Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Traffic cameras as a first responder

When we got the first reports that a plane crashed into a building in Northwest Austin, we of course sent photographers scrambling to the scene. But the first images we published on Statesman.com were from TxDOT traffic cameras. Some smart soul there had turned one of the cameras along US-183 and pointed it toward the crash site.

Those traffic cameras came in handy again yesterday when during our freak snowstorm we got reports that a construction crane had fallen. Again, the cameras captured the action and we were able to publish photos before our photographers could reach the scene.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Breaking News in a Social Age

Today was a fun day for me, nestled within a wild week. We've had two huge news events in Austin that were polar opposites (pun kinda intended.) We set a page view record on statesman.com with the somber plane crash into an office building, and then at least sniffed the top 10 with a much more fun Snowpacolypse.

Steve Buttry wrote a good explanation of how (and why) we use Twitter and Social Media to cover breaking news. The Statesman Social Media Editor Robert Quigley explains both in that piece and in a recent Old Media, New Tricks entry how listening to Social Media can be a win for news organizations.

I was knee-deep in it today when Quig took a day off and I got to fill in. We knew it was going to be an interesting day with the forecast of snow, which is a rare event in ATX. I fed the @AustinWeather and the @statesman accounts while working on other projects. It was really gratifying to share in the childish joy of Austin as we ate snow, sledded down hills and built countless snowmen.

One reader had the idea to have a contest to "name" the snow event. So I egged the Twittersphere on:

RT (Go for it!) @JulieGomoll: @jonlee11 Agreed! Hey, @statesman - how about a naming contest for our "snow day"? I think it's snowbigdeal


I encouraged folks to use the hashtag #atxsnowname and then made a Twitter widget to pull in the tweets, posting them in our Weather Watch blog.



There were about 75 tweets (including mine) of the #atxsnowname hashtag. It was a quick way for Austinites to have fun for a couple of hours.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Dropbox is a sync


In my post about password managers, I mentioned Dropbox, possibly the slickest file sharing app out there. It's cross-platform, it's easy, it's useful, and it just works.

It works like this. You install Dropbox on your computer, and a Dropbox folder is added to your Documents folder. If you put something in that folder, it syncs to the cloud. When you are on another computer logged into Dropbox, changed files synced automagically. I use it with Windows XP, Mac, Ubuntu and my iPhone.

So storing and moving files is pretty useful, but you can also share folders with other Dropbox users. Here's some of the ways I've used Dropbox, which just scratches the surface, I'm sure. Kinda walking through their feature list:

* File Sync: Users get 2G of space for free, with pay plans for more. I don't use nearly that much. I'm mainly throwing files there to move from computer to computer, but as I mentioned in the earlier post it works great for my KeePass database. I point the password manager to that one shared file so I'm always updating and using the latest one.

* File Sharing: I have a couple of cohorts in my Boy Scout Troop that have Dropbox, and we put documents and other files in a shared folder so we all have access to them. If we were editing the documents all the time, I'd probably use Google Docs. Dropbox can include all types of files, like software installs, photos, whatever. (I hear Google Docs will share other files, too, but I haven't tried that.)

* Online backup: I haven't had to use it yet, but Dropbox stores previous versions of files, and you can even restore deleted files.

* Web Access: It's very handy to just log into the dropbox website and pull down a particular file.

* Security: As I've stated before, I'm not a security expert, but I know files are encrypted and you have to have your password to access them. Once you've logged in, you stay logged in.

* Mobile: With the iPhone app, you to read your documents and files that the phone supports. You can also take photos and add them to Dropbox, though I haven't tried that.

OK, this almost sounds like a commercial, but all I can say is I use Dropbox every day.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Password managers for Windows, Mac and Ubuntu

I'm not a security expert ... not even close. So when it comes to this post about password managers, let me be clear: I'm just writing about my experience. I'm not endorsing. I'm not an expert.

At the office we use Password Safe to store a multitude of passwords for servers, web sites, and what have you. I found it incredibly useful to have this, especially for things accessed from a command line instead of a web browser (where Firefox serves me fine.) I liked it so much, I wanted to do something similar for my personal use.

I use a work-based Windows XP laptop, a beautiful new iMac at home, and a Dell Mini 10 using Ubuntu. Three machines, three OS's. But when I went looking for a Linux version of Password Safe, I couldn't easily find recently-developed version.

Searching around brought me to this Lifehacker article on password managers which was a good place to start, but I was also intrigued by the thought of a browser based system, which led me to Passpack.com, a free online password manager.

(First ... why not use Firefox's password manager? I do, but I want to manage a single repository for three machines. I know there are services to share passwords across computers in Firefox, but I was looking for other things, too, like search, etc. Also, browsers are not the only thing I need passwords for. There are probably options there if you look more.)



So I tried Passpack first. The interface is really slick and I found it easy to use. Some notes about it:

* I was worried about storing my passwords in the cloud, and Passpack is certainly aware of that concern. They explain all the particulars of how and why your data is safe, and I'm in no position to quarrel with them. (That said, you'll see below it is the main reason I continued to look for solutions.)

* I really, really liked the 1-click option to log into web sites. If you have the credentials for a site stored in Passpack, you can teach Passpack how to log into that site through a single click on your browser toolbar. The only downside is you have to have Passpack open in a browser tab, which isn't a huge deal, but I tend to get up from my desk enough that I didn't really want to keep it open. It's easy enough to lock and unlock the safe, though.

* Password Safe used a Windows-like tree to organize related passwords, which was useful. Passpack uses tags, which I also like, maybe even more.

* Passpack is free for the first 100 passwords. Within a couple of days I had entered 25. Seems like it wouldn't take me long to reach 100.

