28 February 2008

Air guitar supremacy

Hi -

Our new subscription to Netflix brought us a gift that we must share with you: a clip from a documentary about the world air guitar competition.

Now, we can't just jump into this, no. Let's get ready by watching some real guitar by the famous shredder Yngwie Malmsteen:

Okay, now you are ready for some highbrow entertainment sans guitar. Here is C-Diddy.

If you can't get enough, here's another:


Free Mac / WinXP Remote Desktop, and Music

Hi -

Remote Desktop
Did you ever wish you could remote-control someone's PC or Mac desktop, to, say, help them out with their computer from afar? I asked around and was eventually directed to something easy and free: LogMeIn Free for Mac. If you want to control someone's Mac from either another Mac or a Windows box, it's a breeze.

Chill Music
Came across some interesting mixes on iTunes. "Annual Design Review 2007" reminds me of the background music in hip clothing stores, although, really, do you think you'd find me in a hip clothing store? (The bluegrass version of a U2 song is a curious addition.)

Also, someone cobbled together most of the soundtrack of the "Helvetica" movie. (these links open iTunes) Many of the tunes are from the band El Ten Eleven.

NPR listeners will recognize "Everything Is Alright" from Four Tet. While this was looping on our MacBook tonight, J-Fav kept saying, "Hi, I'm Tom Ashbrook..."

By the way, iTunes now lets you embed playlists in blog posts. Unfortunately, clicking on a song launches iTunes rather than playing an embedded preview. Let's give it a try:

This Is An Experiment


24 February 2008

My brother's poetry

Among many other things[1], my brother Matt is now a published poet! His work is the highlight of this month's SpiralBridge.


[1] You'll see what I mean when you read his bio.

23 February 2008

Back from NYC

Hi -

Thank you for your well-wishes for our invention competition journey in NYC! Alas, we didn't progress beyond the finalist stage, but looking around at the other finalists we were proud to be there.

Saatchi & Saatchi treated representatives of 10 innovations to a luxurious week in the city, including a hotel stay in what I imagine is one of the hippest places to be in Soho - 60 Thompson - an example of clean-edged, minimalist design staffed by who we all presumed were models waiting for their big break. We dined with scientists and judges from around the world and learned about straws that purify water, brain implants for the blind, and collapsible wheels. It was particularly fun to meet HRH Princess Badiya (of Jordan), who really endeared herself to the fellow scientists. I certainly didn't except to share an elevator with a princess and her bodyguard when I arrived in NYC...

J-Fav and I got a particular kick out of some of the shops we encountered, such as "Rice to Riches," a stark white-and-orange hangout that serves 20 flavors of rice pudding over a backdrop of thumping dance music. We also enjoyed "Evolution" (thanks, Nick!), a skeleton-and-icky-creature-themed-place that sells skeletons, framed gigantic bugs, and all manner of teeth.

We're back in Boston - Grandma Kathy headed back home - and we returned to normalcy by taking Toby for a good old fashioned day of sledding down the snowy slopes of Arlington.

Saatchi NYC Trip


Who is the MBTA's graphic designer, anyhow?

Hi -

A primary Boston-area subway station, the Alewife T stop, has undergone a drastic graphic redesign. I imagine they meant the best by adding color-coded parking lot designators, updated platform signs attempting to indicate which of several exit stairways to take, etc. But instead (in my humble opinion) they messed it up by going with a typeface like Eurostile instead of good ol' Helvetica. (I.e., think "NCC-1701" or "car dashboard" versus "American Airlines.")

Someone else has already invited the rants of many a blog-commenter, so I'll leave it at that. Here are the photos of the difficult-to-read new signs.



16 February 2008

Actuality publicity: "Bedford firm up for 'World Changing Idea' award"

In the Bedford Minuteman, "Bedford firm up for 'World Changing Idea' award."


Mozy (the conclusion?)

Hello -

For the record, I finally received a package of restore-DVDs from Mozy's internet-based backup service this week. Let's see, my hard drive crashed in January...

My files and computing-life returned to normal about a week ago, anyway, so this is useless. Also, I had informed Mozy three times to cancel my DVD order. Soon I'll find out if I was charged for that.

