Leon's Weblog

August 31, 2014

Archiving Gmail Contacts

Filed under: Personal — Leon @ 8:59 pm

GMail After using MS Outlook for many years, I have grown accustomed to being able to archive old contacts to organize my contact list. When I switched to Gmail, it was hard to believe that this basic functionality was missing. Yes, I could export the contacts as a backup and just delete the old ones from Gmail but this is not as convenient as having all contacts readily available. Ultimately my biggest issue wasn’t that I had hundreds of contacts in Gmail while using the web-client, it was that all of those contacts got synchronized to my portable devices. I have seen suggestions online to create a contact group in Gmail for just the contacts that are desired on the phone (Android and iPhone allow filtering by contact groups) but that would require me to create a separate contact group for each portable device. My preference is to synchronize all of my contacts (regardless of which groups they are tagged with) except those that I no longer use.

The solution that I found is embarrassingly simple. The trick is that the parent contact group in Gmail (i.e. “My Contacts”) does not have to include all of the members of the sub-groups as the interface suggests by default. You can create a sub-group called “Archive”, tag contacts with that sub-group, and remove those contacts from the “My Contacts” group. Then, on a portable device, filter the contact list to only “My Contacts” which, by default, includes all the sub-groups except the “Archive” group which we explicitly removed. The other benefit of this approach is that the “Archived” contacts can still be tagged with other groups and are still readily available on portable devices when explicitly filtering to those groups (they just don’t show up in the main contact list). Wunderbar!

May 9, 2014

Bringing New Life to an Aging HTPC

Filed under: Gadgets,Personal — Leon @ 10:20 am

SSD I last wrote about Designing an HTPC back in 2010 and 2011 so I figured that it’s time for an update. Overall, the setup is still very much functional but can benefit from some new technologies. Below are some upgrades that I have made over the years.

Boot Time
Waiting for the HTPC to boot was one of my biggest annoyances in its day-to-day use. Fortunately, due to rapidly declining prices of Solid State Drives, there is a quick and inexpensive solution. The challenge was figuring out how to add another drive into my existing Antec MicroFusion Remote 350 HTPC case which only had one 3.5″ bay. I didn’t want to replace the existing 2TB HDD which was good enough for storing media or loose the bluray drive so I looked for another place to mount a 2.5″ SSD. The easiest solution was to use one of the spare PCI slots and mount the new SSD drive to it using a bracket (several options are available on both Amazon and eBay). The drive that I picked out was the Samsung 840 EVO-Series 120GB 2.5″ SSD which I think is the perfect size for storing the OS and applications partition.

With the second drive installed, migrating the operating system to it was trivial using the free Partition Master program from EaseUS. The program has an option for OS migration with a straight forward wizard to guide the process (as well as SSD optimization). Just note to size the Windows recovery partition accordingly because Partition Master does not do it correctly (100MB for Windows 7 and 250MB for Windows 8). It took about 15 minutes to copy over the OS partition from the HDD to the SSD. So, for about $100, this upgrade reduced the HTPC boot time to under 10 seconds while making the box run slightly quieter.

Wireless Speakers (Multi-Room Audio)
The multi-room audio setup that I had relied on a patch to XBMC which allowed simultaneously outputting audio to two devices (a feature Windows had in XP that was later removed in Windows 7 and up). Unfortunately, until recently, this patch was available only for XBMC versions 10 and 11. I looked for alternatives using custom sound drivers but it just wasn’t the same. Fortunately, a new dual audio patch is now available for XMBC 12.3 so I can finally upgrade to the latest version without loosing existing functionality.

June 4, 2013

My Roomba’s Companion: Dyson DC44 Animal

Filed under: Gadgets,Personal — Leon @ 8:05 pm

DC44I love my Roomba but there are many places where it cannot reach. A full sized vacuum would be overkill for my apartment and would take up too much space. This is why think the Dyson DC44 Animal is a perfect companion to the Roomba. It is small, powerful, and conveniently hangs (and charges) inside my closet. I can use it as an upright vacuum for spots requiring more suction than the Roomba can muster and as a small hand-held to get under the bed, inside closets and bathrooms, and for the car. It holds its charge well, is light weight, and is easy to clean. I sometimes find myself walking around the apartment with the DC44 in hand looking for dust bunnies to zap. I don’t think the DC44 could serve as a whole-house vacuum on its own, but, with the Roomba at its side, I think it will suffice. Sure it is pricy but you pay for the quality and convenience (and you can sometimes find it on Amazon for 25% off retail price). It’s also cheaper than any of the Dyson full size/upright models. Neither the Roomba nor the Dyson DC44 require purchasing additions accessories such as vacuum bags or lubricants so I hope the two can live long and productive lives with minimal maintenance costs.

November 18, 2012

Getting Cash in Argentina

Filed under: Personal — Leon @ 10:10 am

XOOM During a recent trip to Argentina I discovered that the most effective way to get money from a US bank account is to send it to myself via money transfer. Sure ATM machines are ubiquitous but they don’t all work with US cards and the ones that do charge all kinds of fees. The biggest disadvantage of ATM cards, however, is that the exchange rate used is about 4.5 pesos to 1 US dollar while the unofficial exchange rate in Argentina is about 6 to 1. This spread alone is enough to make it worthwhile to not use ATMs.

