Monthly Archives: August, 2005

Telephones and other Gizmos

I’ve been playing with Gizmo. For those who haven’t come across it, the Gizmo Project is like Skype, but uses open, standard VoIP protocols. Why would you want to do this, when the software’s still in beta and there are millions of people using Skype? Well, because Skype users can only connect to other Skype users (unless they pay money to be routed over the standard phone system). Gizmo can connect to things which are not Gizmo, like standard VoIP phones and IP-capable exchanges.

I have both of these. I’ve been experimenting with Asterisk, the open source PBX, and I’ll write more about that soon. But for now, suffice it to say that my office phone line is now connected to a computer, instead of to a phone. I have a motley collection of phones around the house which are also connected to it, either via conventional phone wiring or via the network. And I have complete control over this… but more about that in a later post.

When you get a Gizmo ID, which is just like registering for AIM or Skype, you get something which works just like those systems, but can also be dialled by a standard VoIP system (using a SIP call to <gizmoname>, for those interested). So I now have phones around the house on which I can dial a four-digit extension number and it will call my friend Robert on his Gizmo session, wherever he is in the world. And he can choose which phones in my house to ring, because I’ve assigned them different names, or whether to ring all of them at once, and he can do it when he doesn’t have a phone handy! And get this: it’s all free!.

Now, there are quite a few rough edges here still, and configuring some of this is not for the faint-hearted, but trust me, this is the way of the future. You can now either call my phone here using either using a phone number (and pay for the privilege) or call, say, my study using (Actually, I’ve changed the address here, but it’s very similar to that; let me know if you’d like to try it). The second one is more flexible, easier to remember, and it won’t cost you a penny.


Ever wish someone would come around and tidy your desk from time to time? Someone who would just put away neatly the things you weren’t currently working on, in the same way that you would if you were a little more organised?

Well, Mac users, there’s a neat little utility called SpiritedAway, which hides any applications you have running but haven’t worked on in a while, just as if you’d done a Cmd-H on them. My resolution of the week is to keep my desk a bit tidier…

The new business card

Here’s a quick idea: When you’re next getting your business cards printed, upload your vCard (the standard electronic equivalent) to a web server somewhere, and print the URL of the vCard on your business card. Most people end up copying business cards into an electronic address book – those that are important to them, anyway – and if you do this then they’ll only have to type in one thing.

You don’t have to publish your details for all and sundry to see; you don’t need to link to it from elsewhere on your web site, and you can pick a fun URL that people won’t guess, like . But if you’re giving somebody the details in paper form anyway, it’s probably because you want to make it easy for them to contact you, so why not make it even easier?

Creating a vCard file is easy. On a Mac, you can just drag your address from the Address Book to your desktop or some other folder. On Windows, I think you can select a contact in Outlook or Outlook Express and do a Save As… Thunderbird, sadly, doesn’t seem to export vCards yet, though it will import them.

There was a time when almost everyone had a PalmPilot, and you could just beam your details to them. Sometimes technology takes a step backwards…

Beautiful software

One of the joys of being a Mac user is the amount of care that many software producers put into the aesthetics of their products. I wrote about this before in the context of Delicious Library, and I’ve just found another utility which made me say, “Oooh. That’s pretty!”

It’s Timeline, from Bee Documents, which does just what it says on the tin. It helps you draw timelines. It doesn’t provide you with a huge number of options or a great degree of control, but it’s really easy to use and produces lovely output.

Sample timeline
(Click for a larger view)

I think Edward Tufte would approve.

Timeline icon If you want to plot the progress of your patents, or the history of the Ottoman Empire, or just see how large a proportion of your life you really spent as an undergraduate, I’d recommend it.

There are some nice tutorials which give you ideas about how to make your timelines look good when incorporated in other design or presentation packages.

And it has a cute icon, too.

Where ‘ave Ubuntu?

Some of you will have read my distressed posts last month from my in-laws’ house as I tried to deal with their virus-ridden PCs (here and here), so I just thought I’d bring the story up to date.

One of the machines, the Win98 one, was not only really dead, but really most sincerely dead. And we had no original CDs to reinstall the OS, and no real budget to buy a new OS. So it seemed like the ideal time to make use of a free one!

