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.

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:

14+ nerdy Halloween costumes

funny-pictures-basement-cat-wishes-you-a-happy-halloweenI love excuses to dress up, and every year on Halloween I come up with more ideas for costumes than I have time or resources to do (I’m making two costumes for myself already, and I’m helping my housemates sew theirs). So if you’re still looking for something nerdy this year, here are a few technology and internet-related costumes to try out. Most are pretty simple, and could be created last minute with just a trip to the thrift store, bargain store, or craft store for cheap clothes, blank shirts, and other supplies.

Lolcat: Cat ears are easy to find this time of year, or you can fashion a pair from felt or paper and a headband or string. Affix a witty caption to your chest, probably in the form of “Im in ur ___, ___ing ur ___.” As a bonus, you could also claim to be XKCD #262. Other memes make great costumes as well (don a pair of hipster sunglasses and suddenly you’re Rick Astley!).

Windows Blue Screen of Death: Dress all in blue and draw black X’s over your eyes with eyeliner or black makeup. For more authenticity you could put the actual error text on your shirt. (See below for more details on writing on shirts).

Code: Get a plain white shirt and write some code on it, either with a Sharpie/fabric marker or using a printable iron-on transfer. There are lots of things you could do with this. You could write some Python and be a snake, or write some Java and be a cup of coffee. You could even pick some clever songs in code and go as a music album.

Google: Get a plain white shirt and draw out a 1 with 100 0′s (a googol). Use red, blue, and green markers to evoke the Google color scheme.

Xbox / Xbox 360: There are a couple different ways to go about this one. Either you could get an actual cardboard box and draw an X on it, or you could use a blank shirt and draw an X inside a box. Draw a circle on the back of whichever article to be an Xbox 360.

Halo: Construct a halo out of aluminum foil. This makes a great complement to the Xbox 360 costume.

Tycho and/or Gabe from Penny Arcade: This works especially well for a couple of guys going out together. Tycho wears a blue sweater and khakis, and Gabe wears a yellow tshirt over an orange long-sleeved shirt with jeans. If you want to go all the way and make Gabe’s Pacman logo on the tshirt, I’d use black felt and fabric glue rather than black paint or markers. These costumes have been done successfully in the past.

iPod Billboard: Simply dress in black, attach a neon posterboard to your rear, and rock out with white earbuds while you collect your candy.

Steve Jobs: You’ll be recognizable as the Apple CEO with a black turtleneck, jeans, and your iPhone or iPod. Bonus points for making reference to his recent liver transplant.

Ninja: Ninja costumes never go out of style, and can be whipped up in a matter of minutes. Dress in all black and use these ninja mask lessons to make a hooded mask. I even tried out the instructions myself to ensure ease of creating a clever disguise. For added nerdiness, be the Ask a Ninja ninja or attach programming to your costume to be a code ninja.

Blogs: Make reference to your favorite blog while you trick or treat! My favorites include,

  • Cakewrecks: It would be a little sticky to attend a party in, but I’m amused by the idea of writing a poorly-spelled inscription on a blank shirt and smothering yourself with a cupcake. Kudos if you glue on birthday candles randomly, too.
  • Photoshop Disasters: Create an awkward visage by using face paint or makeup to alter your features dramatically or even add additional eyes, noses, ears, etc. You could also stretch your sleeve over your hand and tie it there, or attach extra digits to your hands if you can find them at the Halloween store. Go crazy, but make sure you dress snappily, especially in Ralph Lauren.

The Doctor from Doctor Who: Pick your favorite Doctor (you have 11 to choose from) and go to the thrift store to pick up an overcoat, or even an oddly-striped scarf. This costume is especially great if you have a blonde significant other to play Rose or if you already own a replica sonic screwdriver.

Lego: This is a classic, but what kid didn’t play with Legos? My favorite version of this costume involves painting or wrapping a box with solid-colored wrapping paper. Cut the bottoms off of paper cups, paint or wrap them similarly and use them for bumps on your Lego brick.

Balloon Boy: What, too soon? To imitate the kid who captured the nation’s attention by pretending to fly away in a weather balloon, grab a helium balloon from a party store, cover it with aluminum foil and attach it to your person. For added authenticity, put on a “Hello my name is Falcon” name tag or wear a cardboard box. Someone is already selling kits like these online, if you can believe it.

If you decide to write on or otherwise design a shirt as part of your costume, keep in mind what you’ll be making when you choose how to make it.

  • Iron-on transfers are great for lots of precise text, and give a nice finished look. They’re a little expensive though, and do require use of an iron.
  • Fabric markers or Sharpies are best for writing cheaply on a shirt. It’s easy to look messy, though. For best results, put a piece of cardboard inside the shirt and pin down the fabric before you try to write on it.
  • For larger designs with less detail, try using bottled fabric paint and a cheap brush. Again, you’ll definitely want to put something between the layers of the shirt to protect the backside from paint stains.

Got any other bright ideas for techy halloween costumes? Past experience? Hilarious annecdotes? Leave a comment or email mystitat@gmail.com.

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!

Ads that bother me: Duracell

Have you ever watched a commercial or seen an ad and thought, “Are they serious? They can’t be serious. There’s a problem there.” I find myself riding this train of thought fairly often. One of the main contenders is Duracell commercials:

Duracell claims its batteries are better than competitors’ batteries because important people like EMT’s and rock stars use them because, “It just has to work.” I can’t be the only person who thinks this claim is greatly exaggerated. Duracell batteries don’t have any special properties that make them less likely to die than other batteries; on the contrary, they expect the batteries to die, or else there would be no market for fresh replacements. These commercials are misleading because they make the consumer feel that Duracell batteries are somehow safer than other batteries, when there is really no guarantee that when your power goes out and you need a light, that a Duracell-powered flashlight is any more likely to work than any other. If the batteries had some kind of alarm that sounded when they were about to die, I would feel much safer about the batteries that power my defibrillator.

Of course, if you ask me, they would be better off advertising with the Duracell Bunny.

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!