Why New York City Subway Stations Are Missing Countdown Clocks – CityLab

Why New York City Subway Stations Are Missing Countdown Clocks:

‘One of the things that was most frustrating when doing this work,’ Barone says to me, referring to preparing the report, ‘was the murkiness. And the lack of uniformity in how each of these systems is being done.’

‘It seems to me that there are concurrent projects going on that—’ He trails off, thinking for a minute. ‘It’s like, you’re building ISIM to find out where the trains are located—but CBTC does that. You’re spending money to get your interlockings to be centrally automated, yet CBTC can do that too… ATS initially came out before they really thought about moving to CBTC, and therefore the first ATS is not even compatible with it. It can’t plug in. There’s a whole plan now to do a new version of it…’

He seemed weary. I certainly was. I told him I honestly just wanted to know why the F train didn’t have clocks. I never expected it would be so complicated.

(Via The Atlantic’s CityLab.)

Detail-filled story about the problems in upgrading the New York subway system for trackside countdown clocks. It’s easy to scoff and think “Government is inefficient” (and, well, sure, it is) but harder to dig down and acknowledge that there are people working very, very hard to break through technical and logistical obstacles.

The Ambitious Dilettante’s Guide To WordPress Site Design

Let’s return to a topic I dropped a couple of years ago: transitioning to WordPress after more than a decade of blogging from my own homemade content management system.

(Warning: even as I begin writing this post, I’m reading ahead and I can see the potential for a sermonette-style transition to a Life Lesson via the phrase “…and you know, it occurs to me that life is like that, sometimes…”)

I’ve learned a lot about how a dilettante like myself builds a modern WordPress site. We’re a special breed, the dilettantes. We have too much ambition to just sign up for a WordPress.com blog or use an off-the-rack blog theme. We don’t have enough ambition (or not enough money) to hire someone to custom-design something to our specs.

We live somewhere in between. We must learn, explore, make lots of mistakes, and ultimately reach an articulation of the declaration “I give up!”

It’s a productive version, though. It means “I have reached my saturation point of Exploring and Learning and Growing. My knowledge and my skills have expanded to completely fill the container of time and energy I can give it. Now, it’s time for me to just build the thing and move on.”

So to aid my fellow Dilettantes, here are the various steps I went through on my way towards that magical destination of Giving Up.

1) Take something off the rack.

Just sign up for an account on some blogging service, click on one of the six available themes, and go. It’s simple and quick, and you’re off and blogging right away. Which was no good for me because I couldn’t find a simple theme that would suit my needs.

Plus, I like the fact that I spend $20 a month for shared hosting on Media Temple. If I want to add a second blog, or a third, I don’t need to pay another $20 a month. At most, I just need to think about upgrading my service at some point.

So I moved on to

2) Browse among the hundreds and hundreds (and I’m certain that I’m lowballing it) of free and cheap-as-free themes that very smart and skilled designers have released.

It’s close to the lack of effort of Level One: it seems as though you can just keep browsing through galleries and eventually you’ll find a design that’s precisely the one you would have built yourself, or commissioned.

No good for me. I tried, but there are just wayyyyyy too many choices out there. I think I “chose” six different themes over the past two years. I even paid for a couple of them. But eventually, I waffled, reconsidered, and kept looking at more themes.

So I moved on to

3) Try to write my own theme.

I should mention that I already know a lot of CSS, and enough PHP to confidently hail taxis and order in restaurants when visiting PHPistan. Plus, I liked the puzzle of learning something new.

Tutorials like this one and this one really inspired me. WordPress maintains a database of your blog’s data and the theme is a series of templates and scripts that manipulate that database. The tutorials urge you not to be a hero. They wave you away from the idea of filling an empty BBEdit window with PHP and HTML and show you how to just steal the functional nuggets of code from existing themes in WordPress’ built-in library.

That’s right up my alley. It’s the cultural legacy of coding. When you’re building software, your most valuable resource isn’t the reference manuals and API guides: it’s other programmers’ working, tested code. Cut and paste the function you need, examine how it works, and ultimately you can figure out where you can safely tweak and prod it.

Furthermore, building a new theme from existing code elements is particularly attractive to someone with my rudimentary PHP skills. Writing scripts from scratch is still a slow process for me, but I know enough PHP to build something from existing elements and modify what’s already been built.

