Opera Mini Beta 2 Microreview

There’s a new version of Opera Mini, the best cell phone browser out today. They fixed my biggest issue with the previous version: The old version didn’t recognize the Blackberry menu button, using the Q button instead for some reason. Now it does.

And it’s faster than before.

And it’s still free.

By the way, this browser works on most internet enabled phones, not just the Blackberry. The only one that I know for sure isn’t supported is the iPhone, because Apple has locked out all third-party developers. (That’s right iPhone owners: You spent $600 on a phone that can do less than mine. Ha!)

See all the cool new features of the beta, like the Virtual Mouse and integrated search engine box. And, just like before, Opera compresses the page before it sends it to you, so it uses less data and is a lot faster than your phone’s default browser.

Google Reader Preview Enhanced

I discovered a neat Greasemonkey script that greatly enhances my favorite RSS reader, Google Reader. The Google Reader Preview Enhanced script lets you see blog entries in their original context–including site design and comments. Here’s a demonstration. This is a recent post from my blog in Google Reader.

No Preview

If you click the little preview button in the bottom right corner of a post…

Preview

You can read the comments from the post and see it as the web designer intended for you to see it. And you can do it without opening up a new tab.

It requires the Greasemonkey Firefox extension, but all the software involved is free and easy to use.

Fantastic New Text Editor: E

For quite some time I have envied Mac users because of a single program: TextMate. TextMate is known as The Best Text Editor in the World. It’s easy to use but also filled with useful features, like the project pane and an powerful plugin structure. (These plugins are called “Bundles.”) Until recently, there was nothing at all like it on the Windows platform.

Now there is.

E is essentially TextMate for windows. It has the project pane, and it even supports many of TextMate’s bundles. To give you an idea of the kinds of things these bundles can do, I’m writing this post inside e right now. When I’m done, I can hit the Post to Blog keyboard shortcut, and it will connect to my blog and publish this thing. (It might even convert the Markdown into HTML for me in one step; if it doesn’t, there’s another keyboard shortcut to do that.)

There are all kinds of bundles. Some provide easy keyboard shortcuts for many major programming languages, HTML, CSS, Textile, Markdown, and other formats. So, for example, if you’re editing a CSS file and you type “font” and hit tab, it will pop up a menu of seven different presets that you can choose.

CSS Font Menu

Other things bundles can do: Automatically validate your CSS/HTML, do math, compare two different text files, run python scripts in the Cygwin terminal, sort a list of items while removing the blank lines, or run a todo list. Frankly, this sort of plugin structure is what keeps me coming back to Firefox, and I expect it’s what will keep me using e for a long, long time.

The only caveat is that e is still in Beta. It’s rapidly being developed, with new versions coming out every few days, but it can be a touch buggy. Hopefully that will stabilize over time, but even with the bugs, I think it’s totally worth the $35 asking price. The price will go up once the product comes out of beta, so I’d go ahead and pick it up now.

Finally! A *Good* Interface for Amazon!

I’ve just discovered uncluttr, a clean and simple user interface for Amazon.com.

So lets say you want to buy a book about Ruby on Rails. Start by entering the term in the search field:

uncluttr-2-tb.png

If you see something you’re interested in, just click on it.

uncluttr-3-tb.png

You can also get reviews…

uncluttr-4-tb.png

… and related items.

uncluttr-5-tb.png

If you like it, just drag it over to your cart.

uncluttr-6-tb.png

When you’re done, click “Checkout” and it will redirect you to Amazon proper.

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I’ve always thought that Amazon has one of the ugliest interfaces in the industry, so this website is a breath of fresh air.

Software Review: SftpDrive

One of the first obstacles to running a website is getting files from your computer to your web host. In the past, I used a program called FileZilla, a free and open source FTP client.

FileZilla

FTP Clients work like this: You connect to your web site, navigate to a folder on your computer in the left pane, navigate to the folder on the web host in the right pane, and then drag files pane to pane.

While this is simple enough, when you’re working on a file that needs to be changed a lot, this can be a pain. When you want to save your changes you have to save the version on your computer, switch to the FTP client, drag the file from one side to the other, and wait for it to upload. It’s a slow process.

Worse, FTP is an insecure process. The data that you are sending back and forth are not encrypted in any way, which could lead to your server username and password being stolen and granting an attacker full access to your website.


