Inventor of the bar code dies

Daniel Stout2012-12-13T18:00:25+00:00
Escape Captivity

Flickr photo: Paul

N. Joseph Woodland, the inventor of the ubiquitous bar code seen on virtually every consumer item, has died The New York Times reports. He and Bob Silver patented the idea in 1952, but it was ahead of its time. They earned $15,000 from the sale of the patent. The equipment necessary to read a bar code then was large and expensive. Now even the miniature camera on your smartphone can read and discern the patterns of bar codes and a variety of other types of insignia that have sprung up since that time.

It’s hard to image another invention that has ordered the commercial world so much in its wake except perhaps the internet. The UPC code, which is the standard bar code, is everywhere. Attempts to upgrade the technology such as with RFID tags have met with some resistance as the ability to track the holders and users of these tags becomes ever closer. In a world of heavy surveillance, the bar code is the technology that makes data happen.

Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four predates the bar code, but surely his views would have been informed by the invention.

Bloggin’ Milestones

Daniel Stout2012-12-06T18:00:15+00:00

WordPressI’ve blogged since 1998, but two months ago, I decided to try something new. Instead of writing a post once in a while when I felt the urge, I opted to write everyday. Two months in, this experiment has been a resounding success! Posting each day is totally feasible. With WordPress’ scheduling feature, I’ve kept a consistent posting time. I’ve used the fullscreen editing mode exactly never. I have a tendency to write long posts, but the window I’m writing in doesn’t seem to matter much–I’m focused on the words and not the interface.

So what lessons have I learned from two solid months of blogging? Five things:

  1. Plan ahead. It’s good to have a list of possible topics to pick from.
  2. Find paths to inspiration. That is, seek out things that will spur ideas. Maybe it is articles or photos or songs or letters in the mail. Use whatever works for you.
  3. Give it time to mellow. Posting a day ahead has worked out pretty well for me. It gives the posts some time to marinate in my head before they appear on the site. That gives me an opportunity to make edits before the post goes public.
  4. Mix it up. I’ve found that posting on a variety of topics with a variety of word counts–from long to short–has kept it lively. Focusing on that day’s specific topic has kept me motivated.
  5. Set deadlines. Having a daily posting time helps. I have some flexibility when I write the posts, but keeping to a strict daily publishing deadline keeps me on task.

iTunes 11 and Remote 3.0

Daniel Stout2012-12-04T18:00:51+00:00

iTunes 11 and Remote 3.0Last week, Apple released a major new version of iTunes. They paired it with a new version of their iOS app Remote. I’ve been using both since Thursday, and my first impression was “it’s different.” The real difference is visual. Apple has increased the focus on cover art over the years. Cover Flow was a big step in that direction, but I always found it a bit fancy and not very useful. This new version takes the next step in this evolution, and this time they got it very right.

Major interface changes are a bit disorienting at first. I’m usually pretty good with change, but I surprised myself by how quickly I took to the new interface. Apple made more than just cosmetic changes. iTunes DJ is gone, and now there’s Up Next, which functions similarly to the queues that other media players use.

I worked on figuring out how to accomplish in iTunes 11 what I used to do in earlier version of iTunes. You have to think different to the usual way of doing things. But in every case, I found that iTunes delivered. It’s different, but it’s all there.

The really early iTunes interface was mostly like a spreadsheet. Your music was displayed in rows, and you could add or remove columns such as Album, Year, and Genre. It wasn’t exactly pretty, but the software was fast and responsive. It totally knocked out the competition.

The main problem with iTunes is that it’s become the hub for a lot of seemingly unrelated Apple activity. You manage your iOS devices through iTunes. Apps, movies, even ringtones are all part of iTunes. That bloat has slowed the beast down, and I’m not sure that this new version necessarily solves that problem. iTunes 11 is a lot prettier though and that counts for something.

What amazes me is how flawless this version is. It’s a big upgrade, and Apple did take an extra month to put on the polishing touches. This is software done right. The Remote app for iPad and iPhone is an upgrade along similar lines. It’s easier to find the music I want to stream via AirPlay. The old Remote app could take several taps to drill down to the track listing of the current album. It’s now easier to get around. They also built Up Next into Remote, so you can create a running playlist. The idea for Up Next didn’t come from Apple, but they’ve implemented it in a compelling way focusing again on cover art and keeping the interface simple.

