Cloudy Forecast

Cloud computing is a concept that—if you haven’t already been hearing about—you’re certain to be inundated with in the coming months. Even the U.S. government has dubbed 2011 the “Year of the Cloud.” But there’s another type of computing cloud that’s also been looming on the horizon, building momentum, and is becoming popular even among non-techies: word clouds.

A word cloud (sometimes also referred to as a “text cloud” or “tag cloud”) is a visualization of word frequency in a given text (news articles, blog posts, love letters, whatever) as a weighted list. These graphical representations of words are usually constructed out of individual words (although short phrases can also be incorporated) and often use varying colors, font size or letter weight to emphasize more frequently-used words. A cloud can be free-form, but often the text is used to “draw” relevant shapes, so it’s sort of a hybrid of an informational chart and an eye-catching graphic.

(You can see my first foray into word clouds in my Word Up! post from a couple of years back.)

A couple of months ago, I discovered Hardy Leung’s fantastic new word cloud tool called Tagxedo via one of my favorite blogs, Gerard Vlemming’s The Presurfer.

Tagxedo is a web-based app that turns words—famous speeches, news articles, love letters, your website, whatever—into a visually stunning tag cloud, words individually sized appropriately to highlight the frequencies of occurrence within the body of text. It offers nearly-infinite customization of over a dozen different variables allowing you to create some truly unique & artistic word clouds.

For the best results with this, you’ll most likely need to tinker with the contrast and brightness of your source image. To achieve the desired effect, I punched up the contrast, converted Liam’s photo to greyscale, and applied some filters to make the shading even more sharply-defined. Once in Tagxedo, I found that I got better results with a larger pool of text that I had manually removed some of the really common words from (like “the,” “and,” “or,” and such) but I believe there’s even now a way to configure the app settings to do this for you. So the progression went something like this:

Word cloud image prep progression

So, armed with the cropped and heavily-tweaked version of a recent studio portrait of Liam, the text contents from our Russian Adoption Journal, and Tagxedo, I went to work. Once it had generated a cloud that I was especially pleased with, I saved it and printed the image on a very high-resolution laser printer loaded with high-grade linen paper. I used paper with a very pronounced texture to give the text a bit more character & interest. We mounted the print in a floating frame and hung it in our Den. The end result is, I think, really impressive!

Up close, the grouping of the word cloud text is interesting but it’s a bit tough to visualize the shading and form being suggested by the placement, size, and weight of the text:

Tagxedo word cloud image detailTagxedo word cloud

I urge you to visit Hardy’s Tagxedo blog for some usage tips, the Tagxedo Gallery for some stunning examples of what can be done, and finally, the 101 Ways to Use Tagxedo document for an in-depth tutorial.

I’ve discovered that, in the few weeks since I did our word cloud art project and started drafting this article (a few blog posts got pushed to the backburner in the hustle & bustle of the holidays), Hardy has made loads of additions and refinements to Tagxedo. But be forewarned: Although these updates do simplify and speed up the process, you can still easily fiddle away a few hours playing, tweaking & adjusting. But chances are, your cloudy results will blow you away!

Tuesday Two Tool Tour

wrench iconFrom time to time, I come across free web-based apps, handy little utilities, or other indispensable downloads that I just can’t help raving about.   These are usually no-frills, often single-purpose tools that fit a particular need just perfectly and here are a couple of new programs (to me, anyway) that I’m finding that I rely upon almost daily:

  • uTorrent from Ludvig Strigeus is a fast & easy BitTorrent client that’s designed to use as little system resources as possible — typically less than 6MB of memory — yet is packed with loads of advanced features such as bandwidth prioritization & scheduling, multiple simultaneous downloads, and more!
  • RightLoad is a quick & easy FTP transfer tool that let’s you upload files to your web space by right-clicking from Windows Explorer.   RightLoad also generates HTML-formatted links for the file(s) you’ve uploaded, which is a great time-saver when blogging.   And it can automatically create thumbnails if you’re uploading image files!

