This is BrainLog, a blog by Dan Sanderson. Older entries, from October 1999 through September 2010, are preserved for posterity, but are no longer maintained. See the front page and newer entries.

November 2006 Archives

November 30, 2006

The Making of a LEGO Brick, a photo tour by BusinessWeek.

Adieu to Google Answers.

Emacs AllOut is a powerful outliner. It is included with newer versions of Emacs (21 and 22), but you may want to grab the latest version from Ken's web site. It's similar to, but much more powerful than, outline-mode (which is also included with Emacs). See also the Emacs Wiki page, which includes lots of additional tips.

To use the latest version downloaded from the web site, put lines similar to these in your .emacs file:

(load "~/lib/emacs/allout.el")
(require 'allout)
(allout-init t)

(To use the version that came with your Emacs, drop the first line. In Emacs 21, also replace "allout-init" with "outline-init".)

Try C-h f allout-mode RET to see help text about AllOut mode. From there, click on "allout.el" to play with its source code, which has AllOut markup so you can expand, collapse and rearrange it.

You may wish to redefine the command prefix, which in the latest version of AllOut is defined as C-c SPC to get out of the way of other C-c keybindings you may have. To redefine the prefix to simply C-c, add this line to your .emacs file:

(setq allout-command-prefix "^C")

where ^C is the actual Control-C character, typed as C-q C-c.

Let's do a related Newbie Emacs Tip...

continue reading...

November 29, 2006

the show with zefrank: scrabble. offers Subversion, Trac and Bugzilla hosting for $7/month on their smallest plan, and less if you pay 3 or 12 months in advance. After repeated failed attempts to set up Trac on my web host or my Mac (lots of dependencies), I finally decided it was worth a try.'s administrative interface is scarily thread-bare, and the redirection to the German Paypal site is a little surprising. But everything works as advertised, and set-up is virtually instantaneous. You can even try it for seven days before paying.

November 28, 2006

The Head First folks discuss their techniques for using graphics to make a document easier to read. My favorite: "Pretend that for some reason you cannot use words to make your point."

Their whole site is good.

The S stands for Simple, a dialog on SOAP web services.

Dopus, a full DocBook build suite based on Java, Apache Ant, Xerces, Saxon, FOP, and the DocBook templates. Support for XML features like DTD catalogs and XInclude, and features a customization layer that allows for per-project template overrides. Works on any platform with Java (Windows, Unix, Mac OS X). As with all of its dependencies, Dopus is open source, and released under the GPL.

Newbie Emacs tip: In a text file, the end of a line is stored in one of three ways, depending on the environment in which the file was created. Windows continues to use the old DOS-style of ending lines with two bytes: a carriage return (CR, ASCII 13) and a linefeed (LF, ASCII 10). Unix environments use just a linefeed, and older Macs used to use just the carriage return. Emacs helpfully tries to detect which style a file is using automatically, and preserve the style unless told to do otherwise. If the current buffer uses the DOS-style, "(DOS)" appears in the Emacs modeline.

To change the end-of-line encoding style for a buffer from DOS to Unix, type C-x <RET> f unix <RET>. If you save the buffer to a file (C-x C-s), the file will use Unix-style end-of-line encoding.

November 27, 2006

Blockbuster signs deal to be exclusive renter for Weinsteins.

If negative public reaction has any effect on crap like this: Boo! "Both Harvey and Bob Weinstein... [said] it would help their movies be seen by more people." How the hell does forcing me to use Blockbuster help me see your movies?

Slate: The Nintendo Wii is better than the PS3 and the Xbox 360.

In Wii Baseball, I stood in a batter's stance and unconsciously backed up in the box before a pitch. In bowling and golf, I held my form until I saw the result of my most recent bowl or swing. I wasn't just playing a video-game simulation of these sports. I was bowling, golfing, boxing, and batting. My wife, Jen, initially complained, "Isn't the point of these games that you don't have to move around like this?" But soon she was hurling jabs, hooks, and uppercuts with abandon in a Wii Boxing match...

HexFiend, the super-nice file examiner for Mac OS X, has a new release, is now released with source code under a BSD-style license, and has a developer's wiki with design documentation. I like Ammon's software writing quite a bit, I wish he'd do more of it.

MsgFiler for Apple Mail. Mail folders get more useful. (Still a bit slow for IMAP folders, but that's not its fault. Apple Mail makes me want faster IMAP hosting.)

