Wednesday, November 30, 2005

mindCandy: Timeframes and Decision Making

It's incredible to think about how much decision-making changes depending on the timeframe under consideration. What I mean by this is that a good decision in the short term can be a really bad decision in the long term (and vice-versa). Take global warming issues: in the short term (even in the medium term) the benefits that come from use of fossil fuels, etc. that harm the ozone layer far outweigh their harm. Yet in the long term, it's a very big (potentially civilization-ending) problem. So depending on the timeframe you're considering (e.g. if you're a government that is probably only really worried about its 4-year term), the best decision changes dramatically.

But we don't need to be talking about years for the effect of timeframe on a decision to become apparent. As an extreme example: the few seconds of rush you'd get by jumping off a building is probably pretty intense - good view, wind in your hair, exhilarating speed - but moments later jumping off that building will reveal itself to be a very bad idea :-) . There's no end to these: a few puffs of crank is likely a pretty good feeling if you isolate it from the subsequent down (and extraordinary negatives involved with addiction); zooming along at twice the speed limit on the highway is fun until you get pulled over by the cops or crash. Hmmm, it does seem that most examples that come to mind end up being short-term good and long-term bad, which explains a lot about how we live our lives.

So how are we to make decisions? In essence: what's the right timeframe? Most people, I would expect, have made decisions in their early years that are do not take into account their effect in later life (e.g. smokers, people who have unsafe sex, etc.), and many make the argument that they want to live their life to the fullest while they are able to enjoy life most. These arguments don't tend to hold a lot of weight with me, as I am a firm believer in the fact that you can stay and feel young well beyond your 20s, 30s, and 40s. And there is no lack of evidence for this - I know my parents and many people their age and older who are far more energetic and fun than people half their age who simply do not seem to want to live their lives to the fullest. As my Dad's doctor once said: "The human body is the only machine in the world that gets better the more you use it".

Like most things, these considerations involve balancing a range of factors, which is not always easy. I think the simplest way to address this is to make sure to balance the harm you might do by doing good as well. If you're really not willing to give up your Hummer then please make sure you are conserving water and energy in other ways; if you're not willing to give up your drug of choice (from food to booze and beyond) then spend some time outside and get some exercise. We can't always make the right decisions, but we can try to moderate their negative effects in a variety of ways. So when you inevitably misjudge the proper timeframe for considering a decision, think about what you can do to mitigate its effects in other ways. The only thing you'll really know is that time will tell whether you've made the right decision ;-) .
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11/30/2005 07:46:00 PM  

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

eyeCandy: Doom (2005) 2/5

Not that this comes as a big surprise, but Doom is not a very good movie. In fact, it's a pretty bad movie. Based on the popular 1993 video game, which has legendary status as one of the most embraced first person shooters ever, the movie suffers from the same ailments as (almost) all in this genre - no storyline combined with video game/comic book dialog.

The Rock fulfils his role as expected, though acting is definitely not a focus here. The film looks quite good, but not good enough to really sustain me through its 100 minute length. Probably the highlight of the whole thing, and part of what helped this get 2/5 (instead of 1/5!), is a great sequence where the movie naturally evolves into the first person view from the video game, complete with similar camera movement and action, but rendered in the context of the actual film. Very cool. Aside from that, this is pretty subpar fare in any context.

I'll be taking a rest from my recent spate of eyeCandy reviews in the past week, so look for something a little more tech oriented tomorrow ;-) .
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11/29/2005 10:01:00 PM  

Monday, November 28, 2005

commandN: Episode 24

Episode 24 of commandN went up today. I discuss multi-network chatting applications (specifically, Adium for Mac), Amber and Mike bring news on the new XBox, and lots more. Check it out!
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11/28/2005 11:58:00 PM  

Sunday, November 27, 2005

eyeCandy: Walk The Line (2005) 5/5

I just got back from seeing the Johnny Cash biopic Walk The Line, and it is a fantastic movie. Credible biopics like this one have an important element that allows them to transcend your average Hollywood film: they are true. You don't (or shouldn't) have to get distracted by something that happens that seems implausible and likely attributable to the small-minded studio system - because these things really have happened. Sure, you'll always be looking at the story through the filmmaker's lens, but the fact that the lens is depicting actual events from our history infuses the best of this "genre" with a power that is hard to ignore (Cinderella Man very much had this quality). Anyway, back to the film at hand.

Walk The Line chronicles the life of one of America's legendary songsmen. Johnny Cash made music for the people from 1955, the release of his first singles, until his death in 2003 (a scant four months after his wife's death, which is quite touching given that this relationship plays a central theme in the movie). Through drug addiction, the death of his young brother, difficulties with his critical father, and love, a legend in American music is born and lives. Contemporaries like Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis appear through Cash's early career, and the picture takes us along a fascinating path through the personal history of the iconic Man In Black.

Joaquin Phoenix is wonderful as Johnny Cash, emulating his voice very effectively without quite impersonating him, and Reese Witherspoon is perfect as June Carter. This is the first 2 hour and 15 minute plus theatre movie that I've exited in a while without feeling that there was some excess that could have been trimmed to good effect. The story is poignant and real, the filmmaking is undeniably solid, and the movie as a whole was a pleasure to watch.

PS: The movie website has some cool additional info and is worth checking out.
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11/27/2005 05:30:00 PM  

Friday, November 25, 2005

MacOnMacs: Saft-enhancing Safari

I recently got the chance to use Apple's Safari web browser with the fantastic Saft extension. Saft brings a host of new functions seamlessly into Safari, much as the extensions for Firefox do. You can see a more robust list on the Saft website above, but my favourite extensions are: sorting, searching, and otherwise manipulating bookmarks; full screen browsing; it can disable scripts from bringing a tab to the front; customized search tab with additional search engines/tools; dragable tabs; and much, much more. I'm not that big on skinning, but I do actually prefer the new Aqua interface setting here, which transforms all the brushed metal to an iPod-like white.

