Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Cool Android Apps

I wrote about "Must Have Android Apps" a few weeks ago. That was my list of most useful Android apps, and I still say that those apps are great. But sometimes useful feels boring. As much as I love Evernote, I can't say that it'll make your iPhone friends cry.

My list of cool Android Apps are those interesting apps that might just make your iPhone friends a little jealous that their App Store is a tame zoo rather than a teeming jungle.

Gesture Search by Google

"WTF is this", you might ask. I don't know. You draw with your finger and it finds stuff on the phone. Phone numbers, apps, music, and so on.

Weird? Yes. But useful if you have only one hand free, you can't look at a keyboard, or you're bouncing around too much to type.

SlideIT Soft Keyboard

This app should make iPhone users jealous. Sure, the keyboard on the iPhone is pretty good. But typing on the SlideIT keyboard is fun and fast. Like most other soft keyboards, you can peck at keys with your fingers. You can also draw a line between each letter of the word you want to type, and that is where speed comes into play.

It takes a few days for your brain to adjust, but sliding across the keyboard is fast. In my opinion, not having to lift the finger improves accuracy. It also improves speed because lifting a finger takes time and energy. Most of all, sliding is fun. Think connect-the-dots.

One real issue users will face with this keyboard is that their finger will block the view of the keys. If you're already very familiar with the QWERTY keyboard, this won't be a problem.

Also, the keyboard doesn't do a great job with infrequently used words and jargon. I have a tendency to use SAT vocabulary words in my texts and emails. I'm a programmer, so I also use a lot of technical jargon. The keyboard will pretty much fail on these words in slide mode until you teach it -- you'll need to hunt-and-peck them in and add them to the dictionary. I think this is a fair tradeoff.


Handcent is a free SMS client. Your phone should already have a SMS client, but Handcent is probably better. Handcent lets you configure all sorts of fun options, including the ability to show and respond to messages on the screen even if the phone is locked. That alone should make iPhone users jealous.

Also of note, Handcent lets you change the color and frequency of the notification light. Finally, Handcent lets you customize the app appearance. I like it!

TSA Opt-Out Day

Ok, I confess. I wrote this app. I'm biased.

This app lets you try your blue-gloved hand at being a TSA pat-down screener at the Airport. The motivation behind the App was to support discussion of the US Opt-Out Day protest of airport X-Ray body scans and "enhanced" pat-downs.

One person called the app "Worst game ever". Another called it "Friggen hilarious!". Either way, the point is that I was able to get an app in the Android Market instantly because there isn't a review process in place for Android Apps. This aspect of the Android Market is bound to make iPhone users jealous.

In Android land, developers can react to world events as fast as they can write a program. For example, a developer recently released an Android app to follow the recent Wikileaks debate. The instant and experimental nature of the Android platform encourages Apps that would never make it to the Apple App Store.

Instead of suggesting a specific App here, let me suggest searching the Android Market for interesting news events in progress.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

TSA Opt-Out Day Android Game

TSA Opt-Out Day screenshot1In celebration of National Opt-Out Day, I have written a humorous app for Android Phones (requires Android 2.1 or newer). To find it, simply search for TSA in the Android Market. If you're on your phone, you can click on this Android only link.

The name of the app is TSA Opt-Out Day, and it is free!

What is all this about?

I had the idea for this game last week when chatter about Opt-Out Day was picking up on Twitter. I thought that a fun Android App could contribute to the protest efforts by getting more people involved...

What does it do?

The game gives you the power of the TSA blue glove. Wear blue gloves at the airport and suddenly you can touch people in the strangest ways.

Your job in the app is to operate the line of passengers who opt out of the naked X-ray scanner. Feel around the passengers legs and private areas looking for dangerous banned items like gel shoe inserts, snow globes, and bottled water.

Watch out though, if you get too personal the passengers will complain to Congress. If enough passengers complain, Congress will ban enhanced pat downs and naked X-ray scans. Then you'll be out of a job.

Updates (3:08 PM CST)

Comments on the app have been great:

  • "Kinda dumb but kinda funny." - dequan
  • "Worst game ever" - william
  • "Friggen hilarious!" - Michael

Good stuff.

My brother told me that having to hit the back button for the dialogs was annoying, so I added dismiss buttons to all the dialog boxes. I also added ninja stars and a few new traveler characters. That's version 1.1 of the app, in the Android Market, for free.

Also, if you don't have an Android phone, you can get a peek at the Android Market data here. That site seems to take a while to propagate updates, but it will give you an idea.

Update (3:41 PM CST)

The initial Android Market stats are up: 483 downloads, 286 active installs. That means that 59% of those 483 have not uninstalled the TSA Opt-Out Day app. Fun!

More later...

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Developing Software on the new MacBook Air 13"

A few days ago, I shared the sad story of how my MacBook died, and what I was able to recover with my backup scheme. If you recall, I was scheduled to fly to Denver about 12 hours after my computer died.

Aside from the occasional bolts of panic zapping my brain, the flight to Denver was great. I'm a software developer; I'm sure pizza deliverators get the same anxious hollow feeling from a flat tire. Assassins probably feel the same pang when they toss a warm revolver into the river.

