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Monday, April 30, 2007

New host and blogging platform...

If you can see this post in your browser, your DNS servers have been updated. I've just moved the site over to A Small Orange, my new host. I've heard good things about them over the past couple of years, especially about their speedy support response times, so let's see how things go here. :)

I have also decided to switch from Blogger to WordPress as my publishing platform. I've just finished migrating my template over to WordPress, and I took this opportunity to dump the existing code with all the remnants from 2003 and start afresh. So even though the site will look almost the same, it's all rewritten, semantic XHTML 1.0 Strict code. I'm going to move the content from all the static pages over tonight. If all goes well, this will be my last post through Blogger and the WordPress blog will be up tomorrow, just in time for the new month.

See you on the other side. :)

posted at 9:32:00 PM
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Thursday, April 26, 2007

File Hippo keeps your apps up-to-date...

Some of you might remember CNET CatchUp, a free tool from back in the day that used to scan your computer for installed software and tell you if there were any updates for them. It was a handy little app that ended up being discontinued for some reason.

File Hippo recently released a similar app called the Update Checker to step into CatchUp's shoes. It's a tiny 112 KB executable that does its job in a couple of seconds, and presents the results in a browser window with direct download links to available updates.

File Hippo Update Checker

posted at 12:33:00 AM
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Monday, April 23, 2007

Schmidt: Google Docs not a Microsoft competitor...

Eric Schmidt and John Battelle at Web2Expo
(Photo courtesy of Pinar Ozger)

During Tuesday's keynotes at the Web 2.0 Expo last week, John Battelle interviewed Google's Eric Schmidt, and asked a number of really great questions, some of which had to do with Google's online office productivity applications. If you have some time, I would highly recommend watching the video of the interview.

When Google Spreadsheets launched almost a year ago, there was lots of chatter on the web about how Google was building a web-based Office-killer. My belief then was that, for many users, Google's tools would actually become complementary to Microsoft Office rather than replacements. As a student, I was personally using both, and while Office is undoubtedly more mature and feature-rich (with many features that I actually used regularly), the realtime collaboration features in Google's suite were very valuable to me when working on group project reports and papers.

Anyway, now that Google has announced its plans to introduce a Powerpoint-like presentation application, Battelle brought up the question again - is Google's suite really a competitor to Microsoft Office? Here's what Schmidt had to say:

We don't think so, and the reason is that it doesn't have all the functionality, nor is it intended to have all the functionality, of products like Microsoft Office. This is really a different way of managing information. It's casual, it's sharing, it seems to be a better fit to how people use the web, and we think it's an example of one of the applications categories on the Web 2.0 framework that will be very, very successful. [...] For people who are using products that are on the web, who need presentation access, and the sharing (which is really the driving thing), they're going to use this. Or something like this.

I think that's actually quite a rational and down-to-earth response. Matthew Glotzbach (Head of Products - Google Enterprise) also had a similar viewpoint when asked whether Google's suite is meant to replace Office, during a discussion on Wednesday morning with Dan Farber, ZDNet's editor-in-chief. TechCrunch's Michael Arrington, on the other hand, calls Schmidt's response "complete spin."

What do you think? :)

posted at 12:39:00 AM
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Saturday, April 21, 2007

Vidoop: an interesting new authentication system...

Vidoop(If you've heard of the OpenID initiative, jump ahead. If not, take a look at my previous post on that topic.)

Vidoop is a new OpenID provider that was showcased during the Launch Pad event at the Web 2.0 Expo last week. The thing that makes Vidoop different is its new "passwordless" authentication system. As many of you know, password-based authentication comes with its fair share of problems - keyloggers can sniff passwords, phishing sites can trick users into giving them away, man-in-the-middle attacks can intercept them, and in many cases, brute force methods can be used to guess them.

Vidoop attempts to mitigate these problems by eliminating passwords from the equation, and replacing them with single-use codes instead. The Vidoop login screen consists of a grid of pictures, with letters associated with each one, that gets randomized each time. When you first sign up for an account, you're asked to pick a series of general categories of objects - for instance, cars, fruits and animals. Then, at the login screen, you simply identify the pictures belonging to your secret list of categories and enter the letters associated with those pictures. Since the pictures, letters, and the arrangements of classes change randomly each time, the user's "password" essentially becomes a one-time-use code. This means that even if the code is stolen or intercepted, it is useless for subsequent login sessions.

