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Archive for April, 2007

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ISBS Tech Guide: Windows Vista Desktop Search

Monday, April 30th, 2007

As we discussed last week, Windows Vista is not that big a change from Windows XP, other than a few “Wow”-inducing items and a couple of very useful enhancements. Even those enhancements, though, are typically just tweaks to existing Windows functions (like the breadcrumbs navigation technique that replaces the Windows Explorer tree or the Flip 3D function that enhances the existing Alt-Tab feature). Desktop search is an exception to this rule, though, and warrants its own entry in the ISBS Tech Guide.

First, let’s review how desktop search worked in Windows XP. Basically, it worked like an application. You ran it (Start–>Search), typed in a query, clicked “Search” and received a result set. From there, you had basic interaction capability with the files, and when you were done, you closed the Search app and the results went away. It was like changing the channel on the TV, rather than reaching for the remote control. In other words, I hardly ever used it. Instead, I’d peruse my regular file folders to find a file, use the search within my mail application to find a particular e-mail, or click through the Start menu folders to find a rarely-used application. I’d use the search app only in the very rare case where I truly had no idea where I’d put something, but even then, it was typically unsuccessful at helping me find it.

In Windows Vista, search is a function of the operating system, not an application. It has gone from a tool of last resort to the easiest way to find just about anything on the PC. Here’s how it works:

Let’s say that before the season started, my friend sent me a Word document containing the New York Yankees’ 2007 schedule, and that this morning, he e-mailed me that he’s coming to New York and wants to catch a Yankee game.

The first thing I do is press the Start key (the one with the flag on it, next to the Alt key on most keyboards). This does the exact same thing as clicking on the Windows Logo in the bottom left corner of the screen, but note that you don’t need the mouse to search in Vista. When the Start menu opens, focus defaults to it’s search box. This is key, because again, I don’t need to touch the mouse. So, after pressing the Start key, I begin to type “yankee schedule.” As I type, the list of commonly used programs that is normally above the search box in the Start Menu disappears, and search results immediately start appearing in its place. With each successive character I type, Vista refines my search and shows me a shorter list of potential results.

The results are grouped and sorted intelligently. Applications are on top, followed by Files, followed by Communications (e-mails, saved IM’s, etc.) In this case, after a six keystrokes (<Start>yanke), the first item on the list is the Word document I was looking for. I press Enter and the document opens. That’s seven keystrokes from reading the e-mail to reviewing the schedule. As I said above, search has gone from a tool of last resort to the easiest way to find a file.

The next day, I need to pick my friend up at the airport. That e-mail he sent me had his flight number and arrival time in it. I sit down at my PC and once again type <Start>yanke. The word document is on top of the list, but just below it (under “Communications”) is a list of e-mails containing the string “yanke,” the second of which is the the e-mail from my friend. So, I press the down arrow twice and then Enter again. The e-mail opens and I have the information I need – this time, in eight keystrokes. (A small aside: note that Outlook does not launch to display my e-mail, just the individual message opens. This seems like a small detail, but in the past, launching an individual e-mail message would launch Outlook, which would display my entire Inbox, and kick off a Send/Receive transaction, which would download whatever mail I had residing on my POP3 server. Most of this would happen in the background, but it would all be wasted processing, given my task at hand).

Just to round out the example, say I now want to figure out how much my friend owes me for the tickets, so I need a calculator. I type <Start>calc, and the first item on the list is the Windows Calculator app. I press Enter and the calculator appears. Others may prefer to put a calculator icon on their desktop or toolbar, but I find these six keystrokes to be a faster way to work. At any rate, you have both options.

All of this would be fairly impressive on it’s own, but the coolest feature of Windows Vista Search is the saved search result windows. Let’s say my ticket exchange above is part of a larger service I provide, distributing Yankee tickets to friends throughout the year. In that case, I probably have lots of documents and e-mails that contain the phrase “yankee,” so I’d have to be more specific in my search to find what I’m looking for. In that case, here’s what I’d do: Type <Start>yankee to bring the list up. But then, instead of clicking on an item, click “See all search results” at the bottom of the list. This opens a standard Vista window, displaying everything that matches the search (including applications, files, e-mails, etc). I can sort/group any way I want (by file type, by name, by date, etc.). Then (and here’s the cool part), I can save my search window as it’s own folder. Now, whenever I open this folder (or refresh the window), I can see all files/e-mails on my PC that contain the term “yankee.” To be clear: I’m not saving the result set from my recent search; I’m saving the query itself. So if I get ten more e-mails tomorrow regarding the Yankees, the same window will contain ten more items tomorrow. Also of note, given how Windows XP worked: the items in this window are the actual files themselves, not shortcuts or pointers to the files. I can open/edit/rename/delete/etc. the files right from this window, even if they actually live at the end of some complex folder tree in my Documents folder. The Vista architecture allows a file to be referenced natively from more than one location, which greatly enhances the usability of search (among other things).

