Saturday, January 27, 2007

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Gmail speed-up tips

Occasionally Gmail can trip itself up while interpreting all that behind the scenes javascript and this can lead to delays when serving up your emails. If you're as important and popular as I am you'll know 0.7 milliseconds isn't acceptable - you want your information now! Below you'll find some steps you can take to squeeze that last drop of juice out of your Google web mail:-

1. Disable the chat feature by clicking on the "standard without chat" text link in your inbox's footer.

2. If half measures aren't for you try switching to "basic HTML" mode.

3. Not quite bare-bones enough? For the Amish Gmailers among you there's always Mobile Gmail. You could even make it pop out of your browser in its own incy-wincy, ickle phone sized window. This is handy if you want to stay in the loop at work without drawing too much attention to yourself. You can keep your pseudo phone pinned on top of all your other applications using PowerMenu / reSizer (Windows) or Afloat (Mac).

4. Visit your 'settings' menu and on the 'general' page select 'No snippets - Show subject only' to disable inline previewing of email content. Chances are you'll know if you want to open up an email judging by who it's from and what's in the title. There's no need for information overload.

5. If you don't use your Gmail account for chatting, disable the chat history feature located under the 'chat' tab of your settings menu.

6. Move a tab to your right and opt not to 'show my web clips above the Inbox' to exterminate distracting sponsored link fluff. Even when customised, this is a poor substitute for RSSFwd if you ask me.

7. Activate keyboard shortcuts under the 'general' settings tab to eliminate all that incessant flitting back and forth between keyboard and mouse when performing common tasks such as archiving mail or composing a new message. The only thing missing from this time-saver is a quickie delete key combo. Considering Google's history of playing hide and seek with the delete button in the actual GUI this doesn't surprise me.

8. If you already know you're using a Gmail compatible browser you can skip the automatic browser check in future by accessing your inbox via this URL.

9. Pages will render faster if your inbox isn't clogged up with excess mail so make sure you archive anything you want to keep and chuck out the rest. Otherwise reduce the number of 'conversations' shown on each page by tweaking the 'maximum page size' option under the 'general' settings tab.

10. Spring-cleaning your inbox will increase the relevance of your search results but putting it in the microwave probably isn't advisable.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

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Slimming World voodoo

At work I'm enveloped by talk of red and green days, 'Syn values', food optimising and 'free' foods. This is the language of Slimming World, one of the major British weight-loss groups. Ultimately the plan hinges upon the assignment of 'Syn values' to 'non-free' foods ('free' in this context means those you can eat by the bucket load to satiate your hunger whilst consuming relatively few calories). Members are allocated a Syn budget which can be flexibly spent in whatever way they see fit providing they don't break the bank on any given day.

In order to do the maths (and tot up the number of Hail Marys you'll have to reprise should you overindulge) you must buy the Slimming World Food Bible (or 'Directory' as they would rather you called it) which lists the Syn values of 39,000 items of food and drink. Translating the nutritional value of so many foodstuffs by way of an undisclosed, cryptic formula seems like a heck of a lot of work, and, well, fruitless really when you consider that consumables are already labeled with the ubiquitous ingredients breakdown table... that is until you remember that someone is raking in a wad of cash by shrouding the whole shebang in mystery to engender a dependent member-base of regular contributors.

It wouldn't be quite so devious if the assigned Syn values appeared to follow some sort of logic. On the contrary, the rules seem arbitrary in many cases. For example, one lady I know stopped drinking her favourite flavour of hot chocolate because The Bible states that it has a higher Syn value than the flavour she has now resigned herself to buying as a substitute. The brand, calorie and fat content are identical. Another wacky curiosity concerns the mechanism by which the Magic Formula transmogrifies the nutritional value of foodstuffs simply by altering its constitution. According to the Slimming World gurus the same orange can be better or worse for your diet depending on how it is sliced, diced or blended. Nothing added, nothing removed, no evaporation or seepage. It's like the water into wine trick all over again.

