Monday, March 27, 2006

Word processing on the web

If, like most of the world, you tend to do most of your document creation in Microsoft Word, here's something you might be interested in.

AjaxWrite is a web-based word processing program that uses Ajax (a new "cool" language that's pretty hip on the web these days.) This certainly isn't the first, Web-based word processor out there. Writely was one of the first and it was bought out by Google a couple of weeks ago.

I particularly liked the FAQs on the site (which is still in Beta, but seems to work pretty well). Here's an example:

I heard that Sun and Google are partnering to create Google Office. How does ajaxWrite compare?

Google Office is vaporware meaning people talk about it, but it exists only in the press' imagination. People interested in a traditional office suite should absolutely try because it's a capable office suite available at no charge. But not even Google's engineers can turn the giant semi-truck like OpenOffice into a hybrid vehicle that can run over the net like ajaxWrite. The OpenOffice software suite is approximately 65,000kb in size while ajaxWrite is just 400kb or to put it another way 150 times smaller. Now it's not an entirely fair comparison because is multiple programs, not only a word processor. But any way you measure it, it will not be possible to transform into a snappy web delivered software program like ajaxWrite.

Since I already own multiple copies of Word for all of my various computers, I didn't think I'd have much use for an online version. But when I tried it, I was pleasantly surprised. It really does work much like the regular program. The people behind it claim that the on-line version has about 85% of the features of the real program, which should satisfy most users' needs.

What is really interesting though is that you don't have to sign in or offer up your email address or anything. You just open the page and start working. You can load up any document off your hard drive (or a USB drive, if you're working somewhere else) and save it back when you're done. It's cool and kind of fun to play around with.

Ajax is a very neat application and is one of the "go-to" products of the new Web 2.0 world that everybody loves to talk about. Right now, I'm having trouble keeping up with a lot of this stuff. But this is a program I could find a use for.

There's nothing to it. Just go to the website and try it for yourself. I'd be interested to hear what you think about this. And if you want, you can submit your feedback to the site's owners. They're looking for comments on what they've done.

UPDATE -- I didn't realize it, but AjaxWrite requires the Firefox browser to work properly. If you aren't using Firefox, my apologies. On the other hand, you really owe it to yourself to download a free copy and give it a try.

Technorati Tag:

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Slacking off as a career move?

I'm writing this while I'm taking a brief break from a very, very busy day. I'm being pulled in several directions at once and being forced to make decisions in a hurry. Of course, nothing special in that. That's the way life goes for everyone these days, right? It means we're all doing great things and getting a lot of stuff done, I'm sure.

So coming across Be smarter at work, slack off I couldn't resist taking a peek.

It's a great read, but I've got to run. I'll talk about it later. Read it for yourself.

Hmmm...there may be something ironic happening right now, but I don't have time to figure it out.

Thanks to Kathy at Creating Passionate Users for the link.

Technorati Tag:

Saturday, March 18, 2006

The songs of our lives

I've just had the most amazing experience. I was watching TV tonight and I dozed off. When I woke up, there was an infomercial on about the songs of the '70s. It's one of those Time Life collections.

And here's the scary part. I watched the entire half-hour and I knew EVERY FRIGGIN SONG!

I find it amazing how these 150 songs are so recognizable. I know there was a lot of other music (heck, I've still got plenty of vinyl records to prove it, although my 8-tracks are gone now...) but these songs have survived. Not that they were necessarily great songs ("Seem's It never Rains in Southern California" or "Brandy") but they have become memorable. ("Everybody was Kung-Fu Fighting!")

Waking up to an infomercial reminds me of the old Steve Goodman song, Vegematic:
Fell asleep last night with the T-V on. Oh, what a dream I had.
I dreamed I answered every single one of those late night mail order ads.
And four to six weeks later, much to my surprise,
The mailman came to my front door, and I couldn't believe my eyes
When he brought the Vegematic, and the Pocket Fisherman too,
Illuminated illustrated history of life,
And Boxcar Willie with a Ginzu knife,
A bamboo steamer, and a Garden Weasel too,
And a tie-dyed, dayglow souvenir shirt from Six Flags Over Burbank.

