Top online apps and services

In a recent post, I shared my favorite iPod Touch applications, which is a list of software that I find myself recommending to others who have an iPod Touch or an iPhone. It occurred to me that there are a number of online applications that I can’t do without, but when I mention some of them in casual conversation, I’ve found that a lot of people haven’t heard of them.

Here is a list of my favorite free online services. These services can be accessed from anywhere you have access to a web browser, and I use most of them on a daily basis. You might notice some duplication to the applications I listed in my iPod apps post, but that’s mostly because I gravitated to many of the iPod apps because of my love of the online services they worked with.

Gmail

Website

I’m sure you’ve heard of Gmail, so there’s not really any point of me telling you about it. The big selling points for me are the excellent spam filtering and the free IMAP access. Using IMAP, you can view all of your mail folders, not just the inbox, using a mail client application. It works great on my iPod. While we’re on the topic of iPods, the iPod contacts information will also sync with Gmail’s address book, which saves a lot of duplicated effort.

Google Calendar

Website

You’ll probably notice a theme with the first four items on this list, but Google Calendar is, in my opinion, a nice straightforward calendar application. My favorite feature is its ability to act like an Exchange Server, so if you have a calendar application (again, like the one on the iPod Touch) that can sync with an Exchange server, it’ll work fine with a Google calendar. Also, I recently discovered that if I invite my work email account (which uses Lotus Notes…) to a Google Calendar meeting, it will add it to my work calendar.

Google Reader

Website

Google Reader is an RSS reader and aggregator. If there are news sites, blogs, webcomics, etc. that you like to read, chances are they expose a “RSS feeds.” If you subscribe to these feeds using Google Reader (or any RSS reader for that matter), you can keep track of what entries you’ve read and which you haven’t. Likewise you only need to go to one place to read all your content. Why Google Reader specifically? Well, it’s convenient, since I use so many other Google services, and also because it works with Byline on my iPod.

Google Docs

Website

If you’ve never used an online document editor, you might be surprised how full-featured they’ve become. Using Google Docs, I store and edit a number of “Word”-type documents and spreadsheets in the web browser. I haven’t put all of my documents online, nor do I intend to. What I do put there are documents like the spreadsheet I use to track my vehicles’ gas mileage and our shopping list. The gas mileage spreadsheet I like to be able to update from anywhere, so that I can record my fill-up before I misplace the receipt. The shopping list is a document I keep on my account, and I’ve got it set up to share with my wife. We can both add and remove items (using our own accounts), and there’s no manual merging of lists.

Dropbox

Website

Among other things, Dropbox is an online service that lets you place some files online and retrieve them from a web browser. Even though there are applications for your computer and iPod to sync your files, I mostly use the online features. One of the main things I use Dropbox for is keeping my collection of batch files, scripts and other tools that I never know where I’m going to need them.

Toodledo

Website

Toodledo is a web-based task list with several integration points with other systems and services. Its a fairly new alternative to Remember The Milk (which I used for quite a while), but it has some great features. It can show your tasks on your Google Calendar on the day that they are due, notify you using SMS/email/etc., and sync with an iPod Touch app (which isn’t free, but is very cheap). One of the main reasons I like Toodledo is their concept of “contexts” for each task. For instance, if you’re sitting at your desk at work, there’s no point in seeing tasks that you need to do at home, and if you’re out running errands, it’s nice to know what tasks you need to be out of the house to perform. Context divide your tasks into group like these.

LogMeIn

Website

Last on the list, but only because I just recently discovered it, is LogMeIn. LogMeIn is a remote access tool, and it’s free for personal use. Using their service, I can access and control (for instance) my home PC from my desk at work or I can troubleshoot my family’s computers without the need to travel. You have to install a small application on the PC that you intend to control, but nothing needs to be installed on the PC that you’re controlling from. It even works, albeit not quite as smoothly, if you have ActiveX and Java disabled on the client PC. I was surprised how easy it was to set up; you don’t even have to manually open ports on your firewall or set up port forwarding on your router.

As with all online resources, there’s always a chance that these services will cease to exist, so if you use them, please be careful to keep local backups of anything that’s important to you. Each of these services does have a mechanism for making backups, but I haven’t streamlined all of them yet. That will be a topic for another day.

Aren’t reverse lights sacred?

Over the past couple of weeks, there have a fair number of occasions where I thought someone was going to back out of a parking spot while I was approaching. Of course, I stopped to avoid get hit, but then I noticed that the driver is out of the car and walking toward the store.

Maybe I just haven’t been all that observant before, but what seems to be happening is that the clear reverse/backup lights on the rear of the vehicle are being turned on as a sort of courtesy light. My truck, for instance, leaves the headlights on for a minute after I lock the doors, which I assume is to illuminate my surroundings as I leave the vehicle. It’s a logical extension of the same principle to use the reverse lights for this purpose as well.

The problem is, reverse lights already mean something: the vehicle is in reverse. Moreover, when the reverse lights are used as courtesy lights, the brake lights and other tail lights are not on. What that means to me is: the vehicle is in reverse, AND the brakes have been released. In other words, “I’m coming back right now!”

The vehicle I can remember off the top of my head that exhibited this behavior was a Pontiac Torrent SUV. I don’t remember what the other vehicles were. Does anyone know what’s going on? This feature just seems like a really poor choice to me.

On a totally unrelated note, I’m going to wire my turn signals to flash with the beat any time my car stereo is on.