Lucky for me, the Boulder Marriott was only a few blocks from an Apple store. To make some lemonade, at least I would get to pick out a new toy.

The Thrill of the Hunt

My first night in Boulder, I spent about an hour comparing the 15" MacBook Pro and the new (note: at the time, the second generation Air was just out. The third generation has an even faster processor. The following link is to the third generation Air.)  13" MacBook Air. I knew that the Pro had a better processor, a better GPU, could hold more RAM, and had a few more features that made it more suitable for software development.

But the MacBook Air had SSD hard drive on its side. Where the Pro would take a few seconds to open any program, the Air opened even Aperture almost instantly. Academically speaking, I know there are operations which the MacBook Pro can execute faster than the Air. If you need pure CPU or GPU power, the Pro will do the trick. If the job requires a fast FireWire external hard drive, only the Pro will do. If the job needs more than 4GB of RAM, you need the pro.

But for the every day tasks I could test at the Apple store, the MacBook Air was the fastest computer I've ever used -- and the demo model only had 2GB of RAM. The (non custom) top-of-the-line MacBook Air cost about the same as the base-model MacBook Pro.

If I were Richy Rich, I might have considered buying a custom MacBook Pro with a SSD hard drive. But that would have been a $750 upgrade. Ouch!

The decision was tough, but I decided that I wanted the MacBook Air with 256 GB SSD hard drive, and 4GB of RAM. The speed was eye catching, and so was the size.

Missing the Shot

In a painful turn of events, it turned out the Apple Store did not have the MacBook Air I wanted in stock. I was initially told they were in stock. I thought I had the Air in my clutches. The employee was wrong.

All that time deciding, and I couldn't complete the purchase. I asked when they would get more in, but apparently Apple stores get daily mystery shipments of computers. The employees have no idea which models they will get on a day to day basis.

I needed a beer. Luckily Boulder is a beer town (in fact, I happened to be in town for the Beer Bloggers Conference). A bottle of Brew Dog 5am Saint and a bottle of Alaskan Winter Ale did the trick.

The Chase

I returned to the Apple Store the next two days. Boulder Apple Store finally received the model Air I wanted Saturday morning. The Air is probably the most relieving $1,700 purchase I've ever made. Now I just had to install some software.

The Verdict

Yes, the size of the Air is amazing. The thing is tiny, minuscule, a little microtomed slice of Aluminum. I actually worry that I should get a sleeve for the Air since it actually can slide into a tiny gap between the pads of my Kata camera bag.

One unexpected benefit of the size is that the wrist rests flow into a desktop much nicer than a standard laptop. When it rests on my desk at work, it almost looks like the Air is sinking into the fake wood.

The size is tricky too. My previous MacBook also had a 13" display, but the Air's display is higher resolution and brighter. It feels larger. Well, it feels larger until you close the lid. Then you wonder how a computer fits into a tea tray.

How about speed? I've had a few weeks to develop on the MacBook Air, and the thing is amazing. Jeff Atwood is correct, a SSD hard drive will change your life. Even the slow-poke Eclipse IDE gets to the workspace selection dialog in 4 seconds. Likewise, Xcode explodes onto the screen faster than necessary, about 2 seconds to open, 2 to open a project. Aperture 3 launches in a second or two. Builds are fast too, though I'm sure your mileage may vary.

Right now I have 13 applications open, including two IDEs. Everything feels zippy and fast. More importantly, I'm much less likely to get distracted while waiting for a build to finish or tool to launch. I love it!

I don't for a second regret getting a MacBook Air instead of a MacBook Pro. Tiny and fast? This is the future.

Amazon offers a newer generation of MacBook Air than the one I own. Using one of the links from this page will help support the site.

*Moving Average Inc. is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to amazon.com.
*Changed 22 March 2012 to add links to Amazon and explain that a newer MacBook Air is available.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Must Have Android Apps

I really enjoy my HTC Evo 4G Android Phone, but I don't think the killer apps for Android are as easy to discover as they are on the iPhone / iOS platform. Here are a few cool Android apps that I think everyone should have.


Evernote is a cloud service for capturing, organizing, and searching notes. The cool thing about Evernote is that you can take a text or voice note on your phone, and it'll sync to their servers and to any of your other devices.

I'll often use Evernote on my phone to take quick notes when I'm chatting with friends. Maybe I'll write down a good movie to watch, a great beer to try, or an idea for my business. When I get back to my computer, I'll open Evernote to edit and flesh out the notes on a real keyboard.

I take almost all of my meeting and conference notes in Evernote. The basic service is free, the app is free, and upgrades to the service are fairly cheap. I love that my notes are backed up to the cloud and searchable.

The Weather Channel

I value The Weather Channel app for several reasons, but one of the most useful is that it will notify you if there is severe weather in your area. These days folks don't really listen to the radio or watch TV as much, so it can be useful to get a ding from the phone when there is a severe storm on the way.

In addition, you can enter a your favorite cities and quickly see the weather in San Francisco or Denver before you decide which $80 JetBlue ticket to buy. Animated weather maps seal the deal.