In order to make the system even more secure, Vidoop actually goes one step further - if a user tries to login from a computer that he/she has never used before, the system asks the user to add the machine to a "trusted" list before it even displays the picture grid. This is done by sending the user a unique pin code via SMS, telephone, or email, which he/she has to enter on the computer. This is one-time step for each new machine that a user attempts to login from. I talked to Luke Sontag, Vidoop's Co-Founder and President, on the show floor, and he mentioned that they also plan to add Jabber/XMPP support for this step soon.

Vidoop's monetization strategy is also quite interesting. Since the system is free for end-users, the company gets its revenue from advertisers who can promote their products and brands by buying a slot in the login screen grid. Smart USA, for instance, has already bought a sponsored slot in the cars category.

The service is still in an invitation-only beta. If you'd like to try it out, I have one extra invitation code to give away to the first person who asks for it, either by posting a comment here, or by sending me an email. :)

posted at 11:52:00 PM
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Friday, April 20, 2007

OpenID: a single identity for the web...


Most of us have lost track of the number of usernames and passwords we have for the hundreds of sites that we visit on the web. In the offline world, we carry just a couple of ID cards (like a driver's license and a school ID, for example) that everyone can use to identify us. So why should it be any different on the web?

This isn't a new problem space, and there have been a number of attempts to implement "single sign-on" systems for the web, none of which ever really took off. Microsoft's Passport (now Live ID) service is one of the most well-known examples. One of the biggest concerns with such services is that they're centralized, and your online identity is essentially in the hands of a single company. As you can imagine, that wasn't something people were comfortable with.

OpenID is a relatively new, community-driven initiative that's attempting to solve the online identity management problem, and it's already showing signs of potential success, with backing from large corporations like AOL [1], Microsoft and VeriSign, as well as popular web services such as Wordpress.com, LiveJournal, Digg, Technorati, Drupal, and so on. The difference this time, though, is that your identity isn't in the hands of a single company, and you can move to a different OpenID provider at any time.

There are two basic parts to the OpenID system - an OpenID provider and OpenID relying parties. There are several OpenID providers that you can sign up with, or you can even run one yourself. Relying parties are basically sites that are OpenID-enabled. Rather than creating a separate account for each site, you simply log in to a relying party using your OpenID (which is just a URI like kunalk.myopenid.com). You are then redirected to your OpenID provider's page, where you sign in, and you are then redirected back to the relying party as an authenticated user.

If you have your own site or blog, you can turn its URI into your OpenID without having to install anything. Once you sign up with one of the many OpenID providers out there, you just need to add a couple of lines of code to the "head" section of your index page. If you look at the source code for this page, you'll see what it looks like.

You can also define multiple personas that tell your OpenID provider exactly what personal information it can share with a relying party. For instance, I can allow my OpenID provider to share my mailing address and phone number with a certain site so that I don't have to fill out that information manually when while registering, but I can choose to share only my first and last name with another site.

It's a simple, but at the same time, effective way to maintain a single identity on the web. You can find out more about getting an OpenID or making your existing apps/services OpenID-enabled at OpenID.net.

[1] If you have an AIM screenname, you've already got an OpenID - openid.aol.com/name

posted at 7:26:00 PM
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Adobe Apollo: web apps on your desktop...

One of the highlights of this week's Web 2.0 Expo was Adobe's "Apollo" runtime. Adobe describes "Apollo" as "a cross-operating system runtime that allows developers to leverage their existing web development skills (Flash, Flex, HTML, JavaScript, Ajax) to build and deploy rich Internet applications (RIAs) to the desktop."

Web apps and desktop apps have their own unique sets of benefits and problems, and Adobe is essentially attempting to blur the line between these two classes of applications with Apollo. During the keynotes on Monday, Kevin Lynch from Adobe showcased some of the apps that are being built on the Apollo runtime, including a rich client for eBay members, Adobe Media Player, and my personal favorite - Virtual Ubiquity's Buzzword, a collaborative word processor that's just so slick.

Virtual Ubiquity - Buzzword

When you compare "Buzzword" to existing online word processors, for example, you'll immediately notice the difference. It looks and feels a lot like a rich desktop application, with beautiful typography, fluid text reflow, speedy performance, and most importantly, offline access. At the same time, it has all the benefits of a web application, like being able to store documents in the cloud (with seamless synchronization for offline access), easy collaboration with other users, and access from any machine in the world with a modern web browser.

