Weblog on the Internet and public policy, journalism, virtual community, and more from David Brake, a Canadian academic, consultant and journalist

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11 February 2008

Thanks to a BBC programme, Costing the Earth, I just heard about Desertec, a proposal to provide 10-25% of Europe’s electricity via solar power panels in the deserts of North Africa. What I thought was particularly impressive is the claim that the solar panels could provide a three-fold benefit for these African nations. They’d sell the power, of course, but they would also get desalinated water (because this is needed to run the power plants) and they could grow crops in the shade of the giant mirrors! I always thought that the problem with remote electricity generation like this would be the losses in transmission over long distances but the people behind this concept claim that by using High Voltage Direct Current (HVDC) these losses would only amount to 10-15% of the power generated.

I have no idea whether this would be feasible, technically, politically or economically, (one critic says it would cost 0.15-0.20 euros per KWh – about double what we pay for power currently) but it sure sounds appealing on the face of it.

25 November 2006

At my local toy shop I noticed a new series of wooden toys – the BRIO Network Toys. They look cute but not exactly technically accurate… The website has flash animations and even some video clips but alas is Flash-based so no deep linking- you’ll have to explore it yourselves. Yes, the Internet really is everywhere these days!


25 October 2006

Back when I used to write for MacUser (14 years ago!) I had a column called “Brake’s Bunch” where I used to write about various shareware utilities, games and other files which I had found. Then I left the Mac fold for a while… but now that I am back I have slid back into the habit of gathering bits and pieces and installing them. So here is a moderately frequently updated roundup of the freeware, shareware and open source stuff I have accumulated since I got my ibook in the hope it will help some of you (this post seems to be one of the most-read ones so I hope it works!). Unless otherwise noted these are available in PC and/or Linux versions as well – if I don’t provide a link it’s because you should be able to find them by Googling for them or using MacUpdate or Version Tracker to find the relevant files. If you think there’s another game/app/utility I should take a look at or there’s a different utility available that does the same things as one I mentioned but does them better please let me know!

Items added since last major update (March) are italicised.
Alphababy – Lets your baby have fun bashing the keyboard of your Mac – it pops up shapes and makes sounds whatever they press and makes sure other applications running aren’t affected by what is typed. Whether it is a good idea to encourage your baby to bash your keyboard is up to you to decide!
Army Operations 2.5 – The best (certainly the most advanced) free game available – a first person perspective shooter. Enjoy it while you can as last I heard the guy supporting it on the Mac is no longer going to keep it up to date with the (dominant) PC version.
FreeCiv – an open source, customisable offshoot of Civ II.
triplea – A WW II strategic level game being developed as open source. The AI is basic to non-existent but if they get that and other niggling bugs sorted out it looks promising
The Ur-Quan Masters – a multi-platform port of a classic “explore the galaxy in your ship and negotiate with/kill aliens” adventure/combat game. The best Mac variant is here.
Xconq-MacOSX – An excellent open source empire building game based on the original “Empire” game. Graphically unimpressive but offers loads of options for different modes of play.
Privateer Gold – An open source copy of Wing Commander Privateer (with some added features).
Audacity – Great open source audio editing and recording software
Chicken of the VNC – Lets me view the screen of a machine running VNC server and control it remotely (handy for using both my wife’s PC and my Mac at the same time).
Conversation – Free IRC client
Cyberduck – FTP client
Comic Life – An excellent little app that lets you take pictures from your own collection, add comic-book style speech balloons etc and create your own comic book. It’s not freeware but you can try it out for a month before it starts putting a watermark on anything you do.
Fire – Multi-platform instant message client. Similar to Proteus – which one you use is probably a matter of taste…
FreeMind – A Java-based mind mapping application
galerie – A (mac only) add-on for iPhoto that makes it easy to create photo galleries using your available web space. OK to use but I am using Flickr for this these days.
Grapher – Cool free graphing calculator
Nvu – Handy WYSIWYG web page editing software
Transana – Excellent open source software to aid transcription of video and audio files – in Alpha on the Mac but still worth checking out.

