As a devotee of RSS, the rise of newsletters continues to mystify me. But I’ve adapted. Today, there are some newsletters I enjoy, but I’ve never liked inbox delivery. So this is the best thing I learned about this week: 📖

Captioning Web Video

I'm no video expert. Yet I often find myself encoding, editing, and otherwise manipulating video for the web. Recently, I completed a video project that involved converting a DVD of a 40-minute presentation into a movie that could be viewed on a web page, as a whole or in chapters. The final product had to be captioned.

Converting the DVD into video for the web was easy. I used Handbrake to rip the DVD into MP4 format. Editing was equally easy. I used iMovie to add title screens and transitions, and to break the movie up into chapters. Adding the captioning, however, was tricky.

Why bother with captioning? Here are some good reasons: so that those who are deaf or hard of hearing can enjoy the video, so the text is indexed by search engines, and to aid those for whom English is a second language. And here’s another: the Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2010.

If captioning is important, then why isn't it a mainstream practice? I'm not qualified to answer that question, but my guess is that it's in part due to the fact that captioning is time-consuming and difficult. For instance: with external captioning (where captions are contained in an external file and sync with the video), there are multiple formats and a lack of clear standards. And for embedded captioning (where captions are simply typed in an editor and then exported with the movie), it's just plain tedious work.

For my recent video project, I considered three captioning options:

  1. Embed the captions. The first option is to place the captions directly into the movie itself using a tool such as Final Cut Pro,  iMovie, or  Adobe Premiere.  I have Final Cut Pro, but I tend to use iMovie since most of the video work I do is short and simple. It’s the easiest tool for the job and the results look good. Here’s the thing about iMovie: while there are dozens of title/text effect options, none are designed for captioning (which is surprising given Apple's robust accessability options for the OS). Despite this shortcoming, I’ve discovered that I can 'fake' captions by adding lower thirds to each segment of video. Making a default lower third overlay in iMovie into something that resembles a caption is a matter of changing font sizes. You can see an example of this in a recent video podcast I produced. This works, but it isn't a practical solution for a long movie. In truth, it's really not an ideal solution for any length movie because the captions are permanently embedded in the video. Screen readers and search engines can't see this text. People can’t choose to turn the captions on/off. So I didn't choose this option for my project.
  2. Dump the text on the page. A second option is to dump the captioning for a video on a page, underneath the video as HTML text. This may technically meets accessibility requirements, but it’s a lousy solution. The text is unassociated with the video. One can read the text or watch the video. It's not feasible to do both at the same time. Nix.
  3. Create an external caption file. This last choice is the best solution: create an external caption file that will appear in sync with the video. Captioning is then matched up with the video, it's readable by screen readers, and it's good for search engines. It can also be turned on or off at the user's discretion.

So how do you create and deploy and external caption file? If you simply wish to place a video on Youtube, it's easy. Once you upload your video to the free service, Youtube offers free auto-generated machine transcription. While you'll find that video speech-to-text accuracy is hit-and-miss (more miss in my experience), the important part is that Google generates  time codes that precisely match the the audio in the video. So once you download the caption file from Youtube, it's a simply a matter of manually correcting the text so that what appears in the caption will match what is actually being said in the video.

If you don't want to (or can't because of workplace policy) solely use Youtube to present your video, it's still a very useful tool. How? If you are embedding captions in a video using an editor such as iMovie, YouTube will do half of the work for you by delivering a fair approximation of a transcript. If you want to use an external caption file elsewhere with a different video player, you can still use this Google-generated file. You just need to convert it into the right format.

Here’s the process I used to generate a caption file for my video project:

  • I began by uploading the video to my YouTube channel.
  • I then requested that YouTube auto-generate a Subviewer caption file for this movie (Be patient. It may take hours to get this file back from Google because you'll be in a queue with tons of other people).
  • I then downloaded this file and opened it up in text editor. 
  • The next step is tedious, but necessary: cleaning up the machine-generated text. I opened my movie in a QuickTime player window and, as it played, edited my caption text to correct errors and typos. It's not too bad if you toogle between a text editor and QuickTime using Cmd-Tab.
  • Once I had my cleaned-up Subviewer text file, I copied and pasted it it into a free online converter to generate into the appropriate format. In my case, I generated a DFXP file for use with a Flash player. Here are three conversion tool options:
    • 3PlayMedia Caption Format Converter. This converter lets you convert from SRT or from SBV to  DFXP, SMI or SAMI (Windows Media), CPT.XML (Flash Captionate XML), QT (Quicktime), and STL (Spruce Subtitle File).
    • Subtitle Horse. A free online caption editor. Exports DFXP, SRT, and Adobe Encore files.
    • Subviewer to DFXP. This free online tool from Ohio State University converts a YouTube .SBV file into DFXP, Subrip, or QT (QuickTime caption) files. I used this tool for my project.

What’s the appropriate format?

  • YouTube: Subviewer (.SBV) 
  • iTunes, iOS: Scenarist Closed Caption (.SCC) 
  • Flash: DFXP, Timed Text Markup Language, the W3C recommendation. These are plain ol’ XML files.  You could also use the SubRip (.SRT) file format for Flash.
  • HTML5:  See this post.

If you're not using a hosted service like YouTube or Vimeo (which, incidentally, does not support external captions), you'll of course have to decide how to present the video on your site. There are many options. You can roll your own player with external captions using Adobe Flash. You can use off-the-shelf players that support captioning such as Flowplayer and JW Player — these two commercial products offer very easy setup and they offer HTML5 video players with Flash fallback. Another option: you might try HTML5 with experimental captioning support (note that Safari 5 now supports captioning with the HTML5 video tag). As I said, there are options. The video player discussion is beyond the scope of this post (and I don’t want to go down the HTML5 vs. Flash rabbit hole!).

My main goal here is to point out that Google's machine transcription is good for more than just hosting a captioned video on Youtube. It's trivial to convert this caption file into a variety of formats. The key point is that you don't have to manually add time codes for your video. This critical step is done for you.

Yet even with this handy Google tool, generating caption files (and getting them to work with video players) remains an unwieldy task. We clearly need better tools and standards to help bring video captioning into the mainstream.

P.S. While researching this post, I came across two low-cost tools that look like solid options to create iOS and iTunes movies with captions. Both are from a company called bitfield. The first is called Submerge. This tool makes it very easy to embed (hard-code) subtitles in a movie and will import all the popular external captioning formats. The second is called iSubtitle. This tool will ‘soft-code’ subtitle tracks so you can add multiple files (languages) and easily add metadata to your movie.

Dropbox 1.0

The best online file synching service is now out of Beta. Dropbox 1.0 offers selective folder synchronization (hooray!), an easier installation process, improved performance, and a slew of bug fixes.  If you're not on Dropbox, why not? The first 250MB of storage space is free. And if you get new people to sign up to the service, you get an additional 250MB of free space per person. Speaking of which, if you're new to Dropbox ... why not use this referral link to sign up. He he.



