Monday, July 03, 2006

I have ants in my bedroom: A Recently Discovered Journal Entry

I scribbled this entry into a pocket-sized notebook during a period when I was living in a partially-converted barn. The closest indoor plumbing was 40 yards away, across a gravel parking lot, but I had a space heater and a fast DSL connection. I liked that room.

I have ants in my bedroom.

My sister and I had a good laugh over the phone when I noticed a troupe of ants attempting to take over my desk. I worried that I might accidentally crush them. She mused that most people would just smoosh them and have it over with.

Now it's been two weeks since the troupe arrived. Their numbers have neither increased nor decreased. There are about 12 of them. Somehow, they continue to discover trace amounts of sugar in unexpected places. Earlier this week I started hearing a periodic popping noise off in the corner of my desk. I assumed that the ants were just walking noisily. Yesterday I discovered the source of the noise. My new tenants had found an abandoned package of Pop Rocks beneath a pile of papers.

When I take away their treats, all but one of the ants scatter. The biggest ant remains and gnashes its pincers at me. When I blow in its face, it gets pissed off and runs at me as if to attack.

Today they took over my teacup. They were sucking sweet milky drops from the spent teabag. I picked up the cup and dumped it outside. The big one bit me.

The ants are all afraid of the screen on my laptop. I can actually chase them with it, when nothing else seems to phase them. I wonder if I should be frightened too.

tags: ants living pincers poprocks

Sunday, July 02, 2006

I Love Skype. Give me Videoconferencing.

The other day, I was thinking about the idea of a "videophone" and I had to laugh. Back in the day, we would watch movies like BladeRunner and think "Yeah. Won't that be cool when we have video phones." It never occurred to us that a video "call" would be made through any sort of device other than a special phone.

Twice a week, I log into a conference call with participants in Seattle, Minneapolis, New York, Boston, and London. We regularly talk for over an hour while also exhanging text messages and files over an encrypted connection. The brilliant bit is that these sessions don't cost us anything. That's right. It's completely free because we all log in through Skype. In addition to being free, it's also completely portable as long as we can get to a laptop with a broadband internet connection. Once, I dialed in from a coffee shop. Rather than disturbing my fellow coffee drinkers, I wrote my comments into an IM session while listening to everyone else via headphones.

We don't even have to worry about OS interoperability. Half of us use Macs, half are running Windows XP. It's never caused a problem, even when we pass files back and forth through the Skype session.

Even when I need to get ahold of someone who's offline, I get to do it for cheap using SkypeOut. I just spent 31 minutes on a call to a land line in London. It cost me 0.544. That's €0.017 per minute. In January, it cost me less than 3.00 to talk for an hour with my friend Raj in his hotel room in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Our team of collaborators started using Skype to communicate across the Atlantic about a year ago. At that point, it was terribly unstable. SkypeOut was useless because it introduced a painful lag. It made me feel like the person on the other end was mad at me (because there were lots of awkward pauses after I said anything). At the time, Skype also didn't support conference calling on Macs. I was cautiously skeptical of the tool, waiting for it to be proven before singing any praises. Since then, they have really gotten their stuff together. The fact that now you can call any US phone for free makes it indispensable.

That's all well and nice, but I want (group) video chat. Now.
In true American form, I can't be satisfied with a wonderful thing. Instead, I turn my head and look for more. I don't want to just have a file-sharing audio conference every Wednesday. I want to see the people I'm talking to, and I want to do it for free. This is where the technology just hasn't caught up with us, but it's close. If we were all on Macs running OS X, we could use iChat AV to have videoconferences with up to 10 people, passing the info over the Jabber Protocol. Sadly, to date nobody has released a Jabber client on Windows that can handle group video chat sessions. The solution is a-brewing though.

My only question is who will get it done first.

tags: skype jabber ichat videoconference

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Sahana Disaster Management System

"Sahana is a Free and Open Source Disaster Management system. It is a web based collaboration tool that addresses the common coordination problems during a disaster from finding missing people, managing aid, managing volunteers, tracking camps effectively between Government groups, the civil society (NGOs) and the victims themselves."

SourceForge Project of the Month for June 2006: