Monthly Archives: August 2008

Winnie’s new digs

In the great menagerie we call our home lives a cat, a dog, a turtle, and a dog – in that order. Out of them all the turtle, Winnie, requires the least amount of attention. She probably doesn’t get enough attention, actually, but so it goes. She’s a turtle. It’s funny that most people probably think it’s easier to care a turtle than two dogs and cat. Simplicity of often deceiving.

When we got Winnie a couple years ago, the men at the turtle store told us she was a water turtle and needed water to feed and stuff. OK, so we got an aquarium and filled it with water for her to swim around and a little floating dock for her to lay on. And that’s the way it remained for a long time, with regular tank cleanings and the likes to keep things as clean as we could. But let me tell you, a turtle is a dirty, dirty, messy animal.

Emptying 15 gallons of water every two week sucked bears. Well, our thoughts of “easy” care for a turtle changed when we discovered Winnie’s shell had a few bad spots on it. We think it’s shell rot, which, from what we’ve read, is easily cared for with a little soap wash and less water time. And that’s where we goofed in the past – we had too much water and not enough “sun” for her – which led to her shell problems. So action had to be taken immediately.

That action was a new apartment for Winnie. A trip to the pet store had me coming home with a stone barrier that needed to be siliconed into the aquarium so one half could be set with rocks for basking and the other for her pool. And it’s pretty nice, although I’m not sure Winnie knows what to do with it all yet.

Now there’s 1/4 as much water in the tank, which should make cleaning much easier while still giving her plenty of water for her bodily needs. The project as a whole was a lot easier than I expected. I’m glad I found the little barrier thing. My first thoughts were buying rocks or something and piling them up to create a nice basking area but still having mostly water. The new setup should be nice for her and for us.

I just hope the dogs don’t ask for a new house too.

Originally posted on Aug 19, 2008

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The Presidents and Amazon MP3

Despite my regular use of iTunes for playing and sometimes purchasing music, I’m not necessarily an iTunes-lover. I think iTunes is a nice music organizer/player. It certainly has its issues and I can’t say I’ve been 100% happy with it, but it does the trick. But then there’s the music, by far the biggest wrinkle in the sheet. Damn their DMA songs!

Even though I use iTunes as my main music player, I hate having my music locked down. My solution around it has been what most people have probably been doing too…burning the iTunes songs to a CD and then ripping them back as MP3s. Tedious and stupid, but it works.

When Amazon announced their MP3 service would be cheaper and offer standard MP3 files I told myself the next time I plan on getting a song or album I’d use it. Well, with money sitting in my iTunes account thanks to gift cards and redeeming, I hadn’t not followed through on that promise until today when I found a good reason to go elsewhere.

Much to my happiness I discovered that one of my favorite groups, The Presidents of the United States of America, did not disband as I had once thought. Actually, they did back in 1998 and then reformed a few years later to release a handful of albums.

“Peaches” – The Presidents of the United States of America
[audio:peaches.mp3]

I remember buying The President’s first album at Media Play. I thought the album cover was strange, and the music was pretty nutty too, but that’s why I like it so. It’s poppy, fast, it rocks, and has a heaping helping of fun and humor. That first record was really solid. The follow up album II was 50/50. A third release just before their break-up had even fewer singles. After I heard they broke up I had pretty much written them off and had just accepted I’d have 2.5 albums to enjoy for the rest of time.

I was at YouTube watching some Weird Al videos and that led me to The Presidents’ Wikipedia page where learned they regrouped and have been making new albums. It’s great to find out they’re still making music and still keeping it fun and light. I went the web site and listened to a few tracks from newer albums and decided to go ahead and download one of the “lost albums” I had missed. I decided on Love Everybody and headed over to iTunes to make the purchase.

Now most albums at iTunes are $10 regardless of the number of tracks. But low and behold this one album from an essentially nobody band was $12. Sucko. But wait! I have an alternative – Amazon MP3. A quick jump to Amazon found the album for $9, so I was ready to dive in.

Although a bummer, I was not surprised to have to install Amazon’s MP3 Downloader, a desktop client that does the downloading for you. After a very quick install I was faced with something I did not expect at all – something helpful – a free song to download. This is very smart because not only is it a great bonus for a new user, but Amazon presents as a way for you to learn how the downloader works before you pay any money. It told me, “Hey, watch the downloader in action by getting this free song.” I happily took their recommendation. Very smart on Amazon’s part and much appreciated as a customer.

So with the downloader installed I click the Buy button and after a quick authorization the downloads came in swiftly. And surprisingly enough, the Amazon Downloader even added the songs to iTunes for me. How considerate. And as advertised, the tracks are straight MP3s (high 256 bitrate too) and I can use them as I see fit and burn them as often as I’d like.

I can’t speak on the depth of Amazon’s MP3 catalog as I was looking for something specific and found it, but if you’re looking for an iTunes alternative for music then I will happily recommend Amazon MP3. It’s easy to use, good quality tracks, and even cheaper than iTunes. Even the single songs are $.89 instead of $.99 – I’ll certainly be back.

(Oh, and the President’s album I downloaded is pretty solid too. Nothing earth-shattering as far as they’re concerned, but it’s great to have some new songs to bust out on the way to work. They’ve stuck with their original formula and it’s very welcome in today’s vast pit of otherwise shotty music.)

Originally posted on Aug 18, 2008

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A reason to keep your CDs

Our walls are pretty bare. Shy of a few of my old college paintings and a couple prints, we don’t have much hanging around. We don’t like cluttered, busy walls anyway, but you have to have something on the walls otherwise it looks too…well, too migrant. Bare walls work if you have some sort of Zen theme going with minimalist furniture and bamboo floors, but we don’t. We’re pretty average folks with an average house. So in an attempt to find something meaningful for our walls without having to go the large poster/print route, I looked at what we have to work with.

And we have a lot of CDs. Our generation has seen a lot of technology change when it comes to music and we’re not even halfway through life. I know you all still have a box somewhere with cassettes in it and needless to say there’s a few shelves of CDs somewhere too. It’s safe to say we have way more MP3s these days than we do CDs, and we do most of our music listening on the computer, so the CDs have just become clutter. Recently though I thought about hanging up CD covers as art. We both love our music and the CDs weren’t doing anything else.

I think album covers as wall art (CD or otherwise) is a good solution to get use out of something that otherwise has no purpose anymore. It’s easy, clean, and shows off your love and tastes for music. Not to mention some album covers are considered art in their own right, so it’s not that far fetched. The trick, it turned out, was finding frames for the little buggers.

Compact disc album covers are square. Most small frames are designed for standard photos, which are rectangles. Going to a craft store or even Target didn’t find us the frames we needed. No, we found just the right size frames at the Dollar Store…but of course! We didn’t go to the Dollar Store looking for frames, but while there noticed some that were just the right size. They’re glass front frames so there’s no “frame” around the album, and it looks pretty nice.

This is still a work in progress, but even with only four covers up the staircase it looks pretty good. About two to four more covers to complete the journey should be enough. Now the hard part is picking which albums to feature. But then again, it’s convenient enough that we can change them whenever we like.

So if you have some bare spots on your walls and need something small to fill the void, consider your favorite (or best looking) album covers. An easy afternoon project.

Originally posted on Aug 16, 2008

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Don’t bust a Nutsie

I’ve been using FineTune.com for on-line music for a long time now. I’ve found it to be be all I need to get through my day. At FineTune you pick songs to add to your pool (playlist) and then it plays back those songs in random order. You never know what song is going to play next, but you know it’ll be a song you picked. Nutsie, on the other hand, takes a different approach and lets you bring your own music collection on-line.

I heard about Nutsie when drummer Duff McKagan was on a local radio show. He was pimping the service, which I believe he invested in (and also adorns the home page) so I figured I’d give it a try. Nutsie expects you to be using iTunes. Now one might see this is a narrow strategy, but these days iTunes is probably a safe bet. Unlike some other services, Nutsie doesn’t want you to upload your MP3s, it only wants your iTunes database. All you need to do with Nutside is export your iTunes library and upload it. Nutsie then does all the work to find the songs so you can listen on-line.

It’s actually a nifty concept but I’ve found it has one fatal flaw – it exposes you to all the crappy music you have in your library. If you’re like me, you’ve ripped just about every CD you have and also any CD that you might even only be remotely interested in. In my catalog there is a lot of classical, a lot of movie scores/sounndtracks, and a lot of country thanks to the wife – and most of that is not stuff I listen to all that often. Nutsie, unfortunately, reminds me that my library has about 70% of crap, 20% of good stuff, and 10% of, “when did I get that song?”

Another flaw in Nutsie is the lack of making playlists within Nutsie. Chances are you have playlists within iTunes. Well, when you upload your library Nutsie retains these playlists but doesn’t let you create new ones with your music. So if want to create your “Ultimate Death Metal” playlist in Nutsie using your collection of songs, you’re out of luck. You also can’t play any individual song with Nutsie. Much like all the other services, the site will play songs from your playlists randomly.

Another very annoying unfeature in Nutsie is the audio player itself. An embedded music player can be found on just about every page, including your personal playlist home page. This works great until you click a link on the page and takes you away, thus stopping your music and making you start all over again. One simple improvement Nutsie could add is to simply let you pop-out the player so you can navigate around Nutsie without disrupting your music. This even works against them because the always-present “Buy” button next to each song stops the music and just makes you mad. You’ll also find the music players start automagically, so just about every web page will start blaring out music when you arrive.

On the good side of Nutsie is the standard shared playlist abilities. Even if you don’t upload your own music library, you’ll find a good host of themed playlists that will keep you going for a while. They have a nice list of dated playlists so you can hear the Best Rock Songs of 1977 anytime you want (which I recommend). And assuming you’re a Nutsie member – which is free – you are allowed unlimited song skips. Where as places like FineTune and Pandora limit you to five skips per hour, Nutsie lets you skip forever if you want. Of course, you’ll need unlimited skips to get through all the crap in your personal library. For one session I actually did more skipping than listening.

And perhaps the most unique feature of Nutsie is the Nutsie Picks slider that appears above every music player. This lets you choose if you want Nutsie to recommend other songs and mix them while you’re listening. This doesn’t add songs to your playlist or library, it works on-the-fly. So if you have a playlist of 50 tunes and slide the Nutsie Picks to some percentage and it’ll toss in a few related artists and songs. Kind of nifty, but in my experience not all that “accurate” as you’ll find Barry Manilow and Rod Stewart dropped in the middle of your Glam Metal playlist.

I think Nutsie is working along the right path but has a long way to go. Design and user experience problems keep me from using the service, and its tendency to replay the same songs from my playlist over and over keeps me sitting at FineTune instead. I like the idea of just uploading my iTunes library and being able to listen anywhere I am, but until they give me more control over what is essentially my music, I’ll stick with my playlists at FineTune.

Originally posted on Aug 16, 2008

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The Wii redeems itself with the Homebrew Channel

I wrote a bit back about my increasing loss of faith in the Wii. The games slated to come out through the rest of the year and into 2009 are quite, shall we say, “weak” and include many uber-family friendly games. I have nothing against family friendly, but you can only have so many pet and puzzle games before a system starts to lose its appeal. However, a recent investigation into a well known hack for the Wii has me singing a different tune.

Reading Wii news as regularly as I do, quite some time ago I read about a thing called the Twilight Hack, which exploits a bug in the Wii Zelda game that let hackers into the core system. I typically try not to bother with console hacks because I’ve spent way to much on the deck to possibly ruin it by hacking. But over the weekend I found and read more about the Twilight Hack that sold me on the idea.

tmpphpT41Nzl.jpgBut why hack the Wii in the first place? Well, hacking in this case means you can load homebrew games (indie games) on the Wii. The hack actually adds the “Homebrew Channel” to your standard Wii menu (in English). Along with standalone indie games, you can also load emulators with the channel. As is well documented, I am an emulator junkie, especially for the classic decks like the NES, SNES, and PC Engine. With the promise of emulators on the Wii, I couldn’t not try the hack.

The Twilight Hack was stupidly simple to install. The only thing you need is an SD memory card and the Zelda game disc. Fortunately friend-of-the-Toast, Thee, had the Zelda game and once I had it in my hand I gave the hack a go. I held my breath and watched the DOS-like screen fly by, doing something to my Wii, and just hoped I wasn’t bricking my Wii. Bang! Zoom! The Homebrew Channel is ready to go!

And much (very much) to my surprise the NES emulator ran just fine and I was able to load all the NES ROMs I’ve had for years. Then I tried the TurboGrafix16 emulator…worked. Then the SNES emulator…worked. How awesome is this?! And all the emulators have multi-player support. So now I can play my old NES and other games just about everywhere: on my original NES deck, my PC, my DS portable, and now my Wii. Wherever I go, the NES will follow. Nuts? Yes. Fun? You betcha.