Astrid Tasks

My buddy Nate got me hooked on this To-Do list app, and it keeps getting better and better. Everyone has things to do, and this app makes it easy to capture those tasks. You can make this app more complex, but I simply enter an item, hit enter, and forget about it.

The best feature of this app is that it now syncs with Google Tasks. Things I enter in this app now appear in my Google Calendar.


There are plenty of folks who have complaints about Yelp, but when it comes to finding a good restaurant or pub in a strange city, the Yelp app rules. In 3 or 4 clicks you can get a list of every cheap restaurant nearby that's currently open. Quickly scan through the reviews and go eat.

USA Today

The New York Times app is ok, but the USA Today app is more fun and more intuitive. I really like their pictures tab, which lets you browse the news through photography.


Mint is an online service for monitoring your personal finances. Make and account there and you can track your credit card statement, bank accounts, brokerage accounts, mortgages, and so on. The Android app lets you check your financial situation when you're in the Apple store trying to decide how much storage you can afford to get in your new MacBook Air.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Testing my Backup Solution the Hard Way

P1020536.JPGThere are probably no sounds more terrifying to the heart of a computer nerd than the sound of a hard drive failing. Clunk clunk click click clunk.

That was the sad sound I heard the previous Wednesday night as I was copying an Aperture Photo Library off of my little white MacBook. That was the night before I was to fly out to Boulder Colorado for the Beer Bloggers Conference. Oh crap.

My stomach clenched and my heart dropped as I tried to remember the last time I backed up my computer. Maybe a week or two ago, but I wasn't sure. I had almost certainly lost something significant, but without pouring through my backup system I wasn't sure what.

My Old Backup Scheme

Jumping Sword
My old backup scheme involved using SuperDuper! to backup my startup drive every few weeks. The wonderful thing about SuperDuper! is that it creates bootable backup drives.

When my MacBook internal drive failed, I booted the same MacBook right off of the backup drive. At that point, the computer looked just like it did at the last backup -- an old copy of everything, but the computer otherwise worked normally.

I should say that the computer worked mostly normally. It now required a big, fat external hard drive dangling off of a firewire cable. My MacBook was anchored to my desk.

Most of my software development work is stored in a Mercurial repository. And most of those Mercurial repositories are regularly pushed up to Kiln. Even better, I had pushed my most recent changes in one project just five minutes before the disk bit the big one! Lucky, lucky, lucky me.

My photography and video work all end up on a Drobo after editing, and I was lucky that all my photo and video work were either on the Drobo or on the SuperDuper! backup drive.

There is a big hole in this old backup solution where I could have photos or videos on my laptop that aren't backed up anywhere. Alex Lindsay regularly says something like "your file doesn't exist if it doesn't exist in at least three places." By his standards, most of my files don't exist.

My documents and notes are almost all created using Google Documents or Evernote. Both of those services are "cloud" based, meaning that I worry less about losing them. I suppose that I really don't know how safe those solutions are -- I bet Alex Lindsay would worry more than I do.

What I Lost

Remember how I said that most of my non-photo and non-video work is in mercurial? The one thing I seem to have lost was about a week's worth of changes to my #BBC10 / unofficial Beer Blogger Conference Android app. I added a lot of functionality in that time frame, so it's frustrating that I didn't regularly push the code into a mercurial repository like my other work.

I'm not sure what I was thinking, but it probably was something along the lines of "Oh, I can put off opening a FogBugz account for Moving Average. Why, that would take a whole five minutes! What are the chances that the hard drive will fail in the next week or two?" Oh, cruel fates, I feel the hot gaze of your eyes now.

All things considered, I didn't lose too much. Losing the source to the #BBC10 app irks me, but I still count myself lucky. Very lucky.

The New Backup Scheme

Liquid Plasmoid Rocket
Obviously I've learned a few things during this incident, mostly that I need a automatic incremental backup solution -- one that is preferably stored offsite. I also need to ensure that all my software projects are regularly pushed into Kiln.

In terms of automatic update solutions, I'm currently looking into CrashPlan and BackBlaze. The both have inexpensive yearly cloud-based solutions. So far it seems that CrashPlan has better reviews, but I have a few concerns about the wording that CrashPlan is for "personal use only". Does that mean my photos or software on my computer won't be backed up because they might have commercial value? That's concerning.

In the mean time, all my software projects now have a home in Kiln. I run hg push a lot more often than I used to, and my Drobo will be getting my photos and videos at a faster pace. Thank goodness for my Drobo and it's terabyte of redundant storage. I'd still like to get the Drobo backed up to the cloud in case it gets stolen or my house burns down.

Final Notes

Ultimately I got what was left of my important data off of my Backup drive and into the cloud where I could get to it remotely. The outdated source for my #BBC10 app went into Kiln, as did a few other projects missing from the cloud.

I left for Colorado and the Beer Blogger Conference feeling completely naked without a laptop. I had an iPad, iPod Touch, and my HTC Evo 4G as data devices, but for software development and photo editing, those gizmos aren't very useful to me. Losing a hard drive hurts, and I spent a few days mentally kicking myself for not implementing a better backup solution.