There are sound effects libraries that cost more than a small car, and they’re probably worth it to certain kinds of users — like movie studios or audio production houses — but not to me. In search of interesting, appropriately licensed sounds for personal amusement, some google searching led me to Freesound.org, which has many thousands of freely usable, user-contributed sound recordings, all Creative Commons licensed. Some of them are tiny snippets, the audio equivalent of the icons on a computer screen, and some are lengthy field recordings. (Many of the sounds here are purely synthetic, too, or remixes that the CC licensing facilitates.) Last Halloween, I set up a playlist for my family’s “haunted condo,” consisting of screams, clanks, and creepy laughter (but also repurposed sounds like foghorns and musical instruments I thought sounded ominious), with sounds drawn entirely from this site.
It’s also a good place to find ring-tone and computer alert sources, if you’re just looking for audio clip art, or (with headphones, especially) fascinating “you are there” audio experiences; being transported to an audio landscape inhabited by gentle waves, ships’ horns, and thunderstorms is a legal way to escape ordinary consciousness.
Freesound really is free, too, though donations are accepted; it started as a project of the Music Technology Group of the Universitat Pompeu Fabra. One (very small) catch: you can listen all you want just by visiting the site; downloading the files requires free registration.
I’ve been using Dropbox for over a year now. It just works. It copies stuff you save to a specific folder on your computer to the cloud, while also keeping old versions around. I’ve set up my daughter’s computer to save documents to the Dropbox folder by default. Now it is so much easier to find what she has worked on and to go back to a previous version if she accidentally erases her document.
Her important documents are backed up and available if her computer dies. I share the folder she works in, and can edit or comment on what she’s done and save those changes on my machine. Dropbox synchronizes the changes automatically. It works seamlessly and quickly.
The best description I’ve seen of Dropbox comes from Bill Gurley who said “once you begin using Dropbox, you become more and more indifferent to the hardware you are using, as well as the operating system on that device.” I’ve personally enjoyed the service for quite a while, and the more I learn the more I respect what they are trying to do.
When I was in Texas last week I wished I could somehow see my cat hanging out at home. When I got home I decided to make yet another attempt to find some sort of home camera system that would let me do this, using my Mac. Therein lies the rub, as almost all the home use cameras out there are PC only.
Lo and behold, a Google search brought up Witness. Long story short: for $39 you buy the software, download it to your iSight camera-equipped Mac running Snow Leopard or Lion (OS X 10.6/10.7), choose a password, go the iPhone/iPad App store and get the Witness app, sign in with your user name (email address) and password, then configure the thing to do what you want when you want.
Proof of concept: I was able to get it up and running first time through, and my cat (Gray Cat) triggered it on my iPhone just like she’s supposed to, when she walked through the iSight camera’s visual field.
Bonus: Whenever you’re homesick you can have a look at what the camera sees, even if there’s nothing activating the device — and it works from anywhere in the world.
You can have multiple cameras all feeding through your one mission control-like iPhone and/or iPad. The program takes a snapshot if it’s a quick motion or defaults to movie mode if the movement’s sustained. It saves the photos and videos and you can watch them whenever you like, and/or download/email them to whomever.
Pretty impressive all in all for not having to buy any equipment but, rather, just using what’s in the room.
SupportDetails.com is a simple site with an easy-to-remember URL and a singular purpose: it allows you to see all of the tech support information you might need to pass along to a customer service technician or impatient family whiz kid.
It’s great because it works equally well for helping customers as it does for troubleshooting the remote machines of those who don’t have the tech experience to understand where to start. It’s only “feature” is that it allows the visitor to send these details along to you via email.
It’s got one ad and costs nothing to use. There’s nothing to log in to, and the results aren’t impacted by security settings in most typical scenarios. I also think that unlike a lot of sites that will tell you your IP address, the designer of SupportDetails.com clearly wanted to help people that aren’t tech savvy (and not make your eyes bleed out at the same time).
Support Details provides all the technical support information about the computer you are using in a single easy to read format.