Huffduffer. It's a creation of web developer Jeremy Keith, who says he originally invented this tool for himself to fill a simple need.

Like many online tools with staying power, 'filling a simple need' is often the first litmus test for success. The second is filling a simple need well. And this site does the job very well. Huffduffer is an easy-to-use, elegant, friendly way to create your own personal podcast stream from found audio on the web. The part that makes Huffduffer so useful is RSS feed creation. It's easy to bookmark audio, but not so easy to create an iTunes-compatible RSS feed. I think of it this way: Huffduffer is to audio what Instapaper is to text.

I must admit, though, that I have only just started using this tool as intended. So far, I've primarily been using it as a discovery tool to find audio content I otherwise would not have known existed by subscribing to Huffduffer's 'Popular' feed. As you may surmise, this feed delivers a steady stream of what other people are 'Huffduffing.' The downside to this stream is that there are often many duplicate posts, so you'll find yourself often deleting entries that you've seen before. The upside is that the content is usually interesting and there's plenty of new content every day. For my long daily train commute, this feed is most welcome.

You'll find that much of the 'popular content' tends to be in the vein of tech, design, web design/development, science fiction, speculative science, and hard science. This surely says a lot about the core users of the site. And this makes sense given who created it: I surmise that site usage has spread mainly by word-of-mouth and via conferences. I, for instance, discovered it a web design conference where Jeremy Keith was speaking. So if you are particularly interested in this type of content, you'll get a lot out of this feed. As a secondary benefit, the popular feed has helped me find many a new podcast to subscribe to via iTunes. Now I need to start huffduffing some of my own 'found audio.' 

Here are a few recent items from the 'popular' feed that I really enjoyed:

Conversation with William Gibson — A discussion with William Gibson about where we are headed in the post-internet age.

Arthur C. Clarke, Alvin Toffler, Margaret Mead —  A talk recorded in 1970 about the future. From the show notes on Huffduffer: "At the time of this recording Arthur C. Clarke had recently collaborated on the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey with Stanley Kubrick. Alvin Toffler’s mega-influential book, Future Shock, is about to be published. And Margaret Mead is the world’s foremost cultural anthropologist."

Kevin Kelly interview — An interview with Kelly about his new book, "What Technology Wants." Fascinating stuff.

The Value of Ruins — James Bridle from dConstruct 2010 (a design & creativity conference) asks "as we design our future, should we be concerned with the value of our ruins?" 

If you'd like some more background, check out this interview with Jeremy Keith on Huffduffer. And if you're curious about the meaning behind the word 'Huffduffer,' here's an explanation.

VPN options

Since I’m moving into a hotel for a couple of months at the end of this week, I’ve been shopping around for a Virtual Private Network.

The type of VPN I’m talking about is not the kind that one uses to connect securely to an office network. What I’m talking about is a VPN that provides encryption from a PC to a remote VPN service. This type of VPN protects data while the bits are ‘in the air’ over a public WiFi connection. Once it reaches the VPN company, it’s decrypted and sent along to intended destinations via a wired connection. What you get out of this kind of service is, essentially, a greater level of insurance that your internet activity over public WiFi will remain safe and secure.

When I first started looking into this, I found that there’s a question of whether or not this is really necessary. I found two categories of opinions in my research. Some people feel that it’s generally OK to forego the use of a VPN while engaged in general browsing at a public WiFi hotspot, but it’s best to wait until you get home to do anything sensitive involving passwords. Mail is a particular concern here. This camp notes that it’s generally safe to engage in password-protected activities provided you ensure you’re on a secure connection (i.e. https). However, this is generally not the safest option. Most of the comments I came across suggest that it’s a best practice to use a VPN connection whenever you tap into a public WiFi hotspot (even if you’re on a wired hotel connection), and doubly so if you are going to be on said public network for an extended period of time.

I’m opting for the more secure solution. It’s a low-cost security measure. It’ll give me peace of mind. But which trusted service should I use?

I started out by trying two free options. The first is the popular HotSpot Shield. This service works as advertised, but I found that it notably decreased my connection speed. It also requires the installation of an application that resides in the menu bar. When it’s launched, it fires up an ad-based browser page that is a bit obtrusive, but not too bad. All considered, I concluded that it’s a good option if you’re looking for an occasional-use VPN while, say, at a coffee shop for a few hours. Hotspot Shield also offers a free iPhone VPN option. While the iPhone service was very simple to set up, I could not get it to work on my iPhone after trying for several days.

The second free VPN option I tried is called ItsHidden. The caveat with this free service is that you’re booted off of your connection every 20 minutes. If you don’t want to be disconnected after a set period of time, the service offer a pay option for $12.99 a month. There are two things I liked about ItsHidden. First, it requires no software installation. Second, it was a lot speedier than Hotspot Shield. However, I felt uneasy about entrusting my longterm online activity to the service. Their website offers no clues about who they are, where they’re located, or how long they’ve been in business. And, frankly, it looks like the site was put together in someone’s basement. It doesn’t inspire confidence. I read in one forum that the main reason this service was set up is to accommodate BitTorrent traffic. I’m sure there’s a lot of legit BitTorrent traffic taking advantage of this service, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was, well, kind of shady. So I moved on.

I narrowed down my options to two popular pay options from long-established VPN companies. One is called WiTopia. The other is called HotSpotVPN. Both appear to be great options. The deciding factor in my case was that WiTopia only offered a year subscription, while HotSpotVPN offered month-to-month (and even daily) rates. If you are looking for a long-term relationship, WiTopia is substantially cheaper. They offer one year of 256-bit encrypted SSL service for $60 (in comparison, HotSpotVPN would cost about $138 for a year of 256-bit SSL).

The nice thing about HotSpotVPN—in addition to short-term rates—is that the SSL option offered by the company comes with an additional free PPTP connection, ideal for setting up VPN on an iPhone or iPod Touch. I opted for the cheaper $10.88 month Blowfish 128-bit encryption option after reading in several forums that this amount of encryption, while on the low end of the spectrum of what’s available, is more than adequate.

So there you have it. I signed up yesterday. It works great on my Mac and my iPhone. Significantly, I’ve found no noticeable speed difference while using it. Setup is quite easy: HotSpotVPN e-mailed me a zipped file with my encryption keys and certification files with easy-to-follow instructions about how to install them in my user Library. They also offered up the option to install Tunnelblick, an open source GUI for OpenVPN on the Mac (OpenVPN, I’ve learned, is used by most consumer VPN services).