* If you need more than 100 passwords, there is a professional version with monthly fees (in Euros). There are some nice added features, like you can share passwords with other individuals with Passpack accounts. That can be a secure way to transfer passwords to clients or co-workers.

I found there was a lot to like about Passpack, and they describe their security pretty well, but other professionals I talked to just weren't comfortable with their most precious passwords in the cloud. I wasn't really worried until I wanted to save my Amex account password. Again, I'm not a security expert and I'm not making judgments on this, I just chose at this time to continue to look at other options. I still have the Passpack account ....

A suggestion was a more traditional software model that stores an encrypted file, which could then be saved in Dropbox, which has it's own security. Dropbox would sync this file to all my computers, so I would have the latest file no matter which machine I was on. This seemed to put my sysadminy friends more at ease because there is the encryption of the file and then the encryption of Dropbox. I figured I would at least try that route, so I went back to the Lifehacker list, which led me to KeePass and KeePassX.



Keepass for Windows (I'm using the Classic edition) is a full-featured as the Password Safe I had been using, but with a nicer interface. The KeepassX versions for Mac and Linux were said to have "less polish" but they seem to do what everything I want.

* You can organize related passwords in groups. You can assign one of 60+ icons to the group or password files to help you visually identify them.

* There's a nice search function across all fields except the password, I think. This helps me find what I want quickly.

* Saving the database file in Dropbox has worked like a champ. One disadvantage from Passpack would be if I was on a different or borrowed machine, I would have to download and install Keypass as well as download the file from Dropbox. Obviously it's easier to log into Passpack to quickly get a password.

* Keepass also allows you to use a "Key File" to lock your database. You have to have that file on your computer (or a thumb drive) to open the database. You can use that in conjunction with the password, so you would have two layers of protection. I haven't used that feature.

* A buddy and I experimented using a shared database on a server (not Dropbox) and that was kind of flaky. We seemed to be fine saving the file on Window server, but it didn't file lock correctly on Mac Xserve. We haven't played with it enough to troubleshoot why.

So, in short, I wish I could get over my heebee jeebies about Passpack being stored online, because it seems to be a wee bit more usable, but I'm finding the Keepass system to work just on my Windows, Mac and Ubuntu systems.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Dumping my web host for free stuff

I'm at a crossroads with my personal domain, cmcdonald.com. I've had the domain since 2000, first publishing photos of my kids for the grandparents. Having our own email domain was cool, too. I've run the domain through Register.com and the hosting through Hostway.com since day one.

In 2004 I "graduated" from Adobe Go-Live to using Blogger to publish the latest family goings-on. I chose to publish those files to my Hostway server using FTP because it was the only way at the time to keep my domain. I've used that service quite a bit in past years, creating blogs on for church things, friend things, kids things, etc. Other than that, the hosting is really just convenient FTP space. Sure, I once tried to install Drupal, but quickly figured out I didn't have the time or inclination to deal with all that.

Now Blogger is doing away FTP service. You'd think I'd be up in arms, but I'm OK with it. I understand their logic, having had to support aging, resource-intensive systems long after they should've been retired. What makes it easy is Blogger says they will provide tools to help convert blogs to custom domains hosted on their servers. That totally works for me if it redirects traffic like they claim.

All this means is I *think* I can dump my $160/year hosting bill and basically move everything to Google. I have an Apps account for cmcdonald.com, though I originally bailed on it for email because my wife and I already have Google profile accounts tied to Picasa, Reader and other Google applications that are not a part of Apps.

But now I think I *do* want to move my email to Apps, and either a) bite the bullet and transfer all I can to the Apps account and just log out/in for services that aren't, or b) pull in cmcdonald.com to Apps and then pop/forward/imap email into my regular Google account. Thing is, I'm not quite sure what they will offer there ... I can't really find the exact answer in their documentation. Pulling other email INTO apps seems fine, it's pushing/pulling out that could be interesting.

So, in short, I'll:

* Move DNS from Hostway to Register, which is my registrar anyway.

* Send email to Google Apps for my domain.

* Move my blogs to Blogger hosted custom domains and maybe some blogspot.com.

* Use Dropbox for simple file transfer, which is an awesome service I've been using anyway. It allows me to share files across all my computers (Windows XP, Mac and Ubuntu Linux.)

Monday, February 01, 2010

Google's letter annoucing the end of IE6

Just got the most beautiful email from the Google Apps team:

Dear Google Apps admin,​

In order to continue to improve our products and deliver more sophisticated features and performance, we are harnessing some of the latest improvements in web browser technology. This includes faster JavaScript processing and new standards like HTML5. As a result, over the course of 2010, we will be phasing out support for Microsoft Internet Explorer 6.0 as well as other older browsers that are not supported by their own manufacturers.

We plan to begin phasing out support of these older browsers on the Google Docs suite and the Google Sites editor on March 1, 2010. After that point, certain functionality within these applications may have higher latency and may not work correctly in these older browsers. Later in 2010, we will start to phase out support for these browsers for Google Mail and Google Calendar.

Google Apps will continue to support Internet Explorer 7.0 and above, Firefox 3.0 and above, Google Chrome 4.0 and above, and Safari 3.0 and above.

Starting this week, users on these older browsers will see a message in Google Docs and the Google Sites editor explaining this change and asking them to upgrade their browser. We will also alert you again closer to March 1 to remind you of this change.

In 2009, the Google Apps team delivered more than 100 improvements to enhance your product experience. We are aiming to beat that in 2010 and continue to deliver the best and most innovative collaboration products for businesses.

Thank you for your continued support!

Sincerely,

The Google Apps team


Say it together with me: I hate IE!

IE6 is a special cancer in the web development world, and there was much cheering when Google's intent was announced several weeks ago.

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