Jul 28
The USB plug: A design fail
icon1 techandlife | icon2 Hardware | icon4 July 28, 2011| icon32 Comments »

USB plug

USB connections are ubiquitous nowadays and have almost completely replaced the old parallel and serial connectors we used to use to connect peripherals to our computers. Most of us are using USB 2.0 just now but USB 3.0 is almost upon us. Of course the new standard will have a similar connector as the old one for backwards compatibility. But what a pity a little more thought wasn’t put into design at the beginning.

The old serial and parallel connectors were shaped in such a way that you could only plug them in one way. Not so the USB Type A connector which we commonly use nowadays. You can try and shove it in the wrong way, as I’ve done many a time – it’s a 50:50 chance. Often when this fails, I turn it over, try to plug it in that way, realise this is wrong too, turn it back and it fits – not patient enough the first time I guess. There is a USB symbol on one side which should show the correct way to plug it, but often these symbols are a dull black on black (not very useful when you’re struggling at the back of a PC in a dimly lit room) or sometimes there’s no symbol present at all. And if the USB socket for the plug is mounted vertically, there’s no indication which way round it should go. I’ve resorted to marking the correct way in blue permanent marker or coloured sticky disks but I shouldn’t have to do this. An asymmetrical shape would have helped to plug them correctly and indeed the asymmetrically shaped USB Type B connectors which connect to printers for example are fine. Why couldn’t we have had a similar bevelled edge design for the USB Type A connectors?

Yes, it’s a little late to complain about them now that they’re so well established. But there is a design concept afoot for a Double USB connector which will plug in no matter which way you try so perhaps there’s hope for a solution yet.

How do you get round USB connector problems? I’m sure I’m not alone.


Jul 27

I love getting comments on blog posts and I’ve already blogged my arguments for keeping posts open for comments. Thankfully, most posts I make receive mostly positive comments and I haven’t had to deal with too much negative stuff. Obviously I listen to the negatives and try and improve if I’m at fault. But I think we can all learn something from negative comments on tech advice blogs – and that includes the commenter, the audience and myself. Here’s two general examples based on comments I received recently.

Your tech tip didn’t work for me

This particular post had about 10-15 positive comments. People really liked the tech tip I gave and it worked for them all. Then one person left a comment just saying that it didn’t work for them. Fair enough. But it would have been nice if the commenter had given a bit more info on what he had tried before leaving the negative comment. If the tip worked for me and the first 10 commenters then perhaps the problem may not be the tech tip but a conflict in that person’s system causing it to fail to work. If they had access to another computer, they could try running it on that for example. The main thing is just try your best to figure out why it doesn’t work for you and eliminate your set-up before leaving a negative comment then we can all learn if there are particular set-ups where the tip won’t work.

Criticise, but at least offer an alternative

In another post, I reviewed some free software which I thought was pretty good. Again a number of commenters liked it. Then one person accurately pointed out some failings in the software and said he was disappointed. Again fair enough, but it would have been nice if, instead of being completely negative, the commenter had recommended a free better alternative or one that they used themselves so again we would have learned something. But there was nothing.

So if you leave negative comments on tech tips blogs, help us all to learn from your comment and take something positive from it.

Any comment on blog comments? Drop a comment below.


Jul 25

Supermarket tips

Here’s a few grocery shopping tips I find useful and you might too.

Hard sell. Dealing with unripe fruit, e.g. kiwis

Usually when I buy packs of say kiwi fruit in the supermarket, they are hard to the touch and pretty sour to eat. I find it’s best to put them away in a dark cupboard for 4 or 5 days to ripen until they become slightly soft to touch. The best routine I’ve found is to get into the habit of buying your next (unripe) 6-pack of kiwis just when you start on your ripened pack. This way, if you eat one kiwi a day, your next pack should be ripened when you finish that pack.

Look up… or down. Watch the eye-level pricing

You’d almost need a calculator these days to work out the best deals in stores. I’ve found that supermarkets here tend to put the higher priced brands at eye-level. Look to the higher or lower shelves for better priced great alternatives. For example, I was shopping for tartare sauce recently. Our local supermarket stocks a bewildering variety from real cheap to premium brands. There were better prices two shelves down from the eye level premium brands.

