Cool Tools

Cool stuff you can do with Google Spreadsheets

I’ve been using Google Docs for a while now. I love the concept of easy online document management and collaboration. I’ve tried to set up wiki-based solutions, content management systems, etc. for collaboration in the past, but Google Docs does exactly what I need it to do. It just works.

The only problem I’ve add is getting anyone else to use it. For some reason, no matter what I do, the people I work with find it too difficult to use. I’ll share a document with a coworker and they’ll never use it or open it. So, I’ve stuck to using it for tasks of my own or for people who work for me.

I use the word processing app, formerly known as Writely, from time to time, but I use Google Spreadsheets the most. I’m always finding new things I can do with it and since it’s online I can access it from any computer.

Here are some of the things I use it for:

  • Timesheets: I have a few freelancers I work with on a regular basis. It used to be that they would write down their hours over a few weeks and then submit an invoice at the end of the billing period. Now I just have them add their hours directly into a spreadsheet. It autoformats the various columns, calculates total hours and pay, and allows me to stay on top of our progress on various projects.
  • Asset logging: At work we often have to purchase equipment for our centers. I use Google Spreadsheets to keep track of all the various information related to company equipment: serial numbers, assignments, etc.
  • Invoice tracking: If you have invoices that need to be paid or invoices that you need to submit to your clients, an online spreadsheet is a good way to keep track of them. Just list the invoices with invoice numbers, amounts, and the date submitted and you’ll have an easier time following up on them.
  • Task / change requests: When you work on a project with other people you’ll often need to keep track of change requests or suggested revisions.

What kind of things do you do in spreadsheets?

My review of SimulScribe (voicemail transcription service)

voice mail transcriptionPrice: $9.99 per month for 40 messages. $.25 each additional message.

I hate listening to voice mail. It’s one of those things that you can’t really just take in at a ‘glance’ because speech is a linear way to deliver information. If you have an email you can speed up your reading by skipping over words or sentences to get a taste for what you’re reading. Luckily, there are now services to transcribe your voicemail and convert to email or text message. I’m trying one right now called SimulScribe.

Set up process

For SimulScribe, the set up is painless. You create an account then you receive an email with instructions based on your mobile provider for enabling selective call forwarding that forwards your calls to SimulScribe if you fail to answer the telephone. This works the exact same way your voicemail normally works. It’s simply rerouted to SimulScribe.

Using the service: Callers

On the caller’s end they receive your voicemail greeting after about six rings. SimulScribe includes a tagline for their service with instructions to speak slowly. The tagline can be removed in the account settings, however removing this tagline adds $.05 to each transcribed message. If I had few missed calls per month, I would probably remove this and pay the extra five cents.

Checking your voicemail

Each account has a voicemail number you can dial to listen to your voicemail as you normally would. On most phones, you can set up your voicemail speed dial key to use this new number, so that your process remains the same. As soon as a message is left, you can listen to it in your voicemail, even if the call has not yet been transcribed. You can also review a record of your voicemail messages at the SimulScribe website.

Receiving the call transcription

Once the call has been transcribed, you will receive a transcription message via SMS (text message) on your cell phone or by email on your mobile device or computer. The email transcript of the message will include an attached .wav file recording for review.

In two tests, I placed a call for 26 seconds and another call for 60 seconds, the limit for a voicemail message. For the 26 second message, the transcript was received within 5 minutes. For the 60 second message, the transcript was received within 15 minutes. This seems too long and the wait could be due to heavy usage, however this system was tested on the weekend, which is generally a slow time for call traffic. For important calls, I might end up calling voicemail, otherwise I’m fine with a delay of 5-10 minutes, especially considering how much quicker it is to read your voicemail than to actually listen to it.


In two tests, the transcription system was pretty accurate. It has trouble with acronyms and seldom used words, but the transcripts are more than enough to convey the meaning and content of the messages. SimulScribe also allows you to have the message re-transcribed by simply replying to the original transcript email.