Certainly, it should have been obvious to me that the speed of the remote restore function is more imporant than the speed and ease-of-use of the backup function.

So, what services should a remote-backup company offer their customers? Corporate users are a weird niche, right? Big firms have IT groups and plenty of backup-drive space and take care of it on their own. Smaller shops presumably also have in-house backups, but there's some comfort (or perceived immediacy) in having one's backup under personal control and validation. But our IT budgets are correspondingly smaller.

In my perfect world, I'd want rapid response to HD failure in the form of an overnght FedEx package of CDs or DVDs that contain two things: (1) plain-vanilla documents and settings, and (2) an image of the hard drive so that I can - ZZZAP! - magically make a new HD act like my old HD. For "free," i.e., the subscription includes credits for N no-fee restore mailings per year. Sure, Mozy offers real-time drag-and-drop access to one's files, but I don't need that. (Other folks might, though - a co-worker likes the ability to access one's files from any machine.)

What to charge for that insta-restore FedEx service?

Anyhow. Enough of this rambling. But the executives at remote-backup services are listening, as evidenced by a thoughtful e-mail I received from the CEO of a Mozy competitor.


14 February 2008

Attention: Font Nerds


I recommend the documentary "Helvetica" for all you font-nerds out there who want to watch a gang of well-respected graphic designers discuss the ubiquity, merits, and downsides (gasp!) of Helvetica. (It was one of J-Fav's surprise V-Day picks for us on Netflix, a choice made even more profound by Matthias's mentioning the film this evening.)

Also, the film has a wonderful soundtrack.

Learn about the film here.

Extra nerd points: you get to hear from Massimo Vignelli (the NYC subway maps / typography, American Airlines), Neville Brody, and even someone from The Designers Republic!

Clearly the late hour is hampering my ability to make a coherent recommendation. Just go see the thing.


11 February 2008

A few things to click on

Hello -

A particular entry in a conversation on xkcd regarding "Awesome Textbooks," in which said awesomeness is due to unexpected silliness in an otherwise serious text (in this case, statistical mechanics).

On Gawker, regarding people who dominate coffee shops with laptops. For hours.

I expected the worst when I dropped $20 on a new alarm clock at Walgreens, and was pleasantly surprised. This thing sets itself, is aware of time changes, and contains optics sufficient to project the time on the wall or ceiling. Yes, it's the Emerson CKS3516!

Haruki Murakami, anyone? I am halfway through After Dark, but was hoping for something that I'd find more compelling, perhaps though greater suspense or surreality. Kafka on the Beach, maybe? [review]

The entire universe!
Sure, it takes a long time to load, but so did the formation of galaxies.

Former roommates might concur that this 30-second comedic short adequately mirrors my late-night state of mind. (The Lonely Island's "Thuggish Ruggish Bone.") (UPDATE: Aw, man. I didn't realize this was due to a song.)

Wired.com: "Feb. 1, 1893: Lights! Kinetograph! Action!" about Thomas Edison's West Orange, NJ laboratory, the site of the first motion picture studio. I grew up in West Orange, so this was a frequent site for class field trips.

I guess the Cooper Black and Helvetica t-shirts are still available at Wire & Twine.

Updated references to contemporary photographers at i heart photograph.

Finally, an out-of-character presentation from Bill Gates with plenty of celebrity cameo action:


07 February 2008

Attaching Value to Free Things (Kevin Kelly)

GeekPress pointed me to this essay by Kevin Kelly, "Better than Free."


When copies are free, you need to sell things which can not be copied.

Well, what can't be copied?

There are a number of qualities that can't be copied. Consider "trust." Trust cannot be copied. You can't purchase it. Trust must be earned, over time. It cannot be downloaded. Or faked. Or counterfeited (at least for long). If everything else is equal, you'll always prefer to deal with someone you can trust. So trust is an intangible that has increasing value in a copy saturated world.

There are a number of other qualities similar to trust that are difficult to copy, and thus become valuable in this network economy. I think the best way to examine them is not from the eye of the producer, manufacturer, or creator, but from the eye of the user. We can start with a simple user question: why would we ever pay for anything that we could get for free? When anyone buys a version of something they could get for free, what are they purchasing?

