Saturday, March 21, 2009

Managing files and personal information online

Summary: How to manage documents, photos, music, passwords, e-mails, contacts, personal information, and other files and data.

Can you relate to the following scenarios?
Scenario #1: You bought a new computer and now you need to migrate your bookmarks, e-mail messages, music, and other important files from your old PC to the new system.

Scenario #2: You are using several computer (like work PC and home PC) and would like to keep some files in sync between them.

Scenario #3: Your hard drive crashed and you haven't backed it up since Prohibition. Now all of your important files, including your doctoral dissertation, are gone (well, you have a backup of your dissertation on a floppy, but it's also corrupted).

Scenario #4: You backed up your photos to CDs, but you have so many of then that you cannot find your favorite photo of your cat.

Scenario #5: You're losing track of your Internet passwords, usernames, etc.
I can go on, but the point I'm trying to make is: managing personal information (files and data) on multiple computers and avoiding data loss from a hardware crash is not trivial. In this article, I'll explain how (with minimum effort) you can keep your data safe, up-to-date, and accessible. My recommendations are intended for PC users, but some of them can be applicable to Mac and Linux fans, too.

Before I get to the recommendations, let me emphasize the following: your personal computer -- whether it's running Windows, Mac OS, or Linux -- is not reliable: its hard drive can fail, the operating system can get corrupted (e.g. via a virus), it can get stolen. To avoid data loss with the loss of your computer (or its parts), you must keep copies of your data somewhere else.

A traditional approach is to back up files to an external drive. Although, it's a praiseworthy strategy, it has several limitations. First, it requires additional hardware. Second, it does not address the issue of accessibility (not a big deal, if you have only one computer, but can be a problem if you want to keep some data in sync between several machines). Third, have you actually tried to recover data from your backup? If you haven't, you may be up to an unpleasant surprise. Finally, most people don't perform regular backups because they consider them a hassle.

Whether you regularly back up your hard drive(s) or not, consider an alternative (or complementing) approach: keep important data online using what techies call cloud computing. Here is how you can use cloud computing services from reputable providers and software to keep your data safe, manageable, and accessible.

Internet bookmarks/favorites
First a suggestion: do not add every interesting page you find on the Internet to your browser's bookmarks/favorites; only bookmark the sites which you visit regularly (daily, weekly); for everything else use a social bookmarking service such as Delicious (or any of the alternatives). If you're not familiar with social bookmarking, watch this short (3:25 min) video:

For regular bookmarks/favorites, use the Xmarks browser add-on(s), which will keep your bookmarks (and optionally passwords and cookies) in sync between different machines and browsers.

For e-mail needs, I have two words: use Gmail. Why? First, Gmail is the only service that lets you forward your e-mail to any other address for free. You can forward your messages to your work e-mail, your ISP's account, or anywhere else. This way, you will not lose any messages if you switch jobs or ISPs. Second, Gmail's generous storage capacity (currently, over 7 GB) lets you archive important messages without the risk of running out of space. Third, if you do not like the web-based interface, you can use Gmail with most mail clients (also see these), such as Microsoft Outlook, Outlook Express, and Mozilla Thunderbird.

Tip: If you are using a desktop e-mail client and keep the incoming e-mail in local/personal folders (.PST files in Outlook), you need to back these up.
Tip: If you are not using a desktop e-mail client, you can still set up Gmail as a default mail application (also see other options).
Google offers tools to automatically sync your Google calendar with Microsoft Outlook and mobile devices (BlackBerry, iPhone), but to sync Google contacts (with Outlook), either transfer them manually or get a commercial tool, such as kiGoo (Google released the Contacts Data API about a year ago, but I still cannot find a good and free contact syncing tool).

For storing passwords (and other sensitive information, such as user IDs, bank accounts, etc), I can recommend any one of these two options. Option 1: Use the free web-based password manager LastPass (other alternatives include Clipperz and Passpack, but LastPass seems to be the most capable). LastPass can protect your browser passwords better than the browser. It can also auto-populate login forms. When using LastPass along with Foxmarks, you may need to disable the Foxmarks' password synchronization feature. Option 2: Use the free KeePass application and synchronize the KeePass' data file across multiple computers with the help of DropBox or Sincplicity mentioned below.

