Posts tagged 'Reviews'

Taking Notes With nvAlt And Epistle

I’ve blogged before about productivity tools. GQueues worked for me for a bit but my interest in it eventually faded. I tried running my own wiki with a What You See Is What You Get (WYSIWYG) editor bolted on but that solution wound up being too clunky. But now I’m using a simple text editor for the Mac called nvAlt .

nvALT is a dead-simple application. Just pick a folder to save your notes to and start typing the title of your first note in the Search or Create field at the top. There is no toolbar or buttons or any of the other distractions typically found in a basic word processor. It supports markdown for basic formatting such as creating headlines or lists. The neat thing about markdown is it is easy to read in any editor but when viewing it in editors that understand markdown it can be rendered as valid HTML. nvALT has a rendered preview window if you ever need your notes in HTML or to print them out or just to copy and paste them into an email.

Markdown is just as easy to write as it is to read. To make an unordered list just but an * and a space before the sentence. New lines are translated into new list items. Different level headings are expressed by the number of # symbols in front of the word; one # symbol = heading level 1, 6 # symbols = heading level 6. A lot of the markdown syntax was inspired by simple formatting in plain-text emails. You can read through the complete reference of markdown’s syntax for even more examples.

So nvALT is a great little tool for organizing text notes but what else makes it so special? Well, when you save your notes to your Dropbox folder, your notes can go with you wherever you go. Epistle is an awesome free Android app that complements nvALT. It syncs with Dropbox, lets you search through all of your notes the same way nvALT does and it too supports markdown. Now I can make a shopping list on my computer and reference it when I’m at the store. And then I can delete items from the list after I buy them and have the changes sync to my computer automagically.

Previously I would have to email copies of my notes to myself without an easy way to update or make changes to them.

I keep different files for all kinds of different thing: random ideas, WordPress snippets, links and brain dumps for different projects I’m working on, to-do lists, and even rough drafts of blog entries. One time I was at a meet-up and someone was talking to me about a WordPress problem they were having. I thought a plugin I had just read about would come in handy for them and thanks to my notes synced to my phone I pulled up the link and sent it to him.

Since nvALT and Epistle are tied to my Dropbox account one could do really geeky things. It would be so neat if I had an analytics note and every night a script would update it with stats from Google analytics showing me how many unique visitors read my blog yesterday. Or if it aggregated a bunch of simple information that I check often into one place that I could glance at on my way to work.  Using a service like if this then that (ifttt) would be neat for making some simple actions to automatically update notes with new information. Then that information could be in one place no matter where I am.

I’m so happy I found an open-ended system that gives me the flexibility for all kinds of different things while being simple to use without getting in my way.  What do you use for keeping track of to-dos and ideas?

Pinterest Vs. Gimmiebar

I’ve been on an inspiration curation kick lately. At the end of September, 2011, I signed up for Gimmiebar, a more niche-focused curation site akin to the web 2.0 social bookmarking site The idea behind the service is when you stumble upon something awesome, be it an image, text, or most videos, you can save it to your gimmiebar using their handy browser extension or bookmarklet. You can find your friends and follow them like any social network and see what they add to their collections in the Discovery section. I must not be following the right people as now and then I will see what others are finding only to come up uninspired. There’s no sitewide search but there is a Notable section that you can peruse.

The gimmiebar extension for Chrome or bookmarklet for other browsers (both do the same thing) is slick. Activating your gimmiebar gives you two drop zones for dragging images into: your Public Firehose and Private Stash. Once you add your image you can add it to one or more collections or create a new collection on the fly. You’re given the option to give a description and tagging is done inline by adding a # before a word.

Gimmiebar does a really good job of being quick and painless. I also like how they save a copy of the image or website incase the original source should go offline. You can even hook up your Dropbox account and have your saved images saved to the cloud as another backup.

Overall Gimmiebar has good tools for personal curation but lacks in the social aspect. I’m sure this will get better over time as more and more people start using it.

