Category Archives: Geeky Stuff

In my travels I come across nifty geeky stuff – sometimes its a bar trick – some times its a home made XRay machine powered by scotch tape. If I like the trick or gadget – I write it up here.

uber

Uber and UberX a Travelers Perspective

If your anything like me, you’ve probably only heard of a new ride sharing service called Uber from their exposure to irate European taxi drivers.

It seems like every time I open the BBC newsreader app there is an article about a strike in London, Paris or New York by taxi drivers in protest of Uber. So what is Uber? and why is it causing such ire? Uber is a on-demand taxi service that uses technology to revolutionize the cab experience.

Uber uses its own application for iPhones and Android phones to allow perspective riders to “call” a ride. The ride can be serviced by UberX (amateur part-time drivers in their own vehicle), Uber Taxi (standard taxi’s), Uber Black (Town cars), or Uber SUV. The beauty of the system is its simplicity: you get a “fare quote” for each of the services before you actually order the ride, when you place the order – you are shown in real time the location of your driver, his license plate, vehicle, photo and name – all within seconds of placing your order. When your ride is complete, the application immediately shows you how much your credit card was billed – and allows you to rate your experience. Its all so seamless that most users are left wondering – how did I live without this?

I’ve been using Uber for my business travel in Dallas Texas, and my personal travel in Toronto for the last month. In total I was in Dallas for 3 weeks, and Toronto for 1, all of which without a car of my own. I was using both UberX (for client travel – less expensive) and Uber Black (for airport runs, and the odd night out) – wracking up close to 300$ in Uber related expenses last month. After all that usage I can say that my impression of Uber is extremely positive.

Briefly:

UberX: Personal Cars, amateur drivers
Pro: generally pretty clean/reliable. Very Affordable.
Con: crap shoot on vehicle, had several rides in a pickup truck. Crap shoot on driver quality: Sitting on a dog blanket in the back seat and smelling the heavy odor of a pack-a-day smoker. Not available in all markets.

Uber Black: Town Cars, Professional Drivers
Pro: great cars, professional drivers, prompt, have bottled water.
Con: Expensive

Do I think Uber will change the for-hire taxi Industry? Absolutely: its safer, faster, and far more efficient. Unfortunately, it requires a credit card so a large segment of the elderly and poor will not be able to use it, and it requires a smart phone (instead of the traditional phone call) – again eliminating the poor and elderly. I do worry that it may further segregate our economy – between the haves and have-nots – especially if it decimates the current taxi industry.

Despite my misgivings – I will continue to use it – its just TOO good :)

Todays Geeky Gadget – HighPoint Raid 1740 on OSX

osxI’ve been a lover of Apple Computers for close to 15 years, but I’ve always been a little miffed by what is often called the ‘Apple Trap’. The Apple Trap is pretty much non-existant on the newer standards based Intel Based Macs – but is still in force for the last generation of G4 and G5 based Macs.

These older systems are still Leopard compatible, and perform very well for their age, but they often require expensive single purpose upgrades. Want a Raid Card? You will spend 100$ more than the same part on Intel. Want a video card? You will spend 200$ more than the same part on Intel. Want Sata? 150$ more than the same part on Intel.

With the ‘Apple Trap’ in mind, I was pleasantly surprised that HighPoint (makers of commodity hardware raid controllers for Intel based PC’s), have created OSX drivers (G4 compatible even) for many of their controllers. For 110$ CDN I was able to add 4 hardware RAID SATA ports to my 9+ year old Apple G4 Mac. Incredible, a machine that doesn’t support hard drives larger than 128GB now has 2+ Terrabytes of SATA hard drive goodness – and its FAST.

So for those of you with an old G4/G5 Mac – take a look at the Highpoint Raid controller. My old girl is running Leopard Server and acting as a very large (and fast) NAS server – and I didn’t have to pay the tax commonly called the ‘Apple Trap’.

Todays Geeky Gadget – Mac OSX Server 10.5.7

osxI’ve been running a home server for about 8 years, almost since the day I first learned what a Public IP was, and how it could be used to share information.

