A quick Shout-Out to LibraryThing

In addition to watching TV shows I also spend a lot of time reading. I actually try to set aside half an hour every night for reading. I have by now assembled a small library of some 200 books that I’m very proud of. It is currently growing at about three books a month (see below for how I know this).

If you know me, you know I am a super organized person and a total sucker for statistics. Hence I had been looking for a way to properly organize my books for quite a while. One of the ways I pondered for doing this was to set up a little Excel spreadsheet and write down title, authors, year of publication etc. for every book I owned. Even though my library was considerably smaller back then, this approach was too laborious. I briefly toyed with using Amazon Web Services for retrieving my books’ authors, titles etc. in order to reduce the amount of manual work required, but this solution would still not offer the kind of rich statistics and analyses I was looking for.

Thankfully, I stumbled upon LibraryThing last year. This site is truly amazing. For one, it reduces the amount of cataloging one’s books to simply typing in a list of ISBN codes. Once you have input (and possibly tagged) all your books, LibraryThing generates a cloud of the authors showing how many books you have from each of them. There are a bunch of other cool statistics, too: like a distribution chart of when your books where originally published, what languages your books are written in, when you added them to your library and many, many more.

But what really makes LibraryThing great are its social features. For instance, you can see which other LibraryThing users have libraries similar to your own. I have found a couple of interesting books as I was looking what other books people with libraries similar to my own have. Also, you can compare your library to “legacy libraries” such as the library of Thomas Jefferson. Apparently, he and I share six books. Didn’t know that. Finally, other users can add your library to their “interesting libraries” list. I’m not quite sure what that entails, but it appears there is one LibraryThing user who thinks my library is interesting. Thank you, Doug Cornelius, I guess.

So, if you are interested in what books I have, check out the picture below (not my complete library, though) or simply go to http://www.librarything.com/catalog/StefanH which contains a complete and regularly updated list of all my books.

Book Shelf

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No more Household Chores for Me

Household chores suck. Seriously. They are tiresome and I’m not very efficient performing them, so it takes me forever to clean my apartment, even though it’s not that big. Also, I don’t see a lasting benefit to me cleaning, as soon enough the apartment will be dirty again. Thankfully, somebody at iRobot felt my pain (I assume) and invented the Roomba.

I don’t know why I have been waiting this long to get one, but a week a go I finally took the leap and ordered a third generation Roomba 555 from Amazon. This isn’t the high end model, so it doesn’t support the Lighthouse mode on the virtual walls, but it does have all the features I think I am gonna need: it can be programmed with a schedule to clean during the day and when I come home from work, my apartment will be clean. Also, it automatically finds its base station and returns to it when it is done with its work or it is running out of power. Its infrared sensors detect obstacles reliably, so it touches them gently instead of bumping into them like early generation Roombas. So basically, I should be able to have it do its thing automatically and never again worry about vacuuming.

And the best part, unlike some cheaper robots I had read about in reviews that promise all this too, the Roomba actually makes true on these promises. The other day, I just turned it on and went a way for an hour. When I came back, it had cleaned all rooms whose doors I had left open and was back docked to its base station recharging. In fact, it had done a much better job at cleaning than I would have with my old vacuum cleaner in a couple of hard to reach spots under the kitchen table. After its first tour through the apartment, it had already collected much more dust than there could possibly have been on the floor. So either the dust bin came pre-filled with some dirt (possible, but unlikely, I would say), or the Roomba is much better at cleaning than I am.

Additionally, the Roomba has made vacuuming fun again. I mean, just watching this thing work its way around obstacles and finding its way around the apartment is worth it. Vacuuming has never been his enjoyable before. Thank you iRobot.

The iPod shuffle – My First Purchase of an Apple Product

Even though I am Windows guy (I think we have established that by now), I try keep up with what Apple is up to, as they do have some fine products. They have these pretty cool “guided tours“ showcasing the latest and greatest of their offerings. This is were I first stumbled upon the latest generation iPod shuffle (see the guided tour here).