I eventually abandoned this approach. Building your own theme is very doable and I learned many things about WordPress that would serve me well later on. The more I dug into the nuts and bolts of the process, though, the more I began to appreciate that a WordPress theme is a living, breathing piece of software instead of as a set of HTML files in which little snippets of script act as content placeholders. I was certain that I’d wind up with something functional. I wasn’t so sure that I’d wind up with something that would live and breathe and grow, and could take advantage of future plugins and WordPress features.

Remember, the whole reason why I abandoned my homemade CMS was because I’d been on the upgrade-it-yourself treadmill for almost 14 years. I’m not eager to return to that world.

So I moved on to

4) Find an existing, muscular theme that’s close to what you want, and then modify the holy hell out of it.

This is going to be the sweet spot for most bloggers. Choose a theme, any theme. Then just learn a little CSS (or pick up a spiffy utility like CSSEdit, or StyleMaster for Windows), create a child theme, and then go to town.

Child themes is brilliant, I tells ya. If a WordPress theme is worth using, it’s awfully complicated piece of software. Even if all you really want to do is make the titles of your posts a little bigger, there’s a lot of slogging to do before you find the thing that you need to change. And then a year later, when the theme’s developer comes up with an updated version that adds loads of fab new features, you’ll click the button to upgrade and poof! All of your custom changes go away.

A child theme is a brand-new theme of your creation. Three lines of cut-and-paste markup code tell WordPress “Start off with all of the scripts and styles you’ll find described by this theme here” and the rest of it describes your overrides. “Don’t style a post title like that. Style it like this.

This tutorial got me off on the right foot. It explains everything. Even better, it gets you excited about what you can accomplish and makes you feel stupid (in a good way) for not finding out about child themes sooner.

…And then you install the Firebug plugin for Firefox, and you wonder why you made such a big fuss about customizing a theme in the first place.

You know that you want to change the font of your post titles. You know that it’s a simple case of modifying or overriding the theme’s CSS definition of that element.

Easy. Er, but first you need to find that definition.

Firebug will give you a simple dashboard to the CSS structure of any page in the browser. Roll your mouse over any CSS declaration, and the associated element will highlight on the webpage.

Snooping for CSS tags with the Firefox and the Firebug plugin. In this theme, 'entry-content' is the style for post titles, apparently.

(It’s supposed to be just as easy to do this in CSSEdit. But I find it’s easier to do it in Firefox.)

Then you just slap in an overriding CSS definition in your child theme. CSSEdit is swell for this sort of thing because it’s interactive. You plug in a change via a (somewhat) word processor-style tool palette and immediately see it reflected on your site.

#alttext#

I treaded water here in Option 4 before I lost interest. It seemed as though the DNA of the original design was always obvious, which sort of put me back where I was when I was examining dozens and dozens of prefab WordPress themes and not finding any to my liking.

But then I learned a little more about the theme community. And I moved on to

5) Base your blog on a “framework” theme.

Brilliant!

The themes you get in Options 1 and 2 are like a hotel room or a model home. The furniture and drapes might not be to your taste, but you can move in right away. Option 3 is like starting off with a wooded lot. Option 4 is like buying an empty, existing house and then decorating it to your liking.

A “framework” theme offers some of the best features of all of these approaches. It’s as though the builder pours the foundations, frames in the whole house, gets all of the plumbing, heating, and electrical services going, plasters all of the walls, installs the roof, nails up the exterior siding, applies two coats of primer…and then hands you the blueprints.

All of the tricky technical bits that make a WordPress theme work have already been taken care of. You could move right in and live a rather stark existence among those bare walls and uncovered floors. But the understanding is that you’ll be finishing it up on your own.

And remember, you have an exceptionally well-documented design. I’ve settled on Thematic, because it’s so well supported. It’s not the only well-documented framework out there, of course. This is one of the big deals of a framework. You solve the problem “How the hell to I put a banner image in the header?” after a quick search of the support forums, not after an hour of poking and prodding and testing and failing.

There are bunches of popular frameworks. As I browsed through a dozen or so, I quickly came to see these frameworks as…well, rapid-development application frameworks. Which is precisely what they are. You’re building a new piece of software, without going to the trouble of re-inventing code that’s virtually identical among 90% of all WordPress blogs.

So that’s it, right? I’m at the end of my journey? The right answer is “Install a framework, and then build it up as needed”?