I’ve been using the Windows-only Bluebeam PDF Revu professionally for two years. As a PDF reader and markup tool for construction and design professionals, or anyone who works with large format drawings, there is no equal (Bluebeam is not for creating drawings, plans or text documents, but for converting them to PDF and working with them once in this format.). I have gotten our entire office of designers and estimators to switch from printed plans to using Revu with little to no coercion. Even the strongest proponents of paper, those who print their email, have decided to switch to digital plans after seeing how easy and fast Revu really is.
For the light user it provides all the tools you would have on your desk: a scale, pen, highlighter and calculator. This allows you to switch to on-screen takeoff and markup without changing your workflow, making it less scary for some folks. For the more progressive people, you can dig in to the more advanced functionality of the markups list, custom columns with formulas, filtering, scripting, even visual search where you draw a box around something (pictures, text, or both) and it will find the same image elsewhere in the document. The “eXtreme” version even lets you OCR the plans and search the text.
I have found Revu to be better than any other PDF software because of it’s ease of use for beginners, advanced features for power users, and its absolute speed of rendering the page on screen. Zooming in and out, and panning in any direction is seamless and smooth with native vector based PDFs (results vary with scanned PDFs). Bluebeam also has an active user community with an online forum with multiple Bluebeam employees contributing to the forum daily.
In addition to being the best PDF tool, it’s cheaper than Adobe’s own Acrobat Pro. Bringing this tool to my company has saved us thousands by eliminating paper printing and shipping costs, digitizer board costs, and Acrobat costs. Bluebeam PDF Revu is hands down the best and most important piece of software on my computer
A typical working screen in BlueBeam PDF Revu
I’ve had an iPhone since the first model and despite trying out probably hundreds of apps I have a relatively small collection that I use every day.
One of the things I use my iPhone for every day is catching up with blogs and news through RSS. I’m a reasonably heavy Google Reader user, following 294 feeds (including BoingBoing and Cool Tools naturally). There are a host of RSS feed reader apps in the app store, and *most* of them integrate with Google Reader. I’ve tried most of them, seduced by the promises of new features and pretty UIs, but I always return to one of the first I tried: Byline.
The Byline Google Reader integration is straightforward, and offers all the features you would expect. These are the same features offered by many a reader:
- Syncing of read items
- Badge showing number of unread items
- Starring and sharing (with or without notes)
- Showing all items, browsing by label or by feed
- Instapaper and mobile safari integration
And so on….
The killer feature for me, and one I’ve not found in any other reader app, is that Byline caches (optionally and configurably) the webpage associated with an RSS entry. That means that partial RSS entries, or feeds like Daring Fireball that link to an alternative page, have the *actual content* fully stored on the device. When travelling or somewhere without mobile internet you have full access to your RSS feeds and their precious payload of information or LOLs.
Byline isn’t perfect, but every time I’ve tried another feed reader app I’ve found I can’t live without the offline caching and come slinking back to byline. The *biggest* flaw with Byline was the lack of a native iPad app, but since I originally wrote this review a native iPad app was released and it works very well. Byline has only improved in stability and reliability, and I’m still using it every day. Byline coped with the Google Reader changes very well. It hasn’t yet got Google + integration, but hopefully that will come soon (but it isn’t core functionality anyway).
I did use the old Google Reader sharing feature to post items from reader to twitter via the shared items RSS feed. Funnily enough, despite this feature being removed from the Google Reader UI it still works in byline!
From a relaxed standing position with your arms at your side raise your right hand while holding your elbow still until your fore arm is level with the floor. Spread you fingers apart and rotate your hand until your palm is facing down – keeping your elbow at your side. Now if you are anything like me your hand is rotated about as far as it can. In mechanical parlance, the wrist is “hard against the stops.” When you are using a conventional mouse it is in this rather tense and uncomfortable position that your hand remains. As a designer I often spend days on end at the computer modeling in 3D – left hand on the space ball and keyboard with right hand on the mouse. Over time I began experience a myriad of painful symptoms from fore arm throbbing to thumb tenderness to shoulder aches. These discomforts grew into debilitating pain to the point I wondered if I could continue in my chosen profession. And then I discovered the Evoluent Mouse – and instantly the pain and discomfort tailed away to nothing.