New popup camper article on Wikipedia

I am now officially a Wikipedia contributer. Tonight I submitted my article on popup campers on Wikipedia. I’m surprised that no one had ever written one up until now, but hopefully my submission will be deemed worthy and not deleted. I included a couple of pictures of our popup, since it’s easiest to use your own “work” (otherwise getting permission is a bit more convoluted).

This is my first real contribution to Wikipedia, and I’m neither a professional writer nor a world-wide expert on popups, so help out the article if you can!

Top offline iPod Touch apps

This past summer I got an iPod touch, and it’s easily the coolest gadget I’ve had in quite some time. Despite being pocket sized, it’s somehow big enough to do just about anything computer-related that I want to do. While the hardware itself is nice, what really makes it useful is all the applications available for it.

Now keep in mind, I have an iPod Touch, not an iPhone. Whereas an iPhone can be connected to the internet at any time, an iPod Touch is only internet-enabled when you’re in range of a wi-fi connection. What this means is that I’m largely interested in offline apps that can make the most of an occasional internet connection. Since I’ve been fooling with it for months now, I figured I’d share which of these apps I find the most useful. Here are my top 5, in no particular order.

Dropbox

Website
App Store
Free

Dropbox is an online service that allows you to store files and sync them to multiple computers. I use it and it works great, but the iPod app provides a notable feature that is missing from the iPod Touch: the ability to store and view PDFs and other file types offline. When you set up a Dropbox account and sync the iPod app to it, you can mark some of the files as “favorites.” These favorites are stored locally and available offline.

Byline

Website
App store
$3.99

Byline is an RSS reader for the iPod/iPhone that syncs with your Google Reader account. What this means is that you can add your favorite blogs, news sites, web comics, etc. to Google Reader and view them aggregated in Byline. My favorite feature is the offline support. When you have a network connection, hit the sync button in Byline and it will download all new entries, including embedded images and snapshots of the linked web pages. Then, when you’re away from a network connection, you’re still able to read the full articles (especially useful since some feeds like CNN put very little content in the feed and instead expect you to click over to their site). Next time you sync, the entries you read will also be marked as read in Google Reader.

Toodledo

Website
App store
$2.99

If you’re looking for a way to keep your to-do list organized and to help manage your time, I’d recommend taking a look at Toodledo. It’s a web-based task list with lots of useful integration with other services. The iPod app works with the free Toodledo service and syncs tasks between web and mobile using push notification. I used Remember The Milk for a long time, but when I discovered Toodledo I quickly switched over.

Dictionary.com

Website
App Store
Free

One of the great things about having a mobile web device is being able to look something up wherever you are. If you don’t have a wi-fi connection, you’re a bit more limited but you can at least look up definitions using Dictionary.com. It’s based on the Random House dictionary, and takes a fair amount of storage space, but doesn’t require a connection.

WordPress

Website
App Store
Free

Not everyone will find this useful, but if you have a blog based on WordPress, the WordPress app lets you do some limited work on your blog even offline. Right now, I’m editing this post on my iPod using the “local draft” feature. When I get back to an Internet connection, I can publish it to my website or save it as a draft for further editing.

Honorable Mentions

That’s about it for my must-have offline apps, but if you have a good one I didn’t mention, please comment! I don’t want to miss out!

Refinancing again

Just a quick note for those of you who have mortgages but maybe haven’t been paying close attention: home loan rates are pretty good right now. Over the weekend, the rate for a 30 year fixed rate mortgage at our credit union dropped below 5%. That’s first time I have seen it do that, and since I’ve had an alert set up to notify me when the rate reached 4.875% for quite some time, I’m inclined to believe that this is a new low for at least as long as I’ve been a homeowner.

We have an appointment to refinance since the drop is significant and the payback period is reasonably short (since we can just do a straight loan modification). Obviously, your rates and costs may vary from mine, but now might be a good time to run the numbers and see if you’d benefit.

PVC Water Gun

Just in time for fall… here’s the PVC water gun I designed and built:

It’s powered by air pressure, which is created by the water pressure in the garden hose. It cost about $10-12 to build. Full instructions are available on the project page.

The good news is, this time of year, some of the parts are on clearance at the home improvement stores. Build one today, and be ready for the jack-o-lantern smashing kids this Halloween!

Broke the 40 MPG barrier

Tonight we drove home about 58 miles in our Mazda 5. Ours has a 2.3L engine with a 4 speed automatic transmission. The car was hauling the four of us and a fair amount of luggage, etc. We took exclusively 2 lane state route highways and had to stop twice for potty breaks. I ran the air conditioning about 10% of the time.

The result (according to our Scangauge II): 40.3 MPG.. Now, I should mention that I drove 52 MPH (or the posted speed limit in towns) the entire way, but I was still pretty happy to break that barrier in a non-hybrid 6-seater.

For those of you who can’t stomach driving below the limit, Dusty drove the same trip (but on a different day and taking a different route including 20 miles of interstate) driving the speed limit and got around 37 MPG.

The Atterberrys in AgriNews

On our last camping trip a lady from a local paper talked to us and took a few pictures while we were setting up camp. I didn’t hear what paper she was from, but my mom found the article in Illinois AgriNews.

P.S. The Amboy Pharmacy mentioned in the article was really neat. I had an old-fashioned phosphate made with Green River syrup. I wanted to try another made with peanut butter syrup, but the soda jerk talked me out of it. I don’t blame her.