From my study of the network economy I see roughly eight categories of intangible value that we buy when we pay for something that could be free.

Here's the essay. And here's Kevin's bio.


04 February 2008

NVIDIA to Acquire AGEIA Tech.

For those of you following the GPGPU / physics-engine saga, here's today's NVIDIA press release that begins, "NVIDIA (Nasdaq: NVDA), the world leader in visual computing technologies and the inventor of the GPU, today announced that it has signed a definitive agreement to acquire AGEIA Technologies, Inc., the industry leader in gaming physics technology."


Windows XP restore: complete! ...how?

Hi -

Thanks to four days dedicated to restoring a crashed hard drive and the expert help of our software team, my laptop is back in action. I was in a good enough mood to make a nice roast leg of lamb tonight for dinner. (Did I mention that Toby really loves meat?)

If this happens to you, assuming the crashed drive is still somewhat read-able, here are the things that I wish I had known as a note-to-self if it happens again:

Make (and, ideally, test) an image of the drive
Use Ghost. Or, as suggested one note down, Acronis. That way, you hit a few buttons, and ka-blam-o! your hard drive will magically come back.

Joyce-ian Aside: Astute lovers of humorous rap may enjoy the following video, "Ka-Blamo!", from The Lonely Island. Safiri may insist that pottery is, indeed, ka-blamo, and others may point out the benefits of forgetting what coal is. These are left as exercises to the reader.

Restore My Documents correctly
First, make sure "show hidden files" is on. Then figure out what your home directory really is when you log in to XP. Our head of SW had to tell me that the directory names in XP have an arbitrary aspect to them - e.g., although I log in as "ACTUALITYSBS\favalora", my working directory is the "favalora" one, not the "favalora.actualitysbs" one. You can see my confusion. Also, the "my documents" directory names itself dynamically.

Microsoft Outlook is smarter than you think
It is actually quite easy to load your old outlook.pst files. You just load them. Outlook is smart enough to return to its pre-crash personality. (Except, in my case, for an IMAP account through Gmail. Although the old email was there, it was stale. You have to explicity re-add IMAP accounts.)

The Windows XP migration and restore agents are reportedly worthless
'nuff said.

Install the apps you lost, make everything just right, and then make a disk image
...and having Mozy run in the background can't hurt.

Although, for the record, the restore DVDs from Mozy that I ordered on Friday still haven't arrived yet. So perhaps I will cancel the Mozy service.

Whew! Back to normal. And this was with, what, five quasi-redundant backups?

Mmmmm, lamb...


02 February 2008

Backing up is easy, but restoring is slow with Mozy

Hello -

This note is a public service announcement to remember that some little piece of your hard drive is likely to fail one day, and, so, preserve your sanity by performing frequent backups and, just as important, try out the file-restoring procedure at least once before becoming complacent.

Executive summary:

  • Put the time into backing up your computer - there are online services, like Mozy, that do it in the background (as long as you have a very fast Internet connection), and smarter local ones (like a USB hard-drive, or the Time Capsule thing for Macs).
  • I wish that I had been using Symantec's Norton Ghost because it takes a 10 GB machine about an hour to back up and just an hour to restore... and does it in an idiot-proof method that magically restores the "image" of your hard drive as if nothing happened.
  • All the "little things" aren't little when you're recovering from a crash, like: thousands of mysterious and forgettable Windows XP settings and browser preferences, big fat applications, and applications settings.
The long story:

Hi! I have been out of town at a conference, where I gave two talks despite my ThinkPad T41's refusal to boot into Windows (I was neurotic enough to have saved my talks on a USB stick).

I hope you, dear reader, will benefit from my tale:

I have been backing up my stuff
My work machine has important data on it. So, I am careful to back it up. In three ways, plus two extras:

1. It seems hardened from HD failure because its important-looking (but evidently unreliable) "Access IBM" button provides access to a feature that uses a hidden partition to create a constant, behind-the-scenes backup of your drive. The "Access IBM" button sometimes acts improperly - at times, it throws me to the text-only boot in safe mode? prompt rather than the Rescue and Recovery environment. Also, its features are poorly documented. I turned on the rescue setting a few years ago, and that was it. Was it working? Who knows.