Two other notes – one on indexing and one on the Mac search tool.

Regarding indexing: Vista Search comes complete with a small indexing application, which allows me to specify which folders are included in the search index and which are not. This covers Windows folders, but also folders within your Outlook inbox. So, for instance, since I’m such a pack rat and never empty my Deleted Mail folder, I set Search to ignore the Deleted Mail folder in my mail file. This eliminates clutter from my search results, but allows me to keep my poor man’s e-mail archive. Also, the index management tool lets me include networked folders, so I can have the Search function on my laptop, for example, search the shared network drive and bring back files that I worked on from a different machine.

Regarding Mac Search: When Vista was in beta release, many compared the search function to OS X’s Spotlight search tool. The biggest criticism of Vista’s implementation (other than the persistent cries of “copycat!”) was the fact that the search tool was not always visible on the screen (in OS X, it’s always in the upper-right corner). I find that I actually prefer this choice, since the tool is always one keystroke away. Also, while some may prefer the mouse for common tasks, I’m very much a keyboard shortcut user. I don’t know if you can bring Spotlight into focus with a single keystroke (although I’m sure someone will tell me in the comments. <clears throat>). If not, having to mouse to the upper right and click to execute a search would drastically reduce it’s utility to me (especially with a wide screen monitor).

As it stands, I’m obviously a very big fan of Vista’s search tool. I’ve already used it more in the first two months than I did in all my prior years of Windows usage.

Next week: What’s the deal with Vista security?

Categories: Tech Talk | 2 Comments »

Kryptonite discovered in mine

Sunday, April 29th, 2007

Good news: Kryptonite is real.
Bad news: It’s not green.

Yet another in a series of science mirroring science fiction:

Researchers from mining group Rio Tinto discovered the unusual mineral and enlisted the help of [Dr Chris Stanley, a mineralogist at London's Natural History Museum] when they could not match it with anything known previously to science.

Once the London expert had unravelled the mineral’s chemical make-up, he was shocked to discover this formula was already referenced in the literature – albeit literary fiction.

“Towards the end of my research I searched the web using the mineral’s chemical formula – sodium lithium boron silicate hydroxide – and was amazed to discover that same scientific name, written on a case of rock containing kryptonite stolen by Lex Luthor from a museum in the film Superman Returns.

The new mineral does not contain fluorine (which it does in the film) and is white rather than green but, in all other respects, the chemistry matches that for the rock containing kryptonite.”

Now, about that whole “flying man of steel” thing…

Categories: Movie Talk, The World Wide Weird | 4 Comments »

It’s all about perspective…

Friday, April 27th, 2007

Many of my fellow Yankee fans are unhappy about the baseball standings these days. I don’t see why. After all, it’s all a matter of how you look at it…

 

Categories: Sports Talk | No Comments »

Some Thoughts on Idol Gives Back

Friday, April 27th, 2007

OK, I’ll admit it – my wife and I are American Idol fans. For what it’s worth, we’re not Fanjaya fans; we’re the kind that actually looks for some high quality music from the contestants. So there’s that…

Anyway, last night’s show, Idol Gives Back, was clearly something special. It’s great to see a pop culture behemoth finally do something with it’s marketing potential other than just selling soap. And of course, when the show was over, they got some help from my family as well.

The show was obviously designed to make us think, but the thing it made me think about most rather surprised me.

We’ve all seen many (too many? not enough?) pictures of the African poor – the young mothers dying of AIDS, the children living in mosquito-ravaged conditions, dying of malaria, malnutrition, or just basic neglect. We’ve also seen many pictures of the American poor – particularly since Hurricane Katrina created so many more of them on a single day.