My only real quibble is that iTunes was pretty static for bunch of years. Apple could have done this revision a while back. Monolithic media apps are less useful these days. iOS devices don’t need to dock to iTunes anymore. Most people get their music from YouTube, and streaming services like Spotify have made the idea of maintaining a music library a little quaint. Apple TV users can get the shows they want directly on their TVs without needing to touch iTunes.

iTunes 11 and Remote 3.0 are brave and beautiful. I love the new interfaces. But it’s evolve or die, and in that respect, iTunes is a little behind the curve. I commend Apple for emphasizing user privacy. When you install the new version, you can select whether to share information about your library with Apple. By sharing, iTunes will download cover art and make suggestions. It’s also now a simple, forthrightly labeled checkbox in the preferences.

Ultimately, Apple did the right thing and executed on the details as only they can. Change is good.

IBM shuts down the mighty Lotus

Daniel Stout2012-11-23T18:00:48+00:00
Lotus 1-2-3

Flickr photo: catzrule

The first spreadsheet program for personal computers, what we had in my home growing up, was a program called VisiCalc. It was popular and sold 700,000 copies. In 1983 though came a product that killed VisiCalc and cemented the IBM PC as the platform of choice, Lotus 1-2-3. Lotus Development Corp. got its name from the far east. It made the career of Mitch Kapor, its founder. Kapor went on to co-found the Electronic Frontier Foundation and many other things.

Eventually Excel stole 1-2-3’s thunder, and IBM purchased Lotus. Lotus is (or was) well-known in the enterprise environment for Lotus Notes. From Time magazine’s tech blog comes word that the Lotus brand is disappearing for good, 17 years after its purchase. So Lotus Notes is no more. Notes will continue as a product, but no longer under the Lotus name. Harry McCracken notes that IBM still sells 1-2-3 even thought the product hasn’t been updated in a dozen years.

Freedom from the internet

Daniel Stout2012-11-17T18:00:15+00:00

FreedomOne of the side effects of always-on internet connections is the constant distraction of Twitter, Facebook and email. As more research reveals the lie of multitasking, concentration is key. Being able to focus on the task at hand is important. There are ways to disable network connections, but it’s as easy to shut them off as it is on.

Freedom is a small bit of software that fills this gap. It disables your network connection for a period of time that you determine, up to 8 hours. The only way to turn it back on before the period is over is to reboot. Freedom has over 300,000 users. It’s not free, but it’s easy and does what it promises. Freedom is available for either Mac or Windows.

Eighty Percent Solutions has produced a winner. Freedom is especially popular with writers who don’t need network access to get their work done. There isn’t a perfect answer to our modern distractions, but Freedom can make a little space in your day to get the job done.

Automating time management with RescueTime

Daniel Stout2012-10-16T18:00:46+00:00

RescueTimeI’ve tested out RescueTime recently, which bills itself as time management and productivity tracking software. You setup an account on their website and download the client software. It stays in memory as you work on your computer. It uses a simple premise for time tracking. That is, it tracks what application is currently active. Since one window is in focus at a time, RescueTime tracks the time spent in that application. If you’re not active on your computer, it stops tracking.

Looking back over the past several weeks of reports, RescueTime does a nice job of categorizing activities based on their impact on productivity. Working in an editor is very productive, but checking social networks is “very distracting.” Email is somewhere in the middle. You can configure RescueTime’s judgments based on your activities, but the out-of-the-box experience is good. It also tells you how long you’ve been working and a base percentage of overall productivity.

I found it useful at work, and I setup a separate account for my personal computer to get a basic idea of what I’m spending the most time with. It even tracks the websites you’re visiting, or if that gives you personal privacy willies, you can use a whitelist of sites to track. RescueTime doesn’t appear to support multiple profiles for a single account, which is why I created separate accounts for work and personal. The basic service is free, and there is a paid option that offers more detailed reports and tracking.

