Category Archives: First Flight

Today’s Toy: Flip Mino HD 2009

Today, Flip released what might be termed a “Red Carpet-Ready” edition of the Flip Mino HD. Viz:

Flip-Mino-HD-2009

Highlights: a larger, sharper screen, built-in HDMI-out, and double the memory for a total of 2 hours of recording time. Also, a brushed-metal case that gives the thing the heft and feel of a murder weapon.

(For a small dog. It just feels a little heavier than the plastic-cased version, which is still available.)

The video components appear to be the same as the old one: 720p HD with no optical zoom. Flip sent me one while I was away in New York City and I found some time yesterday to shoot some sample videos to confirm it:

I’m prepping a review of the Mino HD (and Ultra) alongside the Kodak Zi8 and A Third Camera that I’m supposed to be getting soon. Stay tuned.

iPod Nano Fifth Gen…Quick Demo Video

Fifth-Gen iPod Nano..taken to The Outer Limits!!! from Andy Ihnatko on Vimeo.

iPod Nano…taken to the Outer Limits!!!

Specifically, my regular comic book shop, located on Moody Street in Waltham. Apple’s latest iPod Nano arrived today and though I haven’t exactly put it up on the test bench yet, I thought I’d take it out for a quick spin and check out the video features.

A complete review will appear in the Sun-Times tomorrow, But some initial notes:

  • This is a “fun camera.” Set your expectations accordingly.
  • The camera lens is close to the edge of the Nano and it’s veryeasy to block it with your finger.
  • A snap-judgment: the camera is hopeless in dim lighting. I shot some very basic video in my office. The lighting was very bad, sure (late-afternoon on a rainy day, two medium-sized windows, no artificial lights). There wasn’t enough light to read by, but it was nothing that a standard Flip camera couldn’t handle; the flip would have cranked up the gain on the image sensor and produced grainy, but perfectly viewable, video. The iPod Nano’s video was mostly impossible to make out.
  • You need to manage your storage carefully. I unpacked the Nano, hooked it up to my MacBook, and did the same sync I do with just about any music player: I filled it up to within a whisker of its capacity. Imagine my shock when I discovered that I could only record about two minutes of video. Then imagine my embarrassment when I realized that I really shouldn’t have been shocked. Note to self: leave a gig or two free if I intend to shoot lots of video with this thing. Videos seem to take up about fifteen megs per minute.
  • The audio quality is pretty impressive, considering this little pinhole the mic has to listen through. Raise your voice, though, and there’ll be some ugly clipping.

But this is all quite preliminary. More to come next week.


View Larger Map

First Flight: Final Cut Express (Part 3)

The aforementioned render looked good! My little demo contains side-by-side video, synced perfectly.

Already I’ve done one thing that’s impossible in iMovie: combine two video clips in the same frame. I can slap a “talking head” video box over an otherwise bland tourist panorama, or when I’m doing a drive-and-talk I can slide in a subtle little corner thing showing you what I’m talking about…on and on.

Good, good. Let’s go for Two Impossible Things before suppertime: multiple text items, placed in an arbitrary fashion. I want to identify the cameras responsible for each side of the screen.

Another example of something that’s pretty much dead-simple, but first I had to look something up. No obvious “add titles” tool or button or thingamawhassit anywhere in Final Cut’s UI.

Ah. Okay, once again it’s a tool that I can’t figure out until I go away and Google or check the manual, but once I have the answer, it makes sense. Text tools are in an “Effects” tab inside your project window. The project window contains video files, sound files, other sources of content…it sort of figures that as something that generates content, it’d be in there.

(A little button with a text icon in it. Visible. Anywhere. Y’know, Apple, that would have made sense, too…)

Okey-doke. Easy as get-out. Move the playhead to the spot where the title should appear, click the “Text” item, which you’ll obviously find in the “Text” folder inside the “Video Generators” folder inside the “Effects” tab. Drag it into the preview viewer, just as you would a video clip that you’re preparing for insertion.

Click on the viewer’s “Video” tab and you see that the tool has automatically placed the text where you told it to. I used the plain “Text” generator, which assumes you just want to splat it in the middle of the frame. Simple business to just drag it to the lower-center of the “Kodak Zi6” half of the screen.

Repeat for the Mino. Huh? The text has disappeared.

Ah, simple: looking in the timeline reveals that the “Flip Mino” layer is behind the video layer when it ought to be out in front. Drag, fixed.

Hmm. The “preview” I see here looks…ragged. Is it just giving me a quick render for position? It’ll look fine in the end product, right?

Need to render this out. I read comic books, return, and find that it all looks good.

Now I’ll export this as a Quicktime.

Once again I spot a holdover confusion from iMovie. I can export the movie as a Quicktime. Or I can export it, “Using Quicktime.” Two separate menu items, same apparent function. This needs to be made more clear.

The standard QT exporter is more familiar to me, so that’s what I go with (“Using Quicktime”). I select 720p settings, click the right buttons and…

Blimey! This will be ready in minutes? I know it’s just a 90 second clip, but “burninig” a ten-minute 720p project with these same H.264 settings in iMovie was almost an overnight endeavor.

Annnd we’re done. Open it in Quicktime Player annnnd…it’s crap:

It’s taken the original 16:9 aspect ratio, letterboxed it to 4:3, then converted THAT to 16:9 HD aspect ratio by squashing it.

Fut the wuck?

Oh, and it’s downsampled it from 720p to standard-definition, too.

Le Sigh.

Now I have a brand-new worry. I didn’t see an opportunity to tell Final Cut “Look, Skeezix: I’m doing HIGH-DEF editing. AYTCH-DEE.” I thought it had gotten the message when I started importing HD clips. Must I now worry that all of my content has been converted to this crummy state? Must I begin ALLLLLL over again?

Okay, I’m just going to export this into “YouTube”-ish dynamics (3:2, standard definition).

Good. In the sense that “I intended to do this and easily got Final Cut Express to do what I wanted it to do.”

But now I can’t go back to my “real” editing project until I figure out why this is in standard def, and successfully export an HD clip in 16:9 aspect ratio. Damn and blast.

I’ve just looked in the “Properties” window for this sequence and yes, Final Cut seems to think it should be 720×480. Why? I know I never made that choice. And now that I see that it’s wrong, I don’t see any spot in which I can say “1280×720, bonehead! Get it RIGHT!”

I seem to have found it, inside “Easy Setup.” Yeah, right…”easy”:

Okay, I’m willing to score this one as an Apple failure. I’m apt to use this app to edit all kinds of things. Is Apple seriously thinking that I’ll have to edit EVERYTHING at maximum 1080p definition — even the crappy little VHS videos I’m transferring in — just to retain the ability to edit ANYTHING in HD?

Is Apple seriously saying that the crummy consumer-grade iMovie ’08 is smart enough to think “Oh, he’s importing HD video…I should edit it as HD, then. Or at minimum, ASK” but Final Cut Express is just a cod-slapping moron?

Rrgh. This bit is needlessly complicated.

Now I don’t know if I can even use any of the stuff I’ve already put together in the “real” project. I’m looking through the UI and the manual, but I can’t find any place to say “See this existing project? With all of the HD clips? AYTCH-F***ING-DEE. RIGHT F***ING NOW.”

Dammit.

Okay. Dinner. I really need a break from this. What an idiotic thing to be dealing with.

First Flight: Final Cut (Part 3)

Lunch has been eaten, 32 minutes of the Ricky Gervais HBO standup special has been watched. Let’s see how the render went.

Cool. I’m really impressed. I thought “I want the ‘driving in the car’ me to miraculously start talking as soon as the ‘voice over’ me stops” and by golly, that’s exactly what happens in the video. Even though I recorded those two elements completely separately.

I do want to the v/o to add an additional comment as soon as Car Guy resumes his silence. I’ll try the voice-over tool this time.

Cool…that was simple. It counted me down and everything, and when I clicked Stop, I could do some fine-tuning to make sure it came in precisely where I wanted it.

It didn’t precisely match the audio levels of the v/o I recorded in Quicktime Pro, though. Made a half-hearted attempt to adjust the new v/o manually but then simply tabbed back into QT, recorded those few seconds, and then dragged it into the timeline. Couldn’t have been simpler.

(I can see myself using the voice-over tool a LOT. I know you can add voice to clips in iMovie but it seems a lot more organic in FCE.)

I did have to re-render before I could see how the new audio integrated into the clip. But there’s an option for just rendering anything that needs it, so it was quick and painless. Like my recent tooth extraction, except Final Cut didn’t hand me a prescription for Vicodin afterwards.

I realize that I’m sort of doing this the wrong way. You’re supposed to throw together a rough cut and then start adding audio and transitions and text and whatnot. That way, you don’t even need to do a render until you’re nearly done.

But now that the intro is over, I need to start the actual edits. I’m a little bit stuck, but it’s for a good reason: I’ve seen enough of these tools to know that I can now create damned-near anything I want and I don’t know which choices will make for the best video.

