Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Wedding Planning in THE FUTURE

Robyn and I are getting married in a little less than a year (woo!). Being geeky planner types, we're already deep into planning and we have a pretty good idea of what the day will look like.

With me in Montreal and Robyn in Saskatoon, I thought it would be challenging to help plan things. As it turns out, the future makes planning over long distances pretty easy.

We're using Google Docs to share a collection of wedding-related planning documents:
  • A master chronological todo list (Robyn found a great comprehensive todo list that we're basing our list on);
  • A budget estimate/spending tracker spreadsheet;
  • A guest list spreadsheet (in progress), where we'll keep track of invites, RSVPs, and thank-yous, and;
  • A general notes/scribble document for jotting down random ideas.
We use comments, Track Changes and email notifications in those documents to make sure we're both up to date. We'll create new documents as needed, like todo lists for big day itself.

We're also launching a wedding website when we send out our invites. It's basically done already - it was built with Google Sites, which is VERY easy to use. The website will have information on the schedule, registry, location, hotels, etc. It will also host some fun things like a photo gallery and an "about us" page. The website will effectively cancel out the handful of inserts that usually accompany a wedding invite, which will save us a few bucks. Google Sites is free to use; the only cost was a domain name (which was optional).

Of course, we phone/Skype/chat/IM with each other, too - we don't just communicate through our documents. But having equal access to all wedding planning materials at any hour of the day is super convenient. Even if we were both living in Saskatoon, I think we'd still be using Google Docs to plan everything, because it's so easy and convenient.

Leave it to me to get all excited about ways to plan a wedding with technology. But there's a practical reason: the better the day is planned in advance, the more time I have to enjoy a carefree wedding when it finally rolls around.

If you have a good planning tip - not necessarily limited to weddings - leave a comment!

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Technology-Enhanced Summer Reading

This summer I have pushed myself to read more books. I became fascinated with Amazon's Kindle a few months back and convinced myself that owning a Kindle would make me a better and more regular reader.

Instead of impulse-purchasing a Kindle, I borrowed three books from Robyn and told myself I could buy a Kindle if I could finish all three books (they were A Prayer for Owen Meany, The Road, and The Lovely Bones - all great reads!).

While I was reading those books I discovered GoodReads, a social networking site for readers. I signed up for it immediately because the idea of tracking my reading satisfies my nerdy quest to log certain activities in the way that last.fm logs the music I listen to.

On Goodreads, you can track the date you start and finish each book, and write reviews and assign 5-star ratings to each title. Each author and book has its own GoodReads page (similar to last.fm's artist, song, and album pages) which are good places to discover previously-unheard of material from familar authors. Although I am not a daily user (I wish I could read so much!), if you've got a membership, add me as a friend.

After reading Robyn's books I placed the order for the Kindle. In a word, this device is impressive. The text on the screen looks just like printed words on paper - there is no glow of an LCD screen or pixelation if you look closely. The device is thin and lightweight and it took less than one chapter of one book to feel one hundred percent comfortable using it.
It's about as thin as a pack of gum.

My pal Derek has a great post on tweaking your Kindle to get it working just the way you want it. I have to say though, you don't really need to tinker with it; it works great right out of the box.

Close-up of the display. 

I saw an interview with Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos on Charlie Rose a while back and Charie asked about competition from other "tablet" makers like Apple and Google (iPad and Android tablets). Bezos immediately responded that they are not competing with iPads - for two reasons. For one, the Kindle is a purpose-built device for people who love reading. It happens to do a few other things, but it's a reading machine. The other reason is that Kindle is not just Amazon's physical reading device, it's a digital store that distributes books through a program/app that can be installed on just about any computer, iPad/iPod/iPhone, tablet, Android, BlackBerry, you name it.

Anyway, I am tagging this post "products that are awesome" because both GoodReads and the Amazon Kindle are really fantastic and have both encouraged me to read more! I think everyone who I've talked to who owns a Kindle is happy with it.

SaskTel Voicemail-to-Email: How did I not know about this???

Here's something neat I figured out today for all of you SaskTel customers. SaskTel lets you log into your voicemail online, and you can configure the system to send you your voicemail messages as .wav email attachments.

