Saturday, August 25, 2012

Stay Frosty

"[I'll post] Sooner than a month, at least" I wrote 5 months ago. So much for that goal, eh?

As usual, I've been grinding on a post about this summer's movies, and often didn't get past a list or a half-hearted comment on each.  The short version is my favorite movies this year were 21 Jump Street and The Cabin in the Woods.  The new kid flick (just barely), ParaNorman, had a couple good laughs, but I'd wait for the DVD.  The final witch ghost scene will likely scare the holy hell out of the more sensitive kids (I got goosebumps), so you may want to preview it and judge first. The one I was looking forward to the most, Prometheus (the Alien prequel), was a huge disappointment.  Like most, when two scientists encounter a penis cobra (not my coinage) and the first thing they think of is taking off their spacesuit glove and touching it with their bare hand, I wondered how long the rest of the movie was going to be. Of course, I'll see the sequel they set up at the end and grouse about it here.

The thing I really enjoyed the most though was a cancelled series by Joss Whedon called Dollhouse (and, btw, pronounce his first name ending with "s" as in snake, and not "sh" as in shit, because that's what you'll get if you mispronounce it to a fanboy).  The premise is that a technology exists that  removes your personality (including muscle memory and other goodies), stores it on a hard drive, and then installs another personality into you.  People whose lives have gotten sticky can sell five years to become a "doll" that rich people rent out for whatever, after which you get yourself back and you're a millionaire with no memory of any of the nasty things they made you do.  See if your local library has it; it's a trip.  The pilot starts slow, so soldier on to the end and likely you'll be hooked.

One of my favorite moments IRL in the last couple weeks was during a voyage to Target with my daughters. The eldest has bloomed into quite a teenage beauty, and it’s fun to watch the boys try to be subtle (and failing every time). The 7-year-old wanted to buy a toy with her allowance money, and so brought along her new little blue purse (she used to use a box with a handle meant for recipe cards, Lord knows why). When it came time to pay, I had to do the digging for the correct change because even though she understands currency somewhat, she still wants me to make sure the change is right. Among the contents was a single blue crayon. I held it up with a questioning look and she said that you never know when you’re going to need to color something.  I still smile at the memory.

Musically I've fallen hard for Ska recently.  I've always kinda dug it, but preferred it mixed in with other songs.  Now I can groove to 2 hours of the stuff.  I've always loved myself a good horn section, which is mandatory in Ska.  My most surprising discovery is the now-defunct band called The Dance Hall Crashers.  I've had their great song "Enough" on many mixCDs, but guessed incorrectly that I wouldn't like the rest of their songs (and back then there was no way to listen to other songs without financial commitment).  Well, after a trip to Grooveshark (more on that in a bit), I realized I like nearly everything they've done.  Other current favorites are Mayer Hawthorne's How Do You Do, Joan Osborne's (remember "what if God was one of us"?) Bring It On Home, and the single from the last Van Halen, "Stay Frosty" - another David Lee Roth classic.  Oh, and almost forgot Joe Walsh's Analog Man, produced by Jeff Lynne (of ELO) with members of The Beatles, The Eagles, and Crosby, Stills, and Nash in guest spots. (I don't know why the links take you away from my page. I've set it so it's supposed to spawn a new window, but apparently Amazon grabs the link and forces the page change.  Bad on them.)

I had a Macintosh as my main computer at home for about half a year now (the time I did little writing I now realize), but it's an old hand-me-down, and the video port suddenly forgot what the color red was, so I procured an old hand-me-down laptop with a huge display (but a battery as dead as Rush Limbaugh's conscience), and put Xubuntu on it.  Gad I love that freakin' OS.

However, with having a Mac for a while, and now a Linux box, I had to hunt for software so I could work and play regardless of the computer I happened to be sitting at.

Here's a rundown of the best free software and web sites I've run across in this voyage, with a strong bias towards software that has a package for the 3 main OS's (Vinders, Mork, Linus).

Music and Sound
Grooveshark is a website that allows you to find and que up about any song there is.  If you create a free login, you can save your songlists to replay later.  It also has a radio station feature like Pandora if you want someone else to throw songs atcha.

If you find yourself a good Stream Ripper for your OS (the one I use on Xubuntu is Audio Recorder), you can record the stream and chop out the individual songs if you'd like.  (Of course most of the artists would hate you for that, and typically I do it to test-drive a song, and if I like it, go nab a good copy from Amazon for a buck.)

Another place to grab free (and legally free) music, is the Gorilla vs. Bear site.  This link is a shortcut to their monthly mixes, so make sure you check out the website proper as well.  If you like anything in the mixes, the track listing shows the time the track starts so you can snip it out as a single.

To chop up or edit sound files, Audacity is awesome. Be sure to also grab the "lame" encoder if you're on Windows or Mac.