Pinterest, on the other hand, has a huge focus on socially sharing interesting things found on the web. You create boards which you pin different things to. Your friends can see what you have pinned and even repin it to their boards. Repinning is just like reposting on Tumblr or re-tweeting on Twitter.

My favorite feature of Pinterest is their search feature, which works well. Just enter a term and you get back a large swath of different images to pore over. Since the community is so active, you will want to keep checking your favorite searches for new inspiration. Commenting is also there but I don’t see much conversation occurring on pins.

Pinterests audience is heavily female oriented. There is a lot of fashion, do-it-yourself crafts, wedding, recipes and decorating pins going through my stream. But that’s ok because there is also a lot of robots.

With all the buzz surrounding Pinterest and their traffic numbers going up and up every month, it’s no wonder the site can slow down to a crawl from time to time. Ingesting and searching through all of those images is a tough job for any systems engineer at Pinterest’s scale. Hopefully that $27 million in funding will ease some of their growing pains.

So while both invite-only services are based around the same concept, curating inspiration, I’ve found myself using both for different purposes. Gimmiebar is more for my design/photography/art inspiration while Pinterest is for collecting fashion and home ideas. Kristina is also on Pinterest and we share a board which is fun to pin stuff to when I find interesting stuff for her. It’s also neat to learn about your friends based on what things they collect.

Be sure to give both sites a try. I have plenty of invites for both. You can find me on Gimmiebar and on Pinterest.

Replacement Pads For Sony’s MDR-V6 Headphones

I love my oversize Sony MDR-V6 headphones to death. I wear these things at least 8 hours every single work day. They’re over my ears on my commute in to work, all day while I’m at my computer, and on my ride back home. One would expect the pads to slowly breakdown after almost 2.5 years of heavy use. So I finally broke down and ordered replacement headphone pads.

Amazon has them for about $7 per pad. A little expensive for a round piece of foam but for something that sounds so good and is super comfortable, it’s a small price to pay. Before these I bought a pair of knock-off replacement pads for the low, low price of $4.65. They fit as advertised but after only 4 hours of wearing them, my ears were throbbing. The material was not as soft and a bit smaller so it would actually press against my ears. I ended up going back to the old, falling apart pads.

The moral of the story is if you need to replace something that you use all day everyday, don’t cheap out. At least, in this instance, your ears will thank you.


750 Words A Day

Go to the site, login, and stare at an empty screen looking back at me with a tiny word counter in the lower right corner. This is what I have seen every day for the past 39 days that I have been using

The site encourages you to write at least 750 words every single day. The idea is not like blogging which is intended to be published and read by the public. is private and more inline with journaling and stream of consciousness writing. There are different badges you can collect based on how long your streak goes. Each badge is based on a bird. One day is an egg representing you’re new, three days gives you a turkey (just like bowling), all the way up to a Pterodactyl for 200 days written in a row. One day I hope to get the famed flying dino badge!

The Turkey, The Penguin, The Flamingo badges

Besides collecting all of your words, the site gathers an array of stats. Things like words typed per minute, feelings & concerns, most used words, and even the weather in the city where you wrote that entry. These can all be aggregated over time thanks to a feature called “Enter your subconscious.” The stuff you can derive from these statistics is revealing and it compares you to the site average.

Each month they hold a contest to see who can write something every single day of the month. Members sign up for the challenge and are asked what they will do if they succeed the challenge and what they would do if they were to fail the challenge. I completed the January challenge and as a result my name was added to the Wall of Awesomeness. Some people who fail promise to donate money to the site which is run single-handily by Buster Benson from a Seattle coffee shop.

What originally attracted me to the site is the freedom to just write something with no rhyme or reason. My entries are pretty random and jump around all over the place. Most of my writings will never ever see the light of day. Blogging can be a drag to write something interesting. My goal with was to just write more. Simple as that.

After nearly a month of writing everyday I started to get burned out. Making my 750 word quota felt more like a chore than a therapeutic release. Luckily I powered through and plan to only write if I have something on my mind. Forcing something that just isn’t there defeats the purpose.