SftpDrive Logo

SftpDrive solves both of these problems. SftpDrive lets you connect to a web server and mount it as a hard drive. Then you just treat it like any other hard drive. Upload files with Windows Explorer; edit them by opening them as if they were on your own computer. There’s no more drag and drop.

SftpDrive Screenshot

It’s also secure, since it uses the encrypted SFTP protocol. You give it the location and port number of your web host’s SSH server (instead of the FTP server), and it sends and receives files over that secure channel.

Navigating between folders is a little on the slow side, and it does make saving your files take a little longer (since it has to save and upload the file to the server). But it takes all the work out of the uploading process, so you don’t have to think about it any more.

It comes with a six week free trial. If you like it as much as I do, you can buy it from sftpdrive.com for $39.

(I have no affiliation with SftpDrive and am not being paid for this review; I just love the product.)

New Version of Flock

Well, I’m trying out Flock again. Flock is a new browser that’s based on Firefox, but which has a lot of other neat features as well. Its biggest selling point is that it integrates with online services like del.icio.us, Flickr, YouTube, and most blogging services.

I had tried Flock in the past, but found certain elements of it to be sort of a pain. For example, it only supported bookmarking to del.icio.us, rather than allowing for local private bookmarks as well. (There was a workaround, but it was unpleasant and hard to find.) They’ve fixed that–along with a lot of their other interface issues–in this new version .9 of the browser.

Flock does make it really easy to publish and discuss media from around the internet. One of its key features is the Media Bar where you can look at your Flickr photostream or your YouTube uploads. So, if I want to publish a photo of my dog, all I have to do is open the media bar, locate the picture in the photostream, and drag it into the blog editor.

You can even right-click on the photo and click “Copy HTML for Large Photo,” then paste that into any other blog editor that you might prefer.

So far, I’m finding Flock to be quick and stable. Now to see if it publishes to my blog properly!

Blogged with Flock

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Safari for Windows

I had just written a post about Apple releasing Safari for Windows into the world. (Safari is the Apple equivalent of Internet Explorer.) Naturally, I did this from Safari, which I had just been trying out. When I clicked Publish, the post title went onto my blog, without the several paragraphs I had just written.

Which was too bad, because those paragraphs were mostly favorable. Safari is fast, but right now, it’s buggy. (It is just the beta, after all.) And it doesn’t have extensions or an integrated spell checker.

I want to like Safari, but it needs a couple of rounds of bug testing first.

Guess what I got!

Today I went to the Cingular AT&T store and got myself a shiny new phone, and I absolutely love it. The Blackberry Curve just came out this very week, and I knew from the reviews on Engadget that it was very well thought of by critics. I had known for several months that I needed to replace my beat up old Motorola V220, but I didn’t want a Palm Treo. Once I saw the prerelease photos of this phone, I knew I had found my new phone.

One of the reasons I wanted to get a smartphone is because I wanted to have exactly one phone/addressbook instead of a bunch of them in different email clients, my cell phone, and my PDA. Fortunately–and unlike my old Clie–my new phone syncs beautifully with Outlook. I’ll also always have a good todo list manager and calendar with me, and I now have constant internet access, so I can blog from anywhere. Plus having a keyboard is much, much better than the old graffiti input on the Clie.

All in all, this thing is just about perfect. I love it.

Good Words, Right Order

The Seanachai, by Patrick McClean, was one of the first podcasts I ever listened to, and it’s still one of the best. (It’s only flaw is that it isn’t updated nearly often enough, hint, hint. I miss my stories, Pat.) I’ve always admired Patrick’s writing; he finds clever ways to say interesting things.

So I was delighted to see that Patrick has a new blog/video podcast called Good Words, Right Order where he teaches writing. I’ve already watched all four of the videos on the site, where he takes some badly written glob of text and turns it into a clear, concise sentence.

It’s not a grammar site; it’s about how to communicate clearly in writing. It actually reminds me a lot of my expository writing class in college, except without the homework and the endless lecture. That class was one of the hardest classes I took, but it made me a much better writer–when I actually take the time to consider what I’m writing.

In other McClean news, he’s participating in NPR’s Public Radio Talent Search, so go and vote for him so that he can be on public radio and get paid to write insightful things instead of ad copy.