Active Timer – Tracks the amount of time you spend in each application on your Mac. A pretty basic feature set but it’s easy to use and it’s free.
AudioScrobbler – Tracks what you listen to in iTunes and automatically creates a profile for you on last.fm which should help you find music you like. Its support for Classical music is rubbish (it doesn’t handle the ‘composer’ tag) but otherwise well worth a look.
Aurora – An alarm clock for your Mac that ties in with iTunes – excellent!
BluePhoneMenu – Handy utility for controlling a bluetooth phone via your Mac. Since superceded by BluePhone Elite which offers more features but is shareware. Still downloadable, though.
Compost – Lets you control the way the Trash works so you can instantly delete big unwanted files without flushing all of the files in the trash unneccessarily.
Default Folder X – gives you much better control of which folder you open when you get the open/save dialogue on your Mac (as well as adding lots of other misc features). Reminds me of a very early Mac addon, ‘Boomerang’. (I still don’t know why this isn’t a part of the OS by now).
Delocalizer 1.1 – Gets rid of foreign language support files you are not using to free up hard disk space.
ION, the Open Media Network and DTV – Trying to make it easy to find and download internet video podcasts.
Greasemonkey – an add-on to Firefox that enables lots of useful enhancements to your web browsing – like Quicksilver (below) it’s something you have to try before you see what use it can be.
Eyehide – makes it easy to create an invisible, password-protected folder to hide files you don’t want everyone to have access to (so you can retain some privacy without password protecting your whole computer against everyone).
Mailtags – Must-have utility for organizing Apple Mail messages (see this post)
Memory Usage Getter – (also measures CPU usage) Figure out which of your applications is a memory or CPU hog and figure out if you need more RAM.
Quıcĸsilver – Swiss army knife keyboard shortcut application many rave about but I haven’t really delved into yet.
R-Name – Easy way to change several file names at the same time on your Mac.
Romeo – Excellent free Mac application to let you control your Mac (eg your iTunes or your Powerpoint presentation) using your Bluetooth phone
Screen Spanning Doctor – Use more than one screen or use a large screen at > 1024×768 with your iBook by installing this.
SimpleWget – Provides a basic non-control-line interface to Wget which automates copying web sites onto your hard disk for later browsing.
SMARTReporter – May be able to warn you in advance when your disk is in danger of failing.
Synk – easy-to-use file synchronisation and full disk backup app for the Mac – free to academic users, cheap for others.
Textpander – (Mac only but PC options are also available) – automatically substitutes text for other text in every application you type in – useful for common mis-spellings and can also insert the date when you type “ddate” etc.
Time Out – Warns you to take a break away from the keyboard (Mac only)
Tidy Up! – Find duplicate files
TinkerTool – gives you access to additional preference settings Apple has built into Mac OS X
VLC video player – Excellent player for many kinds of video content – more versatile than Quicktime for this and includes a full-screen mode (which Quicktime ‘basic’ does not).
WhatSize Disk Inventory X – Lets you see at a glance where the big files and folders are on your hard disk so you can free up space.
WireTap Pro – Shareware Mac utility that lets you record streamed audio into files for later listening.
Yasu 1.3.1 – Performs various low-level Mac (UNIX) “maintenance” operations. Use with caution. I have to say I only used it once so far because I am not clear what it does or why I would need it…

Update: Widgets!
How could I forget the widgets I have found (through Apple’s directory) and installed? In truth I don’t use them all that much but they are occasionally useful…

Countdown Plus – Tells you how long you have before something happens or is due.
iStat Nano – Shows memory, network and CPU use etc
CharacterPal – reminds you of the keypresses needed to produce special characters, accents etc. Also see Symbols which is not as intuitive but more powerful, including info on how to generate them in HTML as well as in Mac documents etc.
Decor – lets you stick a picture up on your dashboard
Air Traffic Control – Lets you see all of the wireless networks in your area and whether they are secure or not.
quikconvert – converts between lots of different units including currencies – just type in the number and the unit type and it will figure out what you are trying to convert to.

UK users in particular may want to check out these:
BBC Weather – lets you see the weather forecast in your area in the UK or around the world for the next 5 days. Much better (and prettier) than the US one included as standard.
Postage Calculator (Royal Mail)
Trains – see the train timetable of your choice

17 August 2006

(Well, my computer is). A little while ago I heard about Malariacontrol.net, part of the Africa@home project. You download an application (the Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing – Boinc – available on PC, Mac and  Linux) and instead of donating spare processing power to the quixotic search for extraterrestrial life you can use your computer (when it is turned on but not doing anything else) to help scientists better understand how malaria spreads. Or at least you could until recently – at the moment they have all the computers they need for that project. But keep revisiting Africa@Home as they plan to publicise more projects soon. Meanwhile there are several other projects that use Boinc.

15 August 2006

London Walks for your MP3 Player is what it says – there 15 areas of central London covered (so far). So much more handy than carrying around a guidebook. For an alternative – a single downloadable package of 15 sites plus a map – see iaudioguide (which covers a number of other European cities as well). I heard about it via a roundup of such guides at Londonist – a (rather patchy) commercial blog about all things London.

16 May 2006

According to this press release from now until the end of the year anyone in (or merely passing through) Canada or the US will be able to use Skype on their computers – or their PDAs for that matter – to call any US or Canadian number.