In one of the tests, I read from the Gettysburg Address (Bliss copy version. Lincoln had several versions.):

Hi Chris,

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated (Call ended with SimulScribe ‘Goodbye’ message)

This was the transcribed result:

Hi Chris. (phonetic ‘Four score’) and seven years ago. Our fathers is brought forth on this continent and (phonetic ‘new nation’) conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war. Testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure. We are met on a great battle field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting place for those who here, gave their lives,that that nation might live is altogether fitting a proper that we should do this. But in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate. We cannot concentrate. We cannot hollow this ground. The brave man, living in dead and struggled here have (phonetic ‘concentrated’) it. Far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but I can’t what they did here. It is for us to living rather to be dedicated…

As someone who has a tendency to mumble over certain words and blend words together, the result is very good. Attached is a recording of my call.

Integration with home or office phone systems

To transcribe your home calls, contact your phone service provider and ask if “Call Forward No Answer” is available on your line. This feature is available on 80%-90% of landline phones in the US. If the feature is available, set up “Call Forward No Answer” to your SimulScribe number.

If your office phone system can send voicemail as an attached recording via email (approximately 50% of office phone systems have this feature including ours), have the email sent directly from the office phone system to “insert SimulScribe number” SimulScribe will then transcribe the message and send it to the locations that you have specified in your user profile.


SimulScribe is very cool. If you hate voicemail, or have a lot of meetings at work where you can’t talk on the phone, it’s perfect. They have a free week trial if you want to test it out.

How to open .wav voicemail attachments on the Blackberry

My voice mail at work is set up so when I get a message it’s sent to my email as an attachment. When I get back to my desk I just play the file on my computer to hear the message. No need to navigate the voice mail system via the telephone. It’s easy.

The only problem with this is if I’m on my Blackberry I can’t just open the .wav file from the email and listen to the message, although I can open other attachments. Wav files just don’t work that way in Blackberry OS 4.1. The Blackberry 8800 will have this ability supposedly, but the 8700 does not. Since I’d much rather open the recorded file on the handheld than call my corporate voice mail, this is not fun.

Ironically, you can play .wav files from the web browser. So, we can use a workaround. If you want to be able to get your voice mail .wav files to play on the Blackberry do the following:

  1. Create an Outlook rule or email filter to automatically forward the email from your voice mail system to your Gmail account.
  2. Go into your Blackberry Browser options and set the Emulation to “Microsoft IE”. You have to do this to get the normal Gmail interface, otherwise Gmail will try to serve you the mobile version of Gmail.
  3. Now when you receive a voice mail notification on your Blackberry, open up the browser and log in to your web mail.
  4. Open the notification message and use the link to download the attachment. It should start playing in the media player as soon as it downloads completely.


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Assassinating comment spam

After I logged in to discover 152 friendly (“Great site! Ci@lis!”) spam comments from Cialis and online poker sites, I had to move to a new solution for fighting comment spam. It seems the spammers circumvented my previous solution and implemented it into whatever scripts and tools they use to troll the vast blog geography. Luckily, due to the open source nature of WordPress there were several available solutions for preventing automated comment spam through the use of ‘captcha‘ images. There was one WordPress plugin, SecureImage, that stood out due to its simple drop-in functionality. You just throw the plugin into your WordPress plugin directory and activate it. You must also have the ImageMagick module installed on your server, which is usually the case. If not, it’s an easy install. I had to make one change to the plugin script since it was not detecting the presence of ImageMagick’s convert utility. If you have the same problem, simply comment out the section where the script checks for the location of convert. To see the captcha script in action, try to leave a comment.


1. Running on impulse. I broke down today and bought a black, 60gb iPod video. Right now, I have 20gb loaded, which is equivalent to 15 days of music. This is my one big gadget of the year, having resisted a new computer, a digital SLR, and many many other equally unnecessary purchases. Now my last remaining excuse for using the exercise facilities is gone. I still hate Apple and they’re effete hipster smugness. Fact is, the competition just plain sucks for portable digital media. The gadget industry is ceding the entire territory to Apple, when many people (like me) just want a good alternative. It’s not that difficult. The “iPod alternative” needs to have a spacious hard drive, some sort of display so I can tell what’s playing, and a head phone jack. It’s really that simple. Make it super cheap and the iPod has some serious competition. As it is, you can get an iPod or an incredibly lame alternative for the same price. What kind of choice is that? The main draws: I needed something with massive hard-drive space and small size, and nothing really comes close except the iPod. Add to that the video playback, simple interface, and iTunes mojo, and it’s a no brainer. By the way, the clerks at Best Buy are ridiculous. No, I don’t want a service plan for the 3rd time. No, I don’t care about the accessories or anything else you want to upsell me on. No, I don’t want to bond about having an iPod. It’s a consumer device, not an opportunity for group identity reinforcement.