This is the first time in my memory, though, that these two sets of images were set side by side in this way. Watching it, I couldn’t help but notice how much better off the American poor were than the African poor.

The African children were dressed in rags. The American children were wearing clean clothes. The African children had crooked or missing teeth. One of the American children was wearing braces on his teeth, and several were wearing eyeglasses. The African food distribution center was a large room, empty except for a large table in the middle, where dozens of kids were each given what appeared to be a clear broth with some kind of meat in it (hard to tell exactly what it was). The American food distribution center was a modern warehouse with food stacked on palettes, literally reaching up to the ceiling. The facility was staffed by dozens of volunteers, who distributed nutritionally balanced grocery bags to hundreds of families at extremely low costs (e.g., $1/bag). The African school was a group of children in a relatively empty room with a few adults, sharing materials. The American school was well-lit, fully furnished with desks, bookshelves, educational materials on the walls, books, pencils, etc.

This is my third draft of this post, because I’m desperately trying to avoid minimizing the plight of the American poor. I realize that they’re struggling, and acknowledge that they need help to achieve the very basics of life (and, indeed, they received some of my help last evening). What I’m discussing here is the contrast between the two. When discussing the American poor, the goal is usually to elicit sympathy in some form or another, and so there’s never a mention of how much better off they are than those in other places. But the fact remains, each of the African kids in those film clips would trade places with any of the Americans in an instant, and consider themselves blessed to be living with so many riches.

One of the great things about America, I believe, is our insistence on raising the bar. We don’t compare our quality of life to other countries and then rest on our laurels because we’re so far ahead. We set high expectations of ourselves based on what the average American has achieved, and then strive to bring those below that average up to par. It’s an attitude that leads to constant improvement and constant growth.

Bashing America has become a bit of a sport lately. Despite this malaise, and despite that awful feeling in the pit of my stomach as I logged on to make my pledge, I must admit that I felt a bit of pride seeping in. Our poor have it rough, but not that rough. And yet still, we rally together to make their lives better. That’s an American ideal that seems to have thrived when many of the others have been so severely tested…

Categories: Money Talk, Primetime TV | 6 Comments »

Some New Steven Wright Jokes

Tuesday, April 24th, 2007

I happened to catch him on Letterman’s show tonight. I’ve heard his old stuff so frequently, that it never occurred to me that he’s still writing jokes. Anyway, here are the ones that stuck in my memory. Same old Steven Wright. Absolutely classic:

In school they told me “Practice makes perfect,” and then they told me “Nobody’s perfect,” so I stopped practicing.

Imagine if you could see an itch?

Imagine how weird a phone would look if your mouth were nowhere near your ears?

A friend of mine has a trophy wife, but apparently it wasn’t first place.

Categories: Primetime TV | 1 Comment »

ISBS Tech Guide: The ISBS Review of Windows Vista

Sunday, April 22nd, 2007

By now, you’ve probably read several dozen reviews of Windows Vista. When I first started using it, I was tempted to join in as well, but I decided I should spend some time with it first and then offer my opinion. So here you go – a review of Windows Vista that’s based on what it’s like to use the OS on a day-to-day basis, not on the results of some laboratory diagnostic test:

It’s Good.

It’s not a buggy piece of crapware, and it’s certainly not awesome, spectacular, or life-changing (anyone who describes an OS that way is either trying to sell you something, or is such an irrational fan of Steve Jobs that he/she would use the same words to describe the iBrick). Ironically, Microsoft’s advertising campaign goes about as far as I would take it: “Wow.” And even then, only “Wow” to a couple of things. In every other aspect, Vista basically does it’s job and does it well.

The first “Wow” is the Windows Aero design. The edges of the windows are translucent, so when you drag one on top of the other, you can see a blurry image of the back window around the edges of the front window. To be sure, this is more cool looking than it is useful, but I must admit, it is extremely cool looking. If the WinXP windows looked like index cards scattered across the desktop, then these look like Shrinky Dinks, or, to use an even geekier reference, like Tom Cruise’s Minority Report computers.

The second, and much more useful, “Wow” is the Flip 3D and Live Icon features. Flip 3D is that three-dimensional rolodex interface that you’ve seen in the advertisements. Rather than using Alt-Tab to cycle through the icons of open applications, Vista lets you use Start Key-Tab (that’s the key with the flag on it – situated right near the Alt key on most keyboards) to see a 3D rolodex of the live content on each open window (including animation, video, moving status bars, etc.). When you recognize the one you want, you just release both keys and that window animates to the front.