The really nice thing about RescueTime is that it works behind the scenes so you aren’t aware of it running at all. You can dip in at the end of the day to views the charts and graphs, and it’ll email you the reports if you want a weekly summary. There are many time management solutions out there, but RescueTime does a nice job. I’ve found the free plan ample for my needs because I’m looking more for the big numbers rather than a lot of minutia.

I looked around to see what other people were saying about RescueTime and came across this post by Jane Wells who works for Automattic, the company that makes WordPress. She has a criticism of RescueTime. She says she works 80-120 hours a week, and says that sometimes she puts Pandora in the foreground and does nearby non-computer tasks. So her productivity numbers aren’t as high as she’d like because Pandora is dragging her down. This seems like an edge case and definitely not representative. Because RescueTime works without intervention, there is some limitation to what it can know about your activities. And if you’re idle on the computer, it won’t track that time. So even an active window wouldn’t track if you stop interacting with it.

For me, I’m still keeping a manual log of activities. It puts my verbiage on what I’ve done each day, and for the projects I need time tracking, I’m still doing that manually. So what has RescueTime given me? It’s tells me in specific terms how much time I’m spending on email, working on specific websites, and a rough gauge of how productive I am. With no additional effort, it brings a whole new dimension to personal analytics. Sure, there’s Google Analytics to track engagement on websites, but how engaged are we in the work we do? RescueTime has an answer for that.

Open source scholarship from Red Hat helps those who contribute

Daniel Stout2011-11-10T20:53:58+00:00

Red Hat, Inc.The Fedora Project is the community-based Linux distribution shepherded by Red Hat. A new version of Fedora was released on Tuesday, which features the first updates to GNOME 3, the relatively new version of the classic desktop environment. Staffers at Red Hat manage some aspects of Fedora, but a lot of volunteers go into making the Fedora community what it is. The first billion-dollar company in the open source world, Red Hat established the Fedora Scholarship that contributes $8,000 to the college expenses of one lucky high school senior. The scholarship also includes travel money for attending the Fedora users and developers convention, or FUDCon for short.

But luck is not the biggest part of it. Rather the scholarship aims to reward up and coming contributors to open source software and specifically the Fedora Project. Applications are open through February 24 for the 2012 scholarship award. Inspiration is free.

Password managers: cross-platform and browser integration

Daniel Stout2011-05-05T22:29:42+00:00

LastPassWhitson Gordon of Lifehacker has an article today talking about alternatives to the online password manager LastPass. LastPass noticed a traffic anomaly on their network that they couldn’t explain, and they decided to be proactive. Just in case people’s passwords got stolen, some users were required to change their master password. It sounds like LastPass did the right thing. With recent articles detailing security questions about DropBox and cloud computing in general, people are a little bit jumpy about personal data stored online. LastPass uses end-to-end encryption though so your passwords are encrypted with a master password that you specify before they are sent to the LastPass servers.

The first alternative password manager that’s mentioned in the Lifehacker article is KeePass. I’ve been using KeePass for two years, and it works well. It’s a free and open source application, but it’s written in C# and .NET. It’s been ported to various platforms including mobile devices. I use it on Windows and also on Linux running with Mono, which is an open source implementation of Microsoft’s .NET technology.

KeePass has a somewhat technical interface, and the casual user may prefer a more polished option like 1Password. 1Password costs about $40 and used to only run on Apple products but now has Windows and Android versions, although it looks like Linux is not an option.

KeePass’ days as a cross-platform Wunderkind may be numbered. Mono, which is necessary to run KeePass on Linux, is a project of Novell, Inc., who also produce the SUSE Enterprise Linux distribution. Novell was recently sold, and as this post on ZDNet indicates, Mono is being shut down. All 30 developers working on Mono appear to be without a job at this point, which pretty clearly indicates that Mono is dead in the water. Microsoft doesn’t produce non-Windows versions of .NET or C#. If you’re using Mono to run KeePass or other .NET applications on Linux, then it may be time to assess your options.

Which brings us back to LastPass. LastPass is built seemingly with a similar philosophy as DropBox. They keep it simple and make it run everywhere. LastPass also has much better web browser integration than KeePass, which is an attractive feature. LastPass is free to use, but they also offer a premium version for $12/year. They have versions for basically any computer or mobile device you’d care to run it on. At the moment, their servers are getting hit with heavy traffic because of people changing their passwords. But if you’re looking for an easy, secure way to keep passwords synced across your computers and devices, then check out LastPass.

