Tag Archives: Computers and Internet

Keeping in touch while on the go

I was on vacation in India for the past 4 weeks with varying levels of internet access. I carried a laptop and my iPhone with me, but given the limited time I could spend on the Internet each day, I tried to be creative about keeping in touch while I was away.

Snail-mail: Someday, I’ll try and send my friends post card from every place I visit. But given my lazyness in handling physical objects and the fact that I have no idea what most of their mailing addresses are, makes this an instant fail.

Phone: I actually do have the phone numbers of my friends and acquaintances. I’ve meticulously collected them over the years and kept them updated, but calling friends in the US in the middle of their night to tell them I’m somewhere sunnier is probably an expensive way to piss them off. All my phone numbers and other contact information is still stored on my exchange server and (active)synced to my phone. How I wish there was an IMAP-like sync protocol for contacts so that non-ActiveSync clients could also download my contacts (SyncML?GroupDAV?).

Text Messaging: Refer to my earlier post on how I feel about text messaging: [the economics of texting]

Email: I have only one personal email address I check with any frequency (the @umeshunni.com one – all others forward to it) and (active)sync it to my iPhone. I had a data plan for 75% of the time I was on vacation, so staying up to date on email wasn’t a problem. The rest of the time, I use OWA to get to my personal exchange account. In the spirit of time away from work, I also chose to not check my work email and being religious about never sending personal mail from my work address made it unlikely that any friends would send me mail there anyway.

IM: Sadly, I have contacts I care about on just about every IM protocol. Since an open instant messaging protocol is still a bit of a pipe-dream, I have to rely on multi-protocol messenger clients. The best (free) IM app I could find for the iPhone was Fring, which is actually pretty good. It does all the basics – multiple protocols (AIM/Y!/MSN/GTalk), archiving messages etc. It even has surprisingly good Skype integration which I used once to make a few international calls over WiFi which worked like a charm. On the PC, I’ve been using Miranda and Trillian for some time now, neither of which are perfect but suffice for 99% of my IM needs.

Social Networks: Most of my friends are now on Facebook (and I threaten the rest that I will create profiles for them if they don’t). I mostly use the Facebook iPhone app to access Facebook on the go. During the past month I think I noticed a couple of times where the news feed displayed in the iPhone app was actually different from the one displayed on the facebook homepage. This is really strange since I always thought the iPhone app was just a different display layer on top of the same backend data. I’m not sure what the reason for this difference is (or whether it’s just something I imagined), but it’s odd if true.

I occasionally use Orkut, mostly to stay in touch with family members who haven’t made the upgrade to Facebook yet and over the past month or so, I’ve also started tweeting more frequently (inference: frequency of tweeting is directly proportional to the level of boredom). Orkut had a well done iPhone-enabled website and twitter has about 2,543 iPhone apps built for it.

So, this brings me to this little app called Digsby that I discovered while searching for a better solution to keeping on top of my communication needs with limited time. My review of this app is coming soon here.

News and Blogs: I’ve been a Google Reader user for a while now and use it on the PC and phone to keep track of all my favorite blogs and sites. I used google.com/reader/m while I had my WinMo phone and now use the iPhone version  (google.com/reader/i). I recently started using the Byline iPhone app which beside being a better front end for Google reader can also sync down upto 200 of your most recent feed items for offline browsing. This is super-useful for those long flights or other times where you know you won’t have Internet access. I found out that this actually works better than Google Reader’s own offline feature which doesn’t sync images or other RSS enclosure content.

For non-RSS news, I continued to use my.live.com (aka Windows Live Personalized Homepage) as my home page on the PC and also visit Google News, NYT and BBC every now and then. All of the above, except my.live.com, have excellent mobile/iPhone versions of their homepages too.

And with that, I conclude my quarterly blog update 😛

Building my new PC – Step 2: Putting it all together

An avid follower of my blog (the only follower of my blog ?) reminded me the other day that I never completed my series on putting my PC together. I think the fact is that I’ve been too busy playing with it to write up my experience in assembling it!

Putting the PC together was a lot simpler than I expected. Granted, the last PC I put together was back in ’99 (or was it 2000?) when I put together a P3-500 for my parents so that they could browse the Internet, send me email and so that I could play Unreal Tournament and Quake 3 whenever I visited them. That was also my first time, so it took me a while to figure out how to screw the motherboard to the case, plug in the CPU etc.

