March 2010 Archives


Charging Your Motorola Razr K1M with a USB Cable for Free

I was on the road for a few days this week and reached my destination to find that my phone, a Verizon Motorola Razr K1M, was running low on power. This rarely happens, the Razr K1M has a great battery, and is very efficiently designed. So, unfortunately, I had developed the habit of not carrying the charger in order to save space in my overnight bag.

However, by the time I reached the hotel on this trip the phone was almost out of power - and I absolutely needed the phone on this trip. 'I know - I have a USB mini cable for my MP3 player', 'I will charge up the phone from the USB port of my laptop'. No such luck! I snapped the connectors into place and the phone languidly noted that an 'Unauthorized Charger' had been connected - and continued to flash its low battery symbol.

I did a little googling on the topic. Soon I discovered that there was only a 'partially standard' (!) USB connector on the phone. Apparently, to enable charging you had to attack and modify the USB cable - not something I wanted to do in a hotel room.

A little more googling indicated that there was some hope, though. From a 'Techography Page' dedicated to installing ring tones, without having to pay for ring tones. (Personally - I have no idea why people want to customize the ringing of cell phone - and whether or not the same people want to pay for the resulting jangling - but, what do I know?). However, the page suggested that if you follow the steps, the phone is happily put into a mode where it does indeed charge properly from the USB port. (And if you really want to, you can install some ring tones for free).

I believe that the keys to this transformation are the Motorola developer USB drivers, and the Motorola Software Updater (both of which are free). My guess would be that the former enables communication to occur through the USB port of your computer to the phone and the latter switches the phone into a receptive mode, which actually allows it to take charge from the USB cable.

Whatever the underlying reason, the overall result was a happily charging cell phone, no sliced up USB cable, and a feeling that I can forget the Motorola charger when appropriate.

Likely a Motorola engineer (or two) can explain why the driver and updater recipe succeeds where a physical cable alone fails. (And please feel free to let me know if you understand and can explain these behaviors). I am happy with having eliminated another charger from my desk and overnight bag!

Posted by ZFS | Permanent link


Seagate FreeAgent Go 320 GB USB 2.0 Portable External Hard Drive Review

While I have been amazed by the amount of USB storage that can be purchased for approximately $10 (currently the amount is 4 gigabytes), it has to be said that movie files rapidly outrun the capabilities of USB flash storage.

Furthermore, I have never had enough storage to carry out proper back ups. So, a week or so ago the time had come to buy a portable external USB hard drive. A quick survey of the options at Fry's Electronics led to the purchase of a Seagate FreeAgent Go 320 GB USB 2.0 Portable External Hard Drive, for $69.99.

I did not know what to expect from this device. It is small and light, the pictures on the web do not really convey how small it is. I don't know enough about drive specifications etc. to know what to expect in terms of performance. However, so far I have been very impressed. The small form factor, and the lack of a power source, other than that supplied by the USB port, do not seem to affect the unit's practical performance, in comparison with a much larger and heavier external USB drive in my possession. It is so small and portable that it isn't a chore to move this around with the laptop and from computer to computer. In addition to its size it is quiet, my larger external drive emits a constant low frequency hum, but the FreeAgent drive is very quiet.

The Seagate name and the 5-year guarantee that the device is given also reassured me.

My first test involved simply using the supplied software to back up my Windows XP laptop. This was achieved quite rapidly - much faster than I was expecting given the volume of files that were sent through the USB cable. I didn't monitor the entire process - but that the initial back up took several hours, for 40 gigabytes of data.

The back up software produces a mirror of your hard drive on the USB drive. Additionally if you remove files a number of levels of backup are retained in a 'history' directory and these can be restored from the Seagate Manager interface, if and when you decide that you need to pull something back from electronic oblivion. The installation procedure sets up a service, which the manager program uses to determine the status of the backup drive. The service is relatively unintrusive - although it seems to have a problem shutting down cleanly sometimes when I restart the machine.