Close. I believe I’ve now hit upon a method that I’m referring to as “Really Quite Totally Finally The Right Way, Honestly, And I Mean It This Time”:

6) Create a child theme of a framework that doesn’t inherit any of the framework’s existing styles.

It’s a small tweak to Method 5. It seems to have given me everything I want, and removed every obstacle I’ve encountered.

I mentioned how easy it was to create a child theme: just paste in three lines of canned code at the top of a text file and presto, it’s a child theme. One of the lines tells WordPress “This child theme’s CSS styles will include all of the CSS styles of the parent theme, with the following overrides:”

Well: if you omit that line, then you get all of the machinery of the parent theme (the plumbing, the electricity, the foundation) without any of its CSS styles. Every element in the page layout is tagged with CSS selectors, but none of those tags have been styled yet.

Brilliant! Only even more so than the previous time I said that!

No, really. I was banging my head against the wall today because I’m really feeling the (self-imposed) pressure to finish up a new blog I’ve been wanting to launch since the middle of last year. Over the past few months of development, I’ve learned that modifying an existing, complicated theme via CSS is the fastest way possible to measure the exact distance between how you think CSS works, and how it actually works.

CSS is really quite simple. Anybody can understand it. You only run into trouble when you can only see (or you only understand) one small part of the elephant representing the CSS styles for this theme.

Yes, I’m a clever boy: by adjusting the offset of a graphic, I can get it to overhang past the left margin of the blog post that contains it and overlap onto the background slightly. My CSS stands proud and strong. But it didn’t work. I was unaware that the CSS element that contains the image has been told to clip anything that extends beyond its border.

I sighed. I edited the CSS for the containing element and told it “Please don’t do that.” I applied the changes, refreshed the page…and suddenly the whole page was a total, ragged mess. Because another style was counting on that clipping effect to pretty things up.

I don’t blame CSS. I don’t blame the designer. I don’t even particularly blame yourself. If I had understood the whole scheme, I’d have known exactly how to accomplish what I wanted to do. But I didn’t. And on some level, that’s kind of impossible.

Theme frameworks are wonderful and modifying them can be a streamlined process. But you’ll run into trouble if you’re trying to make the framework do things that its designer didn’t anticipate…or if they assumed that the framework’s users would be experienced consultants, instead of first-time dilettantes.

The solution was to remove that one little line from my child theme’s style definition. The Thematic framework will still act as the glue between my site design and the WordPress system. Now it’s up to me to actually create that site design, from the ground up.

It seems like the right call. Building every CSS style myself will take a lot of time, but autopsying Thematic’s CSS scheme would have taken just as much time and would have been far messier, I think. The Win is that I won’t have to give up on a good idea just because I can’t figure out how to make it live harmoniously among all of Thematic’s existing definitions. Bonus: I bet I’ll be less dumb about CSS by the time I’m finished.

And the work’s been much more fun. The process is tactile, not abstract. As soon as I restarted the project with an empty style sheet, I saw a version of my new site and its sample content that looked like a sloppy dropcloth of content. I got cracking.

I had never liked the broad width of Thematic’s content area. I opened the page in Firebug to refresh my memory on how Thematic’s different content areas are tagged. Then I created a style for “#wrapper” and set its width to 800 pixels.

Save, upload, refresh. The layout is 800 pixels wide. I want it centered in the window. Edit, save, upload, refresh: it’s centered. I want the background and the content areas to be contrasting colors. 1-2-3 and it’s done.

Best of all, it’s a linear process. I’ll never have to spend an hour “unwinding” the CSS to sleuth out why a piece of text refuses to be bold. The most frustrating tasks are the ones where you feel like you’re walking through a series of blackened hallways and you don’t know what you’re going to confront until you flip the next light switch. You thought you were going to have to just empty a wastepaper basket next to the sink. And then you got the bathroom door open and discovered that whoever designed the plumbing system in this apartment building didn’t incorporate a checkvalve system that prevents all of the sewage from all of the other units from backing up through a single fixture. You’re definitely going to be here a while.

Even without the presence of raw sewage, those projects are frustrating as all hell. I’ve been Bolding text since before many of you were born. I feel as though it’s well within my skill set to command a computer to make a certain word or line a skosh heavier.

