Friday, April 22, 2005
Posted 8:39 AM
Friday's Fun: Turn Your Photos into Comics with Comic Life, Amazon Frustrations, and Today's Tunes for Earth Day
Another week crawls toward its inevitable demise, putting the planet seven days closer to being engulfed by an expanding sun.
But in the meantime, there's cool software to try, Amazon tears to cry, and music to buy.
Comic Life. Here's a fun program to try out this weekend. Apple categorizes Plasq's Comic Life as a "productivity tool," but it hasn't had that effect on me.
Plasq.com's Comic Life is a page-layout program for creating comics. It ties into your iPhoto library, displaying your photos in a panel. Drag a photo into the program, and you can add word balloons, thought bubbles, captions—even 3D exclamations like "pow!"
Plasq has put a lot of fun details into Comic Life's user interface. When you resize a word balloon, you hear a sound effect—of a balloon stretching. This is the only program I've ever used whose interface sound effects I haven't turned off.
There's even a "comiclife" tag on Flickr—check out what people are doing with this addictively fun program.
(GarageBand users: while you're at Plasq's site, don't miss the free Audio Unit instrument Musolomo.)
I'm trapped in some kind of Amazonian nightmare. For the last month or more, Amazon.com has been offering The Macintosh iLife '05 at a whopping 34 percent discount. This week, the price jumped to the full cover price of $34.99. And today, Amazon is saying the book ships in "3 to 5 weeks."
Just kill me.
Here's the scoop: According to my friends at Peachpit Press, a "bad data feed" caused Amazon to remove the discounts for several upcoming Peachpit titles, including mine. Peachpit tells me the discount should be restored within the next several days.
As for the "3 to 5 week" nonsense, one reader wrote to me yesterday saying that she'd received notification that her copy has shipped—from Amazon.
If you want the book now, I recommend ordering it directly from Peachpit Press. They'll ship it with 24 hours. Barnes & Noble is also shipping the book within 24 hours of ordering—and offers same-day delivery in Manhattan.
If you want to order through Amazon, I recommend waiting until they get their pricing and shipping act together.
It's a jungle out there.
Speaking of jungles, it's Earth Day. I plan to celebrate by taking Sophie to one of our local beaches—probably this one.
For your Earth Day listening pleasure, I present two versions of the same song: "Nature's Disappearing" by British blues legend John Mayall.
This version from 1970 is the first version he recorded. It's from his magnificent "USA Union" album, which is as listenable and relevant today as it was 35 years ago.
Want a more contemporary sound? Here's Mayall's 2003 version of the same song. The contrast in arrangements is amazing.
Happy Earth Day, thanks to everyone who's written with questions about my book and Amazon, and have a great weekend!
Thursday, April 21, 2005
Posted 9:53 AM
A Post for a Busy Day: Some Links, and Today's Tunes
Today: a couple of links that you've probably already seen, and another look inside my iTunes music library.
The Nine Inch Nails GarageBand project. This has been all over the Web, but because it relates to iLife, I'll mention it here. Last week, the group Nine Inch Nails released a GarageBand project containing a song from their latest album (big honkin' 70MB download; free registration required).
No, they didn't create the song in GarageBand; they moved its tracks from a high-end Pro Tools audio system into GarageBand. Still, it's cool: you can mute tracks, apply effects, remix, and experiment.
Unfortunately, GarageBand lacks a key feature that would sweeten the deal for me: a Make Me Like This Artist's Music effect. Don't get me wrong: I love that a recording artist released a song in a modular, modifiable way—and used GarageBand to do the job. I just wish that artist had been Herbie Hancock or George Duke.
More details than you need about audio encoding. The folks at Ars Technica have published an exhaustive and exhausting backgrounder on audio encoding formats. My eyes glazed over several times, and I like this stuff.
Although it's good, the guide short-shrifts the AAC format. There's a full page on LAME, an MP3 encoder that approximately 17 people actually use, and only five paragraphs on AAC. But I reckon that's to be expected from a PC-centric geek site. (Bring on the LAME flames!)
Lovely iTunes and iPod backgrounders. Over the past week, my Macworld colleague Chris Breen has been posting some great backgrounders that demystify some of the more subtle aspects of iTunes and the iPod: Sound Check and You, iPod EQ and You, and iTunes Join Tracks, Gaps, and You. Great stuff.
I've always loved big band jazz. I played in a big band in high school (piano for two years, bass for one), and the sound of 20+ musicians playing rich jazz arrangements has appealed to me ever since.
Here are a few favorites.
Buddy Rich was a legend: not only for his intense and intensely musical drumming, but for his profane and dictatorial relationship with his band members. (A well-crafted Google search will lead you to audio recordings of him ranting—I mean ranting—at his band. As Tipper Gore would say, Caution: Explicit Lyrics.)