There's a larger point here about the power and the place in our society for music. It's not a new thing, of course. It's been a part of society for as long as we've been around. And each generation finds its own identity through the songs they grow up with. And even if I would never say I "liked" these songs, at least not all of them, I can't deny that I recognize -- and identify with -- them. Interesting how powerful this linkage is.

Technorati Tag:

A collection of interesting items

Here's a few items, not necessarily related.

ITEM 1 -- It looks like Canada has accepted Clara Hughes' Olympic challenge. You'll recall that after she won a gold medal in the 5,000 Metre long-track skating event, Clara Hughes pledged $10,000 of her own money to a charity called Right to Play. Well, as of today, Canadians have pledged more than $307,000. What a tribute in response to a selfless gesture. Kind of makes you proud, doesn't it?

ITEM 2 -- Have you ever wandered through a cemetary, just for the quiet beauty of it? I like to, from time to time. When I was a reporter back in Saskatchewan, I often visited cemetaries in small towns, where you could see the history of the community revealed in the stone markers. So A dream lies buried here, a wonderful article from the March 17 edition of the Globe and Mail's Facts and Arguments page, is one of the nicest pieces I've seen on the beauty of cemetaries and well worth the read. (I'm not sure how long it will be up on the site.)

ITEM 3 -- I was talking with a former reporter colleague yesterday and it brought back lots of memories of life as a reporter. But compared to this series of articles from (Part 1 and Part 2) on the bleak life for reporters in Baghdad covering the Iraq war, my time covering politics in Saskatchewan was a walk in the park. Iraq is a mess, and this excellent series makes clear just how desperate things have become.

ITEM 4 -- In a similar vein, I tracked down Christopher Allbritton's fascinating blog, Back to Iraq 3.0. Allbritton now lives in Iraq, after making news back in March, 2003, when he raised enough money from readers of his blog to go to Iraq to cover the war. He's now living in Iraq, working for Time magazine. He's earned a reputation from people who seem to know as a determined and honest journalist, who delivers a view of Iraq that you don't see as often as you used to.

Together the two items above make me appreciate just how difficult life has become for journalists trying to do their job in Iraq. Their world is a dangerous grey area, where nothing is quite what it seems and disaster can strike at any time. They deserve our respect, no matter what we think of the war itself.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

It's tournament time again

I settled in tonight and watched the first games in this year's NCAA Tournament, or the start of March Madness, as it's more popularly referred to. And, as usual, it started off with a bang. Upsets, last-minute miracles, overtime, double overtime -- what a start to what has to be one of the most exciting events in college basketball.

I"ve been watching this yearly ritual since I was in high school in Regina. But back then, Regina didn't have cable TV, or at least no one I knew had it. So each spring, a few of us from the basketball team would drive down to Weyburn, rent a hotel room and spend the weekend watching basketball. Estevan and Weyburn, in southern Saskatchewan, had always been able to get the US TV stations out of North Dakota. And at that time, that was the only way to see any of the games.

Finding the games these days isn't a problem. There's wall-to-wall coverage on CBS and SportsNet in Canada usually carries lots of the Tournament as well. And now, with the Internet, you can follow the games, print off the "brackets" document, and even watch some of the games live on your computer. I haven't tried that yet, but I might.

Anyway, if you notice that my posts are veering into the sporting world in the next couple of weeks, that's the reason. In fact, I happened to go back to the first post I ever made to this blog, way back on April 3, 2004. Wouldn't you know's what I was writing about then.

Hurray for March Madness
The NCAA Final Four is on. This is what basketball is all about. The skill level of the players and the coaches - heck, even the referees - is something to behold. I've played basketball or been involved with it for most of my life, and it's weekends like this that convince me that it's still the best sport out there.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

When does "That's cool!" become "Holy S*#t!"?

Do you know where your dog is right now? Or your cat?