You can use online photo storage to back up your photos and to share them with friends and family. Many sites, including MySpace and Facebook support photo sharing, but most of them are too restrictive: they resize photos, limit the number of photos you can upload, and so on. Among the sites I tried, Flickr (now owned by Yahoo!) seems to be the most feature rich: it supports multiple sizes of photos (including original size), photo downloads, slide shows, videos, and more. A free Flickr account imposes a few limitations, but it's still better than most alternatives. After trying a Pro account, I decided to keep it for $24.95/year ($2/month is not that much for unlimited photo uploads and storage). Google's own Picasa Web Albums is another online photo storage alternative similar to Flickr (as Flickr, it also offers a free as well as a fee-based plan).

Most sites that let you upload and listen to music, such as Deezer and Imeem, do not allow downloading MP3 files (including the ones you uploaded). There are two exceptions: mp3Tunes and tunesBag (currently in beta). Mp3Tunes gives you 2 GB of online storage for music and video files; tunesBag offers at least 5 GB. I have been using tunesBag for a few months and so far I have few reasons to complain: it lets me back up my music and listen to it from anywhere. I was a bit disappointed with the mp3Tunes' and tunesBag's upload tools intended to automatically keep the local and online audio libraries in sync: neither of them worked for me (well, they worked, but both had bugs that made them useless). Nevertheless, these two sites are worth considering if you are looking for an online storage option for your music files that also allow playback and other listening and sharing features.

UPDATE: I take back my comment about tunesBag's uploader. It works fine, BUT it does not sync files automatically; you need to run the tool manually to upload the files.
UPDATE: For storing and playing music online, you can try Amazon Cloud Dive (5 GB free; allows you to store any files including audio; you can listen to your music from any web-connected computer with Amazon Cloud Player; works with portable devices) or Google Music (20,000 songs max; can listen online or portable devices). Also see other options (and more).
Software keys
Use Keyfiler to store your software license and registration info (serial keys, activation keys, etc).

For Microsoft Office users, Office Live Workspace allows storing and sharing documents (Word documents, PowerPoint presentations, Excel spreadsheets, etc) online. If you do not use Microsoft Office, you can try switching completely to a web-based office suite, such as Google Docs, Zoho, or ThinkFree. If you prefer a free desktop alternative to Microsoft Office, such as SoftMaker Office or, you can back up your documents and synchronize them across multiple computers with the help of file synchronization and backup tools.

Sync tools
File synchronization tools allow you to duplicate files across multiple computers. Manual file synchronization tools, such as Microsoft SyncToy that must be launched by the user, are okay for occasional use, but they are not well suited for continuous synchronization. Out of automatic file synchronization services I tried, I liked DropBox and Syncplicity most. Both services offer 2 GB of free online storage and they just work: they work on my home laptop as well as my work PC, they work over firewalls and corporate proxy servers, they work on Windows and Mac OS. The only limitations I can think of include relatively high memory footprint (the running process takes about 50 MB of RAM for DropBox and 70 MB for Symplicity). Also DropBox can synchronize only one root folder (which can contain multiple subfolders), while Syncplicity can synchronizes Desktop, Documents, Favorites, Music, and Pictures. I highly recommend DropBox and Symplicity to anyone who wants to synchronize files across multiple machines. There are other file synchronization services, such as Microsoft Live Mesh (currently in beta), Windows Live FolderShare (currently transforming into Windows Live Sync), but I did not have much luck with these (for one, Mesh and Live Sync do not seem to work across corporate firewalls (also here), and I could not use FolderShare, because our corporate proxy server settings block access to the site); however, they work for some some users, so depending on your settings, they may work for you. [Update: See list of cloud hosting services at Cloud Drive Price Comparison: Amazon, Apple, Google, Box, Dropbox, Skydrive and SugarSync or Compare SkyDrive, Google Drive and Dropbox.]

Backup tools
You can (and should) use scheduled backup to save important files online with the help of such services as: Online storage
Finally, for occasions when you just want to save a files or two online once in a while, you can use the following online file storage services:
  • ADrive (50 GB free)
  • (1 GB free, 10 MB max file size)
  • Mediafire (unlimited free file storage, 100 MB max file size)
  • SkyDrive (25 GB free, 50 MB max file size)
Here are some references for other free online file hosting services:Initially, it may take you a bit of effort to follow these recommendations, but once you adopt them, you will make your digital life easier and data safer.

