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December 2005
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February 2006

What's up with Jack and Jill, anyway?

I just finished reading Heavy Words, Lightly Thrown: The Reasons Behind the Rhyme by Chris Roberts. It started life as a self-published book in the UK, but is now a Gotham Books edition in the US. It's very much British, but the author has included a "glossary" to help get past the UK colloquialisms. (Interestingly, the glossary is presented in the order in which the terms appear in the main text. Sort of like end notes, but not numbered. I found it quaint, and awkward to use at times.)

Anyway, it's a fun book because is features researched speculation about the origin and meaning behind many nursery rhymes. ("researched speculation?!" I just made that up. Hell, nobody knows for certain what these things are supposed to mean, if anything. But it doesn't appear that Roberts is pulling this stuff out of his arse.)

If you at all enjoy learning about hidden meanings, or lost history, I think you'll enjoy this book. It's a quick read, and quite enjoyable.

Home petcam made easy

Writing Webcam offers view of living like a dog for the Chicago Tribune, Alex Goldfayn describes how a couple of installed a home webcam in order keep an eye on their pet dog while they're away from home.

If you've got a broadband Internet connection at home, and a pet that you'd like to keep an eye on (out of concern or curiosity) this really is a great solution. I've had a "ScooterCam" for a few years now, which allows my wife and I to check in on Scooter, our dog, and it is also greatly enjoyed by friends and family. Here's a photo that was captured by my friend Kathy one day when she peeked in our pup.

Like the folks in the article, I use a D-Link DCS-900W camera. It's wireless, so it's easy to position and connect to our home WiFi network, plus its built-in web server means that I don't have to a computer turned on in order to access the image. I've also had good success with this camera's wired hard-to-find sibling, the DCS-1000, which is a fine choice if you happen to have a network connection near where you plan to use it.

Details about my setup are in Smart Home Hacks (see Hack #82 - Monitor Your Home with a Network Camera on page 295). There you'll find that in addition to connecting to the camera for a live picture, you can use a computer to automatically grab an image from the camera and upload it to another location, or send it to your cell phone, at either regular intervals or on-demand. But that's a more advanced setup, for the basic camera setup, it's quite simple, and quite rewarding.

Dogs on the Road, Finally a Decent Kennel

My dog Scooter makes a great traveling companion, but for his safety and our sanity, he's always "crated" whenever we're in a strange hotel room or leaving him at a friend's house while we go out and play. We had been using a steel-and-plastic training kennel, the one we got when he was a pup, but it's heavy and awkward to tote around, and he's pretty much outgrown it.

So for the last year or so I've been looking for a dog kennel that is conducive to road trips. That means it has to be light, easy to pack, and large enough that we don't feel too bad leaving him in it for a few hours.

We tried a new kennel over the Thanksgiving break, but frankly it sucked. It was "portable," but it wasn't very light and was still quite long when collapsed, which made it awkward to carry with either Scooter, or other luggage, in hand. The biggest problem, however, was its poor construction. The zippers were very flimsy; one broke off in my hand the second night we used it. Needless to say, I returned it when we got back home.

I've tried to find a replacement, but nothing was quite right. Then, the other day, I came across a Travel Kennel at Target. (Of all places.) It's better made than the other one, at least in terms of durability, and collapses to a much smaller size. Better yet, it was 1/4 the price of the crappy one. Sweet. (And it's even less expensive if you order it online.)

The "large" size is perfect for Scooter (Yes, he's a dachshund, not a great dane. But he's a standard doxie which means he's short, but long. Over 24" long, which makes him too big for the usual "small dog" accessories.). I've got it set up in my office and he's been using it off-and-on, so I think it's time for an initiatory road trip. Who wants to go?

Another Z-Wave Promise

Lew Sichelman turns in a lengthy column that covers the promise of wireless home automation based on Z-Wave. Now, as I've written before, I'm fairly well impressed with my Z-Wave devices from Intermatic. I think the best thing about this article (which is otherwise a re-hash of press releases) is its discussion of a 1970s home that was retrofitted with Z-Wave based automation. No re-wiring was necessary, and is was done by a pro for $5000.