Like, how best to do the “comparison” shots? In iMovie, I simply replayed the same shots over and over again, one after the other. In Final Cut Express, it’s no trouble to do a split-screen.

I don’t know if that’s the best choice. I think I ought to start with just a rough assembly of the “single camera” sequence of shots. Then I can replicate it from the Zi6 clips. At that point, I’m free to proceed however I want.

Or maybe it’d be better to create a new project just to screw around with things. It seems like it’d be simple to do a split-screen effect. I create a new proj…

Hmm. Why is it creating a new tab in my project window? If I have a wedding video business but I’m short on cash so I agree to edit a porno, is THAT table going to be sitting alongside the other projects?

I’ll worry about that later.

I decide to use the car door slam as my slate, to sync up the video between the two cameras. Easy as pie to set the start points of both videos. Drag the first vid into the timeline, drag in the second and tell FC “please overlay this”…easy.

So what I want to do is crop out the center 50% of the frame from the Mino, shove it over to the left, and fill the right side with the center 50% of the video from the Kodak. There’s a crop tool. It doesn’t seem to work.

Oh. I need to be in “wireframe” mode. When I saw it in the View menu I imagined that it only came into play when you’re importing…well, 3D models or something. But by cracky, now the video frame has handles, good ‘n’ proper.

Much further twiddling happens before I have one of those “Oh, it’s actually quite simple; the problem is that I’m an idiot.”

You can crop the frame by dragging the corners, or you can click into the “Motion” tab, go to the “Crop” parameter, and type in the number manually. You can move a frame around the screen the same way: mouse it, or just type in a number.

I had a hard number in mind for the crop (please take 25% off of either side) but didn’t know how to translate “please move the center of the frame so that it’s at the exact left (or right) edge” into a number. I overthought it.

Simple: just type a number for the cropping, and then slide the centerpoint manually.

This is a good example of the sort of thing I confront each and every time I test a new piece of tech. I’m perfectly OK with the realization that I’m just a damned idiot. Okay, correction: the reminder that I’m an idiot. It’s frustrating when you can’t make something work but when you find the answer and realize that it really did make some sort of sense all along, your initial frustration shouldn’t be held against the app.

I really do give these things plenty of opportunities to prove that I’ve got some sort of a bent chromosome or something. When I finally say “This thing is a piece of crap,” or “Whoever designed this didn’t know what the hell he was doing,” my arrogance is very hard-won.

I still don’t know what the numbers mean for “center.” If I type in “0” is that an explicit or a relative number? Would “-25” mean “to a point 25% to the left, relative to center” or would that mean “25 pixels away from Cartesian zero”?

At any rate: I won’t see the results until I render. Though the preview looks promising.

Smoke if you got ’em. “About 7 minutes left…” for the render.

First Flight: Final Cut Express (Part 2)

Damn. In iMovie, I can just tap the spacebar and see what the final video will look like. In Final Cut, I have to “render” the edit first…though I can scrub through it in the final video window.

Okay, well, if I’m going to sit through a render, I might as well make it worth it. I want the intro voiceover to go over the first bit of the first clip. I drag the audio file into the viewer and release it into the “Insert” hopper that pops up…it’s one of the several options available.

Awesome. Final Cut Express is already saving me time and more importantly letting me make the video I want to make instead of knucking under to iMovie’s limitations. The existing clip scoots over to the right in the timeline so that it doesn’t begin until the audio ends. The spot where I start talking in the clip comes after several minutes of ambient car noise. So now, it should be easy to merely extend the video clip backwards so that the video starts with the voice-over, and I start talking inside the car almost as soon as the v/o ends.

Hooo-kay, I know in the video that the tool I want is one of the three or four in the tool pallete next to the timeline. It uses what I assume to be classic film-cutting terminology…each tool icon depicts a Moviola-style pair of film reels in various postures.

I guess wrong on my first try so I go back to the tutorial video series. Ah! Okay, I want the “Ripple” tool. In the video, it’s described and shown as the thing you use to extend a clip so that it starts or ends in a different place.

Mmmm…no. It seems like I’m on the right track, but no. As it is right now, the 90-second voice over plays, with no accompanying video. Then the video kicks over to me inside the car, and I immediately start talking. I want to grab the left side of that clip and stretch it all the way back to the start of the voice-over so that the video begins 90 seconds sooner, but I still don’t start talking until the v/o is done.

What happens instead is that I still have no video until the end of the voice over…but now the video starts 90 seconds later. Damn and blast.

What the heck is wrong? Is FC stamping its feet because the video I want to extend is the first video clip in the whole thing?

I give up on logic and just randomly try the other editing tools. Ah! Okay. The fact that there was absolutely no video to the left made me think “extend the clip to the left,” ie, use the Ripple tool. In fact, I needed to use the “Roll” tool, which extends a clip by stealing time from the clip next door.

I was thinking “There is no video there to the left.” Final cut was thinking “There is indeed video to the left. It is a video of no video.”

Very Zen.

But it makes some sort of sense. My bad.

Now let’s render this clip and see what I did. I hope the audio is synced. Push the button, Frank…

“Estimate time: About 15 minutes…”

(Sigh.) Okay, breakfast.

First Flight: Final Cut Express (part 1)

iMovie has been acting all passive-agressive on me recently. Take my most recent video, for example. All was skittles and beer for the first half of the project, and then iMovie decided “I bet if I make all of the clips Andy’s carefully built so far vanish, forcing him to repeatedly redraw the window before he can continue to make edits, he’ll eventually get frustrated and knock off for the night. And then I can play Warcraft until tomorrow morning.”

Many of you folks have jobs. I’m sure you recognize this sort of attitude in your co-workers.

It sort of nudged me to finally move on to Final Cut Express. I do try not to request software or hardware from a manufacturer unless I have a specific review or column in mind, but the Final Cut family is indeed an important creative tool and I suppose as an internationally-beloved technology pundit, I have a certain responsibility to have a nonzero level of knowledge about the app.

It arrived Wednesday. I installed it Thursday. And today…I’m taking it for its first test drive. I’ll be making notes as I try to edit a little three-minute video.

Okay. I’ve launched and I’m already confused. iMovie ’08 (and its predecessors) had a user interface that made its workflow plain to the ignorant observer. I see lots of windows and buttons and sliders and scrubbers and viewers and now I’m so confused that I don’t know whether I want to vote for Obama or Captain Kirk in next purple’s football election.

Staring at it for five minutes didn’t help.

Neither did randomly pushing buttons.

Okay. This isn’t a slam against Final Cut. This app is not promoted or sold as consumer software. It’s sold as prtofessional software. On that basis, it’s not unreasonable that they expect the user to do some larnin’ before doing any editin’.

I open the PDF manual in Preview and start reading. Okay. I’m understanding this.

Retire to the TV room to read some more. Start watching “The Office” on DVR. Get bored with reading. Google for “Final Cut Tutorial” and immediately encounter Apple’s online videos.

MAR-velous. Exactly what I wanted to see. I get to look over someone’s shoulder as they import clips and cut something together. I still have to learn, but now I see the path ahead of me. I watch ’em all, splitting my attention between the TV and the nice, middle-class-sounding man in the computer.

Back at it. Okay, I’m going to import my video files (MP4s, copied to my hard drive from the Mino HD and the Zi6) using Final Cut’s “Log And Transfer” tool.

The tutorial made it look so easy. The tool shows you all of your video clips. One by one, you can import or reject them, select the in and out points (where you want the clip to start and end in your project), describe the clips, etc.).

Awesome…but it doesn’t want to open any of the Quicktimes I have on my hard drive. No matter what I drag or how I point to something. Hmph. I gather that this tool only works with a camera connected via USB or Firewire. I suppose there’s some sort of logical reason why I can’t use it to process a folder full of MP4s but dammit, from here it seems like a silly and arbitrary distinction.

Okey-doke. I’ll just use “Import Files” from the “File” menu. Cool, it works just as it does in iMovie.

And the tutorial gave me the lay of the land. Viewer on the left is the element that I’m working with at the moment; it’s a video clip, so I can use the viewer to look at the video, decide where the clip should start and end, etc. Viewer on the right is the “live feed,” so to speak. It shows me how my various edits and choices are affecting the final product.

Which is a nice step forward from iMovie. Gives you a distinction between the final product and the elements that make up the final product. In iMovie there’s never a sense of “I’m not ready to build my movie yet but I just want to prepare some of the footage I shot so it’s all clear in my head when I sit down again tomorrow.”

Before I edit, I must organize. I create a separate “bin” in the project window for the clips from each camera.

I also add the intro voice-over I recorded in Quicktime Pro. I love QTP for tasks like this. It’s fast, it’s simple, it stays out of your way, it doesn’t hog system resources.

Oh. Final Cut has a built-in voice-over tool. Ah. Well, maybe I’ll try that later. I’ve got the QTP version just the way I like it. Waste not, want not.

I open the tool just to get a look at it. Hmm. I wish it didn’t drop a window over the viewer that was the exact same style and dimensions. I click the “close” button and am relieved to find that the viewer was right behind it all the time. In situations like this though I worry that the app used the old window as a container and now I’ll have to figure out how to re-open it and put it back where it was.