I can’t comment on Tunnelblick, however, because I didn’t install it. I use an alternative paid VPN client called Shimo for my VPN connections, which I highly recommend. If you’re curious as to why I use Shimo, the main reason is that it seamlessly imports Cisco VPN settings (which is what I use for work). If you’ve ever used the abysmal Cisco VPN client, you’ll understand. Shimo allows me to easily switch between Cisco and, now, my new HotSpotVPN service. I can connect and disconnect from each VPN service in seconds.

One final note: I learned during this process that SSL is generally the best option if you’re looking for the fastest solution that will work anywhere. If you decide to use a VPN service whenever you access a public network, SSL is the way to go.

Aviary Now Free

Aviary, a slick collection of browser-based design and editing tools that I wrote about last February, is now free.

From the Aviary blog:

We have long felt that to better serve our core mission our complete feature set needed to be in the hands of everyone - not just those who could afford it. Fortunately, our recent round of funding (by Spark Capital, Bezos Expeditions & others) enables us to finally achieve this goal...

Aviary remains a socially-focused suite of applications, meaning that sharing and derivative works are encouraged. 'Free' means that all users may now save private files, add custom watermarks or go watermark-free for creative works, and access all Aviary tutorials. As opposed to the free online version of Photoshop, there are also no storage limitations (Adobe charges you if you go over 2GB).

This is an amazing collection of free tools. For those who are following the current Flash debate, note that these tools are Adobe Flex/Air-based. For artists, note that you own full rights to all works you create with these tools. For those who can't afford the pricey Adobe Creative Suite apps, note that this suite is a surprisingly powerful alternative.

I like to think of Aviary as a creative playground. Even if you own the Adobe Creative Suite, you may still find that the Aviary tools are a lot of fun to play around with, especially Peacock (the Effects Editor).

Upgrading to WordPress 2.9

I just upgraded to WordPress 2.9, neglecting beforehand to deactivate my plugins. This is a mistake. If you’re using and install updates manually as I do, ensure you turn your plugins off. Also ensure you take the time to back up your site and your MySQL database. It’s worth the extra effort in case anything else goes wrong.

At any rate, after I performed the update, I could see my site but was unable to access wp-admin. The solution: I removed all of my plugins using my FTP client. It loaded without a problem after that. Then I added the plugins back one at a time until I found the offending item. In my case, it was WP Security Scan. I’m sure the developer of this plugin will release an update imminently, but it is currently incompatible with the 2.9. Once I removed it, all was well.

The DNS choice

Last week, the tech world was abuzz with the launch of Google's new public Domain Name System (DNS) resolution service.

Since I posted a while back about OpenDNS, I thought I'd share my thoughts on this subject. The main question I set out to answer is whether or not I should switch from OpenDNS to Google's Public DNS?

As I began this experiment, my most important criteria was speed. Which service offers the fastest browsing experience? To answer that, I searched around and discovered this helpful post on TechSutraGoogle DNS vs OpenDNS: Google Rocks for International Users.

One of the readers over at TechSutra (Stevan Bajić) wrote the following bash script to test out the speed of four popular alternative DNS services. To use this script, run this in terminal (you can enter any domains you want here):

isp=$(dig +noall +stats 2>&1 | awk '$2~/^SERVER:$/{split($3,dnsip,"#");print dnsip[1]}');
s=" ";
header=("Domain${s:0:23}" "Your ISP${s:0:10}" "Google${s:0:10}" "${s:0:10}" "OpenDNS${s:0:10}" "DNS Adv.${s:0:10}");
echo "${h}";
echo "| ${header[0]:0:23} | ${header[1]:0:10} | ${header[2]:0:10} | ${header[3]:0:10} | ${header[4]:0:10} | ${header[5]:0:10} |";
echo "${h}";
for i in "" "" "" "" "" "";
echo -ne "| ${ii:0:23} |";
for j in "${isp}" "" "" "" "";
r="${s:10}$(dig +noall +stats +time=9 @${j} ${i} 2>&1 | awk '$2~/^Query$/{print $4" "$5}')";
echo -ne " ${r:${#r}-10} |";
echo -ne "n${h}n";

I ran tests at different times of the day, and on different days. For me, OpenDNS and Google were consistently fast. Results for Level3, DNS Advantage, and my ISP varied widely (sometimes I'd get decent results, sometimes response times were abysmal).

While the results I received from Google and OpenDNS were best, the difference in speed between the two was negligible. We're talking milliseconds here, after all. I don't think I'm really going to notice the difference between a response time of, say, 11 ms and 13ms (although research indicates that milliseconds do makes a difference).


One think to keep in mind is that the initial test you perform may return slower results than subsequent tests for some obscure sites. The first time you search for, for example, (my wife's blog) the DNS service will likely have to go out and get this IP address from an authoritative server. After that first lookup, the IP will be cached with the DNS server, so the response time will be quicker for subsequent tests. In short, run multiple tests.

My results jibe with those coming in from readers at TechSutra: that OpenDNS may have a slight edge for many U.S. locations, while Google DNS may have the edge for users outside of the U.S. Best to test it out the alternatives for yourself.

So, I've established that Google DNS and OpenDNS offer comparably faster DNS lookups compared to my ISP. Both services also offer security features to make browsing safer (my ISP may have these features, but I have no way of knowing what's going as these details aren't published. I have greater confidence that Google and OpenDNS DNS servers are not and will not be compromised).

Now, which to choose?

1. Do I want to use yet another Google service?

I'm not too worried about this. Google privacy policy is very clear. I've experienced no cause for concern with my Google services.

2. Do I have a problem with the way OpenDNS operates?

When I began this comparison, the answer was 'not really.' After pondering this for a while, I have to say I do have a problem. With OpenDNS, if you type in a domain that does not exist, you are redirected to an OpenDNS ad-based search page. This is bad behavior. I knew this already, but I didn't worry about. I turned off NX Domain redirection in my OpenDNS user settings. Here's the part that annoys me: OpenDNS describes this feature as 'typo correction,' but say nothing about how this is tied to redirection to their own ad page if the domain can't be resolved. They should take a cue from Google and explain this more clearly. Sure, this service corrects typos (changes .cmo to .com, for example), but this is only a minor feature of a service that's really about generating revenue from the mistakes people make in entering URLs. In addition, when you perform a Google Search using OpenDNS, your request is redirected to an OpenDNS server before going to Google by default. This may also be turned off (by unchecking 'Enable OpenDNS Proxy') but it's not really clear how to do it. And let's face it, most users aren't going to mess with OpenDNS advanced settings. Lastly, you must have BOTH 'Enable OpenDNS Proxy' and 'Typo Correction' turned on to enjoy the benefits of OpenDNS' content filtering features (one of the big reasons people like OpenDNS).