Closed shop. Watching store opening times

Evening and late night opening times can be a little confusing and hard to remember. There’s nothing worse than getting to a store to find it’s closed for the night. You can usually check opening times online beforehand, but in the UK, the Opening Times website will keep you right. It lists businesses by location or post code. If your store isn’t listed, you can add the opening details yourself or update them if they’re incorrect. Check if you have a similar website in your part of the world with a Google query like opening times ‘your town’ or opening times ‘your country’. Here’s another idea. To make a quick note of opening times at the store, use your smartphone to take a photo of the board of opening times at the entrance, then transfer it to say Evernote so you always have access to it on your phone.

Fruit crush. Don’t crush your delicates

At the store checkout, when you’re loading your goodies onto the checkout belt, place the heavier, or robust items (tins, milk drums, etc) on first and leave the lighter items and delicates (fruit, eggs, cakes, etc) till last. That way, the robust heavy, stuff goes through first and you can pack this at the bottom of your bags and lay the delicates on top so they’re not crushed.

Dead flat. Recycle your old batteries

At the checkout, our local Lidl store has a box where you can deposit your old batteries for recycling. Much better for the environment than chucking them in your refuse bin. Check out if your local stores have this facility. If not, ask them why not.

Got any great shopping tips? Drop a comment below.


Jul 22

You don’t have to scan documents to your PC then save them into Evernote organizer in two stages, you can set up your printer/scanner to scan directly into Evernote. I’ve already posted about scanning directly to Evernote with an Epson Perfection 4180 scanner.

I recently got a Canon MP series multifunction printer with built in scanner (MP280) and had no trouble setting it up to scan directly to Evernote. Here’s what you do.

When you installed your Canon printer drivers and utilities on the CD which came with the printer, you would have installed MP Navigator, the application which, among other things, allows you to scan directly to an application, in our case Evernote. Switch on your printer and place a test sheet on the scanner tray. On your PC desktop click Start, All Programs and navigate to Canon Utilities and click on that and open the MP Navigator folder.

scan to evernote10

For me it was actually called MP Navigator EX 4.0 but you may have a different version. Then double click the executable file in that folder (again for me it was MP Navigator EX 4.0 as shown above) and that should open Canon MP Navigator. If you intend to scan stuff frequently to Evernote, you could copy a program shortcut to your desktop. To do this, drag that executable to your desktop while pressing the Ctrl key (this makes a copy rather than moving it).  Once MP Navigator is open, click on One-click at the top right and you should see the options below.

scan to evernote11

Click on Custom and that should open a box like below. If it starts to scan now, just click Cancel.

scan to evernote12

This is the part where we select Evernote as the program we want to open the scan with. So under the section Application Settings, click Set as shown above, then navigate to your Evernote folder (for me it was C:\Program Files\Evernote\Evernote but it may be different for you. You’re looking for the Evernote executable file as shown below:

scan to evernote13

Select that file and click Open. Evernote will now appear as the application in the Open with: box on the previous screenshot. Click Apply in the bottom left corner to save Evernote in that box, then click the green Scan button in the bottom right corner and if all goes well the test page should be scanned and Evernote will open to show it.

By the way, now this is set up, in future when you click Custom, everything will happen automatically so make sure you have your page loaded ready for scanning.


Jul 20

Chrome extensions

A few months ago, I posted on the top recommended Google Chrome extensions which I compiled from recommendations across the blogosphere. I thought I’d now list the extensions I find most useful, i.e. the ones I’ve installed that I use pretty much on a daily basis.

Several of my top extensions are also in the earlier post – LastPass, Clip to Evernote, and Shareaholic so I won’t say any more on them. Here’s the rest.

Diigo

I’ve been bookmarking sites with the Diigo extension for quite a while now. Diigo lets you import all your bookmarks from Delicious at the start and then you can set it up to send copies of subsequent bookmarks back to Delicious so you have all your bookmarks on two independent sites. This is the extension I use the most… by a long way. I wrote a post on bookmarking versus searching some time ago which you might like to read.

SiteAdvisor

SiteAdvisor will give you a safety rating for the site you have just loaded in your browser.

SEO Site Tools

SEO Site Tools gives the page rank at a glance and some SEO info on the site your browsing. There’s more info on it here.

