Secure USB key on the go

It’s very convenient to have your favorite programs and data at hand when you are away form your own computer. With a large capacity USB flash drive, it’s very easy to store lots of files as well as portable applications in the tiny key drive. But it’s so tiny and it’s really easy to get lost and your sensitive data will be at risk. Here’s my solution to build a very well secured USB flash drive with all my favorite programs with settings, my frequently used documents and even all my easy-to-forget passwords.

  • Use TrueCrypt to protect all data on the drive. Though most space on the USB key is encrypted, I still reserve a small mount of space to put TrueCrypt executable files for self-decrypt and autorun.
  • Intall (copy) portable applications. I installed portable web browser (Firefox), email client (Thunderbird), office suite (OpenOffice), antivirus (ClamWin), IM client (Pidgin), media player (VLC), game (Sudoku) etc. Most of them can be downloaded from PortableApps.com. You can use their PortableApps Suite as well, but I just found a better alternative, PStart, it’s more flexible and quicker.
  • Install KeePass for password management. Because it’s inside the encrypted part, which needs a password to decrypt, so your passwords will be double-secured.
  • Have a copy of TiddlyWiki for notes. My favorite notebook utility so far. You can easily turn it into an address book by Twab plugin. There are many plugins out there that can enhance TiddlyWiki, but I prefer to keep it simple and quick, and most importantly, get things done.

Five reasons to use TiddlyWiki as a notebook

TiddlyWiki is an innovative, intuitive and versatile tool can be extended to many useful applications. Besides personal WiKi, I found it’s very handy to be a personal notebook. It can be used to record your random thoughts, wild ideas, notes and anything you want to write down on a notepad with a pen. I ever used ATnotes as a notebook as well as an alarm reminder. But it supports plain text only and it’s for local only. Then I used Google Notebook to save materials from the web during research. But it’s saved online so you cannot retrieve it when you are offline. And finally I realized TiddlyWiki is the best tool for me to take notes the other day, when I opened the file that has been saved on my hard drive for couple years.

I think there are several reasons why I think it’s the best notebook tool, at least for myself.

  1. It’s powerful yet simple. Everything is included in a single HTML file and it gets things done. No those fancy bells and whistles, only your content and necessary controls there and they really do the job. It supports all general text formattings, images, links, tables, lists, etc and even inline HTML and custom CSS.
  2. It’s portable. Because everything is in a single HTML file, you can put it either on local computer or remote web server to access from everywhere. You can even put in on a flash drive and bring it with you. As long as there’s a computer with a USB port and a web browser with JavaScript support (actually you can install one on the very same flash drive!), you are ready to go.
  3. It’s versatile. The limit is your imagination. It can be used as a personal WiKi, a weblog, a diary, a project presentation, and yes, a notebook. By changing the main menu and default tiddlers, it can be turned into a nice looking homepage too.
  4. It’s very handy. It supports tags and full text search, that means you can find your old notes very quickly. I just put a link on the Firefox bookmarks bar so I can open the notebook by one click. And after another click, I am ready to input. I also put a copy on my web server in case I want to look it up when I am away from my desk. Handy enough for me.
  5. It’s open source and free. Do I need to say anything more?

Go and grab your copy now.

Resources:

Flickr widget

Flickr widget, one of Yahoo! Widgets (formerly Konfabulator Widgets), is a handy tool to display your or others’ Flickr photos on your desktop in a very elegant manner, and more. Besides your own photos, it can also display photos from your favorites, your sets, your groups and your contacts. What’s more, it’s also a very powerful tool to upload photos to Flickr and this is what I like the best. First of all, it is capable of batch upload by drag-and-drop. Though Flickr provides a fancy AJAX-ized upload form, I think what this widget provides is much better and intuitive. And, it also allows you to edit basic information such as title, description, tags, privacy, etc. You can even post photos to your sets, groups, or even your blog directly. All these are in a very beautiful interface right on your desktop.