I’ve spent a lot of time and money on my NES PowerPak so I could play ROMs on my actual NES console, and nothing beats that experience, but having the NES games on my Wii is just way too convenient. Then toss on the SNES, Genesis and PCE games that I never had elsewhere other than my computer…you can’t beat it. I’m still playing around with the emulators and homebrew games, but so far the so good shy of a few ROMs that just haven’t loaded. But I don’t know if that means it’s a bad ROM, which is highly likely, or the emulator…time will tell. I’ve also found I now have a really good reason to buy a classic Wii controller.

tmpphpfZjYsl.jpgBut wait…can’t you download all the old games with the Wii Virtual Console? Why yes, you can…for anywhere from $5 – $10 a pop. We all have our favorite classic games. Even with over 500 NES games, I play the same dozen over and over. Same will go with PCE, SNES, and Genesis…but if I can get them easily for free, why do the whole download thing? Plus, now I can play the games I never played before but wanted to without the risk. It’s just nice.

Having this homebrew option opens up the Wii to a whole new realm of games even beyond old emulators. Now you can also play games made by indie developers that you won’t find in retail. One such game I found is called GuitarFun and is a clone of clone…it’s a clone of Frets on Fire, the PC Guitar Hero clone. I have yet to get GuitarFun to load and play on the Wii Homebrew, but when/if it does, it means I can play custom songs (real songs) with the actual guitar controller. Now that’ll be spiffy! I’ll post up a note when I get it working…but there are YouTubes of the game working.

All in all, I don’t see any reason you wouldn’t want to use the Twilight Hack and install the Homebrew Channel. It doesn’t hurt and the manual claims you can even uninstall it all. This isn’t a hardware-level hack, it’s just software, so there shouldn’t ever be any permanent damage. If you’re after some classic console gaming and don’t want go crazy like I did with my NES, this Wii hack is the sweet spot that turns your console into the perfect (and free) retro game machine. And since you’re saving on VC downloads, you can justify more retail Wii games and accessories.

If you’re wanting to setup the Homebrew Channel on your Wii, hit up WiiBrew.com and look for their WiiPack Generator. Use it to download all the parts you want and need, including the Twilight Hack. And to see just how easy the hack is to install, there’s a handy video…which I watched like five times before doing it myself (it just made me feel better).

Now pardon me while I go run through some Excite Bike, F-Zero, Keith Courage, and maybe a little Street Fighter II.

Originally posted on Aug 13, 2008

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Seventeen pounds of Hot Wheels

I’ve been “collecting” Hot Wheels for probably close to eight years by now. I collect but I don’t invest in Hot Wheels. A recent trip to the Ohio State Fair’s and its famed Junk Barn (where every Harry, Dick, and Tom can attempt to sell their junk) had me face-to-face with a ton of “collectible” Hot Wheels.

They were all in the box and ranged in age from 2008 models to some that stretched back to the mid-80s. And not surprisingly, I had many of the cars I saw…but much to my surprise, these cars were selling for $2 – $5. While a few bucks may not sound like much, considering each Hot Wheels car costs less than a dollar to buy it’s a pretty good return on the value.

It’s hard for me to see Hot Wheels as a collectibles investment. Sure, it kind of sucks to see a car I bought for 97 cents just a week ago already selling for $3 (which is bull anyway), but then I realize why I collect Hot Wheels – because I like them. I like to look at them, play with them, take pictures of them, let others play with them…it’s about the fun of toy cars, not the fun of buying and selling. I wouldn’t be any good at selling them anyway because I wouldn’t be able to give them up, even at a profit.

With my upgraded Flickr Pro account at my disposal, I decided to do something I had been wanting to do for a while, shoot my cars in more “artistic” ways, rather than the straight up showroom-quality photos I’ve been taking for the Hot Wheels Showcase I have on-line.

Hot Wheels are so vivid and fantastic that they lend themselves to photographs, both macro photography (which I can’t do well) and just general fun shooting (which I can do well). So with a sunny Saturday on hand I took all (well, most) of my cars out and set them up for some shots. It’s funny because when you tell people you have 193 Hot Wheels it sounds like a lot…but when you line them all up for a family photo, it doesn’t look like much, at least not to me. I guess in my head I thought they would take up more space all laid out, but I guess they’re only 2-inch cars anyway.

So yes, I have upwards of 190 Hot Wheels cars and all together they weigh an even 17 pounds. And for those wanting to keep track, each Hot Wheels cars cost me a dollar, so my total investment should be pretty simple. Now consider if I was investing in the toys how much I would have in value if each one could (on average) resell for $3.

I don’t really plan to stop my collecting. It’s cheap and it’s fun. And they make for some awesome photos.

Stop by the Flickr page for more shots.

Originally posted on Aug 9, 2008

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Tesla, still comin’ atcha live…again

You go to a concert early for one reason: to get good seats. And even though we saw Tesla in concert just six months ago, we still showed up early to make sure we got the spot we wanted. Last time we saw Tesla it was bare nuts cold outside and the line to get in was down the block. This time it was hot, but the line wasn’t so long, however, we noticed a small group of people gathering away from the main line. They were gathering outside the tour bus entrance where last time Frank Hannon chatted with shivering fans so we figured members of Tesla were once again mingling with fans, and we were right.

Before you continue, please enjoy some Tesla as you read:
[audio:tesla.mp3]

This time lead singer Jeff Keith was signing autographs and taking pictures from behind the entrance gate. We didn’t bring our camera because the venue doesn’t allow cameras, but we did have a convenient phone camera. And just after we got a shot of Jeff behind bars he says, “hell with this, I’m coming out there,” and he walked around the gate to meet fans up close and personal right there on the sidewalk. What luck! So we calmly waited to say “Hello” and get a photo op and autograph. Unfortunately, given the sun and the low-fi camera, the photo of Jen and Jeff didn’t turn out as well as I’d hope (although you can tell who it is), but he also signed the ticket stub…making this one of the first ticket stubs I’ll actually be keeping.

Before too long the rest of people waiting in line took notice and gathered around getting their jeans, arms, and children signed by Jeff Keith. At that point we moved back into the line and waited for the doors to open. Once we were in we found the spot we wanted, along the back wall of the floor section. We were at the same venue as before but this time we were outside and oh what a difference it made. The sound and experience of an indoor show just can’t compare to that of a outdoor concert. So we sat a waited for things to kick off while other came to sit along side us.

Not too long after we claimed our spot a girl sitting about three people down from me leaned forward and…well, she just puked her guts out. What?! Vomiting already? That’s what one guy was thinking as he passed by the pool of vomit and then looked at his watch, as though to think, “isn’t it a bit early for barf?”

Out of all the concerts we’ve seen in the past few years, this is the first time we’ve been near, let alone witness, some vomiting, as surprising as that may be. It’s very interesting watching people notice a pile of vomit. It actually became the game of the night, watching people’s reactions when they noticed the pool…assuming they did notice. Although few and far between, there were a handful of people that just didn’t notice and walked right through it. If you learn one thing from this entry, please learn that you should always look down when at a concert because you never know what you’ll find on the ground. Needless to say, the vomit kept many people away so we enjoyed the concert in relative peace. Thankfully we were far enough away from it that it didn’t encroach our space.

The opening band did their thing and after a quick stage change Tesla came out and rocked a perfect night. And it was a perfect night for a concert, very comfortable with clear skies. They changed up their set list just enough from their last visit, playing their standards but also including ones like “Edison’s Medicine” and “Mama’s Fool,” of which neither they played last time. They also removed the cover songs from their line-up, which I appreciated.

And if you thought having a pool of throw-up next you all night wasn’t a good way to enjoy Tesla, it gets better. Because about three quarters through the set victim number too spun around in front of us and spewed. This lady spewed first in the same spot as the first girl, then ran off the floor to toss it in the grass. Not sure if it was the combination of heat and beer, which is always fun, or if that spot on the floor had low gravity or some other anomaly that would cause people to chuck. Vomit to the left of me, vomit to the right of me…had it not been for Tesla in front of me, it would have been a rough night.

Another thing this concert proved is that Tesla is a prime example of a solid band. Being the only band we’ve seen twice, we know that Tesla puts on a good show just about every time they perform. It doesn’t matter if they’re inside or outside, they just lay it down. Nothing too fancy, not a lot of “show,” just a straight set of hits. To top things off, they did something other bands could learn from – they skipped the encore. It seems these days the encore is a given, which kind of defeats the specialness of an encore. No, instead Tesla said, “we don’t need to make people scream and shout, we’ll just keep on going.” So instead of taking a break, making us wait and then coming out to play one more song, they played two more songs instead. Awesome. Just awesome. Why make us clap? You know you’re coming back out to play.

The fact that Jeff Keith was willing to stand in the middle of the sidewalk and get up close with fans also tells me that Tesla knows what’s important. I know Tesla is way past their prime and not exactly filling stadiums anymore, but find me another band that will go that far out of their way to keep people happy. It tells me they know what’s important – the fans – because if you don’t keep your fans happy, they won’t come see you and they won’t buy your records.

So next time there’s a band you want to see, show up a bit early because not only will you usually get a good seat, you never know who’ll you find signing autographs. And you might miss the vomit.

Originally posted on Aug 5, 2008

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It’s a good time to bring back blimps

I love blimps. Blimps just make sense to me. They’re elegant, classy, efficient, and it many ways, quite practical. Just by chance I happened to come across an article in the NYT Europe section about Zeppelin blimps. I didn’t read the entire article but just the first few paragraphs were enough to have me thinking happy blimp thoughts.

Blimps are just like airplanes or trains but are far more efficient. All three follow more direct routes than car or truck, but blimps don’t use regular jet fuel. They use reusable gas to fill the blimp, so right there they are better off than the rest of us. Blimps may be a bit slower than jets or trains, but I say that blimps are not for trans-atlantic or even cross-country shipments. I see blimps as tri-state, regional solution to delivering goods.

Not only do blimps make fuel sense, they make delivery sense. Blimps don’t need acres and miles of runway, they just need a small field or even a tall building with which to dock and unload. Blimps can go vertical, making them more flexible than planes and have more reach than a train.

Blimps just…blimps just make sense. As the article points out, in a time when fuel prices are sky high (ha ha), blimps provide an alternative that could help cut costs at a critical time. I doubt it will catch on, but just imagine how beautiful a sky filled with blimps would be. Imagine traveling from Chicago to New York by blimp…no, wait, luxury blimp. Even if blimps didn’t become a shipping standard, I think blimps would have a cool-factor that would make them work as a novelty travel for a long while.

Bring back blimps!!

Originally posted on Aug 4, 2008

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Work will be watching

A recent article in the NY Times talks about new network monitoring software that will “learn” about employee’s web behaviour and give the company finite control over restrictions and settings. I won’t repost the whole article, but this pretty much sums it up:

…one company might say that marketing folks can only visit YouTube during lunch hour, and even then, they can only upload two megabytes to the site each day. Engineers might be blocked from visiting Facebook…but everyone else can.

I’m not saying companies shouldn’t monitor network traffic and use, it’s a legit concern. But if software like this works as well as promoted, I see one problem: we’re not machines. Applying strict rules onto users will just make them unhappy and that ultimately results is poor results.

I’m one that believes people will naturally find their balance at work. No one works 8-hours solid. It’s just not possible, and frankly, not healthy. Everybody needs some time during the day to just chill for a few. Some people may go outside for a smoke, some might walk around the building, some might scratch their butt, some, like me, just stay on-line and visit web sites they enjoy but aren’t work-related.

Me, I hit up my video game blogs, check my personal e-mail, manage my personal sites and that type stuff. All said and done, it maybe takes 15-30 minutes of my day. No big deal. If I spend more time than that I feel like I’m jipping myself out of work time. I know I have stuff to do and I know how much time it takes to get it done. Most people won’t abuse their time because fear will keep them in check – at least that’s what I’ve witnessed. If you just trust people things will usually work out for the best.

I’m sure the thought behind applying smart software that tracks individuals and adjusts based on habits is that it will stop those that do abuse their work time. I guess my philosophy on this is that instead of using a blacklist method that effects everyone, if you find someone is spending too much time hanging out on YouTube, you deal with them. You warn them, suspend them, fire them, whatever…you deal with the person directly. You don’t puss out and let technology to do your people management for you. That’s just weak. And honestly, I wouldn’t want to work for a company that manages their employees that way.

Everybody works best in different environments. And that’s not limited to physical environments, but digital/on-line environments too. You can’t look at sheer numbers to determine what people are doing. Behaviour doesn’t work by the numbers and by saying, “Brian spends 30 minutes on Gmail a day means he’s wasting time,” is quite ignorant and might do more harm than good in the long.