One setting that I didn't like (though some people might) was the saving and reloading of browser tabs and windows after a Safari restart - I thought this would be great, and it would be good to turn it on from time to time if you're doing research or something where you have to come back to a lot of tabs, but it's very annoying to have all the old windows and tabs pop up on each launch for most of my use. Oh, and and Focus Last Selected Tab drove me crazy! ;-) The Saft extension cost $12, which really isn't much considering the amount of functionality it adds to Safari and how it can make your surfing pass more quickly and pleasantly. A small annoyance is that Saft needs to be upgraded when Safari is upgraded - this isn't annoying in terms of cost, but it might be a little laborious for some.

All in all Saft is well worth its small price and makes me feel not as compelled to switch to Firefox for my main browser (though the plugins and extensions are pretty tempting, and I definitely use Firefox at times). Safari is a solid browser and is well integrated into the OS, but it is nice to see some great extensions like Saft making it even better.
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11/25/2005 09:28:00 PM  

Thursday, November 24, 2005

eyeCandy: Rome - Season 1 (2005) 5/5

HBO has been a dependable creator of great entertainment for years now. From the Sopranos to Oz to to Six Feet Under and on and on, HBO has proven its dedication to providing powerfully evocative quality programming. Its newest production,Rome certainly succeeds in this respect as much as any of the great series HBO has released so far.

Rome is set in the Rome of Julius Caesar, 50 years before Christ. Rome is a "cosmopolitan metropolis", highly developed culturally and sociologically, and with a population of 1 million people. It was the centre of one of the greatest human empires and it was ruled by the enormously astute political and tactical genius, Julius Caesar. These first twelve episodes (Rome has been renewed for a second season for 2007) follow a complex path through the arc of the rise and fall of the greatest ruler of Ancient Rome.

Rome is meticulously created - the visual trappings of the series, from elaborate costumes, to buildings and cities, to the vibrancy and richness exuding from its every scene, are fantastic (and, from what I have found, quite historically accurate). The scale of the series rises from complex personal and political interactions, to epic warfare and grand action. Rome explodes with life and makes the viewer feel as though they can understand that time and place in a much more personal way, as all great "period dramas" should (like the dust bowl in the Grapes of Wrath - not the band BTW :-) ).

The storytelling is also exceptional. Many real characters from history are presented in a very human and intimate way. Struggles range from family dramas to sophisticated plots to control the power of the empire. One of the strongest storylines, and one of the principal ones, involves two working soldiers who return with Caesar from his conquests early in the series to reintegrate their lives and relationships in the city after years travelling in war.

The show is fairly explicit, which I think works very well for it. Rome is presented in what is probably a realistic light at the time, and there are sexual sensibilities and a level of openness that may be very different from ours. This, in the end, only draws your further into the web of political intrigue, seduction, and violence that existed in the greatest city in the western world in 55 BC.
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11/24/2005 07:31:00 PM  

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

NewsFlash: Web 2.0 + Podcasters Meetup

A little news for y'all today.

First of all, I'm heading off to the Halifax Podcasters Meetup tonight at the Economy Shoe Shop in Halifax. This is the second date of the Great Canadian Podcasters Meetup Tour, which is coming to a Canandian city near you over the next couple of months. The event is being hosted by Tod Maffin and further details are available on his website. These sound pretty informal, but should be a great opportunity to meet your local podcasting community.

In other news, the Globe and Mail has published a good article called The Web Is Hot Again for those of you wanting to get a grip on Web 2.0. I believe the term was coined by Tim O'Reilley and here is a awesome (though long) article he wrote clarifying the term.

For more great tech news every week, check out commandN.tv (please excuse the shameless self-promotion :-) )!
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11/23/2005 02:28:00 PM  

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

MacOnMacs: Front Row for everyone!

Front Row is an application (actually, more of a front end) that lets you access your iTunes music, iPhoto pictures, DVDs, and video content through a simple iPod-like interface. Front Row activates in much the same way as Dashboard, in the sense that a simple click causes your desktop to recede off into the background in order to give you Front Row's unobstructed (and huge - for easy reading from across the room) interface. As simple as it is, it's actually pretty cool stuff. Unfortunately, Apple only released Front Row with its new, slimmer iMac, complete with its snazzy little 6-button remote (which looks remarkably like an iPod Shuffle).

But fear not, some industrious Mac users have been hard at work to bring the rest of us non-new-iMac-using Mac-heads a way to enjoy Front Row without such a costly purchase. The process involves going out and finding a recent .torrent file (the older ones won't function after the upgrade to 10.4.3), downloading the referenced .dmg file, expanding that file, putting three (at least as I've seen it) files in their places, and restarting your machine. The result: Front Row installed on your Mac. [NOTE: As much as I'd love to point you to a .torrent file, I'm not going to for legal reasons. However, it's not hard to find, though you might want to look for a file named "YAFRR" - yet another Front Row release. It should come with instructions BTW]

Now that you've installed Front Row, you might be wondering how you can control it from across the room (assuming your name isn't Mr. Fantastic or Plastic Man or whatnot :-) ). Strangely enough, the Front Row interface does not use your mouse, it just uses your keyboard (don't ask me why). However, if you have a wireless mouse and/or keyboard, that may be just the solution for you. A wireless keyboard is straightforward - just use the arrow keys, space bar or enter key, and escape key to navigate through the Front Row interface. If you have a multibutton mouse (unfortunately, you really need more than three buttons), you can map the buttons to those keystrokes for when Front Row is active. However, there are some other really cool options (NOTE: I have not used any of these - read before you use them as some are not yet Tiger-compatible): try out your cell phone (not all work) as a remote by using Romeo and related WiseWeasel's Plugins; I've heard that the Keyspan Remote works fine for this and other apps; there's also a hack for Griffin's AirClick Remote; and I think Sailing Clicker can be made to work too. If you have a somewhat strange set up (this would work for me actually), you can control Front Row from another networked Mac with Front Row Remote.