Buddy wasn't a sweetheart, but he sure knew his way around a drum kit. Check out Time Check, a seriously up-tempo minor blues with great arrangement, great solos, and amazing drum fills. Percussion phobics, fear not—there are no endless drum solos here, just some perfectly crafted fills and breaks. (You can hear one of them in the iTunes Music Store's 30-second preview.)
Looking for something a little less pulse-racing? Turn to Buddy's older recording of Blue and Sentimental. This tune could open a film noir picture—animated neon signs reflected in wet streets, a half-empty bottle of scotch on the desk of a cheap hotel, and a grizzled guy who's down on his luck but still gets the girl.
But enough of my weekend plans—back to the present. Canadian bandleader Rob McConnell is known for his complex, artful arrangements. This medley of Antonio Carlos Jobim tunes knocks me out, but if you want to start somewhere, start with his version of the jazz classic Invitation. It's a classic big band sound spiced up with complex jazz harmonies and backed by great soloists.
And from a Canadian, no less!
Wednesday, April 20, 2005
Posted 8:55 AM
Hacking iPhoto's Preferences to Get Better Quality Books, Plus Today's Tunes
The Web is filled with comments from iPhoto users who are less than thrilled with the photo quality of books they created in iPhoto.
Me, I've created several books and love them. No, the printing isn't National Geographic quality, nor is it Epson photo inkjet printer quality. But because I start with 8-megapixel originals and take care to use photos that are well exposed (or tuned up in iPhoto or Photoshop), I've gotten smile-worthy results.
But as mom used to say, just because I'm happy doesn't mean everyone is.
On Apple's iPhoto discussion boards, some intrepid users have been experimenting. And they've found something interesting: By making a simple modification to iPhoto's preferences file, you can often improve the quality of the books you order.
The discussion thread that covers this is long and disjointed, so I've summarized the information here and updated it to cover iPhoto 5.0.2.
Step 1. Download Pref Setter.
Grab a copy of the freeware utility Pref Setter. You can use TextEdit or another text utility to edit the preferences file, but Pref Setter makes it easier. And it's free.
Step 2. Quit iPhoto.
If iPhoto is running, quit the program.
Step 3. Open iPhoto's Preferences file
Start Pref Setter and use its Open Domain Quickly window to locate iPhoto's preferences file. It's named com.apple.iPhoto.plist. (You won't see the .plist extension displayed in Pref Setter.)
To open the preferences file, double-click it. A window appears listing a lot of options. Examine them if you like, but don't make any changes just yet.
Step 4. Locate the book-resolution preferences.
Scroll the window you just opened until you see settings that begin with the text BookTarget, as shown in the screen below.
These settings govern the image resolution, in dots per inch, that iPhoto uses when generating the PDF that ultimately gets sent to Apple's book printing service. For large and medium-sized books, the setting is 150. For small books, it's 300 (a value that Apple just bumped up in iPhoto 5.0.2; in earlier iPhoto versions, it was 150).
Step 5. Change the resolution.
To change the resolution setting for a book size, double-click on the number itself. For example, to change the resolution of large books, double-click the 150.000000 that appears opposite the BookTargetImageDPI item.
Then, carefully type 300 and press Return. You don't have to type the decimal point and all the zeros.
Step 6. Check your work, save and quit.
Step 7. Order your book.
Now you can order your book, and iPhoto will generate a PDF with much higher resolution. Note that the PDF will be much larger and therefore take longer to transfer. Modem users probably don't want to use this trick.
And there you have it—a secret for improving iPhoto book quality. If you try this, let me know how it works for you.
Here's your daily peek into my iTunes library.
More electronica/dance/nujazz/whatever. Yesterday, I recommended the hip grooves of Jazzanova. If you liked them, you'll also like the efforts of Micatone, another Berlin-based group from the independent label Sonar Kollektiv.
I like Micatone's mix of old and new. The bass lines don't come from a Mini Moog, but from an upright acoustic bass. At the same time, the synthesizers and ear candy of electronica are here in generous supply. And the icing is Lisa Bassenge, the band's vocalist. She cites Billie Holiday as an influence, and you can hear it. In some of their tunes, you'd swear Lady Day had been reincarnated as a tall, 25-year old redhead from Berlin.
My favorite Micatone tunes are from their album, Is You Is. Got to Give it Up starts with 90 seconds of hard bass and drums, then segues into a lovely vocal. To the Sound is a perfect addition to your Romantic Weekend playlist. And Tidy Girl is the hottest tribute to procrastination I've ever heard, although the 30-second preview at the iTunes Music Store doesn't highlight the best parts of the song.
Looking for something less electronic? Tune in tomorrow—it'll be big band day.
Oh, and one more thing. This one annoys me. As the new edition of my book makes its way into Amazon's distribution system, the good folks at Amazon have managed to remove the generous, 34-percent discount they'd been offering: the book is now listed at the full cover price of $34.99. My advice: wait to order. The discount will be back, and Peachpit Press tells me the books should be shipping from Amazon this week. Rest assured that I'll shout from the mountaintops when Amazon shows the book as shipping.
