Wednesday, May 5, 2010

A Very Useful GMail Feature

GMail has a really useful feature that I suspect most people don't know about. If you add a plus sign ("+") to your actual GMail username, then whatever follows it is ignored, up to (but not including) the "@" symbol. So, for example, emails to, and will all go the GMail user xyz.

How is this useful?

Has it ever happened that after you've signed up for a few new sites you suddenly notice an increase in the (largely) unsolicited and unwanted emails you get (though you may be wary of classifying these emails as spam)? Sometimes it is hard to make out which site actually sent out the email that you're now having to clean out of your Inbox. This feature helps you know which site sent the email.

For example, if you sign up for site with the email address, and for site with the email address, then you can instantly make out (by looking at the "To:" or "Cc:" field) which site sent the unwelcome email. Furthermore, you can use this differentiation in the "To:" (or "Cc:") field to create very specific filters.

Sadly, this system is not perfect. There are two situations that I know of where this can fail:
  1. If the site you are signing up for doesn't allow a "+" symbol in the email address. Though legal, some sites don't allow such email addresses (I've faced this personally).
  2. If the site sending the email doesn't put your email address in the "To:" (or "Cc:") field, but puts it in the "Bcc:" field, then this nice feature fails too. However, this doesn't seem to happen too often.

If you can think of (or know of) any other situations where this feature may fail, please let us all know via a comment.

Despite its lack of perfection (for reasons beyond GMail's control), I find this feature very useful—I hope you'll find it useful too!

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Saturday, April 24, 2010

Why Is Facebook So Hard to Use?

I am not a big fan of Facebook. True, it puts me in touch with many friends, but the application itself is so awful! It is always so hard to find anything and everything. Many times I've simply wanted to go to the a friend's page. My options have been:
  • Remember the friend's Facebook page's URL
  • Search for the friend (even though he/she is already in my friends list!)
  • Hope to strike it lucky in the "News Feed": maybe she/he has an update visible and I can just click on their name (woo hoo!)
Nothing about Facebook is simple or immediately obvious. There is the "Home" page and the "Profile" page. Even the News Feed isn't simple: there's Top News and Recent News. OMG! Why all the clutter?

Today I decided that enough was enough and set out to do some research. On the "Profile" page there's a small section on the left that lists one's friends. This section has a little bit of text that reads something like "xx friends" (where xx is the number of friends you have). Hovering my mouse over this link showed "" in the status bar of my browser. Eliminating the "id=XXX..." part, I tried the link and it worked! This link shows me a simple list of my friends.

This simple list of friends was all I wanted.

The simpler link (i.e., without the "?view=everyone" part) will once again only show you a million ways to find new friends, but no list of existing friends. So Facebook apparently thinks that the default action for a URL like should be to help find new friends—that's idiotic!

What is the reason for keeping this list so well-hidden? Should I only ever be trying to find new friends and not be able to find the friends I already have? On the "Home" page too if I click on "Friends" (on the left hand side), instead of listing my friends (as the name of the link would seem to imply), once again Facebook shows me a gazillion ways to find new friends. Stupid!

Almost every time I use Facebook, I end up getting frustrated.

As far as I am concerned, Facebook's current UI is very badly designed (from a usability perspective) and their priorities are all wrong—I am much more likely to want to interact with an existing friend than to go looking for new friends.

If not for the fact that all my friends are on Facebook (and expect to find me there), I would have long since ditched Facebook.

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Friday, April 23, 2010

Suddenly, Everyone Wants to Read on an LCD Screen

It must have been about 12 years ago (either late 1998 or early 1999) that I found out about Project Gutenberg. This wonderful idea is a place "where you can download over 30,000 free ebooks to read" on various electronic devices (at the time this primarily meant desktops and laptops). You see, when a book's copyright expires, it enters the Public Domain. As a perpetually cash-strapped student, having free and legal access to so many books was a Godsend. I was so enthusiastic about this wondrous world that gave me quick and convenient access to all these great works that I couldn't wait to tell everybody I met about it—I wanted to share and spread the joy!