To give it a try, you need:

  • have Yahoo! Widgets engine installed;
  • have Flickr widget installed, and
  • a Flickr account.

Google Reader theme

Google Reader is my favorite daily online RSS reader, and it’s getting better and better recently. Some of the new features just added include a nice search box (finally!) and some small improvements. But what I am not satisfied is its somewhat boring and long-time-no-change user interface.

There were some tweaks to Google Reader’s interface and I tried some but none of them satisfied me until recently I found this one: OS X Style Google Reader by Jon Hicks. As the name tells, it mimics the Mac OS X Mail.app look to Google Reader. I feel this one is better than Google Reader’s default appearance by removing some items and changing fonts and colors. In order to install this style, you need to install the Stylish extension for Firefox, then load the script into Stylish. After all the installations, reload Google Reader and you will see the difference! You can find more styles for Google Reader here.

UPDATE: Google Reader just graduated from Google Labs and now is official.

Logged in two accounts in one browser

Normally I use one Google account, one Yahoo! account, one Flickr account, etc, for daily web activities. But sometimes I do need to login another account, for example, my AdSense account which is different from my primary Google account, or another Flickr account that’s reserved exclusively for my daughter, etc. Firefox remembers my password so I don’t need to login every time when I open the browser. But if I want to switch between different accounts, I have to logout then login again. That’s a simple task but sometimes it’s boring.

Here’s a little tip, which I realized when I use the IE Tab extension for Firefox, to solve this problem very well. The IE Tab extension essentially uses Internet Explorer (IE) to render a web page in a Firefox tab. So it mimics two browsers in one browser window. What I do is open an IE Tab and login another account and it does not influence my always-logged-in account at all. It’s that simple. Of course, you can open two or more browsers if you like, but this is a neater manner I believe.

Blog address changed

Considering that this blog is the main function of this domain and WordPress can be easily customized to be a portal, I decided to change the blog address to http://gqshen.com permanently. It’s implemented by referring to this document.

The main drawback is the old permalinks from bookmarks or search engine cache, i.e. those led by http://gqshen.com/blog, will not work. Instead, visitors will get to the ugly 404 page, though I have put a note in it.

UPDATE: Just installed the Redirection plugin at Urban Giraffe and it solves the URL problem almost perfectly.

Solution for video presentation in WordPress

I created a video collection page for my daughter’s blog long time ago but turned out to update it very slowly. A very important reason is the procedure to put the video online is much more complicated and time consuming than photo processing. Another reason is that the page lacks of convenient back end administration tools and playing controls. So I have been looking for a nice method to put video clips on blog for long time. What I want from this method is there’s a playing console so audience can watch the video clips without leaving the page. Another requirement is it must support playlist so that I can easily add or remove clips. Finally I found wordTube, a very nice WordPress plugin to integrate flash video player in WordPress, for various playlists or for single clip. Because of it, I spent some time these days to convert some of the old video files and find some other useful tools for this total solution. Following is my simple yet efficient solution to process video and put them online in WordPress.