After that, go to Good Words, Right Order and learn how to write from one of the best writers I know.

March Upstate Board Game Day

Jesse and I went back to The Command Post for another Upstate Board Game Day. Jesse was especially looking forward to this since he missed last month’s game day. I wasn’t sure if I would go to the whole thing this month since I had stayed up really late last night playing sneaker hockey with a church group, but I decided to go ahead and get up in time to get there from the beginning, and I’m glad I did. I got to meet several people I hadn’t before: Melissa, Kevin, Charlie (who I’m almost certain I sat next to in chapel at BJ once). Hannah, and Lydia.

The first game we played was Ra. In this game, you are bidding on different kinds of tiles: artisans, monuments, Nile River tiles, and others. These elements are worth different amounts of points: For example, there are five different types of artisan. If you have no artisans when the points are scored, you lose five points; if you have three different types, you get a bonus of five points; if you have 4, you get ten, and if you have all 5, you get 15 (if I recall correctly). And so there are different strategies of things you might want to bid on.

The thing is, you only get three point tokens to buy these things with, with values that range from 1 to 16. Once you win an auction, you trade that token for the one in the center of the board and place the new token face down. Now you can only win two more auctions. Once you’ve spent all three of your tokens, you’re out for the round (aka “epoch.”). So, since you can’t break the points into smaller units, you can have a situation where you have two low-score tiles and one really high score tile, which means if you really want a particular lot of tiles, you might have to sacrifice a lot for it.

After we played Ra, Jesse and I learned how to play Puerto Rico. In this game, you play the part of a plantation owner in Puerto Rico. You are trying to ship goods–corn, coffee, indigo, sugar, and tobacco–from your farms to the mainland. Each turn, a player takes one “role,” such as a trader, a builder, or the mayor. This affects what all the players can do next. If he takes the builder, for example, everyone can build one building (if they have enough money). Each of these buildings have different effects that give the player that builds it a special bonus, such as additional victory points when they ship out goods or extra colonists when they build plantations. Players take turns playing these different roles until eventually there are either no colonists or no victory points in the pool or until one player’s building area is completely full of buildings. Whoever has the most victory points wins.

This game was fun because there are a ton of different strategies you can try to follow. I think I enjoyed last months Caylus slightly more, but this one was also very good. I might have to pick this one up online.

After that, Jesse and I went to lunch. When we came back, we played Mutiny!, a pirate themed bidding game. This game is not nearly as much fun as the other ones we played today. I won’t bother going into how to play; just avoid this one.

We then played Incan Gold. This game involves hunting treasure in an Incan temple. Each turn, all players decide at the same time whether or not they will leave or stay. If they leave, they keep all of the treasure they have already collected this round, but can’t collect any more until the next one. If they stay, they have to face the next card on the stack. This can be either more treasure (split evenly among the remaining party members) or a trap. If they face the same kind of trap twice in a round (say, two sets of large poisonous spiders or two huge snakes), then they are so scared that they run out of the temple without any of their treasure. So it’s really a “push your luck” game, as the review I linked to says. It’s a light, fun game without a lot of deep strategic thinking. Not a game I would buy, personally, but fun.

Then we played Poison. This is a pretty basic numbers-based card game. There are three pots, into which you play different-colored potion cards. Each of these cards has a point value; if the card you play brings the point total above 13, you have to take the cards in the pot. You can also play poison cards, which count as two cards in the final scoring. The goal is to have the lowest number of cards at the end of the round. This game is sort of fun, but, like Incan Gold, not one I would spend money on.

Finally, we played Wits and Wagers, a combination trivia and betting game. There are seven rounds, in which an obscure question that can be answered in numerical form is asked, such as how many paintings by Picasso were sold for more than one million dollars. Each person writes down their answer on a little dry-erase card. These guesses are arranged from smallest to largest; the one that is closest to the right answer without going over is the correct one (sort of like The Price is Right). But before the correct answer is revealed, all players get to bet on which one is most likely to be correct. Once you find out which one is correct, players who bet on that card are rewarded according to the amount listed on the board. The player with the correct answer also gets a ten point bonus. Whoever has the most points at the end, wins. (I ended up winning with 190 points). This was a lot of fun, and a great party game. It takes about fifteen minutes to play.

So, thanks to everybody for bringing their board games! See you all next month!