Boost productivity with Isolator

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A common problem in today's world is distraction - too many applications open, too many emails showing up, etc, etc. Large screens give a tremendous boost to productivity but this often turns into having more applications open distracting you. And let's not mention email, RSS feeds and IMs constantly chiming away.

Thanks to the wonderful design of Mac OSX there are several utilities available to help lessen the distractions by hiding all applications other than the one you are working on at the time. Some of them, like Think and Backdrop have one fatal flaw - they require you to use their custom application switcher to jump between your apps, rather than integrating with the operating system's built in one. Thankfully someone worked out a way to do it right and Isolator was born.

Isolator is a very simple application. It doesn't launch as another app in your dock, instead it sits in your (albeit overcrowded) menu bar, and provides only a few sparse settings - the background color to use, whether to make the backdrop opaque (so you can see the desktop underneath it), whether it should start when you log in or activate automatically, and what key shortcut should activate/deactivate it. Once activated, all but your current application are hidden and your chosen background color fills up behind the window(s).

Having only used it for a short while I can't proclaim how it has saved me x hours per week or saved the lives of thirty-three cats, but even after my limited use it looks to be an app well worth using. And, given its cost there's no excuse for not trying it (presuming you use a Mac).

Access queries as structs in ColdFusion

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A small tip, but a very, very useful one nonetheless. Did you know that in ColdFusion you don't have to loop through a query to access specific elements of the query? I've been developing in CFML for several years and was unaware of this. It's great! Instead of having to go through the hassle of looping an array just to find one field, if you know the field and row number you can just do this:

<cfset variable = query[column_name][row_number] />

e.g.:

<cfset variables.product_name = variables.q_products[name][5] />

Thanks to Ben Nadel for that.

Sometimes you just feel like a complete neophyte. I wonder what other useful tricks lie beneath the surface?

Vista sucks, let me count the ways

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Microsoft's Windows Vista has become the most hated release of Windows yet - missing features (hardware accelerated GUI, database-based filing system, smart search engine, etc), irritating features (the security requesters), confusing number of editions (seven available in the USA, two more in Europe), confusing graphics system (DirectX 10.0, incompatible with the upcoming DX10.1, slower than DX9), and more.

The latest thorn in its side has been the controversy over network throttling when media is being played. The problem is that when Windows is playing audio, even if the player is paused, it limits the network speed to half what it should be. Just wonderful. You buy a multi-gigahertz machine with multiple gigs of ram, several hundred gigs of disk space, but yet playing music makes your network speed drop to half what it should be.

Needless to say this hasn't sat well with, well, anyone outside of Microsoft. While there haven't been any public floggings yet (aw!), Microsoft's uber guru Mark Russinovich replied saying (paraphrase) "well, the network uses a lot of CPU, so to make sure the audio plays we naturally had to throttle the network". 41% CPU usage for copying a file across the network!! ZOMGZ!!!1!

So, to set the record straight, Linux kernel hacker Robert Love responded with a wonderful reply that cut Mr Russinovich's reply to shreds, simply saying that Vista is poorly designed and that Linux doesn't suffer from the same stupid bugs. Thank you, Mr Love.

Linux (and every other well designed OS): (best French accent) douze points

Windows Vista: (best French accent) nil point

Xenu's Link Sleuth - still the best link checker

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A very important tool in a web developer's toolkit is a good link checker. There are tonnes of different ones on the market, some that promise to make your whites whiter and floss your cat, but in the end you just want a simple program that will check your site for broken links, maybe broken code too if you're so interested. A few of the features I'm always looking for include:

  • Option to include or exclude external links, e.g. if a page on mysite.com links to yoursite.com I may not care if that site itself is working.
  • The option to override what is considered an external link, which is useful if you put your media files on a separate hostname.
  • An option on how many checks it runs simultaneously. Some can handle hundreds of outgoing simultaneous requests (if your machine and net connection can cope) but I tend to turn this down and leave it running in the background.

After years of trying different ones I continually return to Xenu's Link Sleuth, a simple yet powerful app that does what is needed, without a load of unwanted fancy options. Xenu's doesn't confuse you with a list of unimportant non-broken URLs, and it doesn't take a ten-page wizard interface to set up each project, instead you can simply paste in the starting point and let it go to town, selecting extra options if you specifically need to. Why does it have to be more complicated than that?

Though it is a Windows app and I use a Mac, it works fine in Parallels for Mac, and probably would work in Crossover Office too; failing that, there's always holding on to a PC for these occasional tasks ;-)

A great utility that is well worth using.

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