Incremental e-mail backups with Thunderbird

The Mozilla Thunderbird e-mail client doesn’t provide a back-up tool. It is possible though to use the search function to select only those e-mail messages that are more recent than your last back-up and save them, but this process doesn’t store the folder structure that your messages were in. This is only a working solution if you use only a few folders or none at all. I recently had to restore from a hard disk crash and spent half a day putting e-mails back in folders. (Another option would have been to keep my restored back-up in in its own folder; after all, it’s mostly old mail.)

Looking for back-up tools for Thunderbird, the official Mozilla.org recommendation appears to be to get a program called MozBackup. The advantage of MozBackup is that it creates back-ups of profiles for several Mozilla tools, not just Thunderbird. Unfortunately it doesn’t do incremental back-ups.

Looking through mozilla.org’s support forums I encounter mostly disbelief that anybody would want to do incremental back-ups of e-mail messages and folders. As a web developer I often get sent large files by clients and designers. Lately this has decreased a lot—people store their files in the cloud and send me a link—but it still happens. Before the crash I had about 10 GB in e-mail on my hard disk.

There is a back-up plugin (I believe Mozilla uses the word add-on instead of plug-in) called ImportExport Tools which I think I used before to migrate from Pegasus to Thunderbird but which you can also use for back-ups. (Strangely the plug-in is stored under Miscellaneous at addons.mozilla.org instead of Import/Export.) This contains an option for structured storage, that is to say, storing mails with their respective folders. Unfortunately this option won’t let you select the specific mails you want to export, it only works for all mail at once. It does have an automatic back-up setting which may or may not store the folder structure. I will update this posting once I find out more.

Note also that the author of the plug-in reports that storing folders is at the moment unstable, i.e. may not work.

Back-ups are dangerous if you don’t test whether or not you are able to restore them. As far as the ImportExport Tools plug-in is concerned I can report success in this regard. I created a second account in Thunderbird and imported the back-up of my primary account there. I only performed spot checks, I did not check if all mails were recovered.

Another option would be to store e-mail without attachments. That way I could easily store every mail I ever received on a single CD-R, which would make the whole incremental back-up thing just a little less important. Of course you’d have to find a way to store your attachments first. In case you are using your e-mail client as a sort of document management system this won’t work. Let’s say you receive lots of photos of loved ones via e-mail and then when you want to see these photos again later you view them in your mail client. In this example you never bothered to store your attachments in a separate location, so back-ups without attachments would be less of an option.

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This week in racism

Here in the Netherlands we have a venerable, somewhat quaint but altogether rather innocent tradition involving a gift-giving immortal bishop called Saint Nicholas, who has a rather unfortunate side-kick called Black Peter.

Black Peter is unfortunate because of his appearance which has been closely modeled on certain racist caricatures of black people. He has black curly hair, big red lips and golden earrings, speaks with a broken accent and often plays the fool. Recently this side of our tradition has been causing a lot of friction, and this week we appear to be going through what I would like to call The Coming Out of the Racists.

  • When singer Simon Keizer asked people last week to donate money to help the typhoon victims in the Philippines, people responded with angry variants on “eigen volk eerst” (“our own people first”, a slogan popularised by 1970’s racist party Centrumpartij).
  • TV presenter Daphne Bunskoek made a ‘joke’ about what should happen to Black Peters returning to their country (black people go ‘home’ is another racist meme) by showing footage from the Steven Spielberg movie Amistad in which black slaves were whipped.
  • Holland’s Got Talent talent judge Gordon Heuckeroth thought it would be a good idea to address a Chinese contestant as if the latter were running a Chinese restaurant: “which one are you going to sing, number 39 with rice?”

Now Heukeroth, who seems to lack talent or sophistication along pretty much every axis you might care to investigate, has made a career out of insulting people. Together with singer Gerard Joling he made a TV series in which they kept bitching each other out, so maybe he was just being in character here.

On a more personal level, a black acquaintance went to an anti-Black Peter demonstration, and one of the first things happening to her was that somebody walked up to her and said “die, nigger” to her.

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A quick iPad review

Apple iPad (iPad 2)

As it happens all the four things I don’t like about my Apple iPad manifested themselves within a few minutes of each other today and they also helped to highlight what a cool little device it is, so I figured it was time for a quick review.

The Apple iPad has replaced a great many items in my house, or it would have if I owned them. It has replaced the TV guide, a number of cookbooks, the weather report on TV, the laptop on the couch for looking up stuff on Wikipedia and so on. It has not replaced the laptop for viewing movies, simply because at 16 GB it has too little storage. (Maybe if I could stream stuff off a wireless media server, but I’ve too little need for such a beast.)