Here's the bottom line: OpenDNS offers a fast DNS service that includes many extra free or pay features. It's a good option if you need those extra features and aren't worried about the way the service handles your requests. The main gripe I have with OpenDNS is that they are not transparent about how they're doing business. Google, on the other hand, offers a fast DNS service and reliable security features. It's a good option if you don't need extra bells and whistles.

Think I'll switch over to Google DNS.

iPhone App Freebies and Sales Abound

This may be old news to most readers, but in case you’ve missed it, Blacksmith Games has organized a holiday giveaway of one iPhone game per day for the month of December. It’s called Appvent Calendar 09. Some of the games are quite good. Today, for example, you can pick up an excellent well-designed, and beautifully illustrated game called Blimp from Craneballs Studios (normally $2.99).

Also of note on the App store, Nuance Communications recently released a very impressive spoken word-to-text translation tool called Dragon Dictation. It’s free for a limited time. I’m very impressed with the accuracy of the app. It’s produced using the same engine behind the popular (and expensive) desktop clients Dragon Naturally Speaking and Mac Dictation. Once you capture your text, you can copy it to the clipboard, email it, or send it as a text message. Note that the app works by ferrying your voice recording to servers at Nuance, hence you need a WiFi or cellular connection. While translation speeds are zippy over WiFi, it’s a bit slow on my Edge connection. Of course, it’ll be faster on the 3G network. It’s definitely worth picking up while it’s free.

Last but not least, it’s worth your time and effort to monitor price drops and giveaways on the App store this month. There are a ton of one-day-only and limited-time holiday deals hitting the store each day. I use a free iPhone/Touch app called AppMiner to keep on top of the deals. and are also good places to monitor price drops and promotions online.

Free Snail-Mail Holiday Postcard from Gmail

snail-mail holiday card on your behalf to a (U.S.-based) recipient of your choice. There are six Gmail-themed cards to choose from.

A kind gesture? A small test of a future Google service? A subtle nudge to get would-be Gmail users online? The Gmail team says it's simply a 'token of appreciation to our most enthusiastic fans.' My guess is that the offer will be up a week or less before they're overwhelmed by requests.

Killer Dropbox Services Add-on

Dropbox to ferry files around using the public folder, don't miss this time-saving Services add-on.

Once installed, right-click on any file on your Mac, select the 'Services' menu, then choose either 'Move' or 'Copy to Dropbox.' That's it. Your file is moved (or copied), and the public link to the file is copied to your clipboard, ready to send.

Many more useful services are available at Mac OSX Automation.

Learning How to Use It

So you decide to buy a copy of Things from Cultured Code. You've read great things about it (no pun intended), and you're ready to graduate from chaotic analog scratchings on a notepad to an elegant digital management process using an award-winning application.

Impatient, you give the instructions a cursory glance, then begin madly entering tasks. A week later, you note that most of the items you dumped in the inbox during the first week are overdue. Your initial enthusiasm wanes. You want to use this app, but old habits die hard. With a tinge of guilt, you keep reverting to writing down your tasks on a notepad.

One day, you decide to give it another go. You paid for this app, after all. Months go by. In time, you learn just enough (largely through trial-and-error) to use Things as a basic task management tool. Habits are formed. You know how to add new task items, create projects, set due dates, and tag your items. But your list is still chaotic. Your tags are haphazard. You start a project, then abandon it. You tend to stick all of your tasks in the inbox and leave them there. While you've made the switch to digital task management, you know that you're not taking advantage of the power under the hood. You know that—if you took the time to really grok this app—you'd be more productive.

Like many of the other Mac apps you've purchased, Things is a tool you want to learn how to use in the way it was intended to be used—but time is at a premium. And, let's be honest, you just aren't going to take the time to read the documentation.

Enter the screencast. For many people, it's hard to really get how to use an app by reading written instructions. It's much easier (and more enjoyable) to watch a video demonstration.

series of high-quality videos that teach you how to deploy your purchase. These videos are available at ScreenCastsOnline, a one-man show run out of the UK offering high-quality video productions that illustrate how to use the Mac OS and a variety of popular Mac software titles.

If you don't want to or can't afford to subscribe to this service, you'll still find excellent free tutorials here. And if you're willing to invest a modest amount of cash to learn how to better use your apps and operating system, now is the time to grab a membership. This month, ScreenCastsOnline is offering a 50 percent discount. At $57 for a six-month membership, this a good deal. You get a lot for your money.

Disclaimer: I don't subscribe to ScreenCastsOnline, and I'm not sponsored by this operation in any way. But I've viewed many SCO videos and have found that they are uniformly outstanding. Take a look at some of the many free screencasts on offer and decide for yourself. I say that if you're going to pay for a Mac application, it's in your interest to learn how to use it well. I think this is one of the best ways to do this.

Another solid option is The reason I don't subscribe to ScreenCastsOnline is that I'm fortunate enough to enjoy unlimited access to Lynda through my employer, so my plate is full. This site offers a huge selection of tutorials, enough to keep me occupied for years. If you are in the business of web development, graphic design, video work, photography, audio production, or Flash development, you'll get a lot out of these tutorials.

Here's the difference between the two: SCO is consumer-focused and Mac-centric. is geared towards corporate users who have employees on a variety of platforms with specialized needs. SCO focuses on Mac-specific OS and app tutorials that meet the needs of most Mac users. focuses on professional development and training for higher-end applications/tools like the Adobe Creative Suite or Final Cut Studio. An advantage of SCO is that you can download tutorials and keep them forever. There's no DRM. With, tutorials are online-only. For personal training on the Mac, SCO is the way to go. For professional training, steer to Lynda (and you may want to consider pitching Lynda to your employer. Compared to on-site training courses, it's dirt cheap). and

AlternativeTo is the newer of the two sites, and I really like the approach they're taking. Pick a product (Mac, Windows, Linux, online) and see a user-generated lists of alternatives to that product. There are 15 alternatives to Photoshop for the Mac, for example. While all the alternatives are not necessarily equals to a given app, it at least provides a wide angle shot of what's available. I use it as an exploratory tool to find out about applications I've never heard of before.

The other site, iusethis, is similar. You can look up an app (Mac, iPhone, Windows) to get an idea of how many people use it, to include viewing random user comments of varying merit. As with AlternativeTo, it's easy to link to related apps to explore other solutions. This site is best for taking a quick snapshot of the relative popularity of a given app, what some people are saying about it, and for exploring the most popular apps (according to the self-selected user base of iusethis) in a given category. It's the site I use to get a ballpark estimation of what users think of a given application.

Free albums from Amazon

Philip Glass album, which I learned about via Twitter.

To my surprise, I discovered 140 other free MP3 albums on the site. I had no idea.