Be sure to post a comment if you’d like to shout out about some new program that you’ve discovered and, in the meantime, you might want to also peruse my previous " Tuesday Twofer" posts for other excellent (and free!) software tools that’re definitely worth a look:

       Picnik & Dumpr (web-based image-editing apps)


       WordWeb & MixMeister BPM Analyzer


       1-4a Rename & Mp3Tag

       mp3Trim & emailStripper

Tuesdays Are Twos Days

Several readers seemed to like the free applets that I featured in my recent Twofer Tuesday Utility post, so here are two more handy utilities that just might make your day. This time, I’m highlighting a couple of great web-based graphics-editing applications that I’ve been using lately:

  • Picnik logoPicnik is a free web-based application that’ll help you create masterpieces from your digital photographs. After you complete the easy sign up, simply click upload photo from your local hard drive or open your photos from one of the several photo sharing sites that are supported.

    One of the most exciting & useful features of Picnik is that it allows you to crop an photo without distorting the original image proportions. Why’s that worth getting revved up about? Well, that means you can start with an image that’s 400 x 300 px, crop out the portions of the photo you don’t need, and still end up with a 400 x 300 px image. That’s perfect for projects where you need to keep image sizes consistent—like blog posts, for example. This feature isn’t even available in most retail graphics & photo editing packages!

  • Dumpr logoDumpr offers a small collection of (mostly) free web-based photo effects tools. While I can’t vouch for exactly how practical or useful these effects tools will be, they are addictive, fun, & easy-to-use applications that will let you do some very creative things with your digital photos.

    My favorite of these is Museumr which lets you stick your own photo into an art gallery in a modern museum (See below!).   Some of the photo effects available are a tool to insert your snapshot into a paparazzi-inspired scene, create a Rubik’s Cube, change a photo into a pencil sketch, make a jigsaw puzzles, wrap an image around and much more!

Painting of Dede & Liam

Twofer Tuesday

Occasionally, I come across small utilities or other free applets that’re worth passing on.   It occurred to me that it’s been a long time since my last Two For Tuesday Utility post, so here are a couple of utilities that I’ve been using quite a lot lately:

  • Lyrics Plugin is a free applet that lets you easily view song lyrics in either Windows Media Player or WinAmp.   Just play your favorite MP3s and their lyrics will be displayed automatically.
  • Notepad++ is a free & open source replacement for Windows’ Notepad.   The program is highly customizable and offers a wealth of powerful features that make it especially great for use as a source code editor — like hacking out some HTML, for example.

Are You Aware?

RSS Awareness Day banner

You’ve no doubt seen the acronym "RSS" or the now-familiar little orange icon on some of your favorite websites, but do you know what it is?   Do you know what RSS feeds can do for you?

As I mentioned in my Lose Weight With RSS article a few months ago, an RSS feed reader allows you subscribe to, organize, & easily keep up with websites that feature regularly-updated content.   And you don’t have to remember all of those individual web address URLs.

Daniel Scocco over at DailyBlogTips has declared May 1st to be RSS Awareness Day in an attempt to help more people become familiar with RSS (Really Simple Syndication) feed reading & its benefits.   Head over to to learn more!

By the way, Google Reader is still my reader of choice and one of the features that I really like about it is the ability to share favorite blog posts with others.

Save XP!

Today, January 14th, the editors at InfoWorld formally launched their “Save Windows XP” campaign.   With Microsoft planning to stop both OEM & shrink-wrapped sales of the OS as of June 30th, the clock is ticking…

Now, sure, Windows Vista is plenty snappy-looking, but it simply doesn’t offer anything more than system-sapping graphics fluff and there’s still lots of productive life left in venerable ol’ Windows XP.   XP is, by far, still the best choice to get the most bang out of your hardware buck!

Join the grassroots initiative and sign the petition at and go to to discover more Windows programs!

