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Sunday, August 7, 2011

Cleaning out the Closet

George Carlin: Stuff

"Actually this is just a place for my stuff, ya know? That's all, a little place for my stuff. That's all I want, that's all you need in life, is a little place for your stuff, ya know? I can see it on your table, everybody's got a little place for their stuff. This is my stuff, that's your stuff, that'll be his stuff over there. That's all you need in life, a little place for your stuff. That's all your house is: a place to keep your stuff. If you didn't have so much stuff, you wouldn't need a house. You could just walk around all the time."

Stuff. We have a lot of it, but we're trying to reduce the amount of stuff we have. As Lori has been liking to say recently, "Who really needs 3 vegetable peelers?" So we've been going through the process of getting rid, paring down, and also replacing some of our "stuff" with better "stuff". Part of this process (which at times is heartbreaking for a packrat like me) is getting rid of stuff...like my DVD collection. With the world interconnected with the interwebs and Netflix, and the DVD rental places coming to their senses with prices ($2.50 for a week rental? I'm OK with that.), it was time to get rid of the bulging collection. Most of the things I sold I never watched I just liked having it (First season of Highlander? Never watched it, loved that I had it.) So I started searching around websites that allowed for this sort of thing and came across mx123.com. They allow you to type in the UPC's of all the DVDs you needed to get rid of and they told you what they were worth. Strip out all the worthless ones worth $0.15 and you're left with a small pile worth $100, a prepaid shipping label, and a big pile of DVD's to be dropped off at the nearest donation location. Not only that, but they also have referral program that allows you to make more money on top of that using things you already use like Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, Youtube, and....*ahem* blogs. So there is your disclaimer, totally being paid to write this...and I'm ok with that! For a few more tips on decluttering, check our Lori's post on the subject: Help in Decluttering.


Other disclaimer, the George Carlin quote above was pulled from: http://www.writers-free-reference.com/funny/story085.htm. Not only am I giving credit, but you should read the rest of his story, I sometimes forget how funny he was. RIP George!

Monday, August 1, 2011

iPad: Notetaking App Review - Post 1

So since I have a lust for technology and can't sleep unless I know almost everything about it, my employer has found it humorous to supply me with technology and see what I come up with for uses. In the past 9 months I've been supplied (or supplied myself) with an iPod Touch4, iPad1, an ExoPC Tablet PC running Windows 7, InFocus Wireless Projector Adapter, and I've purchased an Android tablet for home use (though I never see it as the kids have decided it is theirs now). There has been much experimenting and much app browsing and much dreaming. In most cases so far with the technology I have today it seems when I run across something I want to do I think about it, search it, and determine between a few big players and a few smaller players and I move on. Not today. Here is what I want...I want to take notes in an iPad. Sounds easy? Pffft...this is thus far been the craziest road I've ever been on to choose an app. Here is my list Í started showing possible Apps (a few have some simple notes about the app) and what I'm starting to glean are the App Differentiators.

UYH - Use your handwriting - List making app with handwriting
PaperDesk LT - Low rating
Bamboo - Pretty good, $1.99 for 20 notebooks
Penultimate - $1.99
Ghost Writer - $2.99 Dropbox and Evernote Support
Noteshelf - $4.99 - Dropbox and Evernote, Wrist Protection,
Dukepen - $1.99
Inkiness - $3.99 - Missing basic features like eraser
Notes Plus
Note Taker HD
Adobe Ideas + Note Template
Mental Note
MUJI Notebook
ReadleDocs (Readable Docs?)
eNote Taker
Whiteboard HD

App Differentiators
- Wrist protection
- Multiple notebooks
- Multiple Pages
- multiple pens
- Highlighter
- Evernote / Dropbox / Email / Print
- Page Backgrounds
- Zoom View
- Zoom Edit (Can this be used to create a whiteboard?)
- Orientation
- Eraser
- Handwriting Recognition
- Import / annotate Images / PDF
- Text Shrinking / Writing Resizer
- Drawings / Sketches
- Cost
- Type with Keyboard
- Password Protection
- Audio Recorder
- Cloud Based Storage
- Lite Version

So now I'm going to try a few, but in the end I'm thinking about creating a huge matrix all wikipedia like of every app and how they handle each differentiator. Do you have any favorite note taking apps for iPad? Please let me know...it might save me some work.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Simple Business Systems - Why so hard?!

Recently I have been having a helluva time trying to setup some pretty simple business systems. Basically, I'm trying my best to allow my department to work seamlessly as a team without resorting to "Daily Bullpen" meetings or spending 15 minutes logging what you just did for the last 45 minutes, and without sending mass emails to everybody, because let's face it, as much as my inbox is my one-stop-shop for everything communication, it may not be for everybody. People need the ability to consume only what they feel they need for the system to be useful. But I digress. First, a few wins:

1) Yammer - Recently setup a Yammer site for the company which has worked pretty well, we started off with a bang where usage and involvement blossomed. People were accidentally communicating where we never had before, even across oceans. However, the Holidays killed off the initial enthusiasm and it's been harder to get momentum back rolling again, but I have faith that this is still a win.

