For owners of older Mac products

Apple's criteria for upgrading to Mountain Lion is whether you own a mid-2007 or newer iMac or late 2008 aluminum MacBook and so on. I mean, what? I don't see dates like that when I open my MacBook's About This Mac info window. Newer MacBooks are showing this type of year-of-production info, but not the old models. Hence the value of this German web site dedicated to Apple tech support. Enter  your serial number for various Mac products (computers, laptops, printers, batteries, and monitors) and it will extrapolate various bits of basic information, such as the item's manufacture date, model number, and so on.

This can be useful info for people like myself who want to know whether our products are eligible for the upgrade to Mountain Lion. Alas, my poor little plastic MacBook is mid-2007, so I'll be staying with Snow Leopard for quite a while yet.

A shortcut for Googling the current web site

I use a lot of bookmarklets to make my browsing faster and more convenient. I use them to stop blinking text, subscribe to RSS feeds, post to this blog, hide all images on a page, and so on. One of the most important bookmarklets I add to my browser is one I found at MacWorld that enables you to search for text throughout the site you're currently viewing, not just the current page.

Just today, for example, I wanted to know whether I had ever blogged on the topic of boredom. So I navigated to the blog and clicked on the Google Site Search bookmarklet in my Links toolbar. In the dialog box that popped up, I entered "boredom|boring" and hit OK.

The bookmarklet piped my search text through Google's "site:" search filter and the browser returned a list of pages from my blog that contained the search terms.

I find the Google site: search to be more reliable than most web sites' built-in search facility. It's a fabulous addition to any Web user's research toolkit.

On unfriending or unfollowing people

Oliver Burkeman writes about a woman who actually visits all of her Facebook friends to see if they're really friends. She's writing a book about the experience, of course. It's one of those stunt ideas that will become a book whose message we will skim, we will blog and tweet about it for a week, we will stroke our chins thoughtfully, and then we will toss the book into the pile going to the library's book sale. Burkeman uses her story as a lens to explore the popular research on social ties, friendships offline and on-, and the idea of "decluttering" your life by letting go of the "friends" we accumulate as easily as we accumulate books, shoes, knick-knacks, and other physical clutter. How many friends can you really manage? How can you measure the quality of a friendship, either online or offline?

Burkeman writes:

"Friend clutter", likewise, accumulates because it's effortless to accumulate it: before the internet, the only bonds you'd retain were the ones you actively cultivated, by travel or letter-writing or phone calls, or those with the handful of people you saw every day. Friend clutter exerts a similar psychological pull. The difference ... comes with the decluttering part: exercise bikes and PlayStations don't get offended when you get rid of them. People do. So we let the clutter accumulate.

I've written before about the idea that electronic connections keep relationships going that, under ordinary circumstances, we would probably slough off. (Keeping in mind, of course, that sometimes I am the person who someone sloughs off.)

That said, I do have certain rules when I "friend" someone:

Twitter 6x6

  • On Twitter, it hardly matters. I have few friends or acquaintances who have Twitter accounts and I hardly ever check my Twitter account. Twitter seems like more of a public noticeboard and at this point in my life and career, there's not much there for me.
  • On LinkedIn, I usually only connect if I have worked with the person or have some personal knowledge of their character such that I could vouch for them as a resume reference or could at least write a recommendation for them. Sometimes, though, people think of LinkedIn as Facebook for Grownups, and I resist using it in that way.
  • On Facebook, I've slowed my friending. I check FB every other day or so, and have friended neighbors, classmates, etc., but I rarely reach out anymore. Facebook, again, was something I used heavily in school but not so much these days. I don't post any pictures or much in the way of personal information, anymore. I tend to post links to news or web sites of interest. I unfriended one person whose comments on my posts annoyed me to the point that I said, "I don't need this grief."

Were I to start a business on the side, I'd re-examine my relationship with these services. But for now, this is a picture of how I manage my online relationships.

I don't unfriend or unfollow many people because I believe that I'm careful about who I let in to my life. I try to keep a certain number of people who I can stay in touch with fairly regularly and whose company I would enjoy. I try to have lunch or a meal or a coffee with local friends fairly regularly; it's important to me that I see my local friends face to face. I don't put such things on a calendar or anything; the prompt for these get-togethers is usually, "Hm, haven't heard from X in a while. Wonder how they're doing?"

I send distant friends birthday cards and letters a couple of times a year, sometimes longish emails, rarely longish phone calls. I and most of my friends are at stages in our lives where we're superbusy with families, careers, etc. and so staying in touch takes conscious effort. We all know this, so once-in-a-while updates are OK with me.