I’m a big fan of international/roots music, so I was thrilled to find many free albums in this genre. These are all sampler compilations, so it’s hit and miss—but there are some good songs to be discovered. I’m not too surprised about that—the point of sampler music is to get you to buy albums from the featured label, so it’s in their interest to include a solid cross-sample of their best offerings.

Back in the day (just a few years ago, really), I frequently picked up low-cost or free sampler albums from labels in music stores. These days, I tend to get my music online from two primary sources: iTunes and Mondomix (before Mondomix, I frequented the now-defunct Calabash, which was bought out by Mondomix). I haven’t bought much from Amazon.

Here’s my point: iTunes doesn’t offer much in terms of free ‘sample’ music beyond the ‘Free Single of the Week.’ Calabash used to offer a lot of free singles. Mondomix does not, but they do offer streaming radio mixes and a decent podcast (it’s in French, by the way). There are not many online sources that offer a place to pick up free sample compilations anymore. Amazon, it turns out, has some of the best free offerings I’ve come across. Who knew.

At any rate, here’s what I think are some of the best of the lot from Amazon’s current free ‘International’ collection:

- Pressure Sounds sampler: solid reggae and dub tracks.
- Rotana sampler: great collection of Middle Eastern sounds from a huge label.
- Saavn sampler: Bollywood music…you can’t go wrong with Bollywood tracks.
- Anana sampler: interesting collection of music from Israel.
- Epsa world music sampler: ‘tango & folklore’ from Argentina.
- Putamayo sampler: decent sampler of music from around the globe.
- Turkish hits: nice variety of Turkish artists.

A few other albums of note that I picked up from other collections:

- A surprisingly good, wide-ranging compilation of Baroque music.
- A great collection of old music (and I mean old…Medieval and Renaissance period sounds). If you like this sort of thing, by the way, I highly recommend Anonymous 4.
- An album with five solid blues-folk tracks from influential American artists on the Vanguard label (e.g. Odetta, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot).

Oh, and if you’re a Mojo Nixon fan (I’m not), head to the free album store now. Looks like pretty much all of Mojo’s stuff if currently free.

Whatever you’re into, the Amazon’s free MP3 collection is worth a browse.

Note: In case you’re wondering, this site is not sponsored in any way by Just thought I’d share what I found there.

10.5.8 Airport Airport Bug Fixed

If you attempted the temporary fix to get your wireless working correctly on your MacBook after the recent Mac OS 10.5.8 update, check out this MacFixIt post before you try to install the patch issued by Apple earlier today.

I reinstalled the 10.5.8 Combo Update, then applied the Airport patch, and all is now working well.

Temp Fix for 10.5.8 AirPort Bug

If you are one of the many people experiencing AirPort connectivity problems after upgrading to 10.5.8, here’s a solution that worked for me, found on the Apple Discussions forums from user SpacePirate.

This solution allows you to revert to the 10.5.7 AirPort kernel extension (kext file) without reverting the entire OS back to 10.5.7. It appears that Apple is aware of the problem, so hopefully we’ll see an update soon that fixes this bug.

It’s worth emphasizing that you should not do this unless you are comfortable modifying system files. Ensure you have a good backup. Proceed at your own risk.

- Download the 10.5.7 Combo Update.

- Download and install Pacifist, a handy tool that allows you to extract specific files from an Apple package (i.e. the Combo Update is a .pkg file).

[Pacifist is $20 shareware. You can use it in trial mode to accomplish this task, but if you think it’s something you might use from time to time, consider buying it. It’s helpful for repairing damaged files without reinstalling the entire OS, verifying installations, and finding missing or altered files.]

- Turn off your AirPort.

- Delete /System/Library/Extensions/AppleAirport.kext.

- Delete /System/Library/Extensions/IO80211Family.kext.

- Extract /System/Library/Extensions/AppleAirport.kext from the 10.5.7 package using Pacifist and copy this file to the /System/Library/Extensions/ folder on your Mac.

[Open the 10.5.7 package with Pacifist, find the AppleAirport.kext file in the /System/Library/Extensions/ directory of the package, and extract this file to your /System/Library/Extensions/ folder on your Mac, or copy the file to the desktop, then drag it to the /System/Library/Extensions/ folder on your Mac. Don’t try taking these files from a Time Machine backup unless you know how to properly set permissions for the copied files. If you use Pacifist, the app will set the correct permissions for you.]

- Extract /System/Library/Extensions/IO80211Family.kext from the 10.5.7 package with Pacifist using the method described in the previous step.

- Delete the /System/Library/Caches/ folder.

- Delete /System/Library/Extensions.mkext.

- Empty your trash. Reboot.

- Turn the AirPort back on.

Podcast Production Video

Podcast Production Process from Troy Kitch on Vimeo.

As I mentioned in a previous post, part of my job is to produce a bi-weekly audio podcast (for the National Ocean Service, part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration). Recently, I was asked to put together a presentation about what it takes to produce it. To that end, I made the following video at home on my Mac using a product called ScreenFlow from Telestream.

This screencast provides an overview of the workflow involved in the podcast production process, with a few tips specifically relevant to those who work in the Federal government. However, it's aimed at a general audience. If you're interested in making a podcast with interviews, it'll give you a good sense of the time and resources involved.

It's also a demonstration of ScreenFlow, an outstanding screencasting application. I purchased ScreenFlow a few months ago, and intend to use it for some future projects on this site. It's a bit pricey at $99, but well worth it if you have the need. It's as easy to use as iMovie, and I think the results are stunning. Enjoy.

Hidden Opera

Opera is installed by Adobe as part of the Creative Suite.

Turns out Adobe has been using Opera for years as a rendering engine. I've read that it's used in all kinds of places: to display Adobe Help files, in Device Central (to preview how applications would look in different mobile devices), in Photoshop, in Bridge, and in Dreamweaver (which has apparently been using Opera since Macromedia days). I'm sure this is only a partial list.

With a little digging, I found the hidden Opera installation in the bundled contents of Adobe Bridge (you need to view the application's package contents to peer inside).

I discovered Opera was on my system when opening a torrent. Expecting Transmission to open up, I was surprised to see an Opera browser window. This, it turns out, is a common occurrence. If you run in to this, the easy solution is to right click the .torrent file, choose 'Get Info,' and then choose Transmission. Then choose 'Change All' so that all future torrent files will open with Transmission.

While I was a bit annoyed to see a browser I never installed on my machine, I'm not going to do anything about it since it's needed by my Adobe apps. But it should stay there, behind the scenes. I think I know how this happened. I recently reinstalled Mac OS X and reinstalled all of my applications. I installed the Adobe Creative Suite, and I later installed Transmission. When I opened a torrent link, the Mac OS had was still associating all .torrent files with Opera, as that was (prior to installing Transmission) the only application on my system that would accept this file type. That explains why I had to re-associate the file type. So the real problem here is that the Mac OS associated a file type with an application that is hidden inside a bundle. That seems like odd behavior to me.