Check this out. Log into your online voicemail account here.

Under Messaging Options, browse to Notifications. Fill in your email address and check off the .wav file option.

When you get a voicemail, you get an email that looks like this:

Look at that attachment size - 25KB for a quick 15 second voicemail! If your phone supports the audio file (apparently my Android phone doesn't without a .wav player app), it would probably be faster to listen to the .wav file from your email on your phone than it would be to log into your voicemail on your phone by following all of the prompts.

Finally if you decide to click the link in the SaskTel email, this is what you get:
An option to download it to a PC, listen online, or delete the message.

Cool! I don't think I will ever check a voicemail through my phone again - not only are the voice-prompt menus too slow, but basic functions like replaying or skipping messages are complete guesswork. Not any more!

Monday, August 15, 2011

Products that are Awesome: NoLED for Android

I've had an Android phone for the past 9 months or so and I've really grown to love it. There are times, though, that I miss certain features that my old BlackBerry did so well. Take BBM, for instance. It's still the best instant messenger out there, despite competition from iMessage and Google Talk, not to mention cross-platform offerings like WhatsApp (which is awesome!) and Kik.

Another feature that some Android phones lack is a notification LED. The little LED on the BlackBerry was a great, quick visual indicator of unread messages or emails. You could customize its behaviour with an app - blinking blue for Robyn, solid green for Matt, etc. I really missed that feature when I bought my Android phone, the Samsung Galaxy S Vibrant. Instead of looking to an LED for notfications, I have to press a button and wake up the display.

I recently found a very niche app called NoLED that fixes this problem with a clever solution. As it turns out, the display on the Galaxy S Vibrant is of the Super AMOLED type, which is an advanced enough display that no electricity/battery is consumed to display the colour black, since the technology doesn't use a backlight.

When you receive a notification with NoLED and your display is off and/or locked, a tiny pixel of colour will appear in lieu of an LED lighting up. The colour corresponds to an app, and is user-customizable. So maybe red means Gmail, orange means SMS, and blue means missed call/voicemail.

If you don't understand this idea yet, watch the first 15 seconds of this video.

To avoid "burning in" an image into the display, the pixels dance around the display, changing position every second or two. I find this feature useful for another reason - it's easy to spot the movement out of the corner of your eye.

The pixel size is customizable, and you can even choose to use app icons for notifications. For a WhatsApp message you see the little green icon dancing around, and for Gmail you see the classic envelope icon. NoLED makes this feature even better by allowing you to use contact/profile pictures for SMS and Voice call notifications! So if I get an SMS from Robyn, her contact picture jumps around the display.

The menus are packed with features and settings which can be overwhelming. The advantage is that you can get your phone displaying notifications exactly how you want them to behave - everyone has different preferences.

I have been using this app for a few months and have not noticed any excess battery drain due to NoLED running. The app can use the phone's proximity sensor to know when it's in your pocket or face-down, and will turn off the display completely to save that tiny extra bit of juice.

One last thing - if I haven't sold you yet, it's a FREE app. It's under active development and it's updated regularly - not too much, not too little. The developer is also receptive to feedback - I emailed in a feature request and received a reply the same day (my idea couldn't work!). If you love the app, you can donate with in-app purchasing. I sent $5 to the developer - it's one of the most clever Android apps in the market and one of my favourites, and I felt it was well worth it.

Download here.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Awesome Products: A Wok

That's right, a wok! I bought a cheap wok for $25 at Winners a few months ago, and it's one of the best purchases I've made in recent memory.

Frying pans are great - I have two, a round flat one and a square grilling pan - but nothing beats a wok for sheer size and stirability (if that's not a word, it is now). No more frying pans overflowing with meat sauces!
Tonight's supper and five days of lunches. 

Having a wok while living alone is especially great since I can make a TON of leftovers. On most Sundays I cook myself a huge wok-based meal so that I can eat like a king AND pack 3, 4 or 5 days' worth of lunches for the upcoming week.

