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Friday, December 15, 2006

Opera Searching Shortcuts

People often ask me why I insist on using Opera as my main web browser when everyone knows that Firefox is the absolute best browser ever and it's Open Source and it has over a thousand "useful" plug-ins and everything else you might ever want.

There's a number of reasons. First, I've been using Opera forever, since version 3.x (contemporary with MSIE 4 and Netscape Communicator), so I'm used to it. I would only switch if there was a compelling reason to do so, and for my needs there's none.

Second, Opera has an amazing feature set. When you download Opera, you get, out of the metaphorical box :

  • A web browser (duh !)

  • RSS agregator

  • Mail client

  • Usenet client

  • BitTorrent client

  • IRC client

  • Widgets (√†-la Konfabulator)

  • Probably quite a bit more that escapes me right now



I don't claim to use all of these functionalities, but I do use most of them. I do admire the fact that all these functions don't clutter the user interface. Opera looks and feels like a small program that simply does what it does very well. It just happens that when you look a bit deeper, it really does quite a lot. (Oh, and the downloaded file is 30% smaller than Firefox's. With today's hard drive sizes this doesn't matter much, but I like it.)

Last but certainly not least, Opera has the best interaction design of any web browser I've ever seen. (Safari is nearly as good, and has a softer learning curve, but overall it's not as powerful.) Its combination of user interface, keyboard shortcuts, and mouse gestures, make it the most productive web browser I've ever used. (Inasmuch as "productivity" can be relevant to the quintessential procrastination that is web browsing.)

One Opera trick that I really like is something called "Search Shortcuts". Although Opera has a Search field in its address bar, you don't really need it. Simply type "g foobar" in the normal address field, hit return, and you'll search Google for "foobar". There's a number of shortcuts for different search engines built-in, and you can easily add your own in Preferences. Just enter the name of the search engine, the query string to use (with %s where you want the phrase to search for) and a shortcut key, and you're all set.

For other Opera users (both of you) here's a few shortcuts I use :

  • Google's Feeling Lucky :
    http://www.google.com/search?hl=en&q=%s&btnI=I'm+Feeling+Lucky
    This is just like going to Google and hitting "I'm Feeling Lucky". I really like this for song lyrics or guitar chords. Query strings like l tunstall black horse lyrics always give the song's lyrics as the first result.

  • Wikipedia :
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/%s
    (Technically this is not a "search", but it's still useful : "wp Ruby_On_Rails" gives me the wikipedia page for RoR)

  • Youtube :
    http://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=%s&search=Search

  • Flicker :
    http://www.flickr.com/search/?q=%s

  • Amazon.fr :
    http://www.amazon.fr/exec/obidos/external-search?tag=opera-20&index=blended&keyword=%s

  • Amazon.co.uk :
    http://www.amazon.co.uk/exec/obidos/external-search?tag=opera-20&index=blended&keyword=%s

  • B&H :
    http://www.bhphotovideo.com/bnh/controller/home?ci=1&sb=ps&pn=1&sq=desc&InitialSearch=yes&O=RootPage.jsp&A=search&Q=*&bhs=t&shs=%s&image.x=0&image.y=0

  • Microsoft Live Search :
    http://search.live.com/results.aspx?q=%s&mkt=en-us



I'm sure there's some kind of plug-in to do the exact same thing in Firefox. But this is one more thing I like about Opera : it's great out of the box. There's no need to check-out a thousand plug-ins of varying quality and user interfaces, because what's really needed is there from the start.

And with all the time you save not installing plug-ins, you too can start your own blog ;-)

Photosynth

Microsoft Research Labs has a windows-only demo of PhotoSynth, a new 3D photo visualization... thingy. I'm not convinced it can ever be of much use to anyone, but it definitely looks cool :)

Thursday, December 7, 2006

To France

I'll be spending the next few days in the south of France, doing much the same thing I'm doing here but in a place where the wind is warmer and breakfasts are tastier. I'll be traveling by train, partly because it's cheaper and faster than a car and more peaceful than a plane, but mostly because I like it. (The fact that I lack both a car and a driver's license made the decision that much easier.)

As I've learnt over the years, traveling always brings about its fair share of annoyances :

  • Filling up your suitcase is going to take three times longer than you estimated and five times longer than it should.

  • You better pack your luggage so that you can comfortably carry it along three miles of dirt tracks under pouring rain, because you'll probably have to.

  • No matter how early you get to the station, at some point you'll have to run in order to be on the train in time.

  • Although the train/plane is in theory as fine a place as can be to read/relax/play/work, you won't be able to do so because of some small trifling detail that ruins everything (The actual cause is of course never the same. It may be a baby crying like those WW2 air-strike warning sirens, the old man next to you falling asleep with his head on your lap, anyone of the 120 people in the compartment snoring like an asthmatic elephant, an attractive girl sitting in front of you with a pleasing but extremely distracting neglig√©, or, my own personal nemesis, 75 boy scouts who enter the train twelve minutes after you've chosen your place and spend the next four hours singing heart warming anthems to keep them in high spirits and the rest of the world miserable.)



