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:

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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!

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

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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.

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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.
 

Windows Past and Present

With the release of Windows Vista not quite 2 weeks ago, Microsoft’s operating system takes its next progressive step forward. I’m still of the mind that Vista is little more than Windows XP with loads of eye candy & fluff — and Vista’s The "Wow" starts now! slogan does little to dissuade me.

But then again, the same could’ve been said for XP — internally it’s known as "v5.1," whereas Windows 2000 was "v5.0" — but I’ll readily concede that Windows XP is superior to 2000. So I’m sure that, in due time, I’ll come to love Vista too… in spite of the tremendous horsepower (don’t you dare believe the meager minimum system requirements touted by Microsoft) needed to do practically the same things that XP already does, but with less flair.

Clems & I were talking about all of this earlier this week and neither of us understand the harsh criticism that XP gets. We’re all the time reading hateful rants about how unstable and buggy the OS is, yet we just don’t see it. In fact, having used every prior version of Windows made, I think XP is, well, da bomb! Anyone who has serious complaints about XP should be relegated to working with Windows 3.1 in a networked environment for a week. That’d shut ’em up!

And in case you don’t recall just how far Bill & the Redmond gang have come with this stuff, Steve Wiseman over at IntelliAdmin has a brief writeup on The Many Faces of Windows.

For reference sake, here’s a glimpse of Windows v1.0 in 1985:

Windows 1.0 screenshot

…and the gorgeous Windows Vista now:

Windows Vista screenshot

November ’07 Blogtipping

Blogtipping iconAs you may have noted from our past Blogtipping posts, the concept behind this series is simple:   On the 1st Monday of each month, we link to three unsuspecting blogs with three compliments & one helpful comment or idea for each author.   Although most months these "tipped" blogs are grouped by topic or theme, my picks for November are a random mix of blogs that have nothing in common – except that they’re each well worth checking out:

AppScout by the folks at PC Magazine is a relatively new weblog that offers up new websites & applications.   Mark B. intro’d me to this blog and I keep going back because of:

  1. Tons of sites & web-based apps to suit nearly any need!
  2. Frequently-updated content means there’s always something interesting.
  3. Subscribe via RSS to keep up with the latest posts.
  • Tip: I’d like to see more free downloadable apps featured.

Future Designs by Tuvie is a new blog launched back in July ’07 that I like because of:

  1. Features innovative and often very-futuristic product concepts & designs.
  2. Very clear product photos make it easy to see the eye-popping gadgets & design ideas.
  3. RSS feed option lets you easily keep up with the frequently-updated content.
  • Tip: The site’s design fits the topic nicely except that the logo graphic seems oddly very un-futuristic.

Mark’s Daily Apple from Mark Sisson serves up daily health & fitness insights with a side of irreverence.   Mark’s tough but positive view encourages people to discuss, learn, & rethink assumptions.   There’s plenty to like on his blog:

  1. Full-content feeds & newsletter subscription options make it easy to keep up-to-date any way you’d like.
  2. Practical & relevant tips to get more out of life.
  3. Newly-formed discussion forums allow you to share questions & insights with others.
  • Tip: I can’t think of anything to add – this is a great blog that needs to be a part of your regular read list.

Now it’s your turn!   Have a favorite blog site you’d like to share?
 

Another Tuesday Twofer

I’ve been remiss. It’s been almost a year since my original Tuesday Utility Twofer post. So, here’s a couple of new goodies to keep you busy:

Adobe’s Reader 8 is out now and makes for much quicker opening of Acrobat PDF documents that you find on many websites. Its most noticeable change is the clean & streamlined interface, with floating navigation buttons along the left side of the screen that pop out dialogs for comments or sidebars for page selection as appropriate.

Piriform’s CCleaner, (formerly known as Crap Cleaner — gotta love that name!) is a freeware optimization tool that frees up hard disk space and speeds up Windows by removing temporary files, orphaned files, & obsolete Registry entries that accumulate from day-to-day usage or are left behind after uninstalling software. I've used this reliably on dozens of PCs.   (Thanks Eric J!)

      Note: CCleaner is bundled with the Yahoo! toolbar.   However, during the install, you
       can deselect that option. I highly recommend not installing the Yahoo! toolbar.

 

PowerPoint is the Devil

Visit www.glasbergen.com for more great corporate cartoons.

Dede & I have often ranted amoungst ourselves about how corporate America has been infested with a “PowerPoint culture,” so when I saw Brad Fitzpatrick & Kit Pirillo’s recent bLaugh cartoon “Powerpud” this morning, it really struck a chord with me.

I’m no great orator but I had enough college speech courses to know that the best presentations are those where there’s a sense of conversation or connection between speaker and the audience. Conversely, PowerPoint presentations are nearly always mind-numbing, bullet-pointed bureaucratese filled with buzzwords, abstract factoids, and corporate-speak that completely sucks the life out of almost any topic.