I had a chance to meet Rick Treitman, Virtual Ubiquity's CEO, on the Expo floor, and he gave a demo of what they've done so far. It's really quite impressive, and they've given a lot of thought and attention to the design of the application.

I've always firmly believed that the desktop and the web are complementary rather than mutually exclusive (the whole "desktop is dead" thing never flew with me), so it's great to see upcoming applications that take advantage of the best of both worlds.

posted at 5:07:00 PM
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Sunday, April 15, 2007

At the Web 2.0 Expo this week...

I'm in San Fransisco this week, attending the O'Reilly Web 2.o Expo. I just went to "Ignite" tonight, which is based on the Ignite Seattle series of events hosted by Brady Forrest.

It's a fun event where each speaker gets only five minutes to present his/her topic - twenty slides, with fifteen seconds alloted per slide. Obviously, that means you don't get to hear anything deeply technical, but it's interesting to see the techniques that various speakers employ to get their point across, given such a short period of time. In fact, one speaker at tonight's event actually blazed through 70 slides in five minutes. :)

From tomorrow until Wednesday, I'll be attending the actual sessions and keynotes. Probably won't get a chance to blog in realtime, but I'll post quick highlights to my Twitter stream. There's also an official Web 2.0 Expo Twitter stream, so keep a watch on that too, if you like.

posted at 10:58:00 PM
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Thursday, April 12, 2007

How to get Facebook status updates via IM...

One of the things I like most about Twitter is the ability to receive people's status updates via IM. If I had to visit the page several times a day to check for updates, I'd probably never use the service. Even using a feed aggregator to subscribe to something that receives short updates so frequently isn't very convenient.

Well, here's how you can do the same with Facebook - get your friends' status updates via IM. This should work with AIM, MSN/WLM, and Jabber/GTalk, but I've only tested it out with GTalk so far.

When you go to the Facebook Status Updates page, you should see something that looks like this:

Facebook Status Updates

Right-click the "Friends' Status Updates" link (highlighted in the image above), and copy the feed URL to the clipboard. Then, head over to Feed Crier, enter your screen name, IM network, and paste the URL you copied earlier into the Website box. The nice thing about Feed Crier is that you don't need to create an account with them. You should immediately start receiving status updates via IM, and you can stop them at any time by simply sending an "unsubscribe" message to the bot (send it a "help" message for more info).

There. Quick and easy. :)

Now we just need a way to set status updates via the Facebook API. There have been numerous requests for this on the Facebook Developers group, so it might happen sometime.

posted at 4:55:00 PM
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Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Add PNGOUT to Explorer's context menu...

Last month, I linked to Jeff Atwood's post on PNGOUT, a free PNG image optimizer that works very well.

Today, Scott Hanselman shows how you can add a PNGOUT item to Explorer's context menu so that you don't have to use the command line every time you want to optimize an image. I think it's a more elegant and integrated solution compared to other PNGOUT GUI frontends out there.

PNGOUT context menu item

A nice tip that I just had to share. :)

posted at 4:48:00 PM
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Pidgin (Gaim 2.0) finally gets a facelift...

Last November, I installed a Gaim 2.0 beta build as part of what has turned into my never-ending search for the perfect multi-protocol (GTalk + AIM) IM client. Gaim has been in development for a long time, and has matured into a generally solid and reliable app. One of the only gripes I've always had with it is the ugly UI.

Last Friday, Gaim was renamed Pidgin (a clever name!) to settle some trademark issues with AOL. At the same time, a new set of Tango artwork was also checked into the source tree. Since pre-compiled binaries containing the new artwork aren't available yet, I compiled my own build from source in Linux to check out the changes.


I think it looks pretty good so far, and I'll probably install it again on Windows when the final build is released.

posted at 1:51:00 AM
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Friday, April 06, 2007

Preventing Windows Automatic Update restarts...

Geffy had a complaint about an annoying aspect of Windows Update earlier today. The problem is that after the Automatic Update feature in Windows downloads and installs updates that require a reboot, the system pops up a dialog box informing the user that the machine will automatically restart after a specified period of time. You can postpone the process, but if you're away from your computer at the time, as Geffy was, Windows will simply close every app that you have open and restart itself when the countdown hits zero. My brother ran into the same issue a few months ago while running a MATLAB simulation.

I think this behavior is just plain irresponsible on Microsoft's part.