Repeat the previous exercise but this time place your hand in a vertical – hand shake like – position. You will find that your hand is now very relaxed residing as it does pretty close to halve way between hard right rotation and hard left. The Evoluent mouse looks like a mouse turned on its edge with the laser tracking business on the edge of the mouse. This configuration positions the hand and wrist in a basically neutral position thereby avoiding the stresses rotating the hand to a palm down position induces.
I cannot overstate how drastic an improvement this mouse is from all others. Both Microsoft and Logitech make products which rotate the hand partially toward the vertical but these are partial measures and do not afford the total neutral ergonomics provided by the Evoluent. If you are fighting soreness or pain from you mouse arm-hand – please give your body a break and give the Evoluent mouse a try.
[Note: For those with smaller hands Evoluent has provided a sizing chart.--OH]
I keep my keyboard clean and protected from spills with a Moshi keyboard cover. They’re very thin, very flexible, and highly durable. In my experience the covers last for about two years.
The covers accumulate oils from your hands, but if you keep a little microfiber towel handy, that cleans off most of the oil. I wash the cover once a day or so. They’re a bit hard to clean; I use foaming soap with warm water. Lather, rinse, repeat, and then let it drip dry.
The moshi covers are for MacBooks and most other Apple products (ncluding the previously reviewed Bluetooth Keyboard. I’m guessing that covers exist for PC laptops, but I don’t know who makes them, or which ones are good (Note: if you have a suggestion for a good brand for covering PC keyboards let me know and I’ll update the post.–OH). The thickness/flexibility of the covers is very important. One of the brands for Mac computers was very thick and felt yucky to type on. I recommend trying a cover before you buy it if you can.
[Update: I mistakenly described the keyboard cover as silicone when it is actually a thermoplastic urethane. Sorry for the confusion. -- OH]
The previously reviewed Logitech Solar Wireless Keyboard is one of the group of wireless products from Logitech that can share a unifying receiver. The receiver, which you get with each product, is very small, projecting less than 1/2″ from your usb port, and allows me to put my laptop in my case while still attached. Multiple devices can be used with just a single receiver, freeing up usb ports and giving you extra receivers in case of a failure.
Of the products that use the unifying receiver I own the previously mentioned keyboard, the M570 Wireless Trackball and the Wireless Headset h800.
I have rather severe arthritis in my left thumb at the very base where the thumb connects to the wrist and was told in 2004 that I would need joint replacement within 5 years. Eventually I switched from mice to trackballs and quit having any pain at all from the thumb (even though I also quit using the brace). The Logitech M570 is my favorite trackball of the ones I have owned. You don’t have quite the control and accuracy that you do with a mouse so I do switch to a mouse for working in Photoshop and the like, but for regular tasks, I prefer the trackball.
I haven’t had the Wireless Headset h800 for long but like them very well for my purposes which is using them to take advantage of voice control for my PC. I wear them for up to 4-hours at a time and find them quite comfortable, but I have not used them for listening to music so can’t really evaluate that aspect.
Pairing of all three devices is instantaneous and trouble free, and I don’t think that I have given up anything in exchange for the convenience of the single receiver. The keyboard and trackball are both excellent products compared to similar devices that I have owned through the years. It is harder to give such praise to the headset, in part because I have limited experience with it, but also because headset preferences vary greatly from one individual to another due to comfort issues, etc.
Logitech does offer quite a large range of products that will work with the unifying receiver which are shown on the following web page. Please note that my headset is not shown on the page, nor are any headsets, so this is apparently not an exhaustive list of compatible products.
I would also like to thank Cool Tools for making our Christmas a bit merrier since several of the gifts I gave were purchased after seeing them on the blog and they all went over very well!
Droopy (or Droo.py) is the most idiot-proof way for other people to get files to your computer that I have found, and I have been using it for a year now.
It’s a Python script (so you would need to have Python installed) that creates an HTML page that lives on your computer. You give your IP address to whoever wants to send you a file, and they go to the page and click “send file,” which gives them a way to send you a file directly to your computer (rather than via a remote server).
It’s definitely not idiot-proof to set up (if you want people to be able to reach the site from the outside world, you have to set up port-forwarding on your router), but the important thing, and the thing that makes it my go-to way for somebody to send me a file, is that I need to know nothing about their computer, and neither do they. Once I get it set up, it is virtually impossible for the other person to mess up the file transfer.