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protonic.com Newsletter
Issue 32 - November 11, 2009
Table of contents:
In Pursuit of Computational Knowledge: Wolfram Alpha
Software Review: Lastpass
Spotify Update
Smartphone Wars: The Motorola Droid
Desktop Customization Part 1: Beauty in a Background
A Note from our Newsletterm Writer: Philip McMahon
Credits

In Pursuit of Computational Knowledge: Wolfram Alpha[ TOP ]
Does anyone remember Ask Jeeves? Now with less than a 0.6% market share, the search engine claimed to answer questions. Of course, it wasnt entirely successful. For the purposes of this article Ill take an extreme example. Say you wanted to know St Augustines views on creation. Type what was the key theological viewpoint that Saint Augustine used with regards to the beginning of the universe into the ask search box and the results are somewhat useless. Type Augustine on creation and the top result is a Wikipedia article followed by a specific essay on the issue. Type the same thing into the bing.com search box and the results improve further. My point is that, firstly, search engines cant understand the language we use to ask questions (though there has been research taking place for a long time into computers that can understand the way we talk, known as natural language). Secondly, the search engine itself doesnt actually provide the answers it simply provides a list of places that are likely to have the answer.

The amount of information that can be found online is growing by the day. From Wikipedia to Twitter, the internet is an amazing resource. However, information is somewhat useless unless people can find it. In the same way that a book on Mars in a box buried in the middle of the Sahara desert is useless, so is a webpage located at a domain which nobody has heard of. Search engines do a wonderful job of dealing with this problem, helping us find the information we need. Theyre like the librarian who knows exactly which books are relevant for a certain topic. However, whilst its great to know where to look, its even better to be given the information you need straight away. What we really need is an expert who knows the answers and can tell us. Enter Wolfram Alpha [1] not a search engine but a computational knowledge engine. Using an enormous library of data, Wolfram Alpha answers your queries to the best of its ability which, in all fairness, is pretty good.

Its important to note that Wolfram Alpha is not a search engine. If youre looking for the Wikipedia page on Mars youll be disappointed. If, however, you want to know any of the orbital of physical properties of the planet, atmospheric conditions, its position in our solar system and its current equatorial position youre in luck! Simply head over to wolframalpha.com and type mars. Not very impressed? Try nutrition apple and see what comes up. If youre a mathematics student youll love Wolfram Alpha type pretty much any expression into the engine and it will plot its graph, perform various types of calculus, show a number of different representations and pretty much anything else you could wish for in a matter of seconds. Theres no way I could cover every function and in any case thats not what this articles about. Suffice to say it can do a lot of things and your best bet is to give it a go yourself either by heading over to the examples [2] page or simply typing something in.

Now, Wolfram Alpha cant understand natural language. What it aims to do is make knowledge computable, that is, make it possible to find the information you need from an enormous library quickly and easily. It is able to answer some simple queries, such as What's the temperature in Australia effectively and with up to date information. Its a pretty challenging task theyve set themselves but the potential is enormous. Wolfram Alpha is something of a dictionary but rather than simply covering the vocabulary of one language, it covers a significant proportion of the knowledge of the human race. Some of its capabilities are pretty mind blowing try typing your name followed by a year (e.g. Philip 1895) and you get the names popularity, the fraction of people with the name and the total number of people with that name for that year. The information is based on the USA so its not much use if youve an obscure name from a different continent but its still an impressive feature, and more data is being added to their library all the time.

Theres now a Wolfram Alpha iphone application which makes the data even more accessible as an example if youve an iphone and have internet access the application could replace your graphical calculator entirely. If youve made the switch to Microsofts bing search engine following my article last edition you might be pleased to hear that Wolfram Alpha data will at some point be integrated into bing search results [3]. Google does, of course, have a competing product known as google squared

In all honesty I actually very rarely use the engine for anything other than mathematics. The audience that will find Wolfram Alpha useful is a specific one, in much the same way that a French dictionary is only useful to those studying the language. Having said that, what Wolfram Research (the brains behind the operation) have done is undeniably amazing. Its got to be the only service to offer up to date (usually within a few hours) information on stocks, chemical compounds, mathematical proofs, nutritional information, planetary positioning, geographical locations, historical dates and hundreds of other topics, all accessible from one place with the use of a few keywords. Go ahead, give it a try and I doubt youll be disappointed.

[1] http://www.wolframalpha.com/
[2] http://www.wolframalpha.com/examples/
[3] http://www.techcrunch.com/2009/08/21/what-wolfram-alpha-really-did-this-summer-struck-a-deal-with-bing/
[4] http://www.google.com/squared

Software Review: Lastpass[ TOP ]
New online services are released every week, bringing tools that might make our lives that bit easier or more interesting. The downside is that with each new service often comes another username and password to remember. Whether its Amazon or protonic.com, usernames and passwords are an unavoidable feature of the internet and its near impossible not to end up with multiple accounts.
There are exceptions services such as facebook connect and Open ID are becoming more widely used, allowing users to use the same username and password to login to several sites. However, uptake is slow and often if you wish to utilise the full capabilities of a service you end up having to make a full account anyway.