Now keep in mind that Front Row is pretty new and I think there's lots of room for improvements. You don't see album art when you're playing Music; you can't easily control your slide shows when viewing Photos; Videos have to be in your Movies folder to be accessed (I just put an alias in that folder to wherever else I store videos); and it's a little slow at times. However, these are all problems that are easily fixed, and I really like what Apple is aiming for here. Keep in mind that this is NOT a Media Center application - this is just something to allow you to access all the media on your computer from the comfort of your couch. Apple has built in some nice supports so that you have easy access to your iTunes Music Store television and music video downloads (this is quite telling and is another thing that reinforces that this is not Media Center-lite - Apple doesn't really want to give you a video capture card, etc., as that would just bastardize its sales through iTMS), the little preview window on the side is a great help for browsing, but my favourite little perk is that you can easily browse all the movie trailers online at Apple's QuickTime site without leaving the comfort of Front Row (which lets you sit across the room and casually watch any number of trailers without getting up - a nice alternative to being trapped in front of your computer, clicking through your browser or iTunes to do this). You can also view fantastic video podcasts that you've subscribed to through iTunes, like commandN. ;-)

There is no good reason why Apple couldn't just release Front Row to the masses and then sell its own remote separately (same thing with PhotoBooth, for which there is also a hack out there). I'm not quite sure what the motivation is for not doing this (aside from selling more new iMacs), but I'm sure it will be revealed in due time. But for those of us not willing to wait, Front Row is still within reach, so go try it out - if you dare! :-)

PS: If you want to take a tour of Front Row, click here.
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11/22/2005 06:04:00 PM  

Monday, November 21, 2005

iRant: Sex vs. Violence

There are so many discussions about the dwindling moral fibre of Western culture that I don't want to get too deep into that in general. However, an area that always gets my goat is our double-standard when it comes to sex (specifically nudity) vs. violence.

One of the most shocking yet effective quotes I have ever heard is (I'll have to paraphrase here, as I can't find the source online): "The only way you'll see a nipple on network television is if there's a bullet passing through it". Not very pleasant imagery, but I think that quote says a lot. We are subjected to such insane amounts of violence in the course of an evening of television (this includes everything from an episode of CSI, which I love, to the news, which I mostly get online now) that it just seems bizarre to me that there is such a dearth of nudity. Oh sure, we get very, very, oh so very titillatingly (I couldn't resist :-) ) close all over the place - scantily clad women and men and all manner of sexual innuendo - but god forbid we see a booby. An episode of a gritty cop drama keeps it to head shots when the female victim exits the shower, but then in the next scene we watch as a gun fires through her head, splattering brains and flesh all over the room, resulting in her blood-soaked body displayed lifeless on the floor. I think I'd rather see the naked outsides and skip the gory innards.

Don't get me wrong, though, my argument is not about reducing the violence on television (it would be nice, but that bird has flown). What I want to point out is the crazy double standard and hypocrisy in depicting extremely violent behaviour and declaring it okay, even as we rant on about violent crimes and wars being so horrible, when it's not okay to show a naked person. There are some areas where the Europeans just have stuff figured out far better than we in the New World (although Canada is more lenient than the States in this respect) and this is certainly one of them. It's nudity, people - you see it when you get in and out of the shower, in fact, everyone sees it over their whole life - the only place I see heads blown off and disembodied limbs is (thankfully) on TV.
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11/21/2005 07:37:00 PM  

Sunday, November 20, 2005

eyeCandy: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005) 3/5

I was going to write this review last night after seeing the new Harry Potter movie, but I decided to give myself some time to think about it. Not much has changed. I really don't understand why people are generally so impressed with these movies (even though the first and third were pretty good). To this end, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is a lot like the previous Harry Potter movies - something that would be a great little hour and a half movie is self-indulgently stretched to its breaking point (this one is 2 hours and 37 minutes).

This time the faint plot line revolves around a young wizards' tournament, increased tension in Weasley and Harry's relationship, and a lot of supposed 14 year olds feeling the first rumblings of sexual awakening (speaking of which, please up the age in these stories or something - most of these "kids" are starting to look a little old). The movie is not without its merits: it is wonderful to look at - great special effects, nice cinematography, etc. - but that wears a bit thin over the course of two and half hours. I know there will be Harry Potter fans that don't agree with me, but for the average viewer, the pacing of these movies is seriously flawed. Please, lose some of the little personal vignettes and tighten up everything else. Again typical of the franchise is the fact that what's supposed to be the climax of the movie is terribly anti-climatic - this one has probably the least gratifying ending of any I've seen so far.

I was thinking about this review as I watched the film in the theatre, and somewhere around the one hour mark I even considered giving it four stars - this notion slowly died over the following hour and a half. I get the feeling that whoever is making the Potter movies thinks that they have source material at the level of literary significance of Lord of the Rings or something. This is definitely not the case. And please figure out what sort of movie you're making. Right now, these are kids movies that probably have parts that are too scary for a lot of kids and that continue long past kids' attention thresholds. This would be fine if the movies were totally geared towards adults, but then the "yay, everybody wins" kind of lessons and juvenile dialog and plot development would be seriously out of place, which they are. It's not that I can't watch and really enjoy material geared at kids, I definitely can and do, but these films are a total mess. Any genuine enjoyment that is achieved (e.g. great visuals, several funny moments, some interesting ideas, etc.) is completely undone by the audience being forced to endure what could be the story arc in a sitcom labouriously stretched over the length of an epic.
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11/20/2005 06:54:00 PM  

Friday, November 18, 2005

mindCandy: Date formatting and the MacArthur Code :-)

When I was doing my taxes this year, I became increasingly frustrated with the lack of a standard formats for dates. Receipts I had gathered from across Canada and the US alternately had dates formatted as...