I used XOOM to transfer the money to myself in Buenos Aires and found it much safer and secure than going to the shady money exchange “cambio” places which may slip in fake bills. A quick search online shows that others have had similar experiences with XOOM and consistently received rates of over 6 Argentinean dollars to 1 USD. The process to use this service is fairly straight forward. After setting up your account (basically who you are and where the money is coming from) you send money to a “More” pickup location. The main detail is to make sure to spell your name (as the recipient) exactly the way that it appears on your passport because that is what is going to be used for verification. The transaction takes about an hour from the time the money is sent to the time it is available for pickup. XOOM lists many pickup locations on their site but the main one that I found to work is the “More” office in Buenos Aires on Libertad 1057 near Santa Fe. To pick up the money, you just need your passport and the transaction id number. After the first transaction, sending additional funds is easy because all the information is saved on your account. You can go to the XOOM site from your cell phone, repeat the last transaction with a few clicks and the money should be available for pickup by the time you reach the office. (more…)

May 9, 2012

Multi-Room Audio from an HTPC

Filed under: Gadgets,Personal — Leon @ 1:22 pm

One of the design goals for my media center was to include multi-room audio so that I can play the same music in both my living room and the terrace when guests come over. I had already setup an HTPC which contained all of my media and configured XBMC to play it nicely. The next stage in the project was to have a way to stream the music outdoors without adopting an entirely new system.


May 20, 2011

Designing an HTPC (part 2)

Filed under: Gadgets,Personal — Leon @ 11:18 am

This is the second part of the article on designing an HTPC. In part one, I described the hardware components and assembly steps that I used to build the device. Without the proper software and media, however, all you have is a pretty box that consumes power. In this part, I will revisit some of the design requirements that were discussed in part one and review the software that will make the magic happen. Although many of the tools listed are available for both Windows and Linux systems, I will describe the Windows editions (simply because getting the drives setup for all the hardware selected in part one can be a pain under Linux). Also, while the built in Windows Media Center may have some of the desired functionality it is often not the best choice available. (more…)

December 5, 2010

Designing an HTPC

Filed under: Gadgets,Personal — Leon @ 6:25 pm

I was hoping that 2010 would be the year of “Internet TV.” That, with the aid of set-top boxes. consumers would be able to integrate the functionality and content of a home office into the home theater. Several vendors proposed promising products including Google TV, Apple TV, Boxee Box, and Roku that would make this paradigm shift both easy and affordable. Unfortunately, the year is almost over and the promise was not to be. The promised products were released in time for the holiday season but are all plagued with limited functionality, lack of expandability, and proprietary content. For example, while the Boxee Box is great at streaming free Internet content from sites like YouTube, it has very limited functionality for organizing your personal media library and no storage space to keep it. Another daunting problem is that TV networks and on-line content providers like Hulu have blocked the devices’ access to their sites in anticipation of forming contracts similar to those that they have with Cable Networks. Ultimately it is the consumers that loose out on these long overdue features. This is why I decided to take matters into my own hands and build a Home Theater PC (HTPC) that would overcome the problems of the products available on the market today. (more…)

March 30, 2010

Streaming media library to PS3 with MediaTomb

Filed under: Personal,Software Dev — Leon @ 2:13 am

One of the goals that I had for my media center was to have the ability to directly play music and movies from my Linux Server. The PS3 provided half of this functionality by supporting wireless streaming and connections to UPnP A/V servers. MediaTomb filled the gap by enabling my Linux Server to stream my entire media library. Below are the details of my configuration and solutions to some of the issues that I encountered. (more…)

December 22, 2009

Designing a Bare-Bones Media Center

Filed under: Gadgets,Personal — Leon @ 12:35 am

Media CenterDesigning an entertainment center from scratch can be a daunting tasks, especially if you care about quality and aren’t looking to spend more than 5K. Here are some of the considerations that I’ve made when designing the media center in my new home.

The TV is the heart of the entertainment center. There are many specifications that you can consider when choosing the display but the most important one is whether you like the image quality. At this point, most LCD’s look very similar on paper (1080p HDTV, HDMI, 120Hz etc…) and posted specifications such as contrast ratios can be questionable at best (especially when comparing different manufacturers). New technologies such as OLED displays exist but I don’t think they have matured yet for mass market consumption. Besides, being on the cutting edge can quickly put you over budget. I went with a Sharp Aquos LCD TV. Getting a projector was another consideration but the image quality just isn’t the same.

Mounting a flat screen on the wall is nice convenience. When choosing a wall mount, make sure that it can support the size/weight of your TV and that it has a solid construction (especially if it pivots). The mounts with dual-arm constructions tend to feel much more rigid so I think they are worth the extra price.

October 19, 2009

Transferring Linux Server to a 1&1 Shared Host

Filed under: Personal,Software Dev — Leon @ 1:40 am

Recently, I was forced to relocate my Linux server so I decided to try out 1&1’s Shared Web Hosting package. This option was a lot cheaper then paying collocation fees at a server farm and provided a solution that is a bit easier to maintain. The challenge was setting up the environment to have the same functionality that I used to have on the LAMP server in 1&1’s restricted environment. I’ll describe some of the challenges and solutions bellow. This is a follow-up to an earlier guide that I wrote on Configuring a 1&1 Shared Host. (more…)

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