Thursday 29 January 2009

Digital Downsizing

Maybe space really is the final frontier!

Uploaded to Flickr by Prashant Wosti
It's a liberating experience to sort all your worldly possessions out ready to emigrate. I can now say that I've looked at every single thing I've accumulated over my life (and believe me that's a lot!) and decided whether to bin it, box it up to store, or take it with me to Canada (in the suitcase or by shipping it). A lot of it has been about trying to downsize, trying to get rid of things, sell them or give them away. Strangely, the value of our possessions has changed for us now - it's much more about size, than cost. If something is big or bulky, it's far more likely we'll get rid of it - because storage space is limited and the amount we can take is limited. So anything that's small can be kept more easily. And if there's any way to make things smaller, we'll jump at the chance.

So what's the smallest thing of all? Data. I can fit 8 Gig of data on a USB key on my keyring... and I can buy one terabyte of storage, taking up less space than a paperback book, for under £100.

Naturally, this is something we have taken advantage of. We (and full credit goes to my wife, for she has spent many many hours, no, days on this!) have now digitized our entire collection of Audio CDs, DVDs, and computer CDs & DVDs onto 3 terabyte hard drives. The space saving is simply amazing. What once took up probably 8 floor to ceiling CD racks, now fits in a ladies' handbag!

Tech note: In case you are interested how we did this, we used DVD Decrypter to decrypt bought DVDs, and others can be just copied as VOB files. For the audio CDs we used Exact Audio Copy to store them as lossless FLAC files.

And it's not just audio & video files you can do this to. Last night I spent a couple of hours using the rather fancy auto-sheet-feeding-and-turning multi-size-recognizing photocopier my office has to turn a huge crate of documents and paper I could barely lift, into a little over 300Mb of PDF files... which I can fit on my USB key in my pocket! It was great, I just dropped a document on, and it scanned the whole thing and e-mailed it to me. And then I can throw away the originals.

This got me thinking about the direction things are going. I know that it's well known that technology is miniaturizing but what hadn't really hit me until now is that "stuff" is miniaturizing too.. Space doesn't mean the same thing as it used to. If you'd told someone from 20 years ago that I could somehow convert my collections of documents, music recordings and films such that they'd fit in such a tiny amount of space, I think they'd have struggled to comprehend such a possibility.

It's even more strange to think that not only can I do that compression, but I can also "expand" this into physical things again once I arrive in Canada - I could print out my documents, or create original quality DVDs or CDs from the ripped VOB & FLAC files (I probably won't, but that's not the point!). It's like a physical version of zipping and unzipping.

The mind boggles about where this trend might take us... Maybe 3D printers that exist today might evolve towards something more like the replicator technology in Star Trek - physical objects (inanimate ones only I would assume) being converted into streams of data taking neglible physical space (especially with the advent of cloud computing) and then recreated later into the physical world.

Almost any information now, be it sound, picture, video or written, can be converted to a stream of 1's and 0's. When you think of it like that it's no wonder that copyright is such a hot topic these days. How can anybody own what is essentially a big long number? In theory if I could find the right numbers I could generate masterpieces that have never been painted, or ground-breaking novels that have never been written!

Uploaded to Flickr by Rob Sheridan

I for one, am excited to see where this trend goes. I'll leave you with this amusing image I came across on Flickr - where an office retailer has started to notice the trend of wanting to digitise things, but somewhat missed the point!


Friday 16 January 2009

Take a bigger bite out of your Apple

How to get the most out of OS X

Recently I stumbled upon an article about Google's latest desktop search interface, the Google Quick Search Box for Mac. This looks like an interesting new tool that could be of some use - and it's quite refreshing after Chrome's PC-only launch to see Google launch something only for the Mac. I was more intrigued to read though, that it's made by the creator of the OS X quick launching application, Quicksilver. Quicksilver is something I'd read a little about before, and I soon started digging via some links on the page to find out more. Quicksilver is one of a growing set of applications that are designed to make your life easier, but are completely new types of application - and therefore very hard to get your head around. If you tell me you've got a great new spreadsheet or diary application, I can easily picture what that is, but if you say you've got a launcher, the thought that occurs is "What the heck is that? Why would I want one?". Quicksilver had definitely caught my interest but I'd never quite got my head round it. Which brings me to the main point of this post:

I would like to highly recommend The Apple Blog if you've ever been interested to get more out of your Apple Mac. Myself, ever since I moved from Windows to Mac 2 years ago, I've thought that OS X offers far more effective ways of getting things done than Windows; unfortunately though, 15 years of using Windows has drummed the Windows way of thinking so heavily in to me that I find it hard to know how to do things "the Mac way". I have had the nagging sense that I'm just using it like Windows and missing out on quite a lot. If you've ever had these kind of thoughts, or are just interested in moving from "beginner" to "power user" then I think you will find this site to be a veritable gold mine.

Let's begin with Quicksilver. The Apple Blog make a variety of screencasts, and thanks to their excellent Quicksilver for Beginners screencast, I completely understand what Quicksilver is, and how it could save me a vast amount of time, doing things in a few keypresses instead of squirreling through multiple hierarchies of folders to find what I want. If a picture speaks a thousand words, then a video must speak a million! And if that wasn't enough, they also have further guides and tutorials on Quicksilver, and many many posts on advanced features too.

But it's not all about Quicksilver. You can learn a lot about the features that you already have in OS X from reading The Apple Blog. Did you know that Spotlight can be used as a calculator or a dictionary? Did you know that you can hit spacebar on any item to preview it? Did you know that this feature (Quick Look) has other useful abilities too? Like previewing all the images in a folder, or activating a slideshow?
Or maybe you want to learn a bit more about the command line and how it can help you achieve things more quickly - e.g. by using "textutil" to convert files between different formats, such as to prepare an e-book for your e-book reader. Perhaps you've reached the point where you want to install some other pieces of software that can give you more than the ones that Apple ship. In that case, you might be interested to know that there are at least 16 different browsers available for the Mac, or you might like to look at this list of 5 recommended background apps for your MacBook.

