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Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Online Tools review: XE Universal Currency Converter

If you've ever found yourself having to convert currencies, you are probably aware that there are numerous tools available to help you in the process. But one of these, an online tool called XE Universal Currency Converter is billed as the most popular currency exchange site in the world. With a number of tools for currency transactions of all types, as well as charts and more, XE is truly an amazing resource for anyone that requires currency conversion tools and help.

(Foreign currency & coins image©bradipo)

I've recommended this tool to many of my friends when they were travelling internationally, and they have all praised its ease of use and access. Take a look for yourself, and I believe you will quickly want to add this bookmark to your travel links.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Pick of the week: VersionTracker

Like almost every computer user today, I sometimes struggle to get all the updates to the software titles that I use on my computers, let alone find out about new software. There are many software repositories available online, but sadly, they are mostly for the Windows platform, and that is not too helpful for me, being an Apple user (my wife and I are both Apple users). But there is one that I have found to be helpful, well organized and current and that site is VersionTracker.

VersionTracker provides a list-type interface, as well as separate tabs for Windows, OS X, iPhone and the Palm OS.

If you use any of these software platform and didn't know about Version Tracker, head over right now. You'll be glad you did.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Online Tools review: Block Posters

Have you ever wanted to create a wall-sized print of an image? It's not such a complicated feat using software like Photoshop, but it is not necessarily an easy task either. As I was searching for a solution to this problem, I stumbled upon Block Posters, a free online tool that promises to "create any size wall poster from any size image". A rather bold boast, but from my experience so far, I have been very impressed. An easy to use interface, enough options to create your poster the way you want, in all, a really great tool.

Go take a look for yourself, upload an image and print out a large poster; I'm sure you'll appreciate the ease of use immediately.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

RAIS Woodstoves

When I was younger and living at home, we lived in a beautiful house in Markham, Ontario. Since my father had decided to remodel the house, one of the elements he wanted was a wood stove. A fireplace would simply not do, as my father was raised in the country, where fire was all important for heating during the winter. It was during that time that he learned that a fireplace was mostly a decorative home element rather than a true source of heat. With a wood stove, the closed combustion chamber and the heavy mass of metal that make up the stove structure increase the efficiency of any wood burned within by capturing and releasing heat over time.

When most people think of a wood stove, the image of a small, black, horizontal, front-loading stove comes to mind. But these types of stoves are what I refer to as the basement stove; it works well enough, but it sure isn't pretty to look at, so might as well hide it in the basement! Well that is not the type of stove my father wanted. He told me about a stove he had seen in an old home, a vertical design, covered in enamel, with front and top loading. I had never seen anything of the sort, but lo and behold, my father returned home one evening with a receipt for delivery for the stove he wanted, the Petit Godin cast iron wood stove:

Although Godin stoves are no longer made, it is possible to find them through specialized dealers and other sources, including antique stores! Although I always found that little stove very nice, it just didn't appeal to me aesthetically. I prefer cleaner design, with less clutter and decoration, but higher manufacturing quality and more efficient functionality. My research led me to discover RAIS, a Danish company that designs and manufactures wood stoves in several different models based on the original RAIS wood stove, designed by the architect Bent Falk in 1970. He took on the challenge of designing an environmentally-friendly series of “green” homes that made use of effective fireplaces. For his designs, he was awarded the Danish Design Award that year for his stove, the RAIS 1.

Some of the models offered include several freestanding soapstone wood stoves. Yes, the same type of stone used in Inuit carving! Soapstone has many advantages to offer from a heating perspective. It is quite dense and retains heat long after the fire has died down. It radiates that heat in a gradual and diffuse manner, avoiding unnecessary hot areas in the room. It allows for the construction of smaller wood stoves that maintain very high thermal efficiency.

If you are looking for a new fireplace, whether a freestanding model or an insert, with or without soapstone, head over to RAIS and take a look at what they offer.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Pick of the week: Strobist

I've been an amateur photographer for almost 20 years now, and the one thing that I've discovered is that as a photographer, one is always learning. Whether learning new techniques, or revisiting something that hasn't been done in a while, there is something new each and every day. And with the digital revolution that has taken place, there is an entire new chapter to the art of taking pictures.

During my quest to learn more about flash photography, I came upon what I consider to be the most advanced amateur flash photography web site, Strobist. The site describes itself as being about one thing and one thing only: "learning how to use off-camera flash with your DSLR to take your photos to the next level. Or the next ten levels". Quite a bold statement, but with over 1000 articles on using lighting to improve your photography is no small achievement.

If you are into photography, do yourself a favour and head over to Strobist and learn something new today!

