Stacks

Stacks is a new web app from Offset that helps users curate and share the apps and services they love. You login via Twitter and then create a stack. Simple.

My Mac Essentials stack
My Mac Essentials stack

Stacks makes it trivial to add app’s, products and services and for the user to maintain the stack. Once done, add some tags and publish it. So far I’ve made three stacks – Mac Essentials, Podcast Tools and iOS Homescreen. I’d like ability to add links and also icons and a search rather than relying on tags would be handy but it is new so not a big deal right now.

I like the low barrier of entry of Stacks and hopefully it will hang around as it’s a great curation tool. Currently invite only but you can request one from the Stacks site or let me know as I’ve got a spare one. What would you add to your Stacks?

Backpocket

In what may or may not become a regular thing the following articles from my Pocket queue kept me entertained this week.

Google Spreadsheets As A Database

Following on from the Google Spreadsheet links in the previous post, I spotted this retweet from Guardian Datastore. Interesting – database querying of a Google Spreadsheet. So following a link takes me to Tony Hirst’s blog and a how-to on applying SQL type queries to a Google Spreadsheet. Very useful.

Tony then takes the data and visualises it using Many Eyes Wikified. Very impressive and a site I hadn’t heard of or used before. Applying the same principles Tony has now applied visualisations to the Shadow Cabinet spreadsheet.

Only slight snag I can see is that spreadsheets are easy to change and hence the visualisations could break easily – more easily than a database would. Apart from that though I’m very impressed. I’m off to dabble!

Tuesday Linkage

Some site’s and tools that have been helpful over last few days:

  • How to setup Google Mail properly on your iPhone – great guide and ensures folders are aligned properly.
  • Brusheezy – Free Photoshop brushes. Also work with tools like Pixelmator.
  • 5 Tips For Making Great iPhone Photos – Handy guide on how to get the best out of the iPhone’s limited hardware. From the same author, here is his iPhone photo gallery.
  • Philips Carousel – An amazing advert for Philip’s new not so amazing TV. To really appreciate it watch it full screen.
  • Presto – Really interesting Linux O/S that can boot in just over 10 seconds. Will install on work PC as it could be really handy when travelling.
  • TripIt – I travel with work 2-3 times a month and it always involves e-mails, prints etc. I’ve known of TripIt but never used it until now. I simply forward my travel e-mails onto the service and my itinerary is built for me. I can get an RSS of the details, an iCal calendar that I can subscribe to and there’s a free iPhone app that allows me to get all my travel details on the move. There’s a social network aspect that I haven’t taken advantage of yet but I’m impressed so far.

FixMyStreet

I remember visiting FixMyStreet ages ago and leaving unimpressed. To be fair it was recently launched at the time but there was no local content, nobody reporting issues and it looked liked nobody was listening. However a tweet from Mike Butcher made me revisit the site today and I’ve changed my opinion.

When you visit the site you enter your postcode and you quickly see the local problems that have been reported. You can also report a new problem from this page. Once reported the site then forwards on the problem to the relevant council. There’s no guarantee that problems are fixed but the volume of recent reports tells me this is a really good route for getting issues addressed by your local council. You can also see stats for your council to see if they are responding to issues – here’s Glasgow’s for example.

FixMyStreet with Google Maps

The really nice feature though is the RSS feeds. Click on Local Alerts and enter your postcode to view an RSS feed of your local issues. This is nice and handy. Even better – post this into Google Maps and generate a map similar to the one above. Looks like someone has reported a car left in the car park outside my work.

This is all well and good but it would be handy if I could easily report an issue when I’m out and about. iPhone users now can thanks to a free app. It lets you snap a photo, add a description and it works out your position using the iPhone. Quick and easy way of recording a problem. I’m really quite impressed with how the site has matured over the years into a useful resource. Well worth checking out especially if you can’t find an obvious route into your local council.

Twitter Goes Mainstream

Over the last few weeks there’s been a noticeable change while using Twitter. Not in the service itself although it has had a few hiccups which I haven’t really seen for months. No, it’s in the people using it. Non geeks are using it. Celebrities are using it. Heck, even the British press have found out about it and are now quoting it. Great.

Well, I thought so. However I’ve read a few blog posts and tweets saying that Twitter has lost it, it’s jumped the shark, it’s time to leave, the world is ending, I don’t know how I can cope. The usual blogger faire. While you can’t stop people having their own opinions on this the bit I don’t get is Twitter, like all social networking tools, is whatever you want it to be. If you use to connect with friends then follow only them and keep away from the celebs, the news networks and the tech industry trendsetters that can be quite noisy. Don’t like someone’s tweets – unfollow them. I really don’t see what the issue is?