November 21, 2006

The iSee 360i is a $249 add-on to your iPod that gives it the ability to record video and audio from any source. The iSee provides its own color screen, navigation buttons and menus, using the iPod for storage. It was designed with pre-video-iPods in mind, and can use any in a wide range of iPod models (not the latest 60GB, though the latest 30GB works; does work with the Nano).

The presence of iPods with their own video playback capability calls out an odd decision made by the iSee's designers: For $100 more, they could have added an internal hard drive and had a nice standalone portable video/audio recorder/player. They chose to overlap with the iPod's mammoth market share as an add-on, rather than try to compete with it. Not only that, but they decided that the iSee's target demographic would be willing to pay $249 on top of the cost of their iPod to have this functionality, or at least would consider the iPod a given and not count its cost toward the total.

Some of the iSee's features are redundant with the latest video iPods, and it'd be cool if there were a device that added the recording feature to a video iPod at a lower price, omitting the (admittedly larger) color screen. Nevertheless, it sounds like an interesting way to get more life out of an older iPod, even if it is close to the cost of a new one.

I'm not sure about the experience of digitizing TV in real-time, thought it's probably faster than my current solution of burning TV to a DVD-R then ripping it on my Mac. I'd rather my TiVo just have an iPod dock.

November 16, 2006

Microsoft Windows PowerShell, previously known as "Monad" or "MSH," is now available for download. Seriously yay. The 5% of the time I have to spend in Windows will be much improved.

Mew, another mail reader for Emacs. In active development, with decent English documentation.

November 14, 2006

The trailer for The Simpsons Movie is out, and guess what. It sucks. I think we can safely assume from this that the movie will target the show's current (17th season and counting) viewership, with the violent visual gags and dull pop culture references, and not the show's original fans, who used to enjoy quality, truth-biting satire and multi-layered wit and characterization.

Naturally, a show in its 17th contiguous season will have had many styles and many audiences, and a "movie" could only appeal to a few of them. I suppose it makes commercial sense for the movie to go for the show's current audience. But I think those of us who could re-watch anything in the first 8 seasons repeatedly and still have a good time but can't get through a recent episode once without retching are entitled to feel a little disappointed.

Sun releases Java under the GPL open source license.

AMC's morning movies for parents with babies program, ReelMoms, has been discontinued. My wife and I saw several flicks via ReelMoms while on leave with our first kid, so I'm sorry to see this go. (Thanks Lily.)

November 10, 2006

Yojimbo 1.3 adds tagging.

David Pogue reviews the Zune, as does Walt Mossberg.

I expected some rough edges on the first version of Microsoft's new portable music player, and certainly some of these drawbacks can and will be corrected in future versions (like extras and accessories). But some things about this are just wrong.

Wi-fi sharing with other Zunes is a genuinely interesting idea, and I can understand why the music industry would insist that beamed tracks expire in 3 days (so it's not a real copy). But a beamed song will also expire after 3 plays, and the person that beamed it to you can never beam it to you again. There might be some fun interactions here: I try to beam something to a stranger at the mall, they try it out then beam something else back. But for beaming between friends, the one-beam-per-song-per-person limit ends the conversation pretty quickly. And the 1-beam 3-play 3-day limit applies to all audio files, not just Zune music store purchases.

You can share photos without restrictions, +1. You can't share videos, -10. Though the transfer rates would probably preclude transferring large video files anyway, and that's the kind of thing that would keep Apple from including such a feature (bad customer experience), so it's hard to knock Microsoft for that.

I gather from descriptions that the Zune wi-fi sharing doesn't have a "pull" model: You can't discover a nearby Zune, browse its collection, and silently sample. The other person must explicitly try to share it with you. When I first heard of the feature, I compared it to opening iTunes on a university library's wifi network, where you can browse and stream from dozens of other college students' computers (with their permission, but without having to ask). Zune sharing isn't like that at all.

As Pogue mentions, if wi-fi sharing catches on, Apple can always add it to the iPod. I suspect that the same market forces that compelled Microsoft to include severe restrictions on the feature would also apply to Apple. In other words, I wouldn't expect Apple's version to allow for unlimited sharing of non-DRM'd audio files.

The Zune cannot be used as a portable hard drive, unlike the iPod and most other music players. Maybe this is to prevent hacking the Zune's operating system, or ripping beamed music off the device (for later DRM strripping on your PC).