Originally, I never wanted to buy an iPod (or any other music player for that matter), because I already have a smartphone on me all the time and it plays music and video just fine. The iPod shuffle was so tiny and unique in the way the one interacts with it, though, that I had to see for myself what it was like. So when I saw the 2GB model for less than 55€ on Amazon the other day, I decided to get myself one.

Overall I must say I am very satisfied with my purchase. The device itself is excellent. It’s super tiny but thanks to the strong clip on the back it stays securely fastened to a shirt or jacket. The playback controls are on the headphone cord so one only needs to touch the device once to turn it on. No need to dig around in your pocket to pause or skip a song.

One comment on the playback controls: even though Apple prides itself on making products that are so easy to use, this claim is simply ridiculous with regard to the iPod shuffle. Aside from the volume controls, there is just one button. All functions of the iPod are accessed by one or more clicks of varying durations on this button. Click once to play/pause, twice to skip to the next song, three times to go back one song, press once and hold to hear the artist and song title read to you, press once and hold for a longer period of time to access… and so on. I mean, seriously, this isn’t really ease of use, but rather a strange fixation on putting ever more functionality into these devices while at the same time reducing the number of buttons; thus making the products less and less intuitive. While adding more features is a natural tendency in most industries and consumer electronics in particular, the fact that Apple feels it needs to make their products ever thinner, lighter, and with less controls seems unwise, to say the least.

The real drawback, however, wasn’t the device but the software, since using an iPod also means I had to install iTunes, even though I have been a very satisfied user of Windows Media Player since version 7 that shipped with Windows Millennium Edition (the most underrated release of all time, if you ask me). Compared to the current version of Windows Media Player, iTunes really looks a little dated. I mean, a UI that basically consists of long lists of songs with all the functionality buried in a menu at the top of the window, come on, that is so 1990s. Again, I didn’t find much ease of use here, as most of the functionality to make the user interface even half decent and usable was hidden behind multiple levels of fly-out menus under the View menu item. Even after changing a bunch of settings for the UI, iTunes was missing the two most crucial buttons any application to browse one’s media library must have: the back and forward buttons that web browsers have had since the mid 90s (see Microsoft Internet Explorer 1.0). Windows Media Player has have them for quite a while and it also includes cross references from every song to the artist, album, year and genre. I find these so helpful when I don’t really know what to listen to and just aimlessly wander my music collection. In this area at least, iTunes is of no use to me. There are a bunch of other things that drive me crazy in iTunes, but I don’t want this post degenerate into an Apple rant, so I’ll leave it at that.

Anyway, things did work out in the end and I can now fully enjoy my iPod without having to use iTunes thanks to a little piece of software called MGTEK dopisp (hat tip: M). It’s a plug-in for Windows Media Player that allows me to sync my iPod with Windows Media Player just like I do with my Windows Mobile phone. Really neat. So in the end I am a happy Apple customer after all.

Bonus link going with the theme of this post: Apple introduces the MacBook Wheel, a laptop with a single giant button

Visit to the Windows Café in Paris

As I spent these past few days in Paris, I couldn’t help but look up the Windows Café I had read about on TechCrunch.

The café is located at 47 Boulevard de Sébastopol in the 1st district. Here’s a picture of what it looks like from the outside. French site Le Journal du Geek has more including some shots of the inside.

Windows Café in ParisI ordered the only thing on their menu I knew how to pronounce properly: jus de pomme. The irony of ordering an apple juice at the Windows café, however, didn’t occur to me until much later.

There isn’t much to say about the café itself, it’s pretty much your standard café/coffee shop crossbred with a small electronics store. Unlike regular coffee shops, however, they do not only offer wifi, but also a bunch of laptops and PCs running Windows 7 to play with this latest goodie from Redmond.

Besides your everyday laptops and PCs they also had one other machine that immediately caught my attention: the Microsoft Surface (see also this hilarious parody). I have been excited about this device ever since it was announced back in 2007. Priced at roughly $10,000, it’s a bit more expensive than I can afford to spent on a computer, but it is nonetheless a pretty cool toy. Finally, I got a chance to play around with one myself. Unfortunately, I wasn’t the only one there interested in this device so I only got to play two games of chess with this French gentlemen who was kind of hogging the Surface.