Whoops, I haven’t had breakfast yet and my stomach is growling. But I want to play a little bit more. I double-click the first video file. It opens in the viewer. I use the same simple controls I use in Quicktime Pro: I watch the video play and tap the “i” key (“in”) to mark the point where I’d like the clip to start. Tap “o” (“out”) to mark the end.

Huh? I’m having a Whiskey Tango Foxtrot moment: the audio is slightly out of sync. I open the same clip in QT Pro. Nope, it’s in sync. Huh, again? Final Cut wants my attention: it’s saying it can’t auto-save the project until I save it.

I thought I already had. Okay, fine, save it…huh? Now it’s created a second tab in my clips browser with the same name as what I saved the project under the first time…!

Okay, screw this. Breakfast. More later.

First Flight: ScribeFire 2.3.2

Testing out the latest version of the ScribeFire plugin for Firefox. It’s been so long since I’ve had a functioning blog that I probably need to check the current state of posting tools. I didn’t like ScribeFire much back in the spring, but hey, maybe it’s moved forward since then.

Or maybe not. See this?

That’s the righthand edge of the editing window.

As you can see by this published post, I didn’t type paragraphs that end with “state of p” or “it’s moved f.” ScribeFire isn’t aware that the text editing pane of the browser window isn’t as wide as the window itself. And while it did give me an unnecessary horizontal scroller under the panel of server buttons to the right of the editing area, there’s no scroller here, where it’s actually needed.

Hmm.

Oooookay: let’s see if inserting the screengrab is a pleasant experience.

So the good news: inserting the picture was as easy as clicking the right tool in the editing toolbar and then picking it from my local filesystem.

The bad news: the right tool wasn’t visible. Because, once again, ScribeFire was unaware of how wide the editing area was at the time. I had to click the separator between the editor and the server panel to make the latter disappear graciously.

They shouldn’t have made made the server panel visible by default. That’s the quick fix. But honestly, ScribeFire has greater power to look within its own soul than I do. It really ought to just know that the server panel is visible, and adjust the editor accordingly.

The really bad news: the editing cursor disappeared after I placed the picture. No blinking upright showing me where the next bit of typing is going to land.

The sight of Flickr and YouTube tools in the toolbar does warm my Grinchy little heart, though. Let’s take ’em for a spin, shall we?

Can there be such as thing as TOO many Princess Leia In Sailbarge Slave Costume? This question was asked and answered at Dragon*Con; that answer is, I hope you’ll agree, No.

The caption was written within the Flickr posting tool. More shoddy workmanship: the editing field is a single line, and it isn’t even tall enough to contain that.

It’s also too bad that the only real treat here is that you can search for all photos tagged with a certain keyword. I wish it were sophisticated enough to show you your own most recent photos. Not a terribly sophisticated offering.

But hey! Slave Leia times fifty! That really takes the edge off of it.

YouTube!

Braveheart parody w/ Bob Newhart

Hmm! Same basic deal as with the Flickr tool: search for keywords and ScribeFire will show you results. But YouTube tool’s caption area is actually taller than ten pixels high, so it’s actually useful. I wonder why there was no cross-pollination between these two builds?

Same basic reaction as with the Flickr tool: I sort of think the caption ought to be formatted differently by default. As-is, it isn’t really a caption. It’s just a paragraph of text. And if I’d written it in the main editor, I would have had all of these neat formatting tools available.

Hey, cool…the cursor is back. Welcome back, li’l fella. You were missed.

Now let’s just center those two elements. Flickr photo: no problem. YouTube: there appears to be no way to select that content. Every time I click it, the video plays. Every time I try to drag-select, nothing happens. So I’m stumped.

I think I’m about done here. I ought to link to ScribeFire’s webpage. Select the phrase, click the link tool…

Hmm. All I get is a common, JavaScript-ey dropdown. Type in the URL.

Yeah, once again I’m shaking my head. I’ve no idea why the ScribeFire team doesn’t exploit the natural intimacy between a blog editor that works as a browser plugin, and the other content being viewed within that browser.

The link tool for my AppleScript blog editor worked exactly the same way…at first. It takes no time whatsoever to bash a provided URL into a HTML link. But fifteen minutes later, I expanded the tool to automatically provide a scrolling list of every website that was currently open (plus the lame “type the URL here” box).

ScribeFire’s site is in a window just behind this editing window. How did I make a link to www.scribefire.com? I copied it into ScribeFire by eye.

The first time I wrote about ScribeFire, I complained — fairly or unfairly — that the most obvious feature seemed to be missing. When you click the little yellow Edit button that ScribeFire adds to every single Firefox window, the window splits into two panes. The ScribeFire environment sits at the bottom. The webpage you were viewing remains at the top:

What does this layout imply to you?

To me, it implies that ScribeFire must be the most awesome tool for writing posts that reference other webpages. It isn’t.

Copy and paste? Sure:

My art has been my entire world since I was five years old. And now I can’t do it.

I’m
taking pills I wouldn’t take in a million years. I’m wearing a magnet
bracelet. I’m seeing two doctors. I’m emotionally fucked up and the one
thing I would do to ease my mind is the one thing I cannot fucking do.
Each time I try something, I sit down and nothing has changed.

My cartooning is more than art. It’s my sanctuary. It’s my Hundred Acre Woods.

But where’s the button that automatically generates a link to the page? Grab the title from the window title, use the URL as the link, and paste that HTML down at the insertion point.

(Er…well, yes: that’s precisely how CWOBber did it. But honestly, the purpose of this post isn’t to point out that the features of an AppleScript blogging app are better than ScribeFire’s. That’s just a flattering side-benefit.)

How about: if I’ve selected text before activating ScribeFire, the plugin automatically generates 75% of a “Hey, here’s something really interesting I’m reading on another site:” post? (added: Actually, it does something close. See comments. Mea culpa.)

How about the ability to generate a JPEG out of the bit of the site I’m viewing at the moment?

Hmm. ScribeFire has improved since…when did I first try it out? December? But I still just don’t get it.

I know that there are plenty of folks who relate to Firefox as a “total operational environment” instead of as a web browser. I’m not one of those people. For the life of me, I don’t know why someone would favor ScribeFire over a standalone app.

Which is a damned shame. Because if it really exploited the potential of a browser-based blog editor — wait, I’m going to color and boldface that — I’d use it every single day. It’d make me a more prolific blogger.

First Flight: ScribeFire

Time to test one last blog editor. This time, we have one from out of left field: ScribeFire, a free blogging plug-in for Firefox. It’s potentially a v.meaty idea. See a page you wanna talk about on your blog? Just click on the ScribeFire button in the corner of the browser window and a blog editor appears in a new window pane, thusly:

Okay, weirdness already: I’ve hit “return” to get to a new line, and find that it’s done a simple linefeed instead of what might be termed a “Please start a new paragraph, Mr. Editor.” Let’s hit “Return” again and see what happens.
Nope. Same thing. That’s weird. The first line of the first paragraph was even indented like a real paragraph…though now I notice that it’s just a batch of spaces. Return
Damn. Does it expect me to tap “Return” twice to communicate a new paragraph?
Easy way to find out: this editor has both Rich Text and HTML views. Let’s just flip on over to the crunchy-wheat HTML side and see how it thinks this should be formatted.

Ooof. That’s no good. Not only is it not wrapping these paragraphs in paragraph tags, but those four spaces have been burned into the post as nonbreaking spaces. Meaning, the indent will be there even if my style sheet says “No indent, please; we’re English.”

Okay, I’m doing double-returns at the end of each graf.

(Note: I’m inserting these graphics after having finished the First Flight. I’m putting this one a couple of paragraphs “late” so that you can see how the earlier grafs got formatted before I started doubling the space between manually. Anyway, here’s what i was seeing in the editing window:)

(Back to your regularly-scheduled First Flight.)

I keep meaning to mention: command-I is intercepted by Firefox’s “Page Info” menu item. So you can’t italicize a word via a keyboard shortcut. But if you click the ital button in the editor, at least you “see” italics.

Like I was saying: I’m now doing double-returns at the end of each graf. Now will ScribeFire wrap the paragraphs with the right HTML tag?

Assuredly not.

Hmm.

Yeah, that’s a problem. In a “first flight” situation, I have no idea how these double-returns I’m inserting are going to be parsed. I assume that it’ll be handled the same way that WordPress’ online editor handles them (meaning: correctly) but I won’t know until I push the magic button.

On the whole, I like the richness of this editor. There’s this little yellow notepad icon in the bottom corner of the Firefox window and hey-presto, clicking it panes the browser window into the page you were viewing and an editing deck so you can comment on the page you were viewing.

I just wish I could easily work out how to pop stuff out of that page. For reference, I’m looking at the World’s Hardest Easy Geometry Problem. I’ve just selected that title and clicked the “Add A Link” button. You’re guessing that ScribeFire automatically chooses the URL of the page that you were viewing when you opened the editor? Nope.