All of the major internet browsers offer to remember passwords. Its a really useful feature, though it is important to remember, particularly if you are using a portable computer, that anyone with access to your user account can freely login to all the services which youve chosen to have passwords remembered for. You could get round this issue either by locking down the user account more securely (standard user account passwords are relatively unsecure), though this wont save you if you leave the computer unattended without locking it. A better solution is to use a Master Password, an essential feature which for some strange reason is not offered by google chrome one of the key reasons I dont use the browser. Firefox provides this feature [1], and other popular browsers may do so as well. These Master Passwords are better than nothing but are still unsecure if theres an experienced hacker on the case. There are also an alarming number of master password recovery applications available.

Even with a desktop computer which is only useable by you personally youre still stuck if youre using a computer somewhere away from home and have forgotten the password to an account youre trying to access. So you need to be able to remember passwords. Probably the most commonly used and least recommended method of doing this is to use the same password for every account you create (the author has been guilty of this...). Its really not a good idea it may not be an issue that someones got the password to an unused hotmail account of yours but if the same details allow them access to your facebook or even any online banking services you use then youre in serious trouble. A sensible compromise is to use the same password for everything you arent worried about being hacked but a different password for everything with sensitive or banking information. This site suggests how to make secure passwords for every site [2] though the code is rather simple so I dont put much faith in it.

Anyway, theres a problem. We need something to remember all our account details securely and for them to be accessible from anywhere. Mozilla Weave [3] is a promising service but its still an experimental feature and is only accessible using Firefox [6]. I also think the secret phrase security feature which makes the encryption algorithm change for every user is somewhat over the top. My preferred password manager is Lastpass [3]. If anyone has heard of or used Roboform, this does more or less the same stuff for free. Lastpass makes your details completely accessible from the Lastpass website after youve logged in. This is only necessary if you cant install the excellent last-pass add-on which works with Internet Explorer, Safari and Firefox. The add-on essentially replaces the inbuilt password manager and looks almost identical. All you have to do is click the Lastpass icon to login (you will also be prompted if you get to a page which requests password details) and from then on Lastpass will fill in every form which you have saved details for. I wont go into a tutorial here as theres excellent provision on the Lastpass website [4].

Once youve got Lastpass up and running Ive got a few suggestions. Firstly, a fantastic feature of Lastpass is the ability to automatically log in. You can set this up either by going to your Lastpass vault and selecting edit then checking the auto-login box or checking the box when you initially save the password. Id also recommend that you take a look at the Last Pass control panel, accessible by clicking the Lastpass icon and going to preferences. Here I would uncheck show my Lastpass vault after login as its an annoying feature which serves little purpose as if youre logging in from the add-on you most likely wont want to go directly to your Lastpass vault. If youre using a portable computer then you might want to go to the advanced controls and set it up to automatically log off after a certain time or when you close the browser. It is also useful to get to grips with the hotkeys the most useful of these Ive found is Alt+I which either fills the nearest password form or asks you to login to Lastpass.

Not only does Lastpass remember passwords but it also can fill forms. Click the Lastpass icon then go to fill forms>>>add profile and fill in all the details youd like to automatically be filled in on sites with forms. Use this feature with caution as some sites can trick password managers such as Lastpass into filling in a form which is invisible to the user, thus stealing personal information. To be on the safe side perhaps leave out a word here and there and maybe dont use the credit card feature. The program has many other features [5] as well as a premium option which, amongst a range of other extras, allows you to use Lastpass on your mobile.

Its a fantastic tool which solves a common problem, and solves it well. Best of all its completely free!

[1] http://www.twistermc.com/blog/2007/03/06/protect-your-firefox-with-a-master-password/
[2] http://consumerist.com/5192485/how-to-easily-remember-a-different-password-for-every-site
[3] https://Lastpass.com/
[4] https://Lastpass.com/video.php?feature=basic
[5] https://Lastpass.com/features.php
[6] http://labs.mozilla.com/weave/

Spotify Update[ TOP ]
Spotify is yet to launch in the USA. However there have been several advancements since my original article that I thought Id update you all on what they are. There is now something of a comes with Spotify brand, with 3 offering Spotify as part of a pay monthly contract they plan to expand this into other services such as mobile broadband [1]. INQ, a UK based company, is producing a Spotify-branded phone.

Spotify itself has had some improvements made. You can now buy mp3 tracks straight from the interface there is a Buy button next to tracks where this is possible and Paypal can be used. Premium users can now download tracks to listen to when they dont have an internet connection. The bad news is that one of the people that made it all happen Andreas Ehn, has left the company. This is presumably because he wants a new challenge now that Spotifys set up and ready to go. [3]

Finally, there should be a Blackberry application coming soon.