I follow people I know in real life, bloggers that I enjoy reading, some of ‘the celebs’ who are actually conversing on Twitter (@stephenfry, @wossy, @bobbyllew ), some of the Mac community and some of the noisy tech crowd. At the moment this is giving me a great mix of tweets and I get a lot out of Twitter. The only real dislikes I have are the spammers that are trying to build massive networks and folk who keep on tweeting about their latest blog posts. It’s called RSS!

Another aspect of Twitter that’s been discussed elsewhere is it’s news carrying worth. This week has had a few ‘popular’ news stories. The deaths of Patrick McGoohan, Ricardo Montalban (KAAAHHHHHHHHHHHNNNN was a fairly popular tweet) and then the Steve Jobs illness all exploded on Wednesday. I couldn’t believe how many people were tweeting on Steve Jobs as it broke, first questioning it, then confirming it and then adding their own comments. However those stories were nothing compared to the Hudson plane crash landing. Oh, and this picture. Taken from an iPhone of all things. Yes, the one with the crappy camera. Just shows that being in the right place at the right time is what really makes the difference. I’m a bit of a news junkie so having stories break and unfold in real time is very addictive. That picture was doing the rounds on Twitter while mainstream news sites were just breaking the story never mind showing pictures. It was the same during the Mumbai attack – Twitter and Flickr provided so much on what was really happening on the ground from people really affected. You just have to watch as people will take advantage and lie about what’s going on, making it difficult to separate fact from fiction.

The Twitter picture made the BBC 10 O’Clock news yesterday and has been blogged about too by the BBC. The real question from mainstream media is around Twitter being a reliable news source? For me it’s as reliable as any blog (so take some things with a pinch of salt) and how do you determine if mainstream media is accurate? Would you say that everything in the papers is true? The Daily Record have been using Andy Murray’s tweets as the basis for a few articles recently, quoting that Andy ‘has told the Record’ where in actual fact he’s published a tweet. No doubt the Daily Mail will turn Twitter into some sort of national threat, a place full of shady folk doing shady things. A breeding ground for sexual deviants. What, you mean it’s not? Already the press are crawling over Jonathon Ross as in a tweet he asked for a word to drop in during the Bafta’s as if it’s oh so shocking and it shouldn’t be allowed. Sigh.

Now that I’m tweeting regularly I don’t think I’ll be stopping any time soon – I enjoy it too much. It’s another tool to communicate with like IM, e-mail, blogs and forums. Just don’t believe everything you read and unfollow what you don’t like. Roll on my 1000th tweet.

BT I-Plate

With O2 going well I decided to try an I-Plate to see if it would make any difference. The I-Plate filters your broadband signal and for a lot of people has improved sync speed and also stability. It’s also fairly cheap to buy (£12.69) and easy to install. It arrived yesterday and I’m pleased with the difference it’s making. The first pic is without the I-Plate, the second with.

Without I-PlateWith I-Plate

It took a couple of minutes to fit and the results are repeatable and the benefits are seen with real world downloads not just on speed test sites. One caveat is that this only works with a BT NTE5 master socket although there are other faceplates that you can use to replace the whole master box. There is also no guarantee that you will see a speed improvement with one fitted – take a look at the Broadband Buyer link above to see customer feedback for the range of opinions on the product. However considering how cheap it is I would say it’s worth a punt, especially if your seeing slower performance or disconnects.

O2 Broadband

A week last Friday I ordered O2 broadband. I’ve now spent the first weekend on the service and so far so good. This is just a quick write up of impressions and performance of O2 so far.

The O2 router was shipped and arrived in plenty time for line activation. Activation also took place on time (last Thursday) and I got an e-mail and text from O2 saying I was good to go. I didn’t have chance until Friday to try it out and unfortunately I hit problems. No broadband detected and after trying the router plugged into the master socket it was exactly the same. I phoned O2 (freephone support) and after 30 min’s of trying various options and O2 conducting line tests they decided I had a duff router and shipped me a new one. It was an hour later before I discovered what was the real reason for the failure. I had no dial tone. I contacted O2, they said it was a BT issue so I contacted them. Cue lot’s of hassle in actually getting to speak to someone. Automated tests telling me I had/hadn’t a fault and twice I got cut off while holding to speak to someone. Eventually I got a human being. Woo hoo! After another 20 min’s they insisted I had no fault but would send an engineer out on Saturday. if it’s your equipment at fault we’ll charge around £200 at the very least. Nice. They also put a redirect onto my home phone number and it was this step that finally revealed the problem.

A friend had been trying to get through since Wednesday night and on Friday morning the phone was answered….by a sandwich shop. On connecting my broadband a mistake had been made and my home phone number was being directed to the local sandwich shop instead. Nasty. With this info the BT engineer fixed the issue on Saturday afternoon and I could connect to O2. First test – what speed am I getting?

