex Ironman Data Link, the old Timex Messenger (classic!), an MSN Direct enabled watch, or a good solid Seiko Kinetic Chronograph. Although I either already have, or would love to have, each and every one of these, I think the watch that was delivered to my house this morning beats them all.

I like my devices to specialize. In other words, I like them to perform one primary function, and to do that function really well. That’s why I don’t have a PDA with GSM capabilities. I like my PDA (Clie UX50) and my phone (Sony Ericsson 610) to do their own things, and to do them as well as they can. Integration is great (infrared, bluetooth, etc.), but I haven’t seen many devices that can do multiple things as well as devices that specialize.

Which is why I like Casio G-Shock. I like watches to be:

  1. Accurate
  2. Durable
  3. Maintenance free
  4. Versatile (lots of time-related features)

I recently bought a Casio Solar Waveceptor G-Shock (GW-300) which I wrote about early last month, and while I like it very much and have gotten a lot of use out of it, it isn’t perfect. It’s shortcomings include:

  1. Digital (I prefer analog)
  2. No countdown timer (one of the most useful features of a watch!)
  3. The solar panels are too small to gather light efficiently

So I decided one day that I was going to find the perfect watch no matter what it took, and although it took over a month and more money than I had planned on spending, I finally found and got my hands on the Casio GW-1100J. It has all the features of the GW-300, but it also fixes all the shortcomings. It’s analog (and digital), is has a countdown timer, and the entire face is a solar panel so it gathers light more efficiently than the GW-300. And, of course, its atomic, so it never needs to be set, and it’s shock resistant and water resistant up to 200 meters. (Naturally, it has all the other basic features like multiple alarms, world time, etc.).

It wasn’t easy to get, though. This model isn’t available in the US, and although there is one similar stainless steel version available, once I saw the all black (with inverted LCD), I had to have it. To make matters worse, this particular watch is apparently even difficult to get in Japan! I called Casio several times, and they weren’t able to help (they weren’t even able to give me a phone number in Japan that someone would answer in English). I watched eBay for weeks, send probably five or six unanswered emails, and contacted a friend of mine in Japan who couldn’t help because he was just about to leave for Palau for a month. I finally got in touch with an Australian in Kyoto who knew a supplier who had 2 left. Never having met this guy in my life, and never even having talked to him, I took a chance (he has very good eBay feedback), sent him some money via PayPal, and today, I have the 1100J on my wrist!

This may very well be one of the most exclusive watches in the entire country!

Cool Tool Friday: Devices Talking to Each Other. Literally.

Before two devices can “talk” to each other (by “talk”, I mean in some way integrate with each other, or exchange data), they have to have some sort of protocol in common. Some examples include:

  • Networked computers talking over TCP/IP.
  • My phone talking to my PDA via infrared and/or bluetooth.
  • My PDA talking to my PC via WiFi talking to another PC via WiFi sending a signal to my stereo via RCA and playing MP3s through iTunes.
  • Tapping on a button on my PDA which makes an HTTP request through GPRS to a web server which executes an OS level command which relays a message to the device plugged into the serial port which sends a radio signal to an X10 device plugged into an electrical socket which uses the X10 protocol to turn a light on downstairs. (Yes, it really works!)

Anyway, you get the point. As long as two devices have a protocol in common, they can usually “talk” and be integrated in some way, and you can even chain devices together through multiple protocols to achieve something very unusual like a PDA “talking” to a lamp through the Internet.

I bought a digital voice recorder the other day, and I was surprised by how feature rich it was. One of the most interesting features is the ability to set an arbitrary time and date in the future for a recording to be played. Essentially, it’s an alarm clock with a custom alarm. Since my Mac has very impressive voice recognition built-in, I figured it would be kind of interesting to use the voice recorder as a kind of cron or scheduled tasks application. All I have to do is record the commands to make my Mac perform an operation, set a date and time, and leave the recorder near my Mac’s microphone.

I downloaded a bunch of iTunes speakable items scripts to make iTunes “speakable”, and recorded the following:

  1. “Wednesday, switch to iTunes.”
  2. “Wednesday, play random music.”

(“Wednesday” is the name of my computer, which is required before giving it a command.)

I had to make the recordings a couple of different times to get the timing and the clarity right, but now it works perfectly. That night, I configured the recording to play at 7:00 AM the next morning, and I woke up to a random iTunes track playing. The nice thing about the speakable items scripts I downloaded is that there’s one entitled “silence” and “shut up” so I was then able to stop the music by yelling at my computer, and then go back to sleep.