[1] http://www.mobile-ent.biz/news/34736/3-UK-to-sell-Spotify-equipped-HTC-Hero-handset
[2] http://www.techcrunch.com/2009/10/08/inq-to-build-Spotify-branded-phone/
[3] http://www.mobile-ent.biz/news/34736/3-UK-to-sell-Spotify-equipped-HTC-Hero-handset

Smartphone Wars: The Motorola Droid[ TOP ]
The amount of hype surrounding the release of apples iphone was enormous. And in all fairness it wasnt unearned the iphone is still by far one of the best if not the best phone around. It brought together apples fantastic software and hardware design with some amazing touch technology. Perhaps one of the greatest features about the iphone now is the enormous app store, with over 100,000 applications available to use with the device. Despite some great phones such as the Blackberry storm, the Palm Pre and the HTC Hero, the iphone is yet undefeated.

Maybe, just maybe, that will all change a little bit on the 6th November when the Motorola Droid is released. The amount of hype over this phone is perhaps unearned but it does look like a promising device. Im not going to give a full review there are excellent reviews all over the web [1] [2] [3] and the full specifications are available from Motorola [4]. I just thought Id provide some kind of overview given that this phone is one of the biggest things going on in tech right now.

Droid is the name of Verizons Android range. The Droid Im talking about is simply called the Droid, but there is another phone called the Droid Eris, which also runs Android. Android is a mobile operating system made by google. With the kind of resources google has you can expect it to be a fairly decent product, and its not bad at all. The latest version 2.0, has just been released (review: [5]) which is apparently a great improvement on previous versions. The advantage of Android over something like the iphone is that its open source anyone can edit and improve it. Furthermore, google isnt regulating what you can and cant use on your phone. If anyones heard about the Google voice fiasco (essentially google voice is a pretty awesome phone service that, amongst tons of other features, allows you to have on number for several phones. [6] It was banned from the iphone app store, presumably because it more or less replaced the phone features already provided on the phone. Anyway there was a big fuss over it all....) then youll be aware of the advantages of less moderation.

Furthermore, the Droid comes with Google Maps Navigation, a GPS service in Beta which has an impressive feature list, including street view integration and voice control. Its pretty amazing to have a free GPS application like this one though its success could destabilize the navigation market, with other companies unable to offer such a huge service for free. A massively positive overview can be read here [7] and a more thorough and critical review can be seen here [8]. However the service ranks amongst other GPS application providers an inbuilt free navigation service is pretty awesome.
The Droid has a physical keyboard that slides out essential for some, unnecessary for others. It looks very shiny and, with a bit of luck, will shake the foundations of the iphone mountain!

[1] http://gizmodo.com/5396168/motorola-droid-review?skyline=true&s=x
[2] http://www.boygeniusreport.com/2009/11/03/motorola-droid-review/
[3] http://gadgetophilia.com/motorola-droid-review/
[4] http://www.motorola.com/Consumers/US-EN/Consumer-Product-and-Services/Mobile-Phones/Motorola-DROID-US-EN
[5] http://gizmodo.com/5395801/android-20-review-almost-human?skyline=true&s=x
[6] voice.google.com
[7] http://gizmodo.com/5391408/google-maps-navigation-a-free-ass+kicking-turn+by+turn-mobile-app
[8] http://gizmodo.com/5393935/google-navigator-for-android-review-good-for-free-but-far-from-perfect

Desktop Customization Part 1: Beauty in a Background[ TOP ]
This series of articles Ill be writing may be of absolutely no interest to some readers. Its relevance depends on how you like to use a computer. If a computer to you is simply a means to an end which you want to spend as little time as possible on then you might want to skip his section of the newsletter. If however you would quite fancy spending some time making your computer more appealing to the eye then read on! Im afraid that this guide will be specifically for windows users as I have no experience with customizing a Mac.

When it comes to customizing your computer, theres a huge amount you can do. Everything from the startup screen to the windows logo can be changed to suit your preference. Not all of these are simple feats, but for adventurous readers I will be providing links to software and tutorials that allow you to effectively hack your Windows user interface to look different.

Ill begin with something quite simple that can make a huge difference to your computer experience. Most readers will be used to changing their desktop background. Its a reasonably simple process, accessible when you right click on the desktop and go to properties (personalize on Windows 7) then choose the desktop background tab at the top. Its a simple thing, but having a nice desktop background can make a huge difference to your computing experience. Furthermore, in terms of making your computer look good, its the best place to start.

