Quick plug – some apps

Just a quick plug for some Mac applications that make my life a lot easier.

Namely. It’s a free application launcher for Mac OS X 10.5. I used to use MenuStrip in 10.4 but really only used it for the Quick Launcher feature. When I upgraded to 10.5, I found Namely, which does just one thing. You set a hot-key combination that lets you pop open the Namely window. Then type in a few letters of the application you want to launch, and hit enter. I find myself using the dock less and less these days.

Fluid. Another Mac OS X 10.5 only application. It lets you build a “site specific browser” i.e. a separate application out of a browser window. I’ve wrapped my Google Calendar in Fluid and just keep it running all the time.

VoodooPad Pro. I use it for two things. I have one document to keep track of stuff I’m doing. I have another that I lock with a password to keep track of all my passwords. I haven’t done any scripting with its built-in Lua script engine, but I keep meaning to…

FlySketch. I use this for screen grabs all the time. One great use is to capture those web receipts you get when you buy something or pay for something. I grab them with FlySketch and put them into VoodooPad Pro.

Li’l Snitch. A great little app that lets me know what’s happening on my net connection.

Posted in Random

Building a kiosk

At the museum, we’re setting up a kiosk to let people browse our online collections database. We’re very much in the mode of trying things out using a simple setup and then when we see how that works, we can tweak it as needed.

The basic requirements were to let visitors browse a single website (http://webmuseum.mit.edu) but not to be able to follow any of the outgoing links. Additionally, the visitors should not be able to leave the web browser and start mucking about with the underlying computer.

Even though our old PowerMac G4‘s are dropping like flies with broken power supply units, we have two left in the “good enough to reuse” bin. So I set one up with Mac OS X 10.5. Using MacPorts, I installed Squid and set up the network to use that squid as a proxy. Squid lets you configure which URLs it will go out and get, and which ones it will return an error on. I set it up to only return pages in the webmuseum.mit.edu site, and whenever a link outside that site is requested, it returns the toplevel page at http://webmuseum.mit.edu.

So far so good. The next thing I needed was a browser that won’t let visitors do too much other than browse. Luckily last week I bumped into Plainview. Plainview is a webkit based browser with no chrome. It also happens to have a kiosk mode that requires a password to get out of.

Then I set up a user account with Parental Controls, and only allow it to run the Plainview app and nothing else. I have the Mac boot up with that user login coming up automatically, and Plainview starts as a login application. Presto, a nice web kiosk. If users break out of Plainview, they can’t do anything else but log out of the system. We’ll see how long that takes…

One minor hitch in the entire setup – I don’t know whether it’s possible to set up Plainview to go directly into kiosk mode. Right now you have to type ⌘-/ and enter an administrator password to start kiosk mode.

Posted in kiosk, Museum


Today I found myself sitting in a classroom discussion when the need arose to figure out how far each of 344 survey respondents had come to the place where the survey was being conducted. The survey included the home zip code of the subjects, and we knew, of course, the zip code of the survey location.

While I was Googling for how to best geocode the zip codes, I happened to also ask in the #geo irc channel (on oftc.net) whether there were any free distance calculation web services. Rich Gibson, who constructed geocoder.us piped up and said he was adding to the API for its web services and did people have any requests. What luck! I asked for something that given two zip codes would return a distance.

Not long thereafter, here’s what he came up with:

<a href="http://geocoder.us/service/distance?zip1=41080&amp;zip2=02139">http://geocoder.us/service/distance?zip1=41080&amp;zip2=02139</a>

which would return the distance between Petersburg, KY and Cambridge, MA.

So I was off to the races! I copied the list of zip codes from the Excel spreadsheet and pasted them into an Emacs buffer, then saved them as ‘zips’. Then in the shell (I use tcsh…):

First to get rid of duplicates:

sort zips | uniq > zips2

Then, loop through them. I put line breaks with continuation characters into the geocoder line to fit inside this blog post.

foreach zip ( `cat zips2` )
 echo ${zip} `curl \
"http://geocoder.us/service/distance?zip1=41080&zip2=${zip}" \
 | sed -e 's/.*=//' | sed -e 's/ miles$//'` >> distances

And that’s it! I pasted the results back into the spreadsheet, got rid of the three bogus zipcodes in the data that resulted in errors from geocoder.us, used VLOOKUP to pull out the distances and I was done.

The service returned errors three times. I used the USPO zip code reverse lookup to verify that the codes were indeed bogus.

That’s my kind of web service. No WSDL, WADL, or WS-anything.

(Yes, I could have used Perl, Python, Ruby, etc. but I learned shell commands in 1981 before we had all that fancy stuff and it’s the first thing I try.)