2. While driving down the road during lunch, in front of a high school an inexplicable animated sign advertises: “Now presenting Urinetown.”

3. Tuesday at the apartment after work, while I wait for the elevator with the day’s mail I observe a large-nosed girl in a ponytail pass by in full workout gear complete with white iPod earbuds. I can hear her opening the door to the workout room, but then she’s back again walking angrily past in the reverse direction. “Full?” I ask. She keeps walking and yells, “I guess I’ll just be fat forever!” then slams the double doors. I couldn’t help laughing, but only because she was completely serious and not actually fat.

Get your album cover art straight

I’ve been using iTunes a lot more lately. I held out for a long as a champion of Winamp, but iTunes does a lot of nice stuff with podcasts and a few other features. One of the nice things about using iTunes is how it integrates your album art with your mp3 collections. If the album art is present on the hard drive you will see the album cover when you play the song on your iPod or in iTunes. That’s a great touch. Only problem is, since I’ve never bought a song off iTunes most of my mp3’s lack the accompanying album cover art. No problem! There are several cool solutions that have sprung up to help with this:

1. Artie by Patrick Moberg. Artie is a ajaxy website that finds the missing album cover art for your music library. All you do is upload your iTunes playlist XML file and it searches various online sources to find the missing album art, which you then drag into the art window in iTunes to add it to the associated mp3’s.

2. iTunes Companion by Knut August Johansen. This is probably the easiest way to update your cover art since once you set it up it automatically updates the album art as your music plays, by searching Amazon for the album listed in the ID3 tag of your mp3 files. iTunes Companion is a widget for Yahoo’s widget engine (formerly known as Konfabulator), and it works very well.

If you’re using iTunes you could also do all of this manually by searching for the album or single name in Google image search (GIS).

Essential Firefox Extensions: Highlighter and SessionSaver

I’ve just started using two indispensable Firefox extensions:

Highlighter – What it does: select a block of text, right-click and select “highlight”. Very nice when trying to pull out interesting bits. Also has several other useful features like instant highlighting when you select text, tracker icons for jumping back to highlighted sections, and the ability to select different highlight colors.

SessionSaver – This extension saves everything you were viewing when you closed Firefox, so when you come back to the computer you can read where you left off. You can also do cool stuff like sync your session to a previous session over FTP, or even back up a session to a file. Feature list.

More Flash goodness

I’ve been working on some Flash elements for the company website, which we’re redoing. I love trying to do stuff in Flash because I’m visual and it’s more like playing than the work I do in HTML and CSS, etc. I also love working in Flash because I always have to learn how to do something new. Here is a simple animated navigation I’m working on right now. I didn’t design the buttons, just the behaviors and how they animate. In other words, I don’t like the button icons.

Continue reading →

Greedy eyes and hands

This camera is awesome. For $800, it’s actually a great deal, in my opinion, considering that an entry level point and shoot is gonna run $200.
Nikon D-50

Flickr Plugin for WordPress

Wow. I guess I’ll need to use Flickr more now that everyone is supporting it in all the various tools such as WordPress. Like, it has become the de facto standard in what it does due to its flexibility and openness. A guy named Joe Tan produced a cool plugin for WordPress that adds some cool Flickr-ish stuff to WordPress.

The WordPress Flickr Post Bar plugin very simply allows you to easily insert your Flickr photos into your blog posts. Once installed, this plugin will display your most recent Flickr photos as thumbnails in a bar across the bottom of your WordPress post form. Clicking on the thumbnail of a photo you want to use will then automatically insert the proper HTML snippet into your blog post.