Put It On My Tab

Google Analytics browser statsI love pouring through Google Analytics stats!   There’s just a wealth of interesting data that’s mined from your website once you’ve implemented this free tool.   One of the trends I’ve been watching over the past several months is the web browser software that people use when visiting 2Dolphins.

You’ll note from the stats graphic on the right (Click the image for a larger, easier to read version) that less than a year ago, the predominant web browser was still Microsoft’s Internet Explorer v6.   So, Dede & I have been tailoring our blog posts for that older browser   Namely, we’ve resisted the urge to assume that visitors are using a tab-enabled browser, so we’ve continued to code off-site hyperlinks to open in a new browser window.   We felt that this makes it easier to keep your place while reading posts on this site but also still check out all of the links we post here.

But maybe the time’s coming to rethink that.   Internet Explorer is still the most common web browser to hit this site – by a very slim margin – but increasingly, visitors are using the tab-enabled IE v7.   And a significant number of visitors are now Firefox users, with almost all of them being on the tab-enabled v2.x.

Admittedly, I was especially hesitant to move to a newer browser at first.   Even with the razzing I got at work (yes, that means you, Eric & Martin!), I stood firm, proclaiming, "My current web browser does everthing I need, so why bother?"

Well, how wrong I was!   Tab-enabled browsing is worth upgrading for.

If you’ve resisted Microsoft’s pressure to upgrade to IE v8, the even greater pressure from the Internet-savvy crowd at large to move entirely over to Firefox, or the itch to try Google or Apple’s hot new entries in the market, this is a great time to give in.   They all work very similarly and by far, my favorite feature of the newer browsers is that you can wheel-click (with the scroll wheel on your mouse) links to force them to open in a new tab.   Which to choose?   I’m holding loyal to the Redmond gang because there are still some websites that specifically written to work with Microsoft’s browser, so I err on the side of caution.

Regardless of which software you go with, you’re going to be shocked by how quickly you become hooked on tabbed browsing.   Ready to try it for yourself?   Get the latest versions of the apps here:

   Arrow icon Microsoft Internet Explorer 8

   Arrow icon Firefox 3

   Arrow icon Google Chrome

   Arrow icon Apple Safari 4

Lose Weight With RSS

RSS LessonOkay, okay, even as great as it is, RSS probably can’t actually help you lose weight.   That was just a catchy tabloid-style title for this post and, hey, it got your attention, didn’t it?   What RSS can help you lose, however, is WAIT.

Yup, RSS will save you time and open you up to a vast array of new content on the Internet.

What’s This RSS Stuff?

RSS, or Really Simple Syndication, is a format for delivering regularly-changing web content.   RSS isn’t new, having begun at Netscape back in 1999, but it has really taken off in the last couple of years.   A rapidly-growing number of websites (online newspapers, weblogs, and such) now offer their content in this format – known as RSS feeds – to make keeping up with your favorites sites much easier.   RSS allows you to easily stay on top of the latest web content and saves you loads of time since you no longer need to visit your favorite sites individually.

In addition to scouring the Internet for new content, RSS also takes care of presenting that information in a standardized, easily readable format arranged in a convenient organized list, very similar to your email in-box.   You can easily scan headlines & brief article descriptions, and decide whether you want to read the article right there, mark the article read & skip it, or tag the article for later reading.

What Can RSS Do For You?

Using RSS, content from web sites delivered & constantly updated via an aggregator or feed reader application.   You simply subscribe to a site’s feed and the RSS reader automatically monitors to see when updated content has been posted.   And RSS content distribution has been further adapted to reach far beyond the original basic purposes envisioned by it’s designers.   You can subscribe to RSS feeds to monitor eBay auctions, track FedEx or U.S.P.S. packages, and even get weather updates.