39 days of writing later and I’m getting back in to blogging. is a great exercise for anyone wanting to get into the habit of writing more. It helps you get over the hump of writing something stupid because it doesn’t matter. You should sign-up for it and challenge yourself to write more today.

CloudFlare Can Boost Sites Performance For Free

Website performance is a big deal. Experiments conducted by the biggest websites on the net conclude page performance is directly related to revenue. found a 2 second slow down equals a 4.3% reduction in revenue per user. A 400 millisecond delay on Google search pages led to 0.59% fewer searches per user. Aol found users who experience the fastest Web page load times view 50% more pages per visit than users experiencing the slowest page load times.

Content Delivery Networks (CDN) can be a big boost in page speed by 1) saving a copy of the fully-rendered page and 2) serving that copy from a server as close to the user as possible. Big CDNs like Akamai and CacheFly charge hundreds of dollars a month at the minimum. CloudFlare, a new  start-up, is hoping to change that by offering a CDN for free. I tried it out with two of my sites, this blog and, and below are my findings.

Setting up CloudFlare with my sites was a breeze. All you have to do is change some DNS settings to route your traffic through their servers. Since I use Dreamhost as a host, CloudFlare made it even easier by hooking into Dreamhost’s system to make the changes for me. An e-mail with the original DNS settings was also sent as a backup in case I wanted to revert back. Within 5 minutes, I was up and running. saw the most benefit from CloudFlare as it serves up dynamically generated images. Once that image was cached, any subsequent requests for that URL would be for a static image without needing PHP to create it. Dummyimage is popular and the reduced load on my measly shared servers was noticeable.

CloudFlare provides a bunch of stats for monitoring the amount of traffic going through their network as well as the bandwidth saved.  In my case, for both of my sites, I’ve saved 11.5 gigbytes of bandwidth on 23,985,639 requests in 14 days.

Another advantage of CloudFlare is the security aspect. The network will identify and block threats ranging from botnet zombies to web spammers. CloudFlare presents suspected threats with a captcha and a chance for the user to leave a message if they might have been falsely accused. Part of their stats lets you see all of the threats including ones that passed the captcha and/or left a message. So far I have seen no false positives.

So while things have been mostly great, there are a couple of drawbacks. For one, the service is still figuring things out. There was about 50 minutes of downtime when all sites running through CloudFlare were inaccessible. It didn’t irk me too much. I figure I can’t really complain when the price is free. Another issue is the stats take forever to load. The stats for the free version are delayed 24 hours on purpose, but several times when trying to access the statistics dashboard the site would timeout.

Because all of the traffic is now coming from the CloudFlare servers, any code on your end that relies on the IP address of the end user will need to tweak their code. CloudFlare has a simple guide for how to do this on their wiki.

So if you’ve made it this far you’re probably wondering, “should I run my site through CloudFlare?” If you run a personal site and can live with a little downtime here and there, then absolutely. If your site is your sole means of income and any downtime causes your blood to boil, then you should probably find a more trusted CDN (and expect to pay for it). You could always experiment with it over the weekend for a couple of days and then switch back if you run into problems.

Content Delivery Networks bring a big performance boost to a site and with a free one out there like CloudFlare, there’s no excuse to not be using one.

Adding A WYSIWYG Editor To Your Wiki

Wikis, like Wikipedia, are great tools for the creation and organization of content. The one thing that gets in the way however, is the special syntax needed to mark-up pages. Links are created by wrapping text in double brackets like [[ and ]]. Extra functionality can be expanded with different characters but honestly, it’s a lot to keep track of.

It’s hard enough formulating the words stuck in your head into a clear, well-written piece of content. Trying to translate your idea into cryptic wiki syntax is a brain-fart waiting to happen. For most folks introduced to an inter-office wiki, the syntax is the straw that breaks the camel’s back. You can kiss any chance of adoption goodbye when you explain that to bold text you need to have three single-quotes on each side of the text.