This, of course, implies that you'll listen to it on some portable device.  The iHome rechargeable mini speaker is the size of a single-serving tin can of veggies and sounds pretty amazing.  I got one for sitting outside and watching the little one play, but my teenager uses it when I'm not. (She just grooved through the room with it dialed to 11 as I was writing this.) It lasts about a week on one charge.  $20 at most Targets, office supplies, etc.

Finally, check out Amazon's MP3 best sellers list.  The one on the right is the freebies, and they have many sampler anthologies that almost always have a good song or two.

Word Processors
By accident, I found this wonderful word processor that's tailored for distraction-free writing: FocusWriter.  When you launch it, it takes up the whole screen and does not allow other apps or OS messages to popup at you and harsh your mellow.  So, if you're gonna have Grooveshark swimming in the background, get it going first.  You can set the screen colors, or even have a groovy picture as the background, and set the font color and size for optimum visibility.  It saves in RTF and ODT format, so all other word processors can open the files for final buffing for presentation, but you'll likely not even need that unless you have to include tables or pictures. I LOVE THIS THING!

AbiWord has finally fulfilled the promise of a nice, stand-alone, fully-featured word processor, and I recommend it if all you want is a solid word processor. It's peppy and does most of what you want.  If you need a page layout app, then there are many good free ones.

By now most folks know of the full-featured word processor in the LibreOffice free office suite, but it's a bit of a hog and takes a while to load, and you have to install just it if you don't want the rest of the office suite sucking up hard drive space better suited for music and pics. (In my experience, not a lot of folks use anything other than the word processor from an office suite at home.  Some use a spreadsheet, but typically at work if they do. If you do use one though, LibreOffice's is very good and I've never seen it have a problem with even complicated Excel spreadsheets.)

Graphic Editing
Only people who make a living at graphic design or photography need to pop for the blindingly expensive Photoshop.  Both Photofiltre and provide all of the things you need for typical home or web site editing.  I prefer Photofiltre because it's so simple and intuitive, but provides layers, which sometimes is a must.  (Here are two downloads for Photofiltre: the primary download site, the portable apps slice that's a slightly higher version.)  Sadly, both of these are Windows only.

If you need all the power of Photoshop, of course there's the free conteder, the GIMP, but it's really geeky and takes a while to learn how to use the complex features.  But if you want to do Dooce's wonderful "Glow Effect," you'll need the GIMP.  There are several web tutorials on how to use it, as well.  It also has a version for every OS.

Video Viewing
Don't bother with the bloated and bitchy video viewers that come with Windows and Mac.  They're hogs, they don't have half the video format docoders, and they try so hard to help you just watch a freakin video you have to click through much shite just to do that.  And they crash like teenage drivers.  Neither can open the formats used by most smart phones.

Get yourself VLC/VideoLan.  There is not yet a video format I've found it can't open.  It's solid.  It lets you navigate in the timeline easy, and you can tweak the video and audio to perfection.  It's the must-have video viewer.  I have no idea why their icon is a traffic cone, though.

As you can see, I've added some of the recommended sites and software to the menu on the right for easy reference.

You may have noticed that I didn't mention online applications like Google Office, online photo editors and the like.  "The cloud" has many fine offerings, and I use them once in a great while.  The problem is, if something's in the cloud, you have to think of it as postcard - anyone can see it if they try hard enough, and the hosting company certainly will, as will your internet provider because it goes through their network and servers on the way to its storage particle in the cloud. I used Google Office to write the posts for this blog until Google essentially replaced the editor on Blogger with the Google Office editor (which I use now).  Since all posts were destined to be posted online anyway, there was no problem with writing them there in the first place, and it allowed me to do so where-ever I had access to a computer.  Pretty cool.

But, that great novel you're working on, spicy pictures of your spouse - or even innocuous, sweet family photos, wills, financials, and anything that's essentially private should stay on your local computer, and be backed up regularly (once a month at least).  Post only photos you intend to on the web.  Storing all of your photos on a cloud service, like flickr, still makes them available to others. (Think of the creepy bastard neckbeard IT guy at work, because another version of him is managing the site your pictures are on.)  In addition, they've written algorithms to recognize certain content, like nudes.  If you have a pic of your kids in the tub out there, you may get a visit from a cop.  Also, most sites have buried in their terms of use that they essentially own the copy you've placed on their servers so that you can't sue them if they lose it.  Yeah, you still retain "rights" to it, but they have some too.

So, view the cloud as that friend you can't lend anything to that's valuable.  You only lend it to them if you're ok with them losing it, even in a public place, which they've managed by leaving it on the shelf on a store somewhere because they got a call while holding it, set it down then forgot.  Only lend the cloud things you can bear to lose or don't care if your boss sees it.