Tech notes

For those who are interested in such things …

  • For web browsing I’ve mostly switched to using Google Chrome, primarily because it is fast and uncluttered and not prone to freezing up or eating all my system memory, as Firefox has become prone to do. It also has some interface innovations that I have learned to love.

    Chrome’s main drawback is that it is pretty new, and as a result some of the niceties we’ve come to expect from a browser aren’t there yet. Most painful is that it doesn’t  yet accommodate plug-ins, which are coming in May. I keep an instance of Firefox running specifically because there are a couple of plug-ins I depend on to get work done.

    I suppose some folks would also find it a problem that this is a Google product. It doesn’t bother me, but I am not especially concerned about my privacy so I am not a good judge.

  • One of those Firefox plug-ins I depend on is Firebug, a utility for inspecting and debugging web pages. Firebug is astonishing. You can point at any element of a web page and see the code that produced it in another window. Maybe more important, it tells you all the CSS rules that apply to that particular element.

    Best of all, though, you can actually change the HTML and CSS code on the fly, and immediately see the results. I use this a lot to tweak the display, changing font sizes and margins and such until I like what I see, then making those changes permanent by adding them to to the appropriate files.

  • Another Firefox plugin I use all the time is Delicious Bookmarks. The only reason I use is because there is a nice WordPress plugin that will create a sidebar listing your most recently bookmarked web pages; I use that to maintain my Curiosities sidebar. The Delicious Bookmarks plugin adds a button to the toolbar which, when I click it, bookmarks the currently displayed page and opens a window where I can add a note to the bookmark; the link and note are then added to the sidebar.

  • I am about to unveil a subscription website (any day now … really …) which I am building using Drupal, a free content management system. There are a lot of such systems out there, but provided you have a certain level of technical capability I think this is the best choice right now, mature enough to have a lot of off-the-shelf capability, but still new enough to have a clean, flexible, manageable design.

    The most important thing for getting me through the initial difficulties was a new book, Using Drupal, which provides hands-on tutorials on how to assemble and configure some important pieces so as to build nine very different websites with little or no programming. Running through these examples gave me enough of a feel for how Drupal works to get started on my own project.

  • We want to start making very short videos to post online which show how we do various things around the farm. I have a digital video camera I bought years ago which we could use, but it is cumbersome—small for its time but large by today’s standards, and it records onto tape that needs special software to convert it into a computer file. I figure if it isn’t easy to grab the camera and make a video on the spur of the moment, it isn’t likely to happen.

    Then I remembered that there are companies now making pocket-sized video cameras that record directly to memory, creating files you can just copy onto your computer. After some research, I ordered (but haven’t yet received) one of them, the Creative Labs Vado. The list price is $100, and I wouldn’t have bought it for that, but Amazon is currently selling it for $60 and for that price it was worth buying one for the problems it solves. Based on videos I’ve seen online, the image quality is good and the sound adequate. You can get slightly better video and much better audio by buying a Flip camera, but at three times the price it wasn’t worth it to me.

    One thing that occurs to me is that for not much money you could assemble a portable studio for doing three-camera interviews, where the image switches between a close-up of the interviewer, a close-up of the person being interviewed, and a wide shot of them both. Just buy three cameras, set them on tripods, and start them recording.

  • Finally, I bought and just received a netbook, the Asus Eee 1000HE. I had been looking at this kind of computer for awhile now, and once the price dropped below $400 I decided it was worth giving one a try. I bought mine for $364 including shipping from a vendor that doesn’t charge Kentucky sales tax.

    I have a number of reasons for wanting a netbook, none of which by themselves justified buying yet another computer, but once I added them up and added a healthy dose of self-indulgence I was able to click the Add to Cart button.

    One of those reasons is that having one would untether me from the desktop computer; there are many times when I wish I could be elsewhere in the house and still have a computer available, for the sake of comfort or needing to keep an eye on something or to be able to look up something on the internet while I’m working on a task that can’t be moved into the office. The netbook connects to the wireless network we already had, from the living room and the deck and anywhere else I’ve tried, and its battery life is so long that I don’t have to worry about taking along an adapter to plug it in where I’ve gone.

    Another reason is that when Chris and I are away for more than a day it is inconvenient to be without a computer. On longer trips I have actually packed an old laptop with a dead screen together with an old CRT monitor; it all works, but it is a pain to transport and set up, and it suffers from being a computer I don’t use for anything else—none of the files or software utilities I need are ever there, and I never remember to bring them along.

    A better reason is that I plan to be making short trips to do interviews, and I think that the combination of a good audio recorder (which I already have) and a portable computer will be a potent tool.

    And one that I didn’t really think of until the computer arrived was that it could function as an overgrown iPod, containing digitized versions of our entire CD library. I’ve never bought an iPod because I rarely listen to music for entertainment or in the background, but I’ve always wished I had the ability to call up on the spot one or another of the recordings we own. Now I can do that when away from home. And Chris no longer has to camp out at the desktop machine with an instrument when he is studying a particular song (which he often does, using a piece of software which can slow down a recording, change its pitch, and so on).

    Whether those come close to justifying the purchase, I bought one and it is here. I have spent the past couple of days configuring it, adding software, loading up music, and testing it out in various ways and places. I’m pretty happy with it. The thing I was most nervous about, whether I could type effectively with the machine sitting in my lap, turns out to not be a problem; the keyboard is a bit cramped and the chiclet-style keys are unusual, but my fingers are happy with it and I don’t make any more typos than I usually do.

    One thing you should know ab
    out netbooks if you are considering one is that they are designed to be a supplemental computer. Most important, there is no optical drive, which saves a lot of weight and space but means you can’t install software from a CD or DVD without getting and hooking up an external drive. (I don’t own one.) Anything you install has to be downloaded from the internet or copied from another machine on your home network. Second, you need to have a wireless network at home. Well, not really, because there is an ethernet port available. But an untethered machine needs a wireless network, and untetheredness is a large part of what makes the machine attractive.

    However, I must say that if my computer needs were mostly confined to surfing the web and editing documents, I would think about using a netbook instead of a cheap desktop machine, for the sake of easy portability.


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