Of course, all this is assuming companies will pretty much abuse this network management power. Some will, some won’t, but just having that ability will turn even the lax network admin into a network nazi. Actually, software like this might even eliminate that admin job…so you better watch out.

Originally posted on Aug 4, 2008

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Winnie’s new digs

In the great menagerie we call our home lives a cat, a dog, a turtle, and a dog – in that order. Out of them all the turtle, Winnie, requires the least amount of attention. She probably doesn’t get enough attention, actually, but so it goes. She’s a turtle. It’s funny that most people probably think it’s easier to care a turtle than two dogs and cat. Simplicity of often deceiving.

When we got Winnie a couple years ago, the men at the turtle store told us she was a water turtle and needed water to feed and stuff. OK, so we got an aquarium and filled it with water for her to swim around and a little floating dock for her to lay on. And that’s the way it remained for a long time, with regular tank cleanings and the likes to keep things as clean as we could. But let me tell you, a turtle is a dirty, dirty, messy animal.

Emptying 15 gallons of water every two week sucked bears. Well, our thoughts of “easy” care for a turtle changed when we discovered Winnie’s shell had a few bad spots on it. We think it’s shell rot, which, from what we’ve read, is easily cared for with a little soap wash and less water time. And that’s where we goofed in the past – we had too much water and not enough “sun” for her – which led to her shell problems. So action had to be taken immediately.

That action was a new apartment for Winnie. A trip to the pet store had me coming home with a stone barrier that needed to be siliconed into the aquarium so one half could be set with rocks for basking and the other for her pool. And it’s pretty nice, although I’m not sure Winnie knows what to do with it all yet.

Now there’s 1/4 as much water in the tank, which should make cleaning much easier while still giving her plenty of water for her bodily needs. The project as a whole was a lot easier than I expected. I’m glad I found the little barrier thing. My first thoughts were buying rocks or something and piling them up to create a nice basking area but still having mostly water. The new setup should be nice for her and for us.

I just hope the dogs don’t ask for a new house too.

Originally posted on Aug 19, 2008

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The Presidents and Amazon MP3

Despite my regular use of iTunes for playing and sometimes purchasing music, I’m not necessarily an iTunes-lover. I think iTunes is a nice music organizer/player. It certainly has its issues and I can’t say I’ve been 100% happy with it, but it does the trick. But then there’s the music, by far the biggest wrinkle in the sheet. Damn their DMA songs!

Even though I use iTunes as my main music player, I hate having my music locked down. My solution around it has been what most people have probably been doing too…burning the iTunes songs to a CD and then ripping them back as MP3s. Tedious and stupid, but it works.

When Amazon announced their MP3 service would be cheaper and offer standard MP3 files I told myself the next time I plan on getting a song or album I’d use it. Well, with money sitting in my iTunes account thanks to gift cards and redeeming, I hadn’t not followed through on that promise until today when I found a good reason to go elsewhere.

Much to my happiness I discovered that one of my favorite groups, The Presidents of the United States of America, did not disband as I had once thought. Actually, they did back in 1998 and then reformed a few years later to release a handful of albums.

“Peaches” – The Presidents of the United States of America
[audio:peaches.mp3]

I remember buying The President’s first album at Media Play. I thought the album cover was strange, and the music was pretty nutty too, but that’s why I like it so. It’s poppy, fast, it rocks, and has a heaping helping of fun and humor. That first record was really solid. The follow up album II was 50/50. A third release just before their break-up had even fewer singles. After I heard they broke up I had pretty much written them off and had just accepted I’d have 2.5 albums to enjoy for the rest of time.

I was at YouTube watching some Weird Al videos and that led me to The Presidents’ Wikipedia page where learned they regrouped and have been making new albums. It’s great to find out they’re still making music and still keeping it fun and light. I went the web site and listened to a few tracks from newer albums and decided to go ahead and download one of the “lost albums” I had missed. I decided on Love Everybody and headed over to iTunes to make the purchase.

Now most albums at iTunes are $10 regardless of the number of tracks. But low and behold this one album from an essentially nobody band was $12. Sucko. But wait! I have an alternative – Amazon MP3. A quick jump to Amazon found the album for $9, so I was ready to dive in.

Although a bummer, I was not surprised to have to install Amazon’s MP3 Downloader, a desktop client that does the downloading for you. After a very quick install I was faced with something I did not expect at all – something helpful – a free song to download. This is very smart because not only is it a great bonus for a new user, but Amazon presents as a way for you to learn how the downloader works before you pay any money. It told me, “Hey, watch the downloader in action by getting this free song.” I happily took their recommendation. Very smart on Amazon’s part and much appreciated as a customer.

So with the downloader installed I click the Buy button and after a quick authorization the downloads came in swiftly. And surprisingly enough, the Amazon Downloader even added the songs to iTunes for me. How considerate. And as advertised, the tracks are straight MP3s (high 256 bitrate too) and I can use them as I see fit and burn them as often as I’d like.

I can’t speak on the depth of Amazon’s MP3 catalog as I was looking for something specific and found it, but if you’re looking for an iTunes alternative for music then I will happily recommend Amazon MP3. It’s easy to use, good quality tracks, and even cheaper than iTunes. Even the single songs are $.89 instead of $.99 – I’ll certainly be back.

(Oh, and the President’s album I downloaded is pretty solid too. Nothing earth-shattering as far as they’re concerned, but it’s great to have some new songs to bust out on the way to work. They’ve stuck with their original formula and it’s very welcome in today’s vast pit of otherwise shotty music.)

Originally posted on Aug 18, 2008

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A reason to keep your CDs

Our walls are pretty bare. Shy of a few of my old college paintings and a couple prints, we don’t have much hanging around. We don’t like cluttered, busy walls anyway, but you have to have something on the walls otherwise it looks too…well, too migrant. Bare walls work if you have some sort of Zen theme going with minimalist furniture and bamboo floors, but we don’t. We’re pretty average folks with an average house. So in an attempt to find something meaningful for our walls without having to go the large poster/print route, I looked at what we have to work with.

And we have a lot of CDs. Our generation has seen a lot of technology change when it comes to music and we’re not even halfway through life. I know you all still have a box somewhere with cassettes in it and needless to say there’s a few shelves of CDs somewhere too. It’s safe to say we have way more MP3s these days than we do CDs, and we do most of our music listening on the computer, so the CDs have just become clutter. Recently though I thought about hanging up CD covers as art. We both love our music and the CDs weren’t doing anything else.

I think album covers as wall art (CD or otherwise) is a good solution to get use out of something that otherwise has no purpose anymore. It’s easy, clean, and shows off your love and tastes for music. Not to mention some album covers are considered art in their own right, so it’s not that far fetched. The trick, it turned out, was finding frames for the little buggers.

Compact disc album covers are square. Most small frames are designed for standard photos, which are rectangles. Going to a craft store or even Target didn’t find us the frames we needed. No, we found just the right size frames at the Dollar Store…but of course! We didn’t go to the Dollar Store looking for frames, but while there noticed some that were just the right size. They’re glass front frames so there’s no “frame” around the album, and it looks pretty nice.

This is still a work in progress, but even with only four covers up the staircase it looks pretty good. About two to four more covers to complete the journey should be enough. Now the hard part is picking which albums to feature. But then again, it’s convenient enough that we can change them whenever we like.

So if you have some bare spots on your walls and need something small to fill the void, consider your favorite (or best looking) album covers. An easy afternoon project.

Originally posted on Aug 16, 2008

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Don’t bust a Nutsie

I’ve been using FineTune.com for on-line music for a long time now. I’ve found it to be be all I need to get through my day. At FineTune you pick songs to add to your pool (playlist) and then it plays back those songs in random order. You never know what song is going to play next, but you know it’ll be a song you picked. Nutsie, on the other hand, takes a different approach and lets you bring your own music collection on-line.

I heard about Nutsie when drummer Duff McKagan was on a local radio show. He was pimping the service, which I believe he invested in (and also adorns the home page) so I figured I’d give it a try. Nutsie expects you to be using iTunes. Now one might see this is a narrow strategy, but these days iTunes is probably a safe bet. Unlike some other services, Nutsie doesn’t want you to upload your MP3s, it only wants your iTunes database. All you need to do with Nutside is export your iTunes library and upload it. Nutsie then does all the work to find the songs so you can listen on-line.

It’s actually a nifty concept but I’ve found it has one fatal flaw – it exposes you to all the crappy music you have in your library. If you’re like me, you’ve ripped just about every CD you have and also any CD that you might even only be remotely interested in. In my catalog there is a lot of classical, a lot of movie scores/sounndtracks, and a lot of country thanks to the wife – and most of that is not stuff I listen to all that often. Nutsie, unfortunately, reminds me that my library has about 70% of crap, 20% of good stuff, and 10% of, “when did I get that song?”

Another flaw in Nutsie is the lack of making playlists within Nutsie. Chances are you have playlists within iTunes. Well, when you upload your library Nutsie retains these playlists but doesn’t let you create new ones with your music. So if want to create your “Ultimate Death Metal” playlist in Nutsie using your collection of songs, you’re out of luck. You also can’t play any individual song with Nutsie. Much like all the other services, the site will play songs from your playlists randomly.

Another very annoying unfeature in Nutsie is the audio player itself. An embedded music player can be found on just about every page, including your personal playlist home page. This works great until you click a link on the page and takes you away, thus stopping your music and making you start all over again. One simple improvement Nutsie could add is to simply let you pop-out the player so you can navigate around Nutsie without disrupting your music. This even works against them because the always-present “Buy” button next to each song stops the music and just makes you mad. You’ll also find the music players start automagically, so just about every web page will start blaring out music when you arrive.

On the good side of Nutsie is the standard shared playlist abilities. Even if you don’t upload your own music library, you’ll find a good host of themed playlists that will keep you going for a while. They have a nice list of dated playlists so you can hear the Best Rock Songs of 1977 anytime you want (which I recommend). And assuming you’re a Nutsie member – which is free – you are allowed unlimited song skips. Where as places like FineTune and Pandora limit you to five skips per hour, Nutsie lets you skip forever if you want. Of course, you’ll need unlimited skips to get through all the crap in your personal library. For one session I actually did more skipping than listening.

And perhaps the most unique feature of Nutsie is the Nutsie Picks slider that appears above every music player. This lets you choose if you want Nutsie to recommend other songs and mix them while you’re listening. This doesn’t add songs to your playlist or library, it works on-the-fly. So if you have a playlist of 50 tunes and slide the Nutsie Picks to some percentage and it’ll toss in a few related artists and songs. Kind of nifty, but in my experience not all that “accurate” as you’ll find Barry Manilow and Rod Stewart dropped in the middle of your Glam Metal playlist.

I think Nutsie is working along the right path but has a long way to go. Design and user experience problems keep me from using the service, and its tendency to replay the same songs from my playlist over and over keeps me sitting at FineTune instead. I like the idea of just uploading my iTunes library and being able to listen anywhere I am, but until they give me more control over what is essentially my music, I’ll stick with my playlists at FineTune.

Originally posted on Aug 16, 2008

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The Wii redeems itself with the Homebrew Channel

I wrote a bit back about my increasing loss of faith in the Wii. The games slated to come out through the rest of the year and into 2009 are quite, shall we say, “weak” and include many uber-family friendly games. I have nothing against family friendly, but you can only have so many pet and puzzle games before a system starts to lose its appeal. However, a recent investigation into a well known hack for the Wii has me singing a different tune.

Reading Wii news as regularly as I do, quite some time ago I read about a thing called the Twilight Hack, which exploits a bug in the Wii Zelda game that let hackers into the core system. I typically try not to bother with console hacks because I’ve spent way to much on the deck to possibly ruin it by hacking. But over the weekend I found and read more about the Twilight Hack that sold me on the idea.

tmpphpT41Nzl.jpgBut why hack the Wii in the first place? Well, hacking in this case means you can load homebrew games (indie games) on the Wii. The hack actually adds the “Homebrew Channel” to your standard Wii menu (in English). Along with standalone indie games, you can also load emulators with the channel. As is well documented, I am an emulator junkie, especially for the classic decks like the NES, SNES, and PC Engine. With the promise of emulators on the Wii, I couldn’t not try the hack.

The Twilight Hack was stupidly simple to install. The only thing you need is an SD memory card and the Zelda game disc. Fortunately friend-of-the-Toast, Thee, had the Zelda game and once I had it in my hand I gave the hack a go. I held my breath and watched the DOS-like screen fly by, doing something to my Wii, and just hoped I wasn’t bricking my Wii. Bang! Zoom! The Homebrew Channel is ready to go!

