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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.