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2009-08-12

TeamApart: A Great Collaboration Tool [Invites]

I have already covered about the brilliant collaboration tool TeamApart. It is a platform that allows for real-time collaboration (free for up to 4 members) with video-audio conferencing, whiteboard and note-taking. Ideal for small business and personal needs.

They are making collaboration really simple and easy to use. No more clunky UIs. No more monolithic pieces of software that take up your disk-space. Just sign up and connect. All of this at a price you can not refuse (free for upto 4 people).
Naturally, some of you couldn't wait to try it out. So, here's what has come out of interacting with their wonderful personnel. I have a few invites to give out.
I have 15 invites to be precise. To be distributed on a first come, first serve basis. If you think you need one, all you need to do is leave a comment (stating that you want the invite) with a valid email id as a sign in. And I'll mail you the invite.
That's all there is to it.
Have fun. cheers!




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Ads That Make You Go Yuck!

Some adverts should have never been created. They should have been quashed the moment they were conceived. Nevertheless, they were unleashed unto us. And here's my list of the worst recent ads ever in the tech segment in ascending order.

4. Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Gates:

This is for sheer boredom and nonsense. I am huge fan of Seinfeld (the show). I almost never missed an episode, when it came as a rerun. But even after seeing this for over 10 times in a row one day, I was struck by the lack of humour or for that matter any sense in it whatsoever. And the money that went into making this made things worse. For sheer ineffective use of  resources and failing to actually promote a product, this video makes the first cut in this list.
3. MSI:

We get it, your notebook is thin. So thin in fact that they can fit into people's derrière. Come on give us a break. Do we really need to know that and is that how you would go about promoting your laptop anyway. What use does a laptop have fitting into people's ass crack. This does not present any actual use for the product. Nevertheless, the video below is there to sell you this product.
2. O M G I G P Internet Explorer 8 Puke Vomit Girl:

This was a tough call. I mean what could be worse than seeing a girl puke. But at least there's a point to this ad, however grossly presented. I would never be tempted to try Internet Explorer 8 seeing these, but in the end this segment of ads actually were trying to highlight features of the browser. Some of the other ads in this line of Microsoft promotions are in fact pretty slapstick. Unfortunately the one below is just too yuck to be considered funny.
1. Bing Goes the Internet:

Where do I begin. This was the ad that made me open my Scribefire to jot down the worst ads ever. Its that bad. To all the people who have watched it, as I have my condolences for the lost time of your life you will never get back. But if you are of the lucky batch who have not experienced this monstrosity and would actually for some reason in spite of my warnings want to see it, go ahead and click.
That was my list. Let me know, if there are more I should have mentioned along with these. May the force be with you !




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How to Follow Perseid Meteor Showers & Other Astronomical Events From Your Home

Don't forget to look out in the northeast direction of  the sky tonight, keeping the moon at your back.  Tonight you will see the annual meteor shower associated with the comet Swift-Tuttle. Its going to rain about 50 to 80 meteors an hour. So will be very exciting. For this you'll need to get out from your chair and make your way to the terrace you hardly ever go to. However, if all this is making you feel completely lost, just go to the familiar Google homepage and check out today's theming. You will know what I am talking about.

Image and video hosting by TinyPicSo we are back to where i was talking. Perseids and other astronomical things may not be such wonderment for the average city-dwellers. The night lights often overshadow the glory of a moonlit pathway for us. And most of our temperaments are so used to having a switch to flick on the moment we see a dark patch, we wouldn't do well outside probably. That being said, there are plenty of geeky ways to catch such events. Here's a run down on how to keep abreast of such things the way we know best.
Through Twitter:
We are talking real-time people. How did you expect Twitter to not be featured here. Just use the #Meteorwatch hashtag (watch out for spam though. Some people really don't know what they talk about, so be discerning) and you'll be on your way.
Pictures, snippets of news, all will be delivered to you. In fact if you are feeling more proactive Why don't you join the first meteor star party on Twitter, being held by the Newbury Astronomical Society, UK. It would definitely be exciting for that star gazer inside you. However, if this tryst leave you with the zeal for astronomy you might want to follow NASA, cosmos4u and 100 Hours of astronomy for more in-depth news.