Posted in Geo

VoIP – successes and failures

I’ve been a Vonage customer for 3+ years now. Lately, though, the vultures and doomsayers have been close at hand as Vonage gets sued over and over. Since I have two lines, our home phone and my office phone with Vonage, I thought I’d hedge my bets and move my home phone to Verizon VoiceWing. The main appeal of going with VoiceWing was that they could actually supply E911 at my location.

That was a bit of a disaster. They sent the new modem pretty quickly, but the installation never worked. I spent about 3-4 hours on the phone with them over a couple of days and they were unable to get it to work.

There was nothing particularly weird about my setup. In fact, my Vonage adapters are sitting in pretty much the same configuration, right behind my main router. What became apparent after talking to the VoiceWing people is that they don’t have the capacity to deal with installation problems at all.

Luckily, I was able to cancel before the first month was up and got (most of) my money back.

Meanwhile, I’ll stick with Vonage for VoIP.

Posted in Random

Change the margins

From the “it’s the little things that matter” department – I just saw changethemargins.com written up in the January/February issue of World Ark, a newsletter published by Heifer International. The idea is simple:

What if you could get companies to adopt narrower margins as their printing standard? It would result in a lot less paper consumption. Which of course means saving a lot of trees and cutting down on a lot of waste…but only if a massive amount of people changed their margins.

Not only would this save trees, it would save the energy and pollution associated with the entire paper-making and recycling industry.

Now, I’ve been finding myself turning into a whitespace kind of person. Less clutter, more visual appeal. But I’m willing to take the challenge to trim the fat, as it were, in the future.

This should also inspire us to look at the other places where we can make a small, seemingly insignificant difference. If enough people do it, it starts to add up.

Side note: Almost two years ago, I wrote about “going green” in my computing environment to save money. I’m happy to say that I’ve managed to save a noticeable amount on my electricity bill, and thus my carbon footprint. It’s sometimes a bit hard to tell, with kids coming home from college, changing weather patterns, etc. but electricity use in our house is trending down.

Posted in Random

Wiki Video

One of the challenges of our Museum Without Walls project is how to gather, a critical mass of location-based multimedia material that’s worth seeing.

MIT has its own video gateway site that links to three major MIT video repositories: TechTV, where the community can upload videos; MITWorld, videos of lectures and events at MIT; and MITOpenCourseWare, videos of classroom lectures.

But the fact remains that someone has to produce the videos. So far, iMovie and its cousins have done a lot to bring video production to a huge base of people, but I would wager that a large percentage of the storytelling being done with those tools is from the point of view of a single voice.

However, Wikimedia and Kaltura have teamed up to start a site where multiple people can collaborate on video production. (Seen at boingboing). Overall, a very cool idea with a lot of promise!

Posted in Museum

Air, not yet.

One thing I didn’t buy yesterday was a MacBook Air. I went to the Chestnut Hill Mall Apple store to see what it looked like but they didn’t have any to show. The store won’t have any to look at for two more weeks.

Instead I ordered a MacBook from the Apple Education for MIT site (they are about $100 less there, and there’s a savings on AppleCare). When it gets here in a few days, I’ll clone my MacBook Pro’s hard drive to the MacBook and send the MBP to my son. They only thing I’ll miss, I suspect is the lighted keyboard, something I’ve come to like a lot. I ordered the 250GB drive and I’ll shop around for a RAM upgrade.

Then, with the savings, I’m thinking pretty seriously about an iPhone, something that would be fun to play with for the Museum Without Walls.

The iPhones I looked at at the Apple store had the new location detection firmware. The store is here but the phone indicated it was a good 1000′ southeast of the store, south of what’s labeled Holyhood Cemetery. That’s not exactly pinpoint accuracy. But the Skyhook wifi database may not have included the mall, and thus the iPhone was probably using the Google cell-tower locations to find itself. Skyhook claims 10-20m accuracy in urban areas. That sounds pretty reasonable to me.

Posted in Geo, Mac, Museum

Think Again

So I’m going to blame my recent lack of postings on my blog to the fact that, like Hobu, I was finding that a Plone-based blog was not so easy to deal with. I decided to jump into the blogging mainstream with WordPress, so here we go.

Along with the switch to WordPress, I’m going to expand from mostly geo-related topics to things I’m dealing with at MIT as well. So for those of you who want exclusively geo-news, link to the geo category and the geo feed in Atom, RSS, or RSS2.

I still have to switch over the Feedburner feeds and tweak a few more bits and pieces, but overall the new version is ready to go.

As I mention in the About page, I’ve kept the old blog intact so that all the permalinks still work.

Posted in Geo, Museum, Random