- month/day/year (this makes most sense to me as it is how we read dates aloud in english, e.g. "June 20th, 2004". This seems to be most standard in the US);
- day/month/year (I can understand this in french for the same reason as above, e.g. "20 Juin 2004". However, this also seems to be standard in Britain);
- year/month/day (okay, not so sure about this one - I guess it at least goes from the biggest category, i.e. year, to the smallest, i.e. day, letting you get increasingly specific as you read it. I've seen it in Canada, but it's used in South Africa as a standard).

So what the heck am I supposed to know about a date written as 03/04/02? Is that March 4th, 2002? Or is it April 3rd, 2002? Or maybe April 2nd, 2003? There is something wrong here!

As comfortable as I might feel having dates abbreviated as they are spoken in the language (e.g. 03/04/02 meaning "March 4th, 2002", as that is how it would be spoken in english - let's face it, how obnoxious are you to actually say "the 4th of March, 2002" ;-) ), I think the biggest criteria is necessarily that the abbreviation be unambiguous.

To this end, I can live with 20JUN04 (or 20/Jun/04 or whatever) - this allows me to unambiguously decipher what that date is, so that's good. However (I've mentioned I'm neurotic, right?), that makes us use an extra character to describe the date! This not only interferes with my love of conciseness (concision?), it also stops us from being able to categorize all dates, months, years, and more (see below) with two characters. Well, have no fear, I am here to bring you a solution to this great problem of our time - one that will unambiguously allow us to decipher date abbreviations without the horror of that extra character - I bring you - the MacArthur Code (cue the trumpets :-) ):

January = JA
February = FB
March = MR
April = AP
May = MY
June = JE
July = JL
August = AG
September = SP
October = OC
November = NV
December = DC


Now I know that some of you are going: "JE" for June - how's that make sense? Well, as hooked on phonics as I am (and so "JN" would definitely be lovely for June in this respect), the key here is lack of ambiguity. "JN" could be June, sure, but it could also be January. "MA" could be May, but it could be March too. So, although I'm running with the phonetic abbreviations when I can, I must stay true to being unambiguous. Let me explain...

"JE" couldn't be anything but June, as there is no "E" in January or July. Similarly with "JA" for January and "JL" for July. Now what other months start with the same letters? "MY" must be May, as there's no "Y" in March, and "MR" must be March, as there's no "R" in May. So you see, like all good design, this enables the user to figure out its function without having to resort to other instructions - the instructions are in fact built into the design and reinforced by our widespread cultural conventions (not to get off-track, but this is also one of the reasons why Apple is better than Microsoft).

A couple of paragraphs ago, I mentioned that there would be even more (that's called "foreshadowing" ;-) ) and I did not lie. In addition to 2 character codes for every other aspect of time - for years, for months, for dates, for hours, for minutes, for seconds, we also have - the days of the week! (this time cue the tubas - those guys have a hard time getting work otherwise :-) ):

Monday = MN
Tuesday = TE
(no "E" in "Thursday")
Wednesday = WD
Thursday = TH
(no "H" in "Tuesday")
Friday = FR
Saturday = ST
(no "T" in "Sunday" - I'm going for a "T" instead of an "A" b/c most of the other days use their third letter/second consonant - gotta be as consistent as possible ;-) )
Sunday = SN (no "N" in "Saturday")

Now go forth, my neurotic and space-obsessed brothers and sisters, and bring the MacArthur Code to the ambiguous, character-wasting masses - it is our obligation, nay, our destiny! :-)

Posted: FR18NV05 (oh yeah, baby!)

PS: I know someone will bring up the fact that two characters for a year is not unambiguous, and you are right. However, in all practicality, I'm not talking about dates a hundred years ago - I'm talking about dates within our lifetimes. Go on and take your extra two character spaces for that if you really need them (trouble-maker!) - I've saved those two in my new month and day abbreviations anyway ;-) .
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11/18/2005 12:19:00 PM  

Thursday, November 17, 2005

commandN: First vidcast to release HD and more!

Hopefully you all checked out the latest episode of commandN, but we also have something extra in store for you this week. Our interview with Mozilla's Mike Shaver has just been released on our site in high definition format, making commandN the first vidcast to release content in the HD format! Go to our homepage to check out the interview in high def and the related press release.

In other news, we've put up a new About page and Episode Guide for our show. And in addition to that, we've recently been featured in a segment on podcasting by Canada's MuchMoreMusic television station which will air next week.

Lots of great stuff going on with commandN, so I'll make sure that I keep you informed of the big news ;-) . Next Monday (our regular weekly release date) will be our 23rd weekly episode, and there's lots more to come!
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11/17/2005 10:08:00 PM  

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

eyeCandy: Batman Begins (2005) 5/5

The Batman franchise has certainly seen its share of ups and downs. In fact, just about everything after Tim Burton's 1989 film (with Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson - an inspired choice as the Joker) has been a lot closer to a down than an up :-) . Well, finally fans of the comic (and of good movies) have a big screen Batman to be happy with.

Batman Begins is a different kind of Batman movie. Director Christopher Nolan (Memento, Insomnia) has foregone the gaudier pulp comic book interpretation presented in the recent Batman films and has created a darker, grittier tale - a lot closer to Frank Miller's Dark Knight than Adam West's ;-) . The cast is top-notch: Christian Bale, reaching into his roles from American Psycho and the Machinist to deliver a very compelling Caped Crusader; Michael Caine providing a little comic relief as the faithful butler Alfred; Gary Oldman, playing somewhat against type as Commissioner Gordon; Morgan Freeman, as what can be best described as Batman's "Q"; and many others.