To keep you guessing (and purchasing each new revision of The Bible), these Syn values are jiggled about and republished every two months. Unlisted Syn values for new or obscure products can't be requested by email "due to the huge demand from members", but, but you can call the Syns Hotline - charged at 60p per minute - to resolve your queries. Alternatively you can send product packaging by free post for analysis, and then - once you've unwittingly done Slimming World's detective work on their behalf - call their premium rate hotline to be rewarded with the fruits of your labour.
While "there isn't a particular formula for calculating Syns (if only it was that simple!)", you can use the members-only 'Online Syns Calculator' to calculate the incalculable Syn value of any unidentified products. "The Calculator takes into account all of the nutrition information, as well as considering if the product contains any Free Food".


Thursday, January 04, 2007

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PMP up the jam

I didn't think Portable Media Players, mobile cinemas - or whatever you want to call them - would be my thing, but when you're given one as a present you've got to at least have a tinker before leaving it in the bottom of a drawer to gather dust. I think my indifference towards them up until this point can be put down to not wanting to carry an extra bulky device around with me - even the svelte new iPod videos are quite chunky when you have to factor in the size of a mini hard drive.
With mine this isn't an issue as it's flash based - it has 1GB of memory built-in with the option of boosting the capacity via an SD card slot. The unit also supports photo slideshows, MP3 playback and e-book reading so there's no need to have a separate unit for each function. While it does include a camera and even a video camera, you'd be daft to rely on either of them to capture the birth of your first-born or wedding.

It's one of those no-name - and hence no support - models, made in a Chinese sweatshop no doubt. You know, the kind you'd avoid like the plague if you were shopping around for electronic gizmos yourself. Despite this it appears to be a solidly constructed device. The clarity of the screen is excellent, the 'Intoom' GUI is highly intuitive and there's no sign of any 'Engrish' in the menu system (well 'accessory' should really be 'accessories', but that's just me being picky). Several instances of odd sentence structure aside, they (whoever 'they' might be) have made a passable job of translating the manual to English so it's very easy to suss out how everything operates if this isn't apparent through fiddling alone.

The default - and only - movie format the player can handle is DivX video with IMA ADPCM audio contained within an ASF wrapper, so not overly Mac or Linux friendly. These devices don't play nicely with non-Windows systems full stop because they can't be mounted as driverless removable media. While this makes the internal memory inaccessible, you can format an SD memory card in the player and then write to it via an external memory card reader, assuming you can find a video editing tool which will allow you to match the codec specs required by the device. My search has so far been in vain.

For now I'm using the Sunplus PMP Transcoding Tool at work where I'm practically intravenously plugged into my Windows box. Sunplus are the manufacturers of the chips which power a staggering number of these unbranded mobile MP4 devices. This is a massive bonus because the same core software is distributed with them, and therefore updates are easier to get hold of (though not from any single, official source). It also means that more people are using it, and sharing their experiences, tips and tech support online.

The latest version appears to be, which is available from Speed Digital. Unfortunately, unlike the older incarnations it's not an all-inclusive, standalone package; three codecs must be installed prior to converting any videos, namely Storm Codec, QuickTime Alternative and DivX.
Other people have had varying degrees of success with Microsoft's command-line utility, VidtoASF, Blaze Video Magic 2, Aplus Video to PMP Converter, the video conversion software which accompanies the kiddified RipRoar MP4 player, Wivisoft MP4 Video Converter, Boilsoft ASF Converter, Xilisoft Video Converter and Lesnar_mk's MP4 Movie Converter.

Something else I've learnt through my research is that you should never-ever-ever flash the firmware on these MP4 devices, unless it's a branded player with a specific model number and an official support web site where you can find a guaranteed-to-work ROM. And even then you shouldn't do it. The problem is that although many PMPs look identical, they are often made by different companies and according to varying internal component schematics. No single firmware ROM can take all this diversity into account, and your chances of finding an 'official' one are somewhere between Buckley's and none. Many intrepid flashers have naively embarked on such a treacherous adventure, and few have returned to tell the tale... or at the very least they've permanently toasted their players and had to buy a new one. Try taking a scrambled PMP back to the computer fair you bought it from for a refund and see what sort of a reception you get! They'll cut and run or change their trade name to avoid offering any after sales support when it's their fault your kit is DOA.

So it looks like I'm a convert; I've joined the video generation! Bus journeys will never be the same again. If I'm ever tempted to unplug my headphones and share the audio output with you, fellow commuters, feel free to lynch and launch me out of the top deck window. It's only fair.