Balancing usability and security with your passwords

Daniel Stout2011-05-05T06:26:58+00:00

Thomas BaekdalIn 2007, Thomas Baekdal, a Dane, wrote a simple article on his website entitled The Usability of Passwords. It inspired a lot of debate. His main thesis was that complex passwords are difficult to remember and may reduce actual security if you have to write it down or have some other means of remembering it. He suggests using three or more unusual words separated by special characters as a more secure password strategy. According to his analysis, multiple words used in conjunction with spaces or other special characters can be more secure than a shorter, more complex password.

Baekdal suggests that the approach of most IT departments is incorrect in this fashion. That is, passwords are typically checked strictly for complexity. Most password checkers that measure the strength of a given password simply use a method that matches upper and lower-case letters, numbers, symbols and so on. The more variety, the higher the security rating. But using a long password with multiple words that are easily remembered may be more effective.

Given the mix of opinions and questions regarding his idea, Baekdal followed up his original article with a useful explication of Frequently Asked Questions. This page gets more into the heart of the use and practice of online passwords. One point he makes several times is that the end user can only keep their password secure enough that someone can’t hack them through the website. But if someone hacks the web or database server that stores the password then the user’s security may be worthless. Therefore, from the server perspective, it is up to the server admin to devise a secure method of storing the passwords of a website’s users. If your password is stored on the server in plain text, then a hacked server will result in a hacked password. The user then is just responsible for devising a password strong enough to prevent someone from hacking it via the website and has no control over how a given website will store their password on the server.

In a follow-up article published last month, Baekdal makes further distinctions between the hacking of online and offline passwords. He also introduces the notion that when a server is hacked, the people who have to worry the most are the ones who use the same password for every site they visit. If you use a different password for your most commonly visited sites, then the collateral damage, to use Baekdal’s term, is limited. He uses the example of the Gawker Media break-in. People who had a unique password for Gawker’s websites could have a comment posted, say, on in their name, but that’s about the extent of it. But the hacked passwords were posted online along with email addresses, and those users who had used the same password on multiple sites had a much bigger headache to deal with.

Overall, these three pieces by Mr. Baekdal make for an interesting read if you’re interested in maintaining secure systems. He challenges conventional wisdom about what makes a good password and defends his idea well.

Fedora 15 with GNOME 3 due out soon

Daniel Stout2011-04-29T23:25:05+00:00

FedoraFedora, a community distribution of GNU/Linux shepherded by Red Hat, will be releasing a new version in a couple of weeks. Fedora has always been cutting edge, and it will be the first big Linux distribution with the newly-released desktop environment GNOME 3.

As I’ve written previously, GNOME 3 is a huge update and break with the past. GNOME 2 was first released in 2002, and now it’s time to jump into the future. Notably, Ubuntu has just released their new 11.04 version without GNOME 3 and have opted to develop their own desktop environment called Unity.

Scott Gilbertson at The Register wrote in an article entitled Sanity saver: Fedora 15 answers Ubuntu’s Unity that:

The planned new Unity interface for Ubuntu 11.04, that replaces GNOME, is [a] rough start. And while GNOME 3 – Fedora’s new default desktop – is considerably more mature than Unity, it’s still a radical break with the past that’s already bringing out the dissenters.


Although GNOME 3 will be a jarring shock for those accustomed to working with the GNOME 2.x line, once you spend some time with it, you just might discover it’s actually – gasp – better than GNOME 2.

Fedora 15 is currently in beta, and the final release will come out mid-May. GNOME 3 sounds intriguing. If you want to hold off on GNOME 3, you could always stick with Fedora 14 for six more months. It’s fairly easy to install LibreOffice and Firefox 4 on Fedora 14, if you want to replace OpenOffice and Firefox 3.6.

Until the release of Fedora 15 though, we won’t know if the naysayers are right or whether GNOME 3 represents a huge leap forward. Desktop environments like websites tend to catch a certain amount of flak whenever there is a redesign. It’s to be expected. The Linux desktop is changing in significant ways this year. Change is hard, but progress is welcome.