Standing desk via cardboard boxes

A notable article on hacking oneself a standing desk made the rounds of Hacker News and Lifehacker this week. Tonight, I needed the energy for one last push to get some work done and stop slacking off. Lacking the motivation to actually put my desk chair atop my desk, I pulled some cardboard boxes out of my closet and made do. It’s a little rickety, but it gets the job done, and I got my work done.

Found key item: ShiftIt

I’ve been using a Mac for the past three years, so when the slick Windows 7 Snap feature came out, I admit, I was a little sad I wasn’t in the market for a new Windows OS. Enter ShiftIt, a utility for Mac which replicates the behavior of Snap. The Shiftit dropdown menu sits in my menu bar, and I can resize windows using either the dropdown menu or shortcuts. I use it primarily when I’m writing outlines for papers, so I can have my outline, notes, and research windows sized well together.

Admittedly, you don’t need this app to resize windows such that you can see more than one at once, but it makes the process much more zippy, accurate, and convenient.

(ShiftIt works with Mac OS 10.5 and 10.6.)

Found key item: Readability

In response to cluttered news sites that contain far more flotsam than actual news, Arc90 Laboratory has created a browser tool called Readability which restyles articles from busy pages into something a little easier on the eyes. After you choose how you want your articles to look, Readability installs as a bookmarklet in your browser toolbar. As you come across an illegible article, click the bookmark; Readability pulls only the text of the article and relevant pictures into one clean, neat page, styled as you chose in setup.

For my bookmarklet, I chose Newspaper style with medium size font and medium margins, and I’m very impressed so far. I would strongly recommend Readability to anyone who peruses any amount of articles.

Readability transforms articles from this,

Into this,

I’ve only had a couple problems so far. Readability identifies the longest chunk of text on the page as the article, so if the article is very short, Readability either might not find it, or may substitute something else (I once ended up with a very readable set of Google text ads). Still, I anticipate that the demand for this sort of service is strong, and will continue to grow especially as screens become smaller and more cluttered.

Secret low-cost Verizon cell phone plans

When I switched from a pay-as-you-go phone to a contract deal from Verizon a couple years ago, I opted for the cheapest plan the Best Buy employee would offer me: 450 minutes of anytime calls for $45, plus $5 for 250 text messages. This seemed fine at the time, but if I’d known that there were even cheaper plans available through Verizon’s customer service, I could have saved myself a lot of money over the past couple years.

Last week, I called Verizon and threatened to switch carriers because I didn’t feel I was getting a good deal. The rep looked at my usage and offered me this plan:

$29.99 / Month
200 Anytime minutes
500 Night/weekend minutes
Unlimited mobile to mobile calling

I then asked the rep if there were any even cheaper options, and she told me of these plans:

$24.99 / Month
100 Anytime minutes
500 Night/weekend minutes
No free mobile to mobile calling

$19.99 / Month
50 Anytime minutes
250 Night/Weekend minutes
No free mobile to mobile calling

Under each plan, overages are 45¢ per minute and text messages are 20¢ each. I went with the $29.99 plan and added 250 texts for $5, because the majority of my calls are mobile to mobile, and I text enough that I’d spend more than $5 on texts anyway. I’ve been pleased with Verizon’s customer service for the past eight years I’ve been with them, and I’m glad they could accommodate me this time, but I think if they would offer these cheaper plans from the beginning, they would have many more happy customers.

Dropbox solves my iPod problems

db1I’ve been a Dropbox user for about six months now, and it’s been pretty useful. I use it primarily to transfer files between my own computer and my computer science department lab account. It also comes in handy to share a quick picture online: dragging and dropping the file into my public dropbox folder is easier than opening a browser and uploading the picture to a hosting service. Still, it’s only been useful in a minor way so far, and hasn’t really done anything I couldn’t have done already with a little more effort.

That has changed. Enter the Dropbox iPhone app [iTunes link]. This app solves a problem I’ve been having, namely storing PDFs on my iPod Touch. A few of my professors upload their class readings online as PDFs, and before now I’d had no way of storing several PDFs on my iPod for offline viewing. The Dropbox app lets you not only access files in your Dropbox folder, but lets you download your “favorites” for faster (offline) viewing. This essentially gives my iPod the eReader functionality I’ve been wanting since I got it. I’ve tried other apps, like Stanza, for uploading PDFs, but I had too much trouble syncing. Stanza must be synced over a local wifi network, and my school’s network doesn’t seem to allow it. Syncing to the Dropbox app couldn’t be easier; it’s just click and drag.