And much (very much) to my surprise the NES emulator ran just fine and I was able to load all the NES ROMs I’ve had for years. Then I tried the TurboGrafix16 emulator…worked. Then the SNES emulator…worked. How awesome is this?! And all the emulators have multi-player support. So now I can play my old NES and other games just about everywhere: on my original NES deck, my PC, my DS portable, and now my Wii. Wherever I go, the NES will follow. Nuts? Yes. Fun? You betcha.

I’ve spent a lot of time and money on my NES PowerPak so I could play ROMs on my actual NES console, and nothing beats that experience, but having the NES games on my Wii is just way too convenient. Then toss on the SNES, Genesis and PCE games that I never had elsewhere other than my computer…you can’t beat it. I’m still playing around with the emulators and homebrew games, but so far the so good shy of a few ROMs that just haven’t loaded. But I don’t know if that means it’s a bad ROM, which is highly likely, or the emulator…time will tell. I’ve also found I now have a really good reason to buy a classic Wii controller.

tmpphpfZjYsl.jpgBut wait…can’t you download all the old games with the Wii Virtual Console? Why yes, you can…for anywhere from $5 – $10 a pop. We all have our favorite classic games. Even with over 500 NES games, I play the same dozen over and over. Same will go with PCE, SNES, and Genesis…but if I can get them easily for free, why do the whole download thing? Plus, now I can play the games I never played before but wanted to without the risk. It’s just nice.

Having this homebrew option opens up the Wii to a whole new realm of games even beyond old emulators. Now you can also play games made by indie developers that you won’t find in retail. One such game I found is called GuitarFun and is a clone of clone…it’s a clone of Frets on Fire, the PC Guitar Hero clone. I have yet to get GuitarFun to load and play on the Wii Homebrew, but when/if it does, it means I can play custom songs (real songs) with the actual guitar controller. Now that’ll be spiffy! I’ll post up a note when I get it working…but there are YouTubes of the game working.

All in all, I don’t see any reason you wouldn’t want to use the Twilight Hack and install the Homebrew Channel. It doesn’t hurt and the manual claims you can even uninstall it all. This isn’t a hardware-level hack, it’s just software, so there shouldn’t ever be any permanent damage. If you’re after some classic console gaming and don’t want go crazy like I did with my NES, this Wii hack is the sweet spot that turns your console into the perfect (and free) retro game machine. And since you’re saving on VC downloads, you can justify more retail Wii games and accessories.

If you’re wanting to setup the Homebrew Channel on your Wii, hit up WiiBrew.com and look for their WiiPack Generator. Use it to download all the parts you want and need, including the Twilight Hack. And to see just how easy the hack is to install, there’s a handy video…which I watched like five times before doing it myself (it just made me feel better).

Now pardon me while I go run through some Excite Bike, F-Zero, Keith Courage, and maybe a little Street Fighter II.

Originally posted on Aug 13, 2008

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Seventeen pounds of Hot Wheels

I’ve been “collecting” Hot Wheels for probably close to eight years by now. I collect but I don’t invest in Hot Wheels. A recent trip to the Ohio State Fair’s and its famed Junk Barn (where every Harry, Dick, and Tom can attempt to sell their junk) had me face-to-face with a ton of “collectible” Hot Wheels.

They were all in the box and ranged in age from 2008 models to some that stretched back to the mid-80s. And not surprisingly, I had many of the cars I saw…but much to my surprise, these cars were selling for $2 – $5. While a few bucks may not sound like much, considering each Hot Wheels car costs less than a dollar to buy it’s a pretty good return on the value.

It’s hard for me to see Hot Wheels as a collectibles investment. Sure, it kind of sucks to see a car I bought for 97 cents just a week ago already selling for $3 (which is bull anyway), but then I realize why I collect Hot Wheels – because I like them. I like to look at them, play with them, take pictures of them, let others play with them…it’s about the fun of toy cars, not the fun of buying and selling. I wouldn’t be any good at selling them anyway because I wouldn’t be able to give them up, even at a profit.

With my upgraded Flickr Pro account at my disposal, I decided to do something I had been wanting to do for a while, shoot my cars in more “artistic” ways, rather than the straight up showroom-quality photos I’ve been taking for the Hot Wheels Showcase I have on-line.

Hot Wheels are so vivid and fantastic that they lend themselves to photographs, both macro photography (which I can’t do well) and just general fun shooting (which I can do well). So with a sunny Saturday on hand I took all (well, most) of my cars out and set them up for some shots. It’s funny because when you tell people you have 193 Hot Wheels it sounds like a lot…but when you line them all up for a family photo, it doesn’t look like much, at least not to me. I guess in my head I thought they would take up more space all laid out, but I guess they’re only 2-inch cars anyway.

So yes, I have upwards of 190 Hot Wheels cars and all together they weigh an even 17 pounds. And for those wanting to keep track, each Hot Wheels cars cost me a dollar, so my total investment should be pretty simple. Now consider if I was investing in the toys how much I would have in value if each one could (on average) resell for $3.

I don’t really plan to stop my collecting. It’s cheap and it’s fun. And they make for some awesome photos.

Stop by the Flickr page for more shots.

Originally posted on Aug 9, 2008

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Tesla, still comin’ atcha live…again

You go to a concert early for one reason: to get good seats. And even though we saw Tesla in concert just six months ago, we still showed up early to make sure we got the spot we wanted. Last time we saw Tesla it was bare nuts cold outside and the line to get in was down the block. This time it was hot, but the line wasn’t so long, however, we noticed a small group of people gathering away from the main line. They were gathering outside the tour bus entrance where last time Frank Hannon chatted with shivering fans so we figured members of Tesla were once again mingling with fans, and we were right.

Before you continue, please enjoy some Tesla as you read:
[audio:tesla.mp3]

This time lead singer Jeff Keith was signing autographs and taking pictures from behind the entrance gate. We didn’t bring our camera because the venue doesn’t allow cameras, but we did have a convenient phone camera. And just after we got a shot of Jeff behind bars he says, “hell with this, I’m coming out there,” and he walked around the gate to meet fans up close and personal right there on the sidewalk. What luck! So we calmly waited to say “Hello” and get a photo op and autograph. Unfortunately, given the sun and the low-fi camera, the photo of Jen and Jeff didn’t turn out as well as I’d hope (although you can tell who it is), but he also signed the ticket stub…making this one of the first ticket stubs I’ll actually be keeping.

Before too long the rest of people waiting in line took notice and gathered around getting their jeans, arms, and children signed by Jeff Keith. At that point we moved back into the line and waited for the doors to open. Once we were in we found the spot we wanted, along the back wall of the floor section. We were at the same venue as before but this time we were outside and oh what a difference it made. The sound and experience of an indoor show just can’t compare to that of a outdoor concert. So we sat a waited for things to kick off while other came to sit along side us.

Not too long after we claimed our spot a girl sitting about three people down from me leaned forward and…well, she just puked her guts out. What?! Vomiting already? That’s what one guy was thinking as he passed by the pool of vomit and then looked at his watch, as though to think, “isn’t it a bit early for barf?”

Out of all the concerts we’ve seen in the past few years, this is the first time we’ve been near, let alone witness, some vomiting, as surprising as that may be. It’s very interesting watching people notice a pile of vomit. It actually became the game of the night, watching people’s reactions when they noticed the pool…assuming they did notice. Although few and far between, there were a handful of people that just didn’t notice and walked right through it. If you learn one thing from this entry, please learn that you should always look down when at a concert because you never know what you’ll find on the ground. Needless to say, the vomit kept many people away so we enjoyed the concert in relative peace. Thankfully we were far enough away from it that it didn’t encroach our space.

The opening band did their thing and after a quick stage change Tesla came out and rocked a perfect night. And it was a perfect night for a concert, very comfortable with clear skies. They changed up their set list just enough from their last visit, playing their standards but also including ones like “Edison’s Medicine” and “Mama’s Fool,” of which neither they played last time. They also removed the cover songs from their line-up, which I appreciated.

And if you thought having a pool of throw-up next you all night wasn’t a good way to enjoy Tesla, it gets better. Because about three quarters through the set victim number too spun around in front of us and spewed. This lady spewed first in the same spot as the first girl, then ran off the floor to toss it in the grass. Not sure if it was the combination of heat and beer, which is always fun, or if that spot on the floor had low gravity or some other anomaly that would cause people to chuck. Vomit to the left of me, vomit to the right of me…had it not been for Tesla in front of me, it would have been a rough night.

Another thing this concert proved is that Tesla is a prime example of a solid band. Being the only band we’ve seen twice, we know that Tesla puts on a good show just about every time they perform. It doesn’t matter if they’re inside or outside, they just lay it down. Nothing too fancy, not a lot of “show,” just a straight set of hits. To top things off, they did something other bands could learn from – they skipped the encore. It seems these days the encore is a given, which kind of defeats the specialness of an encore. No, instead Tesla said, “we don’t need to make people scream and shout, we’ll just keep on going.” So instead of taking a break, making us wait and then coming out to play one more song, they played two more songs instead. Awesome. Just awesome. Why make us clap? You know you’re coming back out to play.

The fact that Jeff Keith was willing to stand in the middle of the sidewalk and get up close with fans also tells me that Tesla knows what’s important. I know Tesla is way past their prime and not exactly filling stadiums anymore, but find me another band that will go that far out of their way to keep people happy. It tells me they know what’s important – the fans – because if you don’t keep your fans happy, they won’t come see you and they won’t buy your records.

So next time there’s a band you want to see, show up a bit early because not only will you usually get a good seat, you never know who’ll you find signing autographs. And you might miss the vomit.

Originally posted on Aug 5, 2008

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It’s a good time to bring back blimps

I love blimps. Blimps just make sense to me. They’re elegant, classy, efficient, and it many ways, quite practical. Just by chance I happened to come across an article in the NYT Europe section about Zeppelin blimps. I didn’t read the entire article but just the first few paragraphs were enough to have me thinking happy blimp thoughts.

Blimps are just like airplanes or trains but are far more efficient. All three follow more direct routes than car or truck, but blimps don’t use regular jet fuel. They use reusable gas to fill the blimp, so right there they are better off than the rest of us. Blimps may be a bit slower than jets or trains, but I say that blimps are not for trans-atlantic or even cross-country shipments. I see blimps as tri-state, regional solution to delivering goods.

Not only do blimps make fuel sense, they make delivery sense. Blimps don’t need acres and miles of runway, they just need a small field or even a tall building with which to dock and unload. Blimps can go vertical, making them more flexible than planes and have more reach than a train.

Blimps just…blimps just make sense. As the article points out, in a time when fuel prices are sky high (ha ha), blimps provide an alternative that could help cut costs at a critical time. I doubt it will catch on, but just imagine how beautiful a sky filled with blimps would be. Imagine traveling from Chicago to New York by blimp…no, wait, luxury blimp. Even if blimps didn’t become a shipping standard, I think blimps would have a cool-factor that would make them work as a novelty travel for a long while.

Bring back blimps!!

Originally posted on Aug 4, 2008

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Work will be watching

A recent article in the NY Times talks about new network monitoring software that will “learn” about employee’s web behaviour and give the company finite control over restrictions and settings. I won’t repost the whole article, but this pretty much sums it up:

…one company might say that marketing folks can only visit YouTube during lunch hour, and even then, they can only upload two megabytes to the site each day. Engineers might be blocked from visiting Facebook…but everyone else can.

I’m not saying companies shouldn’t monitor network traffic and use, it’s a legit concern. But if software like this works as well as promoted, I see one problem: we’re not machines. Applying strict rules onto users will just make them unhappy and that ultimately results is poor results.

I’m one that believes people will naturally find their balance at work. No one works 8-hours solid. It’s just not possible, and frankly, not healthy. Everybody needs some time during the day to just chill for a few. Some people may go outside for a smoke, some might walk around the building, some might scratch their butt, some, like me, just stay on-line and visit web sites they enjoy but aren’t work-related.

Me, I hit up my video game blogs, check my personal e-mail, manage my personal sites and that type stuff. All said and done, it maybe takes 15-30 minutes of my day. No big deal. If I spend more time than that I feel like I’m jipping myself out of work time. I know I have stuff to do and I know how much time it takes to get it done. Most people won’t abuse their time because fear will keep them in check – at least that’s what I’ve witnessed. If you just trust people things will usually work out for the best.

I’m sure the thought behind applying smart software that tracks individuals and adjusts based on habits is that it will stop those that do abuse their work time. I guess my philosophy on this is that instead of using a blacklist method that effects everyone, if you find someone is spending too much time hanging out on YouTube, you deal with them. You warn them, suspend them, fire them, whatever…you deal with the person directly. You don’t puss out and let technology to do your people management for you. That’s just weak. And honestly, I wouldn’t want to work for a company that manages their employees that way.