Thank goodness the MediaWiki+FCKeditor project is around. The goal is to build a usable WYSIWYG editor for the MediaWiki software (and they’re on the right track). Installing the extension is as simple as downloading a folder, copying it to your extensions directory, and adding a line to your localsettings.php file. Then presto, an easy to use interface that sits on top of the edit field translating hairy wiki-syntax to their visual equivalents. If your users can figure out how to use Microsoft Word, then they can understand the MediaWiki+FCKeditor extension. But fear not my die-hard wiki wranglers, the plugin lets you easily switch back and forth between the WYSIWYG editor and wiki syntax.

If you need to give it a try, check it out on this Sandbox page.

So adding one simple extension can make it easier for wiki-novices to get involved creating and editing content while staying out-of-the-way of the wiki-pros. If you need to get normal people involved with a wiki, make sure to add the MediaWiki+FCKeditor plugin to make life easier for everyone.

MapQuest Gets A Fresh Coat Of Paint

Remember when MapQuest was the online map site? Then Google came along and rained on their parade in 2005 with their dynamic-loading AJAX secret sauce which enabled you to infinitely pan around the map. Ever since then, MapQuest has been dead to me – until now.

The AOL-owned site unveiled their new look today and it is a complete revamp. Their logo took a turn from a comic typeface to a more serious, sans-serif one. Reddish-marroon, out! Green and purple, in! The new branding will certainly take some time but there is more to this re-launch than a new log0.

MapQuest has made their maps look more like paper maps. Well what do I mean by that? The color choices by the MapQuest team are really spot on. You might not really think about it, but the distinct colors used by MapQuest make their maps easier to read. Major interstate highways are blue, secondary highways are an orange color, and streets are yellow. This visual hierarchy of most important roads to least important helps focus your attention as your looking around. Compare this to Google Maps where the colors are so similiar that the roads kind of blend together.

The label style on Google Maps is a bit easier to read than MapQuest as I think Google Maps is better for locating city names and MapQuest is geared more towards a visual search of a map. For a more in-depth analysis about map design, see A Brief Comparison of Google Maps, Bing Maps, & Yahoo! Maps by 41Latitude.

The new MapQuest layout is akin to Google Maps with two-thirds of the screen dedicated to the map and the left third of the page for search and directions. Along the top of the map is a carousel navigation featuring groupings of locations like grocery stores, bars, and gas stations. It’s a well done interface for finding nearby attractions on the map.

Most people stick with MapQuest because they trust their directions over others. After a couple of test searches, I prefer the directions from Google better. But MapQuest is more enjoyable to just browse around. One feature MapQuest did really well is right clicking anywhere on the map will bring up the address of that location. Sure the address is an approximation, but the map bubble that pops up gives the house number, street, city, and zip. Sometimes there is even a 360 degree view just like Google’s Street view. MapQuest’s street view feature is more basic but I find it more intuitive to pan around. It doesn’t take up the whole screen and its easy to just pop in, pop out and continue on your way.

Will I’ll drop Google Maps and make MapQuest my dedicated online mapping service? Probably not. Google Maps has too many extra features for a power user like me (auto complete, public transportation, scroll wheel to zoom in/out). But for those people that feel Google Maps is too complicated and  hard to use MapQuest provides a clean, easy to use mapping site that is geared for people like them. I would easily recommend MapQuest to an average computer user while Google is for people who want more features.

The more competition the better for all of us. MapQuest has certainly stepped up it’s game and I can’t wait to see what else they have in store.

Fitbit: The Google Analytics Of Fitness

I was excited for the Fitbit ever since I heard about it at the Techcrunch 50 conference back in 2008. After 2 years following the development, I finally got my own Fitbit. After 3 months of daily use, here is my review.

The Fitbit is a small device that you wear on your hip in order to track your movements throughout the day. As you move, the Fitbit will count your steps just like any other pedometer. The device has one button on the front which will cycle through different stats with each push. When out and about you can check your total number of steps, the number of calories burned, distance traveled, and a flower representing your growth and overall healthiness for the day.