  1. Capture
    I use a Panasonic PV-GS250 3CCD video camera for event video taping and a Fujifilm FinePix F30 for casual daily shooting. Both of them output good enough video quality for web presentation. The first step is to capture the video from the cameras to the computer. For F30, it’s just to download the AVI files to hard drive, and they have 640×480 resolution. For GS250, I use Ulead VideoStudio to capture from the tape and generally the file will be huge for a general length video clip, it also has 640×480 resolution. Now these downloaded or captured files are ready for editing.
  2. Edit
    This is the most time consuming step. I use Ulead VideoStudio for this task because of its intuitive interface and simplicity. Basically I just add titles and some simple transit effects between clips so more advanced softwares are just over kill. Besides titles and transit effects, I also do some cut and trim. So far I still leave the audio alone because for candid shooting of kids, I prefer to keep ambient sound. But I think I will try audio editing later. After all the edit, I export it to a video file. Currently I use Microsoft MPEG-4 Video Codec V2 because after some comparisons, I found it gives decent quality and relative small file size. So what I get is an AVI file with the original video size, 640×480.
  3. Convert
    In order to put the video online in a flash player, I need to convert the video files to flash video (FLV) format. There are many converting tool out of there, some are commercial and some are free. I tried some of them including Macromedia flash 8 Video Encoder, Riva FLV Encoder and SUPER. Finally I stay with Flash 8 Video Encoder because it gives high quality flash video with its On3 VP6 video codec. It has batch convert, it’s easy to use and it comes with Macromedia Flash 8. Riva FLV encoder is a freeware and very easy to use and the conversion is much faster than Flash 8 Video Encoder. But the quality is not so good as Flash 8 Video Encoder for similar or even greater data rate. I guess maybe that’s caused by its Sorenson Spark video codec though I am not clear about its technical details. The FLV Player comes with it is fine so I just keep it. I also tried SUPER, which is also free but I uninstalled it because it just doesn’t have any appealing advantages comparing with Flash 8 Video Encoder. In Flash 8 Video Encoder, I convert AVI files to 320×240 medium quality FLV files using On2 VP6 video codec, 96kbps stereo MPEG layer III (MP3) audio codec. The file size of the FLV file is only about 1/9 of the original AVI file. The FLV files can be played on local computer by an FLV player, or embedded into a flash player on the web.
  4. Flash player integration
    I use wordTube, a plugin for WordPress, to manage all the video (and audio) files and integrate them with the blog. It supports playlists so I can generate various playlists from the media center. Also, it’s very easy to embed a single video file in a blog post or page. This is a very convenient feature for podcast while one still wants to keep an archive of the whole media library in different categories (playlists). The plugin uses the JW Media Player to play media files. Options are provided to customize the player in the back end, including appearance and controls. The media files can be on your server, or can also be on any other remote servers as long as it can be accessed.
    UPDATED 2008-04-17: The latest version of JW Media Player now supports YouTube, means that you can embed YouTube videos in your OWN player without downloading the FLV files. It’s convenient to generate a list of all your videos hosted on YouTube.

Essentially this is my workflow for video manipulation. I think it’s efficient while with good quality for personal video showcase, such as for a kid’s blog. Please let me know if you have any other better ideas on this topic.

If you have your blogs hosted at BSP’s such as Blogger and WordPress.com, you are not able to install plugins so this method doesn’t apply to your case. An alternative is you can upload your video files to video hosting services such as YouTube or Google Video then embed the video in your posts or pages. Both YouTube and Google Video provide necessary code for this purpose. You can refer to the instruction here and here, respectively.

Other related resources

My favorite freeware and web applications

About one and half years ago, I listed some of my favorite freebies, including software and online services. As time goes on, more and more freeware and web applications come out every single day, I think I need to revise the list while add some new ones. I believe this list will keep growing in the future.