The clever guys at Common Craft created an excellent 3½ minute video called “RSS in Plain English” that does a fantastic job of explaining RSS:

Getting Started With RSS

A variety of RSS readers are available but to be honest, ever since Dede nudged me into trying the browser-based Google Reader, I’ve never looked back.   Among the numerous beauties of Google Reader is that it stores your settings with your Gmail account.   So anywhere you can get to an Internet connection (at home, work, library, Starbucks, or even the lobby of a salon where your wife is getting a pedicure), your feeds travel with you, right there, ready to pick up where you left off reading.

Google Reader logo

As you surf your favorite websites, you’ll notice that many sites feature an orange button labeled “RSS” or “XML” or the now-standard RSS feed icon RSS icon.   This indicates that the site is setup with feed capabilities and be subscribed to for viewing and constant updating.

Wrapping Up & Shameless Plugs

I certainly don’t claim to be an authority – this RSS stuff is still a little new to me too – so some of you more savvy surfers may be able to add more to this, or correct me where I’m wrong.   But what I do know is that using a RSS feed reader can really boost your productivity on the Internet and I am sure that you’ll end up keeping tabs on many more websites, but in far less time than before.

Another great feature of Google Reader is that you can share feed posts with others.   Here’s a sample of shared items from my account.   Of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that you can subscribe to the 2Dolphins RSS feed or subscribe to our Russian Adoption Journal RSS feed to stay current with our new posts.   And be sure to leave a comment if you know of other RSS feeds that’d be worthy additions to our Google Readers.

Two Tool Tuesday

It’s been awhile since my last "twofer" utility post, so I thought I’d toss out a “twofer” of Tuesday tips from the (software) toolbox:

  • WordWeb is a quick & powerful free utility for thesaurus & dictionary functions within virtually any Windows program, without requiring you to go online. WordWeb displays word definitions, synonyms, pronunciations, usage tags, & links to the Internet for even more functionality.
  • MixMeister BPM Analyzer has become an oft-used tool in my MP3 app arsenal. This freebie analyzes your MP3 files, calculates the beats per minute of the music, and updates the appropriate ID3 tag field with that info. You can then use that number to help create music playlists with a consistent tempo for walking or working out. You’ll have to experiment a bit to find a BPM that sets a comfortable pace for you but I find songs in the 105-115 BPM range are good for starters and 125-130 BPM for when you’re really eager to sweat.)

    Update: Refer to this handy chart to find the right BPM for your workout playlist.

    And as I’ve mentioned in a previous “Tuesday Utility Twofer” post, Florian Heidenreich’s excellent Mp3tag is an absolutely essential MP3 tag editor. Don’t wait, go get it now!

Hacks Awe

Years ago, the term "hacker" carried a connotation of a malicious meddler who attempts to gain unauthorized access to sensitive computer systems to steal, change, or destroy information as a form of cyber-terrorism.

But today, it’s come to mean something entirely different and much more flattering. Now a "hacker" is someone who enjoys the intellectual challenge of creatively overcoming or circumventing limitations — someone who makes things work beyond perceived limits through unconventional means or skills. And there’s a whole new social culture of hacking that’s emerged as a result of information-sharing via Internet-based communities.

Some of our favorite websites to visit are hack sites, where off-beat, sometimes-radical thinking folks put forth creative ideas to make everyday things work just a little bit better, easier, and/or cheaper. Here are just a few:

Lifehacker logo banner

Lifehacker makes getting things done easy & fun with simple tricks for managing your information & time. If you don’t already have this site bookmarked, well, do it now! logo banner

Danny O’Brien’s is a frequently-updated blog built around the theme of hacks, tips, & tricks that get things done quickly by automating, increasing productivity, & organizing.

Parents Hacks logo banner

Asha Dornfest’s Parent Hacks is a collaborative weblog that collects useful parenting tips, recommendations, workarounds, & other bits of wisdom. It’s the stuff that would’ve been left out of the instruction manual — if there were one to begin with.

ikea hacker logo banner

ikea hacker is a a nifty site that offers simple tips on repurposing, tweaking, & otherwise improving the cool stuff from Dede’s favorite store, IKEA.