PowerPoint even features a built-in presentation checker that will tell you whether your slides are too wordy — lest you run out of screen space for those all-important whiz-bang animations, splashy clip-art, bold topic headings, and neat rows of bullet-points. The PowerPoint culture turbocharges the notion of form over content, substituting fluff for substance with the easy click of a mouse. PowerPoint presentations shift the focus from content, discussion, or effective communication to that of tedious but flashy eye candy.

Maybe even worse, PowerPoint presentations can easily and subtly mask bad news with cheerfully-colored charts and graphs, giving, as Sun Microsystems’ John Gage sums it up, “…a persuasive sheen of authenticity that can cover a complete lack of honesty.”

And there’s even a word for this: PowerPointlessness.

Sadly, the PowerPoint culture reaches way beyond corporate America — it’s infiltrating the schoolhouse too! A New York Times article from 2001 noted that PowerPoint has also invaded the classroom — even at the Kindergarten level — which kinda brings back to mind my previous concerns about pushing technology on children too early.

It seems that many teachers are making the false assumption that forcing students to use PowerPoint to create presentations will spawn excellent communication skills and creativity, yet we’ve seen undeniably clear evidence to the contrary in the corporate world. It’s far more likely that students will simply become fixated on fonts, formats, & fluff and fail to think about the sentences that those snazzy bullet-points are supposed to represent.

You have to wonder — is PowerPoint’s cookie-cutter, bullet-point mindset partly responsible for, or just another indicator of, how writing in complete and compelling sentences has become such a struggle for so many people. Chicken? Egg?

Maybe this is just another sign of our changing times, but I’m very nostalgic for the “old days” when people used complete sentences, sometimes even paragraphs, to convey thoughts. Words, sentences, ideas… now that’s stuff to chew on! Bullet-points aren’t thinking points or information to be considered — they’re just disposable dollops of data, the intellectual equivalent of just so many Chicken McNuggets.

For a funny example of the soul-sapping essence of the PowerPoint culture, check out Peter Norvig’s PowerPoint Presentation version of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.

Okay, to be fair, PowerPoint isn’t the devil. It’s just a tool and it doesn’t tell you how to write. It does, however, foster lax communication skills and offers no incentive to become a more proficient presenter. PowerPoint is a radical oversimplifier, guiding its users down a predetermined & simplistic path that dilutes the intended message. And it provides an easy crutch — a convenient script that can be effortlessly recited, line by line.

So, what to do? Well, for starters, PowerPoint slides should be used as cue cards instead, incorporating a key word or phrase from each into your explanation of the larger point being illustrated. Remember that PowerPoint is a visual aid — a subset of your verbal presentation — to highlight key points, clarify complex concepts, and help organize the theme. The audience is there to listen to your insight, not to be read to.

To paraphrase Fastcompany.com’s Heath Row, if you need PowerPoint to get your message across, maybe you’re sending the wrong message.

Tuesday Utility Twofer

Sometimes you really need a simple, straightforward tool to get a tedious task done. Well, here are a couple of indispensable goodies from my toolbox to make your day a little easier:

  • 1-4a Rename is an excellent freeware utility makes light work of renaming large collections of files. Great for series of digital camera photos or MP3 music files.
  • Mp3tag by Florian Heidenreich is a free, powerful, fast, & easy-to-use tool to edit MP3 music file metadata tags. Essential for managing a large digital music collection

And in keeping with the whole "two for Tuesday" theme, here’s a second twofer set:

  • mpTrim is a great little free app for removing silent or unwanted parts from MP3 files. Could be really useful when you want to clean up those rambling podcasts.
  • emailStripper is a fantastic free program for cleaning the ">" and other junk formatting characters out of forwarded emails so they’re much easier to read.

Naming Names

Sometimes you stumble across the coolest little tools to do stuff that you just never knew how you did without.   I found one such tool recently…   1-4a Rename.

1-4a Rename is an amazingly simple but powerful file renaming utility.   It makes renaming batches of files, like MP3s or digital photos a breeze!   What’s more, 1-4a Rename doesn’t have to be installed and is tiny so it’ll easily fit on a thumb drive or even a floppy, and it’s FREE!   Go get yourself a copy now before the author regains his sanity and starts charging for this little gem!
 

Windows Security Update CD Finally Available!

If you’ve done a scratch install of Windows XP lately, you’re sure to have agonized over the dozens of “critical updates” needed after the fact. Microsoft has (finally!) released a security update CD to ease this hassle significantly, though you’ll still have a little catch-up to do afterwards as it only contains updates up to February 5, 2004. Order a free copy from Microsoft by clicking here.

All The Rage…

ArtRage is a cool digital painting app that simulates real artist tools, such oil paint on canvas, pens, pencils, crayons, etc. ArtRage runs fine on Windows XP with a mouse, but is particularly fun on a Tablet PC because it takes advantage of the unique interaction of pen and screen to give a realistic painting feel. Best of all, it’s a small download and completely FREE!