From Mossberg:

Even worse, to buy even a single 99-cent song from the Zune store, you have to purchase blocks of "points" from Microsoft, in increments of at least $5. You can't just click and have the 99 cents deducted from a credit card, as you can with iTunes. You must first add points to your account, then buy songs with these points. So, even if you are buying only one song, you have to allow Microsoft, one of the world's richest companies, to hold on to at least $4.01 of your money until you buy another. And the point system is deceptive. Songs are priced at 79 points, which some people might think means 79 cents. But 79 points actually cost 99 cents.

From Pogue:

At the very attractive but dog-slow Zune store, for example, you can either buy songs ($1 each) or rent them (unlimited songs for $15 a month). But Microsoft’s store doesn’t sell TV shows, movies or audio books. The music catalog is much smaller — 2 million vs. 3.5 million on iTunes — a fact that Microsoft ham-handedly tries to conceal by listing stuff that it doesn’t actually sell, like Beatles albums.

What makes the Zune a genuine iPod competitor is the advertising budget. Of the hundreds of portable music players that have come out before and since the first iPod, I haven't seen one ad for any of them telling me that I ought to prefer them to a recognized brand with a good reputation, let alone why. To that end, a distinctive feature like device-to-device wireless sharing is a bonus even if it doesn't work, just for the opportunity to say "We're different." The Zune will be a grand experiment in how discerning consumers really are about this sort of thing.

November 9, 2006

ATPM 12.11 - Outliners: Writing Environments, Plus Two New Outliners.

Earlier this year I started and mostly completed a project to write up reviews of major Mac notetaking/organizer applications, which I had intended to publish here in a serial fashion. I put a lot of effort into it and got up to 9 reviews before taking a break, and during that break almost all of the applications released new major versions that'd require rewriting all the reviews.

But the main motivation for the project remains: As much as I want an application like DevonThink, I can't stand using it, and I'm always impressed that other Mac users regard it so highly. It has a few nice features, but most of the interface is trashy and poorly thought out, and I'm not going to trust an app that I don't enjoy using. But of the dozens of similar applications for the Mac, some get some things right and other things wrong, and none seem to completely cover the bases for features and usability.

GoboLinux, the new Linux distribution where each application gets its own directory tree. If it works, this is awesome.

And what's with all Python software wanting to vomit classes all over my Python installation?

Garritan Interactive (makers of the surprisingly inexpensive Garritan Personal Orchestra) offers an interactive presentation of Rimsky-Korsakov's Principles of Orchestration, free online.

20 Useful OS X Tips. I usually don't blog tip lists unless there's at least one that will probably change my life, and in this case, it's #9:

To select a block of text, click the start position, then Shift-click the end position. Significant;y, this doesn’t just work in editing applications like Word (where you might be already doing it anyway), but it also works with non-editable text, such as a webpage in Safari.

The Django Book is being released a couple of chapters at a time. The first two chapters are up.

November 8, 2006

Jay Allen figures out DreamHost, Movable Type and FastCGI for real. Step 1: Ignore all the other tutorials on the web on this subject.

Web design is 95% typography, with a list of resources.

A review of Zotero, an online/offline research tool for Firefox 2.0.

November 7, 2006

Optimizing Page Load Time.

Many months after everyone knew that a Mentos-brand mint dropped into a bottle of Diet Coke would result in an entertaining mess, got Internet famous with a video of Mentos-Diet Coke fireworks. We all enjoyed the video, and we all muttered that Coca-Cola and Mentos ought to be paying these guys. Tada: the sequel video, sponsored by Coke and Mentos, complete with make-your-own video contest.

November 6, 2006 Beethoven Symphony No. 3. Awesome multimedia presentation on Beethoven's 3rd, including a score explorer that plays the real symphony recording of the music along with video of the orchestra, a current key indicator, and more.

All hail SpamSieve, the $30 spam filter for Mac OS X. The recent uptick in spam, especially pump-and-dump stock scam spam, has made it past SpamAssassin as well as Mac Mail's own junk filter. SpamSieve cleaned it out. SpamAssassin is doing quite a bit of heavy lifting with zero false positives, so my approach for the time being will be a combination.

One flaw: The new-mail "ding" goes off before SpamSieve activates, so you get dings for spam. Update: Turn off Mail's own notification, then tell SpamSieve to make the ding noise—for good mail only—in its preferences.

November 3, 2006

830! How a carpenter got the highest Scrabble score ever. YouTube for PowerPoint presentations. (Built on Amazon S3.) What's New in Python 2.5. An easier tour than the official change list.

November 1, 2006

Lifehacker: Firefox 2 tweaks.

37signals' Getting Real is now available in a free HTML edition.