Product idea: Simple hardware to “mute” your laptop

One of the smartest elements of Palm’s design for the original smartphone was the hardware switch toggle sound on and off… you could call it the “shut up” switch:


And, of course, Apple stole this feature on the iPhone:


This thing is so useful! There are so many situations where you want your device to be quiet:

  • In bed, at night, surfing the web on your iPhone while your significant other (or your infant daughter) is sleeping next to you.
  • In a talk or a presentation that you don’t want disrupt with a ringing phone
  • While you’re on a conference call and you don’t want to be distracted by your phone.

So how is that more laptop makers don’t have hard sound on/off toggles on their devices?

Until laptop makers figure this out, maybe someone could create a simple headphone jack gizmo I could shove into my laptop’s headphone connector and have it prevent sound from coming out of my laptop’s speakers? (kind of how my laptop’s speakers go “off” when I have headphones connected… except this would just be a headphone jack port of the headphones — no wires, no headphones.)

(and while we’re at it, hey Windows, would you stop making so many sounds? I don’t need a sound at login. I don’t need a sound at shutdown. I don’t need a sound when switching users. Be invisible!)

Turn your ordinary wallet into an e-wallet

One day, our wallets will be digital (or maybe our wallets will be replaced by our “smart phones”… I tend to think the former is more likely), but until then, this is a great tip:

Buy a little, thin USB flash drive and keep it in your wallet’s change pocket. This way, since everyone almost always carries their wallet with the, you’ll always have a little bit of storage with you. I keep frequently used software on mine (Firefox, Picasa for the Mac and Windows, Chrome, Synergy, etc) and I use it to move data around.

One thing to watch out for, with this thing being so small, is it’s easy to forget it in someone else’s USB port!

Personally, I carry the Sony Micro Vault in my wallet (but I don’t think I paid $50 for it!), but I think a lot of manufacturers have the same type of flash drive.

Really thin USB flash drive (this one, made by Sony)
Really thin USB flash drive (this one, made by Sony)
Just stick the thin USB flash drive in the change pocket of your wallet
Just stick the thin USB flash drive in the change pocket of your wallet

Trick for browsing slow websites on the iPhone

I was at a Blockbuster earlier tonight and we were wondering what the Rotten Tomatoes scores were for a few movies that looked interesting.

I pulled out my iPhone, did a Google search, clicked on the Rotten Tomatoes page and waited. And waited. About 5 minutes later, the page had loaded up. 5 minutes!

It was worth the wait — it prevented us from renting Lions with Lambs. But I still had to do a couple more searches and waiting 5 minutes each time wasn’t going to work. Briefly I wished the iPhone had a text-only browser (and I kind still wish it did) for heavier sites.

But then I figured out something that made accessing Rotten Tomatoes on my iPhone a little bit easier.


I simply accessed the cached version of the page through the Google search results page. On three subsequent visits to Rotten Tomates, I found the page loaded in a minute or so — 5x faster than accessing it directly.


So if you run into a slow site, try loading it up cached from Google and it might speed things up for you.

(And if you’re curious, we ended up renting Burn After Reading and Iron Man.)

My wife’s laser-etched Macbook Air – final photographs

Here’s the finished product… I am very happy with the result. (I wrote yesterday about how I found Craig at Monarch Trophy to do this laser-etching for me)

Photographs: India, Winter 2008

Laser etching a laptop in Houston

I’m working on getting a Macbook Air laser etched so I set out this morning to find a vendor in Houston that could do it for me.  Searching for ‘laser etching macbook’ I found an article on the Make Magazine website mentioning that they used an Epilog Laser.

So I talked to Epilog Laser and they gave me the name of their distributor in Texas, Engraving Concepts.

And then the nice people at Engraving Concepts recommended a few different companies for my laptop etching job:

Texas Laser Creations
Greg Lindsey

Monarch Trophy
Randy Brummel

Academy Awards
James Bonatto

Hope this is useful to others!