And since I'm talking about Adobe applications, I can't pass up the chance to rant about Dvorak-Qwerty. All Adobe apps that were once Macromedia apps (Dreamweaver, Flash, Fireworks) function as expected with the Dvorak-Qwerty keyboard layout. All other Adobe apps do not support the D-Q layout.

This drives me crazy. We're now on the fourth iteration of the Creative Suites, and this inconsistency persists. Guess it's time to send Adobe another message.

Aviary: Worth a Test Flight

Aviary, a collection of online design and editing tools, is an amazing technical feat.

A couple of weeks ago, Aviary brought their online vector editor out of Beta. It's called Raven, and it joins, well, an aviary of other online applications: Phoenix (image editor), Peacock (dubbed a 'visual laboratory'), Toucan (color manager), and Phoenix (an image editor).

These tools are powerful, free to use, and tightly integrated (meaning you can pass your work of art seamlessly back and forth between the different applications). But what really intrigues me about Aviary is where it's heading.

In addition to the current flock of Aviary applications, there are many, many more interesting creative applications coming. We're talking everything from an audio editor to a terrain generator to a word processor. And the Aviary team plans to eventually offer offline versions of their tools via Adobe AIR at some point in the future (interesting to note that Adobe already has an online office suite, and I've read that they plan to bring many of their creative tools to the web, a la Photoshop Express).

The tools at Aviary are free to use, and are well worth your time to check out. No, Phoenix is not as powerful as Photoshop. And no, Raven is not as powerful as Illustrator. But how many users really need that much power? For casual creation, artistic exploration, and simple projects, Aviary is fun and easy to use. I especially like experimenting with Peacock. If the interface seems weird, it's only because we've become so use to Adobe's way of doing things.


Basic usage is free. The catch is that Aviary is, at heart, a social site. So free usage means you are prepared to share your work of art with the world. Also, while you own the full rights to all works you create, Aviary retains a license to display any works you make viewable to the public "within Aviary and in any external publication provided it's in a way that promotes Aviary." Also note that your work will be accessible by others, so someone else can mash up your image and repost it. In this case, your name will appear in the attribution in the new derivative work. It's a great model for encouraging social creativity and sharing.

If you want more control (and more privacy), a pro-level subscription is $10 a month. If you are interested in using these tools to create artwork for, say, a Web site, you'll want to pay the fee. Not a bad deal when you factor in the considerable capabilities of these applications and compare with the cost of Adobe applications. No, Aviary is not as powerful as an Adobe app, but if you can't afford or don't want to purchase an Adobe app or Suite, Aviary offers some powerful tools to create some great art.

I'm an Adobe CS owner and daily user for work and home tasks. I like my Adobe applications. But I hope that services like Aviary thrive. I'd hate to see Adobe completely own the design and editing tool space both on and offline (... and they already own the offline space).

Competition is good, and Aviary is one of many alternatives out there offering innovation and quality service.

Lessons Learned: essential apps, a few tips

I spent the past month on a ship out in the Gulf of Mexico serving as a data manager for a research expedition. I won’t bore you with details about what I was doing, but I want to share some observations about my computing experience. I brought aboard a new 15" Macbook Pro running Leopard with a virtual install (using VMWare Fusion) of Windows 7 Beta. Windows was essential, as the database in which I did my day-to-day work was not Mac compatible. Here are some highlights:

- Data sharing: While many of the people on the trip used Macs, several people used PCs. Among us, we probably had about 30 Terabytes or so of external disk storage. Problems arose when we needed to share data. The PC people’s drives were generally formatted in NTFS. The Mac people typically used HFS+. The NTFS-formatted drives would mount on a Mac, but were read-only. The HFS+ drives would not mount on Windows PCs. No one used the FAT32 format, which is the only format that I’m aware of that is read/write on both platforms. We ended up formatting a few drives in the FAT32 format so these drives could be moved around and shared. Since my disk was one of the external drives that had to be shared around more than others, my solution was to set it up with multiple partitions: an HFS+ partition to use for my SuperDuper Clone backup, and a FAT32 partition for shared data. One interesting note: I formatted a 1TB drive with multiple partitions on a Mac in a matter of minutes. In comparison, it took about eight hours to format a 1TB drive with one FAT partition on a very robust and powerful PC laptop. Egads.

- Data backup: I was surprised that many people did not have a backup solution on the cruise. If their laptop tanked, they would not only potentially lose data, they would be out of commission for the duration of the expedition. I choose a cloned backup over Time Machine for this trip. The reason is simple: if something went terribly wrong with my laptop’s OS, I could at least boot from the cloned external drive and keep working until a point in time when I could take a time out to restore from the clone back. With Time Machine, I would have had to stop working until I solved the problem or restored the backup to the laptop (which can be very time consuming).

- Force-eject a CD: It’s good to know how to do this. At one point during my trip, I placed a corrupted DVD in my SuperDrive and couldn’t get it to eject. Usually, I can get a stuck disc to pop out by evoking terminal and typing the command ‘drutil tray eject.’ That didn’t work. I tried disk utility. That didn’t work. The solution: I had to disconnect the drive from Windows, as it was in use by Windows via VMWare Fusion.

- TextExpander: Data entry often entails typing the same thing over and over again. TextExpander is unbelievably useful for these sorts of repetitive tasks. In my case, I needed to paste the same blocks of text into my Windows database. I wasn’t sure if TextExpander would work from Mac to PC, but it did. It wasn’t as easy as it is on the Mac (i.e., I couldn’t use TextExpander abbreviations in Windows), but it did the job. Once I had TextExpander populated with a slew of repetitive text snippets, all I had to do was select a snippet from the Mac drop-down menu, then click on it to paste it to the clipboard, then paste into the relevant field in my Windows database. It was a bit cumbersome, but much easier than typing the same thing over and over again.

- Screenshots: I was planning to use Little Snapper to capture screen shots, but found this application to be too cumbersome and bloated for my tastes. I like the idea behind Little Snapper. It looks great. But it just didn’t fit into my workflow. I found myself turning to Yellow Mug’s SnapnDrag. It’s tiny, unobtrusive, and does the job well. It stays out of the way. I’ve tried so many different screen shots apps, and I keep coming back to SnapnDrag.

- iPhone: The only entertainment I brought on my trip was my iPhone. I brought music, books-on-tape, games, and some books to read via the Kindle and Stanza book reading apps. Overall, the iPhone did the job. I was duly entertained. The one exception is this: the tiny screen didn’t cut it for reading a book. It’s a nice idea. It’s not bad for quick reads like poetry or short stories. But it’s just not a comfortable or enjoyable experience when it comes to reading an entire book in my opinion. Next time I’ll bring a real book. Or perhaps I’ll have one of those Mac tablet-touchscreen-Kindlesque-thingies rumored to be just around the corner. Final point: the iPhone also served me well for screenshots on the go. In case you didn’t know this, if you press the two buttons on your iPhone or Touch at the same time, you device will take a snapshot of your screen and place the image in your Photo library. Very handy.

