Monday, February 28, 2005

Audio Hijack Pro

I had been using the demo version of this software but I have now upgraded to the "real" thing and it is worth a quick review.
What is audio hijacking? Basically it is the ability to capture audio data that is being processed by your computer and writing it to a file such as an mp3 format.

Why would you want to do that? Well, the most logical use would be to capture an internet broadcast and save it for listening at some future time, just like making a video of a favorite TV show. But it could also be used to hijack sound from a movie DVD, or from a news broadcast. With an iPod available, this makes listening to internet radio possible when far from a connection. The sound file could also be burned to a CD for playing on a regular sound system.

How does it work? Well, the guys that wrote the software know the answer to that question, but the workings are quite simple, just like a VCR! And you can also use a timer to schedule the recording of a show, again, just like a VCR.

Of course, it helps if you hit the record button at the start and the stop button at the end. Actually getting this right is just about impossible, so the best method is to record more than you need and then edit out the beginning and ending surplus within iMovie. This takes a while to accomplish but is worth it if you want to archive the file as an mp3 in iTunes. Pete explains some of the machinations here.

Audo Hijack Pro has some neat bells and whistles which I have yet to understand, never mid try out! But it is definitely another piece in my multimedia puzzle and it fits!

Sunday, February 27, 2005

OS X Software Recommendations

Here is a list of some additional software solutions we have on one or more of our Macs. Several of the items are free shareware, the rest are relatively inexpensive (cost less than $50). All are useful:

Aquascribus - the front end for open source Scribus. Aquascribus sits in your Dock and basically works its way to Scribus without all the UNIX terminal fuss. Free.

Audio Hijack Pro - the more sophisticated product, Audio Hijack will do just fine for $10 less. Great for capturing audio from internet radio sites as well as old LPs and cassettes. If you want to listen to recent broadcasts on your iPod, this seems to be the best solution. $32.

Chicken of the VNC - see OSXvnc. Free.

Deepvacuum will suck an entire web site onto your hard drive. We haven't used it much! Free.

Fink and FinkCommander are essential if you plan to load a lot of UNIX software programs, such as Scribus. Free.

Firefox - the "in" browser. We still use Safari, but it's good to know there's a reliable alternative out there to compete with Microsoft Exploder! Free.

MacGPS Pro - the best GPS software for the Mac. Free upgrades are e-mailed regularly. $39.99

Mac the Ripper - Rip a DVD onto your hard drive and say goodbye to regional codes, etc. Works great with VLC (see below). Free.

NetNewsWire - a great RSS tool. Downloads news items and features every half an hour. A great way to stay up to date with the news and your favorite websites. $39.95

OSXvnc - A vertual network connection server. This is on our desktop G4. The client software is Chicken of the VNC. This allows us to control the G4 from our PowerBooks, giving true portability to all our computing power. Free.

Scribus - the open source version of QuarkXpress or InDesign. Has serious limitations in font selection and printing control, but a good effort to provide DTP for the casual user for $0. Use with Aquascribus, Fink and FinkCommander if you want to retain your sanity! Free.

VLC - an alternative to DVD Player by Apple. Works well with ripped DVDs (see Mac the Ripper). Not all DVDs work with this software, particularly those with lots of "extra features". Free.

Apple bundles a lot of excellent free software with OS X and in addition there are relatively inexpensive bundles like iLife 05 that add a lot of productivity for the dollar. In many ways it is what Apple "gives away" with their computers that provides the hidden advantage over Windoze machines. Spend a weekend with iLife 05 (free with a Mac Mini) and you'll understand.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

London - Part 2 - Apple iPod Shuffle

Fired up by the ability to listen to BBC Radio 4 on the train going in to London, and also needing to visit the new Apple Store on Regent Street to ask their advice about where to get plotting done (plotting in the graphics sense, not terrorist) in London, I ended up buying the 512 MByte iPod Shuffle. It's insanely great! My advice: get one, or two. Or get one of the now less expensive iPod Photos or iPod Minis. I don't care which, just buy one (or two or three). And it's probably not too late to buy Apple stock!

Oh yes, the Apple Store Bullring (Birmingham) is now scheduled to open in May, or so they told me.