After the initial back up, only files that are modified are backed up. So, after your first back up, everything is very fast.

A potential problem with this type of back up approach is that it will not be possible to restore the machine completely from a back up - if the laptop's hard drive dies completely. For one thing, the back up software skips many system files (this isn't a tool that creates an image of your hard disk). However, if a major catastrophe happens, I will be happy to reinstall Windows XP, with just the programs that I actually use, and the data files will come from the back up directories on the FreeAgent drive. (Furthermore, I will take the opportunity to not install various programs like the Microsoft disk indexing service - which appear to be doing me no good whatsoever, but are hard to remove once installed).

All in all, the software that comes with the drive seems quite good - and I have not felt the need yet to change it.

And with around 300 gigabytes available - there is enough space to back up my laptop - and store many home movies and other data files. Copying movie files onto the machine took little time again - and soon another 40 gigabytes had disappeared.

There is an interesting trade-off between complete automation of back ups and careful control of your compute resources. So far, I have let the Seagate back up software control the back ups. At some point I might switch over to an rsync or tar based approach (I use Cygwin on Windows XP). So far I have not felt the need to do so. (Using a tar based approach would let me do simple incremental back ups - which might be fun as now (at least temporarily) I have the available disk space.

So far I am very impressed with the FreeAgent.

At this rate - I might buy another similar device to store a second copy of everything off site.

Posted by ZFS | Permanent link


Four Fantastic Things to Do in San Diego

San Diego offers many possible things to do. Here are four venues to consider for a day out and about with the family. Originally published on Associated Content.

San Diego is a wonderful place to visit and an extraordinary place to live. The Southern California weather is invariably sunny, the beaches are sandy, and the Pacific Ocean inviting, though bracingly cold. Finding things to do to occupy your time in San Diego is a delight but the diversity of choices can make the decision making difficult. Here are some guidelines on the most popular sites and activities which will hopefully make your own decision making a little easier.

San Diego Zoo. San Diego has a fine zoo. Next to Balboa Park close to down town San Diego you will find the zoo. Incidentally, Balboa Park has a large number of museums which you might be interested in visiting. Unless you are desperate, or the weather is being particularly difficult (which is rare in San Diego), give the museums a miss. They are the types of museum that you would expect from a city with very little history and a wonderful climate. Small, under stocked, and generally ignored by all but the most eager culture seekers. Your time will be much better spent at the zoo or the other attractions listed here. The zoo contains a panda or two, (depending on the state of East-West relations), lions, tigers, elephants, giraffes, meerkats, and indeed all of the animals that you would expect. The atmosphere at the zoo is easy going and pleasant. A great time to visit is early in the morning, around feeding time. Get yourself and your party a bus-top tour, you will see each of the animals before the stress of the day's visitors, breakfasting with their fellow inmates. It is a fascinating and memorable experience.

SeaWorld. Considerably more commercial than the zoo, but entertaining nevertheless. You will find some interesting killer whale shows with banter, splashing, and enough crowd interaction to renew your faith in human kind or make you nervous, depending on your disposition. There are sharks, penguins, and a scary, white water ride or two. Every evening in the summer there is a firework show for those with the stamina to last through a day fueled by the rampant commercialism and the fast food.

The Wild Animal Park. The San Diego Wild Animal Park is quite a way inland and North of San Diego. It is definitely worth a visit though. The inland location tends to mean high temperatures in the summer and a degree of safari realism which may be lost on some visitors. On entry to the Wild Animal Park you will find yourself equipped with a map (as for the zoo and Sea World) and you can begin to plan your day or wandering and viewing. There are interesting lectures and interaction sessions, not quite as glitzy as those at Sea World but informative nonetheless. In addition to the animals, that tend to be somewhat further in the sweltering distance than at the zoo, your abiding memory of the Wild Animal Park will be of lengthy distances covered on foot with little water. Certainly you will burn calories and potentially you will learn about species endangered in sub-Saharan Africa. It is a great day out!