Youtube:
Trusty youtube always has quite a few decent amateur videos that can keep us glued. Fret not about the eerie silence that comes with most of these videos. Most of the astronomical events actually make no sound. If they did, well some other species would be talking about our Dinosaur ways. Here's a video of this year's meteor shower.

Consider subscribing to the videos feeds of Challenger Centre for Space science Education (CCSSE). They are a non-profit that provide quality videos on astronomical several phenomena. Learn more while browsing.
Google Mashups:
Two words we know and love. VOEventNet (built by joint collaboration of California Institute of Technology and Los Alamos National Laboratory) offers Google mashups of recent events. Install Google Earth then come back and follow the links given on the homepage of this site. You will be seeing live image from gammaray bursts, microlensing events, supernovas and unknown transients courtesy of GCN/GRBlog, OGLE, MOA and the Catalina Survey.
Space:
This website has every conceivable data on space. Join in to explore all things from aviation to night sky. They have a great video section too. Think of it more like Star Wars world meets Serenity. Always a treat to keep going back.
Stellarium:
This brilliant cross-platform software keeps me awake many nights. Choose your location co-ordinates and see the events unfold in your sky. It is a planetarium catering just to you. Explore a realistic 3D Sky as you navigate over 600,000 stars, the Milky Way with powerful control features that's sure to leave you wowed. At 33 MB it is a little on the heavier side of things. However, believe me its well worth it.

That's about it. Let me know if I have missed out on some portal which you have come to rely on for all thing astronomy. Till then, don't forget to watch the skies.




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2009-08-11

Team Apart: For Real Simple Collaboration Needs

Most large corporations need mighty protocols and expensive softwares to keep tab on all their work. Most of us just need some tools to use while collaborating real-time with a bunch of our colleagues while we bounce ideas and projects around. TeamApart fits the latter bill quite effectively.
It provides:
  • Face to communication using a webcam or a microphone.
  • A Whiteboard to hash out those ideas as you get them.
  • A real-time notepad that'd allow you to take notes or create to-do lists synchronously.
Check out this cool demo:

Only limitation is, the free version is restricted to only four users and now you need an invite code to get in. But that shouldn't stop you early birds. So sign up if you are interested.
PS: If you guys would like to be one of their beta testers to have a grip on their latest features, you can mail them at team@teamapart.com and they'll keep you clued in. Cheers!




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2009-08-10

Package Manager: The Biggest Achievement of Linux

We,the Linux users often take for granted a robust package manager in our systems. It is only the developer or a newcomer who think how good we have it. Fresh out of the myriad world of Windows and its separate installers for every damn piece of software, this system wide package management came as a source of liberation for me. No more did I have to wait for a software to update the very moment when I was looking forward to using it. No more missing important security updates because I didn't use a program. It was all taken care of, all done for me. And like a cherry on top of the cake, most installations or updates did not even require me to restart my computer.