The movie does a lot of things right. Firstly, it presents a relatively believable backstory for Batman which has not been fully explored in previous films. Secondly, the source and justification for Batman's arsenal of weapons and tools is explained (through Freeman's character mostly). Finally, even though they got the lovely Katie Holmes (who looked a lot better a couple years ago before she decided she needed to weigh 90 lbs.), the writers have avoided the cliche of an involved love story to good effect. The choice of villains (Ken Watanabe as Ra's Al Ghul and Cillian Murphy as the Scarecrow) is a little strange, as few non-comic aficionados would know of them, however they fit the mood of the film nicely.

Batman Begins brings great hope to the resurrection of what was, essentially, a ruined franchise. If Warner Bros. is sensible and sticks with this team of great writers, actors, and director then you'll find me standing in line for the opening of the next film (hopefully on Imax, which is how I saw this one - just beautiful)! Now if someone can just make a good movie version of "Arkham Asylum" or "the Dark Knight Returns". ;-)
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11/16/2005 10:12:00 PM  

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

MacOnMacs: MPEG tools without the command line

Unix has a variety of great command line tools (i.e. tools that are activated by entering text in the Terminal) to perform simple tasks on MPEG files. Well, given that MPEG is such a popular file format for videos, it would be great if someone wrapped all these commands up into a little interface so that those not quite comfortable using the Terminal (or too lazy, like me ;-) ) could access them easily. Well, they have and it's free!

mpgtx is an MPEG toolbox that allows users to access commands to split, join, demux, and get info on most MPEG files through a simple user interface. After downloading the file from the link above, you will have a folder with the mpgtxwrap app in it. When you launch this, you will be presented with the GUI and some simple instructions. The GUI, though much appreciated, has some idiosyncrasies, which I'll mention below.

The GUI allows you to specify the number of chunks you'd like to split a file into if, for example, you're trying to write a large MPEG file across multiple CDs, or you can specify exactly where you'd like to split the file to do things like remove commercials from a video or the like. One strange thing about this application is that if you are dragging and dropping a number of files to join them, for example, you actually drag them onto the "File-List->" button, which is a little odd to say the least. This action will open a drawer to the side of the GUI and will then allow you to reorder the files by dragging and dropping them within the list or ordering by name, etc. The "Basename", which is the prefix of split files or the name of joined files, can be changed through the "change" checkbox beside this text area, although I'm unsure why an additional element is needed to do this. The "mpgtx output" box is useful to help isolate any difficulties, and selecting "desperate mode" can help when all else fails (though I've yet to have to use this). One final remark: depending on the player that is used, you may see some artifacts (e.g. video distortion) right at the join point in your resultant files - these are pretty easy to live with but I thought I should mention them so that you don't think you're doing something wrong should they appear ;-) . The FAQ for this app may be of further help.

PS: Gumby is another free app that manipulates MPEG, DVD, SVCD, PS2, ISO, and RAR images/files. I haven't used this one, and apparently it doesn't work on as many types of MPEG files (e.g. MPEG-2 files from TiVo) as mpgtx does, but it might be of interest to some of you.
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11/15/2005 06:29:00 PM  

Monday, November 14, 2005

inPrint: Macworld (December 2005) 5/5

Another month, another great Macworld :-) .

I'm always amazed at how often the next Macworld seems to contain articles on the very issues I was considering that month. This month's issue contained a couple of these...

FireWire Hard Drives: It seems crazy but, even with the two 60GB hard drives in my desktop and the 100GB in my laptop, I still find myself in need of additional storage. This is especially an issue when doing video production, but is also important for back ups, a habit which I'm desperately trying to embrace with increased regularity. This article covers considerations such as: Connections (number and type of FireWire 400, FireWire 800, and/or USB 2.0 ports - BTW, FireWire 800 does not in practice perform twice as fast as FireWire 400 and buying a drive with a couple of different connections can be a good idea); Portability (heavier, cheaper, and more spacious desktop drives or lighter, more expensive, but less roomy portable drives); Storage (portable drives reviewed are 20-100GB, desktop ones are 160-400GB); and Back Up capability (included software, etc.). FYI, I'm looking at the Iomega Black Series triple Interface 250GB or the Other World Computing Mercury Elite-AL Pro. Other considerations include being able to boot OS X using a FireWire connection and getting a FireWire drive to match your Mac Mini. For those of us who want to install the bulky GarageBand on an external drive, Macworld points us to the free GarageBand Anywhere software by David Hodge.

Make Automator Work For You: I've been fooling around with Apple's built in Automator software recently, which allows you to create workflows/macros to run a multitude of tasks. This month's Macworld includes "Learn the Essentials", "Take a Trial Run", "Troubleshoot Your Workflows", "Automate Photoshop Chores", and "5 Workflows for Geeks" related to this subject. Automator is a really useful tool that I suspect most people don't make enough use of. A quick read through these articles should change all that in short order! ;-)

On top of what Macworld mystically knew I wanted to learn about, there were also some other great sections:

iChat Power Tips: I was disappointed with my lack of success at establishing multi-person video chats out of the box with iChat, but it sounds like there have been some improvements since it was originally launched. This article teaches you how to send text messages from iChat to mobile phones (just enter "+1<3 digit area code><7 digit number>" into the person's name field in File->New Chat With Person); how to receive messages in the same manner; how to set up your Mac to automatically accept chats so that you can remotely monitor through your iSight; how to stop chat mishaps; and a variety of other info.