This time, it was all a lot easier, partly because I had the Internet to look up anything I couldn’t figure out and because all the parts actually came with manuals! The only thing that stumped me was the fact that the video card only had a DVI out while my LCD monitor had only VGA input. In the excitement of wanting to see it all boot, I didn’t want to wait an extra day to get a DVI-to-VGA adapter, so I tried using my LCD TV as a monitor (via S-video). That didn’t work as expected and my motherboard didn’t have an on-board speaker, so I finally had to wait till I could find an adapter and used that to connect the rig up to the LCD and make sure it booted correctly. I also had a scary incident when the CPU made a crunch sound as I bolted it into the motherboard. My heart stopped for a second, but I was glad I didn’t damage anything in the process.

Assembling the PC

Soon enough, I had it up and booting:

Boot Screen

and in an hour or so, had Vista installed and running with Aero enabled. Check out the Processor, Hard Disk and Memory ratings in the Perf Rating tool:

Vista Performance Rating

CPU: 5.9 (the maximum – W00t!!)

Memory: 5.8 and Hard disk 5.4.

Sadly, the PC only get’s a 3.4 in the graphics department because of the sucky video card, but that’s another upgrade for another time.

Next time, I’ll talk about how I tried to install Ubuntu on this PC. I think that post will be called “How Ubuntu ruined my weekend (and why Linux is still not ready for the Desktop)”.

Building my new PC – Step 1: buying components

Ever since I got my DSLR and a couple of 4 gig CF cards a few months back, I’ve been shooting away to glory each weekend and contending with 100s of RAW images. My poor ‘kitchen laptop’ with a 40 gig hard drive and an outdated processor couldn’t take it anymore and was thinking of bailing on me when I decided that it’s about time to get a new PC.

A bit of history — I haven’t had a desktop at home since ’01 when I sold my aging P2-233 to an unsuspecting college junior. I got myself a ‘gaming’ laptop (an HP Pavilion ZT1260) the following year and it was a mixed experience. I loved the portability, but the video card on the laptop overheated after an hour or two of gaming and literally burned the motherboard in a year. It was still under warranty, so HP replaced it (sans all my data) for free, but the replacement lasted only another year or so before it suffered the same fate. So, I vowed never to get a gaming laptop ever again and got us a cheap Toshiba laptop that we used at home predominantly for browsing and email.

I’ve been toying with the idea of getting a media center/media server ever since I got my Tivo and Xbox, and figured I could use it for transcoding recorded tv shows to the iPod, streaming photo and music to the xbox and other misc uses.

Here’s the config I came up with:

CPU: Intel Core 2 Quad Q6600 quad-core processor, 2.40GHz. I figured I needed a multi-core processor to handle all the photo editing and video transcoding I planned to do. So, well, might as well get as many cores as I can afford 🙂 I didn’t manage to get the lower-powered G0 stepping though, just the older B3.

Motherboard: This was the most confusing part of my search. Unlike other components, there are literally hundreds of unique motherboards and there’s no real quantitative measure that I can filter my searches by. So, I had to go solely by price, reviews on tech forums and a couple of features (like size and number of DIMM slots) that I knew were important to me.

I needed something that could keep up with the quad-core while staying stable and cool. I wasn’t too keen on RAID support though I wanted SATA to serve up all the media I’m planning to host :). I thought I could get a full sized ATX mobo w/ built in Video, but proved pretty difficult. So, finally, I got the ABIT IP35-E, which had good reviews on NewEgg and had the works as far as features were concerned. This mobo has the double boot problem described in some forums, but it’s not a real bug, just an annoyance.

RAM: I figured that since memory prices drop over time, I’ll get just enough for my needs now and expand later as required. So, I got 2 gigs of dual channel DDR2 800 Mhz memory from Corsair – the highly rater Corsair 2GB TWIN2X2048-6400C4. I have two slots left on the mobo which will help in future expansion.