Maybe it would or would not replace a smart phone, but a smart phone only really comes into place when you have a need for an expensive subscription, which I don’t. I don’t even have a mobile phone subscription, and my land line subscription is increasingly becoming an artifact from olden times, like those 19th century irons people used to collect in the 1970s—I never call anybody and I use Skype when I do.

So there you have a limited lay-out of my private electronics needs.

The actual reason I own an iPad is for my business. I use it as device to test websites on and I use it as a note taking tool. I still use a paper notebook for important and private notes (less easy to hack and doesn’t break down as easily), but everything else goes onto the iPad and then Dropbox. I also use the iPad to carry my portfolio around. If I were a graphics artist it would probably be too small for this (although it might be a good back-up?).

If I didn’t already own one for my business, I’d get one (or something like it) for private use.

Which brings me to the irritants, one plus three.

The big downside of the Apple iPad (and presumably unique to this brand) is that it is very much what people call a ‘walled garden’. The device is a gateway to a store for software and media. It comes with a couple of relatively useful applications, but if you want anything more you have to head to the iTunes store. Apple makes very much sure that all software must be offered via their store. You may offer software for free, but as a developer you still have to jump through all of Apple’s hoops. One thing that makes it so your application won’t get through Apple’s vetting process is if your application allows other applications to bypass Apple’s vetting process. The result is that the free (as in free of cost) software ecosystem on the iPad isn’t nearly as rich as it could be. (For comparison, most of the software I use on my business PC is FOSS.)

For a cheapskate like me who doesn’t mind wasting hours of his time looking for free offerings this is still a problem but can be a minor one. For all normal people though, if you want the iPad for your home, consider getting a credit card first so that you can give Apple more money (they take a percentage off the top for apps sold through their store).

The three minor irritants:

  • The (rather expensive) power cable breaks down in no time (and the non-replaceable battery deteriorates pretty quickly, so you need that cable).
  • Apple backs up the contents of your iPad to one (and only one!) computer and if the hard disk of your computer crashes (as happened to me the other day) it will delete everything on your iPad the next time you try and synchronize it with that one PC!
  • The (also rather expensive and optional) cover develops a looseness over time. Since the cover doubles as an off-switch, this means you can drain your battery without noticing it (you’ll believe the iPad is sleeping when it’s not).

I won’t say the iPad (or tablets like it) are indispensable, but they are pretty nifty. They are as light and easy to handle as a not-too-heavy magazine and are exactly for that reason a drop-in replacement mostly for magazines (assuming you have Wifi and can get the content online).

I find note-taking to work very well once you’ve installed the right applications. I use MoApp’s myTexts Lite for texts and neuNotes for anything involving drawing. There are undoubtedly better note-taking apps, but the Lite version of myTexts already comes pretty close and in fact has some pretty nifty features which you would hope all note app producers would copy, such as a much improved keyboard.

Apple’s model is one of razors and blades, except that they charge a premium for both (because they can). One would hope they’d fix the minor irritants in later versions of the iPad, though from what I’ve seen so far they haven’t bothered.

This of course brings us to the following question. If you are not a web developer who simply needs the Apple iPad, would you buy something else?

(This is still a draft because I need to get back to work. I’ll iron out the typos later.)

Rating by brankl: 4 stars
****

Back…ish

A serious hard disk crash but a damper on my already low posting frequency. I had lost my password and resetting it proved more difficult than clicking the I Lost My Password link. Anyway, just a heads up that I can log in again, now only to find something to write about.

What you are not reading

The drafts queue of this blog currently holds 22 postings waiting to be unleashed on an unsuspecting world, and some of them have been sitting there for years.

Although some of those postings just haven’t been finished yet, most of them are of the type where I had an idea for a posting, I started writing it, and then I realised that I hadn’t really thought things through, or that the idea wasn’t as good after all. Brain farts. I keep those drafts around in the hope that parts of them can still be salvaged, but they’re probably never going to see the light of day.

Be glad you don’t know what you’re missing.

Game of Thrones, season I and II

Game of Thrones is a TV drama series based on a series of novels called A Song of Ice and Fire.

The series takes place in a medieval fantasy world that includes dragons and a sort of zombie and revolves around the intrigues and wars the noble families of the world, Westeros, use to get to the top of the pile. In the background there is the constant threat of an invasion by a race of zombies from the frozen North.

I will keep it short: Game of Thrones is eminently watchable. I especially like the way they handle cliff hangers, I always wanted to see the next episode.

There is a lot of big drama in Game of Thrones and some gore and sexual violence.

Season II is a lot less tight than the first season. Some story lines feel incredibly rushed, especially the ones involving a young princess called Arya who is held prisoner by her family’s arch enemy, except he doesn’t know who she is. While a prisoner she befriends an assassin who feels indebted to her (or at least pretends to be), and who kills on her request. You would guess that her experiences with these two men would change an impressionable nine-year-old, but they seem not to affect her.