Or, more to the point, where's your car? Your laptop? Son? Wife? Husband?

Soon, (for some people, perhaps it's already happening) you'll be able to track virtually anything, anywhere, anytime.

Not sure what the heck I'm talking about? Consider this excerpt from UFOs (Ubiquitous Findable Objects) by Peter Morville, posted on the Oreilly Network:

The term ambient findability describes a world at the crossroads of ubiquitous computing and the internet, in which we can find anyone or anything from anywhere at any time. It's not necessarily a goal, and we'll never achieve perfect findability, but we're surely headed in the right direction.

A clear sign of progress is the emergence of ubiquitous findable objects (UFOs). GPS, RFID, UWB, and cellular triangulation enable us, for the first time in history, to tag and track products, possessions, pets, and people as they wander through space and time.

Morville goes on to cite all kinds of examples of how the "brave new world of UFOs" is playing out. Of course, there are two sides to the issue, and not everyone thinks this kind of thing is a good thing.

The arguments for and against are thought-provoking and not nearly as clear-cut as we like to think. I tend to be a bit flippant in my comments about serious topics (oh really?) but this is pretty serious stuff. I recommend you read Morville's whole article, and explore some of the links in it. He goes into a lot more detail than I do here.

Many of us are opposed to giving out personal information on principle, but we willingly relinquish it every day, through the use of cookies on our computer, loyalty programs, credit cars, ATM activity, security cards at work, applications for all kinds of thing, etc. There is a lot of information about all of us out there, and by and large, we enjoy the benefits that come with that.

But how far is too far? I carry a cell phone, which can be used to track my movements. That might be a good thing if I'm lost, but what if I'm playing hooky from work? Who decides which is which?

A while back, I posted an item on social bookmarking (for example, those tags at the end of this article) that is fast becoming a popular way for people to share interests with each other, as well as track down all kinds of information.

The success of social bookmarking depends on all of us giving up a certain amount of our privacy in exchange for the benefits of getting access to a wider community. I'm willing to let you see my photos on Flickr and I'm hoping that you won't use them for a bad purpose.

I'm also willing to put you on my buddy list, so you can see whether I'm at my computer or not. But I think I'll draw the line at letting you track my movements via my GPS collar, or something like that. At least, I will if I know about it. My point is that it's starting to look more and more as though I won't know about it. The RFID tag on the collar of my shirt might provide a signal that those who know what they're doing can match to me and follow the shirt's progress throughout the city. Sounds crazy, sure. But I don't think it's out of the question.

As with so much of today's technology, we latch on to the cool stuff and all the neat things that we can do. But there's always two sides to every story. And sometimes we get carried away before we've fully considered all the facts. By the time we do, it's often too late to get the genie back into the bottle.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not advocating for putting the brakes on any of this new technology. I think it's great stuff and I firmly believe it's going to make the world more interesting for all of us. But we need to have free and open discussion about how we all benefit from this stuff, not just a few. And we have to make sure that we don't cede control over our lives to some "Big Brother" type of group, or company, without ensuring we have the means to follow what they're doing.

I know these issues will keep coming up. In the meantime, I'd love to hear what some of you think about UFOs. Or anything else I've touched on. While I like to hear myself type, I'd love to get a conversation going with a bunch of you. Feel free to comment anytime on anything.

Thanks to grockwel for pointing me to this topic

Technorati Tags: UFO

Monday, March 13, 2006

Media watchdog becomes a victim, which bills itself as "a media issues supersite, featuring criticism, breaking news, and investigative reporting from hundreds of organizations worldwide" is used to dealing with critics who denounce it for its decidedly left-wing slant on the world's news.

But now, according to a post today on the front page, the site is facing a more insidious threat, as hackers are systematically trying to put the site out of business.

Perhaps it is a coincidence, perhaps not, but on the very week that MediaChannel is offering information on the protests against the media role in the Iraq War, (link added) and as our traffic grows, parties unknown are targeting the site with a flood of vicious technical attacks designed to bring our website down.