All of the other icons in Vista are also improved. When you Alt-Tab, Vista shows you thumbnail versions of the live content, rather than those old, static app icons. If you mouse over the minimized applications on the task bar, you also see these live content thumbnails. IE7′s Quick Tabs feature shows you the open web pages in live content thumbnails. And inside the windows themselves, the icons for unopened files reflect the first page of the document, a thumbnail of the picture, or the first frame of the video, depending on the file type.

I know this sounds like pure “Wow,” but I found it a huge productivity boost in two ways. First, it’s much, much easier to recognize a window’s content than it’s icon/title, which is all you had to go on in Windows XP, so choosing/switching applications is simpler and faster. Second, you can check the status of a long running process (e.g., a DVD burn, a backup, a large download) without having to switch applications and interrupt your train of thought. It’s also noteworthy that these features only run on machines with high-powered graphics cards and fast CPU’s. At lower resolution or slower speeds, these “preview” features would look chintzy and add almost no value, and so Vista disables them automatically.

Another very useful (although much less “Wow”) feature is the breadcrumb functionality in each window’s address bar. Rather than the traditional “tree” structure taking up real estate on the left side of the window, Vista shows you each node in the current path, and provides a navigation arrow for each one. So if you’re currently in the Documents/Excel/Finance/2007/Budgets folder and you want to switch to the Documents/Word/Reports/ folder, all you have to do is click the arrow next to Documents in the address bar and select Word, then select Reports in the newly opened view.

Back on the “Wow” side of the spectrum is the Windows Sidebar. Current OS X users will find it a patent violation familiar, while long-time Windows users will enjoy the slick user interface and the wide array of available “Gadgets.” Microsoft’s Windows Live Gallery will let you browse a few thousand of them, and then download them directly into your Gadget inventory, ready for use. I also downloaded an application called Amnesty Generator, which allows me to convert (most) Google gadgets (intended for the Google Desktop) to Vista gadgets. Between these two libraries, you could easily fill up the sidebar on a portrait-shaped 24″ monitor (more on that in a future Tech Guide post!)

I’m leaving out a bunch of things, of course, and I’m sure there are more surprises tucked away for me to eventually find. Two things in particular, Vista’s search capabilities and its new security strategy, fall so squarely into the “Wow” + “useful” category that they warrant their own Tech Guide entries, so you’ll have to come back to hear about those as well.

Bottom line: if you’re in the market for a new PC, buy it with Vista pre-installed. Everything interesting that happens to Windows (and Windows software) in the coming decade will happen to Vista. If you buy something else now, you’ll kick yourself later. If you’re happy with your current PC, though, then wait a while. It’ll be around when you’re ready to upgrade. If you need some “Wow” before then, go rent Minority Report.

Categories: ISBS Reviews, Tech Talk | No Comments »

All the Wrong Things

Wednesday, April 18th, 2007

Like everyone else, I’ve been listening to and reading about the horrible events that took place at Virginia Tech yesterday.

While this was the most deadly, it was not, unfortunately, the first of it’s kind. This time around, though, the discussion of what happened and how it could have been prevented/mitigated seems to be focused on a strange mix of topics.

One discussion thread is the two-hour delay between the first shooting and the e-mail notifying students about it. There seems to be an implication here that the University’s primary role in this situation is communication, not security – as if the students would have been perfectly capable of defending themselves, had they only known sooner that there was a shooter on the loose. Personally, I’d have been happy if they had secured the campus and not informed anybody, as opposed to the other way around.

Another discussion I’ve seen floating around is about VT’s “open campus,” and whether the ability to walk freely into and out of buildings without metal detectors, ID cards, etc. is worth enduring the occasional tragedy:

It is very difficult, because we are an open society and an open campus. We have 26,000 people here. The best thing that we can do is to have people report anything that they saw that was suspicious. We obviously cannot have an armed guard in front of every classroom every day of the year. What we try to determine is are they kept out of harm’s way by staying in the dorms or staying in the academic buildings. We send out communications by e-mail, we have an emergency alert system to get the word to our students as quickly as we can.