Okay. I’m clicking “Cancel,” I’m selecting the address, doing a Copy, selecting the title here in the post again, and clicking the “Add A Link” button. Paste…good, ScribeFire didn’t screw it up.

Oops. The editing pane here isn’t scrolling down properly. I’m now at the bottom of the pane. It should automatically scroll up far enough to give me plenty of white space to edit in. In reality, it hasn’t even scrolled enough to display the descenders of the letters (oh, seems to be working now. But at first, the “p”‘s and “y”‘s were being cut off.)

Hmm. I’m having one of those moments where my thoughts begin with the phrase “It can’t be like this, can it? Because that would be idiotic.”

Specifically I mean that an embedded blog editor would almost automatically have all kinds of features for quoting and incorporating content from the original webpage I was visiting, right? Right?

In truth, I’m not seriously interested in ScribeFire as a main blog editor. But I want a good “Blog This Here Page” tool and this would seem to be just the ticket.

But I don’t see any tools like that. Hence my confusion. They have to be here; I’m just not finding them.

So let’s look for Help.

Mmmm…

mmm….

….

Can’t find any Help. Nothing more than ToolTips, anyway. Okay, here’s the “ScribeFire” logo in the toolbar. I bet this takes me to online help…

…Nope, it opens a new tab and loads in the main ScribeFire page. Maybe the little graphical dingus on the left of it is a separate button?

…Nope.

Hmm, again.

Oh! There’s a dingus on the extreme left of the top toolbar, which some certain misguided individuals think means “There’s more menu items hiding here somewhere.” I patiently explain to the ScribeFire author who isn’t here in the room with me: no, it doesn’t mean that. It’s pointing in the wrong direction, for one. You need an image thingy here that makes it clear. See, sir, I am now going to click that thingamabob because I don’t think you’re such an idiot that you didn’t include either system help or that…what was I looking for? It seems so long ago…oh, right: tools for including content from the current webpage.

Here I go, clicking the dingus.

A stacked column of buttons appears. A road trails off to W. You hear a babbling brook to the E. ?

Umm…okay, I’ll take “Page Tools” for $500, Alex.

No, that shows you Technorati stats for the page. Useless for the task at hand, which is writing a blog post.

Let’s go to “Bookmarks,” same dollar amount?

No, sorry…the answer were were looking for was “What is ‘Bookmark this page in del.icio.us’?” Here’s an intersting fact: this, too, has nothing to do with creating a blog post. Alice, you have control of the board.

How about “Settings” for $600.

An audio daily double! Alice, you are currently in the lead with $7300. You can risk as much of that as you want on your ability to predict that this menu will be the correct answer.

Uh, I’ll wager $100, Alex.

Nooooo, sorry: this, too, has nothing to do with editing blog posts. Wait, that’s not entirely true: you can do things like choose whether it uses CSS or HTML styles and other options.

Okay, let’s close out the board with “About.”

SO close! It’s a list of links to the ScribeFire RSS feeds, blog, etc., and a link for “Help”…aha!

Mmm, no, it just takes you to the main ScribeFire.com page and leaves it up to you to find its Help system.

Honest to God, I have now spent so much time searching for Help on this plug-in that I’ve forgotten what I wanted to get Help about.

(Right, right: integrating content from the webpage you were visiting before you activated ScribeFire.)

Sigh. So it’s willing to tell me to check the website for help. Which is what the airline does when it screws me at the airport. “Our main 800 number can help you.” “But you’re standing right here!

Ohhh-kay. I’m clicking the “New users: Read This First” link. Yes, dear readers, I am now liveblogging what it’s like to read a webpage. This doesn’t bode well for me (what, I think you’re interested in this?) nor for you (what, there’s nothing else on right now on the whole Internet?) and certainly not for ScribeFire.

(Seriously. A button or a link marked “Help” that takes you right to a QuickStart guide or something. I can whiteboard you an explanation of this concept if y’like.)

Annnd the “Read This First” contains four (4) one-sentence items, explaining that the software won’t work until it’s installed and that it won’t run until you run it. Whoah…slow down, Professor Feynman!

I see a “Support Forum” link in the sidebar. I could click that. Or, I could take this Uniball Signo model UM-153 black gel pen from my pocket, ask it “Signo, how do I integrate content from the webpage into a ScribeFire-generated post?” and then sit patiently until it speaks the answer.

Don’t know which one is the smarter play. Same result, same wait, but if I ask the pen, I’ll won’t have to type anything.

Okay. I’m going to just let this go. I should mention that ScribeFire adds a new menu to the universal Firefox contextual menu and one of the items therein is “Blog this page.” I’ve just tried to activate it via a new window but ScribeFire failed to load itself. Maybe because I had another instance of SF going in this window right here?

Well, I dunno. Later on, I’ll see what happens when I try that contextual menu.

(Incidentally, when it creates new tabs, the embedded editor belongs to the window, and not to the individual tab that was open when I activated ScribeFire. I don’t know that this is the wrong answer, but this definitely disconnects ScribeFire as a “this webpage was so interesting that I had to blog about it right away” sort of tool.)

Here’s what I would expect an embedded editor to do: you activate it and you see pretty much what I’m looking at right now. Except there’s also a whole palette or menu of “this page” buttons. Click this button, and ScribeFire embeds the page’s title, which has been wired up as a hyperlink. Click another button, and whatever text you’ve highlighted on the page copied into your post formatted as a quote. In fact, if text is already highlighted when you activate ScribeFire, the quote is already in the editor.

Bonus points: a JPG thumbnail of the page. Double-bonus: a “gallery” of all of the embedded media on the page so I can “quote” an image (though, hmm, whether it’s a hotlink or a downloaded JPEG served from my own server, there’d be some ethical dilemmas, I guess…)

I mean, anything would be better than what I see here in ScribeFire now…which is nothing.

But let’s move forward. Time to post. Installing ScribeFire in my browser and configuring it for the Celestial Waste of Bandwidth was so fast and trouble-free that both tasks were successfully finished before I started talking about them. So that’s all you need to know about that. Bravo, well done.

(Not me…ScribeFire.)

Oh, right…pictures. I’ve been taking screenshots as I go here. I bet that inserting pictures into this post is punitively hard. Deep breath: let’s see how hard it is to insert an image from my local drive.

Click the “Add an Image” button. Hey, very nice. A dropdown dialog appears, inviting me to select either a local image or an image URL:

And what’s this? If I click on it, standard resize handles appear and I can scale it down proportionately. Awesome. Every editor should do it that way. I can select it and center it on the page, right?

Yup, apparently so. Good, good.

(No, bad; it means that now, I have to go back through this post and add the images I’ve been shooting. Sigh. Let me get a Fresca out of the fridge first and then I’ll be right on that…)

The bad news is that you can’t get access to the image detals without going into HTML mode. I’d like to say “please slap this little image on the left and allow text to flow around it” but there doesn’t seem to be a way to do that. ScribeFire also got discombobulated pretty easily about where the images ended. I centered an image and then couldn’t type “un-centered” text anywhere underneath it until I clicked into some text that was already left-justified.

Okey-doke. Time to post. ScribeFire lets me add WordPress categories, Technorati tags, trackback URLs…cool, the whole schmeer.

If the “Publish” button works as advertised, this will be my last chance to talk about ScribeFire “live.” Time to sum up:

I should say that this tool seems to be a man without a country.

It’s just another blog editor, in a field filled with apps that are far more than merely adequate. If ScribeFire were a standalone app, it would have lots of advantages over an embedded tool that’s dependent on the infrastructure and UI of FireFox. If it had a level of intimacy with the content of the webpage you were viewing when you brought up the tool, it’d be able to do things that no standalone editor can even touch.

As is? There’s no advantage to this. It works just fine, but not in any particularly good way that causes it to distinguish itself. I can’t really see why ScribeFire needs to exist. Unless it’s for the carnal glee of telling people “It’s a blog editor…as a plug-in!!!

Kids, we were all once excited about the ability to make a phone call…from the car!! But eventually, we realized that the technology sucked until it also let us play Freecell.

Push the button, Frank…

First Flight: Photonic

The following is a FIRST FLIGHT writeup, not a formal review.

The point of a FIRST FLIGHT is to record my experiences, impressions, and snap-judgments during my very first few minutes with a new thing. I’m writing my thoughts down as I’m thinking them and the only editing performed after the fact is for style and grammar, not content.

I do believe that these sort of writeups are interesting and even valuable. They document the familiar frustrations and joys of trying something for the very first time. They also illustrate my own expectations (fair and unfair) and my “process” in figuring out a new piece of gear.

But by no means does a FIRST FLIGHT benefit from the careful experimentation, research, and extended experience that informs and validates a formal review.

I am making no conclusions of any kind about the product in this writeup; I am merely documenting a set of initial thoughts and experiences.

Bless you, dear reader, for linking to this and sending some traffic my way. But please DO NOT refer to it as a “review.” You will be misleading your own valued readers about the authority of this piece.

Bless you, dear reader, for chiming in with your own insights and experiences with this product. But DO NOT upbraid me for not knowing what the hell I’m talking about. You will look very, very foolish.