2) Instant Messaging - Because the office all uses office and microsoft products, we had everybody sign up with their work email address to MSN Live Messenger. Not only does this offer another avenue for communication with each other beyond email/phone, but it also links into our Office Products and provides presence sensing. So when I'm sending an email to somebody, and I'm logged in and they are in my friend list, I can see their status immediately and might choose to just launch a conversation rather than sending an email. This will get pretty cool if IT is able to launch OCS, or Office Communicator. Basically this means that you no longer have to sign up and login to messenger, it's just built into our Active Directory so it all happens automagically. Sounds fantastic, especially if it can be rolled into our entire international group rather than just here in the USA.

Now for the challenges....

1) Tasks - How do you setup a task list that will not only allow everybody visibility, editability, categorization, priority, and also hooks into automated systems that allow us to build workflows for common tasks like Releasing a new product or Creating Documentation? Again, we use Microsoft so Outlook was the only way to fly here. We all use it for our email, why not just use the task list in there? That's ok, however how do we allow others to see it? We could share our task lists with others like we can calendars, and this works great for viewing. However, what about a manager who wants to work with his reports on a task? He would create a task and assign it to a report, that sounds great! However, once he assigns that task he loses all control. He can't edit it, reassign it, nothing. He's now just on the outside looking in. One thing we do have in our company is a Sharepoint Site, which allows us to create subsites with task lists. If we all put our tasks on there and link the task list to Outlook, this gives us a pretty cool thing. It allows a manager to add a task, assign it to a report, but doesn't lose control. If somebody, anybody, wants to add data to a task, they just change it. Sharepoint automagically sends an email to the person the task is assigned to alerting them of a change. Not only that, but Sharepoint also allows us to create workflows to automatically assign tasks for things like Product Releases. This requires the use of multiple subsites for different teams and groups, but that's no problem at all! Once you link multiple task lists, Outlook automatically aggregates all tasks lists into a single to-do list! (Notice the copious use of the word "automatically", this means we're on the right track) Originally we had been using task categories to give a little granularity to the timeline of the task, which worked great. We synchronized our category lists so that everybody was using the same, and when a manager created a task he could give it a category and it matched into the reports list. However, if a person has tasks coming from lots of different teams, like for instance, a co-op student, how does a manager see an aggregate list of their complete list? I mean, Outlook already aggregates it for the person, can't a manager set up a similar view? Nope! Darn, we're so close, so close! The only way I could figure out how to do this was to setup a new Web Part page in Sharepoint, create a new Content Query Web Part for every person, and then you could see an aggregate list of tasks for any one person. Perfect...but wait, a manager would want to see what the report has on their list for today, we should group by our categories...oh no! Categories the way Outlook uses them is not carried over to Sharepoint, they are useless! Again, so close, an yet so far. The only thing I could see that really came close to this was to change our Task Paradigm again to use Priorities to easily identify what was being worked on / looked at Today, Next Week, and Potentially Never. By hiding all reminder tasks and Long Term tasks, we could show a reasonably good view of what was being worked on today and in the coming weeks. But really, did it have to be that hard? This can't have been the best way to approach this, can it?

2) Documentation - Good documentation is a great thing, even better is consistent documentation created fast. Keep in mind, we're not a huge company to begin with, and I work in just a small department that requires a higher percentage of documentation and training compared to the lower percentage of sales. So a lot of these responsibilities falls to the department to generate some product documentation in the form of Startup Guides and HOWTO's. We also are fortuitous in the fact that we have some smart co-op students that are pretty capable. So here is the flow I'd like to have:

1. Somebody, somewhere thinks up an idea that they need documented.
2. Somebody technical creates a series of screenshots or video of how to do it.
3. Co-op student takes the screenshots and follows them, learning how to recreate the idea, and then writes the proposed document.
4. Co-op submits the idea to the documentation committee, which checks it over for content, flow, and makes sure it makes sense. After all, we're all mostly engineers, we're not known for our writing ability. (I submit this blog as Exhibit A) (I whent to skool to b an inguneer, and now I are 1) However, sometimes the writers are not required, so the engineer will do the writing and submit it directly for review, and needs to be sent back to the engineer for editing if needed.
5. Document gets sent back for further changes, or gets approved.
6. Approved document is given to web committee to get it transformed into a PDF and put out in the wild.

