Making @HoroscopeBot

Internet, Programming

Tweets by @HoroscopeBot

Last weekend, as a side project, I decided to create an oracle. Like most oracles he spouts nonsense, occasionally happening upon a cogent statement by random chance and serendipity. His name is @HoroscopeBot, and he takes the auspices of Twitter to post a semi-coherent prophecy every twenty minutes.

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Uncommon RSS Feeds


While I possess a startlingly wide array of methods to waste my time, one of my favorites lately has been Google Reader. It’s nice to know that I can sit down at my computer and always find something to read, be it an interesting blog, gaming news or webcomic. However, speckled among the nerdy ones are a few feeds that are quite different from my usual fare. I thought I’d take the time today to highlight some of these strange sites, with the hopes that you too might discover a new quirky feed to liven up your RSS reader with.

Google Sightseeing

Google Sightseeing

Google Earth is a great toy, but like most people I played with it for a few hours before moving on to other things. The folks at Google Sightseeing, however, have been scouring the globe to bring us all sorts of landmarks and oddities. Whether it be rolling snowballs in Antarctica, hippos in Zambia or whales off the cost of Mexico, Google Sightseeing is like National Geographic done accidentally by satellite robot photographers.

Passive Aggressive Notes

Passive Aggressive Notes

Maybe it’s just me, but I can’t help but laugh when I read notes from people trying to get their point across by being venomously polite. The notes run the gamut from very direct to extremely subtle, but they all showcase the real paradox of being rude politely.

Strange Maps - Europe

Strange Maps

Anyone who has ever looked at an upside down map of the world knows that a familiar place can look radically different when looked at in a different way. Strange Maps is a site dedicated to these quirky cartographers. My personal favorite include the night-time illumination map of Korea, the blonde map of Europe and a maximally fragmented North America.

Cute Overload

I cannot intellectually defend this one at all, but it bring a smile to my face every single day.

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Gmail – Mark Spam Messages as Read


I had mentioned in an earlier post that I was mildly frustrated by the “new spam messages” counter in Gmail, mostly because I mistook it for the “new inbox messages” counter in my peripheral vision. Before my hard drive crash, I used a Firefox plug-in called Greasemonkey to hide the counter. This solution turned out to be inelegant when I realized that at work, at school, and on any computer other than my own I would still be visually assaulted by that silly counter. I decided then and there that there must be a better way.

Fortunately for me, there was. I had previously tried to go about using the remarkably versatile Gmail filters to mark all spam messages as read, but lacked an adequate description of what messages to mark. A closer look into Gmail search semantics revealed that I could use the keywords “in:spam” to refer to the all messages in my spam folder. Knowing this, I set up the following filters:

  • Has the words: in:spam
  • Doesn’t have: my name, my school, my work, etc.
  • Do this: Mark as read

This filter simple and efficiently hides all new spam messages, while still alerting me when potential non-spam messages have been blocked. If you’re as fussy as I am when it comes to Gmail, I hope that this little trick comes in handy.

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Memento & External Memory

Internet, Movies

It had been in my movie backlog for ages, but I finally got around to seeing Memento this weekend (and absolutely loved it.) It’s nearly a decade old, but here’s a brief spoiler-free synopsis for the uninitiated: it’s a story told chronologically backwards about Leonard Shelby, a man with short-term memory loss trying to avenge his murdered wife. To remember who people are, where he lives and what he’s doing, he consults relevant notes and pictures in his pockets at all times, keeping the most vital information tattooed on his body.

While the character’s handicap was extreme, I felt a strong empathy with his condition. I’m a forgetful person by nature and, like Leonard, am constantly relying on external memory to function. Text files, post-it notes, e-mails and address books have become my substitute for real memory. I hardly take the time to remember anything nowadays; birthdays, telephone numbers, assignment due dates and addresses are taking up less and less of my cerebral real estate.

It doesn’t stop there; I am now reliant on the internet for information. I’ve hit ten Google searches and half a dozen Wikipedia articles in my twenty minutes of writing so far. My daily hits on both sites likely number in the hundreds, and twice as many when I’m programming. Having a wealth of information at your fingertips is a major boon, but my work is now dependant on it (as referenced by a recent xkcd strip.) When the internet goes down, I cringe at the idea of stooping to consulting the phone book, a real map, or my 40 year old Encyclopedia set.

While it’s true that our grandparents’ generation could dial a friend, get directions and long divide using brain power alone, is the relegation of our long term information storage and computation power to machines necessarily a bad thing? NY Times columnist David Brooks argues “no” in a recent article entitled “The Outsourced Brain.”

Until that moment, I had thought that the magic of the information age was that it allowed us to know more, but then I realized the magic of the information age is that it allows us to know less. It provides us with external cognitive servants — silicon memory systems, collaborative online filters, consumer preference algorithms and networked knowledge. We can burden these servants and liberate ourselves.

What do you think? How do you use computers and the internet as a brain-extension in your daily lives? Is “outsourcing” our brain power helpful, harmful, or inevitable?

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Useful Web Tools

Internet, Software

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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