Everybody works best in different environments. And that’s not limited to physical environments, but digital/on-line environments too. You can’t look at sheer numbers to determine what people are doing. Behaviour doesn’t work by the numbers and by saying, “Brian spends 30 minutes on Gmail a day means he’s wasting time,” is quite ignorant and might do more harm than good in the long.

Of course, all this is assuming companies will pretty much abuse this network management power. Some will, some won’t, but just having that ability will turn even the lax network admin into a network nazi. Actually, software like this might even eliminate that admin job…so you better watch out.

Originally posted on Aug 4, 2008

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Winnie’s new digs

In the great menagerie we call our home lives a cat, a dog, a turtle, and a dog – in that order. Out of them all the turtle, Winnie, requires the least amount of attention. She probably doesn’t get enough attention, actually, but so it goes. She’s a turtle. It’s funny that most people probably think it’s easier to care a turtle than two dogs and cat. Simplicity of often deceiving.

When we got Winnie a couple years ago, the men at the turtle store told us she was a water turtle and needed water to feed and stuff. OK, so we got an aquarium and filled it with water for her to swim around and a little floating dock for her to lay on. And that’s the way it remained for a long time, with regular tank cleanings and the likes to keep things as clean as we could. But let me tell you, a turtle is a dirty, dirty, messy animal.

Emptying 15 gallons of water every two week sucked bears. Well, our thoughts of “easy” care for a turtle changed when we discovered Winnie’s shell had a few bad spots on it. We think it’s shell rot, which, from what we’ve read, is easily cared for with a little soap wash and less water time. And that’s where we goofed in the past – we had too much water and not enough “sun” for her – which led to her shell problems. So action had to be taken immediately.

That action was a new apartment for Winnie. A trip to the pet store had me coming home with a stone barrier that needed to be siliconed into the aquarium so one half could be set with rocks for basking and the other for her pool. And it’s pretty nice, although I’m not sure Winnie knows what to do with it all yet.

Now there’s 1/4 as much water in the tank, which should make cleaning much easier while still giving her plenty of water for her bodily needs. The project as a whole was a lot easier than I expected. I’m glad I found the little barrier thing. My first thoughts were buying rocks or something and piling them up to create a nice basking area but still having mostly water. The new setup should be nice for her and for us.

I just hope the dogs don’t ask for a new house too.

Originally posted on Aug 19, 2008

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The Presidents and Amazon MP3

Despite my regular use of iTunes for playing and sometimes purchasing music, I’m not necessarily an iTunes-lover. I think iTunes is a nice music organizer/player. It certainly has its issues and I can’t say I’ve been 100% happy with it, but it does the trick. But then there’s the music, by far the biggest wrinkle in the sheet. Damn their DMA songs!

Even though I use iTunes as my main music player, I hate having my music locked down. My solution around it has been what most people have probably been doing too…burning the iTunes songs to a CD and then ripping them back as MP3s. Tedious and stupid, but it works.

When Amazon announced their MP3 service would be cheaper and offer standard MP3 files I told myself the next time I plan on getting a song or album I’d use it. Well, with money sitting in my iTunes account thanks to gift cards and redeeming, I hadn’t not followed through on that promise until today when I found a good reason to go elsewhere.

Much to my happiness I discovered that one of my favorite groups, The Presidents of the United States of America, did not disband as I had once thought. Actually, they did back in 1998 and then reformed a few years later to release a handful of albums.

“Peaches” – The Presidents of the United States of America
[audio:peaches.mp3]

I remember buying The President’s first album at Media Play. I thought the album cover was strange, and the music was pretty nutty too, but that’s why I like it so. It’s poppy, fast, it rocks, and has a heaping helping of fun and humor. That first record was really solid. The follow up album II was 50/50. A third release just before their break-up had even fewer singles. After I heard they broke up I had pretty much written them off and had just accepted I’d have 2.5 albums to enjoy for the rest of time.

I was at YouTube watching some Weird Al videos and that led me to The Presidents’ Wikipedia page where learned they regrouped and have been making new albums. It’s great to find out they’re still making music and still keeping it fun and light. I went the web site and listened to a few tracks from newer albums and decided to go ahead and download one of the “lost albums” I had missed. I decided on Love Everybody and headed over to iTunes to make the purchase.

Now most albums at iTunes are $10 regardless of the number of tracks. But low and behold this one album from an essentially nobody band was $12. Sucko. But wait! I have an alternative – Amazon MP3. A quick jump to Amazon found the album for $9, so I was ready to dive in.

Although a bummer, I was not surprised to have to install Amazon’s MP3 Downloader, a desktop client that does the downloading for you. After a very quick install I was faced with something I did not expect at all – something helpful – a free song to download. This is very smart because not only is it a great bonus for a new user, but Amazon presents as a way for you to learn how the downloader works before you pay any money. It told me, “Hey, watch the downloader in action by getting this free song.” I happily took their recommendation. Very smart on Amazon’s part and much appreciated as a customer.

So with the downloader installed I click the Buy button and after a quick authorization the downloads came in swiftly. And surprisingly enough, the Amazon Downloader even added the songs to iTunes for me. How considerate. And as advertised, the tracks are straight MP3s (high 256 bitrate too) and I can use them as I see fit and burn them as often as I’d like.

I can’t speak on the depth of Amazon’s MP3 catalog as I was looking for something specific and found it, but if you’re looking for an iTunes alternative for music then I will happily recommend Amazon MP3. It’s easy to use, good quality tracks, and even cheaper than iTunes. Even the single songs are $.89 instead of $.99 – I’ll certainly be back.

(Oh, and the President’s album I downloaded is pretty solid too. Nothing earth-shattering as far as they’re concerned, but it’s great to have some new songs to bust out on the way to work. They’ve stuck with their original formula and it’s very welcome in today’s vast pit of otherwise shotty music.)

Originally posted on Aug 18, 2008

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A reason to keep your CDs

Our walls are pretty bare. Shy of a few of my old college paintings and a couple prints, we don’t have much hanging around. We don’t like cluttered, busy walls anyway, but you have to have something on the walls otherwise it looks too…well, too migrant. Bare walls work if you have some sort of Zen theme going with minimalist furniture and bamboo floors, but we don’t. We’re pretty average folks with an average house. So in an attempt to find something meaningful for our walls without having to go the large poster/print route, I looked at what we have to work with.

And we have a lot of CDs. Our generation has seen a lot of technology change when it comes to music and we’re not even halfway through life. I know you all still have a box somewhere with cassettes in it and needless to say there’s a few shelves of CDs somewhere too. It’s safe to say we have way more MP3s these days than we do CDs, and we do most of our music listening on the computer, so the CDs have just become clutter. Recently though I thought about hanging up CD covers as art. We both love our music and the CDs weren’t doing anything else.

I think album covers as wall art (CD or otherwise) is a good solution to get use out of something that otherwise has no purpose anymore. It’s easy, clean, and shows off your love and tastes for music. Not to mention some album covers are considered art in their own right, so it’s not that far fetched. The trick, it turned out, was finding frames for the little buggers.

Compact disc album covers are square. Most small frames are designed for standard photos, which are rectangles. Going to a craft store or even Target didn’t find us the frames we needed. No, we found just the right size frames at the Dollar Store…but of course! We didn’t go to the Dollar Store looking for frames, but while there noticed some that were just the right size. They’re glass front frames so there’s no “frame” around the album, and it looks pretty nice.

This is still a work in progress, but even with only four covers up the staircase it looks pretty good. About two to four more covers to complete the journey should be enough. Now the hard part is picking which albums to feature. But then again, it’s convenient enough that we can change them whenever we like.

So if you have some bare spots on your walls and need something small to fill the void, consider your favorite (or best looking) album covers. An easy afternoon project.

Originally posted on Aug 16, 2008

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Don’t bust a Nutsie

I’ve been using FineTune.com for on-line music for a long time now. I’ve found it to be be all I need to get through my day. At FineTune you pick songs to add to your pool (playlist) and then it plays back those songs in random order. You never know what song is going to play next, but you know it’ll be a song you picked. Nutsie, on the other hand, takes a different approach and lets you bring your own music collection on-line.

I heard about Nutsie when drummer Duff McKagan was on a local radio show. He was pimping the service, which I believe he invested in (and also adorns the home page) so I figured I’d give it a try. Nutsie expects you to be using iTunes. Now one might see this is a narrow strategy, but these days iTunes is probably a safe bet. Unlike some other services, Nutsie doesn’t want you to upload your MP3s, it only wants your iTunes database. All you need to do with Nutside is export your iTunes library and upload it. Nutsie then does all the work to find the songs so you can listen on-line.

It’s actually a nifty concept but I’ve found it has one fatal flaw – it exposes you to all the crappy music you have in your library. If you’re like me, you’ve ripped just about every CD you have and also any CD that you might even only be remotely interested in. In my catalog there is a lot of classical, a lot of movie scores/sounndtracks, and a lot of country thanks to the wife – and most of that is not stuff I listen to all that often. Nutsie, unfortunately, reminds me that my library has about 70% of crap, 20% of good stuff, and 10% of, “when did I get that song?”

Another flaw in Nutsie is the lack of making playlists within Nutsie. Chances are you have playlists within iTunes. Well, when you upload your library Nutsie retains these playlists but doesn’t let you create new ones with your music. So if want to create your “Ultimate Death Metal” playlist in Nutsie using your collection of songs, you’re out of luck. You also can’t play any individual song with Nutsie. Much like all the other services, the site will play songs from your playlists randomly.

Another very annoying unfeature in Nutsie is the audio player itself. An embedded music player can be found on just about every page, including your personal playlist home page. This works great until you click a link on the page and takes you away, thus stopping your music and making you start all over again. One simple improvement Nutsie could add is to simply let you pop-out the player so you can navigate around Nutsie without disrupting your music. This even works against them because the always-present “Buy” button next to each song stops the music and just makes you mad. You’ll also find the music players start automagically, so just about every web page will start blaring out music when you arrive.

On the good side of Nutsie is the standard shared playlist abilities. Even if you don’t upload your own music library, you’ll find a good host of themed playlists that will keep you going for a while. They have a nice list of dated playlists so you can hear the Best Rock Songs of 1977 anytime you want (which I recommend). And assuming you’re a Nutsie member – which is free – you are allowed unlimited song skips. Where as places like FineTune and Pandora limit you to five skips per hour, Nutsie lets you skip forever if you want. Of course, you’ll need unlimited skips to get through all the crap in your personal library. For one session I actually did more skipping than listening.

And perhaps the most unique feature of Nutsie is the Nutsie Picks slider that appears above every music player. This lets you choose if you want Nutsie to recommend other songs and mix them while you’re listening. This doesn’t add songs to your playlist or library, it works on-the-fly. So if you have a playlist of 50 tunes and slide the Nutsie Picks to some percentage and it’ll toss in a few related artists and songs. Kind of nifty, but in my experience not all that “accurate” as you’ll find Barry Manilow and Rod Stewart dropped in the middle of your Glam Metal playlist.

I think Nutsie is working along the right path but has a long way to go. Design and user experience problems keep me from using the service, and its tendency to replay the same songs from my playlist over and over keeps me sitting at FineTune instead. I like the idea of just uploading my iTunes library and being able to listen anywhere I am, but until they give me more control over what is essentially my music, I’ll stick with my playlists at FineTune.

Originally posted on Aug 16, 2008

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The Wii redeems itself with the Homebrew Channel

I wrote a bit back about my increasing loss of faith in the Wii. The games slated to come out through the rest of the year and into 2009 are quite, shall we say, “weak” and include many uber-family friendly games. I have nothing against family friendly, but you can only have so many pet and puzzle games before a system starts to lose its appeal. However, a recent investigation into a well known hack for the Wii has me singing a different tune.

Reading Wii news as regularly as I do, quite some time ago I read about a thing called the Twilight Hack, which exploits a bug in the Wii Zelda game that let hackers into the core system. I typically try not to bother with console hacks because I’ve spent way to much on the deck to possibly ruin it by hacking. But over the weekend I found and read more about the Twilight Hack that sold me on the idea.

tmpphpT41Nzl.jpgBut why hack the Wii in the first place? Well, hacking in this case means you can load homebrew games (indie games) on the Wii. The hack actually adds the “Homebrew Channel” to your standard Wii menu (in English). Along with standalone indie games, you can also load emulators with the channel. As is well documented, I am an emulator junkie, especially for the classic decks like the NES, SNES, and PC Engine. With the promise of emulators on the Wii, I couldn’t not try the hack.

The Twilight Hack was stupidly simple to install. The only thing you need is an SD memory card and the Zelda game disc. Fortunately friend-of-the-Toast, Thee, had the Zelda game and once I had it in my hand I gave the hack a go. I held my breath and watched the DOS-like screen fly by, doing something to my Wii, and just hoped I wasn’t bricking my Wii. Bang! Zoom! The Homebrew Channel is ready to go!