- VMWare Fusion: I can’t speak highly enough about this app. The ability to seamlessly run Windows alongside my Mac, to switch back and forth on the fly, to share folders, and to drag-and-drop between the two operating systems was priceless. Perhaps we take this for granted now, but just a few short years ago this would have been unthinkable.

Entrain the brain

Now for something completely different.

Let's talk about entrainment, the process by which wave frequencies in two or more interacting systems with different periods eventually lock into phase. You see it nature, for example, when fireflies start blinking together in unison. You hear it in music when different instruments in a jam session start to vibrate together in harmony. It even happens in our bodies. When you slow your breath, it leads to a slowing of heartbeat and brainwaves.

Now let's talk about binaural beats. Binaural beats are perceived sounds which naturally arise in the brain when two slightly different frequencies are played separately into each ear. It's best explained with an example: if you listen to a 405 Hz frequency (sine wave) in one ear and a 398 Hz wave in the other ear, your brainwaves will start to oscillate towards a frequency of 7 Hz, or the difference between the two sounds. This process happens through entrainment.

Here's the interesting part: while human hearing is limited to an approximate range of frequencies between 20 Hz to 20,000 Hz, brainwave frequencies associated with relaxation, REM sleep, meditation, and deep sleep fall below the 20 Hz threshold.


What this means is that binaural beats can, in theory, be used to entrain your brain to frequencies that fall below perceived human hearing. If you search for brain entrainment on the Web, you'll find a slew of articles, thing for sale, and wild claims. And I know of at least one institute that will gladly take lots of your money to provide you with a life-changing (patented) brain entrainment experience at their facility.

My interest is more casual. I first came across the idea of binaural beats and brain entrainment back in the early 1990s while researching a paper in college. I found the idea intriguing. I played around with an oscilloscope to observe two waves suddenly lock together after growing closer and closer together. I found the idea of it fascinating.

Then, at some point (the timeline is a bit fuzzy), I came across a sound editor called Syntrillium Cool Edit Pro. This was a classy PC audio editor that once, to my surprise, included a somewhat-obscure menu for creating sound files for brain entrainment using binaural beats and pink noise. I tried it. I liked it. While I didn't have any crazy experiences, I did find that some of the files I created were effective for relaxation, meditation, and focus.

As I recall, the brain entrainment submenu disappeared at the next Cool Edit Pro software update after I started using it. I don't know why. Then, years later, Cool Edit Pro was bought out by Adobe. It is now called Adobe Audition.

Fast forward to 2009. While the auditory intrigue of brain entrainment (or, more accurately, the effects of this technique) remains in the speculative and hypothetical range, there are now several choices for the PC and the iPhone/Touch to try this out for yourself. The desktop programs are nice, but these are audio-centric apps that require headphones. It should come as no surprise, then, that the iPhone/Touch apps really shine.

Here's what you can get for your Mac, Windows, or Linux box

<1. SBaGen. (Mac, Linux, Windows) This is a good, free choice if you like to roll your own, are comfortable with the Terminal, and don't mind getting your hands a bit dirty. There are sample sounds for backgrounds you can download at the site. If you want to have some fun, and are the type of person who likes the DIY ethic, try it out.

2. BrainWave Generator. (Windows only) This isn't a Mac app, but I used it in my PC days. It hasn't really changed at all since those days, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. It's like SBaGen, but it has a Windows user interface and is much easier to use. It offers a lot of user control to fine tune frequency settings. It's shareware. It now costs $40 to buy a private license, which is steep for an app that hasn't been updated since 2005.

2. Pzizz. (Mac, Windows) I tried the trial when it first came out a while back. It uses binaural beats, but also mixes in sound effects, people talking, and music in some sort of fancy algorithm. Many people like it. I didn't care for it. Why? I can only say it's a matter of personal preference. I preferred the free SBaGen. I preferred it, that is, until I found the iPhone apps.

But this was made for the iPhone/Touch

1. Binaural Beats. Free. Offers presets with nice background music. You can also try Easy Relax Ultimate from the same company for $2.99. I found the free Binaural Beats app worked for me as a relaxation and sleep aid.

2. AmbiScience. Try the full app for $.99 or the Lite free version. For the price, the $.99 app is nice application that does the job well. It includes entrainment for relaxing, meditating, focusing, or sleeping. The interface is pleasant. I bought it. I use it.

3. mind Wave. The cost is $1.99. Haven't tried this one. It includes some interesting choices such as headache treatment, weight loss, and creativity boost. I'm a bit skeptical, but it's not very expensive. You can also opt for "mind Freek," a separate app from the same developer that also costs $1.99, and offers more esoteric settings such as astral projections, out of body experience, etc. Sounds wacky, and results may vary...but it's cheap and may be fun to try. I think I'll probably pass.

There you have it. Does this work, or is it pseudoscience? The truth is likely somewhere in between. I will vouch for it as a tool for sleeping, meditation, relaxation, and focus. What is certain is it costs next to nothing to try aural brain entrainment. So why not?

OpenDNS + DynDNS + DNS-O-Matic

I finally got around to setting up a few services on my Mac related to dynamic DNS hosting. Having done so, I'm asking myself why I didn't do this long ago.

So, what is dynamic DNS? Here's a brief and imperfect overview. Let's start with DNS, or Domain Naming System. This, broadly speaking, is a service that translates hostnames into numbers that a computer can understand, and vice-versa. It's DNS that allows you to type '' instead of a hard-to-remember number like (an IP address). Your computer has an IP address. All the sites you visit have an IP address. Everything that accesses the internet has an IP address.

The thing about IP addresses is that, for a variety of reasons, there are only a finite number of them to go around.

This affects you directly. Because of this scarcity, your Internet Service Provider (ISP) only has a finite number of addresses to pass out to all the computers using that ISP that wish to access the internet.

The result of this shuffling act means that the address of your computer is changing all the time. That makes it hard to get back to your computer if you are remote and need to connect to, say, grab some important documents. Enter the dynamic DNS hosting service.

The folks at OpenDNS took a look at dynamic DNS hosting and asked 'What else could we do with this?' The result is a service that does a number of interesting things. OpenDNS does not provide you with an unchanging, easy-to-remember hostname (actually, it does track your ever-changing IP address, but only for its own purposes). What it does do is serve as your primary DNS server (instead of the DNS server used by your ISP). You don't need to install any software. You simply need to point your computer (or router) to the OpenDNS DNS servers. Read on if you're not sure why you should care.