Saturday, July 18, 2009

A new way to look at mobile homes

My wife and I are hoping to move into a home one day, but we both feel that the quality of most homes today leaves a lot to be desired. Spurred by a belief in self-sustainability, environmental friendliness and value, we are looking at home builders that provide these types of features in their design.

One company that caught our eye is the Canadian design firm, Sustain, that provides numerous designs based around a mobile platform. As such, many of their homes are classified as mobile, and may bypass several issues involved in typical residential construction, such as foundations and more. We have known about this company for a while now, and I've even posted some information about the MiniHome Solo, but we wanted to make sure that they would stay in the business and actually build some of the great concepts they came up with. It is nice to see that they have continued the premise of building on a mobile platform. One great advantage of such a design includes the possibility of moving the entire home to another location, which can be an attractive option.

The model above, called the MiniHome Solo, is a bit on the small side, but is fantastically appointed and one of the greenest and most eco-friendly homes available for production today. Take a look here for a gallery of images. And Sustain is expanding and improving, in more ways than one:

Many of the newer designs are based on the experiences learned with previous models and most of the designs share some common ideas, such as external materials that do not require any maintenance or painting, low power consumption and more.

Head on over to their website and take a look a what they've got to offer. So far, we have been pretty impressed and will inquire to get more information.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Kidrobot Futurama Series 1

I am a huge fan of Matt Groening's Futurama, and since my wife and I have been collecting vinyl toys for a while now, you can imagine how happy I was to find out that Kidrobot and Groening were teaming up once again to create a series of Futurama vinyl toys.

The series will be a blind box assortment, and will comprise a total of 12 figures, with 2 chase figures to boot. Each figure will be retailing for $8.95 USD and will release on August 13th, 2009.

From one of the pictures I've been able to find, it's been determined that the series will include the following figures:

- The Devil robot
- Nibbler
- Leela
- Morgo
- Zapp Brannigan
- Mom
- Fry
- Bender
- Lrrr
- Dr.Zoidberg

and what looks to be Hermes and Hypnotoad (all hail Hypnotoad) as the chase figures. I can't wait to see them for myself!

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Building your own arcade cabinet

I've always thought of myself as young at heart, but I am starting to notice that I am physically a little older than that! The other day, I was reminiscing (yes, that was one of the first things that clued me in to the fact that I was getting older) about an entertainment venue that has literally disappeared: the arcade and arcade cabinets. I spent a large part of my youth dropping quarters into these gaming machines and there are days when I really miss it.

Of course, in a fit of sentimentality, I installed the MAME emulator and thousands of ROMS on my iMac, easily replaying the great games of my youth. But something was missing; part of the fun of the arcade was getting to play on a stand up console, with controls that were meant to be used forcefully. And that got me thinking. Wouldn't it be possible to build a stand up cabinet that would essentially be a large PC case running MAME (and/or other existing emulators), with hard drive storage to hold thousands of ROMS and more. That idea really got me going, so I began to do a little research into the hardware that would be required to make this gaming cabinet a reality and any other related information.

The cabinet

The cabinet itself can be built using MDF or another similar material, and is not beyond the skills of most people. Several plans are available online, but it is quite easy to design your own cabinet. A friend suggested using cardboard from furniture and appliance boxes to build a life-size mockup, as it would allow the designer to refine the cabinet design before actual construction can begin.

The monitor

It is possible to purchase monitors in the required sizes, for these exact purposes from manufacturers like Vision Pro. Nowadays, it is also possible to get an LCD panel of the correct dimensions, for a more energy-saving cabinet. For some cost savings, it is possible to substitute a regular tube television, which are now available for a fraction of what they were worth only a few years ago. If you do choose this route, make sure that you select a flat tube television, as it will make your cabinet look that much better.


For the CPU, the sky is really the limit; any system that will run MAME or any other emulator, with support for USB, audio and video will do the trick. An astute builder might also consider that the CPU and motherboard will determine the overall limitations of the cabinet, and could also help to provide additional functionalities (the gaming cabinet could also be a modern jukebox!).

The controls

This is the portion that I thought might be difficult to find, but was I ever wrong. Several companies build hardware for arcade consoles, including the best I found, X Arcade as well as other manufacturers, such as Arcade Controls and Suzo-Happ.

This is commercial quality hardware and should help to build a durable, high quality cabinet.

Other hardware

It is even possible to get a coin-operation panel for your custom-built arcade cabinet. Yes, you can make your machine coin-operated as well (in my opinion, it would be an excellent way to keep your kids off of your cabinet!!!)