Ian Murdock, the Founder of Debian GNU/Linux distribution and Progeny Linux once noted that, package management system was the single biggest advancement Linux had brought to the OS industry since it blurred the boundaries between operating system and applications, and made it easier to push new innovations into the marketplace and evolve the OS.
It used to be that operating systems were big, monolithic products, and applications were big, monolithic products you put on top of them. If you wanted to deploy, say, a web application, you sourced the middleware stack (which itself was probably several big products too), you sourced the operating system, and you (often painfully) had to integrate the two yourself (or pay a big company lots of money to do it for you).
These days, you increasingly just “apt-get install whatever".
So how does package management systems (PMS) change our lives at the end-user level?
  • It is a system wide manager. So takes care of all the software packages in the system.
  • It maintains such packages at the best of their usability status.
  • Verifies the checksums to ensure the correctness and completeness of a package before install
  • Authenticates the origin of the packages through digital signatures.
  • Upgrades of software takes place from known software repositories (for greater stability)
  • It automatically groups of packages by function which eliminates user confusion.
  • Version pinning: If a particular software version works for you, you might not want to upgrade unless some critical vulnerabilities or instabilities come to light.
  • Finally while downloading a software the package manager tries to resolve any dependency problems. In other words, it automatically prompts to download other packages that would be required to make the needed program work.
  • Similarly most advanced package managers allow you to do a cascade package removal, where in all packages that depend on the target package and all packages that only the target package depends on, are also removed.
In short the user gets a stabler, more up-to-date, better running system at his disposal. These features make package managers the most painless way of running our OS. The guess work is taken out and we are left with community certified software that is guaranteed to work as it should.
But there's not one type packaging format or even a single kind of packaging manager to deal with such formats. Like Linux's infinite choices of distros, the choices even permeate down to the package manager that is bundled into your system. You are always at a liberty to choose which one you would prefer. There are many sort of packaging (like .bz, .gz, .tar, .deb, .rpm, etc) that are either binary dependent or independent of the platform you are running. Most of the front-ends of package managers (like Yum, Apt-get, Aptitude) can handle most of the types and allow a user to painlessly to install and manage any software they want. However, if you have a package only in a particular binary packaging, you might want to take the help of Alien. A converter for different Linux packaging formats.
I know, sometimes such shared libraries in their complexities of operation can confound a novice. So many choices can often be overwhelming. And frankly the constant quibble as to which format is the best to go about and which manager is the greatest doesn't make it very easy on the user end. However, I sincerely believe it is a better state to be in than the incompetent and inflated DLL Hell that I have faced whilst using Windows.
If you are not that big a stickler for details, the decisions to be made are only few for the new penguin. See a program that you like, check in the front-end if your repositories supports the same or if the site has a compatible package (in 99.9% of cases it will if you are using a popular distro) and there you go. Click install and no more worries. Your powerful Linux machine will do the rest. 

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2009-08-09

Can't Wait for Google Wave? Try These Now

We are all waiting for Wave. No matter how difficult it might be to use. Doesn't matter if the steep learning curve and the sudden absolute real-time collaborations might take a lot getting used to. Wave is going to change the way we interact and go about doing our business on the net. However, even if you have signed up for you Wave account, rumour has it that the common netizen will only have their accounts up and ready sometimes late September. What's an early bird to do till then?

The principle highlights of using wave is:
  • Real time communication.
  • Real time collaboration.
  • Its a document, wiki, IM, commenting system and email all bundled into one.
  • Its a centralised location to store all your communication.
  • Its open source.
That's a lot of goodness built into one tool but since we will not get our hands dirty with it in a short while, lets see what are the other things we can use in the meanwhile.
This product in its free and paid premium version seems to do almost everything that Google Wave promises to be able to pull off. The free basic plan provides the user with 25MB storage and 5 flows and no limitation on the number of users. As ReadWriteWeb puts it,
Shareflow is a granular version of a flow-based collaboration; you can either view all flows or just single projects. In terms of content, it handles threaded comments, files of most types can be uploaded and previewed through Scribd’s iPaper interface, there’s Google Maps integration, images, and video.
However, the biggest caveat in this model is the fact that there is no real time chat or document collaboration available.
I realise that might be the deal breaker for many. But if you would like to try out it just for the heck of the fact that they managed to create a working prototype at least 2 months before Wave was launched, then you can sign up here.
Short for The Python Google Wave Server. This is definitely no where near a replacement for Wave. The only thing worth noting is the fact that PyGoWave allows you to use and even download the various Google Wave extensions. It is based on the Google Wave API and the only way you can test out some of those interesting features that are making the rounds about Wave. If you remain open to the idea that this is a very early approximation of the experience of what the real thing might feel like, it might become well worth the download.
If its only document collaboration that you want, etherpad might fit your bill. It can be even used without an account. Although there are 3 kinds of accounts. The free edition allows you to create public pads with nominal security and no user accounts. The private network edition is their enterprise solution and costs $99/user.
This is definitely not an early product but the overpriced stalwart that many believe Wave protocol might eventually replace. Nevertheless, it provides content management and enterprise search for businesses and has been as the industry standard by many.
This is the most cost-effective and also easy solution out there. It enables simple secure email based collaboration. There is no migration cost, no learning curve. Since you are essentially using the email based platform itself. Obviously the natural limitations of emails plagues this system.
Well those were the apps I thought had some similar functionalities that Wave will obviously excel in. Nevertheless, its a list, so if I have missed out on something let me know.
Cheers!
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Portability of Web Identities