  • Email
    Gmail, no-brainer. With this better Gmail Firefox extension, Gmail is THE BEST. For local email client, I highly recommend Thunderbird, which I use to backup my Gmail emails on my computer locally.
  • Online RSS reader
    I migrated from Bloglines to Google Reader completely. Basically two features of Google Reader make me stick to it. The first one is its keyboard shortcut support. I am a vi(m) fan so these keyboard shortcuts are definitely my cup of tea. Another one is that Google Reader’s “mark as read” is post wise, but not feed wise like Bloglines does. This makes more sense to me because sometimes I don’t have time to read all the posts in a subscription and want to get back to read them next time. Those unread ones are still marked as new in Google Reader and that’s really useful.
  • Social bookmarks
    Still del.icio.us. Actually, it’s the support of private bookmarks of del.icio.us and this del.icio.us bookmarks extension for Firefox(my favorite web brower BTW) convinced me that I can totally move to del.icio.us. And the extension even supports keywords in bookmarks just like in Firefox. The biggest benefit to use online bookmarks is my bookmarks are automatically synchronized between different computers.
  • Image browser
    XnView. I have used BreezeBrowser for five years and it’s not bad. But its new versions are not free anymore, so I want to make a change. After comparing IrfanView and XnView, I decided to go for the latter one. The main reason for me to make the choice is interface and speed. I like the way XnView handles thumbnails and full image browsing. It has a three-panel layout for convenience of folder browse and image information, but most of the time I hide the other two panels and it’s very neat.
  • Music organizer and player
    MediaMonkey. I am a long term XMMS and Winamp user, then foobar2000 because everybody is saying good words about it. Foobar2000 is good, it’s fast and powerful and with simple yet very configurable layout. But after I tried MediaMoney, I liked it at once. What I like it the most is its very powerful music organizing feature. When it’s combined with the playlist, I think that’s exactly I want from a music player: easy to organize and convenient to make a playlist.
  • File manager
    FreeCommander. Before I chose FreeCommander, I tried UltraExplorer for couple months and Total Commander for several days. The first one is free and very unique for its breadcrumb feature and highly configurable interface. The latter one is not free, and very famous because it’s very powerful with the ability to use lots of plugins. After trying three of them, I decided on FreeCommander because it has almost all the features I want, and it has the interface I am comfortable with, and it’s FREE. Actually what I like it the most is that it has dual panels, tab supported, quick filter supported, and has a user configurable center column for access to frequently used operations and bookmarks. I am looking forward to FTP support in its succeeding versions but so far I am quite satisfied.

Two hacks about WordPress

  • To exclude page links in the navigation bar in the header.
    I have some pages that I want them to be accessible by the public but not listed in the navigation bar. After some search, I found this effective yet simple solution. What I did is to edit the header.php file in the current theme folder. Locate the function wp_list_pages and add exclude=pageID#,pageID# to its arguments, where pageID#s are the ID numbers of the pages to be hidden. Here is an example:

    <?php wp_list_pages('exclude=123&sort_column=menu_order&depth=1&title_li='); ?>

    where 123 is the ID of the page to be hidden.

    UPDATE: Just found a nice plugin, Page Link Manager, that does the same job in a much neater manner. Besides the option page, an “Include Page in Site Navigation” checkbox will be available when a page is being edited.

  • To exclude pages from the Extended Live Archive.
    I just installed this plugin to display the blog archives. It works very well in a very neat and intuitive way. But I found that it also includes pages by default and I couldn’t find the option to disable it. So I searched again and found a solution in their Flickr forum. What should be edited are two files in the plugin folder: af-extended-live-archive.php and af-extended-live-archive-include.php.
    In these two files, locate the following two expressions in both files

    post_status = 'publish'
    p.post_status = 'publish'

    then change them to

    post_status = 'publish' AND post_type='post'
    p.post_status = 'publish' AND p.post_type='post'

    respectively. That’s it. Now ELA displays posts only.

Blog upgraded

Last weekend I spent one night to upgrade this blog from WordPress 1.5.1.3 to 2.2.1. Basically everything goes smoothly except the database character sets issue because there are some Chinese characters in my posts. I searched the web and tried many times and finally it works, though I still don’t know the details because I am really not good at MySQL things. What I did is:

  1. Run SQL query
    show variables like '%character%';

    to check the character sets of the database. If the character_set_database is latin1, change it to utf8 by

    alter database mydb character set utf8;

    where mydb is the name of the database.

  2. Edit wp-config.php, change the line
    define('DB_CHARSET', 'utf8');

    to

    define('DB_CHARSET', '');

These two steps basically solve the Chinese display problem. (References: 1, 2 and 3)

The new version of WordPress is very good, especially the support of widgets and many other improvements from version 1.5.x. I also changed the theme to GlossyBlue 1.4 and modified a little.