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February 2007
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Home monitoring from Bell Canada

If you don't want to monitor your home by building your own system, and you live in Canada, then this news might interest you.

Bell Canada is introducing a wireless home monitoring system for about US$20 per month. It will alert you to events, such as your children coming home or localized flooding, via SMS or email. With additional equipment it even offers a live video stream so you can check on the situation remotely.

Thanks to the XTension list for the link.

Home Automation on the brink

Michal Lev-Ram's article about home automation going mainstream was published a few months ago in Business 2.0. My favorite quote:

Home automation is no longer just for the technophile hobbyist or for an episode of MTV Cribs," says Sam Lucero, a senior analyst with ABI Research. "It's right on the cusp of becoming mainstream."

The rest of the article provides the obligatory reference to Bill Gates' home, and mentions a few methods of getting started with pre-packaged solutions.

Thanks to Jerry for the pointer.

Mad about MAD digital edition

Several years ago, Brøderbund came out with a digital collection of MAD magazine that, while packed with previously unreleased goodies, was barely usable. Its custom file format and interface was awkward at best, and it only worked on Windows computers. And, par for the time it was published, it came on a handful of CDs, which required the constant switching of discs while using it.

How nice that a new digital compilation--Absolutely Mad: 50+ Years--eschews these mistakes. This time around all the magazines are in PDF format on a single DVD. (But apparently not at a high resolution, according to the reviews. ) This is fantastic news if you, like me, grew up with MAD and now want to reminisce and catch up with their newer issues. (The disc includes up through 2005.) More, later, when I've had a chance to peruse the collection.

Maybe I'll dig up my very first rejection letter, received at about age 9, when I submitted a story to MAD. The very kind editor included an encouraging note, which I very much appreciated, and got to show off to all my friends.

Update: I bought the DVD and I cannot recommend it to anyone. The PDFs are of very low quality (resolution) and are very hard to read onscreen. Even worse than the reviewer I linked to above said. What a sad, sad disappointment and wasted opportunity.

My favorite TextExpander TIp

One of my must-have Mac OS X applications is TextExpander. It's a program that automatically expands abbreviations as you type. If you're familiar with the venerable TypeItForMe, or the way-back Thunder 7, then you get the concept.

If you don't t know those apps, well, here's a brief description. You can set up TextExpander so when you type "btw," the words "by the way" are automatically placed in your document instead. And this works for just about anything, including pictures. For example, you might type "mydogpict" and have it paste a photograph of your puppy into the current document.

TextExpander has some more advanced features, including the ability to integrate what's currently on your computer's clipboard, too. This is especially handy, once you get your mind around how it works. I use this feature to easily create links to Amazon products that include my affiliate identification. The publishers of TextExpander recently asked their customers for tips, so I wrote up how to accomplish this and it's now available on their blog, if you're interested in the details.

News at the speed of Twitter

Late on March 1st, 2007 I was working at my computer when Twitterrific popped forward with a brief message from Thomas Hawk. The message was only one word long, but it still caught my attention. It read:


After ten years of living in California, I'm acutely attentive to that word. Especially, in this case, because I know Thomas lives in my old stomping ground, the bay area. But perhaps, I though, he's out of town.

I opened my iChat buddy list and scanned for friends in California. Many of them were online, which I took as a good sign (the power was still on, at the very least). I sent Egan an instant message, asking if he'd felt an earthquake.

Yes, about 2 minutes ago! A small one.

As we talked about it, Egan felt an aftershock, and several other Californians in my buddy list changed their status messages to refer to the quake. too. Shortly thereafter, I visited the USGS earthquake events website and saw the initial reports.

The quake wasn't a big deal, similar the ones that I experienced firsthand, but this time I was 2200 miles away. Yet, thanks to Twitter and iChat, I knew about it mere minutes after it occurred, and learned that those I care about were almost certainly doing just fine. Gotta love the Internet.

More about the Usable Help refresh

I thought I'd answer a few questions about my previous post on this subject, and add a few details about the latest Tinderbox tinkering that I've done.

The source Tinderbox document for Usable Help is now almost five years old. That probably makes it the oldest, still "in-progress" document on my computer. However, as a result of its age, I found there were a lot of non-obvious, or just plain forgotten, dependencies in the export templates and Tinderbox attributes. After getting the initial redesign working, which as I said was sort of fun, I hit a brick wall of frustration.

It all started when I moved the Tinderbox document from the iMac's internal hard disk to an external FireWire drive that I carry with me when traveling. I moved the templates too, of course, but Tinderbox, unbeknownst to me, kept looking at the copies on the iMac's drive. As a result, exporting to HTML continued to work until I threw away the files on the iMac. Then several things broke in a mysterious and hard to debug fashion.

The short resolution is, after some speedy (and sympathetic) tech support from Mark Bernstein, I used BBedit to manually correct the template paths stored in the Tinderbox document. Theoretically, Tinderbox should have been able to sort this out itself after I set the document preferences, but my file had hundreds of embedded paths, most of which were wrong. I sure do wish that Tinderbox were less fragile about this, but I'm glad that the document format is so clean and easily hacked with a text editor. (One of the things I liked about it from the very beginning.) To be fair, the extent of my document's dependency on paths is likely due to its age, but if you're planning a similar project be sure to account for this possibility.

With hundreds of pages in the site, I was sure that no matter how closely I looked, I'd miss some problems. And I was right. A couple of readers alerted me that some graphics, embedded in the middle of articles, were missing. But only when the article was viewed via the "archives" page, and not when accessed directly. It turns out that during the redesign I accidentally dropped the obscure "base" tag in the head section of one template. Without this the paths to some graphics were pointing to the wrong place. Oops.

This weekend I re-instituted a feedback/response mechanism across the whole site. Adding the link involved getting the HTMLExportFileName, which didn't work as I expected, and the urlEncoded function to make sure everything got passed thru the PHP scripts in the correct formats. The problem I encountered with HTMLExportFileName is that if the attribute is empty, Tinderbox's automatically-generated substitute is only available during export time. That is, you can't use ^Get()^ to retrieve it. Since this impacted less than ten pages on my site, I used a server-side redirect to get around it. Mark suggested using a rule to set the value, but after wrestling with the aforementioned template problems, some of which were caused by overzealous agents, I'm gun shy about that approach.

There's still one aspect of the old site that I haven't touched, and that's the RSS feed. When it was first set up, Tinderbox's super-handy "urlEncoded" function didn't exist. Now that it does, I could certainly do more with the feed, but at this point I'm not convinced that a more modern format would offer true advantages. If you think that it would, visit Usable Help and use use my spiffy new "respond" feature to let me know. Thanks.