This is a service owned by OpenDNS which basically does one thing: it transmits your current IP address to whatever services you are using. In my case, it ensures that both DynDNS and OpenDNS get my latest IP address from my ISP.

So what do I get out of this?

- With DynDNS, I can now use my user-created hostname to help me remotely access files on my Mac using SSH (Secure Shell). If I didn't have DynDNS, I would not know my current ISP-assigned IP address. With it, I always do.

- With OpenDNS, I get a big boost in speed and reliability when surfing the web. In my case (using Comcast), I would often type in a site address and it would take a bit of time for the page to load. Sometimes, nothing seemed to be happening at all. With OpenDNS, I've experienced a noticeable difference in speed, and I've experienced no delays in page look-ups.

- OpenDNS also offers several other added features that make it very worthwhile. Essentially, they've taken a basic service (dynamic DNS) and built in a bunch of extra useful stuff built around it. With this service, I can block access to certain types of sites. I get an added layer of built-in phishing protection. I also get sophisticated error-checking (for those times when I type in 'cmo' instead of 'com,' for instance). For those times that OpenDNS can't quite figure out what I'm looking for, the service offers helpful suggestions. I can also create shortcuts (e.g., I created one for this site that enables me to enter 'vfd' in the browser instead of the full web address). Finally, I can view stats related to all of the visited domains and IP addresses accessed through my router.

- DNS-O-Matic, finally, is a simple service that ensures that DynDNS and OpenDNS always have my latest IP address. If you don't use these services, you may choose to sync your IP address with a whole slew of other similar applications as well. I opted to use this service in lieu of installing the DynDNS client software on my Mac.

All three of these services are currently free. It takes a little effort to set it all up, but it's worth it. If you have no need for a consistent hostname for remotely accessing your Mac, then you may not need a service like DynDNS. However, OpenDNS is worth the effort for the speed and reliability boost alone.

One final note: OpenDNS collects information about your surfing habits, so be sure to check out their privacy policy.


ProQuoWe get our furniture and other household goods from Hawaii this Friday. All of our stuff will finally join us here in Maryland…and I will soon once again be able to sit at a proper desk in a proper chair to update this site.

Now that we have a new mailing address, I decided to start off right by stopping the influx of junk mail to our new abode before it even starts.

I’m using a free online service (still in beta) called ProQou, a one-stop source to turn off all of those unwanted mailings.

It’s easy to use. Time will tell how well it works. If you get a lot of junk in your mailbox, check it out.

MacRabbit Espresso

EspressoGrab a cup of coffee. We already have Bean, the excellent and free rich text editor. Soon, we will have Espresso from MacRabbit, creator of the best-in-class CSS editor, CSSEdit.

Reading through the features, it looks like Espresso will be a hybrid application that combines many of the coding-friendly features of BBEdit or TextMate with the great UI and navigation of CSSEdit (to include CSSEdit’s live preview functionality). It also offers built-in publishing tools. It is geared towards web development, so it will surely be a strong Panic Coda alternative as well. Can’t wait to test it out.

I’ve signed up for the beta.

LibraryThing and Delicious Library

Today is the Ides of March, the day of Julius Caesar's untimely demise in 44 B.C. What's does this have to do with the Mac?

Well, I first thought of Caesar. Then I thought of Colleen McCullough's excellent Masters of Rome historical fiction series, which I recently finished reading. That got me thinking about books in general. Then I thought about Delicious Library and LibraryThing, two excellent bookish tools you can use on your Mac. Hence, this post.

Delicious Library

Delicious Library, from Delicious Monster, is a cataloguing tool that is perhaps the most ingenious use of the Mac's built-in iSight I've seen. Scan the barcodes of your books with your iSight (or any webcam or connected FireWire digital video camera) to create a digital catalog. Then browse through your new digital collection. You can synch up your catalog with your iPod, print out your catalog, and get personalized recommendations based on your collection. If you regularly lend out your books to friends, you can use the tool's loan management system to keep track of who has what. I can't put my finger on it, but I find it oddly enjoyable to scan barcodes on my Mac. Beyond being fun to use, it's a great inventory tool.


LibraryThing is a web-based social 'book club' with a user-based catalogue of 24,000,000 books and growing. Wow. Create a free account to get started, enter some books from your library, write a book review, join a discussion group, get some recommendations based on your catalog. You can choose to add just a few books that you most recently read, or enter your entire library (if you enter more than 200 books, you will need to pay a modest fee). Or just surf around to see what others are reading. I could spend days on this page alone. The strength of this tool is its depth of information: pick a title and check out the book info and social info pages to see what I mean. I don't think you'll find better, non-commercial info about a book anywhere on the web. If you really like books, you owe it to yourself to check this out. It's a great discovery tool.

More Connections

By the way, the series of connections that led to this post led me to think of James Burke. I used to love reading his Connections column in Scientific American (he is probably most well-known for his excellent BBC television series). Burke specializes in tracing the interconnectivity of things: how events and inventions in the distant past lead up to the modern day. The connections he makes can be surprising (an example from the TV series: Burke shows how a test of gold’s purity 2500 years ago leads to the atomic bomb).

Check out the James Burke Institute Knowledge Web project — I've had this site bookmarked for years awaiting it's launch. From the Knowledge Web site: "it will soon be an interactive space on the web where students, teachers, and other knowledge seekers can explore information in a highly interconnected, holistic way that allows for an almost infinite number of paths of exploration among people, places, things, and events."

N: the way of the ninja

I accidentally discovered a great Mac-compatible game today, and ended up losing a whole afternoon of productivity.

Here’s what happened. I use LaunchBar to quickly access programs on my Mac. This afternoon, I typed the keyboard shortcut for LaunchBar (-space bar), typed ‘n,’ and then hit return. This is my two-second method to launch NetNewsWire. But I must have misfired, because LaunchBar never opened.

Instead, I inadvertently typed ‘n’ in the address bar of FireFox and hit return. This accident loaded an intriguing page for something called ‘N’ from a company called ‘metanet software.’ There was little on this page, save for a link that said ‘Come and check out N’s new home, at The Way of the Ninja!'

Unable to resist a link with the word ‘Ninja’ in it, I clicked. What I found there was a free Flash game for Mac and PC. Of course, I downloaded it and fired it up. To my surprise, I had stumbled upon the coolest lightweight free game I’ve seen in a long time. The graphics are simple, but the physics simulation is really something to see. This game is beyond addictive. N may be old news to gamers out there, but it was news to me.

Give it a try, if only to watch how smoothly and elegantly the little stick-figure ninja moves around the game space (and explodes spectacularly, employing what the developer’s accurately label ‘bitchin’ ragdoll physics').

I had intended to restart work on my PIM review series this afternoon…sigh.