Macworld's Gear Guide: My Christmas shopping list all in one place! :-) Actually, there are some great new toys in here for all us Macheads, so let me point out a few (all prices USD): the QX5 Computer Microscope ($80) hooks up to your Mac for viewing and control to see 10x, 60x, and 200x magnifications, timelapse movies, and more; Logitech's Z-5450 ($500) THX-certified 5.1 surround sound speaker system can get those of us with Mac's equipped to handle it the ultimate cinematic experience on our desktop; and, for the truly frivolous, why not pick up a dancing Hasbro I-Dog ($30) to boogie and blink to your music :-) .

Lots more goodness in this issue too (e.g. video iPod reviews), so check it out!
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11/14/2005 10:20:00 PM  

Sunday, November 13, 2005

iRant: Big lineups, big money, and the Big Apple

I've finally returned home after my whirlwind tour of New York City this week, so I'll be getting my posts back up regularly (no immediate internet connection and a complete lack of "sitting" time made it a little difficult while away). I'll return to some more content oriented posts tomorrow, but I thought I'd cap off my trip with some comments about my experience in the Big Apple. (Before I go on, let me just say that NYC is a crazy cool place to visit, I'm just focusing on some negative aspects here which are far outweighed by positive ones ;-) )

First of all, and this unfortunately applies to life far beyond New York, I have to address the frustrating topic of lineups. Having walked for about 30 miles over several days, I decided I should complete my mental map of the city by visiting the top of the Empire State Building. The view was fantastic but twenty five minutes of looking off the top of the building came at a hefty price - two hours of lineups to get up!!! I lined up outside the building to get into a lineup inside the building which led to a lineup to the metal detectors which led to a lineup to buy tickets which led to a lineup to take the elevator up which led to a lineup to pick up an audio tour "box" which led to the lineup to finally go up and outside. This is crazy. For one thing, it's just wrong to make people line up for 40 minutes to then buy tickets for a lineup that, unbeknownst to the ticket buyer, will take twice that long again to get to the spectacle. Disney World during March Break couldn't muster up a lineup that crazy - and if they did then they'd have the sense to consider their customers' lasting impression by making the lineup a little more entertaining by having some video screens, animatronics, etc. to hold their attention for a bit. The Empire State Building lineup didn't even have informative plaques or pictures on the many walls in their lineup areas, an obvious addition to such a popular site - they just let you sit there like cattle and that's just not the right approach for any money-making endeavour nowadays.

At JFK on our way home, there were, of course, more lineups. But again, these were so poorly managed that it defied comprehension. Three separate lineups, with no labelling or signage, all leading to the same place, in which people were shuttled from line to line depending on their flight to little real effect. And in all this, in all our relentless training to be line tolerant, it seems that people have lost their ability to make any advances on their own. Almost without fault, one of the eight (or so) "tellers" would empty out and would just look around for a bit. In this time, the attendant manning the lineup would eventually turn from wandering and looking around in another direction to direct one of the three lineups to have their first party advance - again, with little semblance of rhyme or reason. The result was a much longer wait than was needed, given that tellers stood empty for up to a minute at a time as we sheep waited to be herded somewhere. Not really emblematic of the "go-getter" culture we otherwise supposedly try to embrace.

I have to note, though, that in both of these situations, people could pay to avoid the lineups. The Empire State Building allowed you to pay several times the admission fee to skip to the front of the line, and the airport had well-manned and completely uncrowded check-in and security lineups (if one or two people makes it a lineup) for Business and First Class passengers. Now I understand how people are paying extra for the service, and that rich people's money should certainly be taken from them at any opportunity given that they obviously have it to spend, but it still leaves a bit of a bad taste in your mouth (very "us vs. them" kind of thing). Although even I might have paid the Empire State "express" admission fee if I had've known that the lineup would last 2 hours, but we were at no point given any indication of this (actually, about 15 minutes into the lineup past the ticket booths, after almost an hour of already lining up, I came across a sign that said "45 minutes to top from here" - thanks, guys, really).

I found it strange in general, in a city where everyone seems to be in such a terrible rush all the time, that people would tolerate lineups to such a large degree. Most bars and some restaurants had considerable lineups, which is not that unusual, but it seemed to be strangely at odds with the city's kinetic pace in general. However, one thing that I was immensely impressed with is that, as far as I have seen (and I've seen quite a bit), Manhattan has the most functional and organic relationship between pedestrians and cars that I have every experienced - everything just sort of flows when you walk around town, which is fortunate given that it's such a big town. It's like an oversized Montreal pedestrian-wise, except that the drivers in NYC seem to behave how they do mostly b/c they are in a hurry, as opposed to those in Montreal who I think may actually want to run people down out of spite if they get in their way :-) .

I don't think I could enjoy living in New York City, at least not at this point in my life - I need a little more personal space than seems to be available and I like to be able to get away from people and noise from time to time - another near impossibility in Manhattan at least. However, I certainly do plan to go back - with my first voyage securely under my belt, I think I'd return to see some great music, maybe a Broadway show, and to spend a bit more time in Soho, the Village, and the surrounding area (I went to the Apple Store in Soho, btw - WOW! I think that'll merit its own entry someday). For now, I am content with having experienced such an iconic city and much of what it has to offer - not to mention that I'll finally know where they're talking about in the Law & Order shows ;-) .
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11/13/2005 10:11:00 PM  

Thursday, November 10, 2005

mindCandy: Animal Sleep

Having spent some recent nights in downtown Manhattan, I got to thinking about sleep and how important it is for my, and other humans', sanity (I'm also thinking of starting the Coalition Against Noise Pollution, but I'll save that for another time - all praise the mighty earplug!). :-)

All mammals and birds sleep, but we're not sure whether all reptiles, insects, fish, and other creatures do. Generally, carnivores tend to sleep longer than herbivores. The rationale being that, after a large carnivore like a lion eats their freshly killed meal for the day, they have little reason to waste their newfound energy wandering around aimlessly - so they sleep. In the case of a lion, they sleep about 13.5 hours every day (a tiger is 15.8)! A giraffe, however, sleeps only 1.9 hours each day - partly because they must constantly "hunt" down their vegetarian fare and eat large quantities of it (unlike meat) to satiate themselves.