That's a reasonable price, but the best part follows that figure, where Michael Einstein of Intermatic says that a do-it-yourselfer could have completed the work for 1/2 that much. Now that's refreshing to read--not only is D.I.Y. automation mentioned, it is promoted by an automation company! That doesn't happen very often folks, and it just might indicate that the Z-Wave Alliance is coming around to the oft-neglected "hacker" portion of the market. Let's hope so, it could make a big difference in their success.

Welcome back ClickBook, sorta

Long time Mac users will fondly remember ClickBook as a handy utility that debuted on the Mac, was shuffled from company to company, and eventually languished in favor of the Windows version. Well, the current owner, Blue Squirrel, has released a Mac OS X version.

I don't have a lot of faith in it, however, when I find that the link on their website to peruse the HTML-version of the manual won't load in the latest version of Safari. Sort of makes one wonder how carefully they're paying attention, eh?

In the absence of ClickBook, I've been using the free CocoaBooklet instead, by the way. Not nearly as full-featured, but it's free, and Mac OS X-savvy.

Phlink listens in

It's great to see Phlink keep getting better with each release. If you're not familiar with it, it's what I like to call a "telephony erector set" for the Mac. If you can dream up a phone-based process or automation that you want to create, you can pretty much put it together using Phlink.

In Smart Home Hacks, Matt Bendicksen wrote about how to control your home from any phone in the world, with some simple glue between Indigo and Phlink. And that's just one example of the tools you can knit together with the product. If you at all enjoy tinkering, I can't imagine that you wouldn't have a blast.

Phlink 3.0 was just announced, and if you buy the current version now, you'll get a free upgrade to the latest when it ships in February. The new version lets Phlink automatically record all incoming and outgoing calls, and adds integration with EyeTV so you can call your Mac from the road and schedule a new television recording. A neat idea, to be sure, but I think some of the best Phlink-based solutions come from the user community; I can't wait to see what people cook up using the new version.

Hello, this is your Mac calling

One of the more interesting, niche applications to come out of MacWorld Expo 2006 is Parliant's PhoneHerald. It allows your Mac to automatically call someone, deliver a message, and record or otherwise handle their response. For example, if you're the secretary for a large community service group, you might use it to gather RSVPs for an upcoming party. At the end of the day, you'll know exactly who has responded, who wasn't reached, and how many party hats you should buy.

PhoneHerald lets you piece together messages from pre-recorded snippets (voice, music, etc) and text files that are read over the phone using text-to-speech. (I know what you're thinking, based on the demo video, the quality sounds OK.) It does all of its work in the background, freeing you to use your Mac (but not your phone, of course) for other things.

Having a product like this for the Mac is good news, Parliant's Phone Valet is reliable and easy to use, and I'm guessing that PhoneHerald will be, too. This type of product seems to be quite popular for some businesses, particularly schools and pharmacies. (Which I know because I get at least one automated, personalized phone call a week from both of these sources. Unfortunately, they're calling for the previous owner of my phone number, but that's a whole 'nother story.)

J.Jill. Worst. Shopping. Ever.

Wow, I just tried to order some clothing for my wife, from J.Jill, and I'm unpleasently surprised by the online shopping experience. You'd think a major retailer would have more sense than implementing an ordering system that:

  • Only works in Internet Explorer. The "javascripts" they utilize are riddled with errors under the latest versions of Safari and Firefox. They do work with the aging IE 5, however. And the failure isn't pretty; you can't add a single item to your shopping cart using the other browsers!

  • Requires you to select a "size" of non-sized items (such as a scarf) before the item can be added to your cart. And, when you fail to tickle the useless Size pop-up menu, the error message is passively written and generally unhelpful.

  • When you do manage to check out, they're still displaying a red-type note about Christmas shipping. Hello? How many days ago was "Order by Dec 28" still valid?

    Good heavens, requiring people to use the problem-prone IE just to buy from you? A shopping user interface that requires unnecessary steps? If you own J.Jill stock, sell it, they're obviously clueless when it comes to basic Internet retailing in 2006.