And much (very much) to my surprise the NES emulator ran just fine and I was able to load all the NES ROMs I’ve had for years. Then I tried the TurboGrafix16 emulator…worked. Then the SNES emulator…worked. How awesome is this?! And all the emulators have multi-player support. So now I can play my old NES and other games just about everywhere: on my original NES deck, my PC, my DS portable, and now my Wii. Wherever I go, the NES will follow. Nuts? Yes. Fun? You betcha.

I’ve spent a lot of time and money on my NES PowerPak so I could play ROMs on my actual NES console, and nothing beats that experience, but having the NES games on my Wii is just way too convenient. Then toss on the SNES, Genesis and PCE games that I never had elsewhere other than my computer…you can’t beat it. I’m still playing around with the emulators and homebrew games, but so far the so good shy of a few ROMs that just haven’t loaded. But I don’t know if that means it’s a bad ROM, which is highly likely, or the emulator…time will tell. I’ve also found I now have a really good reason to buy a classic Wii controller.

tmpphpfZjYsl.jpgBut wait…can’t you download all the old games with the Wii Virtual Console? Why yes, you can…for anywhere from $5 – $10 a pop. We all have our favorite classic games. Even with over 500 NES games, I play the same dozen over and over. Same will go with PCE, SNES, and Genesis…but if I can get them easily for free, why do the whole download thing? Plus, now I can play the games I never played before but wanted to without the risk. It’s just nice.

Having this homebrew option opens up the Wii to a whole new realm of games even beyond old emulators. Now you can also play games made by indie developers that you won’t find in retail. One such game I found is called GuitarFun and is a clone of clone…it’s a clone of Frets on Fire, the PC Guitar Hero clone. I have yet to get GuitarFun to load and play on the Wii Homebrew, but when/if it does, it means I can play custom songs (real songs) with the actual guitar controller. Now that’ll be spiffy! I’ll post up a note when I get it working…but there are YouTubes of the game working.

All in all, I don’t see any reason you wouldn’t want to use the Twilight Hack and install the Homebrew Channel. It doesn’t hurt and the manual claims you can even uninstall it all. This isn’t a hardware-level hack, it’s just software, so there shouldn’t ever be any permanent damage. If you’re after some classic console gaming and don’t want go crazy like I did with my NES, this Wii hack is the sweet spot that turns your console into the perfect (and free) retro game machine. And since you’re saving on VC downloads, you can justify more retail Wii games and accessories.

If you’re wanting to setup the Homebrew Channel on your Wii, hit up WiiBrew.com and look for their WiiPack Generator. Use it to download all the parts you want and need, including the Twilight Hack. And to see just how easy the hack is to install, there’s a handy video…which I watched like five times before doing it myself (it just made me feel better).

Now pardon me while I go run through some Excite Bike, F-Zero, Keith Courage, and maybe a little Street Fighter II.

Originally posted on Aug 13, 2008

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Seventeen pounds of Hot Wheels

I’ve been “collecting” Hot Wheels for probably close to eight years by now. I collect but I don’t invest in Hot Wheels. A recent trip to the Ohio State Fair’s and its famed Junk Barn (where every Harry, Dick, and Tom can attempt to sell their junk) had me face-to-face with a ton of “collectible” Hot Wheels.

They were all in the box and ranged in age from 2008 models to some that stretched back to the mid-80s. And not surprisingly, I had many of the cars I saw…but much to my surprise, these cars were selling for $2 – $5. While a few bucks may not sound like much, considering each Hot Wheels car costs less than a dollar to buy it’s a pretty good return on the value.

It’s hard for me to see Hot Wheels as a collectibles investment. Sure, it kind of sucks to see a car I bought for 97 cents just a week ago already selling for $3 (which is bull anyway), but then I realize why I collect Hot Wheels – because I like them. I like to look at them, play with them, take pictures of them, let others play with them…it’s about the fun of toy cars, not the fun of buying and selling. I wouldn’t be any good at selling them anyway because I wouldn’t be able to give them up, even at a profit.

With my upgraded Flickr Pro account at my disposal, I decided to do something I had been wanting to do for a while, shoot my cars in more “artistic” ways, rather than the straight up showroom-quality photos I’ve been taking for the Hot Wheels Showcase I have on-line.

Hot Wheels are so vivid and fantastic that they lend themselves to photographs, both macro photography (which I can’t do well) and just general fun shooting (which I can do well). So with a sunny Saturday on hand I took all (well, most) of my cars out and set them up for some shots. It’s funny because when you tell people you have 193 Hot Wheels it sounds like a lot…but when you line them all up for a family photo, it doesn’t look like much, at least not to me. I guess in my head I thought they would take up more space all laid out, but I guess they’re only 2-inch cars anyway.

So yes, I have upwards of 190 Hot Wheels cars and all together they weigh an even 17 pounds. And for those wanting to keep track, each Hot Wheels cars cost me a dollar, so my total investment should be pretty simple. Now consider if I was investing in the toys how much I would have in value if each one could (on average) resell for $3.

I don’t really plan to stop my collecting. It’s cheap and it’s fun. And they make for some awesome photos.

Stop by the Flickr page for more shots.

Originally posted on Aug 9, 2008

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Tesla, still comin’ atcha live…again

You go to a concert early for one reason: to get good seats. And even though we saw Tesla in concert just six months ago, we still showed up early to make sure we got the spot we wanted. Last time we saw Tesla it was bare nuts cold outside and the line to get in was down the block. This time it was hot, but the line wasn’t so long, however, we noticed a small group of people gathering away from the main line. They were gathering outside the tour bus entrance where last time Frank Hannon chatted with shivering fans so we figured members of Tesla were once again mingling with fans, and we were right.

Before you continue, please enjoy some Tesla as you read:
[audio:tesla.mp3]

This time lead singer Jeff Keith was signing autographs and taking pictures from behind the entrance gate. We didn’t bring our camera because the venue doesn’t allow cameras, but we did have a convenient phone camera. And just after we got a shot of Jeff behind bars he says, “hell with this, I’m coming out there,” and he walked around the gate to meet fans up close and personal right there on the sidewalk. What luck! So we calmly waited to say “Hello” and get a photo op and autograph. Unfortunately, given the sun and the low-fi camera, the photo of Jen and Jeff didn’t turn out as well as I’d hope (although you can tell who it is), but he also signed the ticket stub…making this one of the first ticket stubs I’ll actually be keeping.

Before too long the rest of people waiting in line took notice and gathered around getting their jeans, arms, and children signed by Jeff Keith. At that point we moved back into the line and waited for the doors to open. Once we were in we found the spot we wanted, along the back wall of the floor section. We were at the same venue as before but this time we were outside and oh what a difference it made. The sound and experience of an indoor show just can’t compare to that of a outdoor concert. So we sat a waited for things to kick off while other came to sit along side us.

Not too long after we claimed our spot a girl sitting about three people down from me leaned forward and…well, she just puked her guts out. What?! Vomiting already? That’s what one guy was thinking as he passed by the pool of vomit and then looked at his watch, as though to think, “isn’t it a bit early for barf?”

Out of all the concerts we’ve seen in the past few years, this is the first time we’ve been near, let alone witness, some vomiting, as surprising as that may be. It’s very interesting watching people notice a pile of vomit. It actually became the game of the night, watching people’s reactions when they noticed the pool…assuming they did notice. Although few and far between, there were a handful of people that just didn’t notice and walked right through it. If you learn one thing from this entry, please learn that you should always look down when at a concert because you never know what you’ll find on the ground. Needless to say, the vomit kept many people away so we enjoyed the concert in relative peace. Thankfully we were far enough away from it that it didn’t encroach our space.

The opening band did their thing and after a quick stage change Tesla came out and rocked a perfect night. And it was a perfect night for a concert, very comfortable with clear skies. They changed up their set list just enough from their last visit, playing their standards but also including ones like “Edison’s Medicine” and “Mama’s Fool,” of which neither they played last time. They also removed the cover songs from their line-up, which I appreciated.

And if you thought having a pool of throw-up next you all night wasn’t a good way to enjoy Tesla, it gets better. Because about three quarters through the set victim number too spun around in front of us and spewed. This lady spewed first in the same spot as the first girl, then ran off the floor to toss it in the grass. Not sure if it was the combination of heat and beer, which is always fun, or if that spot on the floor had low gravity or some other anomaly that would cause people to chuck. Vomit to the left of me, vomit to the right of me…had it not been for Tesla in front of me, it would have been a rough night.

Another thing this concert proved is that Tesla is a prime example of a solid band. Being the only band we’ve seen twice, we know that Tesla puts on a good show just about every time they perform. It doesn’t matter if they’re inside or outside, they just lay it down. Nothing too fancy, not a lot of “show,” just a straight set of hits. To top things off, they did something other bands could learn from – they skipped the encore. It seems these days the encore is a given, which kind of defeats the specialness of an encore. No, instead Tesla said, “we don’t need to make people scream and shout, we’ll just keep on going.” So instead of taking a break, making us wait and then coming out to play one more song, they played two more songs instead. Awesome. Just awesome. Why make us clap? You know you’re coming back out to play.

The fact that Jeff Keith was willing to stand in the middle of the sidewalk and get up close with fans also tells me that Tesla knows what’s important. I know Tesla is way past their prime and not exactly filling stadiums anymore, but find me another band that will go that far out of their way to keep people happy. It tells me they know what’s important – the fans – because if you don’t keep your fans happy, they won’t come see you and they won’t buy your records.

So next time there’s a band you want to see, show up a bit early because not only will you usually get a good seat, you never know who’ll you find signing autographs. And you might miss the vomit.

Originally posted on Aug 5, 2008

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It’s a good time to bring back blimps

I love blimps. Blimps just make sense to me. They’re elegant, classy, efficient, and it many ways, quite practical. Just by chance I happened to come across an article in the NYT Europe section about Zeppelin blimps. I didn’t read the entire article but just the first few paragraphs were enough to have me thinking happy blimp thoughts.

Blimps are just like airplanes or trains but are far more efficient. All three follow more direct routes than car or truck, but blimps don’t use regular jet fuel. They use reusable gas to fill the blimp, so right there they are better off than the rest of us. Blimps may be a bit slower than jets or trains, but I say that blimps are not for trans-atlantic or even cross-country shipments. I see blimps as tri-state, regional solution to delivering goods.

Not only do blimps make fuel sense, they make delivery sense. Blimps don’t need acres and miles of runway, they just need a small field or even a tall building with which to dock and unload. Blimps can go vertical, making them more flexible than planes and have more reach than a train.

Blimps just…blimps just make sense. As the article points out, in a time when fuel prices are sky high (ha ha), blimps provide an alternative that could help cut costs at a critical time. I doubt it will catch on, but just imagine how beautiful a sky filled with blimps would be. Imagine traveling from Chicago to New York by blimp…no, wait, luxury blimp. Even if blimps didn’t become a shipping standard, I think blimps would have a cool-factor that would make them work as a novelty travel for a long while.

Bring back blimps!!

Originally posted on Aug 4, 2008

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Work will be watching

A recent article in the NY Times talks about new network monitoring software that will “learn” about employee’s web behaviour and give the company finite control over restrictions and settings. I won’t repost the whole article, but this pretty much sums it up:

…one company might say that marketing folks can only visit YouTube during lunch hour, and even then, they can only upload two megabytes to the site each day. Engineers might be blocked from visiting Facebook…but everyone else can.

I’m not saying companies shouldn’t monitor network traffic and use, it’s a legit concern. But if software like this works as well as promoted, I see one problem: we’re not machines. Applying strict rules onto users will just make them unhappy and that ultimately results is poor results.

I’m one that believes people will naturally find their balance at work. No one works 8-hours solid. It’s just not possible, and frankly, not healthy. Everybody needs some time during the day to just chill for a few. Some people may go outside for a smoke, some might walk around the building, some might scratch their butt, some, like me, just stay on-line and visit web sites they enjoy but aren’t work-related.

Me, I hit up my video game blogs, check my personal e-mail, manage my personal sites and that type stuff. All said and done, it maybe takes 15-30 minutes of my day. No big deal. If I spend more time than that I feel like I’m jipping myself out of work time. I know I have stuff to do and I know how much time it takes to get it done. Most people won’t abuse their time because fear will keep them in check – at least that’s what I’ve witnessed. If you just trust people things will usually work out for the best.

I’m sure the thought behind applying smart software that tracks individuals and adjusts based on habits is that it will stop those that do abuse their work time. I guess my philosophy on this is that instead of using a blacklist method that effects everyone, if you find someone is spending too much time hanging out on YouTube, you deal with them. You warn them, suspend them, fire them, whatever…you deal with the person directly. You don’t puss out and let technology to do your people management for you. That’s just weak. And honestly, I wouldn’t want to work for a company that manages their employees that way.