Fighting these attacks has taken up hours of time by our webmaster and hosting company. It is draining our already meager resources. We need help from internet security specialists we cannot afford. What started as sporadic denial of service attacks has mushroomed into ongoing multiple and coordinated attacks by people determined to destroy and deprive our readers from viewing the site and taking part in our community of concerned readers worldwide.

This attack on free speech is serious, potentially well-financed and beyond our ability to deal with. We will have to cut back on what we can offer until we are able to more effectively fight back.

If this is really an attack on a site by someone determined to shut it down for saying the wrong things, it marks a disturbing new direction for press freedoms. And coming just a week after the vicious crackdown on press freedoms in Kenya, one can't help but be worried for the future.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Hubble Telescope Images

This slide show is made up of images taken from the Hubble Space Telescope over the years. The pictures are dramatic, colourful and almost unbelievable. As I sat here watching them, I had to keep telling myself that they are not paintings. They're real images. The universe is an amazing place and sometimes you need something to remind us just where we fit in. Let's face it, we're just a small speck in the place.

It makes me think of The Galaxy Song, (listen to it here) from the Monty Python movie, The Meaning of Life:
Just remember that you're standing on a planet that's evolving
And revolving at nine hundred miles an hour,
That's orbiting at nineteen miles a second, so it's reckoned,
A sun that is the source of all our power.
The sun and you and me and all the stars that we can see
Are moving at a million miles a day
In an outer spiral arm, at forty thousand miles an hour,
Of the galaxy we call the 'Milky Way'.
Our galaxy itself contains a hundred billion stars.
It's a hundred thousand light years side to side.
It bulges in the middle, sixteen thousand light years thick,
But out by us, it's just three thousand light years wide.
We're thirty thousand light years from galactic central point.
We go 'round every two hundred million years,
And our galaxy is only one of millions of billions
In this amazing and expanding universe.

While searching for The Galaxy Song, I got diverted into a bunch of Monty Python sites, which kept me busy for quite awhile. Here's a fascinating clip I found. Not quite in the same vein, but interesting, nonetheless. It's also Eric Idle singing (he sang The Galaxy Song) but as you'll hear, this one is a bit more down-to-earth.

If you're a Python fan, the Pythonline Daily Llama site is where you can find out all things Python, and keep up on the current activities of all the guys. (That's where I found the clip above.)

Thanks to Todd from the GeekNewsCentral podcast for the Hubble link.

Technorati Tags:

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

The banks don't miss a trick, do they?

I remember years ago hearing talk about how there was so much money squirreled away in old accounts and that it was difficult for banks to close those accounts. So they (the banks) wanted to find a way to do it without having to wait years, or having to track down the owners, etc. I think I may have written a story about it at one time.

Well, it appears that those clever banks have found a way around that. It's called a service charge. You know what I'm talking about. We pay them all the time, to banks, waiters, rental firms -- all kinds of places. Usually, they're tied to some kind of service that you've received, hence the name.

You don't notice them that much when you're using your bank account. For example, you pay one when you withdraw money, or write a cheque, or use your debit card, etc. If you don't want to pay each time, you can sometimes pay a lump sum each month and then get "unlimited" access to your accounts.

But what you might not notice is that most accounts now include a charge called a "monthly fee" or something like that. It's just a fee you pay, no matter what you do that month. Sometimes those fees are waived if you maintain a minimum balance, but in most cases, they just get added to your account each month.

"It's in the mail"

This morning, I got a bank statement in the mail. I opened it, because it had my address on it. But after I'd ripped open the envelope, I noticed that while it was my address, it wasn't my name. Ooops! But wait a minute. That is my address, so what the heck is going on? So I looked a little closer.

According to the statement, a couple (presumably, since both of their names are on there) had opened an account, with my home address, on Feb 13, 1999. That was about 18 months after we'd bought the house. First big problem.