- Charles Steger
Virginia Tech University President

 
You’ll excuse me, but this is bullcrap. An open campus is great on a normal day. But the instant a shooting occurs on campus, police should be on the scene and the building in question should be sealed (which, apparently, was done in this case). As soon as it was determined that the killer might still be on the loose, all other campus buildings should have armed guards posted, and anyone entering/exiting those buildings should be at least observed, if noy searched. Taking this step does not destroy a free society or “let the terrorists win.”. It is a logical, temporary step to secure the campus and protect the students. When they’re sure they’ve got the guy, the precious freedom to enter a building unobserved can be immediately restored.

The third predominant topic I’ve been reading about is gun control, and generally in the vein of “had the students been allowed to carry guns, one of them could have taken out the shooter before he killed so many people.”. I realize there’s a wide spectrum of political opinion on both sides of this issue. Without offerring an opinion of my own, I’ll just note that this discussion is, at best, incomplete without mention of the other shootings (accidental or otherwise) that would result from a proliferation of firearms on campus.

Remember, we’re talking about a college campus. Good people do stupid things on college campuses, like drink excessively, for example. Also, many students experience a great deal of stress (around exam time, for instance) and don’t always know how to deal with that stress properly. Others, like the shooter in this case, have serious medical problems and do not have the support system in place to treat it properly. Any proper discussion about gun laws needs to take this into account in order to be useful in any way.

Sadly, nothing can be done to bring back those who were killed. My fear in this case is that the resulting discussion isn’t doing enough to prevent another such occurrence, because we’re discussing all the wrong things.

Categories: News and/or Media | No Comments »

ISBS Tech Guide – Introduction

Sunday, April 15th, 2007

As I mentioned earlier, I recently moved my old PC into my older son’s room, and bought myself two new computers to replace it – a desktop for the home office, and a laptop to take full advantage of the wireless network I was now able to setup in the house. It’s been more than four years since I bought a new PC, and as you might imagine, quite a bit has changed in that time. Most notable, of course, was the introduction of Microsoft’s Windows Vista operating system, which came pre-installed on both new machines.

The new machines, the new operating system, and a healthy dose of new software has made the last couple of months a constant learning experience. I’ve discovered what “just works,” what requires configuring/tweaking, and what requires a proficiency with Google, the patience to read through user help forums and, occasionally, the right tech support phone number.

Given my crash course in all things new to harware and software, I’ve decided to start a weekly feature here at I Should Be Sleeping – the ISBS Tech Guide. Each weekend, I’ll post an entry on a different technology topic that I’ve dealt with recently, and let you in on all the features, pitfalls, tricks, tips, etc. that I’ve come across in my travels.

I know from my site analytics that posts about technology attract a disproportionately high number of visitors, mainly due to the heavy search engine activity. Google has become Level 1 Tech Support for just about any technical problem, and anything I can do to contribute to the quantity of good information out there seems like a worthwile exercise. Also, I’d like to write down a lot of what I’ve learned in the last couple of months, and this blog seems like a good place to do it. So here’s your guarantee: since I’ll be referencing this guide as often as anyone else as time goes on, I have all the right incentives to make it accurate, complete, and easy to read. Also, it’s free and you get what you pay for. So there you go…

Finally, the ISBS Tech Guide gives me the opportunity to use Blogger’s new Category feature. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m not a big fan of Blog categories, since so many blogs have them and I’ve never really felt the need to use them. In this case, though, I’m hoping the category view provides a true “How To Guide” feel that can serve as a reference for someone who is interested in such things, but doesn’t have a specific question.

So look for the ISBS Tech Guide each Monday morning, whydontcha? We’ll pick up next weekend with our first technology topic: The Windows Vista Review.

Stay tuned…

Categories: Tech Talk | No Comments »

No Man is an Island…

Sunday, April 15th, 2007

…unlike some homes in the Northeast today. Some examples from Chez Greenberg:


(Click images for larger versions)

Categories: Random Acts of Blogging | 2 Comments »

Chain Link Blog

Saturday, April 14th, 2007

Jeff Porten linked to a blog post from another site, and now I’m linking to his. Why? Because this is f*%^#ing hilarious:

Ask Google for driving directions between the White House and 10 Downing Street in London. Click the link for the full effect, but here’s the good part:

That could be the funniest thing I’ve seen on the web in ages…

Categories: Random Acts of Blogging | No Comments »

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