I’ve experimented with several different Operating Systems and hosts for my various web services: Windows 2000 Server, Windows XP, Windows 2003 Server, Solaris on Sparc, Solaris on Intel, Linux (many distro’s), and many more. Today, I installed Mac OS X server, and moved my blog and email services over to the new platform. My initial impressions are extremely positive, so I thought I’d share what I like about it, and how it could be useful for others.

First off, I need to share a little information about the Server being used to host my OSX server. For this experiment I dusted off my old Dual 450mhz G4 PowerPC PowerMac. This machine was purchased in 2000, and was comparable to a Pentium II 350 MHZ in terms of performance. It has since been upgraded with a 128MB hard drive and 2GB of RAM – but needless to say this machine is a low power workstation.

OSX on this ancient platform runs beautifully, booting up all services and the OS in less than 20 seconds. Performance is exceptional considering the age of the platform, and has the beauty of running standard Cyrus, Postfix, Spam Assassin, Apache, Java and PHP web applications. In fact, moving my Linux based configuration to the OSX configuration was as simple as copying the database and web files. Everything worked out of the box, complete with an elegant GUI configuration utility.

While I’m sure I’m sacrificing some performance to have a full OSX GUI desktop running on the server, for a small workgroup or department I would highly recommend OSX Server. For newbies and old hands alike the GUI configuration and simplified setup of most web services will make you smile. If you’ve ever bashed your head against the wall trying to figure out why your fancy postfix configuration is throwing email into a null folder – you want these configuration tools.

Todays Geeky Gadget – Sony eReader

Sony eReaderIf you’ve watched the technology news, or read the technology section of your newspaper at any time in the last month you’ve probably heard of the Kindle 2 by Amazon. The Kindle, and its successor are electronic readers that utilize a high contrast/low power screen technology called eInk.

My interest in eReader technology dates back to 2000 when I first started reading my favorite Science Fiction books on my PocketPC. I quickly hit the limits of the technology, battery life was terrible, selection of books was limited, and even worse reading  on a screen the size of a deck of cards gave me terrible headaches.

My Birthday is March 10th, and I wanted to treat myself to a tech gadget that would save me money, yet still be ‘cool’. Living in Canada the Kindle was off-the-table, Amazon just doesn’t sell them up here. Even if available, the Kindle is designed to only work with content from Amazon.com – something that doesn’t work for someone like me with a large pre-existing library of electronic book content.

Enter the Sony PRC-505, a new eReader from Sony. It features a eInk screen with a very high contrast ratio, incredible battery life (7500 page turns), its available in Canada, and most importantly works with books in many different formats. It also works on my Mac using a Open Source Library Manager called ‘Calibre’.

Words cannot describe my impression of the PRC-505s screen. Its easily sharper and easier on the eyes than most paperbacks. Combine that with the ability to zoom in/out, change fonts and I don’t think I’ll be going back to my 2 paperback a week habit.

If your a avid reader, pick this up, its inexpensive – the books are inexpensive – and it works. No headaches, no ‘out-of-battery’ problems – and best of all? 1000’s of books with you at all times.

Optimizing WordPress

WordPressWhen I originally deployed WordPress to power ellisonline.ca I wasn’t too worried about performance. I had a pretty powerful server, and I didn’t expect too much traffic.

Unfortunately, like everything in technology, times changed and I was worried about the performance of my favorite blog (mine). I embarked on a crash course on optimizing the performance of php based sites in general, and WordPress specifically.

I believe I’ve succeeded in improving the performance of my site significantly using a few simple tools.

1) I enabled query caching in mysql (the database backend to wordpress). To do this I edited /etc/mysql/my.cnf and added the following three lines:

query_cache_size = 268435456
query_cache_type=1
query_cache_limit=1048576

This enables mysql to cache the output results of queries – making the queries returned by WordPress return quicker.

2) The second optimization I performed is I installed APC (A Perl Compiler). This compiler significantly improved PHP performance on the site.

3) Lastly I Installed and configured the WP Super Cache plugin.

These three optimizations together were more than enough to improve my response times.