Adblock Plus

Adblock Plus works away in the background to remove ads and pop-ups from websites as you browse.

iReader

Fed up with all the clutter on sites? Then install the iReader extension for distraction-free reading. The iReader icon appears at the right end of your browser address bar – click it to remove all the clutter and leave a page that’s a joy to read. The options let you disable images too if that’s what you want. You can also print the page without all the clutter. And if you’ve installed a pdf utility like doPDF, you can even print the decluttered page to a pdf. After installation, doPDF appears in your Print menu so you now have the option to print to a pdf format file. Here’s a post about using iReader.

Google Quick Scroll

The Google Quick Scroll extension helps you find what you’re looking for on a webpage faster, particularly on long webpages. I’ve written about it before here.

Google Reader Filter

If you spend a lot of time in Google Reader, then Google Reader Filter is a must. It cuts out entries you don’t want to know about and highlights ones you do. Again I’ve written about it before here and it now works in Chrome.

Facebook Disconnect

Facebook Disconnect prevents Facebook from tracking you when you visit a site which uses Facebook Connect.

Google Calendar – weekend coloration

Weekend coloration adds a different colour for Saturdays and Sundays. Not very distinctive on the new look Google Calendar though.

Unburner

If you click through to posts from Google Reader, you’ll see a lot of feedburner ‘junk’ appended at the end of the URL. Unburner removes all the unnecessary stuff so you get a clean URL for bookmarking. I’ve blogged about it here.

Well that’s my roundup of my useful Google Chrome extensions. I’d love to hear about any others that you find awesome. Drop a comment below.


Jul 12

A couple of years ago I wrote a post on online identity and privacy giving some reasons for using an alias on this blog. I registered the domain under a proxy to preserve my anonymity and have since continued to be techandlife here. As far as I’m aware, no-one reading this blog (except for close family, and Google of course) knows my real identity. So in terms of blogging, it seems you can still preserve your anonymity online, if that’s what you want.

But things have moved on quite a lot in 2 years. With the explosion of ‘social’, seen particularly in the growth of Twitter and Facebook and now it seems Google+, it’s now pretty clear that you can’t be social and hide behind an alias. To be social you have to give a real photo of yourself and a real name, and judging by the popularity of Facebook for example, most people don’t seem to have a problem with that. In fact, it’s very clear that I’m really very much in the minority holding back on revealing my identity.

I would still argue that ‘online social’ is still in its infancy. We just don’t really know what the long term effects of our online presence will be. But there’s no question it’s hard to fight against it. Apart from Twitter and Facebook, here are a further three areas where anonymity is being shoved aside.

Quora

Quora is a pretty recent and very popular questions and answers site. I tried signing up under an alias but they would have none of it. I was blocked because the name associated with my account did not conform to Quora’s naming policy. Real names please.

Facebook photo tagging

Yes I know, if you’re registered with Facebook (under your real name), you can remove your name tag from photos where you’ve been tagged, if you want. But did you know that your photos can still be tagged even if you aren’t on Facebook. I know because it’s happened to me. Yes, I know the tag won’t link back to your page, because you don’t have one, but still anyone on Facebook can insert your name in any photo there. So how many people have been tagged in Facebook without even realising it – because they’re not on Facebook. And you can only remove the tags by signing up, then removing them.

Google+

To register for Google+, the latest social network, you have to have a Google profile, and that can’t be private any more. You have to reveal at least your name and gender.

So all roads seem to be  pointing to zero anonymity now if you want to go fully ‘social’. And that seems to be right – social and anonymous just don’t fit together. People want to talk to real people. So that’s it. I’m going to embrace ‘social’ and start putting up my real name when required. What changed my mind? Well, just the seeming futility of continually pushing against it when everyone else seems happy with it… and also the arrival of Google+. I think I have to be there. Looks like it’s going to be a serious rival for Facebook and that’s got to be a good thing. We just have to blindly trust Google with our personal information and that’s okay… isn’t it?

But I’ll go cautiously. I think I know enough about online to be careful what I say and what I reveal.

Any thoughts on anonymity and social?


Jul 8

closed comments

In the past, you’ve probably come across an interesting blog post and wanted to make a comment only to find that comments are closed, probably because a month or two has passed since the date of the post. Is closing comments a good idea? Why would you want to close comments anyway?