2. I spent several hours reading reviews of backup services and ultimately signed up for MozyPro, which is EMC's online backup service. It is moderately easy to set up, at least for a techie. Sure, the first backup takes forever (e.g. 3 days), but it runs in the background, and after that, only uploads changes to your data to the big server-in-the-sky. Oh, but if you log out of your account mid-backup, it seems to forget where it was, and starts from scratch. Oh, and, also, it refuses to operate if your web connection is too slow. (E.g., 700k up / 100 k down, per RCN, is too slow.) Third oh, I have two passwords for it, but I'm never sure which is the right one.

3. Last year, I made a complete backup to a USB hard drive, just in case I needed to restore the machine to some primordial but not-quite-zero point. It is hard to predict when Windows will recognize the drive.

4. My common, for-the-good-of-the-company files are actually stored on our network's server, which is also backed up. However, some stuff that's I'd prefer to keep local is... well... local. I don't like the idea of encrypting data because I have this fear that a corrupted encrypted file is completely un-restorable.

5. Presumably, all of my data (minus some driver file or something) is still in the hard drive. Which, I might add, is protected by IBM's technology that deactivates the drive if the laptop is tapped or pushed in even the slightest way. On the train, I can't use the machine, because the hard drive is too scared to reactivate.

So, heck, five ways in which I should be okay..... right?

My hard drive crashed
My computer won't finish booting. When I try safe mode, it hangs on one particular driver file (AGP440). I restored that one file, but it didn't help.

The Access IBM button stopped working
Does anyone have a ThinkPad with this blue button? It worked the first few times I pressed it, but now it dumps me to the boot-in-safe-mode? screen. Augh! I had hoped to use that to restore the system from the USB hard drive.

This could take a while... better tell Mozy... better buy a replacement hard drive...
I logged in to Mozy and requested a system restore.

Do they have a manual for this? Yes, but it is not written for the average user. There is no "holy crap! my hard drive died, can you zap the image back to me so it works again?" section. Also, it defaults to a mode where only documents are saved, as in "just save my .doc, .ppt, .xls, and my Outlook data, please. Oh, and my MP3s." Mozy needs a save-a-disk-image mode.

The next day, Mozy informed me that my data are ready for download (as four 3 Gig files, with no indication of what's in each file). Also, I purchased a set of DVDs just in case, I get tired of waiting for a 24 hour download to finish error-free.

Symantec Norton Ghost to the Rescue
Thank goodness, our head of software was able to make an image of his T41 that I could install on the replacement hard drive.

It took an hour to back up and an hour to restore. My computer instantly became a clone of his.

(Which is why, folks, I wish I had been using Ghost instead of Mozy for backups.)

Windows Settings
There are many settings to deal with to make the machine think it's me, not someone else. Stop synchronizing to the server. Give myself administrator privs again. Figure out why "number lock" asserts itself upon every log-out. Tell Internet Explorer that yes, you're my default browser, and no, I never want "Microsoft Live" to be my default search engine ever freaking again.

At the moment, the first of four multi-GByte downloads is happening. From our study, at home, which now has so many Ethernet cables and hubs in it that it is starting to remind me of the computer-laden CTU on 24.

Will they have a simple executable that will restore the machine to where it was?

Will it be a lump of disorganized files that I must drag to their proper homes?

In Conclusion
For your own sanity, and in the name of preserving the domestic tranquility that your frustration will erode once your hard drive loses just a few bits, you might want to visit these:

Mozy (backup service)
Mozy review one: "Everybody likes Mozy -- Except Me," C|Net
Mozy review two: "It turns out Mozy isn't so hot after all"
(See, there are lots of Internet backup reviews, but few actually tried to restore data.)
Symantec Norton Ghost 12.0
Apple's Time Capsule

Questions for the Reader
Have you ever experienced problems with the Access IBM button? How do you make it work again?

Have you had a hard drive fail that reported zero errors under chkdsk?

Have you performed a restore with Mozy? Will this go smoothly for me?