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The Quixotic Engineer

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Useful Web Tools

Through a series of strange coincidences and necessities, I've been introduced to a number of really great software and web tools these past two weeks. Here's a little bit about each one, with any luck they might fix some of your problems as well.

Google Reader

As I've mentioned before, I'm a terribly slow adapter. However, after seeing that a good number of people were subscribed to my RSS feed via Google Reader, my curiosity was piqued and I took the time to check it out. I had previously considered switching from a browser based aggregator to web based one, but I didn't have the motivation to do so until I began lacking things to read during my breaks at work.

As with most of my slow but eventual technological upgrades, I really should have made the switch a long time ago. It's the little changes that make a big difference. For instance, the interface is much cleaner and easier to manage, similar in spirit to Gmail (more on Gmail further down). Instead of marking an entire feed as read when you open it, Google Reader marks individual articles as read as you scroll down through them. If you see something interesting but lengthy that you would like to devote more time to later, you can mark it with a star. You can choose to see your entire list of feeds on the left hand menu or just the updated ones, hiding feeds that are updated infrequently while still keeping track of them. Finally, it does a much better job at formatting the feeds, avoiding the "converted directly from XML" look.

With its terrific interface and web portability, I would heartily recommend Google Reader over any browser based aggregator.

Firefox + Greasemonkey

After moving all my feeds over to Google Reader, I made another long overdue change by finally switching completely to Firefox. There's really no need for me to extol the virtues of Firefox here, as it already has some particularly rabid fans. I will say, however, that its most significant advantage in my mind is how many great customizable add-ons exist for it due to its open-source nature.

To properly explain why the Greasemonkey add-on is so great, I'll first explain the problem I was facing. I love Gmail, but one thing that has always bugged me was the fact that it displayed how many new spam messages you had received. The point of blocking spam messages is to stop them from annoying you, but when they sit there on your left toolbar looking deceptively like a new e-mail from the corner of your eye... admittedly it was a very nerdy problem. Nevertheless it bugged me that there was no way to turn it off.

After a bit of Googling, the solution came in the form of the aforementioned Greasemonkey. Alone, the add-on does nothing. However, it allows you to install scripts that modify websites' source code, altering their appearance however you please. The particular script I used was the "Gmail Spam-count Hide" by Daniel Rozenberg. It's a very simple open-source script that hides the new spam message counter in Gmail.

I only recently found Greasemonkey so I'm still exploring it, but if you know any other useful scripts please share them in a comment.

Thunderbird + Gmail

After getting used to Thunderbird at work, I decided to use it to start backing up my Gmail. This is quite nice since it both gives me offline access to my e-mails and protects me in the event of data loss on Google's end. Furthermore, Thunderbird is designed with Gmail in mind so setting it up takes minutes. I also installed the Thunderbird Tray program to minimize it to the system tray and never have to worry about it again.

That concludes my list of discoveries that have made my life a bit easier this week. If you have a program or web tool that simplifies your life, I'd love to hear about it, so comment away.

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2 Comments:

  • Ya know I've been using google reader for ages and I never noticed that I can 'star' articles. Thanks.

    I somehow blocked it out, since in gmail I find the star so useless for more my purposes. In a feed reader it makes perfect sense though.

    This is dorky... I subscribe to my own stumbleupon feed. So I have a feed of recently 'thumbed up' articles. So now I can star particularly good articles (within my feed reader) that are on sites that aren't from one of my subscribed feed.

    By Blogger nectarine, At September 24, 2007 at 2:37 AM  

  • That's actually a really good idea nectarine. I've been using feed reader to keep track of my co.mments account.

    By Blogger Mr.Bubbles, At September 24, 2007 at 6:51 PM  

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