Everybody works best in different environments. And that’s not limited to physical environments, but digital/on-line environments too. You can’t look at sheer numbers to determine what people are doing. Behaviour doesn’t work by the numbers and by saying, “Brian spends 30 minutes on Gmail a day means he’s wasting time,” is quite ignorant and might do more harm than good in the long.

Of course, all this is assuming companies will pretty much abuse this network management power. Some will, some won’t, but just having that ability will turn even the lax network admin into a network nazi. Actually, software like this might even eliminate that admin job…so you better watch out.

Originally posted on Aug 4, 2008

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Winnie’s new digs

In the great menagerie we call our home lives a cat, a dog, a turtle, and a dog – in that order. Out of them all the turtle, Winnie, requires the least amount of attention. She probably doesn’t get enough attention, actually, but so it goes. She’s a turtle. It’s funny that most people probably think it’s easier to care a turtle than two dogs and cat. Simplicity of often deceiving.

When we got Winnie a couple years ago, the men at the turtle store told us she was a water turtle and needed water to feed and stuff. OK, so we got an aquarium and filled it with water for her to swim around and a little floating dock for her to lay on. And that’s the way it remained for a long time, with regular tank cleanings and the likes to keep things as clean as we could. But let me tell you, a turtle is a dirty, dirty, messy animal.

Emptying 15 gallons of water every two week sucked bears. Well, our thoughts of “easy” care for a turtle changed when we discovered Winnie’s shell had a few bad spots on it. We think it’s shell rot, which, from what we’ve read, is easily cared for with a little soap wash and less water time. And that’s where we goofed in the past – we had too much water and not enough “sun” for her – which led to her shell problems. So action had to be taken immediately.

That action was a new apartment for Winnie. A trip to the pet store had me coming home with a stone barrier that needed to be siliconed into the aquarium so one half could be set with rocks for basking and the other for her pool. And it’s pretty nice, although I’m not sure Winnie knows what to do with it all yet.

Now there’s 1/4 as much water in the tank, which should make cleaning much easier while still giving her plenty of water for her bodily needs. The project as a whole was a lot easier than I expected. I’m glad I found the little barrier thing. My first thoughts were buying rocks or something and piling them up to create a nice basking area but still having mostly water. The new setup should be nice for her and for us.

I just hope the dogs don’t ask for a new house too.

Originally posted on Aug 19, 2008

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The Presidents and Amazon MP3

Despite my regular use of iTunes for playing and sometimes purchasing music, I’m not necessarily an iTunes-lover. I think iTunes is a nice music organizer/player. It certainly has its issues and I can’t say I’ve been 100% happy with it, but it does the trick. But then there’s the music, by far the biggest wrinkle in the sheet. Damn their DMA songs!

Even though I use iTunes as my main music player, I hate having my music locked down. My solution around it has been what most people have probably been doing too…burning the iTunes songs to a CD and then ripping them back as MP3s. Tedious and stupid, but it works.

When Amazon announced their MP3 service would be cheaper and offer standard MP3 files I told myself the next time I plan on getting a song or album I’d use it. Well, with money sitting in my iTunes account thanks to gift cards and redeeming, I hadn’t not followed through on that promise until today when I found a good reason to go elsewhere.

Much to my happiness I discovered that one of my favorite groups, The Presidents of the United States of America, did not disband as I had once thought. Actually, they did back in 1998 and then reformed a few years later to release a handful of albums.

“Peaches” – The Presidents of the United States of America
[audio:peaches.mp3]

I remember buying The President’s first album at Media Play. I thought the album cover was strange, and the music was pretty nutty too, but that’s why I like it so. It’s poppy, fast, it rocks, and has a heaping helping of fun and humor. That first record was really solid. The follow up album II was 50/50. A third release just before their break-up had even fewer singles. After I heard they broke up I had pretty much written them off and had just accepted I’d have 2.5 albums to enjoy for the rest of time.

I was at YouTube watching some Weird Al videos and that led me to The Presidents’ Wikipedia page where learned they regrouped and have been making new albums. It’s great to find out they’re still making music and still keeping it fun and light. I went the web site and listened to a few tracks from newer albums and decided to go ahead and download one of the “lost albums” I had missed. I decided on Love Everybody and headed over to iTunes to make the purchase.

Now most albums at iTunes are $10 regardless of the number of tracks. But low and behold this one album from an essentially nobody band was $12. Sucko. But wait! I have an alternative – Amazon MP3. A quick jump to Amazon found the album for $9, so I was ready to dive in.

Although a bummer, I was not surprised to have to install Amazon’s MP3 Downloader, a desktop client that does the downloading for you. After a very quick install I was faced with something I did not expect at all – something helpful – a free song to download. This is very smart because not only is it a great bonus for a new user, but Amazon presents as a way for you to learn how the downloader works before you pay any money. It told me, “Hey, watch the downloader in action by getting this free song.” I happily took their recommendation. Very smart on Amazon’s part and much appreciated as a customer.

So with the downloader installed I click the Buy button and after a quick authorization the downloads came in swiftly. And surprisingly enough, the Amazon Downloader even added the songs to iTunes for me. How considerate. And as advertised, the tracks are straight MP3s (high 256 bitrate too) and I can use them as I see fit and burn them as often as I’d like.

I can’t speak on the depth of Amazon’s MP3 catalog as I was looking for something specific and found it, but if you’re looking for an iTunes alternative for music then I will happily recommend Amazon MP3. It’s easy to use, good quality tracks, and even cheaper than iTunes. Even the single songs are $.89 instead of $.99 – I’ll certainly be back.

(Oh, and the President’s album I downloaded is pretty solid too. Nothing earth-shattering as far as they’re concerned, but it’s great to have some new songs to bust out on the way to work. They’ve stuck with their original formula and it’s very welcome in today’s vast pit of otherwise shotty music.)

Originally posted on Aug 18, 2008

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A reason to keep your CDs

Our walls are pretty bare. Shy of a few of my old college paintings and a couple prints, we don’t have much hanging around. We don’t like cluttered, busy walls anyway, but you have to have something on the walls otherwise it looks too…well, too migrant. Bare walls work if you have some sort of Zen theme going with minimalist furniture and bamboo floors, but we don’t. We’re pretty average folks with an average house. So in an attempt to find something meaningful for our walls without having to go the large poster/print route, I looked at what we have to work with.

And we have a lot of CDs. Our generation has seen a lot of technology change when it comes to music and we’re not even halfway through life. I know you all still have a box somewhere with cassettes in it and needless to say there’s a few shelves of CDs somewhere too. It’s safe to say we have way more MP3s these days than we do CDs, and we do most of our music listening on the computer, so the CDs have just become clutter. Recently though I thought about hanging up CD covers as art. We both love our music and the CDs weren’t doing anything else.

I think album covers as wall art (CD or otherwise) is a good solution to get use out of something that otherwise has no purpose anymore. It’s easy, clean, and shows off your love and tastes for music. Not to mention some album covers are considered art in their own right, so it’s not that far fetched. The trick, it turned out, was finding frames for the little buggers.

Compact disc album covers are square. Most small frames are designed for standard photos, which are rectangles. Going to a craft store or even Target didn’t find us the frames we needed. No, we found just the right size frames at the Dollar Store…but of course! We didn’t go to the Dollar Store looking for frames, but while there noticed some that were just the right size. They’re glass front frames so there’s no “frame” around the album, and it looks pretty nice.

This is still a work in progress, but even with only four covers up the staircase it looks pretty good. About two to four more covers to complete the journey should be enough. Now the hard part is picking which albums to feature. But then again, it’s convenient enough that we can change them whenever we like.

So if you have some bare spots on your walls and need something small to fill the void, consider your favorite (or best looking) album covers. An easy afternoon project.

Originally posted on Aug 16, 2008

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Don’t bust a Nutsie

I’ve been using FineTune.com for on-line music for a long time now. I’ve found it to be be all I need to get through my day. At FineTune you pick songs to add to your pool (playlist) and then it plays back those songs in random order. You never know what song is going to play next, but you know it’ll be a song you picked. Nutsie, on the other hand, takes a different approach and lets you bring your own music collection on-line.

I heard about Nutsie when drummer Duff McKagan was on a local radio show. He was pimping the service, which I believe he invested in (and also adorns the home page) so I figured I’d give it a try. Nutsie expects you to be using iTunes. Now one might see this is a narrow strategy, but these days iTunes is probably a safe bet. Unlike some other services, Nutsie doesn’t want you to upload your MP3s, it only wants your iTunes database. All you need to do with Nutside is export your iTunes library and upload it. Nutsie then does all the work to find the songs so you can listen on-line.

It’s actually a nifty concept but I’ve found it has one fatal flaw – it exposes you to all the crappy music you have in your library. If you’re like me, you’ve ripped just about every CD you have and also any CD that you might even only be remotely interested in. In my catalog there is a lot of classical, a lot of movie scores/sounndtracks, and a lot of country thanks to the wife – and most of that is not stuff I listen to all that often. Nutsie, unfortunately, reminds me that my library has about 70% of crap, 20% of good stuff, and 10% of, “when did I get that song?”

Another flaw in Nutsie is the lack of making playlists within Nutsie. Chances are you have playlists within iTunes. Well, when you upload your library Nutsie retains these playlists but doesn’t let you create new ones with your music. So if want to create your “Ultimate Death Metal” playlist in Nutsie using your collection of songs, you’re out of luck. You also can’t play any individual song with Nutsie. Much like all the other services, the site will play songs from your playlists randomly.

Another very annoying unfeature in Nutsie is the audio player itself. An embedded music player can be found on just about every page, including your personal playlist home page. This works great until you click a link on the page and takes you away, thus stopping your music and making you start all over again. One simple improvement Nutsie could add is to simply let you pop-out the player so you can navigate around Nutsie without disrupting your music. This even works against them because the always-present “Buy” button next to each song stops the music and just makes you mad. You’ll also find the music players start automagically, so just about every web page will start blaring out music when you arrive.

On the good side of Nutsie is the standard shared playlist abilities. Even if you don’t upload your own music library, you’ll find a good host of themed playlists that will keep you going for a while. They have a nice list of dated playlists so you can hear the Best Rock Songs of 1977 anytime you want (which I recommend). And assuming you’re a Nutsie member – which is free – you are allowed unlimited song skips. Where as places like FineTune and Pandora limit you to five skips per hour, Nutsie lets you skip forever if you want. Of course, you’ll need unlimited skips to get through all the crap in your personal library. For one session I actually did more skipping than listening.

And perhaps the most unique feature of Nutsie is the Nutsie Picks slider that appears above every music player. This lets you choose if you want Nutsie to recommend other songs and mix them while you’re listening. This doesn’t add songs to your playlist or library, it works on-the-fly. So if you have a playlist of 50 tunes and slide the Nutsie Picks to some percentage and it’ll toss in a few related artists and songs. Kind of nifty, but in my experience not all that “accurate” as you’ll find Barry Manilow and Rod Stewart dropped in the middle of your Glam Metal playlist.

I think Nutsie is working along the right path but has a long way to go. Design and user experience problems keep me from using the service, and its tendency to replay the same songs from my playlist over and over keeps me sitting at FineTune instead. I like the idea of just uploading my iTunes library and being able to listen anywhere I am, but until they give me more control over what is essentially my music, I’ll stick with my playlists at FineTune.

Originally posted on Aug 16, 2008

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The Wii redeems itself with the Homebrew Channel

I wrote a bit back about my increasing loss of faith in the Wii. The games slated to come out through the rest of the year and into 2009 are quite, shall we say, “weak” and include many uber-family friendly games. I have nothing against family friendly, but you can only have so many pet and puzzle games before a system starts to lose its appeal. However, a recent investigation into a well known hack for the Wii has me singing a different tune.

Reading Wii news as regularly as I do, quite some time ago I read about a thing called the Twilight Hack, which exploits a bug in the Wii Zelda game that let hackers into the core system. I typically try not to bother with console hacks because I’ve spent way to much on the deck to possibly ruin it by hacking. But over the weekend I found and read more about the Twilight Hack that sold me on the idea.

tmpphpT41Nzl.jpgBut why hack the Wii in the first place? Well, hacking in this case means you can load homebrew games (indie games) on the Wii. The hack actually adds the “Homebrew Channel” to your standard Wii menu (in English). Along with standalone indie games, you can also load emulators with the channel. As is well documented, I am an emulator junkie, especially for the classic decks like the NES, SNES, and PC Engine. With the promise of emulators on the Wii, I couldn’t not try the hack.