Now, chimpanzees, who have about 95% similar DNA to humans and are our closest "animal" relatives, sleep 9.7 hours a day. So why do we sleep only 8 on average? We should be more adept at getting our food (both vegetative and meaty) and so you'd think we'd sleep MORE than chimps. Well, I guess the concept doesn't apply without also considering a host of other details about the species in question (I expect that the fact that we have to go to work for 9pm and yet they tend to put the good shows on TV so late has something to do with it nowadays ;-) ). BTW, a human infant sleeps about twice as much as a human adult each day, but I suspect they're doing a lot of cranial and physical development in that time - not sure how the other animals' progeny works into these number, but it'd be interesting to find out (probably has to do with growth rate, etc.). An elderly human might sleep only 5.5 hours on average.

Man's best friend, the dog, sleeps 10.6 hours per day, proving conclusively that dogs aren't as lazy as those slovenly cats, who sleep 12.1 hours per day. A platypus sleeps roughly 14 hours a day, much of it probably spent in deep reflection upon its uniqueness in the world :-) , whereas pythons thankfully sleep for 3/4 of each day and I'd be into finding out how to make that closer to 4/4 for my peace of mind :-) . Sleeping a whopping 83% of their lives, the brown bat comes in at the top of the list for most rested with just short of 20 hours sleep each day (actually, second in the list, because my old roommate Nick was not included in this calculation ;-) ). Oh, and generally, large animals tend to sleep LESS than small animals (there's another dimension for ya) and, just 'cause it's cool - dolphins can sleep when they're moving.

I myself insist on a full 8 hours and basically sleep from 8 hours after I go to bed (or, more precisely, since I'm not the best sleeper - after I go to sleep), whenever that is on a given night. This has lead, constructively I think, to my never having pulled an all-nighter during university, believing and experiencing that a rested brain can create better answers than an exhausted brain can remember.

PS: Sorry for not posting yesterday - my exhausted brain forgot ;-) .
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11/10/2005 11:19:00 PM  

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

commandN: Episode 21 + Aussie Interview

Our 21st episode of commandN is now online! Amber interviews Mike Shaver from Mozilla, makers of the Firefox browser; I do a quick rundown of the great instructional resources and online videos at Lynda.com; and Amber and Mike bring you their web picks for the week. (And, for anyone who wants to save 10% on any order at GoDaddy.com, just type in our promo code COMMANDN ;-) )

In other news, Amber and I were interviewed for Australia's The Mac User Show podcast. The sound isn't that great on our end (had some heavy traffic problems talking over Skype to the other side of the planet ;-) ), but there are some great application and web picks for you Mac-heads out there and it was a lot of fun!
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11/08/2005 09:35:00 PM  

Monday, November 07, 2005

earCandy: Frank Zappa - We're Only In It For The Money (1968) 5/5

Frank Zappa, whether you can deal with his frequently offensive (to some) lyrics or not, is probably the greatest composer that can be directly associated with the rock genre (though he has released complete albums of classical and jazz works as well). Charles Mingus in jazz, Bela Bartok in classical, and Frank Zappa in rock are my holy trinity of composers who ignored the conventional boundaries of the genre with which they were identified to create some of the greatest music known to man. As a commentator, Zappa not only paved the way for acts like Ween and shows like Duckman (for which he allegedly wrote the music and in which his son, Dweezil, voices Duckman's son) and Family Guy (indeed, he was testified in front of the US Senate against Tipper Gore's ill-conceived music censorship escapades in the 80's). I could write pages about Zappa, but I'll keep this directed at this particular work. ;-)

We're Only In It For The Money is Frank Zappa's most poignant and powerful work of social commentary and musical expression. It completely skews the hippies and the straights of the day, complete with Sgt. Pepper's parody artwork (a hilarious send up which he couldn't get permission to use as the album cover and so is only included inside the album). Zappa considered himself and like-minded people "Freaks" - in a good way - and his remarks throughout this album pointedly deride the pretensions of the hippies and the uptightness of the straights. Rolling Stone referred to this as "perhaps the most mercilessly derisive raspberry ever flung at the rock scene by an actual participant therein" (probably referring directly to the song "Flower Punk", but also the general tone of music at the time while also being indicative of how far this album outstrips the musicality of just about anything in existence in rock then or now).

The compositional and production techniques on this album are staggering - from doo-wop rock songs to classical pieces, tape edits and musique concrete, and a host of effective montages, all of which deliver almost 40 minutes of delicious "headphone calisthenics" (I forget where I heard this term used, but it is a quote from somewhere). "Mom & Dad" is a presented song that forecasts the Kent State student shootings by a couple of years, "What's the Ugliest Part of Your Body" answers the question with "your mind", and the catchy optimism of "Take Your Clothes Off When You Dance" is a nice balance to the critique that is so evident in much of the rest of the album.

Despite the topical nature of the lyrics, the album has actually aged well and is as relevant to many of today's issues as it was back then. Plus, it's about the most rewarding thing you could ever listen to intently on headphones in a darkened room ;-) .
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11/07/2005 09:11:00 PM  

Sunday, November 06, 2005

iRant: Shower Power :-)

Sorry about the downtime for the past couple of days (though it's the first time I've missed more than one day since I started this, so hopefully you'll stay with me ;-) ) but I've been crazy busy and totally under the weather (not to mention I've lost my power and internet connections twice over this time). I'm fairly recovered now, but I think I'll just go with a short entry tonight which very likely demonstrates that my brain is clouded from medication and lack of sleep :-) .