Seems like a straightforward process. It also sounds like it's a job for, dun dun dun, Sharepoint! We setup a document library, create custom content types to allow people to start with templates we designed. We created a custom column to hold the state of the document and we created some workflows to generate some tasks for the different states. Problems? Yes, there are some.

1. Document libraries do not allow for attachments, and many times our documentation is a software guide that may have some accompanying documents like other Product Manuals, Sample code, or pictures.
2. I am not a professional Sharepoint integrator, so I can only scratch the surface of custom workflows and I refuse to write .NET code in order to accomplish what I need. I feel that if I need custom code I'm doing something wrong or too specialized, I feel what I'm trying to do should be easy. So the problem is, I'm unable to setup a single workflow that will trigger off the status of the document and automatically contact who needs to be contacted. Where I get really tripped up is that sometimes the writers get involved, and sometimes not. Right now I have it setup as one custom workflow to send the item for review directly, and then I used a 3 state workflow to handle the send to writers, send to review, and approve. This allowed me to keep the OOB approvals methods intact which I don't see how you recreate in a custom workflow. I also don't like the fact that I have to train people how to manually launch a workflow, rather than just change the status.

Can anybody help me? These things should be easier....I feel like there must be something obvious I'm missing. If you guys can help me answer these questions, I might post about how to handle things such as Bug Reports and Sales Tracking....but as Alton Brown might say, "Those are a different post."


Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Unique Recipe Presentation

A unique way to present a recipe? Preposterous. I've been reading recipes since I owned my first cookbook, The Boxcar Children Cookbook, which my parents purchased for me when it came out through my school's Scholastic Books program. Since then I've spent a lot of time learning as much as I can about the "how" of cooking as opposed to just following a recipe blind. One of my favorite resources is Alton Brown, creator of the Food Network TV Show "Good Eats". Then I was searching around the other day for methods and recipes on how to prepare T-Bone steaks for our Christmas Dinner with the family and found a recipe on one of the websites I've seen in the past but hadn't been able to pay much attention to it. It is Cooking for Engineers and was created by Michael Chu. On his website, Michael will present recipes like the following:

Not sure if everybody is able to understand this presentation, but I'm sure that for most mathematical types you might agree that this is a pretty awesome way to look at a recipe. I chose this Osso Buco recipe because it's somewhat complicated so I could show you how a complicated recipe is shown, and because it sounded delicious! Check out the rest of the content on Michael's site for many other helpful hints and recipes!

Update: Sorry for the poor presentation on this site originally, hope it looks ok now. Had a tough time showing the HTML table properly so I just uploaded as an image. Thanks for the patience!

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Snowmageddon 2010

Hello all from the frozen tundra of Minnesota! Quite an adventure today as close to 24" of snow is scheduled to fall and our town has announced a state of emergency. Of course, I only found this out after I tried to go out. Normally the rule of thumb is if you can escape your driveway and onto a main road, you're good to go. Not the case today because they decided it was a losing battle to try and clean it up now, so they are waiting. I got about 3 miles from my house before I finally called it quits and went back home. Why was out I out do you ask? Well, it just so happened that I got one row of my driveway snowblowed out, when it decided to sputter and die. After careful inspection, we suspect that it has a clogged fuel filter. So I figured I'd either be staying and shoveling or going and snowblowing. So I made a run for it. Immediately when I hit the snow in my driveway I knew I was in trouble for I could feel it start to slow me down instantly. The Explorer fought against it with all it had but it gave up the ghost just at the end the driveway when it hit the hard pack from the initial plowing that occurred before the announcement. After an hour of getting all the snow out from around, under, and behind the truck I finally was able to manuever and made the decision to try and punch it into town. At this point, I should have known that there was going to be a problem when a couple goes walking past my driveway in the middle of the road on snowshoes, we said hello like it was a sunny summer's eve and I was washing my car, I love Minnesota. But on the other hand, the roads had less snow, and all I needed to do was keep forward momentum going, right? Easy peasy...until after 20 minutes of fighting heavy drifts and almost stopping to help somebody who was stuck in the middle of an intersection in a 4x4....I decided that my snowblower wasn't the most important thing and I should probably hightail it home.

Out my driver door when I arrived back home...all the way up to the door.

Another picture after I punched it into the driveway on the way home.

So yeah...I pushed about 2"-3" just to open the drivers door.

All in all, this is part of the reason I love living in MN, the high highs, the low lows, and the fact that I just saw another couple outside out walking their dog. This is definitely a strange place to live...

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Project: Wii Golf Simulator

Project Name: Wii Golf Simulator (WGS)
Project Type: C# Program
Project Reason: I just got a Wii Balance Board, already had Wii Motion Plus, and with Winter starting I began playing the Wii more, plus a new diet had me trying out Wii Fit Plus. So Wii Fit Plus comes with a great Golf Driving Range, which looks at your weight shift to determine ball flight/power. Pretty good, but not great because it doesn't take into effect your arms. Slide in Tiger Woods 2K11...this is awesome because it picks up every single bit of movement with the Motion Plus and is very accurate with swing action. However, no balance board so nothing in the weight shift taken into account. The question is...how hard would it be to create something that takes both into account?