Why not try your hand at a project like this? A quick Google and Wikipedia search revealed dozens of related sites, images and tutorials, so go ahead, build a little flash from the past and have fun. Take a look at some of the following links for more information:

BYOACWiki - A fantastic resource for the DIY Arcade cabinet builder.

Webb's MAME Arcade Cabinet - A DIY guide to a great MAME cabinet.

MAME Arcade Cabinet - Another DIY site, with lots of information.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Using the Garmin Nuvi 250

I've had the the Garmin Nuvi 250 for about a month now, and have used it several times in order to get a feel for how the device operates and how accurate it is for everyday navigation. So far, I have been very impressed with the ease of use of the device, and its navigation accuracy. Now don't get me wrong, the device has its bugs. For instance, I have not been able to get the device to map out a route to my father's residence. No matter how I select my dad's address, the Nuvi just hangs at 80% completion, and will not begin navigating. It's odd, and I've been able to get it to map a route to an address on a neighbouring street, and that seems just fine.

I've also used the device on foot for geocaching on several occasions, and have found that it was just as accurate, and more useful than my Garmin eTrex. I have been able to connect it to my wife's iMac without problem (it is recognized as an external drive) and it has been very simple to add waypoints using the computer instead of entering them manually into the device. The most pleasant surprise was to find that the Nuvi recharges when it is connected to a computer through USB. A truly useful feature. I have also been very impressed with some of the useful software utilities provided by Garmin. These tools can make route planning a little simpler, and uploading these routes to the device a piece of cake.

I will post more information on my experiences as I continue to use this fantastic gadget.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

A couple months with my netbook

I've been using the Asus EeePC 900HA for a couple months now, and I am still quite satisfied with my purchase. As with any other electronic device, there are changes that I would appreciate in a future replacement, but they don't make the netbook any less usable. I have used it on pretty much daily basis for almost 2 months now, and it has stood up to that use, and more. Most of my use currently is being done outdoors, so although cooling has not been a problem, exposure to dust and other particulates has.

Like most plastic devices, the EeePC is a dust magnet, and I have not been able to keep it clean for the life of me. Another factor that has been bothering me is my inability to turn the touchpad off. Since I am using a wireless mouse with the netbook, the touchpad has only served to cause typos when my thumb inadvertently touches it and moves the cursor in mid-sentence. The battery life has also been much less than anticipated or claimed by Asus. At most, I'm able to get 4.5 solid hours of use from the device, under low load conditions, mind you. Personally, I count on 3 hours of actual, everyday use, with some reserve power to save files and shutdown the system adequately.

Other things I've noticed include flickering of the backlight at the lowest setting; as I've mentioned, I often use my netbook outdoors, and frequently at night. The second lowest brightness setting is more than required in these circumstances, but that is when the flickering is the most obvious. A more annoying bug has been the reconnection to a wireless network after coming back from a suspend mode; about once out of three times, I need to reboot the computer to get the wireless to work again. This last issue might have more to do with the operating system (I've been using Eeebuntu with the Netbook Remix as my OS) than the actual hardware, but I have no real way of confirming or denying such a claim.

I will continue to post more information on my experiences, but so far, I am quite satisfied with my little machine.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Pick of the week: 43 Things

Ever write a list of life goals? It is a demonstrated fact that writing down goals can help one visualize the goals in question, and plan a positive way to achieve them. I know that I've done it more than once in my life, but the sad fact is that I've misplaced that list more times than I care to remember. I've thought about keeping such a list online, but then, I've tended to forget about it, and never really consult it. Well in comes 43 Things to provide a solution to this problem.

Essentially, 43 Things is an online tool that allows you to write down your goals (take a wild guess at how many?), get inspired by other peoples goals, and read and write about those goals and the things you've done in your life. Personally, I've found that reading about other peoples goals has helped me to focus more on my own. From the frivolous and funny to the serious and profound, there are a lot of things that people want to do during their life. The ability to browse those other goals, quickly select whether or not you've done it, and then share some information about it, is in my eyes what makes 43 Things a fantastic idea.

Head on over and take a look, add a few items to your own list and start getting them done. You'll be glad you did.

Friday, July 10, 2009

New Macbook Pro 13"

The Macbook Pro product line has just received some minor upgrades and a new model, the 13" Macbook Pro. And although initially, it did not look like a huge change, after further consideration, it seems like Apple has really hit on a great combination of functionality, design and price, making the Macbook Pro 13 available to almost everyone.