See also:
Prepare your new PC for a long run

Jurgen Appelo on Agile and more

Summary: Some interesting stuff from Jurgen Appelo.

Jurgen Apello just published a new quarterly list of the Top 100 Blogs for Developers. I'm glad that Jurgen's own blog made the list because it's gooood. Here are some quotes from a few recent articles:

From AINO: Agile In Name Only:
"I want to suggest the acronym AINO (Agile In Name Only) for those cases where there is a significant gap between preaching and practising the agile approach."
From The Complex Manifesto for Software Development:
"I believe it is time for a new manifesto. A manifesto of complexity. With this manifesto we must recognize that it is human to prefer simple solutions, but also that the world is more complex than we think."
From The Decline and Fall of Agilists:
"Agility is about staying successful in ever-changing environments. That's it. There's nothing more to it. This includes defying any expert who claims that practice X is essential for your organization. Because, quite likely, practice X happens to be something this expert is very good at, and is willing to assist you with, for a considerable consultancy fee."
While we're on the topic of Agile development, here is a very good and brief interview with Jurgen Appelo, where he discuss his experiences of introducing and using Scrum and the curse of dogmatic use of "recipes for success" in software development:

On a lighter note, here is some humor:

From Thank You, Stupid Americans (WARNING: If you easily get offended, do not read this piece):
"Americans are stupid, and I love them for it. Because stupidity leads to simplicity, and simplicity is exactly what we need in software development."
See also:
100 Interview Questions for Software Developers

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Freeware Appreciation Day: Analogy screensaver

Summary: Analogy screensaver is a thing of beauty.

Today, my small token of appreciation goes to Analogy screensaver written by Jesson Yip (you can see Analogy in action on Jesson's web site).

Quoting the author:
"Analogy is a typographic clock which fuses the immediacy of digital with the visual-spatial quality of analogue into a hybrid format. It presents an everyday object with a fresh twist."
Normally, I would not consider a third-party screen saver a necessity, but being a sucker for minimalism and elegance, I just can't keep my eyes off it. Great job Jesson. You deserve a drink. ;-)

Monday, March 16, 2009

Helper VBScript library

Summary: Common utilities for VBScript files.

I'm not a fan of VBScript, but I have been using it extensively for writing utility scripts. In this post, I want to share one technique that I found helpful when working with VBScript files.

The scripts I write share many functions, such as processing command-line parameters, connecting to SQL Server, and so on. To make my life easier, I combined these common functions in a reusable helper file. I called this helper file Common.vbs. Here are some of the most helpful functions implemented in Common.vbs:
  • GetParamValue: Returns the value of the specified parameter for a given command-line switch; command-line switches are case insensitive and support name variations, such as "h|help|?" (i.e. /h, /help, and /? are considered identical).
  • GetParamValues: Returns an array of values for the specified command-line parameter (command-line switches use the format {/|-}switch[:Value1[,Value2[...]]], such as /in:c:\data1.txt,c:\data2.txt).
  • GetFile: Prompts user to select a file using the standard File Open dialog box.
  • GetSecretValue: Prompts user to enter a password (or any other sensitive value) and masks the entered characters.
  • RevertToCscript: Forces script to be run by the CSCRIPT engine (instead of WSCRIPT).
  • SqlConnect: Opens connection to SQL Server via OLE DB provider (supports Windows authentication).
  • ExcelConnect: Opens an ADO database connection to an Excel file.
  • GetComError: Generates formatted error message retrieved from the Err object.
  • GetExcelWorksheetName: Returns the name of the first worksheet in the Excel file.
You can find the detailed description of these and other methods in the file comments. Use the following link to get the Common.vbs file:To reference the Common.vbs file from another script, implement your script as a Windows Script File (.wsf). Unlike regular VBScript (.vbs) files, .wsf files can reference other VBScript files (you must specify the location of the referenced file using either an absolute or relative path).

To implement a script as a .WSF file, just wrap you VBScript code in XML elements and add a <script> element referencing the Common.vbs file, such as:
<job ID="SomeID">
<script Language="VBScript" Src="Common.vbs" />
<script Type="text/vbscript">
' Your VBScript logic goes here.
You can execute a .wsf file via the CSCRIPT (or WSCRIPT) command as if it were a .vbs file.