Fortunately, we now had broadband, so I downloaded Knoppix, which is a version of Linux that can run from a CD. I burned one on my Mac, used it to boot up the dead machine, and managed to copy off the documents, photos emails and address book onto a flash drive. I then downloaded and made an install CD of Ubuntu, probably the first Linux distribution that comes close to being usable by normal people, and with great relief I reformatted the disk and obliterated all traces of Windows 98 from the machine, never to darken its hard disk again. Ubuntu installed beautifully, and we had a working machine again.

We then needed to connect it to the network, and, sadly, the new NetGear wifi card that was in it was not supported. I had checked this in advance, and knew that I needed to get and build some new drivers, which, with the aid of these instructions and a few flash-drive transfers from my Mac, I was able to do. This goes to prove that ordinary users may be able to use Linux now, but they probably wouldn’t be able to install it. The same is true of Windows too, though; the scale of difficulty may be different, but either would be equally unthinkable for many people.

So now my father-in-law runs Linux. His demands don’t extend much beyond email, solitaire and some occasional web-browsing and simple word processing, and it’s just fine for that. I can connect in from the other side of the world and install updates etc, and thanks to the VNC support built in to GNOME, I can view his desktop and help him with problems, and I sometimes leave post-it notes there for him after I’ve adjusted something in the middle of the night. It hasn’t been rebooted since I left a month ago.

I also gave the other machine – a Windows XP one – a good spring clean. I ran lots of checks, installed Windows security patches, paid for and installed a new Norton Antivirus with the very latest updates, and so forth. And it’s now behind a firewall.

A week after I left it had a new virus on it. We’re still trying to get rid of it.

What is Preview?

A nice article by Giles Turnbull tells you more about this Mac app which we use all the time but may not know much about.

Modern Art?

Here’s my artistic creation for today, inspired by the work of George Eliot:

FCP art

Actually, I created this rather by accident. I have been experimenting with the FXscript capabilities of Final Cut Pro. For those not familiar with these, FCP is a professional video-editing package which is widely used in the industry. It has a whole variety of effects filters to do things like changing the colour balance of your movie, adding lens flare effects and so forth. FXscript is a programming language in which you can write your own effects.

As part of my experiments I had created a filter which averages several past frames and then subtracts the result from the current frame. I then fed it some footage from the BBC’s production of Middlemarch. Casaubon is walking morosely into the distance:


and there’s a cut to Dr Lydgate, who is watching him depart:


And the result is what you see above.

Drive me crazy

I powered up all my Firewire drives today. I don’t often do that.

Lots of drives

Quentin’s Second Law

It is more important to read things with which you disagree than things with which you agree. How else will you broaden your horizons?


1. A second form of this law may be phrased thus: It is more important to eat food that you don’t know, than food that you know you like.

2. Quentin’s First Law, for those who may have missed it, states that “The best way to be remembered is to invent a law”

Mighty Mouse

Apple have released a new mouse. Unusually for Apple, it doesn’t just have a single button. But if you were worried that Apple might have started to conform a bit too much, try working out just how many buttons it does have…

A bit more of a review on Russel Beattie’s site.

Want to find books at the cheapest prices? is an interesting way to do comparisons.

Hackers and Daughters

I’ve always tried to maintain a rough balance of reading one book written before my lifetime for every book I read written during my lifetime. And so it is that, having recently finished Mrs Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters, I’m moving on to Paul Graham’s Hackers and Painters.

Wives and Daughters is wonderful, and is also the basis of a fabulous BBC dramatisation which is every bit as good, I think, as their rather better-known Pride and Prejudice. Having now read the book, I’m very impressed with how well they adapted it for the screen. Highly recommended; if you like P&P, you’ll also like W&D!

Paul Graham’s book is also splendid. I’m currently reading the chapter where he talks about why web-based software is so much nicer to develop than desktop-based software. One point he makes is that traditional desktop software requires the user to be the sysadmin. Web-based software requires the programmer to be the sysadmin. This is better for both of them!

You can hear some conversations with Paul over at IT Conversations.

© Copyright Quentin Stafford-Fraser