Got it? OK…onward we go.

I’m a huge — huge — fan of Flickr. If the Earth were days from destruction but I could save myself and one minivan’s worth of people by driving to a NASA facility where VIP escape ships were secretly being prepped for launch (I’m not a VIP but I imagine that the VIPs would have computers that occasionally needed to have their WiFi fixed), I would give one of those seats to a mortal conceptualization of everything that Flickr.com represents.

(Besides, my cousin Gerald is a jerk. Screw him.)

So I was pretty excited to learn about Photonic, a new desktop Mac client for Flickr. There are tools for uploading pictures and tools for browing images and (please fill in three or four more functions that sound likely to save me some time) but Photonic seems like the first one that attempts to be a single, unified dashboard for the whole smash.

Okey-doke. As usual, our game starts with dialog box that sends us to Flickr and authorizes the app to knock up your photo feed. Done and done.

Let’s start off by uploading a photo. I like what I see already; classic iTunes-style interface in three vertical columns. The window’s already populated with my contacts, groups, sets, etc. But I wonder if this is the most elegant approach. I have lots of friends and lots of sets and I’m in lots of groups. To get through that whole list I need to grab the scroller on that bit of the window and then exercise some patience.

But back to our first goal. Makes sense that I can just drag a photo into that center area, right? Let’s see what happens.

Yes, indeed…dragged straight from iPhoto. I click on the thumbnail and all of the detail fields on the right activate. Time to apply the snarky comments that inspired my taking that photo back at Barnes & Noble.

Adding tags. Nice…it auto-completes based on tags you’ve already applied to photos in your photostream. Isn’t it weird that this little desktop app that works with a free online service handles tagging so much better than iPhoto (for God’s sake)?

But the mechanism does break an interface rule. You tell the tag editor “Yes, good boy, you did indeed predict that I was about to type ‘antidisestablishmentarianist'” by hitting “return.” The answer we were looking for is “space bar.” Space bar. Oh, so sorry. Not a match, we add $50 to the high-low jackpot.

(by which I mean: not a huge mistake but it prevented me from using this feature correctly on my first and second tries)

Next I add it to a photoset and then I consider adding it to one of the groups I’m subscribed to. Very nice. After a moment’s thought I think I’d rather see both of these done as popups instead of scrolling text fields. I’d much rather be able to see dozens of these items at once instead of just four or five.

Photonic Upload Screen

Click “Upload Selection,” sheet drops down with progress bar…presto, I’m looking at Flickr’s standard “Your photo has been uploaded; hail Jambi!” page.

Well done. Some UI tweaks would be a good idea, but that’s about as good as you could do that, I think.

Let’s try something a bit harder: dragging a batch of photos in and then arranging them into a photoset. The problem with most of these tools is that they don’t make it dead-simple to figure out what order the pix will land in.

I’ve grabbed a pile of photos and dragged ’em in without really caring about the order. Plop. Grabbing a thumbnail let me drag it into a new position, complete with cool Core Anmation graphics. Nice touch.

The thought “You know, I’d really like to make those thumbnails bigger while I write my descriptions” is followed by a look at the window and the discovery of an iPhoto-like slider at the bottom corner. Presto: I can make the thumbs as big as I want, all the way up to full-window size.

Nitpick: this slider has no label of any kind and it ought to be under the image well, where it makes contextual sense.

Type in my usual, wordy photo description. I wish I could expand that editing pane…seven lines of visible text crowded in a gutter isn’t a lot of elbow room for writing three or four paragraphs.

How do I create a new photoset?

Damn. I’ve been looking closely and I have absolutely no clue. In fact, I’ve clicked on an existing photoset that I don’t want…and now it appears to be impossible to “unselect” it. That’s no good and “no damned good,” in that sequence.

Hello, Help system.

“Help isn’t available for Photonic.” Spiffy.

Hello, support site!

Photonic login screen

It’s asking me for a login and a password?!? What the hell is this? That’s the sort of decision you make when you’re absolutely 100% certain that your app is so perfect that nobody will ever seek help on any function whatsoever. Or that you have no interest whatsoever in providing support in the first place.

Nope, I can’t just type a search term into the field on that webpage. Doing so takes me right back to the login screen.

Fine. In order to get basic information about a fundamental feature whose use should have been immediately obvious, I will sign up for an account on this generic-looking website which lacks anything to indicate that I’ll find the answers I need here.

(Is it okay if I mutter “**** you” after I complete each field?)

I have filled out the form, I have logged out of my usual Gmail account, logged back in to access the “trash” account I use for pointless message board logins, authenticated my new account on the support forum, logged in…and now I discover that the message board contains two (2) messages with zero replies.

The “Issues” tab has seven (7) open issues. None of them tell me how to create a photoset.

Okay, I’ve located one message from a user asking how the hell to create a photoset. No replies, but it’s just 8 hours old.

Notify the family and call the code: time of complete death of interest in Photonic came at 5:07 PM.

It’s a very, very promising app, but a Flickr app that doesn’t understand the fundamentals of a Flickr workflow and forces users to just throw all of their pictures into one big soup is useless.

When Photonic 1.1 is released I will check again with sincere great interest.

First Flight: Neuros OSD

The following is a FIRST FLIGHT writeup, not a formal review.

The point of a FIRST FLIGHT is to record my experiences, impressions, and snap-judgments during my very first few minutes with a new thing. I’m writing my thoughts down as I’m thinking them and the only editing performed after the fact is for style and grammar, not content.

I do believe that these sort of writeups are interesting and even valuable. They document the familiar frustrations and joys of trying something for the very first time. They also illustrate my own expectations (fair and unfair) and my “process” in figuring out a new piece of gear.

But by no means does a FIRST FLIGHT benefit from the careful experimentation, research, and extended experience that informs and validates a formal review.

I am making no conclusions of any kind about the product in this writeup; I am merely documenting a set of initial thoughts and experiences.

Bless you, dear reader, for linking to this and sending some traffic my way. But please DO NOT refer to it as a “review.” You will be misleading your own valued readers about the authority of this piece.

Bless you, dear reader, for chiming in with your own insights and experiences with this product. But DO NOT upbraid me for not knowing what the hell I’m talking about. You will look very, very foolish.

Got it? OK…onward we go.

The frustrating catch-22 of my job is that oftentimes, a really cool and long-awaited thing arrives on my doorstep at a time when I’m suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous editors. I sign for a long, skinny package. From the return address, I know that this contains the Spear of Destiny, a conduit of unspeakable mystical force conferring unbounded powers upon he who can wield it with wisdom and purity.

But I promised an editor that by the end of the day, I’d send her 450 words about what sort of phone Fidel Castro should buy. So Christ’s Lance has to stay in its consecrated bubble wrap.

The Neuros OSD arrived last week. Conceptually, it’s an intensely great idea: it’s a modern digital version of a VCR. I already have plenty of ways to convert a movie or a TV show into a video file that I can throw onto my server or sync to my phone or iPod. None of them are as simple as just picking up a remote control, pushing a “Record” button, and having whatever’s playing on your TV copied to a bit of removable media.

It does plenty of other things, o’course. But if the Neuros works as simply and effectively as a VCR, it’ll make digital media easy and relevant to a whole new population of normal humans. Getting a DVD or last night’s Letterman onto a smartphone is still heavy voodoo to most people; too many steps, too many technologies. Ideally, the Neuros reduces it to nothing more than pulling a MiniSD card from a trim little set-top box and then sliding it into the phone’s memory slot. Done and done.

The season finale of “Project Runway” starts in an hour. Let’s see if I can get this set up in time to record the show on a memory card and then watch it on the eee PC’s open-source video player.

Naturally I don’t even look at the manual. Instead, I fish out the foldup “Abbreviated Users Guide.”

Umm…

Wow. This might be the first “Quick Start”-type of insert that’s harder to follow than the actual manual. Well, if the Neuros is like a VCR, then the installation and setup should be pretty obvious.

The AC adapter has one of those cool right-angle plugs that slips right into an empty socket on my power strip. It’s a small touch but I always appreciate that.

…But it turns out that the power strip under the TV also has space-saving right-angle plugs. So the two conveniences cancel each other out. Not even remotely Neuros’ fault but still…damn and blast.

The Neuros is a trim little box and it doesn’t have room for a full bank of video connectors. Instead, the video in and out are 1/8″ jacks. Two 1/8″ to composite-video cables are included. This ought to be as simple as hooking up any other sort of video component: I’ll just stick it between the DVD burner and the TV.

There is the usual fear as I’m about to do something to a Working System that could turn it into a Not Working System. But yup, just patch in a couple of plugs and presto: the picture comes back on the Bravo Project Runway Marathon. Now there’s a Neuros menu overlaid on the picture electronically.

I load up the Neuros remote control with the two no-name probably highly toxic AAA batteries that came in the box and press a button marked “Home” which looks like it might be helpful. Presto, the menu I saw comes back on.

Let’s see how far I get without consulting any of the documentation.