At bedtime you put the Fitbit into a soft wristband and you can track how long and the quality of your sleep. Holding the button down for a few seconds starts the sleep tracker and you have to remember to stop it when you wake up in the morning. As you fall in and out of sleep, the Fitbit tracks your movements and can tell how long it took you to fall asleep, how many times you woke up throughout the night and the actual time you were asleep vs the time you were in bed.

But what makes the Fitbit different happens when you get within a couple of feet of the base station.  The data is automatically uploaded to where you can analyze your data with the help of pretty graphs. Not fussing with manually syncing the data yourself makes it a system that easily fits into ones life. You can build up a history of your daily activity without even thinking about. It’s like Google Analytics for your fitness!

Activity tracking aside, also has a food log for tracking calories.  I don’t use this feature because you still have to measure the food and add it manually. If there was something that calculated nutrition information as it went into my mouth, I would be all over it. The Fitbit isn’t that good… yet.

Overall I’m really happy with my Fitbit. The only downside I can think of is the long order time (oredered one for my Mom in October and it didn’t get here until mid January). It is easily worth the $100 price tag in order to painlessly build up a history of my physical activity and sleep history. I don’t need this information right now, but one day I might, and this tool will come in handy.

Other Reviews

#1 Resolution For 2010: Get ORGANIZED!

There are many things I would like to accomplish in 2010 (exercise more, lose weight, redo my website, create a new logo for myself, release some personal projects, read more books, read less feeds, get married etc.) But I can’t do any of those things unless I organize and plan my projects out more.

I’ve tried many things in the past to try and get organized including e-mailing myself, setting up a personal wiki, and various software tools. But I finally found something that works called GQueues.

GQueues is what you would get if GMail was a to-do app. With GQueues you can

  • Group tasks
  • Sync deadlines with a Google Calendar
  • Add tasks via IM for sorting later
  • Access on the go with a mobile version
  • Other GQueues features

I’ve been using it for a few weeks now and I am really happy with how easy it fits into how I work. It’s a simple organizational tool that doesn’t get in your way when you’re trying to get something done.

Grooveshark 2.0 Keeps Getting Better

My favorite online streaming music service just keeps on getting better. Today Grooveshark gave their VIP members a peek at their new 2.0 release.

Grooveshark 2.0 Screenshot

According to their blog post these are a few of the major enhancements.

  1. A brand new interface: almost everything has changed in the visual look and feel
  2. Add any song on Grooveshark to your library without uploading
  3. Sorting: You can now sort lists by Song Name, Artist Name or Album Name
  4. Drag-and-drop playlist editing
  5. Themes: Make Grooveshark look the way you want
  6. Improved player: more room for your songs
  7. Better caching: back and next should be much faster now
  8. Seeking: now you can skip to your favorite part of a song with the click of a mouse.

Seeking in Grooveshark 2.0
The seek bar lets you jump to any point in a song.

Left side navigation Grooveshark 2.0
The left side navigation lets you seperate different groups of music for easy access.

Bigger album art Grooveshark 2.0
Bigger album art puts the current playlist front and center.

The new interface is a joy to use. The new sorting options and the ability to jump around to any point in the song make Grooveshark like an online version of iTunes that has an Internet-wide shared library. Bigger album art is a nice upgrade over the thumbnails used in the old interface. It used to be a pain going through your favorite songs but now you can add them to your library (which has much more robust sorting options) with the click of the music note icon. New themes are interesting to keep things fresh. I imagine there will be dozens more added over the next few months.

One of the new features I stumbled on that wasn’t mentioned everywhere were RSS feeds. Right now there are three: Songs I Favorite, Songs I Listen to, My Zeitgeist (which is empty at the moment). It would be nice to see Grooveshark automatically send song info to your account.

The only other feature really missing from Grooveshark is a hook in the player for controlling it with global shortcuts. I would really love to set up a key combo to play/pause, skip tracks, and favorite tracks without ever bringing the app into focus. The best part is how Grooveshark listens to their community through Get Satisfaction.

I’m confident this is only the beginning of improvements and I’m glad I plunked down my $30 for a year of VIP membership.