Except for the last one, which deals with how human beings are by and large extremely irritating creatures, a fact about which the traveller can't do much, all of these can be made inconsequential by simply traveling as light as you possibly can.

This, however, is easier said than done. Especially when there's many things you plan to do on your trip (eg reading, blogging, taking photographs, general nerding, and coming up with a flexible GML schema for VPF data -- in no particular order) and each of them usually requires quite a bit of hardware. Since in about a month I'll be leaving for Switzerland with much of the same objectives in mind, I've tried to use these four days as a test for what I really needed to take with me on a trip like this.

Here's what I elected to take and why :

  • Apple PowerBook G4 12" : working, organizing, storing photos, watching SICP lectures, learning Ruby, and quite a lot of other fun and/or geeky activities.

  • About 300 pages of printed specs : light reading on the train journey, which is a bit longer than my PB's battery life.

  • 60GB iPod : data and photo backups, listening to Notes from a small Island, catching up on TWiT.

  • Sony DSC-T1 + charger : snapshots and visual note taking.

  • Canon EOS-1DMkII with EF16-35/2.8 : so-called "serious" photography.

  • Polarizing filter, 2GB CF card, 1GB SD card : see above.

  • Sleeping bag, clothes, cell-phone etc.



More to the point, here's what I left at home :

  • More books, specs, etc. : well, there's only so much you can comfortably carry on a train. Which in this case is perfectly fine because there's only so much you can read in four days. But had this been a longer trip, I'd have had to rely much more on ebooks, which I find tiresome to read on a computer screen. (I would really like to see an ebook reader with a screen that really looks like ink on paper.)

  • The EOS-1DMkII's charger. This thing is just huge and cumbersome and annoying and I guess the battery life will be good enough for me since I don't have the time to shoot all that much anyway.

  • More lenses for the 1D. My wide-angle zoom gives an EFL of 21-45, or quite-wide to nearly normal. Although this is the focal length range I use most of the time, it's still pretty limited. Oh well, at least I won't have to worry about changing lenses.

  • Tripod : I know I'm going to miss this. But my tripod is big and heavy so it's really difficult to justify on a trip where photography's not the main priority. A light carbon-fiber travel tripod would be really nice, but those aren't cheap.

  • Camera bag : I never use one unless I'm carrying more than two lenses.

  • Portable photo hard drive : I have the powerbook and iPod, and don't intend to travel far, so why bother ?



So here I am, on a train bound for the south of France, with all this stuff in two small bags, and a bunch of things to do. I'll get back to you in a few days to tell you how it all worked out.

Monday, December 4, 2006

Looking for the next Google

Ten years ago, searching was considered a solved problem, and leading search engines Lycos, Excite and Altavista differentiated more on user interface and features than on the qualities of their search results.

Then Larry Page and Sergey Brin came up with the proverbial better idea, founded Google, had an IPO and secured a rather nice place on the Billionaire's list. And search is, again, a solved problem.

Or is it ? It seems like many people are trying to cook up their own "better idea". Here are a few contestants :


  • Clusty automatically sorts your results in relevant clusters.

  • www.like.com search images according to shape and color. It's not very convincing right now but it's steadily improving.

  • Retrevo describes itself as "the ultimate in consumer electronics search". It does give more relevant results than Google on my favorite digicam and its two-column preview layout is kinda cool. (Although I'd much rather save the screen real estate and use Opera's open-in-background mouse gesture or Safari's Snapback.)



To me these look like three very promising ideas. Especially when Google is taking some flak for their localized search results and privacy policies.

Google itself is working hard to improve its' own product and appear quite relaxed about competition : “It’s very difficult to innovate on the scale that we do,” [Google's Louis Monier] said. “You need a really radical idea, and need to execute it well.”

Of course. But many people sure are trying.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Zune

It looks like the Microsoft iPod-killer won't be released in Europe for a year, by which time it will almost certainly be a different player altogether, so my interest in this is just pure curiosity and geekiness.

I really want the Zune to be successful. I own an iPod, you see, and I buy things from the iTunes Music Store from time to time. Right now, Apple has zero competition, which is why they can sell "near-DVD quality" downloadable movies without subtitles nor alternate languages nor any kind of bonus features for $14.99, which is a joke. But it is cheap enough that people who're too lazy to walk to an actual store or too impatient to wait for a DVD delivery will actually buy this stuff, so the only way the price is coming down is if somebody else comes up with a real alternative. (Amazon Unbox isn't it.)