These are some of my favourite things to make in a wok:

  • Beef or chicken stroganoff (0.5 kg meat but into thin strips, a chopped onion, 250mL sour cream, salt, pepper, half a bag of egg noodles).
  • Meat sauce & pasta (0.5 kg lean ground beef, tomato sauce & tomato paste, vegetables and spices to taste)
  • Curries (0.5 kg beef or chicken cut into thin strips, a bag of frozen vegetables, a jar of curry paste OR 3 tbsp curry powder and a can of coconut milk, cook rice on the side)
  • Stir-frys (vegetables, meat and sauce, serve over rice or mix in chow mein noodles)
Let me know if you have any recipes that are tasty and easily made in a wok! 

Install Android 2.3.3 with root on Bell/SaskTel Galaxy S Vibrant GT-I9000M

I just spent a few hours trolling through a ton of information to upgrade to and root Android 2.3.3 on Bell/SaskTel Galaxy S Vibrant (GT-I9000M). Here's the rough order I did things. Hopefully this helps another user out there.

  1. If currently rooted and NOT running Android 2.3.3, un-root. 
  2. Connect phone to Samsung Kies and acquire latest update for phone. Wait, reboot, etc. You should now be running "stock" Android 2.3.3 with baseband version I9000UGKG3. You aren't rooted. If you don't have the 2.3.3 upgrade waiting for you, you need to spoof your phone's country ID - search for "Kies registry patcher" to fix this. 
  3. Go read this guy's post on xda-developers. Download the two files - the rooted KG3 kernel and Odin 1.82. 
  4. Turn off your phone. When it's off, press the up/down volume buttons at the same time (press in the middle of the button) and press the power button. If you see the little Android construction guy, you're in download/recovery mode. 
  5. Fire up Odin, follow the instructions in the xda-developers post. When you reboot, you should be running a rooted version of Android 2.3.3. 
Bonus instructions: Get latest version of Swype (if you like Swype. If not, you may want to try Swift Key). 
  1. Sign up for the Swype beta at http://beta.swype.com/
  2. Uninstall Swype completely using these instructions or use Titanium Backup to back up Swype then remove it in the "batch remove" section. 
  3. Re-download and install Swype using the instructions in the email Swype will send you. 
  4. (note: re-installing Swype will delete your custom words dictionary, it will have to re-learn all of your custom words).
As of today I'm rooted, running 2.3.3 KG3, with the latest version of Swype Beta installed. The one thing I still have to figure out is how to apply a lag fix, which might mean replacing the kernel.. but I am really not sure. 

This is not a complete set of instructions.. but hopefully it is a useful starting point for someone out there! 

Edit: Currently I can access download mode by holding down+menu+power at startup, and recovery mode by pressing up+down+power at startup.

Edit Oct 16/2011: If your phone doesn't appear to be rooted after running the above instructions, try searching in the market for the "Superuser" and "Busybox Installer" apps, run the Busybox Installer, and reboot. 

Monday, August 8, 2011

Awesome Products: Google Picasa

I purchased my first digital camera in 2002. It was a cheap EZ-Pics (or similar) sketchy brand that lied about its megapixels - it was 3.0 MP "with software extrapolation", which meant that it was a 1.5MP camera that used software to double the number of raw pixels in the photos, and coloured those pixels with the "average" colour of the two adjacent pixels. Suffice to say the pictures were terrible.

I'm just about the farthest thing from a professional photographer, but my photos are still very important to me! My first crappy camera took lots of pictures of our dog Yogi as a tiny puppy:

Most of my photos live on my home server (see first two images here), a computer that does nothing but sit there and hold files. However, I'm very conscious of the disaster scenario of my apartment building falling down (I do live in Montreal, Quebec, and infrastructure seems to be failing lately!). If my server were to die, I'd lose 10 years of digital memories.

Rather than print all of my photos out to albums, I've chosen to use Google's Picasa software as a backup solution.

I pay a flat fee of $5 per year for 20GB of online photo storage with Google Picasa Web Albums, which is enough for 5,000 high-quality photos, or many times more lower-quality photos. Every time I load photos onto my computer, I've set up Picasa (the desktop software) to save a copy on my laptop and immediately upload a copy to Picasa Web Albums.