Playing chess on the Surface was very intuitive and the touch interface worked very well. Pieces are moved by “grabbing” them and moving them to their new spot. One can even use two-finger gestures to rotate and/or resize the board. The only irritating thing about it was that it was sometimes interpreting the heel of my hand as I was moving a piece as an attempt to move the board. I guess this isn’t the machines fault, however, as in a real-life game of chess this same action would have probably moved the board to or even have knocked over some of the pieces as well.

Going to Paris in November

I will be going to Paris, France for a couple of days in mid-November. Naturally, I checked Joobili to see if there was anything going on while I would be there. Alas, there is nothing for that period of time(*). This is really a shame, because the Paris tourism office has a lot of information on their site. Too bad, that information is presented so poorly that doesn’t really help me find the inspiration I was looking for. I mean, why does the tourism office still advertise events from September 2009 and how does a plain list with the names of more than a thousand events and exhibitions help me, when I am looking for events between Nov 11th and 14th? On the plus side, they do have a page listing museums where under 26-year-olds have free admission, which is perfect timing for me.

I was wondering if there were any other travel sites you guys would recommend to prepare my trip. For booking hotels and flights I like opodo. It was founded by Lufthansa and several other European airlines in 2001, which means I am comfortable with entrusting it my credit card information. I also found tripadvisor.com to indispensable when looking for reviews on hotels.

However, none of these sites helped me with my initial problem, which was to narrow down the large number of hotels to those that I would even consider staying at. While most sites can filter hotels by various criteria (price, distance to city center etc.), this doesn’t help me with my most paramount question: what are affordable hotels in a good part of town? I wish there was a site that would show like a map of a city indicating what areas in town are “good” and which one might want to avoid. I was lucky this time to be provided with detailed information about the different arrondissements (districts) of Paris by my friend, but I think this would be a common problem more travelers should be faced with, no?

 

(*) Ok, that’s not entirely true, since there is the BNP Paribas Masters, but I’m not that into tennis, thank you very much.

Back From Vacation

This past week I have been staying at the lovely Rebstock in Obereggenen in the Black Forest region of Southern Germany. Obereggenen is situated in a small valley amid apple groves, vineyards, lush meadows and dark forests.It doesn’t quite compare to a New England Indian Summer but the scenery is still quite beautiful this time of the year. Anyway, the fresh air and everything is quite a welcome change for someone who spends most of his time indoors (either at home or at work) in front of a computer screen.

Even though many things have changed over the years, it still feels very familiar whenever I come here; almost like coming home. One thing that has changed substantially over the years is what they serve for dinner. While it used to be exclusively local cuisine, one now sees more varied influences reflected in the type of food offered and its presentation. Dinner is now a five-course, two-hour culinary festival (or ordeal depending on the circumstances). Quite nice for a week a year, but definitely not something you would want every day.

Stuff White People Like

Stuff White People Like is truly a hilarious book. I picked up my copy in Boston last year and couldn’t stop reading. I don’t know whether that is a good or a bad thing, but I fund myself liking amy of the things described in this book: Arrested Development, bicycles, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, The New Yorker, The Simpsons, to name just a few.

One of the themes of “white people” in the book is that they like to do stuff that involves purchasing expensive, activity specific equipment (cf. chapter 31 Snowboarding). Consequently, I didn’t just go on a hike, but I had to do it with special hiking boots, my GPS logger and a jacket I had purchased for this vacation. I had high hopes for the GPS logger to record our hikes so I could see where we had been on my computer, but alas that was a disappointment. I don’t now whether the tree cover interfered with the GPS signal or whether I was carrying the device wrong, but the track it recorded was for the most part unusable. I’ll have to do some research next time to figure out the optimal way to use this device. One thing, however, did not disappoint and that was my new jacket.