The other problem the Dropbox app solves is transferring photos quickly and easily from the iPod Touch to my computer. Syncing my iPod with my Mac is a pain sometimes; half the time the computer refuses to recognize the iPod at all, and the other half of the time, it thinks it’s a camera and doesn’t open iTunes. Now I can upload photos from my iPod to my Dropbox account, and from there I can save them on my computer in less time than it takes iTunes to realize my iPod has been plugged in. Admittedly, this would be a more useful feature if I had an iPhone instead of an iPod Touch, but this feature did allow me to upload the screenshots I took quite speedily.

Unfortunately, the Dropbox app only lets you upload photos. It would be fantastic if it could upload notes as text files. If it had just this one extra feature, I’d probably pay about $5 for the app. However, the best part is that I don’t have to. It’s free!

Click to expand thumbnails of the app in action.

db2db3db4

Of Muppets and Youtube

I seem to have developed a muppet addiction this week. The Muppets Studio released a new youtube video on Monday in which the Muppets do Bohemian Rhapsody. It’s been insanely popular, and even became a trending topic on Twitter today.

If you like that, you should check out the 1981 TV documentary, “Of Muppets and Men,” which can be found in six segments on Youtube. It goes into some detail on how The Muppet Show was produced, and has a lot of classic clips and great backstage footage. Here’s the first part for you:

My top 5 iPhone apps

I don’t know how I ever lived without my iPod Touch. As a student on a campus with wifi everywhere, it acts just like an iPhone, but without the outrageous monthly fees and AT&T headaches. Here are my five favorite apps residing on my iPod:

iRedditiReddit
Price: $0.99
iReddit

I am a big Reddit user. I tried the older open-source iPhone app for Reddit (known simply as “Reddit”), but it kept crashing. I’ve since shelled out a whopping $0.99 for the paid version, and I’m very happy with it. It loads quickly and crashes infrequently. I can check my mailbox and shake to get a random link. What more could you ask for?

echofonEchofon (formerly Twitterfon)
Price: Free ($0.99 for Pro version)
Echofon (Formerly TwitterFon)

This is a very fully-featured app, for being free. I can do anything on Echofon that I could from twitter.com on my computer, and even a little more. For example, Echofon colors unread tweets, which is a handier feature than it sounds. There is a Pro version for $0.99 that I haven’t tried that will sync tweets with their browser plugin, but I’m happy enough with the free version that I haven’t tried it. The app is ad-supported, but the ads are limited to a space the size of a tweet at the top of the screen, so they don’t bother me very much.

yelpYelp
Price: Free

Yelp

If you haven’t tried Yelp at all yet, I highly recommend it. It lists and rates restaurants and stores in a given locale, so it’s great if you’re traveling or even just looking for a new place to eat around your home. The iPhone app is perfect because I usually don’t bring my computer along with me when I travel. It saved me in New York when the group wanted Eastern Indian food and in Montreal when we wanted French fare. The ratings are generally top-notch; people take the service very seriously. Overall, it’s a great service, and the app makes it super-easy to find businesses by location, by price range, or even by cuisine.  Each listing shows ratings, reviews, location, and phone number.

solfreesolitaireSol Free Solitaire
Price: Free
Sol Free Solitaire

I love this app because it’s simple, it’s free, and it does exactly what I want: play one-card-draw solitaire. It is ad-supported, but the ads do not get in the way of gameplay at all. The cards are easy to read and equally easy to move around. There are also no cheesy sound effects. The app also contains more versions of solitaire, such as 3-card-draw and Demon, but I haven’t played with them very much. Overall, this is a good implementation of a simple and fun game.

WildWestPinballWild West Pinball
Price: $0.99
Wild West Pinball

I downloaded this app when it was free, and I couldn’t believe it was priced so low at the time. It’s an addictive little pinball game with an incredibly realistic physics engine. With the 2.0 update, they’ve moved the app to $0.99, but I still think it’s worth the price. They also improved a bunch of gameplay elements, such as fixing some of the most annoying traps in the game so the ball doesn’t get stuck there all the time anymore (I doubled my high score the first time I tried the new version). Just make sure you disable the music through the Settings app before you play; the included music is really cheesy and annoying. I keep the sound effects, though, considering how realistic they make the game feel.

What are your favorite iPhone apps? Tell me about them in the comments or send me an email!