Hard Drive: Again, I wanted to get the best bang for the buck here since hdd prices and capacities are always moving in opposite directions. The best deal I got was on the Western Digital 400GB SATA 150 drive which was on sale on NewEgg at the time. It’s only 7200 RPM and 150MB/s, but I’ll probably be buying a hard drive every year to keep up with growing storage needs 🙂

Video Card: I wasn’t planning to use this PC for major gaming, since I already have an Xbox 360. I initially planned to get a mobo with on board video but since those were hard to come by with the features I wanted, I decided to get the cheapest general purpose video card with DirectX 9 and Vista Aero support. That turned out to be the MSI ATI RADEON X1550 with 128MB on board video memory, HDMI out and TV out. Not a bad card, and totally worth the 30 bucks I paid for it.

Case and Power Supply: These were easy. I didn’t need a fancy case since I wasn’t going to keep this PC in the living room. I needed a fairly powerful power supply, though because of the quad core processor, SATA drive(s) and my long term plans of getting a better video card. So, I picked up a Rosewill case for cheap and a rather basic Coolmax 450W Power Supply from newegg and buy.com respectively. Both of them have built in fans, so that should help keep the system cool, if not quiet.

So, I ordered all the components over the period of a week and played the waiting game for FedEx, UPS and others to get them to me.

PC Components

Once they were all here, I started putting them together. That story will be covered in a future post 🙂

The economics of texting

One thing I never understood about the way mobile operators work is why texting (aka SMS) is so freaking expensive. I figure its something like what the drug dealer ‘Nick’ in New York Magazine’s recent feature on profit making said about maximizing profit:

Sell to many users in small quantities. “It’s like taking a pound of coffee and selling one grain at a time,” says Nick. “If you sell by scoops, you’ll make a couple thousand dollars, but if you break it down into quarter grams and work for a few days, you’ll make tens of thousands.” Most top dealers don’t actually do this, and lazily sell in bulk, as Nick did.

Sure, 10c a message doesn’t sound like a lot, but what do you get in return? A mind blowing 160 bytes of data transferred! So, that works out to…

(1048576/160 * $0.10) = $655.36 per MB of data tranferred by SMS!

Even if you have some sort of a package that lets you send, say, a 1000 messages for $10 a month (i.e. $0.01 per message), it still works out to $65.54 per MB of data transferred.

So, how does this compare with other forms of data transfer?

  • Home Internet: Ok, so this may not be the fairest comparison – since we’re comparing against a fixed line with a sunk initial cost (for laying down fiber/cable), but I thought I’d make the comparison anyway. Most internet providers don’t have any fixed upload/download limits (atleast in the US), thought they’re often rumored to send nastigrams to users who transfer large amounts of data – like 200-500 GB per month. So, lets be conservative and assume that the download limit on a regular Comcast 6-12 Mbps line is 100 GB (or ~100000 MB) per month. For this privilage, I pay $45 per mo. with no discounts. So, that works out to…

($45/100000) = $0.00045 per MB of data transferred by Cable Internet

That’s right – around a million times cheaper than SMS! Dropping the bandwidth cap to 10 GB or even 1 GB changes the order of magnitude, but it’s still thousands of times cheaper.

  • Mobile Internet: So, I have the el-cheapo GPRS/EDGE mobile Internet plan from t-mobile that I pay $5.99/mo for. The contract doesn’t state any caps other than a 1 MB file download limit –  so, let’s assume that you get 100 MB/mo on this plan. This works out to…

($5.99/100) = $0.06 per MB of data transferred by GPRS/EDGE.


  • Mobile Voice: Voice rates vary a lot, but I figured I’ll use the common $40/mo for 1000 mins T-Mobile plan for the comparison, since it doesn’t include unlimited nights or weekends. Wikipedia tells me that GSM transmits at 12.2 kbps with the GSM-EFR codec. 1000 minutes at 12.2 kbps is (60 * 12.2/8 = ) 87.26 MB. For $40, that’s

($40/87.26) = $0.46 per MB of (audio) data transferred by GSM.

So, the underlying medium used by texting is still waay cheaper than SMS by a factor of a 1000. And I thought SMS just used the unused bandwidth in GSM networks.

No wonder there’s an abundance of free texting websites like http://www.textmefree.com/ .

Reports of Microsoft’s death have been greatly exaggerated

It’s probably a bit too late for a April fool’s prank, but Paul Graham’s essay ‘Microsoft is Dead‘ has caused a bit of buzz over the weekend. Like most other pieces of anti-Microsoft blabber, it was on Slashdot earlier today.