Here’s a “Getting Started” menu item. Click. Neat, a whole “Read Me” sort of deal. I learn that there’s a Help button on the remote for each menu item and option. What happens if I press the help button during help?

Oooo…it dumps you out of the readme and puts you back at the top menu.

About the remote: it’s a very generic plastic OEM remote with Neuros labels silkscreened on it.

As I write this, electronic menu overlay gets tired of waiting and returns me to plain live video (which is absolutely the correct answer). I’m pleased that I don’t have to stop watching live video when I’m navigating menus.

Odd, though: there’s an audible mechanical click as the overlay appears and disappears. I’m guessing that this is a sign that the box has a “pass-thru” mode that it uses when it’s not doing anything productive (as opposed to always “owning” the channel and merely choosing when to add graphics).

Hit “Home” to get the help doc again. Hmm, picture loses sync for a fraction of a second when the overlay first appears. Not disruptive, but not a “polished” response.

There is a universal “Back” button for taking one step back through whatever menu you’ve drilled down into. Nice touch. And a button marked “Xim,” apparently. Which I’m sure looked great on a whiteboard but it’s a word that means nothing.

Actually, let’s just go to UrbanDictionary.com and see if it means nothing.

…Good, there’s no listing for “Xim.” When I see a word I don’t understand (or worse, am about to use a word that I only think I understand) it’s a good idea to check the UD. Usually it actually means something positively filthy that kids that age never did when I was in junior high.

If they did, they never invited me, anyway.

Okay. So we’re making great progress. 30 minutes of installation, including writing all of this stuff, and it appears that I had it up and working 15 minutes ago. Let’s just head right for the good stuff: recording live video onto a SDHC card.

Looks straightforward. “Record • Schedule” menu item is the obvious choice (though I hesitate; I don’t want to set up a scheduled recording, I just want to record something immediately. But apparently the bullet means “and/or.”

“Recording Settings.” Gee, interesting: it lists a handful of typical devices (iPod, PSP, TV, Smartphone). I assume each of these is a different bitrate and size. I also assume that the best of the four presets would be TV or Sony PSP.

I do know that the Neuros uses MP4 as its recording format so I doubt it’s a codec choice. Click.

Now it wants to know the recording length. Hmm. I thought this was “preferences” sort of place (ie, “Mr. Neuros, please use these settings every time I press the ‘record’ button on the remote”). Is it going to try to start recording right now? Let’s see.

“Select storage location.”

Umm…

I don’t have anything hooked up yet. I see a “Shortcuts” menu and a “Network” menu. Let’s see what happens when I slip an 8 gig SDHC card into a slot there.

(Hmm. It’s hard to read these slots. The Neuros has several for the many different types of cards, plus a USB port. But they’re black on a black faceplate labeled with tiny letters. And when you’re watching TV, you usually have the lights dimmed, too.)

Card is in. No apparent change in the menu. I was hoping for a “Save video to the SDHC memory card you just inserted” menu item or something. Time to start clicking things at random. Maybe you set storage location under “shortcuts.” The only other choice is “network” and it can’t possibly be that.

UH-oh. “Press ENTER key to select storage location,” screen says…but screen appears to be locked up.

Yup, “Enter,” “Home,” “Back,” arrow keys, “Help”…no joy, it’s frozen. No blinking lights or anything on the box either. Time to cut power and restart, I think.

Actually, I removed the card and then the Neuros unfroze and moved on to the next screen in the operation. Odd; it’s a standard FAT-formatted card fresh from my digital camera.

And yes, it did assume that I wanted to record immediately. When I pulled the card it gave me a (polite) error saying that there wasn’t enough storage space.

Let’s try that again. I’m back at the main menu and now I’ll stick the card back in.

Hmm. This is no good; presence of the card locks up the box no matter what it’s doing that moment.

Let’s try formatting the card, to remove that as a variable. I don’t suppose it’s even possible that it doesn’t support SDHC?

I’ll be damned…no it doesn’t. That’s a pretty big minus, considering how dirt-cheap 8 and 16 gig cards have become…and the simplicity of using ’em as “floppies” for recorded video!

Oy. Okay, let me grab an 0111d-sk0001 memory card from whatever chair leg they’re currently propping up.

No, actually, I’ll plug in my iPod here. I’ve got disk mode activated and the Neuros has a standard USB plug, for use with any USB mass storage device. The video file won’t be added to the iPod library, of course, but it ought to write the file there just fine.

Hmm. It’s not showing up under what I presumed was the list of storage devices. I know it’s in target mode (the iPod screen confirms it).

Nope, I see “Shortcuts” and “Network.” It isn’t under “Network,” is it?

Nope.

I’m stumped. Let’s look through other menus. “Home,” and then “Settings.”

“Default Recording.”

Aha! This page (which offers a long list of specific settings, all the way down to the audio and video bitrates) says that it’s going to save to “USB.”

Cool, I approve these settings.

“No storage found, are you sure you want to save?”

Sigh.

Okay, let’s try another USB storage device. As it happened, today’s mail also brought a 32 gigabyte (yes, 32 gig) thumb drive. Can you see that, Mr. Neuros?

Ooookayyy…it seems to be recording to the thumb drive.

I think.

I mean, the access light on the drive is flashing and everything.

Incidentally, “Project Runway” started 20 minutes ago. Fortunately, the DVR started recording it at 10. Will restart it from the beginning and then simply sit back and enjoy the show…and afterwards, I’ll see if the Neuros actually did anything.

Incidentally(2) they made a real lamebrained mistake on the USB port: they put it in upside-down. There’s a USB logo above the jack and that would normally imply that you need to have the USB logo on the cable facing upward…but nope, that’s the wrong way.

Okay, I’m watching the show. Will pick this up after I press the “Stop” button on the Neuros remote.

Change of plans: I pressed “Pause” when the first commercial break came on. Cool. I see a familiar PVR-ish progress bar superimposed on the screen, indicating that it’s paused recording after 12 minutes and some seconds. Commercials are over, resume recording, and I see the seconds ticking by for half a minute before the bar disappears again.

I think I see the problem with the storage devices: I kept giving the Neuros incompatible volumes. First the SDHC card, then the iPod…which I belatedly realize is formatted with the Mac OS file system. I bet the Neuros is only compatible with FAT32 storage.

Makes sense. The thumb drive would certainly have come formatted as a FAT drive.

Back to the show. L8R.

Second commercial. Cool: I’ve just noticed that the green power light turns red when it’s recording. In pause, it turns green again. Nice touch.

Show’s over, I press Stop. “Finishing recording,” the screen says. “One moment, please.” After 30 seconds…I’m back at the Settings menu.

I exit out of the menu system completely. Let’s see what happens if I just press the “Record” button on the remote.

(…After I start “Reno: 911!” playing.)

Hmm. Pressing “Record” opens a menu where I have to confirm the recording. Wish it were true one-touch recording. Also seems odd that I appear to be back at the “Settings” menu when this happens. If this had been a true “Omigod! I should be recording this!!!” situation I would have missed the first five or ten seconds of it.

“Reno!” is over. Let’s see what I did.

Select “Play • Browse.” “USB” now appears in the list of storage places. Cool. Selecting it reveals a list of all files on the device…including a PDF and an executable that were already there to begin with.

Can it view the PDF? Select. Nope, but the menu allows me to rename, move, delete, etc.

“osd.mp4” is the first recording, likely “Project Runway.” Select. It starts playing after a six-second pause “Please wait…”

Video quality is very good. “TV” preset is 640×480, 30 fps, about 2.5 kbps. I definitely see some degradation, but maybe this isn’t the best test; it was compressing compressed video.

Now I’m curious to see if it can record from DVD. I pop in a “House” disc. I choose that one episode where the diagnostic team orders way too many speculative and unnecessary tests while making two or three incorrect diagnoses and inflicting one life-threatening course of treatment after another before House has a dramatic sudden insight and makes the right call at last…and then I push the “Record” button.

Okay, if the Neuros is having problems with Macrovision or anything, it isn’t complaining yet. I shall valiantly watch the whole episode before I stop the recording.

“House” is over. (Turns out it wasn’t lupus after all.)

I don’t see any sort of menu item for “Safely eject the USB media” so I’m just going to yank it out (I’ve stopped the recording and the access light isn’t blinking). I’ll stick it in the USB port of this here eee PC, and see if I can play the files wot I find there.

Yup! They all play just fine in the eee’s built-in open-source media player — the “House” episode, too, meaning that commercial DVDs are but stalks of wheat before the device’s scythe.

The videos look and sound very good, too. Smart choice the OSD’s designers made, to have it “default” to such high-quality recording settings. It ensures that the first recordings a new user makes will be damned wonderful. If they’d chosen more conservative settings, first-time users might be left with the wrong impression about its max quality.

I yank the flash drive from the eee, plug it into the MacBook. Works great there, too. The Finder can QuickLook each of these three movies and plays ’em in Quicktime Player and iTunes.