Todays Geeky Gadget – Elgato Turbo .264

elgatoAs most avid readers know – I’m a geeky gadget collector. Heaven for me is trolling the Electronics shops looking for a deal that makes my life easier. Today I present to you the Elgato Turbo .264 USB Media Encoder Hardware. I picked this gadget up last week from the local Apple store for 99$ CDN (about 80$ USD).

What does it do? This USB key plugs into your Mac and enables encoding of video content in MPEG 4 with better speeds and lower processor utilization. The included software is easy to use, and works as advertised.

As a Intel Mac Owner with a large video collection, I’ve always been able to encode videos to MPEG4 using Quicktime Pro – unfortunately my CPU utilization would peg out at 100% making the MAC unusable for anything else till I was done. This device let me do the same encoding (for my iPhone or TV) but with 20% CPU utilization and no sacrifice in performance or quality.

If you have a Camcorder, Home Videos, or a large collection of Digital Video movies I highly recommend this device  –  take the plunge – you won’t be disappointed.

Cocoa Is Actually Pretty Cool

osxFor those that have known me for a while, you know I’ve always saved most of my vacation for the holiday season. I do this for a few reasons, as a project manager I try to avoid key deliverables during the month of the December as I know staff are light on the ground, and as a old timer in business that vacation time serves as a severance buffer should I be terminated earlier in the year.

The upshot of this strategy is the month of December is always my opportunity to learn new technology or brush up on old skills.

This month I’ve been focusing on Cocoa, and so far I can say its pretty cool. I’ve developed GUI applications in a number of languages and frameworks. Java AWT, Java Swing, Microsoft’s Visual Basic, Microsoft’s Foundation Classes, Borland’s OWL, I’ve done em all. My biggest complaint with most frameworks has always been the challenge of laying out a GUI, and binding that GUI to data.

I must say that once you get over the shock of Objective C (come on Apple, C++ has been around for over a decade – catch up), its a pretty elegant framework. The binding is the simplest I’ve encountered to date, simpler even than Visual Basic (an ugly language – but great layout and binding). Right now I’m in tinker mode – writing applications that leverage my large existing C/C++ code base to do cool things (FTP Clients, IRC Clients, Mail Clients, etc.), but I’m hoping to reach high competency shortly. Once I pass that hurdle I’ll be jumping back into iPhone development.

Todays Geeky Gadget – GE Cell Fusion

gecell.jpegSometimes I see or acquire a geeky gadget or piece of software that is just so cool, I have to share. Today I acquired what I consider my Geeky Gadget of the month: The GE DECT 6.0 Cell Fusion cordless phone.

We’ve all had Cordless phones for years – what makes this one so special? This cordless uses bluetooth to leverage your cell phone as a second phone line. So when I bring my iPhone home after a long day on the road I can place and answer cell phone calls using my cordless phone at home.

For the work@home guy (like me) this is immeasurably useful, it means I can leave my iPhone in its charging cradle, but not miss incoming calls. The bluetooth connection is seamless and doesn’t require user confirmation – in short – if its in range – it just works.

After years of hearing about convergence (and bluetooth), I finally have a working use case at home that is easy and convenient to use. The best part? The price, this GE cordless phone with 2 handsets was 99$ Canadian (~80$ USD) at my local “Telephone Booth“ store. If your in the US Circuit City carries this phone for 71.99$ USD.

Making XRay’s with Scotch Tape?

xrayhandI came across this article via a link on Slashdot (highly recommended reading) and had to share.

It turns out that if you peel scotch tape inside a vacuum it generates X-Rays. The researchers who found it are looking at as a means of creating X-Ray machines and other useful technology for the 3rd world.


The interesting thing is the amount of X-Ray’s produced by removing the tape at 1.5 inches per second inside a vacuum was enough to take an X-Ray of a researchers hand.

I envision this will eventually result in hand cranked X-Ray machines for hospitals and dentists in areas where electrical power is unstable or unavailable. It could also be used to create emergency X-Ray equipment for emergency rooms in areas prone to natural disasters.

http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/27323869/