I am filing this under the wish-lists. A thought just struck my head. A few days back I had recommended to you a couple of movie recommendation engines. It is then that it hit me, that how much labour goes into making some services work for us. Should things be this hard?
Imagine this. XYZ technology comes in. Promises to revolutionize the way we deal with certain aspects of our web-life. I am not talking about communication portals or search engines. I am talking about those services that require continual user input in order to provide better customized results. Now there is no guarantee that XYZ would be the best herein after. Or may be you like a very unique feature of ABC but don't like it completely to abandon XYZ. So now you are at cross-roads. What should you do? Spend fresh time and build up both XYZ and ABC or abandon the thought of using one or finally like most people end up settling for sub-optimal output from both the services, because you just didn't have the time to add data into these systems.
I wondered if it were conceivable to carry around this user generated data with us. It is not only our email or our blog posts or our IMs that make us who we are. There's the whole question of preferences. Thus I strongly believe we should be able to transfer such data and save a copy, wherever we like.  Whether or not we liked a movie will remain independent of the site we are rating it in. Whether Opeth is my favourite band or not, is something I absolutely know. Nothing is going to change that. Then why, in a world of integration and portability of content we are okay with settling for lack of this simple feature when it comes to user experience content. What might be the hindrance?
I guess the principle challenge lies in the way the data is being gathered. It is all in an ordinal scale usually, however if you see some scales of ratings are descriptive and qualitatively obsessed whilst others are more into quantifying user experience. If there were a way to create profiles for individuals with this  information life would be much simpler on the social web. We can carry over our friends, then why not our preferences.
I know, to some, having central identities and user preferences stored in such a way would mean a threat to privacy. But I am going to take that shot with the world knowing that I am a metal head who thinks Metallica was over-rated (given that only their early stuff were great), that there are days I am stuck with only one song playing in my playlist throughout the day. I have no qualms keeping a record that Ian Mcewan is my favourite author and I am dying to read his 2007 master piece On Chesil Beach and that nothing surpasses Coorg's splendour just after the rainy seasons in Karnataka. I am not sharing sensitive data here. I am sharing what I would share in a public space anyway, at any social forum that thrives on such data. I just need to be able to import and use such data that I have painstakingly put into in some place. I just want the web to be more intelligent at that.

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2009-08-08

Why Developers Prefer Simple Solutions

When I was in school I had a maths teacher who still had passion left to work on puzzles beyond the curriculum requirements. May be the reason he was so well-liked by us, is because he always told us, "if something was too complex to solve, it probably was being approached wrongly". Like most mathematicians of any callibre he lived for that single elegant solution. I guess web developers also are always on the lookout for the same simplicity in their implementation of things.

Every developer worth his salt would like to create or adopt something that has at its core an ingenious idea. However, it should be simple enough for him or her to break down its processing and implementation in no time (in hours to say a couple of days). Most successful web technologies are those that developers can grasp in no time and use as they see fit.The protocol should not only deliver some unique functionality but also be open enough to be modelled and hacked into something that can be used by the developer in their work. That could be changed easily to suit their specific needs. Thus by corollary most successful web technologies are those that developers can grasp in no time and use as they see fit.
The investment in terms of time that goes into this should be within the limitations of spare time that most developers would care to spend. So that if the adoption of the technology is not wide and great, it would only be a loss of time.
Secondly, the history of web development shows that it is those technologies that can be implemented within already existing functional platforms that are adopted most readily. Take for instance the recent implementation of push-button technology in Google Reader. It sort of tries to bridge the time difference between the articles we share on Reader with our Friendfeed updates. Its a minuscule step. Nevertheless, it brings us closer to the possibility of near-real-time web communication. Isn't after all, this is the premise that made us fall in love with microblogging platforms like Twitter? The possibility of communicating our thoughts and being read by many at the same time and vice versa. More communication and spread of idea.
Another great example of web success would be the creation of feeds. A very easy to implement idea, in our existing content creation and yet at the user end it provides enormous benefits of not having to keep navigating from one page to the other. Every new thing written on a site of our choice is automatically delivered for perusal right into a centralized reader and can be read any time. As a publisher it costs me zilch to get the feeds started. I can either modify my feeds or I don't even need to get my hands dirty; Feedburner can do my legwork. Independent of the number of my subscribers I have a great feature implemented which now allows the users to access my contents anyhow they prefer. I dare you to find weblogs these days without a method of subscription. There in lies the beauty of simplicity.
So what happens to more complex ideas, that are trying to bring in more radical changes in the way we behave on the web. My thoughts are that they always remain the cornerstone around which more smaller developments are based. Developers take in pieces of these ideas and try to implement them in their work. Over the years the parent idea is modified and becomes inherently present in more and more sub-models of itself. Thus through this very gradual process, a revolutionary technology is adopted and assimilated into our day to day lives.
I am chiefly interested in the way Google Wave will bring in changes within our existing platforms. I am not saying Google Wave does not have the capacity to replace blogs, IMs or Emails. I am saying (and this is after talking to a couple of people who have had the good fortune of using Wave in sandboxed accounts) that the inherent complexity of the system lends it to become an excellent candidate for being a source of inspiration. A full scale replacement for Wave would be beyond the reach of most companies to provide. Clones of Wave might not ever exist. Thus developers are more likely to break it down to nifty idea parts and employ them in their work.

