Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Google Toolbar 3 has made my life 1.7% better

Google Toolbar Version 3 rules. It is a tiny little piece of technology that has made my life significantly better since I started using it. Linux users will have to go the extra mile (or in this case, inch) to make sure it works (nothing new...). See this thread and Google's toolbar for Linux page for instructions for older builds; apparently it appears to be playing nice now.

The coolest feature of the Toolbar is the ability to make custom search buttons. Going to any page with a search bar, right clicking, and selecting "Generate Custom Search" will create a nice little button on the Toolbar (corresponding to a site's favicon). Using this, you can search with the Toolbar as if you were on the page you generated a search for, the effect being that you never need to visit the page to use their search engine -- you can search from any arbitrary page! It's also useful for doing the same search (i.e. "Donnie Darko") over several sites you have a custom search (i.e. RottenTomatoes, IMDB, Wikipedia). If you don't know what buttons you want on your Toolbar, Google has provided a nice grab bag to choose from. My custom searches (as of right now) are:
Some more very useful features include enabling GMail to launch every time a mailto: link is clicked (Finally! No more surprise Evolution/Outlook/etc. "setup page" launches!), an icon indicating if you're signed in to your Google account, and some keyboard shortcuts (more would be nice... especially for accessing custom buttons) like Shift+Enter for an "I'm Feeling Lucky" search (keeping in the spirit of eliminating useless page visits). There are more features that I don't use (but many do) detailed on the features page. Some of these are pretty cutting edge and have generated a considerable amount of controversy, especially AutoLink. Others, such as the RSS subscribe and spellcheck, have already been implemented in Firefox 2. In any event, you should get it. Now.

A couple of things that could use improvement:
  • More keyboard shortcuts (as mentioned above)
  • Web spam reporting buttons, analogous to the "Report Spam" button that Gmail has... perhaps Google can build a database of splog, etc. sites to blacklist, or maybe work with other search engines to do so?
  • Sometimes the "Generate Custom Search..." option doesn't work... amazingly, Blogger is one of those examples... when trying to do a custom search on a particular blog, I get this (wtf?): "Information Unavailable The custom button cannot be installed. Custom button values out of range."

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Which Ubuntu version am I using, again?

On the command line: lsb_release -a

Alternatively, look in one of these two files for the answer (links to sources where I found info): /etc/lsb-release or /etc/issue

Also, find out if your install is 64-bit via uname -m (thread1, thread2).

Yahoo! Pipes and its Shortcomings

For the past couple of days, I have been fooling around with Yahoo! Pipes. It's a tool and an interface for aggregating and/or manipulating RSS feeds. It's an interesting experiment and has been receiving some hype, most notably from Tim O'Reilly who called it a "milestone in the history of the internet." So how useful/powerful is it? My assessment is: right now, not very. There are several problems that are keeping it from being a useful (or sometimes even usable) tool at present.

The first problem is it is SLOW. When manipulating the first one or two modules, things run fine, even to the point of web 2.0 AJAXy nirvana. The scrolling is snappy, the debugger (which is a well-thought out touch) and DHTML animations look nice, and the interface is responsive. However, after that things start crawling. And after 10 or so modules, it slows to a why-am-I-even-bothering speed (and I'm on a pretty damn fast MIT connection right now with a capable PC).

The second problem are the all-too-frequent site outages. A recent blog post by the development team humorously noted: "Our apologies for the unscheduled downtime this evening. As a reminder, todays (sic) post was sponsored by the letters “b” “e” “t” and “a”."

The third problem is the support of only RSS inputs. But judging from the Pipes developers' posts, however, this problem looks like it will be overcome in the future.

So what can one do right now with Pipes? The canonical example has been putting the RSS feed of the New York Times through a Flickr filter, the result being that you can see the NYT stories in photo form. Which brings us to problem number four: your results are only as good as your data. While a lot of these photos are applicable to current events, others are tangential and some are just irrelevant. Kind of makes one think that a well-implemented semantic web isn't such a bad idea, after all.

Another thing one can do with Pipes is what I did with my first pipe, Ray's Deals. It simply takes several RSS feeds from bargain electronics sites and aggregates them into one feed. I then made the feed (or, more precisely, the titles of the items of the feed) searchable. The utility of this Pipe is that Ray now only needs to subscribe to the RSS feed from this pipe instead of several RSS feeds. (Sidenote: I actually added way more modules than necessary here: instead putting each URL in a separate Fetch module, I could have just had multiple entries in a single Fetch module... live and learn, I guess.)

That's about all the useful things one can do with Pipes at present -- my subsequent, more adventurous, Pipe experiments were fraught with frustration and, ultimately, failure. This was in part due to Pipes problem #5: the limited amount of operators that Pipes provides. There are currently no functions for performing the most basic of operations, such as generating random numbers (see the failure of my Pipe Random Jokes (Incomplete)) or extracting specific information from a feed. There are some workarounds for things like selecting a particular item from a feed, as my second hackish pipe, Selection Experiment 1, demonstrates. To select a certain oldest item, I sorted the feed by Date and then cut off the feed after a certain number of items (6). I then reversed the feed and cut off all but the first item, thus producing the selected item. Wow, that's a lot of work. Not to mention the limitations of some of the other operators, such as Sort not taking in a key value to sort by, etc. To be fair, it's still a beta product and the selection and power of modules will no doubt grow with time.

There are other concerns too, some of which are voiced in the responses to Tim O'Reilly's post. Among these are IP concerns -- is your mashup your property, or the feed providers' partial (or full) property? Also, there is the question of accessibility: will Pipes be a place that democratizes mashups, or is it just for geeky developers (who might be better off coding their own specialized apps anyways)?

All in all, Yahoo! Pipes looks like a tool that has some potential. It has a nice interface (when it's not super slow), the concept is fresh, and it's relatively easy to use (again, when it works). Its current shortcomings, however, make it little more than a novelty item. Once these get addressed, I'll be willing to give it a second try.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Connecting to servers in Ubuntu with "Connect to Server..."

I don't know how this has eluded me for so long, but there is actually a very nice interface built into Ubuntu that allows you to connect to servers using any of the following protocols: ftp, ssh, windows share, WebDAV (http), Secure WebDAV (https), and more. This is a nice alternative to using third party software like FireFTP (even though that program rocks) or the command line.

Simply pulling down the Places->Connect to Server... option in GNOME opens a dialog box which allows you to enter the appropriate information about the server you want to connect to. After the connection is successful, a folder representing the remote file system will appear on both the Desktop and in the Places menu. Another nice feature is that the folder even has some little letters on it telling you what protocol it is connecting over. You can now drag and drop files via the Nautilus interface, as if the directory was local. How convenient!

This tip found via the free online book Ubuntu Linux Bible. (Reviews on Amazon) By the way, this is an incredibly comprehensive reference on all things that an end user might want to do on Ubuntu. It also has sections on setting up subversion, using LaTeX, setting up other servers such as Apache, multimedia usage, and just about everything else. UPDATE: Whoops! This actually got posted by mistake by Lifehacker... the book has been taken down... it's still a good book, though!

UPDATE: For some more (unrelated) GNOME fun, right click on an icon and select "Stretch Icon" to blow up the icon to a cartoonish size. Click "Restore Icon's Original Size" in the same menu if you get tired of it (which you will, after 2 seconds).