Here are the specs for the two new models of the 13" Pro:

Size and weight

Height: 0.95 inch (2.41 cm)
Width: 12.78 inches (32.5 cm)
Depth: 8.94 inches (22.7 cm)
Weight: 4.5 pounds (2.04 kg)

Connections and expansion

* MagSafe power port
* Gigabit Ethernet port
* One FireWire 800 port (up to 800 Mbps)
* One Mini DisplayPort
* Two USB 2.0 ports (up to 480 Mbps)
* One SD card slot
* Audio in/out (combined)
* Kensington lock slot


* Built-in AirPort Extreme Wi-Fi wireless networking (based on IEEE 802.11n draft specification); IEEE 802.11a/b/g compatible
* Bluetooth Built-in Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR (Enhanced Data Rate)
* Built-in 10/100/1000BASE-T Gigabit Ethernet (RJ-45 connector)


* Built-in stereo speakers
* Built-in omnidirectional microphone
* Combined optical digital output/headphone out (user-selectable analog audio line in)
* Supports Apple Stereo Headset with microphone


* 13.3-inch (diagonal) LED-backlit glossy widescreen display with support for millions of colors
* Supported resolutions: 1280 by 800 (native), 1152 by 720, 1024 by 640, and 800 by 500 pixels at 16:10 aspect ratio; 1024 by 768, 800 by 600, and 640 by 480 pixels at 4:3 aspect ratio; 1024 by 768, 800 by 600, and 640 by 480 pixels at 4:3 aspect ratio stretched; 720 by 480 pixels at 3:2 aspect ratio; 720 by 480 pixels at 3:2 aspect ratio stretched

Graphics and video support

* NVIDIA GeForce 9400M graphics processor with 256MB of DDR3 SDRAM shared with main memory3
* Dual display and video mirroring: Simultaneously supports full native resolution on the built-in display and up to 2560 by 1600 pixels on an external display, both at millions of colors
* iSightBuilt-in iSight camera
* Mini DisplayPort


* Built-in full-size backlit keyboard with 78 (U.S.) or 79 (ISO) keys, including 12 function keys and 4 arrow keys (inverted “T” arrangement)
* Multi-Touch trackpad for precise cursor control; supports two-finger scrolling, pinch, rotate, swipe, three-finger swipe, four-finger swipe, tap, double-tap, and drag capabilities

Processor and memory

Intel Core 2 Duo

* 2.26GHz or 2.53GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor with 3MB on-chip shared L2 cache running 1:1 with processor speed
* 1066MHz frontside bus
* 2GB (two 1GB SO-DIMMs) or 4GB (two 2GB SO-DIMMs) of 1066MHz DDR3 memory; two SO-DIMM slots support up to 8GB


* 160GB or 250GB 5400-rpm Serial ATA hard drive; optional 320GB or 500GB 5400-rpm hard drive, or 128GB or 256GB solid-state drive4
* 8x slot-loading SuperDrive (DVD±R DL/DVD±RW/CD-RW)
* Maximum write: 8x DVD-R, DVD+R; 4x DVD-R DL (double layer), DVD+R DL (double layer), DVD-RW, DVD+RW; 24x CD-R; 10x CD-RW
* Maximum read: 8x DVD-R, DVD+R, DVD-ROM; 6x DVD-ROM (double layer DVD-9), DVD-R DL (double layer), DVD+R DL (double layer), DVD-RW, DVD+RW; 24x CD

Battery and power

* Built-in 60-watt-hour lithium-polymer battery
* 60W MagSafe Power Adapter with cable management system
* MagSafe power port

And here are a few more images, including a comparison shot between the previous unibody Macbook and the new Macbook Pro:

Monday, July 6, 2009

Pick of the week: Bourque Newswatch

The tag line reads: Canada's Matt Drudge, after the American Matt Nathan Drudge, who runs the Drudge Report, a news aggregation website. As fantastic as is the site, it deals with mainly US related news and that is of little use to most Canadians.

In comes Bourque Newswatch. A fully Canadian news aggregation site, Bourque is a fantastic news site, updated several times a day. It also provides links to every news media in Canada, which is a great service in and of itself.

Keep Bourque Newswatch bookmarked, it will easily become a daily read and your first source for Canadian news content and a great news reference site.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

It's Canada Day

Today is Canada's 142nd Canada Day, which commemorates the day that Canada became a nation. The holiday is usually observed on July 1 (and a little known fact is that if the date falls on a Sunday, Canada Day is observed the following day).

On July 1, 1867, the British North America Act united the British colonies of Upper Canada, Lower Canada, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia into "one dominion under the name of Canada." These four colonies became Canada's first four provinces; Lower Canada was renamed Quebec, and Upper Canada was renamed Ontario.

This year, my wife, son and I are staying home. I think our boy is a little too young for the festivities and might be a little scared of the fireworks this evening. But I think next year will be a great time to introduce him to our national day.

So, to all Canadians, here and abroad, I wish you a happy Canada Day!