Travel Companions

This jacket is now my favorite travel companion: the Scott eVest. I became of their version 3.0 vest (isn’t it cool when clothes have a version number?) several years ago when I was in college. Back then, they they cost way more than I could afford spending on a piece of clothing, but last month I decided it was time to get myself one. I originally had my eye on their Signature System, but unsure whether the sleeves would be long enough for me (they usually aren’t) I settled for an Evolution Jacket (which has removable sleeves) and a Travel Vest, as they would not be completely useless even when the sleeves wouldn’t fit. It was a pleasant surprise, though, that both items fit me perfectly. I don’t think I have ever had a jacket that fit this well.

Anyway, the great thing about these jackets is their utility. The people at Scott eVest have obviously given a lot of thought to the functionality of their products. As I prefer function over form (another reason I’m a Windows not a Mac person), this is the perfect jacket for me. I know longer need to bring a back pack, as everything I could possibly need  comfortably fits into this jacket. There are pockets everywhere, but it’s not just that there are so many of them, they don’t overlap, such that even with a lot of stuff stowed in the jacket, it doesn’t show. Last week I was carrying a scarf, gloves, a hat, the GPS logger, my cell phone and 0.5l water bottle without any sacrifice in comfort. Awesome!

A Collector of Technology

As I’ve said previously, I’m a big fan of Microsoft products (most of them at least). Inspired by Paul Thurrott’s What I Use article, I would like to take this opportunity to disclose the full extent of my love for Microsoft software. The following is a list of all the computer hard- and software I currently use, most of which is, as you will see, made in Redmond.

Computers

My primary machine is a 2006 LG M1-3DGAG laptop with a 1.67 GHz Core Duo processor and 2.5 GB of memory running Windows 7 Ultimate. I also keep my previous laptop around, a 2001 Gericom Webboy (I hate that name) with a 1Ghz Pentium III processor and 256 MB of memory running Windows ME. The region code on this machine’s DVD drive is set to 1, so I can watch US DVDs on it, even though the fan running at a perceived 120 decibels doesn’t make this as enjoyable as it could be. I still have our 1996 Vobis desktop computer with a 120 Mhz Pentium processor and 56 MB of RAM, and a 1.2 GB hard drive running Windows 95. Historical note: This is the first computer my parents bought for our family back in April 1996 and even though I don’t actively use it anymore, I do turn it on every now and then and I must say it still runs like a charm. My employer has supplied me with a Lenovo R61 running Windows XP Professional which I use for working from home on occasion. As I participated in the Give One Get One program of One Laptop Per Child, I also have an OLPC XO-1 laptop. I recently bought an Acer H340 easyStore home server with a 1.6 GHz Atom processor, 2 GB of memory and 3 TB of storage running Windows Home Server. Finally, I should probably include my cell phone an HTC S710 smartphone running Windows Mobile 6.0 in this category.

Other Hardware

The list of other gadgets that aren’t technically computers but still kind of belong in this article currently comprises the following: the Wintec WSG-1000 GPS logger and the Samsung S1070 digital camera (which to this day has not seen any serious action) and my graphing calculator, a Texas Instrument TI-89 which runs a computer algebra system and can also be hooked up to and synced with a PC.

Operating Systems

I realized some time ago that as I was moving to the latest version of the Windows operating system whenever a new version came out, a lot of licenses where lying around unused. So I decided to use Microsoft’s Virtual PC (originally the 2004 version, now 2007) to set up virtual machines to install my old copies of Windows in. Over the years my collection of virtual machines has grown, so now I have one for every version of Windows that I have every worked with, which means pretty much everything since Windows 95. Here’s the complete list:

  • Windows 95 (including the PLUS! add-on)
  • Windows NT 4.0 Workstation
  • Windows 98 Second Edition
  • Windows ME
  • Windows 2000
  • Windows XP Home Edition
  • Windows XP Professional
  • Windows Server 2003*
  • Windows Vista Beta 1*
  • Windows Vista Beta 2*
  • Windows Vista Business
  • Windows 7 Release Candidate*

*These are pre-release or evaluation versions.

I’m still looking to add Windows 3.1 to that list, so if you have a copy you don’t need, let me know.

Productivity Software

The one piece of software I find truly indispensable is Microsoft Outlook 2007. I use it for email, reading RSS feeds, contacts and calendaring. As it syncs this data with my phone, Google Mail and Google Calendar it is the one application holding it my life together.