Legoland. Next on the list of treats is Legoland. Here the commercialism is somehow tinged with a degree of Nordic socio-capitalism. The cities of the world, film stars, pyramids and all manner of objects are depicted in small plastic bricks. In addition to the model fun, there are animations, and rides that can divert you and the family for happy hours. The queuing tends to be civilized and un-stressful though. So if it is a choice between Disneyland, further along route 5, and Legoland, choose Legoland every time.

So there you have a top four suggestions Zoo, SeaWorld, The Wild Animal Park, and Legoland, in the order of preference, in my opinion. Each is worth at least a day and you will not regret the investment. Avoid the museums, choose from this list, and you won't go far wrong!

Posted by ZFS | Permanent link


Confused by Graphics File Formats?

Confused by a profusion of graphics file types? Want to know the differences between jpg, gif, png and tif and when to use each format? This article will answer your questions and explain why these different formats exist. Originally published on Associated Content

If you work with computers you have no doubt come across the fact that there are different file formats for different types of document. Each application, be it word processor, spreadsheet, or email client has files which it can open and save on your hard disk drive. These files are closely associated with their application so, for example, you cannot open your spreadsheets with your word processor.

There are also files which are used for simple information exchange. An example of these types of files is provided by the different file types used to save pictures and images. There are a number of these file types, which we generally recognize by their extensions, JPG, BMP, and so on. Each type has special strengths and weaknesses. Here is a guide to the graphics file formats that you typically encounter that will enable you to pick out the correct type to use when you next need to share graphical information.

JPEG or JPG. Jpeg files are designed to efficiently contain photographic information. Consequently, you will probably find that your camera, web-cam, or your telephone (if it has a camera) will save photograph files in jpeg format. This format has been carefully designed to work with the structure of photographs of the real world. The jpeg file format uses a special Fourier transform algorithm to compress the image significantly. This compression makes intelligent guesses on the color stored in a given pixel based on its proximity to other pixels and this leads to very high degrees of compression. However, the compression is not perfect. So if you save an image in jpeg format and then reopen that image and view it in detail you may notice some minor changes to the intensity and color for some of the pixels. Generally this is not important for saving photographic images, because the jpeg algorithm is tuned to deal with images of the real world. However, if you use jpeg for an image with straight lines or large sections of black and white, you will see slight artifacts in the jpeg image. These are caused by the inexactness of the jpeg compression scheme.

Some programs which are designed to work with jpeg will allow you to supply a compression factor, these let the program know how aggressive to be with its compression algorithm. Generally speaking the default value will work fine, but if you know that your image is very high contrast, you may want to reduce the compression factor, and you will reduce the compression errors that occur, at the expense of having a larger resulting file.

Use jpeg for photographs that you want to store or share with friends. It is a very efficient file format, the compression scheme will save you disk space, and the quality will be excellent

GIF. Gif is now quite an old file format and it is used less and less in new programs. However, it has been widely used in the past and so you will still encounter the format. Gif files are quite well compressed, and unlike jpeg, the compression scheme is loss less. However, gif uses a limited number of color levels. Because of the limited number of colors per pixel you may see changes in the colors of images saved in gif files, particularly if the original image was richly colored. Gif is also capable of storing simple animations, which are used to provide animated pictures on some web sites.

Although gif reduces the number of colors which are stored in an image it does not compress the basic layout of the pixels in any way. Hence gif can be a good choice if you want to save sharp lines which are not stored well with the jpeg format, but do not have a large number of colors.

BMP. This is the native file format used for images by many Windows applications. The files are generally very large and the images can store large numbers of colors. Most often you will not see any color loss with bmp files. Generally, for sharing images in email or importing images into other applications you would not use BMP files because of the large file size. However, on Windows it is a viable choice of file format for graphical files and because it is the default format on Windows it can work well when you need to share information between Windows programs.