London - Part 1 - Getting There

With snow falling and more in the forecast it was with a certain level of doubt that I drove to the station this morning. But all my latent fears evaporated as the new Adalente train crept into the station, albeit 10 minutes late. Gone are the Thames Turbos (which were not that bad) and these new 5 car high speed trains are their replacement on the sometimes single track Cotswold Line (London Paddington to Hereford via Oxford, Worcester and Malvern). I rode in Carriage A (the front) which has audio outlets in the seats and special baby changing facilities (which I didn't need). Carriage E is the Quiet Zone with no cell phones. There's a buffet car as well. Cool! Well do I remember 15 years ago on the same line - a cold, no freezing cold, 2 car train that took forever and basically went slower the further is went from London until it seemed to be going in reverse.

The return journey was just as good, but, and this is the interesting part of the observation, both trains were FULL, standing room only between Oxford and London. If you improve the service, people actually want to use it.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

How politicians speak

Today's Daily Telegraph carries an interesting piece by ex-Prime Minister John Major. This is a strong condemnation of "New Labour" and its tactics. Major blames the man at the top, Tony Blair, for much of the decay in the political process and notes that voter turnout in the UK's next election could be lower than in Iraq's recent election.

Last evening I was listening (on KCRW) to George Bush's speech in Brussels and I could not help but remember an observation made by a learned medical friend a couple of years ago that Bush has a problem speaking long sentences. It's not that he's stupid (he has an excellent education record) it's that he has to pause after so many words. No doubt his speech writers cater to this.

Tony Blair has a somewhat similar oratorial style to Bush - only he likes to omit verbs from sentences. One example of a Blair sentence: "The kids, the future of our nation". Again, short phrases (can't call this a sentence!) seem to be the order of the day.

Why? Well, apart from the possibility that these styles are inherent, it seems to me that the speech writers are on to something. Short phrases, soundbites. World peace, around the corner. Must work together. Basically they're ready made headlines. Which says a lot for journalism, doesn't it!

Thursday, February 17, 2005

iLife '05 iPhoto First Impressions

I bought iLife '05 today and have started to evaluate the potential of iPhoto's new features. Having seen the video of Steve Jobs doing a slick promotional demo at MacWorld in January I was eager to try out this significant upgrade. So far the new tools seem to work extremely well. iPhoto will not replace advanced image management software like Photoshop but it does the basic editing extremely well and very quickly. A good example is the Straighten tool in the Adjust window (which in itself is a portent of what we can expect from Tiger (OS X 10.4) with a translucent dark grey "dashboard" dialog box).

Click on the toolbar and slide the slider to left or right. A square grid switches on, great for aligning horizons, verticals, etc., and the image rotates and zooms so that the exercise automatically includes a crop when the image is judged to be in the right position. The tool is sensitive and can be stepped one small increment at a time. Then, when you move on to the next image iPhoto saves the changes automatically (tho' you can reset your editing and move on without any changes). It has occurred to me that making backup CDs of image downloads would be a good idea before any editing is done.

The photo book options have been greatly enhanced. Personally I had never considered this option before but the variety offered has made me think again. So I chose an album theme, selected images and then put together a book using full layout control (there is also an autoflow option to speed things up and this can be edited in order to fine tune the layout and sequence of the images). The book used a simple "theme" but other themes allow for annotation of individual images as well as an introduction. Very intuitive, very easy and very pleasing! I don't have an account set up for printing so I have not sent the files off but the pricing is reasonable. This appears to be a great way to obtain hard copy of the best shots! In many ways this is the final piece of the digital photography puzzle.

Another interesting option is the calendar. Because digital cameras record the date (and many other parameters) into the file, iPhoto can sort images chronologically and it is easy to open the calendar and scan what was taken on a particular date. Of course this doesn't work with scanned images from slides as the file creation date will reflect the date the slide was scanned.

So, at first look, yes, iPhoto seems to be an excellent application.

Monday, February 14, 2005

Off road in Eastern Venezuela

I took this picture a year ago, somewhere in Eastern Venezuela. The day was Carnival (Mardi Gras) and I decided to work rather than play. Luis Contreras, who owns the Chevy 4 wheel drive in the picture, agreed to accompany me. Well, we really did find ourselves off road, looking for old oil wells. So I got out to take this photo. Then I remembered what someone had said earlier about Venezuelan wildlife and snakes in particular:

"There are fifty species of snake in Venezuela. Forty eight are deadly poisonous. The other two can squeeze you to death!"

I have this rather stupid theory when in snake country: stomp around and the vibrations will scare them all away. Seemed to work in this case!

Sunday, February 13, 2005

One very large aligator!