Well some people feel that it’s hard to deal with comment spam if all posts are left open but really, a good WordPress plugin like Akismet should deal with that. It may also be worth closing comments on posts which are no longer relevant, for example, old outdated tech news, or a post about a website or web service which is no longer available, or a contest which has finished.

I’ve kept comments open on all posts and I’m delighted to see that people are still commenting on older posts. Of course not everyone reading my posts subscribes to the blog so I don’t expect comments straight away or even in the first 2 weeks after posting. Many people are obviously reaching the posts from keyword search results at a later date and dropping comments when they have something to offer. Many of my posts are tips or things I’ve learned while working with my PC and software so if someone has a tip to improve on my tip or make me more productive then I’d really like to hear about it. I have updated posts in the past with tips in the comments. Also if readers find a post helpful I love to hear that too.

You can actually follow all comments on this blog in your RSS reader by subscribing to the comments feed. Just copy and paste that link into your RSS reader.

Do you close blog comments after a set time or leave them open indefinitely?


Jul 5

Office 2010

I read a post on gHacks blog recently in which the author discussed being aligned to a tech company and its products. There was one passage there which made me stop and think:

Let’s take Office for example, it’s still the world’s most popular integrated suite by a wide margin, even on the Mac…So why is Microsoft Office the world’s best office suite? It simply can’t be just because it sells more than its competitors. For this to happen people first have to believe it’s great…

The implication being that if a product is ‘popular’, it’s also ‘the best’. I discussed this in the comments on that post but thought it was worth repeating and expanding those thoughts here.

Most Popular

I would argue that ‘most popular’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘the world’s best’. In the field I work in, publishing, there’s no doubt that MS Word is ‘popular’ as it’s now the industry standard, although WordPerfect was very much the standard back in the early 1990s. In the days before Windows, I well remember using WordPerfect 5.1 for DOS – as an editor, its interactive batch search and replace feature is still better than anything Word has offered. But with the advent of Windows, WordPerfect fell behind and, before real open source alternatives had appeared, most publishers had moved to Word adopting it as the standard. Nowadays, most publishers insist that authors submit manuscripts in doc format, indeed most authors do that anyway. The newer docx format still really hasn’t caught on in publishing. For example, Springer, a major publisher, still doesn’t accept authors’ manuscripts submitted in docx format.  Authors around the world, copy editors, etc have to follow suit and use Word because that’s what publishers insist on and that’s one reason why it’s popular. I haven’t even seen the widespread adoption of cloud alternatives like Google Docs and cloud collaboration in publishing yet. As mentioned in the comments on the gHacks posts, because Word is the publishing industry standard, this has led to the use of illegal copies of Word in poorer countries where writers just can’t afford a commercial product. At any rate, Microsoft’s clampdown on illegal copies of Word should help to increase the uptake of open source and cloud products.

The Best?

To me, the best software means it’s better than its competitors, doesn’t use a proprietary format, can do all you want it to intuitively, and comes at a good price (preferably free). But can we say Word is better than its competitors when as I suspect most publishers haven’t even considered or tried alternatives like for example LibreOffice – I haven’t. It’s just popular because most of us in business have to use it and haven’t looked around at the alternatives. And what about Word’s proprietary format? As another gHacks commenter mentioned, adoption of say rich text format might be a better standard. I often wonder what will happen say 10 to 15 years down the line and we try to access our old archived documents in doc format. Will we be able to open them then? Microsoft have moved away from the doc format to docx, an ISO accredited standard format (Office Open XML or OOXML) but not globally adopted in the face of other standards, and one wonders if saving documents in rich text format might actually have better longevity.

Word certainly can do all that I want but the other problem with being forced along the Word route is that most of us have a product which does much, much more than most of us will ever need. For most of us at home, I’m sure that an open source free alternative like LibreOffice, or even a cloud alternative, would be perfect. In the commercial word, a free product, lighter on features would also suit many but until the Word stranglehold is broken and companies stop insisting on us using doc format then unfortunately great free alternatives won’t be adopted widely commercially and Word will remain ‘popular’, but not necessarily ‘the best’.

What do you think? I’d love to hear what you think are the best software products but which aren’t necessarily the most popular… and the most popular which aren’t the best.


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