This might be an arrogant statement, dear reader, but there you go. So I find it very, very disorienting when I add “font-weight: bold;” to a CSS definition and am only 60% certain of what effect that will have on anything.

I seem to have forgotten the potential life-lesson that this whole topic might have inspired. Well, spending an hour or so writing about CSS and PHP and webdesign will do that to you. You do find yourself thinking about life, but mostly about how it’s too short to be spending so much of it in activities like this.

Captain Video

I’ve been busy with iMovie ’09 over the past week, sloughing through all of the clips in my old iMovie library, shooting new footage, and all in all trying to come up with opinions on the new app and assemble some samples.

First up was a tour of my Friendly Neighborhood Comics Retailer, The Outer Limits in Waltham, MA:


Two lessons came from this one: Good God, am I a fan of the new interface. Bellies were ached and tempers were tantrumed last year when the old iMovie UI was tossed out and the app was freed of the legacy of professional editors. Fine. But I could never have thrown together this video so quickly and with so little drama in the old iMovie.

I didn’t even intend to do it. I was on my MacBook in the living room, and I Screen Shared into my office iMac simply to check on the status of an ongoing process. Along the way I checked to see what sort of footage I could work with when I really sat down to edit something. I found the Outer Limits “dailies,” started dragging things into the Project panel and (gorblimey!) fifteen or twenty minutes later, I’d completed my rough cut.

The fact that one of iMovie’s new animated themes is “comic book” sort of sealed my choice. I determined to let iMovie make all of the creative choices, even though it’s possible to flip a switch and override some of the theme’s decisions.

(Aside: I do sort of regret certain bits of the voice over. Yup, I use the word “nerds” a lot at the beginning, and I’m clearly having fun with the fact that I seemed to include a lot of footage of babes. But I’d hoped folks would appreciate that I myself am firmly and proudly in the Nerd group. I was making up the narration as I went and as always happens with such things, subsequent takes never go nearly as well as the first.)

Next, I wanted to aggressively check out one of iMovie’s signature features: image stabilization. So I headed off to the beach with my Flip Mino HD on the end of a stick, and shot myself and the environs:

I was particularly keen to see if there were circumstances where the stabilization would produce a shot other than the one I intended. For instance, if I panned the camera across the scene, would it struggle to keep the camera from “moving”? If someone walked in and out of the frame, would it try to keep everything centered on him?

What would happen if the scene contained constant movement…like a closeup of water rolling in and out, or a tracking shot of the ground as I walked?

iMovie came through like a pro. I’m really quite impressed. You can choose to apply any degree of stabilization, from weak to fairly aggressive. I had the slider all the way to 11. Even so, it didn’t look in any way unnatural. All of a sudden, it looked as though I had the camera on a tripod and hadn’t drunk four Cokes that morning.

To make the point, I burned two copies of the video, with and without stabilization, and did a side-by-side comparison in Final Cut:


An app like iMovie ’09 is a real equalizer. One of the major weaknesses of a cheap HD cam like the Flip is its lack of built-in stabilization. Doing a “walk and talk” video with it is practically impossible. But hell, now iMovie can largely compensate for hardware limitations.

It’s certainly no replacement for a “real” HD camera, mind you. Look at the Outer Limits video again. That one was shot with my Panasonic HDC-SD1. The video is better in every possible way, from color fidelity to exposure choices to focusing to zoom to…well, every possible way. And as you saw in the comparison video, the stabilization costs you in image quality; iMovie has to magnify a subsample of the video frame to work its magic.

But if you’re on a fixed budget, iMovie makes it easier to buy a $200 camera with confidence!

It also underscores a point I was making when I compared the Mino with the Kodak Zi6. Many (many many MANY) people greatly preferred the Kodak’s brighter images and punchier colors. I respected their intelligence…so much so that instead of calling them idiots wearing a moron costume, I gave them the benefit of the doubt and concluded that they must have been drunk at the time or something.

The point: yes, the Mino is way more conservative in the categories of exposure and color. But it makes safe choices. When I dumped the video into iMovie and noticed that the colors could have been a bit warmer, and the image could use a little more contrast, I nudged a couple of sliders and presto: I had the shots I wanted.

Whereas! If I had shot it with the Kodak and thought “Man! That’s way too bright. And the colors are freakishly weird!”…well, I wouldn’t have been able to do much about it. I could lower the brightness level, but the blown-out areas would still have lacked detail. I could decrease the saturation, but it would have flattened the color range.