You may have digital photos youve taken yourself that you like to use. This is great and adds a personal touch to your computer experience. However, there is another option. Sites such as Interface Lift [1], Deviantart [2] and Digital Blasphemy [3] provide breathtaking wallpapers ready to download and use straight away. Its really worth checking out these sites to have a look. Find a few you like and save them in a folder. You may need to select your screen resolution you can find this by going to Control Panel>>>Display. Usually a screen size is 1024x768 but widescreen monitors will be different.
The sites I mentioned arent the only places to go for great wallpapers there are many others, all offering amazing high definition pictures. Lifehacker does a regular wallpaper roundup [4] I particularly liked the recent selection of autumn wallpapers they brought together [5]. If you fancy wallpaper that doubles up as a basic calendar, see this website [5*] (though there may be other better sites for these kind of wallpapers).You may not want to spend time searching for nice wallpapers if this is the case then a couple of the applications mentioned below may interest you.

Once youve got a few wallpapers you want to use together, its time to start using them! You could change the wallpaper manually every now and then, but this is no fun and often results in having the same wallpaper for months. A better solution is to have a program rotate the wallpaper for you automatically. There are many solutions here if youre looking for something specific you could try searching for something like free wallpaper rotator or just try the programs I suggest. 100 dof Wallpaper Rotator [6] is a simple solution that will change your wallpaper every time you turn on your computer. Simply tell it which folder you want it to get the wallpapers from and youre away. The advantage of this software is that it doesnt run all the time so wont slow down your computer at all good for older slower computers. Wallpaper Juggler [7] goes a step further, downloading images from Interface Lift and Wallpaper Stock for you, which it then rotates at a time interval of your choosing. I have had some trouble getting this application to work at times, but if it does work its fantastic, saving you scrolling through endless pages of images, waiting for them to load and then choosing the file name. Juggler will also rotate wallpapers you already have saved. If downloading from Interface Lift doesnt work, then try Wallpaper Stock instead. For wallpapers that change to reflect the time, see this lifehacker post [8] though beware that this could be resource intensive. Flickr Wallpaper Rotator [9] downloads wallpapers from flickr and rotates them regularly. Desktoptopia [10] rotates a selection of carefully chosen designer wallpapers though apparently it is still a bit temperamental Finally, a simple application which I used for a long time, Cyber-Ds Wallpaper Shifter [11], like the application I first mentioned, rotates your wallpaper when you logon, choosing from pictures in a folder of your choice. It also adds a desktop shortcut which allows you to rotate the wallpaper at any time you choose.
Phew!

Thats quite a lot of applications and Im sure its only scraping the surface of whats out there. If youve made it this far then I think you can safely call yourself a Desktop Background Professional, ready to save the world from dull wallpapers. I personally think that a nice background can make all the difference when it comes to using a computer suddenly the prospect of hours of typing doesnt seem so bad when you login to a new beautiful landscape or a photo from a past holiday.

[1] http://interfacelift.com/wallpaper_beta/downloads/date/any/
[2] http://browse.deviantart.com/customization/wallpaper/
[3] http://www.digitalblasphemy.com/freegallery.shtml
[4] http://lifehacker.com/tag/wallpaperroundup/
[5] http://lifehacker.com/5377886/wallpaper-roundup-color-splashes-and-cooler-days/gallery/
[5*] http://wallpapers.graphicfreebies.com/calendars.html
[6] http://www.100dof.com/wallpaper_rotator.html
[7] http://juggler.codeplex.com/
[8] http://lifehacker.com/software/featured-mac-download/spice-up-your-desktop-with-time+lapsing-wallpaper-328609.php
[9] http://rushfrisby.com/apps/flickr_wallpaper_rotator.aspx
[10] http://desktoptopia.en.softonic.com/
[11] http://cyber-d.blogspot.com/2008/06/cyber-d.html

A Note from our Newsletterm Writer: Philip McMahon[ TOP ]
I apologize profusely for the slow delivery of this newsletter. My only excuse is that I had an interview last Friday and will have another 3 in the not too distant future. On top of this Ive got a dissertation proposal to sort out as well as the college assignments that go without saying. Its no reason to be so late and I really will try hard to avoid it happening again. Im afraid there may only be two editions this month despite there only being one in October. Ill try to make up for that by making them extra long youve got 800 words extra free with this edition!

Another apology to make at the bottom of the previous two editions the email address has been spoon@protonic.com to contact me. This email has been invalid since shortly after the first September edition was sent out. If anybody has sent feedback to this email Id be extremely grateful if you could forward it to my new email address philip@protonic.com. Everything sent to clientnews@protonic.com will still have been delivered.

From now on if you wish to contact me about anything to do with the newsletter please use philip@protonic.com. Any kind of feedback is greatly appreciated. Feel free to comment on anything of the content.

Credits[ TOP ]
Newsletter Administrator - Ross Connor (ross@protonic.com)

This issue has been entirely written by Philip McMahon (philip@protonic.com)





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