Tuesday, April 19, 2005
Posted 8:10 AM
Where Are the Third-Party iPhoto Book Themes? Plus Today's Tunes
iPhoto 5 brings a lot of great new features, and among the best relate to photo books. The new book-design themes in iPhoto 5 are much lovelier than the themes that earlier iPhoto versions provided.
And yet I want more. I want a book theme for Halloween. I want one for Christmas. I want one for my Goth friends. Actually, I don't have any Goth friends. But if I did, I'd want a book with barbed wire patterns running down its margins and distressed type in its captions.
All of this is possible in iPhoto 5. Apple designed iPhoto 5's book themes to be discoverable and extensible—that's Sillycon Valley speak for, well, discoverable and extensible: the ability to add new themes.
In the new edition of my book, I've included instructions on how to hack iPhoto 5's existing book themes to do cool things: change the arrangement of photos on a page, change the colors and background graphics used by themes, and much more. It isn't a job for the faint of mouse, yet any experienced Mac user who's tinkered around with ResEdit and similar utilities can figure out what to do.
Which brings me to the point, such as it is, of this post: it would be fairly easy for a third-party developer to design and sell libraries of book-design themes that you could add into iPhoto 5. Besides greatly expanding our design options, this opens the door to the kinds of themes that Apple, as a big honkin' corporation, can't do: ones for religious holidays, for example. Or ones for Goths.
Apple opened up iDVD's design themes a couple of versions ago, and as a result, there are some absolutely beautiful third-party themes from companies such as iDVDThemePAK. So now, designers, it's time to do the same thing for books. I'd buy them—how about you?
In yesterday's installment of Today's Tunes (a new, semi-regular feature where I spotlight some music from my iTunes library), I sung the praises of Robert Farnon, an easy listening composer.
Today, let's slip into something more electronic: the ultra-hip grooves of Berlin-based Jazzanova. Call it electronica, dance, downtempo, nujazz, whatever. I just call it music. Their best work is the album In Between.
The best tracks? Start with No Use—great rhythms, rich chord changes, and beautifully arranged vocals (sung by Berlin beauty Clara Hill) that will make you moan.
From there, check out Takes You Back, another great vocal track, this one from Ursula Rucker. Then check out Wasted Time, the soulful ballad that wraps up the album.
I like just about everything this band does, but I never get tired of these tracks.
Jazzanova is part of an independent, Berlin-based collective of electronica/downtempo/nujazz/whatever musicians. I'll spotlight another of my favorites tomorrow.
Monday, April 18, 2005
Posted 9:20 AM
Monday's Miscellany: More About iPhoto 5.0.2, a Cool iTunes Visualizer, and Today's Tunes
Big news day: Adobe buys Macromedia and Apple unveils Final Cut Studio, incorporating new versions of its professional video applications.
So let's talk about something else.
More about iPhoto 5.0.2. I've updated my iPhoto 5.0.2 report to reflect an improvement Apple has made with respect to iPhoto book formatting.
More and more interesting iPhoto 5 tidbits are coming my way, so stay tuned to this channel.
New to me: Eyephedrine. Cute name, huh? GioFX's Eyephedrine is an iTunes visualizer plug-in that uses Mac OS X's OpenGL 3D features to create some eminently trippy patterns. I tend to not stare gape-jawed at my screen while listening to music, at least not too often. But I must admit, Eyephedrine on a Cinema Display is about the most psychedelic experience you can have without first having to do a slow drive through the bad part of town.
Today's tunes. Over the weekend, my brother introduced me to the music of Robert Farnon. Farnon, who appears to be going strong as he approaches 90, is a master of what we used to call "easy listening"—richly orchestral, Father Knows Best-style string arrangements. He also used to create library music—"clip music" that audio producers would use in TV, radio, and audio-visual productions. It's the kind of music that went from being cool to being corny and back to being cool again—a lot of remixers are working samples of stuff like this into today's tunes.
His stuff is a delight. Listen to this RealAudio sample from his Journey Into Melody CD (not available on the iTunes Music Store). Close your eyes and think angora sweaters, martinis, poodles, and reel-to-reel tape recorders.
Wow—I just described my dream weekend.
Anyway, while researching Farnon a bit, I stumbled on Movie Grooves, a wickedly cool, UK-based site that sells CDs and LPs of classic (and often fabulously corny) library and movie music from the 60s and 70s. (They ship worldwide.) You've got to check this site out, and don't miss Birds Do It, "Music From German Sex Education Movies of the 60s and 70s." If you can keep a straight face while listening to Sunny Honey, you don't have a pulse.
Check back tomorrow for more of Today's Tunes, and have a great week.