The damage is done before you leave the beach, or EPCOT, or your cousin Moog’s President’s Day barbecue. You should always vote for quality video. Unless quality video doesn’t matter to you, in which case just gather people around a fire and describe what you saw, in classic storyteller tradition, instead of messing with technology.

(Summary: I am right right RIGHT RIGHT RIGHT!!!!! SHUT UP SHUT UP!!!!!!)

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.

The Thrill Of The Hunt

You ever have one of those moments when you observe yourself impartially and think “Good God…I really haven’t made any progress since junior high, have I?”

This is such a moment. I’ve been in a coding trance and my mental CPU was wonderfully overclocked and the last thing I want to do is knock off for the night and go to bed…but it’s 4:20 AM and I need to go to bed.

Yup, the 4 AM point of no return. It’s a bedrock spot on my personal clock, right alongside lunchtime, suppertime, and Time For Letterman. As a kid, I knew it as the time when I had to decide whether I wanted to get two or three hours of sleep in my bed, or if I wanted to keep right on writing or coding and sleep at my desk instead.

(I never, ever made the wrong choice. Which is probably why I graduated 22nd in my class instead of in the top five.)

Now that the blog is back up and running, I can recreationally begin Phase Two: building a custom CWoB theme for WordPress. This requires me to sharpen my PHP-fu skills and also to learn just what the bloody hell goes on under the WordPress hood.

And I’m absolutely delighted that there are two perfect resources out there. The tutorials at WPDesigner.com are absolute godsends. You can jump in without knowing squat about PHP or even HTML and make satisfying progress in your first 15 minutes.

If you do know squat…well, you’re that much ahead of the game.

After spending so much time suffering with a broken blog, I sure don’t want to go and break it again. So I’m inflicting my theme experiments on a “Skunk Works” version of the Celestial Waste of Bandwidth, hosted by a WordPress installation right here on my iMac.

Mac OS X already has everything WordPress needs, right out of the box. You gotcher PHP, you gotcher MySQL, you gotcher Apache webserver. You do need to execute a lot of mojo before WordPress is up and running, and that’s a newbie nightmare.

So thank heaven for MAMP. It’s a magical free utility that runs those services for you. Double click on the app and hey-presto: you have a functioning Apache webserver with SQL and PHP.

I love that it doesn’t mess with your Mac’s configuration or mung up your system in any way. It’s designed specifically for my kind of purpose: when you’re developing something offline and you need a functioning test system that can be turned on and off. When I click the “Stop Servers” button, that’s it: the Skunk Works is closed and my Mac’s configuration is no different than what it was when I started. Even when it’s running, the “webserver” is only available to the user of this iMac. I’m not accidentally publishing my PHP thoughtcrimes to the actual Internet.

I’ve no idea when this new theme will be finished. I’m still at the stage where I’m surprised and pleased that I haven’t turned a lovely iMac into a dignified blob of drippy metal and plastic slag on my desktop. But as they used to say at GE, “Progress is our most important product.”

It’s interesting. The purpose of transitioning away from my AppleScript blogging tool was to have a more powerful and ambitious blog. It wasn’t so that I could stop writing code. But in the past few days I’ve come to understand that if I really want to exploit the power of a full-featured content management system like WordPress…well, I still have to write lots of PHP scripts. WordPress has two faces. It’s a user app and it’s a development environment.

If you’re happy with all of the canned solutions that are out there, you never have to leave the friendly user interface. If you want something that’s tailored towards your own inclinations, you’ll need to put on those special pants that are tailored for extended coding sessions.

Huh? Wuzzat?

Do I dare dream it?

Am I dreaming now?

Or is my blog finally back up and running?

No, I mustn’t believe it. I’ve had my heart broken before. I’ve had some false starts, made some hard decisions, learned some tough lessons, emerged with a soul that had been hardned in the hottest fire and with my eyes able to see clearer for the tears I had shed.

And even then all of the Comment links were 404.

But it appears to be working.

All of my images. Even all of my custom styles.

Huh.

Okay, well, clearly I’m going to post this and then a hand is going to reach out from the screen and do that thing to my face that Moe used to do to Larry. But I won’t find out for sure until I…

(Wait for it…)

Push the button, Frank…

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…

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.