I read the article with an open mind and ignored minor errors (for e.g. XMLHttpRequest was invented for Outlook Web Access i.e Exchange, not Outlook). But he really lost me when he mentioned point #4:  

Thanks to OS X, Apple has come back from the dead in a way
that is extremely rare in technology.
Their victory is so complete that I’m now surprised when I come across
a computer running Windows. 

Gee – I’m not sure what kind of people Paul Graham meets at Y-Combinator, but how can anyone be surprised when they meet someone with the 96% of computers that run Windows? Hell, Slashdot even reported yesterday that Apple’s marketshare had dropped by a bit last month because of Vista. I guess things are a little different in the real world than in web 2.0 bubbleland.

And the way to bring Microsoft back from the dead? According to Paul Graham:

  • Buy all the good “Web 2.0” startups. They could get substantially
    all of them for less than they’d have to pay for Facebook.
  • Of course, we all know how well that’s working for Yahoo



    User generated ads

    Kiss 106.1, the radio station we usually listen on our way to work everyday recently ran a contest for the best commercial that user’s could come up with. Now, I had heard of contests for the best slogan or the best punch-line before, but this is the first time I’ve heard of anyone holding a user-submitted-commercial contest.

    What makes this contest really unique is the fact that you submit entries by uploading your entry to YouTube and tagging it with “kiss 1061 commercial contest“.

    So, has Web 2.0 finally hit mainstream?

    Is user-generated-content really the future? Or is this just a result of Kiss 106.1 cutting their ad budget by an order of magnitude.

    Philosophical questions aside, here’s the winning entry:



    All other entries are at http://www.jackieandbender.com/KISSTV3.htm. Most are pretty lame!

    My Blog is moving…

    I totally hate doing this… but I guess this is the way it’s meant to be 🙂

    I’m moving my blog from its current home on MSN (nee Windows Live) Spaces to its new home on my own server at blog.umeshunni.com. It took a bit of work over the past couple of weekends, but I’ve finally got it up and running with the latest build of Community Server (CS 2.1) with a bunch of customizations thrown in.

    I was wondering what to do about all the existing posts I had on the Spaces blog… should I just let them die? Should I user Community Server’s blog mirroring feature to move everything over? Should I write some code to move them over?

    I didn’t want to let them die because I had some good stuff in there and I’d hate for all that stuff to just disappear into the sands tubes of the internet never to be seen again.

    Blog mirroring seemed simple enough but I knew I wanted to tweak some of the older posts to take advantage of the more liberal formatting options I had with CS.

    It’s too late at night to write new code and again, I wanted some flexibility with what was going into the new blog.

    Soo…. I fired up Word 2007, set up my Windows Live Space and my Community Server blog as my blog accounts and clicked on ‘Open existing’. This gave me a list of all the entries I had in the WL space. I clicked on each one, set the account to my CS blog and clicked on Publish as Draft. This published the entry into Community Server. Now all I had to do was to open the entry in the CS blog editor, make the required formatting and tag changes, set the old publish time and re-publish the entry.

    A little more involved than blog mirroring or using the MetaWebLog API, but this way I had full control over each entry that was moved over and didn’t have to resort to copying HTML by hand.

    Since CS doesn’t support publish-by-email, I guess I’ll be using Word for blogging from now on.

    Early ‘Computers’

    Fosfor gadgets has a short but interesting article that compares gadgets from the ’70s & ’80s to today’s versions.

    While they talk about mobile phones, stereos and storage devices, they’ve missed out on comparing yesterday’s computers to today’s.

    So, here’s a 2006 Macbook Pro:

    Compare that to the NACA human computers at work from 1949!


    Wiring my home

    I spent a Sunday a couple of weeks back rewiring a couple of rooms at home with Cat 5 cabling. Mostly just moving the cables from one outlet to another.

    Some things I learned…

    1. Making ethernet patch cables is easy: Get bulk cable and use the wiring schema from Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cat_5e and some of these linked sites:

    * http://www.incentre.net/incentre/frame/ethernet.html

    * http://www.ertyu.org/steven_nikkel/ethernetcables.html

    2. Radio shack has cheap pushdown tools and RJ45 Ends. (less than $5 each)

    3. Of all the places I looked at, Home Depot has the cheapest crimping tool – a $20 tool that includes a wire stripper.