About six years ago we visited one of our favorite haunts along the Texas Gulf Coast, Anahuac National Wildlife Reserve, and saw more aligators that day than we have seen since despite returning often. This one was the oldest and largest, about twelve feet from nose to tail. Note how many teeth are missing!

And this is what Anuahac looks like (well, it actually doesn't look like this any more, the area had just been cleaned out and it is now overgrown again). The area is called Shoveler Pond and is a great location for all sorts of wildlife. Levees provide a dirt road from which wildlife can be studied and photographed. Cars are great bird blinds and of course they offer a large measure of safety from fast moving 'gators!

At the time we owned a Jeep Safari and here is April with telephoto lens at the ready for that Aligator photo!

Saturday, February 12, 2005

Fuji Finepix S7000 Update

Last month I mentioned that I had put new batteries in my Fuji S7000 with good results. This was not the end of the story, for further research showed that my camera was one of the first built and had a serious flaw - the Off switch didn't isolate the batteries! I was told to return the camera for an upgrade. This could have been a problem as I bought the camera in the US and international warranties are just about as good as an expired visa to Russia. But Fuji agreed that, as I have relocated, they would honor their mistake here in the UK. A mailing package duly arrived with an interesting expanding bubble pack that safely cushioned the camera for its journey through the Royal Mail system. I mailed the package last Saturday and 6 days later it was returned, fully repaired, with a nice apology. Fuji has always been my favorite film source and they certainly scored a few points digitally! So I took it out in the murky greyness of a February afternoon and here is the result:

This is of Campden Manor House, mostly destroyed during the 17th Century Civil War (Cromwell's army ransacked the Manor House which belonged to King Charles' chancellor, Sir Baptist Hicks). The red stains on the few remaining walls of the main house are from the conflagration.

Friday, February 11, 2005

Internet Banking and the "Serious Windows Flaw(s)"

April spent three hours this morning attempting to work with her internet banking account. All sorts of problems that, the customer service manager explained, are to do with internet viruses, hacking into secure sites, blah blah blah. Then came the clincher. We use Macintosh and the programmers are so busy modifying their code that the Mac version has yet to be tested.

Wait a moment. As Mac users we basically don't experience any of these problems but we are placed at the back of the line when the programmers do their re-writes and testing to insure that the "majority" of users can continue to have a trouble-free experience. There's something wrong with that line of reasoning.

To have someone else explain, and thereby add a little credibility to my argument, take a look at this article by Mark Morford of the San Francisco Chronicle. Entitled Why Does Windows Still Suck? Why do PC users put up with so many viruses and worms? Why isn't everyone on a Mac? this makes for interesting reading. As Windows users, your experience may vary, but, as I told the Customer Service Manager, to his utmost astonishment, I have never had a virus on a Mac in nearly fifteen years on a variety of Mac machines and operating systems.

Do read the article. Its level of tragi-comedy puts the blame fairly and squarely on Microsoft's shoulders. Here is a small passage to put you in the mood:

Here is your brand new car, sir. Drive it off the lot. Yay yay new car. Suddenly, new car shuts off. New car barely starts again and then only goes about 6 miles per hour and it belches smoke and every warning light on the dashboard is blinking on and off and the tires are screaming and the heater is blasting your feet and something smells like burned hair. You hobble back to the dealer, who only says, gosh, sorry, we thought you knew -- that's they way they all run. Enjoy!

Saturday, February 05, 2005

Internet Radio Recommendations

I have to admit that I miss American radio! How can this be, you may ask. Well, in the UK there are three basic choices: the BBC (lots of choice but all BBC), Classic FM (good but it gets on one's nerves after a while, too syrupy, too much emphasis on Top 10s) and commercial radio (with a local emphasis and noisy "transatlantic" DJs that quite honestly make them suck).

So, with broadband, why not search the internet. Here are two favorites: though this is now a part of, so check both links in the future as they may break. This station has no voice overs but does have one strange quirk which we don't mind. The mix is mostly classical but every so often Loreena McKennitt is included - no doubt the mixer has a penchant for this Celtic songstress!

Public Radio in the States is something special - listener supported community radio that is everything you don't expect from America. One favorite is KCRW from Los Angeles. Good mix of music, current affairs, etc. etc. that is cosmopolitan. If you happen to come across a fundraiser, don't despair, pledge! They need the money.

Both these stations are listed on iTunes radio.