Economy Size Geek - Cool Project Potpourri

A look at Caffeine, Homesick and Mockingbird.

I admit that when I signed on to do this column, I was really excited to see Cool Projects on the editorial calendar. It was months away, and I figured by the time the issue rolled around, I would have something big to share with you. Things did not quite work out that way. Because every article I write involves failure in one way or another, I'm going to start off telling you a little about the projects that sat on my bench.

Tiny and Shiny

A very, very tiny handheld computer showed up on my doorstep. It was the completely copyleft Ben NanoNote. The manufacturers are not really sure what to do with it, so they have made it as open as possible to give people a chance to figure it out. I originally got it because I thought it might make a neat portable Linux device for my son. I hoped to get basic video replay on it (if nothing else, to give him something to play with instead of my phone).

Figure 1. Ben NanoNote

In some ways, I had flashbacks to playing with the BeagleBoard, because I quickly realized I was looking at a very neat device, but I didn't have the foggiest idea of how to get started. There is a wiki and several mailing lists, and recently, I found a nice blog post showing how someone ported gnugo over to the device (see Resources). After spending some time researching, I was forced to admit that it was too early for me to jump in. The device has potential, but the project as a whole just is not far enough along for me to participate. Maybe I should run some kind of contest and give it away to a deserving hacker instead of letting it sit on my desk mocking me.

That Other Smartphone

I have been following Android for some time. It seemed like an interesting platform, but in order to take advantage of it, I would have to switch carriers, which for a variety of reasons was not on my to-do list. Then, Google released the Nexus One for AT&T, and I was excited. I have grown increasingly frustrated with my iPhone, and I thought this would be a great opportunity to try Android on great hardware.

So far, it has been great. There have been problems, but I don't end up as frustrated, because most of the problems I have encountered are bugs, which means they can be fixed. On the iPhone, several of my problems were related to running Linux instead of Windows or Mac OS X, which is not a bug in my book. I have a couple Android books sitting on my bookshelf to read (which I realize now are probably out of date, as I got them long before I got the phone). I had hoped to walk through the process of getting an application up and running. Instead, I have settled into the role of end user rather than power programmer, which has been great for my phone experience even if it does not help my writing.

What's Cool?

Now that I've cleared my guilt backlog, the good news is that I have found some cool projects out there—they're just being done by other people, and I get to use them. In all three cases, these are tools I have picked up recently and use them to get stuff done.


Caffeine was one of those wonderful discoveries, because it brought to light a problem I did not even know I had, and it originally was demonstrated on a Mac. Let's say you're watching a video. After a while, you get so engrossed in the clip that you don't move your mouse or touch your keyboard, because you actually are watching it with your full attention. Then, your screensaver kicks in (as a bonus, you have a password on it). Or, say you're giving a presentation and you stay on a slide a while so you can answer a bunch of questions, and the screen blacks out to save power. In the past, there were two ways to handle this. You could just remember to flick your mouse every so often (which is annoying and error-prone), or you turn off the screensaver, which means you have to remember to turn it back on later.

Figure 2. Caffeine

Enter Caffeine. This handy app puts a small coffee cup in your notification bar. When you want your computer to stay awake, just click the coffee cup. If you're okay with normal behavior, click on the cup again. This is nice because it is easy to access, and it gives you a visual cue to remind you what you have done. There even are options to tell it to kick in for a certain amount of time. If clicking is too much trouble, you also can tell it to kick in automatically when certain applications are running (Flash videos, Presentation or Skype, for example).

On Ubuntu, you can add in the PPA (Personal Package Archive). Then, installation is easy:

sudo add-apt-repository ppa:caffeine-developers/ppa
sudo apt-get update
sudo apt-get install caffeine

It ends up being very handy. As I mentioned, versions of Caffeine exist for other platforms, so I end up recommending it whenever I see people give presentations and their screens go dark. Now, it's a standard part of my installation for my workstations.