I can't remember where I got this quote, but I remember saying it at my 50th birthday party: "Whoever dies with the most friends, wins."  I said it to a roomful of friends on a warm September night who chose to spend their Saturday evening celebrating with me and it was one of the happiest moments of my adult life.

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52 Killer Tricks for Your Kindle

Of the 52 Killer Tricks for Your Kindle, some are useful only for the first 3 series (#'s 2, 3, 5, 6), others for Fire only (#8), others are so arcane and specialized as to be almost nonsensical (#'s 9, 15), some are DIY and may require more nerve than even I have (#'s 1, 14, 26, 42), some are only tangentially related to the Kindle (#'s 16, 30, 36) and on and on. So right away, you can simply skim this list and reduce it to something more manageable. Is it possible that your humble correspondent may have a few tricks that didn't make it to the list? Verily, I saith unto you: Yes.

As I'm using a Kindle Touch, some of the "killer tricks" (which I daresay would reveal themselves with a skim of the manual) don't apply. Some of the tricks reveal themselves with a simple read of the manual: keep the wi-fi turned off to save your battery, email PDFs to yourself, play MP3s, and so on. And I have, of course, already thoroughly documented my screensaver workflow.

There were a few things the original article missed, so allow me to add to the conversation.

For web pages

I would add Readability to #11 (Readability can include images and photos, Instapaper can't -- or didn't the last time I looked).

For ebooks

For public domain books in Kindle format (#3), I'd also recommend Project Gutenberg, which offer Kindle versions of its texts in .mobi format. You can download the Magic Catalog (.mobi file) and get a list of all the books and texts they offer. Click on a book title and it's downloaded to your Kindle in the background.

Even better: use your Kindle's browser to navigate to m.gutenberg.org, where you can have a more interactive experience searching for and downloading ebooks.

Another neat way to get Kindle-formatted public domain books is to navigate to this page on the MobileRead forums site and search the page for "MobileRead's Download Guide." Download that file and transfer it to your Kindle (or download it directly from the MobileRead page), wait a bit while the Kindle indexes it, and then you have a file containing a list and descriptions of 11,000+ books formatted by MobileRead members; click on a link to download the book in the background (wi-fi has to be on, of course). The file is updated daily. There's overlap between the MobileRead and Gutenberg lists, sure, but it's fun to compare them and see what they offer. I use both and sometimes just have fun browsing the lists.

I also like the Delphi Classics site, mainly for just knowing that it's possible to download the complete works of most any "classics" author.

Keep your Kindle software up to date

Bookmark the software update page and set yourself a reminder to check it monthly or whenever is convenient. You won't get any notice from Amazon that updates are waiting for you.

See what other Kindle owners are highlighting

One of Kindle's features is that you can highlight passages from any book or article you're reading and it's saved in a file called clippings.txt. Findings lets you upload your clippings.txt file so others can read what you've highlighted, and you can read what other Kindle owners found worth noting. It started as a Kindle-only hangout, but they've since rolled out bookmarklets and such so that you can highlight anything you see on the web and have it posted.

Convert clippings.txt to more readable formats

The clippings.txt file contains the contents of all the highlighted passages from everything I've read on the Kindle. So it includes tips and tricks, quotes I want to remember, procedures, beautifully written passages, etc.

You can open and browse the file from the Kindle home screen and it's easy enough to copy the file to my MacBook and open it up in a text editor, but it looks ugly and there is no easy way to browse the collection. So a lot of what I've highlighted is trapped in a file that is difficult to navigate, read, and use.

The amazing and free Clippings Converter site will transform the clippings.txt file into more attractively formatted Word, PDF, or (my favorite) Excel files. It provides a much better and easier method to process and re-use this text in other ways.

Yet, for all my snark...

The 52 tricks site convinced me to download Calibre (#16) and give it a try, and I'd not heard of the KIF project (#40) that lets you play old Infocom games on the Kindle, nor did I know of the justification hack (#44). Off now to do some minor-league hacking...

 

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Yet another password creation rule

I ran across the following rule many years ago in what looks like a student paper (PDF link) by a fellow named Bernie Thomas and posted on the SANS site. SANS is a security training organization. For sites where minimal security is a criterion, I tend to favor using this rule as it's generally easy for me to remember. For high security, I rely on 1Password to generate hard-to-crack passwords. However, I can only use 1Password on my MacBook at home, and cannot easily access its stored information on my Windows PC at work. Therefore, I prefer having a simple password-creation routine that I can use to access low- to minimum-security sites in both locations.