PNG. Png, or portable network graphics, format was designed to be the successor to gif format. It uses a different compression algorithm to that used in the gif format (originally the gif format compression algorithm was covered by a patent, which inhibited its use). However, like gif, the png compression algorithm does not lose information. Additionally, png does not reduce the number of colors when saving an image. Hence png is a good choice for graphical files which are not photograph-like.

TIFF. Tiff or tif files are often used by scanner and fax software and offer the creators of these programs a high degree of customizability for their specific applications. Hence, reading a tif file into the program which created that file will generally result in different editing options than reading the same tif file into another program. For this reason tif is best used within the confines of a specific program and not for information exchange.

Jpeg, gif, bmp, png and tiff cover the majority of the graphic image file formats that you will encounter. This short guide gives you the necessary information to know what to expect from these file types, which type to use, and when to use each format in the future.

Posted by ZFS | Permanent link


Ready to Start Blogging?

Are you interested in creating your own blog? Here is a comparison of three simple and free blogging engines. As originally published on Associated Content.

Recently I decided to start up a simple blog and that meant evaluating software for creating and managing blogs. There are several hosted blogging solutions, like, but I wanted to have something to use on a private web site. Here is what I found.

My basic criteria were: low cost (free being best), small number of moving parts, so ideally no database and few requirements on the web server which serves the pages, access to the source code, so that if an emergency occurs I can (in principle) understand what is happening and potentially fix a problem. Additionally, I wanted to have rss feeds created by the tool, I wanted a nice looking archive of previous posts, and some flexibility to customize the site if needed.

My first stop was WordPress ( WordPress is the software blogging solution that many people use. However, this requires the use of MySql, and so this did not meet one of my key simplicity requirements. Besides, while I am sure that WordPress is excellent, all WordPress blogs look the same! Although people try to disguise this fact through the use of various fancy templates.

Next I looked at BashBlogger ( I liked the general idea - a simple set of scripts which create a basic blog style web site. However, when I came to try BashBlogger out, there were problems. For whatever reason, my home directory has a space in its pathway, and BashBlogger could not handle this condition. Additionally, BashBlogger does not have rss feeds. So, reluctantly, I moved on to the next candidate.

Vee, was next up ( This is a very simple blogging tool. Just a single bash script. The blogs that Vee produces are very simple and are probably ideal for making a simple journal or logging events within a company. So, I was tempted by the simplicity of Vee. However, there were many lacking features. The styling, by default, was minimal. There was no real archiving and no creation of rss feeds. So there would be a lot of additional work and thinking were I to move forward with Vee.

Then I hit NanoBlogger ( NanoBlogger like BashBlogger and Vee, is written in the Bash shell scripting language, so it is portable across a variety of machines and operating systems. The sites that NanoBlogger produces are simple, but they have archives that are quite presentable, and they have rss feeds. When I tested it out with a simple prototype blog, NanoBlogger worked without errors, which is a plus too! As I browsed around what NanoBlogger users were talking about, I was a little concerned about the handling of different Web Browsers (there were reports that Internet Explorer had problems with the style sheet that NanoBlogger uses). However, this was quickly tested using the BrowserShots web site ( By the way, if you have not come across it, BrowserShots maintain a large number of systems running a variety of operating systems and web browsers, and using the site you can check how a web page will be rendered on these systems. It is a great way to test your latest cool cascading style sheet home page tweaks.

My only concern with NanoBlogger was its apparently relatively slow performance. I guess the performance is hit by using a very generic scripting language to perform the various update operations that are required to run a blog site. You have to pay for the portability in some way, and in this case you pay in performance.

However, NanoBlogger met the selection criteria and was duly adopted, and so far I have been very happy with it! And, of course, I am not associated with any of the sites mentioned here!

Posted by ZFS | Permanent link