Using speedtest.net I was getting download speeds of between 8.5 and 9meg. Upload was consistently over 1meg. Never really trusting the speedtests it was time to do some real world downloading. Newsgroup downloading always maxed out my Virgin connection and is a good indication of true speed. On O2 I’m getting around half the speed I was getting on Virgin. Baring in mind that’s for just over a quarter of the price (£10 for O2 against £37 for Virgin). Uploading is also faster with O2 than Virgin which should help with video uploading and also 360 and PS3 game hosting. The problem I’ve had before with ADSL though is consistency. So far (since Saturday afternoon) the speed has been very consistent, certainly more so than Virgin which at nights (without throttling being applied) could easily drop down to 5-7meg. There’s also been no disconnects so far but it’s early day’s and it will be interesting to see how the connection copes with the busy week night periods which is where I’ve had issues before.

I did expect to have issues with the router O2 supplied. It’s wireless G only and I was expecting to have to buy a new ADSL router. It’s a rebadged Thomson TG585 and forum posts had put me off the router. However wireless performance in my house is excellent – on a par if not better than the D-Link N router I used with Virgin. The router is set-up to run WEP from first switch on which is good. WPA and WPA-II are also supported. It should be noted though that the router admin user doesn’t come with a password but that’s easily rectified.

Out the box the 360 and PS3 set-up with open NAT and NAT Type 2 respectively which should be perfect for online games. No faffing around with DMZ’s or opening ports. I’ve tried both consoles online and it’s been excellent. Halo 3 and Wipeout both need good connections to perform well and I saw no abnormal lag issues in either. Happy days.

The router is accessed via a web front end which isn’t particularly user friendly. Many settings that I’m used to tweaking on the D-Link are missing. Many stat’s that you would expect to see in the interface are missing. Cue terminal and command line interface (CLI). This reminds me of the Speedtouch I used years ago – very reliable router but changes were made via a CLI and this Thomson isn’t much different. I guess this makes support for O2 easier as there’s less for home users to tinker with. To see current line stats, essential for troubleshooting ADSL issues, you type the following from terminal:

telnet 192.168.1.254
Login name: SuperUser
Password: O2Br0ad64nd
adsl info expand=1

Not hard but not user friendly either. I also wanted to change to OpenDNS rather than O2’s DNS servers and again this isn’t available via a web page but is instead:

dns server route flush
dns server route add dns=208.67.222.222 metric=0 intf=O2_ADSL2plus
dns server route add dns=208.67.220.220 metric=0 intf=O2_ADSL2plus
dns server route list
saveall

Overall, very impressed so far. O2 support (as Gordon has highlighted before) has also been excellent, even texting and e-mailing this morning to say they can now see I’m connected at a good speed and also that they will now start taking payments. I’ve really liked the whole ordering process that O2 use – far slicker than I’ve seen from anyone else. However I’m still prepared for issues over the coming days. I’ve been burned before with good solid speeds and then loads of disconnects. So far I’ve had none and if the rest of the week is as stable as the weekend it really will be bye bye Virgin. Here’s hoping.

Bye bye Virgin?

Tired of Virgin’s throttling and high prices I’ve signed up for O2 broadband. I currently pay £37 a month for 20Meg broadband from Virgin and while the service has been reliable the throttling is getting in the way. It’s also hard to justify that price when O2, Sky and others are offering equivalent services for just £10. I do however have some concerns.

Back in October 05 I moved to Freedom2Surf’s 8Meg. Initially it looked a good move but after only 3 months I left the service and moved to Virgin (NTL at the time). Since then Virgin have been very good. There’s been the odd bit of downtime and a month of my IP address showing as being routed in Ireland but in general there’s not a lot to complain about apart form the price. Looking back I still have a fear that the ADSL service for my house will not be as reliable as Virgin’s cable service.

That’s why I ultimately chose O2 over Sky. They are currently offering a 50 day money back guarantee which will be plenty time for me to set-up and try their service and ensure that it’s reliable…as well as fast. Speed is up to 16Meg download and up to 1.25Meg upload. So slightly slower download and a much improved upload. Real world speeds, I expect, will be a lot less than that due to distance from exchange and also the cabling to and in the house but only time will tell.

I ordered the service yesterday and the first impressions are good. O2 keep in touch with you via website, e-mail and text messages. The service should be enabled by next Thursday and the O2 modem and router have already been shipped. Hopefully it works out well as the cost saving is pretty massive over Virgin. One snag – the router is only a G so if it initially looks a good move I’ll need to pick up a new router. Anyone have a good recommendation?