So there were a few initial rough spots, but most of those hiccups were easily explained. So far, this looks like a neat piece of gear. Next step will be to update to the very latest firmware and work my way through all of its features. But I like what I see so far and I’ll definitely be giving it a formal review in the Sun-Times in a few weeks.

Blogo first flight

Warning: a “First Flight” is an ongoing log of my impressions and experiences during my first and VERY first launch of a new app. You are reading exactly what I’m thinking when I’m thinking it, during my first ten or twenty minutes of hands-on experience with the thing.

I do think it’s valuable to document these things. True, true: you can’t possibly reach any conclusions about the nature of an app in the first fifteen minutes. But the joys and frustrations you experience right off the bat can be illustrative.

So: DO NOT refer to this as a review; DO NOT lambaste me for judging an app based on a quick launch; DO NOT point out that if I’d bothered to check the Help menu I’d have discovered that I could have fixed everything with a Command-Option-Shift-G.

Because the proper response to such a complaint can only me my pinching your nose tightly between my index and ring fingers and then slapping my other fist down my forearm so hard that the sound effects guy dubs an old-timey car horn sound onto the soundtrack.

You Have Been Warned.

Yes, fellow Friends of Liberty…I’m testing out another editor. Blogo is obviously a far less-ambitious app than ecto or MarsEdit, but it definitely has a certain charm:


…And man alive, the image embedding works more or less precisely the way I’d like it to. Drag a file into the image well (or use a menu), it lets me resize it and lets me establish the resized version as a link to the full-fized thingy. Click a button and it’s in there. Niiiiiice.

It might be a little too flashy for its own good. I was surprised to find that the big “Edit” button at the top there opens up a drawer containing previous blog posts, and offers a chance to edit them. In this context, “Edit” would seem to say “Edit this post you’ve got in front of you right now.”

But Blogo appears to be a sterling example of minimalist UI. The text field under the editing box is for adding category tags. “Jeez, it doesn’t give me a list of previous categoried to choose from?” I groused.

Aha! But it uses del.icio.us-style tagging. I tap y-e…and it auto-completed “Yellowtext” from my previous blog posts. Niiiiiice.

Blogo has made a fabulous first impression. It looks like it was created by someone who took too many Cocoa programming classes who then had a boozy one-nighter with someone who took too many Web 2.0 design classes.

For all that, Bloggo has the trendy feature of the day: a “full screen” editing mode that leaves you looking at a single text edit box and a six-button palette and nothin’ else:

Hmm. I don’t know how this happened, but it inserted the photo at the top of the post instead of at the insert point. Maybe it’s because I deliberately used the “Place Image…” command from the “Post” menu instead of using the image well.

Let’s try it again. Same menu:

Yup, that’s a definite bug. But the good news is that they’re letting the OS do the heavy lifting. That photo was originally a .DNG file; I assume it’ll be converted to a JPEG when it’s uploaded. Let’s cross our fingers and see.

…Of course, I had to leave full-screen mode to insert that picture. And when I did, it apparently returned me to where the insert point was before I went full-screen. Had to scroll down to where I wanted the picture to go; they need to fix that.

Let’s see how well it handles one of those YouTube things:


…Hmm.

The fantastic news is that when you paste in the usual block of markup from YouTube, Blogo is smart enough to think “Ah! YouTube embed! Yes, my developer happens to live in a world in which these are a popular element in blog postings and so I will treat this as a special movie graphic.”

Good. But I don’t seem to be able to select it and center it. It seems to want to “float” to the left of the next paragraph. I would expect there to be a “center” command somewhere in the button palette or in the menus, but there’s none to be found.

I do find that if I grab it and move it to the center on my own, Blogo understands what I’m getting at. That’s very smart behavior (why doesn’t every app understand this?) but still, wish there were an explicit “center this sumbitch” command.

For that matter…how do I center text?

Can I just grab this graf and move it to the center? Let’s try that.

Nnnnope. This appears to be an app that hates centered text with a passion.

Also an app that doesn’t understand blockquotes or custom styles. Pity, that. What version is this? 1.0.1.1. Okay, hopefully there’s more stuff coming.

All in all, a great first impression. Blogo (which also needs another “g” in the name, incidentally) seems to get all of the compulsories right. It does need to acquire a few basic features.

(Seriously, dude: no centering?)

And oddly enough, if the right UI designer were to take this exact same window and this exact same collection of buttons, and just slid them around into a different configuration — and made the buttons prettier, & junk — it’d be one of those simple things that makes the app stronger.

There also appear to be a handful of subtle bugs. It keeps adding a bare line under a certain image in this post. And even though the YouTube video appears to be centered here in the editing window, it’s right-justified in the preview.

Oh, did I not mention the preview mode? It previews the blog post as it will appear in your current blog template. Viz:


AWE-some.

Of course, the ideal is probably for a blogging app to be so reliable that you’d never need to preview something before posting. But it’s a nice feature anyway.

I’m adding Blogo to the rotation of blogging tools. I think the most effective way to determine a winner is to keep all three (four…five) in the Dock and find out which one I gravitate to.


Manually edited to comment about how well the posting landed on the blog:

Hmm. Give it a C instead of an “A.” Blogo did not, convert the .DNG image. In fact, the presence of that image caused Blogo to fail to post this at all. Seems like it’d be a simple thing for Blogo to check on its own; wonder why it doesn’t?

Secondly, it didn’t actually center anything properly. Bad, bad, bad. It looked OK in the preview but the preview didn’t match reality…thus rendering the whole preview mode less than useful.

And dangit, when you click on the pictures it just opens the same 400-pixel wide image in a new window. I thought the UI made it clear that these things would be linked to full-sized images. So it’s either a UI failure or it’s an application failure.

Finally, the code it generated is a bloody mess. It might parse fine, but I think these apps should generate clean code that’s easy for a human to read and edit if need be.

Heartbreaking. My enthusiasm for Blogo has dropped way down. If you click “Post” and part of you is certain that you’re going to have to go back in and fix something…that sort of removes Blogo from consideration as a “real” day-to-day blogging tool. Hopefully it’s a simple case of 1.0-itis that’ll be fixed as the app matures.

First Flight: OmniFocus

Warning: a “First Flight” is an ongoing log of my impressions and experiences during my first and VERY first launch of a new app. You are reading exactly what I’m thinking when I’m thinking it, during my first ten or twenty minutes of hands-on experience with the thing.

I do think it’s valuable to document these things. True, true: you can’t possibly reach any conclusions about the nature of an app in the first fifteen minutes. But the joys and frustrations you experience right off the bat can be illustrative.

So: DO NOT refer to this as a review; DO NOT lambaste me for judging an app based on a quick launch; DO NOT point out that if I’d bothered to check the Help menu I’d have discovered that I could have fixed everything with a Command-Option-Shift-G.

Because the proper response to such a complaint can only me my pinching your nose tightly between my index and ring fingers and then slapping my other fist down my forearm so hard that the sound effects guy dubs an old-timey car horn sound onto the soundtrack.

You Have Been Warned.

Time to play with OmniGroup’s new OmniFocus task-management app. I’ve seen this in beta and was v.impressed with its approach and its goals. And I use OmniOutliner to run a fairish percentage of my life, so my expectations are high.

Macworld Expo also gave me the chance to get a 45-minute personal runthrough from the app’s designer, who was nice enough to work through all of my questions. I was certainly left thinking that this is could be a terrific product. I’ve never used a personal organizer or a project manager; they all seem to want me to run my life the way that programmers run theirs.

To this I respond: have you seen the way most programmers run their lives? Case closed.

The other problem is that acolytes of the “Getting Things Done” model of organization have been becoming increasingly PeTA-ish in how obsessively and annoyingly they pursue their Missions. Dine out with a GTD’er and you’ll have to walk to his side of the table and get your own damned salt. Because if you ask him to pass it to you, he’ll be lost in thought as he tries to work out how to contextualize that into an actionable result.

So that was my main worry as I read the product page; “GTD” is indeed spotted here and there. But they don’t seem to be all “blow up a research lab in the interests of protecting living things”-ish about it, so it’s all good.

Onward.

Launches with some helpful action items already in there. “Getting Started With OmniFocus” and (uh-oh) “Learn More about Getting Things Done” are my existing projects, evidently.

Merlin Mann gets a free bookmark? Why isn’t OmniGroup sending free traffic my way? Sure, I have nothing to do with this product or its goals, but still.

A summons for jury duty arrived while I was away. I need to fill out the little card and mail it in.

Tap command-N to create a new action item…it creates a new window, not a new item or a new project. Bad call. Am I going to spend more time in this app creating windows, or creating to-dos and goals? Exactly.

Ugh, it isn’t even command-SHIFT-N…that’s for creating new projects. It’s command-CONTROL. This is going to be a hassle. I remember from the demo that there are many ways to add actions; hopefully there’s something better in there.

Okay: command-CONTROL-N. Wait…that creates a new item in “Learn About Getting Things Done.” Well, that makes sense; I had that item open.

Err…okay, how about I drag it into the Inbox? Yup, that worked.