Project Plan: To create a C# program that interfaces with the Wiimote, Motion+, and the Balance Board to do data collection about a golf swing and report back information about it. Possibly even present a 3D model with movements tied to the movements being logged by the hardware.

Project Cost: $0
Project Timeline: ~1000hrs (plus or minus 2hrs) - span will be over my lifetime
Project Starting: Evening of 11/25/2010
Project Phases:
1) Datalogger for hardware
2) Data Interpreter to interpret data into body motions
3) Display Model to show motions
4) Collect data and video from real golf swings
5) Data Interpreter to interpret data into ball flights
6) Display Models to show ball flight
7) Create Gameplay/Instruction Modes

Initial Resources: http://www.brianpeek.com/blog/pages/wiimotelib.aspx

Obviously, not exactly an overnight project (even with Mr. Peek doing 75% of my work by creating his fantastic Wii Library), but I haven't done any real programming in a long time and I was inspired. This is not my first golf-style simulator either, for my Senior Thesis project at Kettering University I used a Cognex Machine Vision Camera to track a real golf putt and determine how good of a shot it was. As it turns out, just because the ball went in the cup there are still a number of ways to determine just how good the putt was.

Eventually once I have something that somebody can see, I'll be creating a Sourceforge Project page.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Removing the Blog Cobwebs

Summer has bit me in the butt this summer when it comes to projects...apparently I like just hanging out doing nothing...or I traveled a lot for work and have gone through 3 reformats on my computers and 3 reformats on my Blackberries. It was crazy, I didn't travel on an airplane for work a single time in 2009...now 2010 has seen me going to Germany, Puerto Rico, Tennessee, Ohio, Arkansas, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. And the majority of those all came in the month of June.

Along with that I had my laptop blow a screen, so I got a brand new Lenovo T510. I don't have a lot of love for IBM now Lenovo laptops, but so far this is a pretty nice one. I received it the day before leaving on a trip, and I was pretty excited because it was supposed to come with Windows 7 on it, and I was ready to move on from XP to see what all the hype was about...of course as I pushed to get the laptop as soon as I could because my other one was broken and I didn't want to be in an old intermediate laptop for too long, it ended up coming with XP. No time to reformat now, I'll have to travel with it. Gotta say...it sucked. It was almost jittery...which a Quad Core Processor with 4GB of ram should never ever ever be jittery....it was. Finally when I arrived back in the office, I was able to reformat it to Windows 7. Much better. I think it was actually too much machine for XP, which lead to XP having to try to decide what to do with all the excess processing power and caused jitters. I liken the situation to XP wanting to bounce a ball against a wall, but my computer had so many resources instead of hitting a wall and bouncing back, it was like throwing a ball into a field and having to run after it. However, Windows 7 did give me a problem...I was getting BSODs after installing certain programs. Programs that I've seen installed on other machines and programs that should have no problem (one was Microsoft Sharepoint Designer 2007...Microsoft!!) The BSOD pointed to the antivirus that my company runs which is F-Secure (an aside? This program sucks) however uninstalling that made no difference in the installation process except instead of a BSOD my computer just locked up instead. Then came Safe Mode and System Restore to the rescue. Of course, I was about to go back on the road so no time for another reformat, this led to installation of Windows XP Mode. What is this you ask? Why, this is a program that acts like Windows XP so you can run programs in an XP environment. In other words...it's a repackaged Windows Virtual PC. I was a little disappointed to learn this, because I've never seen virtualization work really well and really seamless. Thankfully, I was completely wrong. Virtual PC works so flawlessly within Windows 7 and when you're working inside of it, you swear you're using a standard Windows XP machine. The second thing that is really nice is that it's very easy to share files between the harddrive and the Virtual Harddrive. Loaded up with virtualization I continued on for a few more weeks, then just last week I was able to get a new reformat finished. Thankfully, no BSODs any more, so now I'm back in rebuilding mode.

Along with the computer stuff, I was also very very glad to see the launch of the new iPhone4. Of course, this was not because I was able to get one..I don't want one. However, it meant that the manager of my department was able to get one and I was able to slide myself into a Bold 9700. Fantastic device, smooth as silk, optical trackpad, 3G...just great. Of course, that means I had to reset up the phone as well while I'm messing around with resetting my computer, all while I'm traveling around and starting to pack up the house for the big move.

Soon I'll have some follow-up posts to talk about the new Blackberry and some new apps I've discovered, along with possibly some Windows 7 widgets and goodness.