Speaking of princess Arya, she is part of a notably large group of underdogs in the series. They all regularly either get what they want, or escape the horrible types of fate that befall the other characters. This approach helps the writers create small pockets of satisfaction by having one of the underdogs claim a small victory every once in a while, which I think works well, although it has the tendency to get tacky.

You should watch this if you like big, sweeping drama and if you like to be entertained unashamedly. You might give this a miss if you prefer your TV drama to have a little depth.

Game of Thrones (HBO), first two seasons: 7/10.

Shouting ‘bingo’ in a crowded theater

A man in the US was arrested, held against his will and finally convicted for shouting ‘bingo’ in a bingo hall.

Apparently upsetting biddies is illegal now.

Notes from the Responsive Design trenches

Lately a lot of companies have been asking for websites built along the principles of ‘Responsive Design’. I had to give up on building a responsive website in early 2012 due to lack of time, but in January 2013 I got another chance. (Side-note: both websites are on intranets, so I cannot show them to you.)

Responsive Design is designing a website in such a way that it rearranges itself to look good both on large screens (typically desktop-PCs) and small screens (typically mobile phones).

The text below is first and foremost a memo to self, but it can also be used as an addition to the ultimate Responsive Design primer, the A List Apart article by Ethan Marcotte that started it all. I will explain Responsive Design in a bit more detail below, but if you really want to know what it is about I suggest you read the A List Apart piece.

Although Responsive Design is pretty straightforward to anybody who has done even the most trivial things with Cascading Style Sheets, it is typically used in a wider context that can make things complicated. Hence the need for this intermediate level article.

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Venlo, Limburg

Circumstances brought me back to my birth place a lot the past few months. This week was hopefully the last of such trips. I would have liked it if I had had a bit more time for photography though. The river Meuse had flooded its banks which produced some surreal views, but all I had time for were these hasty snapshots of the Meuse at Venlo.

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A free and quick way of doing product photos

TL/DR; use daylight, a white surface as reflector, and a sheet of cardboard for a background.

This is a rant. But it is also a tutorial. A rantorial if you wish.

Let me say upfront that if you are serious about product photography, this is not for you. Spend a little more money (say 50 euro) and a little more time (say five minutes) to get product photos that are 200% better. For instance read Strobist’s How To: DIY $10 Macro Photo Studio. (You have a 50% chance that four years from now that link won’t work–if so, just Google something like ‘product photography cheap’ without the quotes, and hundreds of articles and videos will pop up that explain more or less the same thing.)

On with the rant portion of this posting. The other day I was looking for a photo of a 3D printed object that I could use on my other blog, but almost all I found were lousy pics of geeks holding up ill defined objects in their badly lit workshops. OK, so I am bad at ranting: curses! How could they?! Don’t they understand a blogger’s plight?

What I am trying to say is that with an investment of two minutes, it is possible to get better product shots (what photos of things are generally called when the goal is to show off said things). Here is how.

1. Use daylight. This produces a nice, natural light.

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2. Use a reflector opposite the natural light source. In my example I used a pack of IKEA napkins opposite the window.

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The result is that the object will be more evenly lit.

Real photographers call these things ‘light modifiers’, but then again real photographers will use white umbrellas and pay 30 bucks for them. I find that IKEA napkins aren’t just a lot cheaper, they can also be used as napkins after their career in photography.

3. Use a background.

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I used a roll of wrapping paper here, but in the past I have also used a wool vest and a piece of white cloth I had lying around.

4. Crop.

In this case you want the subject to have the viewer’s sole attention, so crop the picture until you just have a foreground and a background.

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5. Forget (almost) everything I just said.

None of this means anything. In general you want your photos to tell a story. The 3D printer geeks holding up their creations in their night-time workshops weren’t just showing the object they had made, they were also telling something about how that object got into being. A mug with bookcases as a backdrop? That can actually be a lot more interesting than a mug against a plain background.

However, you need to work that story and consequently work that photo. Rearrange the books so that the background looks interesting. Make sure the foreground doesn’t blend into the background. Make sure the objects in the photo belong together. Make sure the background isn’t more attention grabbing than the foreground. Still use light modifiers. Et cetera.

So the real rantorial is that if you cannot be bothered to put some time into making a photo, why bother making the photo at all? If you’re doing a lot of product shots, do it right and get yourself a little studio. You don’t even have to follow the link to Strobist and put all that DIY into it; just order one for fifty bucks off the internet. I know that Conrad sells ready made product studios, for example. The background in my photo looks a bit crinkly because wrapping paper is thin and crinkles easily.

My technique is only useful for when you are in the middle of nowhere, you need to send photos over your satellite phone and need to get the best shots you can with almost no tools at your disposal.

Still, my rantorial at least shows which techniques can make a product photo look better, so I hope it was useful in that respect.