However, the response I got was almost universally cold: "Who wants to read on a computer monitor? I'd much rather pay for the paper edition." In the intervening years, as CRT monitors were replaced by LCD monitors (much better suited to reading text), the response surprisingly (from my perspective) didn't change.

Then I heard about electronic paper (e-paper) readers (commonly called e-readers) and was excited: here finally was a technology that could/would get people to read books on electronic devices. When I actually saw my first e-reader (a first-generation Sony device) I couldn't believe my eyes: it was almost as good as reading on paper (at least as good as newsprint). I was thrilled, to say the least. A greater number of people started accepting the idea of reading lots of text on the screen of an electronic device (especially with the launch of the first-generation Kindle) because it offered as good contrast and as little eye-strain as reading printed paper.

Then Apple launched the iPad and among other things, it's being hailed as a Kindle-killer. Wait, what? Suddenly people are enthusiastic about reading books on an LCD screen???? The biggest strength of the e-readers was that they weren't LCD screens: they were optimally suited to reading lots of text. Now, suddenly, everybody is ok reading on an LCD screen...

I can come up with only one explanation that seems to make any sense: Steve Jobs' Reality Distortion Field...

It is easy to see that the iPad's colour LCD screen is far superior to e-readers' grayscale e-ink screens for animations, videos and comics, but reading books? Come on! If this weren't an Apple product, would people still be going as ga-ga over it with regards to reading books?

In my mind the answer is a clear NO.

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Saturday, April 17, 2010

Installing Microsoft Security Essentials

Here's how you can install Microsoft Security Essentials (MSE) and enjoy the benefits of Microsoft's free (and good) antivirus solution. Keep in mind that MSE will only install and auto-update on machines with a genuine copy of Windows. The following instructions are specific to Windows Vista, but should work similarly in Windows 7, with some small differences for Windows XP.
  1. Determine whether you have a 32-bit or 64-bit version of Windows installed.
    1. Click on the Start button.
    2. Right-click on "Computer".
    3. Click on "Properties".
    4. In the resulting window, under the "System" heading, look for "System type".
      1. This will be either "64-bit Operating System" or "32-bit Operating System".
      2. This will tell you whether you have 32- or 64-bit Windows installed.
    5. Alternatively, open a command prompt window.
      1. While holding down the Window key on your keyboard (the key with the wavy window), press the "R" key.
      2. Type "cmd" (without the quotes) and hit "Enter".
      3. Type "echo %processor_architecture%" (without the quotes) and hit "Enter".
      4. If "X86" is printed out, you have 32-bit Windows installed; if "AMD64" prints out, you have 64-bit windows installed.
    6. Most people will have 32-bit Windows installed.
  2. Download MSE from
    1. Remember the download location: you will need to run this file later.
    2. Usual download locations are either C:\Users\<your-username>\Downloads (if you don't want to share the file with other users on your computer) or C:\Users\Public\Downloads
  3. Download the latest virus definition files (large: ~47MB): (if you have 32-bit Windows) or (if you have 64-bit Windows).
    1. Remember this download location too: you'll need it later.
    2. Disconnect from the Internet.
  4. Uninstall your existing antivirus
    1. Generally speaking, any installed antivirus program will keep any other antivirus program from being installed.
    2. Open "Programs and Features" (Start >> type "programs" in the search box >> click on "Programs and Features" from the resulting list).
    3. Right-click on the antivirus program you want to uninstall and choose "Uninstall".
  5. Install MSE by clicking on the installation file downloaded earlier.
  6. Once the above step is complete, run the downloaded virus definition file.
  7. Open MSE (look for a little house-like icon with a flag on top of it in the system tray and double-click it).
  8. On the right hand side, under "Scan options:", choose "Full"
  9. Click on "Scan now"
    1. MSE's virus scan will take a while to complete (depending on how much data you have stored).
You're done! From now on MSE should be able to auto-update its virus definition files either through Windows Update or by itself. You can re-connect to the Internet once MSE and subsequent virus definition installations are over.