So I'm going to tell you what you can do to avoid being bitten in the future. These steps should apply to Windows 2000 SP3+, Windows XP SP1+ and Windows Vista.
  • Click Start, Run and enter gpedit.msc in the Run dialog box to open the Group Policy Editor.
  • In the left-side pane, drill down to "Computer Configuration - Administrative Templates - Windows Components - Windows Update"
  • In the right-side pane, double-click the "No auto-restart for scheduled Automatic Updates..." item, and set it to "Enabled"

Disable AU restarts

If you're using one of the Home SKUs (XP Home, Vista Home Basic, or Vista Home Premium), the Group Policy Editor isn't included, so you'll need to add a value to the Registry. You can either use the instructions below to do it manually, or download this file, unzip it to your desktop and double-click the disable_au_restarts.reg file to apply the setting.
  • Click Start, Run and enter regedit in the Run dialog box to open the Registry Editor.
  • In the left-side pane, drill down to "HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE \ SOFTWARE \ Policies \ Microsoft \ Windows \ WindowsUpdate \ AU"
  • Right-click in the white space in the right-side pane, and select "New > DWORD value"
  • Set the name to NoAutoRebootWithLoggedOnUsers and set the value to 1.

posted at 12:00:00 AM
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Thursday, April 05, 2007

New Folding@home Gadget for Vista...

In January, I posted a Folding@home monitoring gadget for the Vista Sidebar. Since that gadget only monitors the progress of one F@h worker process, you have to use multiple instances of the gadget if you're folding on a multi-core/multi-processor machine.

So I've now created a more compact gadget for dual-core machines, with new Vista-esque progress bars. Here's a preview:

Folding@home Gadget

The gadget has been posted on the "Stuff" page, which will be the landing page for any new goodies that I release from this point on. The old gadget is still available for folks that are folding on single-core, single-processor machines.

Comments are welcome! :)

posted at 4:48:00 PM
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Tuesday, April 03, 2007

BSG: Beyond the Red Line demo released!

In December last year, I wrote about Beyond the Red Line, a Battlestar Galactica sim built on the FS2Open engine. The much-anticipated first demo has now been released and is available for Windows and Mac OS X, with a Linux build coming very soon.

BSG: Beyond the Red Line

I just installed it and played the training mission, and I think they've done a frakin' awesome job so far. :) The opening menu, missions, ships, weapons and planet models have all been completely redesigned, making it almost feel like a brand new game, but with the same, familiar Freespace 2 controls. There's also an online multiplayer mode, which I haven't had a chance to try yet, but I bet that's going to be a blast.

If you're a BSG fan, go check this out. Now if you'll excuse me, I need to go sharpen up my Viper pilot skillz and kick some toaster-ass. ;)

posted at 5:42:00 PM
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Monday, April 02, 2007

EMI makes DRM-free songs available...

A couple of months ago, Steve Jobs posted a great piece about the state of digital music sales, in which he proposed the abolition of DRM as consumer-friendly move, and mentioned that Apple would "embrace it in a heartbeat."

About two months later, EMI has made its entire catalog available without DRM restrictions, and Apple has followed through by making all these tracks available on the iTunes Music Store, alongside regular DRM-protected ones. Sure, each unprotected song costs 30 cents more, but you also end up with a higher quality file - the new tracks use 256 kbps AAC encoding compared to the 128 kbps encoding that DRM-protected iTMS tracks use.

Props to EMI for being the first big label to offer a catalog full of DRM-free music. Apple also deserves kudos for taking this step in the right direction; actions speak louder than words, after all. Today's event marks a big win for consumers. Let's hope more labels follow suit soon.

posted at 5:51:00 PM
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Sunday, April 01, 2007

At the Imagine Cup semi-finals...

I'm in San Jose this weekend for the regional semi-finals of the Imagine Cup software design contest.

We were at Microsoft's Silicon Valley campus in Mountain View yesterday, first for the contest itself, and then for a small "Tech Fest" event that they organized for attendees. The contest was not bad, but I didn't make it to the national finals. Since I just graduated, I wouldn't have been eligible anyway. Based on my score in the semis, they offered me an interview in the evening for a full-time position at Microsoft, but I already have other plans, so I didn't go ahead with it.

The MSTV/IPTV group at the Tech Fest had one of the new, black Xbox 360 Elite units running an internal version of the IPTV software that they're expecting to release towards the end of the year. That was pretty cool. Other than that, not much that I hadn't already seen before. All-in-all, a fun weekend trip though.

posted at 5:08:00 AM
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