See also:
Windows Script Host

Thursday, March 5, 2009

According to Bob

Summary: Quotes from (and links to) recent articles by Bob Lewis.

Here are some good quotes from the recent articles by Bob Lewis.

From Spotting weak managers:
"[B]ad metrics are worse than no metrics: If you have no metrics you’re ignorant and know it. Bad metrics, in contrast, give either the wrong answer to the right question or answer the wrong question."
From To cut your budget, hire expensive employees:
"You know and I know that any number of mediocre leaders mistake getting along with strong performance, while considering employees who make waves to be undesirable troublemakers. When they have to lay off staff their troublemakers are the first to go; the employees they personally like the best are the ones who get to stick around. That means exceptional IT professionals are pounding the pavement right now, waiting for you to find them."
From Methodologies are fine, so long as they aren’t processes:
"No, the problem doesn’t lie in the methodologies themselves. It lies in their cooption by those who turn them into religions, complete with orthodoxies, splinter groups, apostasies, and all the other distractions religiosity introduces to prevent potentially productive employees from accomplishing something useful."

Monday, March 2, 2009

Technobrief #6

Summary: Recent (and not so recent) discoveries of software, articles, and more.

I haven't posted latest findings in a while, so here some of the goodies I've found since the last Technobrief post.

  • 3DP Chip: Shows a summary of devices -- CPU, audio card, video card, hard drive, DVD drive, etc. -- installed on the computer along with device drivers.
  • Ammyy Admin: Remote computer access and desktop sharing.
  • Analogy (screensaver): Typographic clock which fuses the immediacy of digital with the visual-spatial quality of analogue into a hybrid format (beautiful).
  • ArsClip: Windows clipboard manager (good alternative to ClipX and Ditto).
  • DriverBackup!: Backs up and restores drivers.
  • DVD Flick: DVD authoring tool; supports custom audio tracks, subtitles, and navigation menu.
  • DVD slideshow GUI: Import photos and burn them as a slideshow on a DVD (supports music, transitions, effects, subtitles, and more).
  • Gizmo Drive: Mounts ISO, BIN, CUE, and NRG files to a virtual CD-ROM drive.
  • Inkscape: Vector graphics editor with capabilities similar to Illustrator, CorelDraw, or Xara X.
  • JPEGCrops: Crops images without quality loss (very handy when preparing images for printing, i.e. 4x6 aspect ratio).
  • jZip: WinZip alternative that supports many compression formats including Zip, TAR, GZip, 7-Zip, RAR, and ISO (think of it as 7-Zip with a better GUI supporting different languages).
  • MKN VolWheel: Changes system volume via the mouse wheel or a hotkey.
  • Quick Media Converter: Converts files between multiple video and audio formats.
  • RIOT - Radical Image Optimization Tool: Resizes and optimizes JPEG, GIF and PNG images in a simple, clean user interface (offers a nice plugin for IrfanView).
  • RocketDock: Slick, Mac OS X Dock-like program that gives quick access to programs and Windows features (can replace the default Windows Quick Start toolbar).
  • SketchPath: XPath editor and XML analysis and testing tool supporting XPath 1.0-2.0, which provides an integrated graphical environment for viewing XML files, developing and testing XPath expressions against them and managing the expressions in file libraries.
  • SoftMaker Office 2006 for Windows: Free alternative to Microsoft Office and (it's smaller, and reportedly faster than
  • Tail for Win32: Windows version of the UNIX 'tail -f' command.
  • TeamViewer: Remote control your partner's PC.
  • Ultimate List of Free Office Software from Microsoft: Lists many FREE software titles offered by Microsoft.
  • UndercoverXP: Prints CD and DVD covers.
  • Windows Essentials Codec Pack: One of the most comprehensive collection of media codecs, filters, splitters and other tools that will enable you to play 99% of all the movies, music, and flash files you download off the internet.
WebArticlesFirefox add-ons
  • iMacros for Firefox: Records and replays repetitive tasks like filling out forms.
  • FireRainbow: Javascript syntax highlighting for the Firebug add-on.
  • SwitchProxy Tool: Easily switches proxy settings.
  • YSlow: Analyzes web pages and tells you why they're slow based on Yahoo's rules for high performance web sites.