I've talked about user interface design previously, and this relates to that in some strange way I guess, but one thing that drives me crazy is that, in almost every instance, soap holders in showers tend to slope the wrong way (i.e. down into the shower instead of to the wall) or not at all. I don't quite understand how someone, after all the years of showering we've collectively done as a civilization, hasn't just decided to build a soap holder with a heavy slant back toward the shower wall so that the soap can't slide out easily. If the problem is dealing with water collecting there (and this would seem to be a motivation as typically the slant into the shower is accompanied by a little drainage dip in the lip of the holder) then just drill a hole at the back to let the water drain out. Soap is slippery, especially when wet, and it's annoying to have to pick the soap up off the floor of the shower all the time (I wonder if they've solved this much more hazardous problem in prisons ;-) ). And another thing, a pox upon of those who leave the "shower lever" on the faucet pulled up so that when innocent people go to turn on the water next time, they are soaked with cold water from above unexpectedly! Again, I'm pretty sure there should be an easy way to have this just fall back into place when the water is turned off from the previous shower, but I don't profess to know a lot about plumbing :-) .

Finally, a closing "deep thought" about showers: you might not have ever thought about it but I believe that almost everyone (and I've verified this with many people) goes through their very own specific shower routine every time they have a shower. You may start with the shampoo and then wash your face then simultaneously rinse out the shampoo so that you can then apply conidtioner and let it sit while you wash the rest of your body, or you may do something completely different - the point is, you likely do the same order of things every time you shower. I've tried unsuccessfully to pin down when I got into my current (and longtime) shower routine, but I think those memories were purged to make room for some more useful information. In any case, something to think about the next time you hop in the tub :-) .

PS: I promise some more enlightening information with my full recovery tomorrow :-) .
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11/06/2005 10:02:00 PM  

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

eyeCandy: Arrested Development (Season 1 - 2003) 5/5

I just finished watching the first season of Arrested Development on DVD and I like it a lot. After hearing all the hype, I caught a couple of bits and pieces of episodes last year but, without knowing anything about the show, just couldn't get a fix on it. Well, watching the first season solved that and I'm ready for more! :-)

The show is centred around the eccentric, wealthy, and hilarious Bluth family whose patriarch (George Bluth Sr. played by Jeffrey Tambor) has been imprisoned (giving us the "arrested" in the "Arrested Development" double-entendre, the first of many) for defrauding investors and misusing company funds. Being the only responsible person in the family, middle son and recent widower Michael (played by Jason Bateman) is left to run the business, raise his son George Michael (who has a crush on his rebellious cousin Maeby), and try to keep the reigns on the rest of the family. Eldest son George Oscar Bluth (G.O.B.) is a failed magician, youngest son Buster nurses a bizarrely dependent relationship with his mother Lucille, and Maebe's parents Lindsay Bluth (played by the gorgeous Portia de Rossi) and Tobias Funke give her lots to rebel about. The series is guided along by the omniscient voice of executive producer Ron Howard, and Henry Winkler has a great recurring role as the family's incompetent lawyer.

It's hard to write a review that can in any way capture why this show is so funny, but suffice to say it is one of the most original comedies I have seen on TV for a long time. My difficulty in getting into it mid-stream (although I didn't try very hard) certainly revolved around the fact that the comedy is very character-based and you really need to get familiar with the family to understand why everything is so funny (though lots of it works without this too, thanks to the superb writing). The show is currently in the early parts of its third season on Fox and, having finally figured out what everyone has been raving about, I think I'll start watching it while I play catch up with the Season 2 DVD (which is now out).

If you enjoy humour then definitely take a look at this show - without relying on stale sit-com cliches, it is laugh out loud funny and deservedly won the Outstanding Comedy Series Emmy its first year out. Here's hoping that seasons two and three continue to provide such top-rate entertainment!
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11/02/2005 10:32:00 PM  

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

MacOnMacs: I miss my Apple Applications menu from OS 9

As much as I love OS X, there are a few things I miss - one of them being the ability to access directories and applications through the Apple menu "file/application launcher" feature from OS 9. Well, like most things that you might miss, there are solutions out there...

Butler is a multi-functional application that gives you access to file/application launcher in your menu bar. But Butler does much more than this. It is great as a bookmark manager, allowing you to access the bookmarks from any of your web browsers in a centralized pulldown menu while also enabling you to drag and drop new bookmarks into the same interface. Additionally, it has an enhanced "multi-pasteboard" ability, lets you control iTunes, access your Address Book, and much more from the same menu bar pulldowns. I found Butler did almost too much for what I wanted, and the access to certain features, e.g. your Address Book if you have a lot of contacts, can be a little slow. However, the app is free, very customizable, has plugin support, and would be a great addition for many people.

XMenu is a further step toward simplicity. It doesn't have all the features that Butler does (some of which you might not even want), but it is free and provides access through the same type of menu bar-based interface as Butler to folders and applications. Nice, simple, and does just what you want it to do.

Finally, for those of you who don't want to add any extra software to accomplish a relatively simple task, you need look no further than your Dock for a solution. If it's applications you want to access then just locate your Applications folder in the Finder then drag and drop it onto the Dock BELOW (or to the RIGHT of, if you're using the "too Window-sy for me" default Dock placement at the bottom of your screen ;-) ) the line that separates your applications from your documents in the Dock. To access the contents of the folder simply right/control-click the Applications folder now in your Dock and, voila, convenient one click access to all your apps. You can use the same trick for other file folders to obtain the broader file launch ability.

That's a few quick tips to bring back the beloved application/file launcher that many of us thought we lost when we moved to OS X. See which one you like and then enjoy your newfound efficiency and speed! :-)
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11/01/2005 10:18:00 PM