    Update Feb 8, 2006: One month later, to the day, I've learned J.Jill has since corrected the problems I encountered. I received a nice note from their E-Commerce VP thanking for me for the feedback and addressing my points. I take back my accusation of being clueless, while I still think that the site shouldn't have been foisted upon the public in its previous condition, they do clearly monitor the web for feedback and respond. Bravo.

    My wife loved the clothing I ordered, by the way.

  • Netgear Storage Central - Beware

    On a recent business trip to California I made a hasty technology purchase that I regret. Hopefully by writing about it I can spare someone else the same mistake.

    The Netgear Storage Central SC101 seems to be a network storage device (NAS) but it is not. It's actually a storage area network (SAN) device. That's neat, but the packaging never uses the word "SAN" and instead touts that it uses "standard TCP/IP-based" networking. It also says that its provides storage to "all PCs on your network."

    The latter statement is false. It only works with recent versions of Windows. If "all your PCs" include Mac, Linux, or older Windows system stay far, far away from this product. It requires special drivers that are not available for other platforms. And without these drivers, your systems simply cannot communicate with the box.

    I sure did feel like a sucker when I realized all this. Then I took a closer look at the box and realized that the wording was purposefully vague about exactly what the product is. It's really pretty neat that they are selling a SAN for such a low price, and one that works with an ethernet connection, so it's odd that "storage area network" never appears anywhere. Just to confirm my mistake, and see if there was any workarounds available, I went online and did some searching. (Yes, I should have done this before I bought the thing. My bad.)

    What I found was that I'm not alone in feeling deceived and disappointed. There are a few who like the Storage Gear SC101, and many who share my view. Take a look at the reviews on Amazon to see the diversity of opinion.

    As they say, buyer beware.

    Sunday; January 29, 2006 Update

    Case in point, today's CompUSA newspaper ad circular lists the Storage Central for a good price, $99, but identifies it as a Network Attached Storage device. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

    Growling PhoneValet

    In Smart Home Hacks, Greg Smith wrote about using LanOSD to display notifications of CallerID (and other events, such as someone ringing your doorbell) on all the (Macintosh) computers. (See Hack #31 "Broadcast Messages On Your Home Network" on page 130.)

    Unfortunately, the developer of LanOSD has abandoned his application in, well, a hissy fit over Apple switching to Intel processors. Making matters worse, even if you manage to find a copy of the application elsewhere, the last beta version expired in December 2005 so it won't run at all.

    Fortunately, the folks who create Growl have been quite busy and it has really come a long way in the last year. You can read what I've written about Growl in the past, but the current scoop is that the network notifications are easier to manage then they used to be. Which means, not only is Growl the only viable replacement for LanOSD, it's actually a big improvement in because of its features and support.

    So I finally spent a few minutes and converted all of my LanOSD notifications over to Growl. It has been working wonderfully! The first thing I changed was the CallerID notification that PhoneValet uses, it was a simple change; here's how the new code looks:

    	tell application "GrowlHelperApp"
    		notify with name "Incoming Call" title "Incoming Call" application name "PhoneValet Growl" description callerName & return & callerNumber with sticky
    	end tell
    end try	

    One conceptual hurdle that LanOSD users will have to adjust to is that Growl, for security reasons I suppose, requires an application to register itself before messages will be accepted. Here's the script I used to register my "PhoneValet Growl" script:

    tell application "GrowlHelperApp"
    	set the notifs to {"Incoming Call"}
    	register as application "PhoneValet Growl" all notifications notifs default notifications notifs icon of application "PhoneValet"
    end tell

    Some of the sample code I looked at re-registers with every message sent, but so far that hasn't been necessary for me, so I just ran the script above once and everything has worked. I also set up notification forwarding, on the computer where PhoneValet is installed, so that everyone on the network (that has Growl installed, of course) can see who's calling. (Which I've greatly missed since LanOSD self-destructed.)

    So, if you're working on Greg's hack, this should give you a bit of what you need to substitute Growl for LanOSD. Feel free to leave a comment if you need more help, and I'll be writing more as I explore what Growl has to offer for home automation users.