Admittedly, the end result wasn’t earth-shattering. I’m sure there are several other ways I could have woken up to a random iTunes track that would have been faster and easier to set up. But it’s not the end result that interests me. What interests me is that it was the first time I had every integrated two devices using the protocol of human speech, and it worked wonderfully. Using human speech as a protocol between devices allows us to easily eavesdrop, and even participate in the “conversation”, or intervene in ways bluetooth and infrared obviously don’t allow. Rather than dialing my cell phone with my PDA via bluetooth, maybe some day my PDA can speak instructions (my cell phone already allows for voice dialing) which means I can catch any mistakes that were made (maybe I tapped on a home number rather than cell phone number), and I could also use the exact same mechanism to dial my phone automatically myself. Or any other device capable of talking could use the same “protocol” as well. I can imagine in the future robots talking to each other in plain English so that we can be certain they aren’t conspiring behind our backs (just in time for the opening of “I, Robot”!), or at least about to perform some function that we would rather they didn’t.

Ok, well, this conversation is getting pretty off-topic, even for a Cool Tool Friday post, so I’ll end it here, and let you pick it up in the comments section. Can you think of any other cool scenarios for using the human voice as a machine protocol?

Cool Tool Friday: Picking Colors With Color Schemer

I got a request to talk abut Color Schemer in the next Cool Tool Friday, so I checked it out, and here’s what I think so far.

Very cool tool. And simple. Color Schemer is great for people like me who don’t have much design sense, or are too lazy to put much thought into design. I usually have to steal color schemes off of other sites on the web, or either hire a designer, or beg one to give me some free advice. Now I can try using Color Schemer to come up with complementary colors, and I can blame the application if they look like crap.

The application is small and efficient, which I really like. I usually prefer little apps that do one thing very well rather than big, bloated apps that try to do everything at once. Color Schemer just does one thing, and it seems to do it very well.

I also like the fact that part of using Color Schemer is understanding a little about color and design. Rather than just telling you what colors to use, you are encouraged to actually learn a little about color, color theory, and color combinations which you can do quickly and easily through the Color Schemer online tutorial.

I also like the little features that help integrate it with web development workflow, like being able to easily copy HEX colors to your clipboard, and the ability to save color schemes.

What don’t I like about it? Well, I’ve only been playing with it for about 45 minutes now, so I don’t have enough experience with it yet to say whether it really works or not. I haven’t used any of its recommended schemes to build a site with yet, so for all I know, it could turn out looking horrible, but I think as long as you pick reasonable colors to start with, it will pick reasonable colors to compliment them.

One thing I don’t understand about Windows applications is why you always have to install them. I know most people don’t give this a second thought, but since I’m also a Mac and Linux user, it really bugs me that I have to install even the smallest of applications on Windows. Why can’t I just download an EXE file, put it where I want, create shortcuts where and if I want. Then, I can just delete the application if I don’t want it anymore without having to go through all the trouble of uninstalling it, and further fragmenting my hard drive. This is obviously not specific to Color Schemer, but it bugs me nonetheless.

Another potential disadvantage that I can see so far is possibly the price. Color Schemer is $34.99 while Color Schemer Studio is $49.99. I don’t think that’s unreasonable, but it’s a little hard to swallow when you just need a few color suggestions every couple of months or so. (I would find it easier to pay for an RSS aggregator that I use several times a day, for instance.) Obviously the more you use it, the more it makes sense, but if you were the type of person who needed to pick out colors on a daily basis, you are probably more of a designer who wouldn’t use a tool like this at all. This is a very small point, though, since if it saves me from having to consult with a designer even once, it has probably paid for itself. I just feel like I’m constantly reaching for my credit card these days, and half the applications I open up are begging me to purchase them. I should probably just get over it, stop being cheap, and start supporting the hard-working developers building these cool tools.

Anyway, does anyone have any experience with this tool who would like to comment? How about similar tools? Anything for other platforms?

Cool Tool Friday: The Wayback Machine

I apologize in advance for the abbreviated post today — especially on Cool Tool Friday — but I’m about to get on a plane, so I only have a few minutes to get this up.

Anyway, check out the Wayback Machine, both for fun, and as a web development reference. From their website:

“Browse through 30 billion web pages archived from 1996 to a few months ago.”

Just type in a URL, choose one of the archived dates, and journey back through time. Very cool service. Those of you who are nostalgic for the old, pre-Dylan Macromedia website, knock yourselves out!