The paper dates from 2005 and it could be argued that the world it was created for has already passed. Google and now Dropbox are offering two-factor authentication to provide extra security for sites that can hold the keys to your online identity. However, if you don't have a password-generation program, Bernie's paper contains several different algorithms for generating personalized and tough-to-crack passwords.

The method relies on scrambling a word by adding numbers, capital letters, and special characters according to a set of input rules. By memorizing the input rules and a few tokens, you can create a medium to strong password for any site you visit.

So there are two parts to the following method, which Bernie explicitly identifies for generating logon passwords:

A. TOKEN CREATION

  1. Pick any special character you will always use with your password. Examples: !@#$%^& (*+)=-;:’”~`][}{\|><?/.,
  2. Pick a Secret Code: a 3- or 4-digit number you'll always remember. It could be a special date (such as an anniversary) or, if this is a password you have to change regularly, it could be the date you change the password.
  3. Pick a very simple Memory Cue that you will remember. This will be the root word for the password. It could be the name of the site (Yahoo, CNN, New York Times) or the application, etc.

B. CREATE THE PASSWORD

  1. Surround the root password with the special character.
  2. Insert the Secret Code number after the second character of the root word.
  3. Capitalize the first character after the Secret Code.
  4. Optional - If you're changing the password every 90 days, add the creation date to the end of the password. Use the calendar quarter and the year to create a 5-digit number. So Q1 of 2012 would generate 12012.

Here are some examples of these rules in action from Bernie's paper:

  • @
  • 4556
  • Tim
  • @Tim@
  • @Ti4556m@
  • @Ti4556M@
  • @Ti4556M@12012

For a Yahoo account:

  • @
  • 4556
  • yahoo
  • @yahoo@
  • @ya4556hoo@
  • @ya4556Hoo@
  • @ya4556Hoo@12012

So, for any new site I visit, I can generate a memorable password that has special characters, capital letters, and numbers and (generally) avoids any dictionary words in its components.

What if the site I'm on doesn't let me use special characters or imposes a character limit? I usually drop the special character and simply go as far as I can until I reach the character limit.

Again, the paper has many more examples of different ways to mix and match these rules. He includes different tweaks on the rules to generate both simple to remember and difficult passwords.

Drought on the Mississippi

After several years of drought in North Carolina, we've enjoyed a relatively mild and wet summer with only a few counties experiencing even mild drought. But the rest of the country is suffering. The Atlantic Magazine presents a disquieting set of NASA satellite images of the Mississippi River: the first image from 2011 shows a Mississippi swollen by storms and the second, from this year, shows the drought's effects.

Jailbreaking my Kindle Touch

To get screensaver images of my choice onto the Kindle Touch (the one without the special offers) required several steps:

  • Jailbreaking the Kindle Touch
  • Installing the screensavers hack
  • Gathering the images
  • Formatting the images
  • Grouping and renaming the images
  • Transferring the renamed images to the Kindle Touch

I won't go into exorbitant detail on how I did what I did, but this post will pull all the steps together into one place so I have a record of what I did in roughly the order I did it, in case I need to do it again, God forbid. I also throw in a few stray observations along the way.

Jailbreaking the Kindle Touch

"Jailbreaking" is such a harsh word for what Wikipedia more delicately refers to as "privilege escalation." The Kindle Touch (also referred to as the Kindle 4) has been slower to fall to jailbreaking and custom hacks, but entropy catches up with everything.

Jailbreak your Kindle

  1. In Pathfinder, use the Edit>Select... dialog to select all JPG files.
  2. Right-click on the selected files, select Services>Convert to PNG. The Automator workflow takes the JPG files as input, churns away, and creates PNGs with the same filenames in the directory.
  3. Select all the JPG files again and then move or delete them. So we now have a directory full of PNG files.
  4. Starting from the top of the file list, use Pathfinder to view each file's Info and check the dimensions. I used Pathfinder's drawer for this part, which showed both a preview of the image and its attributes. About two-thirds of the files were in the proper 600x800 format. When I found a file that was not, I selected the file and ran a Keyboard Maestro macro that opened the file in Preview, entered new dimensions of 600x800, and then saved the file.

So, after another few minutes, I had a directory of files in the required format and size.

Grouping and renaming the images

There are two more constraints on image files for the Kindle.

First constraint: The screensavers directory is limited to a maximum of 99 files. I had collected a little over 200.

I decided I wanted a few different sets of files that I could switch out every now and then when I got bored with the current set. So I broke the files into 5 directories of roughly 40 files each. To ensure I had a fairly even, yet somewhat random, collection in each set, I used the Finder's color labels to help me visually differentiate files into various stacks.

