Tuesday Two Tool Tour

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

wrench iconFrom time to time, I come across free web-based apps, handy little utilities, or other indispensable software 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)

       Lyrics Plugin (for Windows Media Player) & Notepad++

       WordWeb & MixMeister BPM Analyzer

       Acrobat Reader & CCleaner

       1-4a Rename & Mp3Tag

       mp3Trim & emailStripper
 

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Tuesdays Are Twos Days

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Several readers seemed to like the free software 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’re 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 are, they’re addictive, fun, & easy-to-use applications that’ll let you do some really 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

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Twofer Tuesday

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Occasionally, I come across small utilities or other free software 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.

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Are You Aware?

Friday, April 25, 2008

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 RSSDay.org 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.
 

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Save XP!

Monday, January 14, 2008




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 SaveXP.com!
 

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November ’07 Blogtipping

Monday, November 05, 2007

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?
 

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Put It On My Tab

Sunday, November 04, 2007

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
 

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Lose Weight With RSS

Friday, May 25, 2007

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.

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Two Tool Tuesday

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

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 is slowly becoming 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.)

    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!

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Hacks Awe

Sunday, February 18, 2007

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!

lifehack.org logo banner

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.

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.
 

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Windows Past and Present

Saturday, February 10, 2007

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

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Another Tuesday Twofer

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

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.

 

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PowerPoint is the Devil

Sunday, November 12, 2006

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.

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Tuesday Utility Twofer

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

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.

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Naming Names

Sunday, October 02, 2005

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!
 

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Windows Security Update CD Finally Available!

Monday, April 12, 2004

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.

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All The Rage...

Sunday, March 28, 2004

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!

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