Also high on the list of applications I frequently use is Microsoft Office 2007, most notably Microsoft Excel 2007. Excel is at least in my mind the premier member of the Office suite and probably the one application that alternative office suites such as Open Office and Apple’s iWork have the hardest time catching up with. I use it primarily to keep track of my finances, the process of which I have automated with a few VBA macros. Since graduating from university I no longer use Word, PowerPoint and OneNote as frequently as I once used to, although I should mention that did write my thesis of 100+ pages in Word 2007 and did so without any loss of data ever. While still a student I’ve also obtained licenses to Microsoft Access, InfoPath, Project and Visio via MSDN Academic Alliance.

As it came with my first laptop, I’ve tried out Microsoft Works 2001, although I must say it it laughable and I would always recommend going for the real deal, the full Microsoft Office suite. Also on that laptop as Microsoft Encarta, which was a great multimedia encyclopedia at the time, but is no longer a match for Wikipedia which I now literally use every day.

Internet and Digital Media

I use Windows Media Player 12 as my primary media player, mostly because it feels the most natural thing to use on Windows, as I like how it fits in well with the rest of the Windows ecosystem and I value consistency above everything else. Plus, it syncs great with my Windows Mobile phone. Even though it feels like a foreign body on Windows, I also keep Quicktime around, if only to watch trailers on apple.com. As some websites require it, I also have Real Player installed, even though I hate using it and have yet to meet someone who actually likes this product. When I buy music – which doesn’t happen that often – I use the excellent Amazon MP3 service.

For web browsing I use the latest version of Firefox and have done so since before its 1.0 release. This is a great piece of software and I’ve come to rely on a bunch of extensions that offer functionality one simply doesn’t find in any other browser that’s out there.

I use Skype for instant messaging and internet telephony.

From Microsoft’s Windows Live suite of applications I only use Windows Live Writer to write this blog and Windows Live Photo Gallery to organize my photos. I’ve also kept Windows Live Movie Maker around, ever since it first appeared as Windows Movie Maker in Windows ME, although I don’t really have any video to edit.

For my very occasional photo editing needs I’ve purchased Adobe Photoshop Elements 7 and plan on upgrading to the latest version soon.

Development Tools

As I program a lot during my day job, I no longer do that much programming on the side. Nonetheless, I keep one install of Delphi 2007 Professional on my main machine, with the older Delphi versions 7, 8, 2005 and 2006 also sitting on the shelf.

I would also place the aforementioned Virtual PC 2007 into this category as it is a great means to try out one’s software on different versions of an operating system with the ability to undo all changes afterward and start over with a fresh install every time. While I also got a license for Virtual Server 2005 via MSDN Academic Alliance, I don’t think I have ever installed it. Also in this category is another great tool, ImgBurn, which I used for creating install disks or ISO images that can be mounted as disks in a virtual machine. Of the other dozen or so little utilities in this category I will only mention Inno Setup as it is a great tool to create custom installers for one’s applications.

Recently, I’ve also installed Microsoft Visual C# 2008 Express Edition to tech myself a new programming language. Also via MSDN Academic Alliance I have gotten my hands on Visual Studio Professional 2005 and Expression Blend and Expression Web which I have played around with for a while but never seriously used.

Utilities

The only security software I use in addition to the firewall built into Windows is BitDefender Antivirus. I also use WinRAR for file archiving and Adobe Reader for viewing PDF files. For hard drive partitioning and imaging I’ve been using Acronis Disc Director and TrueImage, respectively, even though my backup needs have been taken care of by Windows Home Server ever since I got my server earlier this year.

In order to read and edit the data collected by the GPS logger mentioned above I use TimeMachineX which has a great feature set hidden behind a half-decent user interface.

The remainder of this category could be summarized as “everything from Sysinternals (now part of Microsoft)”, e.g. Process Explorer, a tool similar to Task Manager but a hundred times more powerful, Autoruns, to manage which applications, services etc. should be allowed to start when the system starts, TCP View, to monitor what applications listen on what ports or open connections to the outside word.