UPDATE: Here’s the design I came up with:


(The artwork came from, the template from Instructables, and I’m having the etching done by Monarch Trophies. They’ve never done laptops before but they have 4 Epilog lasers and after reading the online resources on laser etching the Macbook, they were comfortable taking on the project. They’re charging me about $50 — $15 for setup and $35 for the actual etching.)

UPDATE 2: I ended up going with Monarch Trophy. Here are photographs of the final laser-etched Macbook Air.

Getting around the current Google Apps and Gmail slow-ness

Like many others, I’ve been getting a very bad user experience from Google Apps (Premier Edition — ie we pay $50 / user / year) and Gmail since early yesterday, Monday, December 8, 2008.  “Very bad user experience” means that everything is running slow.  For example, some of the things that I’ve experienced consistently for the past 36 hours:

  • I click “Send mail” and rather than just sending the message, the Gmail status indicator says, “Still working” and then, maybe 60 seconds or 90 seconds later, it actually sends the message
  • You try to use the new “Tasks” feature and start adding stuff and the Tasks menu comes back and says that it’s lost its connection with Google’s servers and your changes get lost.

This service failure from Google Apps and Gmail has resulted in a lot of loss of productivity and general unhappiness for those of us at SnapStream who spent a lot of time in e-mail (as Lev Grossman very astutely wrote, “when our tools are broken, we feel broken”).

But I think I’ve come across a workaround to the problem!  As suggested by @HughesJW on twitter, I switched from using Google Mail’s http:// server to their https:// server — and everything is running normally now!

While generally speaking, using https:// is slower because of the overhead of everything getting encrypted and then decrypted, the Google Mail slowdown is so bad that the https:// feels normal!

If you’re experiencing this problem, I hope this helps!

Comparing the Palm Treo 680 vs. the Palm Treo Pro

My Dad’s a diehard Palm Treo user.  It’s just what he’s familiar with, so as much as I’d like to upgrade him from his Palm Treo 680 to an iPhone, I think he’d really miss not having a keyboard.  So I’m thinking about switching him to a Palm Treo Pro to minimize the switching cost.  Couldn’t find a god comparison of the two devices so here’s one:

  Palm Treo 680 Palm Treo Pro
Dimensions 2.3″ x 4.4″ x 0.8″ 2.4″ x 4.5″ x 0.5″
Weight 5.5 oz 4.7 oz
Software Palm OS Windows Mobile
Network GSM/GPRS Edge (quad band GSM) GSM/GPRS Edge (quad band GSM) + 3G HSDPA/UMTS
Processor 312MHz Intel® 400MHz Qualcomm® MSM7201
Screen size 2.75″ diagonal (320×320) 3.5″ diagonal (320×320) (source)
GPS No Yes
Wi-fi No Yes (802.11b/g)
Built-in chat No Yes (on Wi-Fi only)
Connectors Power: proprietary Palm connector
Headphone: proprietary 2.5mm
Power: micro-USB (same as Blackberry, etc)
Headphone: standard 3.5mm

(Actually, I did find a comparison of all Palm devices, including the Treo 680 and the Treo Pro, on Palm’s site, but it didn’t have all the information I was looking for and had some annoying quirks… like rather than list a dimension as 4.7″ it was 4.69″. Ahhh marketing.)

Model rocket launch this past weekend

We launched a model rocket this weekend:

I was into model rockets when I was in grade school through high school so I guess this is nostalgia. Need to get one of those video camera payload rockets next and capture a video of the flight up and back down. This particular Estes rocket got lost — it went up perfectly, the parachute deployed perfectly and then in the middle of chasing after it, it disappeared. I think it landed on top of a building. Anyways, we’ve already got another one built and ready to launch… maybe this long weekend.

Need to find a bigger field here in Houston — we launched this one at Rice’s intramural fields. Suggestions?