Also, according to the statement, after opening the account, they made one deposit, for $242.47. And that's it. No further activity on the account. Presumably, it might even have been a mistake or whatever, because nothing more was ever done with the account.

Enter the service charge

Except the account was a "Powerchequing" account. So every month from then on, $2 was deducted at the end of each month as a service charge, just for the privilege of having the account. The bank didn't do anything, except process the service charge. There was no interest calculated. Nothing. Except that $2 each month.

So over the years, the $2 has been grinding away, until finally, the bank had taken every dime out of the account.

The service charges weren't always the same. On October 31, 2000, the monthly charge went up to $2.50 per month. And then on April 15, 2002, there was an extra service charge of $20. With no explanation.

On Mar 31, 2005, the service charge jumped to $3.50 per month. And on April 15, 2005, there is another unexplained service charge of $30.

OK, now here's the funny part. On Sept 30, 2005, the monthly service charge of $3.50 put the account into the red. The balance is now $-2.53. So the bank added an overdraft interest charge of $.04 to the total. The next month -- same thing.

It takes until Feb. 23, 2006, when the account is overdrawn to the tune of $20.78 before the bank takes action. Since they're not actually getting any money out of this thing anymore, they simply deposit $20.78 into the account to bring the balance back to $0.00 and close it. Simple.

Then, a few weeks later, I get this notice. As far as I know, this is the first bank statement I've received this whole time, although the name sounds familiar, so there may have been other mail over the last 7 years. But I don't think any of it was a bank statement.

Who's your Daddy?

The bottom line is that although this money was abandoned, and left dormant in a bank account that the owner had probably forgotten about, the bank has made sure that they won't have any trouble tracking down the rightful owner. Thanks to the power of the service charge, they now have all the money. So they can just close it down.

I'm still left wondering about those two big service charges, one for $20 and one for $30. What could possibly justify those kinds of charges on an account that had never had any action except the automatic debits of service charges?

Chalk up another win for the bank and the power of service charges. They're sort of the evil cousin of compound interest, aren't they?

Technorati Tag:

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Remembering dark days at The Leader Post

In a previous life, I was a reporter for The Saskatoon Star Phoenix, covering the legislature in Regina. Our sister paper was The Regina Leader Post, and before my newspaper career was over, I ended up working for both of them, through a shared legislature bureau called Leader Star news.

I left the newspaper business in October, 1995, to join the Corporate Communications world with SaskTel. My timing was great. Three months later, Conrad Black bought both papers and a few short months later engineered one of the largest mass firings in Canadian media history.

One of my colleagues from those days was Bill Doskoch, who is now a blogger and works as an editor for In a recent post, he describes the carnage 10 years ago when he and a lot of his colleagues at the Leader Post and Star Phoenix were fired.

It's quite a story, and I can't help but think of how lucky I was to have gotten out of there in the nick of time. Some of my friends survived those days and are still with the papers. But I don't think things have ever been the same. Of course, things have gone downhill for Conrad Black as well, but that's still small consolation for all those he so ruthlessly tossed out into the street.

Thanks to Eric at Mutually Inclusive for the link.

Technorati Tag:

Social Bookmarking - Links and Tags

You might have noticed that I've started adding Technorati Tags to each of my posts as my contribution to the social bookmarking movement. Before you ask why, let me explain that I'm not even sure that I understand what the heck they're doing. But it's a cool way to look for information on sites like Technorati, where you can search the blogosphere for just about anything.

I've also started posting items to, which you can check out and follow yourself. Those items are also tagged.

And I have a Flickr account, where some of my pictures are tagged, although I've just started adding tags and most of them aren't there yet.

All of these sites are considered part of this Web 2.0 phenomenon, which I've written about before and plenty of others are writing about all the time. (See this Technorati Search on Web 2.0)

Despite all of the above, I don't have a great handle on what's going on, but it's fun to be playing along. Today, I came across an interesting post (thanks to which pointed me to a blog called Eirepreneur, and a post called How Social Bookmarking can lead to the Semantic Web. Talk about a lot of cool connections, and I don't even know any of those guys' names!