I have my reservations about Skype – I would be much happier if I could find a VOIP solution that worked well, was open and cross platform but so far I have not found anything that fulfils all three criteria – Skype while not open at least fulfils the other two. I would certainly like it if my friends and family over in North America would all sign up (hint, hint) and let me know they had done so. As an additional incentive, if you have Windows you can even use the latest beta to look in on Adrien while we talk using our webcam…

11 May 2006

David Tebbutt, an old friend, posts hopefully that ‘social software’ (wikis, blogs etc) could reduce the amount of ‘occupational spam’* we get. Alas, groupware apps like Lotus Notes and intranet messageboards were also supposed to free us from corporate email spam and in theory they could. But simply introducing the software is only the beginning. The main problems are organizational and psychological. 1) it is much harder to change people’s habits than it is to add a bit of software 2) for better or worse people feel an email to someone will at least get glanced at while other means of electronic communication (internal wikis etc) because they are not “pushed” may never get looked at and 3) having lots of communication options can lead to confusion. People think “does this belong on the project’s wiki? On the intranet? On my blog? Oh sod it I will email it to the people who need to know.”
Organizations can cut down on email spam but they need to start with a change to the organizational culture and lead from the top (with bosses participating in the online spaces they want their employees to use) rather than installing software and hoping for the best. If I had had more space in my book – Dealing with Email – that is what I would have stressed. I am sure that David knows this as well of course but I am afraid that reading this article business leaders will just see ‘social software’ as a quick fix. Unfortunately, as I said, we have been down that road before…

* Emails cc:ed to lots of people who don’t need to see them, personal email like items for sale circulated around an organization, announcements of fire drills etc.

17 April 2006

In theory the backup I made using Synk onto my firewire disk should allow me to plug the external disk into my Mac (or any recent Mac?) and have it boot up off that disk, making my work environment exactly as it was at the moment of the backup. I tried something similar the last time my PC crashed but that never worked properly and I ended up having to copy  things across and re-install applications.

I found a colleague with a Mac today and tried my backup – my heart in my mouth – and it seems to work just as advertised! (At least on the basis of a few minutes clicking around).

So there will be a week of chaos while my machine is being repaired after which I should be able to go back to an almost completely normal life (technologically speaking). Thank you Apple and Synk!

15 February 2006

I am not, shall we say, known for my cooking. But since my wife does the earning, it makes sense for me to hold up my end by wearing the chef’s hat. I usually use the Foodieview search engine to help me find stuff to do with the ingredients I have, but through it I found Recipe*zaar and as soon as I started using it I got that “Flickr feeling” all over again. For those who haven’t tried Flickr that’s the feeling you get when a website contains loads of really useful, well-thought-out features that help you use and contribute to it.

Recipezaar has over 150,000 recipes but its real genius is that with each you can see it in metric or imperial, change the serving size, see full (estimated) nutritional information and see ratings and comments from others. When searching for the recipe you want you can specify time to make, hot or cold, occaision, cuisine type or any of dozens of other ‘tags’. I don’t have time to enumerate all its cool features – check it out yourself. I don’t know why a site this good isn’t the talk of the tech blogosphere. Could it be that cooking just doesn’t interest 20 and 30-something male alpha geeks?

I haven’t made an exhaustive examination of recipe sites so please if you know of better ones let me know.

5 September 2005

Playlist magazine has a handy roundup of places to get free or cheap audiobooks, including an interesting organization called Tell Tale Weekly which sells the audiobooks it produces but for very small sums and gives the money to the people who read out the books, which has helped to produce a reasonably large list of available works. Then after five years (or 100,000 downloads) it releases the audiobooks that have been digitised under a Creative Commons license. Librivox is a similar effort but relies on volunteers to read the books and charges nothing for the result. There are a couple of books read by people available through Project Gutenberg as well – lots more if you are happy to listen to computer-generated dictation.

If you want to hear free contemporary SF instead, check out Escape Pod (which broadcasts short stories) and Podiobooks which hasn’t quite launched yet but you can subscribe to it through iTunes or whatever and wait…

Benjamen Walker’s Theory Of Everything is quite like one of my favourite radio programmes, This American Life, but… well… stranger (which is sometimes no bad thing). Ben is a professional radio producer and it shows.

If you are more interested in technology (and I am guessing most of you have some interest in it) the top-ranked podcast at the moment – This Week In Tech – is head and shoulders above much of the podcasting rabble. It features a large round table of tech luminaries and is a very convincing and enjoyable reproduction of the kind of tech-related banter, gossip and bluster that I used to enjoy myself when I was a tech journalist (though at over an hour each week it may be a little self-indulgent). For daily more ‘straight’ tech snippets, you could try Future Tense, and for recordings from the many technology-related conferences that seem to happen every other day across the US you should check out IT Conversations. And if you are a hardcore Macintosh user you should try listening to the MacCast (though frankly it could do with a little pruning as there is a lot of discussion of minutiae on it).

Update: If you want more audiobooks for no payment there are a number of streamed options. They are less easily downloadable (you need to use Total Recorder – PC – or WireTap Pro – Mac – to turn them into MP3s) but OneWord radio offers free audiobooks and book commentary 24 hours a day (streamed only) and the BBC – Radio 4 and BBC7 broadcast less but includes some originally commissioned work too and unlike OneWord the streams are archived (if only for a week) which makes capturing easier. A few BBC radio programmes are even being podcast (though not drama yet).

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