Eventually Google Wave will change the way we communicate on the net. Our communications would become more centralism in spite of different providers. The harassment of maintaining so many identities and tracking responses all over the web would obviously end someday. Wave in its absolute brilliance will change everything that we know about communicating in the cyberspace. It will just not be overnight; it will definitely not be in its entirety from the very beginning. I am expecting all ideas of Wave to become a reality; just after it has been boiled down to be added to existing platforms. Gradually, very gradually.




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2009-08-06

Ubuntu Forums: Great Place to Get Help

It is often said that communities are built around open source projects. It is what usually sets apart open source softwares from their proprietary counterparts. There is such a massive involvement from all the users of these softwares that it is unbelievable. They are eager to help the new users; showing them the ropes in graded steps, sharing tips and tricks, just so that you know that you are not alone. I became first hand witness to this amazing process in Ubuntu forums today.
Since I shifted to Ubuntu, I had experienced a peculiar problem whilst browsing the web. A few sites like Facebook, Flickr, Zoho and certain other .php based pages would just stop rendering or  not allow me to create or save content. It was definitely weird since I could access other Java/ Java script enabled or flash filled sites. But these specific ones I could not. Not through different browsers, desktop apps, nothing. Initially I sincerely didn't care. I hosted most of my pictures on Tinypic, was most active on Twitter and used Open Office for most of my office needs. However, since the last month the things changed a little. My friends had all moved on to Facebook and I had no other way to keep in touch regularly with those who went out of town, unless I wanted to rack up long distance bills. Frankly, I wasn't in any mood to do that. The occasional hi-bye is nice. A full-fledged email sometimes just takes too much of thought and IMs are too temporal in context.
Pushed to a corner, I had to find out a way out of this messy affair and fast. So I started searching for any similar problem people might have had. Surprisingly the problem remained elusive. Its as if, no one even thought such a thing were possible. Humbled by this fact and in a state of resentment I had accepted that this problem of mine would not get solved. That is until one night I was reading a forum thread in Ubuntu and was putting in my two cents to a troubleshoot. Then it hit me to start a new thread. It was ill-formed, barely specific in details, yet the response was overwhelming. In less than 2 days I had received over 25 approaches to solving the problem. Finally one of them worked. I don't know if it was the combination of some or just the spring cleaning I went about doing as a result of all these suggestions that worked, but right now I am happy that it did. Over time I guess I would go through the logical basis towards going through every step. However, today I am simply ecstatic.
This brings me to what I initially wanted to say. Open Source project based communities, especially the Linux and Firefox forums are extremely useful. Sometimes a new user might get stumped with something they just might not be able to wrap their head around. Nevertheless, through these forums it is possible for that user to get their problems addressed. The response might take some time to get generated. The solutions may not work right away, but eventually someone more experienced would come to know about it and lend their help. Its this great community that makes it possible for desktop users to move on to Linux and Firefox.
However, I also applaud Canonical's decision to offer Ubuntu Desktop Support. It never hurts to have an official channel to get support when moving from other OS-s into Ubuntu. It would be especially useful for small-companies and individuals less inherent to troll forums. So along with great official support and an equally powerful community driven user support system, I don't see why the year of the Linux desktop should be that far away.

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