Perhaps you're a parent. Do you know how to take advantage of Parental Control settings in OS X? Would you be interested in an application to help you improve your vocabulary?

If you've been experimenting with virtual machines or running Windows alongside OS X on your Mac, you may be interested in the latest update to Parallels which can run Windows 7 on the Mac

If you're a blogger, and you liked the screencasts on the Apple Blog, you might like this tutorial on how to create your own screencast.

Maybe you've recently jumped on the iPhone bandwagon and are mourning the loss of the ability to send picture messages, you may find this article useful. GTD (Getting Things Done) enthusiasts with iPhones might also like to take a look at Daylite, a GTD app for the iPhone. There's also a Top 5 iPhone apps of 2008

Another topic that the Apple Blog dedicates a lot of time to is the idea of metadata, or tagging, as it is more commonly known. OS X allows users to add tags to every file, and with the help of a couple of applications you can download, you can start using tags instead of folders to organise your files, something I've been wanting to do for a long time. If you'd like to be able to quickly find your files based on what they relate to without having to know what folder there in, you may well find something of value in the Apple Blog's metadata series [1,2,3,4,5,6] or this screencast about using TagBot to tag your files.

The Apple Blog has over 40 contributors and so it also has a great selection of opinion pieces such as a comparison of Apple & Microsoft sales models or speculation about the future of the MacWorld Expo shows. They also have regular news round-ups so you can keep up with what's happening with all things Mac.

All in all, The Apple Blog is a site I'll definitely be adding to my RSS reader and going back to time and again. I hope if you're a Mac or iPhone user that you find it as interesting and useful as I do.

Comment: In case anyone should think otherwise, I have not been paid or rewarded for this post and I am not connected with the Apple Blog - I found the site genuinely useful and wanted to do more than just say "this is great, take a look" but rather to give some specific examples of the interesting things you can find there. Enjoy!


2009: À Montréal!

New Year, New Start!

Well I haven't written a "what I've been up to" post since India really so given I'm about to have a major life change I thought I should get into gear and post something! I had a very enjoyable and eventful time over Christmas and New Year. We spent time before Christmas with my family in Northumberland. We did a lovely walk just a couple of days before Christmas by Dunstanburgh Castle in warm sunshine! On Christmas eve we headed down to Kent to spend Christmas with Mrs Alex's family (or Dr Alex as I should say now!) in Kent. Christmas was great, lots of wonderful food as well as my first visit from Santa in about 16 years - I must have been a good boy - and a surprisingly enjoyable trip to the panto in Canterbury. For New Year we rented a couple of lovely cottages at Pekes Manor in Sussex with a big group of friends and enjoyed relaxing and not doing very much. Then I went up to London for a couple of days to visit my good friend and talented actor Ben, we attended a Creative Visualization workshop by John Osborne Hughes together, which was very enlightening, the perfect way to set some New Year's Resolutions and make them more tangible.

Returning home on the 4th of January we really hit the ground running. Mrs Alex had completed her PhD viva successfully before Christmas, and our work permits for Canada were waiting for us when we got back. Mrs Alex has landed a post-doctoral research job in Montréal, so we are emigrating to live out there for the next three years! It wasn't until the work permits arrived that we knew it was definite, so then it was all systems go! Within a few days we'd given notice on our rented house and my job at IBM UK (That seems very strange to say that after 6 and a half years there!), as well as booked a flight and some initial accommodation in Montréal. So January has turned out to be an incredibly busy time!

It's amazing just how much needs sorting out when you're leaving the country. Storage for a house full of furniture is extremely expensive (about £5000 over 3 years) so we have opted to sell everything that isn't sentimental, and fortunately my parents have said we can store the remainder in their attic (they have a big house). Even so, there's a lot of downsizing to be done, so we have been taking stuff to charity shops, selling things at car boot sales (making a surprising profit of £200!), selling things on ebay, ripping our DVDs and CDs onto some nice new 1 Terabyte hard drives, not to mention sorting through a lifetime worth of accumulated boxes of what can only be termed "stuff"! It's a marathon effort which we are only part-way through, but we're getting there and all is on track to fly out on February 9th!

So, what am I going to do, you may ask? Well I've decided this is the ideal opportunity to branch out from big-company IT and spread my wings into some new areas, broadening my life experience in the process. I'm not quite sure what I'll be doing yet, but it's likely to involve writing, innovating, and working with people in some way - maybe I might find ways to weave in my interests in the usability/human side of computing, or helping people with productivity as well... Truth is it's a very exciting time for me, to not know exactly what I'll be doing. Some people would say I'm crazy to leave a stable job in a multi-national with the economy the way it is - but I'm just reminded of the line from the Baz Luhrmann song:

"Don’t feel guilty if you don’t know what you want to do with your life…the most interesting people I know didn’t know at 22 what they wanted to do with their lives, some of the most interesting 40 year
olds I know still don’t."

Time for a little adventure in my life, I feel!

I'm quite sure that I will find Canada completely different from the UK - Montréal in particular is very French so I imagine the culture will be some sort of mix of French, English and American influences.. It sounds like a great city, and I can't wait to find out what it's like! Very cold as well, I'm told, but less rain than in Britain so maybe that's a reasonable trade-off!

Anyway I will certainly keep blogging about my experiences of Canada while I'm out there - it will be very interesting to compare it to life in Britain - so come back to this blog and read more every now and then - just check for posts tagged Canada

. In the mean time, Happy New Year to all of you - and watch this space for news of our adventures in Canada!