If you notice any errors or discrepancies above or you want to suggest any corrections, please leave a comment.

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Monday, April 5, 2010

I've Had It With TweetDeck

If you don't use Twitter or don't know what TweetDeck is, you are probably not interested in this post... still, just to give you some idea, TweetDeck is one of the most popular Twitter clients. The reason I am giving up on TweetDeck is that it has just too many problems!

The most frequent and infuriating one is that TweetDeck will intermittently fail to update its content. This happens so often every day that one is more likely to see a failure message on the bottom right corner than not. What's the point of a Twitter client that can't show you the latest tweets?

Unlike HootSuite, TweetDeck does not have a column to show you your own tweets. This means if you want to take a look at what you've tweeted, you either see it on Twitter's own website at<your-twitter-account-name>, or you create a search column in TweetDeck ("from:<your-twitter-account-name>"), neither of which speaks very well of TweetDeck.

The only advantage I can see with TweetDeck—amongst the Twitter clients that I have used, and given my usage pattern—is that it auto-shortens long links inline using my account (TwitterBar does that just as well). While convenient, it is no longer enough of a reason to continue using TweetDeck—its all-too-frequent failures are too irritating to put up with anymore.

So that's it—I am uninstalling TweetDeck for good as soon as I am finished editing this post...

If you have any suggestions for an alternative Twitter client, let me know in the comments.

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Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Benefits of a Computer Science Education

The stereotypical geek/nerd/what-have-you (I paint with a very broad brushstroke here) is supposed to be helpless outside of his/her area of expertise. Well, today I am happy to present a counter-point and show you how problem-solving ideas in one area can be applied to another.

This evening as we came home the electricity was out (nothing unusual there). What was unusual was that the lights weren't working at all and the inverter—which is supposed to keep the lights burning even when the electricity is out—was emitting a continuous, piercing beep (more like a screech). What The Heck (You Know What I Mean (YKWIM))?!

An investigation followed. Switched off the mains supply? Check. Took out the mains connection from the back of the inverter? Check. Cartridge fuse ok? Well, it looked ok (i.e., the wire seemed intact, with no signs of blackening (i.e., burning) on the cartridge). I had to disconnect the battery from the inverter to stop the bloody racket (at this point I would have welcomed a frank exchange of views with the person who put in that racket-maker).

Now what? Hmm... after a brief telephonic conversation I took the fuse to a family friends' house, who confirmed with his multi-meter that the fuse was ok. Once again, now what? By this point I had exhausted my limited knowledge of things electrical (hey! I haven't studied that area of science since high school!) An idea came to me: I went back home, reconnected the battery, put in the fuse and hit the power button on the inverter... and then there was light!

It is at this point that the pedants in the audience may be thinking: "What the heck (YKWIM) has this got to do with a comp. sci. education?" Well, not everybody would have tried the old reboot-and-it-may-work troubleshooting methodology—years of troubleshooting my own and other people's computers have taught me to fall back on the The Old Faithful when stumped.

"Big whup!", says the pedant, "Anybody who's used a computer (especially of the Windows persuasion) for a couple of years could have done that." Yeah, yeah, ok, whatever! I am nonetheless going to credit my comp. sci. education with this one, unless you want to meet me outside and debate this point in a frank manner, Mr. P.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Wordsmithing, Part Deux

[Wordsmithing, Part One]

The other day it struck me that maybe "big" is no longer enough of a euphemism for "fat". I mean, when you call someone "big", they know very well what you mean. Plus sometimes a person is just big, not fat. This called for some original thinking...

Gravitationally challenged: Somebody who's more than averagely challenged by the Earth's gravity (formerly called "big" (and before that it was called "fat")).

No longer will anybody have to suffer humiliation because of their... ummm... gravitational challenges.