OK, so now we've moved from social bookmarking, which I only kind of understand, on to the semantic web, which I really don't know much about. But as I read the post, I became fascinated by the discussion. Just how do we identify, sort and act on information? What kind of markers can we use to pass along our knowledge, and can we find ways to do it that work even when we don't realize what's happening? That's what seems to be happening with Social Bookmarking. It's happening, although we aren't quite sure what "it" is.

This is a dynamic post (to coin another popular phrase.) That just means I don't have a conclusion -- I'm just watching what's going on to see where it goes. In the meantime, consider how Social Bookmarking, or Tagging, or Linking, or whatever you want to call it, might fit into your own world. And don't be afraid to start using it. It's pretty cool and you might even make some new friends along the way. Next, I'm sure we'll all be creating our own MySpace pages.

I'm sure there will be more to come in this area. And, by the way, feel free to add your own thoughts to this conversation by commenting on what I've done here.

Technorati Tag:

Monday, March 06, 2006

-40C + Boiling Water = COOL!

As a former resident, I can't resist linking to this video of someone in Regina, Saskatchewan (apparently outside the SaskPower building, from what I can tell) throwing boiling water into the air at -40C. The result is pretty cool.

As crazy as it sounds, this is actually becoming a popular fad in Regina in the cold weather. A couple of years ago, I was in Mexico during the winter and one of my travel companions noticed that the CBC Morning show back in Regina was talking about people doing just that very thing (at -30C). So we came up with a great plan to throw a cup of water up in the air at +30C, capture the results on video and e-mail them back to Saskatchewan. Alas, the video camera didn't work and then it was happy hour and after a couple of Margaritas, we forgot about it. Just as well, since we were planning to send the video to a radio program anyway!

And thanks to Cory Doctorow at Boing, Boing for pointing out the story.

Technorati Tag:

Friday, March 03, 2006

Let's give employees some credit

There are two threads to this post.

First, it seems really easy to get a story in the media about how if you don't keep a close watch on your employees, they'll screw your company. The vehicle of choice usually seems to be giving them Internet access.

Over at Techdirt today, there's a good post about how the latest survey purporting to support that idea is once again shown to be sponsored by a company with an obvious conflict of interest.

As the post points out, there are so many reasons why employees should use the Internet at work that it's hard to know where to start:
But, did they bother to look at whether or not that personal surfing was actually damaging? Nah. Did they look at whether or not that personal surfing helped give employees a much needed break that helped them be more productive while working? Nah. Did they look at how people who were blocked from personal surfing found other ways to waste time? Nah. Did they look at how those who are allowed to personal surf at work often use it to take care of tasks that would otherwise take them away from work? Nah. Did they look at how so many companies today expect employees to be on call so that work invades their home as well? Nah. Did they look at how allowing personal surfing at work tends to make happier, more loyal employees? Nah. Or did they look at any of the other research that has shown that employees who do personal surfing at work tend to more than make it up by doing work at home? Nah, of course not.

The second thread is similar. We are too obsessed with "security," these days. It's become much easier to slap a "restricted" label on something and limit access than to assess it realistically and figure out who should see the information. In fact, that's the wrong way to look at information. Instead of "who should see this?" it should be, "Who should not see this?" In most cases, there is really no good reason to restrict access, beyond the obvious "because."

It's ironic that as tools proliferate to allow us to access more information, there are so many people convinced we need to restrict access. It's not that simple. As Adam Curry puts it on his weblog, "There are no secrets. Only information you do not yet have."

We need to make sure that people have access to the information they need to do their jobs better. But we also need to make sure that they continue to have access to as much information as possible, without arbitrary restrictions that are based more on the old "information is power" paradigm so many people still subscribe to.

I know there is a lot more to this story. We could get into protecting personal information, financial information, etc. I don't mean to negate the idea of security. But I do think that the knee-jerk "secure this" has become a crutch for many people. We need to rethink all of our access to information provisions, both public and private.