Anyway, music is good for the soul, diversity is good for the market, and a compelling alternative to the iPod is A Good Thing. Is the Zune it ? A few hands-on reviews have come up recently :


  • Engadget : "Do we think there's potential for betterment of the platform and especially the player through software updates? Given enough time, absolutely. Would we recommend the product for purchase, like, right now? Not a chance."


  • i64x : "Where the iPod makes use of black text on a white background, the Zune lets you customize the background via a JPEG pic of your choice. The unit comes with several demo pics that are easily able to make great wallpapers, but the customization of the interface is what’s nice.[...] After using the Zune for a few hours I posted my iPod for sale online to cover most of the cost of the Zune and haven’t really looked back."


  • Paul Thurott's : "Overall, the Zune is absolutely decent [...] but you can buy a lighter, nicer-looking, and more capable iPod for exactly the same amount of money"


  • NYT's David Pogue : "The Zune 1.0 player is pretty barren, too. It doesn't have a single standard iPod amenity: no games, alarm clock, stopwatch, world clock, password-protected volume limiter, equalizer, calendar, address book or notes module. [...] Version 1.0 of Microsoft Anything is stripped-down and derivative [...] It may be quite a while before brown is the new white."


  • WSJ's Walt Mossberg : "With the wireless turned on, battery life on the Zune was worse -- just 10 hours and 12 minutes, even though I didn't send or receive any songs. [...] Overall, the iPod and iTunes are still the champs. Still, I expect the Zune to attract some converts and to get better with time."


  • Chicago Sun-Times' Andy Ihnatko : "Has it really come to this? Am I really about to manually create and install a .dll file? [...] The Zune will be dead and gone within six months. Good riddance." (Hyperlink mine.)



Doesn't sound too good. Just about everybody agrees that the big Zune feature, wireless sharing, is useless right now and unlikely to become great anytime soon. The other differentiating features are as follows :

  • Interface customization

  • Slightly bigger screen

  • Subscription model on the zune store

  • FM Radio out of the box


All of these are nice, but the Zune lacks :

  • Podcast subscription and syncing

  • Audible compatibility

  • Contacts and calendar syncing

  • Equalizer

  • Games

  • USB mass storage


As I spend more time listening to podcasts and audiobooks than to music, the absence of these features on the Zune kills it for me. Other people won't miss them, and they may care more about interface customization and screen size than I do. For them, the Zune might be a slightly better deal than the iPod.

But it was supposed to be The-iPod-Killer. You don't "kill" a product by being "about as good" for some segment of the market. You have to be much better for most of your customers. It's pretty obvious that the Zune doesn't achieve this. Heck, even Bill Gates agrees.

Oh well. We'll just have to wait for Zune 2.0.

Boing Boing on Amazon Unbox's Terms of Use

Wow. And I thought Apple's Fair Play was annoying...

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Reasons YouTube Sucks

Mr Angry is taking a shot at youtube. Despite its technical achievements as a video sharing website, it's community features are appaling -- which might explain why YouTube comments have some of the worst signal to noise ratio on the web.

Question of the day : will google fix YouTube before somebody else comes up with a better solution and customers flee from youtube in droves ?

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

TO-DO : buy more shelves

Reginald Braithwaite tells us about the seven books he'd buy if his shelves were bare.

I feel a bit stupid : there's three books I've never heard of and only one I've actually read. But if that one is any guide, I really need to get the other six...

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

First !

I'm not actually starting blogging. No. Really. I swear.

Blogs are the tool of the devil. Or possibly communism. Or something else. But they're definitely evil. They're doing more damage to geek productivity (which was pretty bad even in BBS times) than anything else currently on the internet, and that's saying a lot. (Youtube anyone ? or World of Warcraft ?) So I won't add to the infamy by posting mindless drivel about myself which nobody would ever read anyway except as an exercise in procrastination.

The reason I'm starting this has nothing to do with a need to "express myself creatively". I'm only trying to avoid alienating people I might one day want to borrow money from / ask for a job / sleep with.

Let me explain : I spend quite a lot of time surfing the web. And whenever I find something interesting, I tend to mail it to a few people, because I want them to share on the fun. Of course, besides being a huge waste of time, this has the major problem that what I find interesting might not always be so, especially when it's four in the morning where anything looks kinda interesting. So I end up having a lot of IM conversations that go something like this :

- Did you see that YouTube link I sent you about Urine Control ?
- Hum, yeah, I guess so.
- A bit stupid but good, hey ?
- No. Just stupid. What were you thinking sending me this crap ??
- hum... sorry :-$


That's why I've now taken a big decision : instead of mailing useless crap to busy people, I'll waste none time but my own posting them on this blog instead. Whenever you feel like being unproductive for a while, feel free to visit here and have some fun. I'll try to make it (not) worth your while ;-)