Hmm. I wish this window had column headers. I can get by context that the first field is the description, the next are Project and Context and other icons. But glancing to the top of the window and seeing it explicitly spelled out is reassuring.

“Mail in card for jury duty.” Tab.

Er…is this really a project?

Here’s where I usually fail at these apps. I like OmniOutliner because I can just build lists and check them off, free-form. But I appreciate that an app like OmniFocus can help me handle things that are much more complex.

Still, I’d love to have one single “dashboard” for everything I’d like to do, large and small. Let’s make this project “Snail Mail.” Type. Enter. It disappears.

Type, hit tab? Disappears.

Okay, I know this is a bit of a ringer. As I type, a little cue drops down from the field: “New Project: Command-Return.” No mistaking that. Still, I wish I knew why the keys that seem to work in every other app aren’t the ones I can use here. The Omni guys build great stuff and there’s prolly a reason. One that makes sense to them, anyway.

Now there’s a field for “Context.” Deep breath. This is the heavy-voodoo bit of this. I admit that “context” just makes no readily-apparent sense. You really do need someone to explain a philosophy behind it.

Off the top of your head, what’s the “context” of mailing a jury-duty form? Is it a piece of mail? Is it something you do because you don’t want to get arrested?

Context? I suppose I’ll be sitting at my kitchen table while I do this. Should I write “Just after lunchtime, when I’m not quite ready to go back to work and am looking for an excuse to get out of the house?

Here’s why my Macworld demo was valuable. I asked for a real bonehead explanation of what I’d use this for and Captain OmniFocus said that his own personal definition is “the one thing, person, environment, whatever that I absolutely need in order to make this this happen.”

I think about it for a few moments. “Post Office,” I guess. “Mailbox” seems stupid and pedantic, as does “stamps.” I’m trying to think of this as something that would be useful to me later. If “Post Office” is the context, then it can also be applied to things like buying stamps, picking up mail on hold, paying the annual rent on my PO box, that sort of stuff.

“Post Office”…done.

Hey, maybe Snail Mail is indeed a good Project. Just remembered that I need to mail off two copies of my new book to some contest winners.

Command-N…NO! Control-Shift-N. (I hope I get used to this)

Hmm…nothing happened. The title of “Inbox” highlighted but that’s it.

Wait…Control-Shift-N is now simply selecting Actions every time I hit it?

Ohhh…according to the File menu, it’s Control-Command-N. My fault. But dammit, these things happen when you make me learn a new command instead of allowing to use the old command that seems like the best, most obvious choice.

(Sigh.) Nope, still does nothing. Wait, now it does. Did I screw it up again, or is it context-sensitive? I bet I screwed it up. But (hate to keep harping on this, but I must) if it were Command-N as it should have been, I wouldn’t keep messing up.

Cool. Auto-complete on both Project and Context.

Still feels a little weird to refer to post-office stuff as a Project. Seems a bit like referring to American Pie 5 as Cinema.

Need to finish up a list of products I’ll be including in a Consumers Digest feature. That one has a deadline…and it’s a very natural project-ish sort of thing.

“Finish product universe,” project is “Consumer Digest,” context is…

Hmm.

I suppose I’ll need my Mac for this? “Mac.”

Open Inspector, add “today” as due date. Item immediately turns red. Crap, I’ve only been using this app for ten minutes and already deadlines are turning red on me.

Date and time appear as a popup calendar and time bar. I wonder if there are shortcuts for “Today” and “Tomorrow”? Seems like those would be handy. One ongoing annoyance of these kinds of apps is that something isn’t necessarily due at a certain time or even a certain day. I wish this app would let me say “Next week” and understand this as “Doesn’t really matter when, but if it isn’t finished by Friday morning, it’ll become urgent.”

I also feel weird tapping in “Midnight” when (again) the actual time doesn’t really matter.

Let’s try something with Attachments, which impressed me in last week’s briefing. I’m planning on a blog post about the ModBook and Paul Lee, a comic artist I met at the booth.

“ModBook blog post”; Project: okay, “CWOB”; Context? Umm…”Blog,” I guess. Can’t blog without the blog though I can’t help but think I’m making an error by choosing a Project and a Context that are damned near identical.

Again confusion about Contexts. “Where” is this action item? “What” do I need to do it? It could be almost anything, which in one sense gives me a lot of power to organize my world as I see fit, but in another sense gives me a slight blip of confusion every time I create something. Worst-case is that I simply leave this blank for most things.

Writing this blog post will involve pasting up a bunch of questions that Paul answered via email, and some digital art that he’ll be sending me when he has a chance.

Click on the “Attachments” icon, drag in a drawing he sent me over the weekend. Cool; shows up right under the action, indented slightly. Wish it were a thumbnail instead of a generic JPG icon. But good news: it supports QuickLook so I can check it out without opening it in Preview. Cool.

Drag in an email message. It appears as a link to the original message in Mail (good) but it appears on the same line as the JPEG icon (not good). Drag in the remaining two…same deal. If I want each one on a different line, I have to insert the line breaks myself. Seems like “put each attachment on a new line” (or some other thing that makes it easy to separate multiple attachments) would make sense.

Another situation where I wish I could deadline this as “This week, sometime.” Instead I lie and say that it has an actual deadline of midnight on Friday.

Recurring actions. I want to remind myself to spend at least half an hour cleaning my office every day. Action: “Clean office”; Project: “Maintenance”; Context: …

“Office”? Okay, nobody’s watching: “Office.”

Inspector: Repeat Every (1) Days. Bang.

Good. From my briefing last week I know that OmniFocus will create a brand-new Action with this information every single day. I should also create one for my Sun-Times deadline; he explained that every repeating action is in fact its own thing, which means that I can add individual details for each specific column.

Dangit, I need to select “Inbox.” I accidentally created it as an item in the project that was already open. I don’t know if I like that; instinctively I think “create a new action” should but a push-and-go thing; I shouldn’t have to think about where I am in the app, or navigate to a different place.

Select “Inbox.”

“Sun-Times Column”; Project: “Sun-Times”; Context…

“My genius”?

“Mac,” I guess. Sigh. It’ll take me a while to get used to this. I don’t know if I can rightly blame OmniFocus, though. I’ve never used this style of app before.

Add data for the recurring action. Simple. But I made the mistake of clicking on some of the other tabs in the Inspector:

Inspector palette for OmniFocus

Now I’m confused. Look at all those…things. I think I remember some of those from the demo.

I’m starting to wonder if I’m not being presented with way too many options here. Okay, so this “every week” thing isn’t limited to just actions; it can also be a whole project. So it might make sense to make “Write a Sun-Times column” a weekly project, with a batch of action items for each column (“Talk to Steve about where he got the idea for MacBook Air”, “Doctor up some phony pictures of the ‘Mac Air Nano'”…that sort of thing).

But would I really want that application sidebar to contain fifty-two Sun-Times projects every year?

No, what happens is that it disappears when completed. So only columns-in-progress would be there.

Okay…but when I add a new Action, would it be more complicated to figure out which week’s column it should apply to?

Overthinking things, Andy. Let’s just make a recurring Project.

(But will the new Projects be created on a weekly basis, or as I need them?)

Le Sigh.

I’ll return to this line of thought later. For now, I have plenty of actions and the window is now full of Projects in that sidebar. So now if I want to see all of the CWOB-related actions, I just click “CWOB” and…

Wait…where the hell are my actions? I only see one of them:

OmniFocusScreenSnapz003.jpg

That’s the one that’s “due” by the end of the week. Where’s the other idea I had? The one with no deadline?

Click on “Snail Mail”…no actions.

Click on “Maintenance”…no actions.

What the hell?

Let’s do a search. Search for “universe” — I know that one of the actions was about a “project universe”…

No hits?!?

Click on “Inbox.” Okay, I have one item for “Finish Project Universe.” But why (the hell) didn’t it show up in a search? Why didn’t it show up when I clicked on the project title?

UGH. Okay, here’s what happened: it’s not a global search. It only searches the one thing you’ve selected. Which has a two-pronged bad effect: it doesn’t immediately understand a “find every action that matches this” request unless you think to somehow select your whole universe first, and secondly, if you forget that the search box has the word “universe” in it, when you click on other projects they’ll all appear to be empty.

Is that why I didn’t see any of my other actions?

Nope. All projects are still empty. Again I ask: what the hell?

Okay, I see most of these things when I click on the Inbox. And more clicking reveals that if I click on “no target in particular” in the sidebar, it seems to mean “show me everything”:

OmniFocus Screen

…But there are still empty projects which I know contain actions.

Do I have to manually drag actions out of the Inbox and into their related projects? I just assumed that defining a project when creating the Action would cause OmniFocus to do that sort of thing automatically.

Maybe I’ve made a poor assumption. I just assumed that the point of defining Projects and Contexts meant that I could do a one-click swivel search. “Show me everything in the ‘CWOB’ project” “Show me everything to do with the post office.”

Dangit. It looked so bloody simple in the live demo. It looks like I’m just going to have to sit down with the manual and read it. I did understand it when someone with lots of experience was showing the app off.