Cool airport stuff found

While on my way home from my trip to the Grace Hopper Conference in Tucson this year, I got to spend plenty of time in a few different airports. While in Dallas on a layover, I saw a couple uses of technology that I thought were particularly clever.

ipod_vending_machine• Gadget Vending Machines: I know these devices are not new. I’ve gotten used to seeing iPod vending machines in shopping malls; my local Macy’s has at least one. I had never understood the appeal, though. Gadgets costing over $100 tend not to be spur-of-the-moment purchases, so why would anyone buy an iPod or a digital camera from a vending machine? I’m sure better deals can be had online. When I saw one of these machines in the airport, however, it suddenly all made sense. Considering how easy it is to lose your gadgets when schlepping through security and such, an airport is one of the few places when you might suddenly decide that you needs a new digital camera or high-end pair of headphones. (I’m not sure about the iPods, because a factory-fresh iPod wouldn’t have any music on it, making it less than useful as entertainment on a plane.) The airport creates the perfect environment of hectic transportation and emergency purchases to support these machines, and I’d never thought of that before.

Ad-Supported Public Internet: As I walked down the terminal, lamenting the lack of free wifi, I passed a kiosk offering free public internet. I thought this was strange, considering that when customers are trapped in a closed environment, like an airport (or a plane, for that matter), they usually have to pay through the nose for basics like food and internet. Intrigued, I took a closer look. It turned out this kiosk did indeed offer free internet access, and it prompted the customer to click on one of three ads on the screen to continue. It turned out that clicking on an ad started a short video, and after that, there was internet access. I didn’t test out the machine much farther than that, because who knows what kind of tracking software could have been installed. Still, I’m a fan of ad-supported services (Gmail, anyone?), and I think it’s a step in the right direction for airports to offer ad-based services rather than the digital equivalent of the $10 ham sandwich.

Found key item: Jisho.org

jisho.orgThis new semester marks my third year studying Japanese, and I don’t think I could have done it without jisho.org and its Kanji by Radicals index (jisho is dictionary in Japanese).  In my Advanced Japanese class, we primarily review grammar and learn new Kanji, but the hardest part for me is that the instructions in our homework are in Japanese for the first time. Jisho.org has saved my life, or at least my homework, on more than one occasion this year, and for this I thank it.

Update (9/19/09): I recently discovered that Jisho.org also has a mobile version for iPhone/iPod Touch that works better than most dedicated Japanese translation apps. I highly recommend it!

The Timbuk2 Commute 2.0 Laptop Messenger Bag

Commute 2.0 and Mini MetroThose who know me quickly find out that I am a big fan of Timbuk2 messenger bags. I’ve had a small Classic Messenger since high school, and last year I bought one of their Mini Metro bags while it was on clearance. The Mini Metro makes the perfect everyday purse, and the Classic Messenger held books and things going between classes these past two years. Both bags have served me well. My favorite part is how much stuff they hold: my Classic Messenger holds almost as much gear as a school backpack, and the Mini Metro not only accommodates all my personal items, but also is capable of holding a jacket if I want to take it off or need one for later. Timbuk2 is even based in San Francisco; what more could I ask for?

Alas, for the past two years, my laptop has been missing out on the action. I have a separate laptop bag I’ve toted it around in, but when I need to bring both books and my computer somewhere, I either have to stuff both into one bag (not safe for the laptop) or carry both the laptop tote and a bag of books (not fun for me).

The great news is that Timbuk2 introduced the Commute 2.0 (a redesign of their original Commute bag) last June, and ever since I saw the announcement, my laptop has begging for it. I held off for a while until they came up with a few new colors, but yesterday I went to their flagship store in San Francisco and bought it in black with the intention of decorating it somehow (probably with silver sharpies or pins). Now I will be able to carry both my computer and my textbooks to class without endangering the computer.

Commute 2.0 (open)The big selling point of this bag is that it is TSA compliant, meaning that I do not have to remove my laptop from the bag at the TSA checkpoint when I carry my computer on a plane. Here’s how it works: the computer goes into a self-contained compartment on the back of the bag. When you get to the security checkpoint, you unzip the compartment and lay the bag flat open like a book, so that there is no metal above or below the computer (the image makes it a lot clearer). I will have the opportunity to test this ability when I fly to New York on Friday, and I’m excited not to have to dig in my overstuffed backpack to pull the laptop out, and then spend 10 minutes trying to stuff it back in afterward.

Other perks include:

• More pockets than I ever could have expected (I count 17 individual compartments)
• Exterior water bottle pocket (though I think I’ll use it for my phone)
• Included grab handle on the top and comfort pad on the strap
• Reflector tabs for visibility at night
• Promoting SF-made products

I’m very excited to have bought this bag before going back to school; we’ll see how it holds up in an actual educational environment. I’d love to hear any ideas on how I should decorate it; expect pictures on how that turns out!