Actually, lower-quality photos no longer count towards the storage limit on Picasa anymore (thanks to Google Plus!) . All photos under 2048x2048 pixels - a respectable resolution, for sure - are stored for free! It's possible to configure Picasa's desktop software to automatically re-size all of your photos to under these dimensions and upload them for free, so that you always have a safe backup copy of your digital images.

It's important to note that the online backup doesn't happen automatically, you need to be logged into Picasa (the desktop software) with a Google account and explicitly tell it to save images to Picasa Web Albums. You need a Google/Gmail account to do this, but it's not difficult.

It is also important to keep an eye on permissions when uploading to Picasa Web Albums. By default, my albums are private and un-searchable, but you can also set albums to be public, shared with specific users (requires Google login), or only accessible with a link (good for emailing).

A year and a half ago, before the unlimited upload of lower-quality photos, this service was still a bargain at $5/year. I found it was the best backup solution out of Picasa, Flickr, Dropbox, and a few other web archive solutions at the time, and I'm interested to hear if anyone's got a better solution.

If you use other Google products, you will want to check out Picasa. If you buy extra storage space, it counts for your whole Google account, so I really have 20-some GB of storage for pictures in Picasa, emails in Gmail and documents in Google Docs. Picasa Web Albums has been nicely integrated in Google+ and makes sharing with Circles very easy, and it's also easy to share private albums by email with friends and family.

If you've got a free afternoon this summer, back up your photos! My sister lost all of her photos when her laptop died suddenly - it could happen any time. Hell, if you're too cheap to afford $5 per year, at least burn a DVD (under $1) and keep it at someone else's house!

Friday, August 5, 2011

Awesome Products: Mighty Wallet

On my lunch break today I jotted a quick reminder to myself down - on my wallet. Doing so reminded me what an awesome wallet I have, and by remembering that (and the fact I have not been posting very often on my blog!) I decided to start highlighting a few products I think are awesome in a series of posts aptly tagged, "Products That Are Awesome".

I'm not going to turn my blog into a series of advertisements, but I AM going to post about why *I* like certain products (you might not like them for the same reasons!). They might long posts about specific products - like today's post - or short posts about generic products, like a wok (I love mine!).


The Mighty Wallet by Dynomighty Design is a recyclable wallet made out of a single sheet of folded Tyvek. The material is familiar to most people as the untearable material of airmail envelopes.

The design is simple: there are two inner pockets for credit cards, two pockets for bills and receipts, and two outer/side pockets. There is no change pocket.

Each compartment is very easy to access on a daily basis - there is no digging around in sub-pockets of sub-pockets. When you flip it shut, the Tyvek-on-Tyvek makes a satisfying "thwack" sound.

The day I loaded my wallet I was uncertain about the side pockets - the business cards I had loaded into the sides had a tendancy to fall out. However, after a few days of "breaking in", the Tyvek will shape itself to your pockets and wallet contents.

As a material, Tyvek has some cool properties. For one, it's super strong - this is not a paper wallet you could tear in half (many have tried). Also, you can write on it or tape things to it - like my Sobeys card!

Mighty Wallets come in a ton of different designs. I rock the "classic" envelope - I like the designs with whitespace, for writing on. Some designs generate lots of curiosity, and I've scribbled the website on the back of old receipts for cashiers a few times. If you don't want cashiers gawking at your wallet, there are many designs that look like a plain wallet and aren't attention-grabbing.

The most brilliant feature of the Mighty Wallet is its thickless - or lack thereof. Empty, it's as thick as a few sheets of Tyvek, so it's basically as thick as what you keep in it. The folds of the wallet expand as you load it and fall back into place as you un-load it. You can treat it like a George Costanza wallet and keep a year's worth of receipts. Or - ladies - you could carry just a credit card, some cash, and your ID and it would fit in the tiny pockets on your without bothering you.
My wallet is about 3/4 of an inch thick when loaded. 

At $15 apiece, it's a bargain for the cool factor, but it's legitimately useful - I am confident saying this is the best wallet I have ever owned. It's cheap enough to buy in bulk for mass Christmas presents. I've been using mine for a year now and while it looks worn, it's not going to fall apart any time soon.

Grab Mighty Wallets from http://www.mightywallets.com/.