In Pathfinder, starting with the first file, I gave every 5th file a red color. Then green after red, then blue, and so on. I then used Pathfinder's Edit>Select facility to copy all the red-coded files to a "red" folder, all the blue-coded files to a "blue" directory, and so on.

Great -- I now had five groups of files reflecting a mix of styles and images. Not boring!

Second constraint: Filenames. Here's what the simple screensaver readme has to say about them:

  • Each image MUST be named bg_xsmall_ss##.png, where ## is a two digit number from 00 to 99
  • You MUST have an image named bg_xsmall_ss00.png and you CANNOT skip a number (ex: bg_xsmall_ss00.png, bg_xsmall_ss02.png but no bg_xsmall_ss01.png)

Pathfinder to the rescue again! A new feature in Pathfinder 6 is a Batch Rename facility that uses an Automator-like workflow interface. I quickly created a renaming workflow for the first group that I could save and re-use for the remaining groups.

If I decide later that I want to instead have larger sets, it's very easy to move all the files into a single directory and run the renaming workflow again.

Transferring the renamed images to the Kindle Touch

The easiest part! Hook up the Touch to the computer, select and drag the new screensaver files to the Touch's screensavers directory, unmount, and unplug.

Bah-dah-bing! I now can see a carousel of fun images whenever I put the Touch to sleep.

The above steps did not arrive cleanly and without effort. The process involved lots of trial and error for every phase before I finally hit on the right combination and sequence of steps. You could say that this was an awful lot of work to serve a fairly trivial purpose -- and you would be right -- but I would say that it was not work: it was good, clean, nerdy fun.

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Kindle Touch screensavers

The Kindle Touch (non-ad supported) comes with 20 attractive gray-scale screensaver/wallpaper images. They're fine, but after a while, I wanted to see some different images. One of the reasons I got the ad-free Touch was so that I wouldn't be assaulted with an ad every time I picked up my Kindle to read something. I returned the ad-supported Kindle 3 because -- among other reasons --  although I can take ads in magazines, I didn't want to see them in a book -- not even an e-book.

The web is full of Kindle-supported screensaver images that I would have preferred to see on my device, but Amazon doesn't allow me to customize the Kindle in even that harmless way. And this annoyed me.

So I took matters into my own hands, did a bit of hacking on my Kindle over the weekend, and now I have a pool of about 200 attractive, varied, and unusual images I can use as screensavers on my Kindle, as the following gallery shows. Tomorrow, a post on how I did it. If you want to see the many (many) sites I scoured looking for images, and thus get a peek into my own little OCD manias, you can browse them via my Pinboard links.

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Memotome.com

I've mentioned Memotome.com in previous posts and it's an essential part of my productivity toolkit. It sends me email reminders of tasks I want/need to do, birthdays and anniversaries to remember, and pretty much handles most any recurring task.Memo To Me - Free Reminder Service

The site has been around for a long time and I doubt that it's changed its visual design since the early 2000's, when I first heard of it. There are plenty of other reminder sites that will ping you via email or SMS, and they look prettier, operate a little more smoothly, and offer more enhanced services than Memotome. But I came to the party with Memotome, it's been utterly reliable all that time, and I resist the idea of starting over somewhere else.

Google Calendar holds my weekly schedule and one-time only appointments I schedule on the fly. Goodtodo manages portions of my to-do list for work and home, and provides a way for me to schedule a task for the future very quickly with the assurance it will pop up exactly when I want it to.

Memotome occupies that gray sort of area where I want to be reminded of things but I don't want to see them on a calendar. These are items I can set and forget.

Yes, Google Calendar lets you create secondary calendars that you can turn on and off, but I find Google Calendar increasingly complicated and its settings page for a new event almost bewilders me with all the choices. Goodtodo is great for quickie todo tasks, but its recurring functionality is not as flexible as I'd like; I want some items to recur forever, but Goodtodo limits me to a maximum of 99 recurrences, for example. Also, its emails arrive in plaintext so if I include a URL in the body of the reminder, it does not arrive as a live link.

Memotome is plain but it hits a sweetspot for me. It does not offer some features that other services offer: weekday only reminders, weekend only, "every other day/week/month," and so on. So I have to get clever and create multiple reminders to get around that limitation (such as creating two weekly recurrences, one for Tuesday and one for Thursday).

One feature it offers that I like: "every few weeks." When I'm trying to encourage a new habit, I like a once-in-a-while reminder for me to check in with myself.

You can use the service for free, but donating whatever amount you think the service is worth upgrades you to a level where the email reminders are a little more useful (your event title is the email subject line, URLs included in the body of the reminder become live links, etc). Check it out.

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