The Twilight Hack was stupidly simple to install. The only thing you need is an SD memory card and the Zelda game disc. Fortunately friend-of-the-Toast, Thee, had the Zelda game and once I had it in my hand I gave the hack a go. I held my breath and watched the DOS-like screen fly by, doing something to my Wii, and just hoped I wasn’t bricking my Wii. Bang! Zoom! The Homebrew Channel is ready to go!

And much (very much) to my surprise the NES emulator ran just fine and I was able to load all the NES ROMs I’ve had for years. Then I tried the TurboGrafix16 emulator…worked. Then the SNES emulator…worked. How awesome is this?! And all the emulators have multi-player support. So now I can play my old NES and other games just about everywhere: on my original NES deck, my PC, my DS portable, and now my Wii. Wherever I go, the NES will follow. Nuts? Yes. Fun? You betcha.

I’ve spent a lot of time and money on my NES PowerPak so I could play ROMs on my actual NES console, and nothing beats that experience, but having the NES games on my Wii is just way too convenient. Then toss on the SNES, Genesis and PCE games that I never had elsewhere other than my computer…you can’t beat it. I’m still playing around with the emulators and homebrew games, but so far the so good shy of a few ROMs that just haven’t loaded. But I don’t know if that means it’s a bad ROM, which is highly likely, or the emulator…time will tell. I’ve also found I now have a really good reason to buy a classic Wii controller.

tmpphpfZjYsl.jpgBut wait…can’t you download all the old games with the Wii Virtual Console? Why yes, you can…for anywhere from $5 – $10 a pop. We all have our favorite classic games. Even with over 500 NES games, I play the same dozen over and over. Same will go with PCE, SNES, and Genesis…but if I can get them easily for free, why do the whole download thing? Plus, now I can play the games I never played before but wanted to without the risk. It’s just nice.

Having this homebrew option opens up the Wii to a whole new realm of games even beyond old emulators. Now you can also play games made by indie developers that you won’t find in retail. One such game I found is called GuitarFun and is a clone of clone…it’s a clone of Frets on Fire, the PC Guitar Hero clone. I have yet to get GuitarFun to load and play on the Wii Homebrew, but when/if it does, it means I can play custom songs (real songs) with the actual guitar controller. Now that’ll be spiffy! I’ll post up a note when I get it working…but there are YouTubes of the game working.

All in all, I don’t see any reason you wouldn’t want to use the Twilight Hack and install the Homebrew Channel. It doesn’t hurt and the manual claims you can even uninstall it all. This isn’t a hardware-level hack, it’s just software, so there shouldn’t ever be any permanent damage. If you’re after some classic console gaming and don’t want go crazy like I did with my NES, this Wii hack is the sweet spot that turns your console into the perfect (and free) retro game machine. And since you’re saving on VC downloads, you can justify more retail Wii games and accessories.

If you’re wanting to setup the Homebrew Channel on your Wii, hit up WiiBrew.com and look for their WiiPack Generator. Use it to download all the parts you want and need, including the Twilight Hack. And to see just how easy the hack is to install, there’s a handy video…which I watched like five times before doing it myself (it just made me feel better).

Now pardon me while I go run through some Excite Bike, F-Zero, Keith Courage, and maybe a little Street Fighter II.

Originally posted on Aug 13, 2008

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Seventeen pounds of Hot Wheels

I’ve been “collecting” Hot Wheels for probably close to eight years by now. I collect but I don’t invest in Hot Wheels. A recent trip to the Ohio State Fair’s and its famed Junk Barn (where every Harry, Dick, and Tom can attempt to sell their junk) had me face-to-face with a ton of “collectible” Hot Wheels.

They were all in the box and ranged in age from 2008 models to some that stretched back to the mid-80s. And not surprisingly, I had many of the cars I saw…but much to my surprise, these cars were selling for $2 – $5. While a few bucks may not sound like much, considering each Hot Wheels car costs less than a dollar to buy it’s a pretty good return on the value.

It’s hard for me to see Hot Wheels as a collectibles investment. Sure, it kind of sucks to see a car I bought for 97 cents just a week ago already selling for $3 (which is bull anyway), but then I realize why I collect Hot Wheels – because I like them. I like to look at them, play with them, take pictures of them, let others play with them…it’s about the fun of toy cars, not the fun of buying and selling. I wouldn’t be any good at selling them anyway because I wouldn’t be able to give them up, even at a profit.

With my upgraded Flickr Pro account at my disposal, I decided to do something I had been wanting to do for a while, shoot my cars in more “artistic” ways, rather than the straight up showroom-quality photos I’ve been taking for the Hot Wheels Showcase I have on-line.

Hot Wheels are so vivid and fantastic that they lend themselves to photographs, both macro photography (which I can’t do well) and just general fun shooting (which I can do well). So with a sunny Saturday on hand I took all (well, most) of my cars out and set them up for some shots. It’s funny because when you tell people you have 193 Hot Wheels it sounds like a lot…but when you line them all up for a family photo, it doesn’t look like much, at least not to me. I guess in my head I thought they would take up more space all laid out, but I guess they’re only 2-inch cars anyway.

So yes, I have upwards of 190 Hot Wheels cars and all together they weigh an even 17 pounds. And for those wanting to keep track, each Hot Wheels cars cost me a dollar, so my total investment should be pretty simple. Now consider if I was investing in the toys how much I would have in value if each one could (on average) resell for $3.

I don’t really plan to stop my collecting. It’s cheap and it’s fun. And they make for some awesome photos.

Stop by the Flickr page for more shots.

Originally posted on Aug 9, 2008

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Tesla, still comin’ atcha live…again

You go to a concert early for one reason: to get good seats. And even though we saw Tesla in concert just six months ago, we still showed up early to make sure we got the spot we wanted. Last time we saw Tesla it was bare nuts cold outside and the line to get in was down the block. This time it was hot, but the line wasn’t so long, however, we noticed a small group of people gathering away from the main line. They were gathering outside the tour bus entrance where last time Frank Hannon chatted with shivering fans so we figured members of Tesla were once again mingling with fans, and we were right.

Before you continue, please enjoy some Tesla as you read:
[audio:tesla.mp3]

This time lead singer Jeff Keith was signing autographs and taking pictures from behind the entrance gate. We didn’t bring our camera because the venue doesn’t allow cameras, but we did have a convenient phone camera. And just after we got a shot of Jeff behind bars he says, “hell with this, I’m coming out there,” and he walked around the gate to meet fans up close and personal right there on the sidewalk. What luck! So we calmly waited to say “Hello” and get a photo op and autograph. Unfortunately, given the sun and the low-fi camera, the photo of Jen and Jeff didn’t turn out as well as I’d hope (although you can tell who it is), but he also signed the ticket stub…making this one of the first ticket stubs I’ll actually be keeping.

Before too long the rest of people waiting in line took notice and gathered around getting their jeans, arms, and children signed by Jeff Keith. At that point we moved back into the line and waited for the doors to open. Once we were in we found the spot we wanted, along the back wall of the floor section. We were at the same venue as before but this time we were outside and oh what a difference it made. The sound and experience of an indoor show just can’t compare to that of a outdoor concert. So we sat a waited for things to kick off while other came to sit along side us.

Not too long after we claimed our spot a girl sitting about three people down from me leaned forward and…well, she just puked her guts out. What?! Vomiting already? That’s what one guy was thinking as he passed by the pool of vomit and then looked at his watch, as though to think, “isn’t it a bit early for barf?”

Out of all the concerts we’ve seen in the past few years, this is the first time we’ve been near, let alone witness, some vomiting, as surprising as that may be. It’s very interesting watching people notice a pile of vomit. It actually became the game of the night, watching people’s reactions when they noticed the pool…assuming they did notice. Although few and far between, there were a handful of people that just didn’t notice and walked right through it. If you learn one thing from this entry, please learn that you should always look down when at a concert because you never know what you’ll find on the ground. Needless to say, the vomit kept many people away so we enjoyed the concert in relative peace. Thankfully we were far enough away from it that it didn’t encroach our space.

The opening band did their thing and after a quick stage change Tesla came out and rocked a perfect night. And it was a perfect night for a concert, very comfortable with clear skies. They changed up their set list just enough from their last visit, playing their standards but also including ones like “Edison’s Medicine” and “Mama’s Fool,” of which neither they played last time. They also removed the cover songs from their line-up, which I appreciated.

And if you thought having a pool of throw-up next you all night wasn’t a good way to enjoy Tesla, it gets better. Because about three quarters through the set victim number too spun around in front of us and spewed. This lady spewed first in the same spot as the first girl, then ran off the floor to toss it in the grass. Not sure if it was the combination of heat and beer, which is always fun, or if that spot on the floor had low gravity or some other anomaly that would cause people to chuck. Vomit to the left of me, vomit to the right of me…had it not been for Tesla in front of me, it would have been a rough night.

Another thing this concert proved is that Tesla is a prime example of a solid band. Being the only band we’ve seen twice, we know that Tesla puts on a good show just about every time they perform. It doesn’t matter if they’re inside or outside, they just lay it down. Nothing too fancy, not a lot of “show,” just a straight set of hits. To top things off, they did something other bands could learn from – they skipped the encore. It seems these days the encore is a given, which kind of defeats the specialness of an encore. No, instead Tesla said, “we don’t need to make people scream and shout, we’ll just keep on going.” So instead of taking a break, making us wait and then coming out to play one more song, they played two more songs instead. Awesome. Just awesome. Why make us clap? You know you’re coming back out to play.

The fact that Jeff Keith was willing to stand in the middle of the sidewalk and get up close with fans also tells me that Tesla knows what’s important. I know Tesla is way past their prime and not exactly filling stadiums anymore, but find me another band that will go that far out of their way to keep people happy. It tells me they know what’s important – the fans – because if you don’t keep your fans happy, they won’t come see you and they won’t buy your records.

So next time there’s a band you want to see, show up a bit early because not only will you usually get a good seat, you never know who’ll you find signing autographs. And you might miss the vomit.

Originally posted on Aug 5, 2008

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It’s a good time to bring back blimps

I love blimps. Blimps just make sense to me. They’re elegant, classy, efficient, and it many ways, quite practical. Just by chance I happened to come across an article in the NYT Europe section about Zeppelin blimps. I didn’t read the entire article but just the first few paragraphs were enough to have me thinking happy blimp thoughts.

Blimps are just like airplanes or trains but are far more efficient. All three follow more direct routes than car or truck, but blimps don’t use regular jet fuel. They use reusable gas to fill the blimp, so right there they are better off than the rest of us. Blimps may be a bit slower than jets or trains, but I say that blimps are not for trans-atlantic or even cross-country shipments. I see blimps as tri-state, regional solution to delivering goods.

Not only do blimps make fuel sense, they make delivery sense. Blimps don’t need acres and miles of runway, they just need a small field or even a tall building with which to dock and unload. Blimps can go vertical, making them more flexible than planes and have more reach than a train.

Blimps just…blimps just make sense. As the article points out, in a time when fuel prices are sky high (ha ha), blimps provide an alternative that could help cut costs at a critical time. I doubt it will catch on, but just imagine how beautiful a sky filled with blimps would be. Imagine traveling from Chicago to New York by blimp…no, wait, luxury blimp. Even if blimps didn’t become a shipping standard, I think blimps would have a cool-factor that would make them work as a novelty travel for a long while.

Bring back blimps!!

Originally posted on Aug 4, 2008

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Work will be watching

A recent article in the NY Times talks about new network monitoring software that will “learn” about employee’s web behaviour and give the company finite control over restrictions and settings. I won’t repost the whole article, but this pretty much sums it up:

…one company might say that marketing folks can only visit YouTube during lunch hour, and even then, they can only upload two megabytes to the site each day. Engineers might be blocked from visiting Facebook…but everyone else can.

I’m not saying companies shouldn’t monitor network traffic and use, it’s a legit concern. But if software like this works as well as promoted, I see one problem: we’re not machines. Applying strict rules onto users will just make them unhappy and that ultimately results is poor results.

I’m one that believes people will naturally find their balance at work. No one works 8-hours solid. It’s just not possible, and frankly, not healthy. Everybody needs some time during the day to just chill for a few. Some people may go outside for a smoke, some might walk around the building, some might scratch their butt, some, like me, just stay on-line and visit web sites they enjoy but aren’t work-related.

Me, I hit up my video game blogs, check my personal e-mail, manage my personal sites and that type stuff. All said and done, it maybe takes 15-30 minutes of my day. No big deal. If I spend more time than that I feel like I’m jipping myself out of work time. I know I have stuff to do and I know how much time it takes to get it done. Most people won’t abuse their time because fear will keep them in check – at least that’s what I’ve witnessed. If you just trust people things will usually work out for the best.

I’m sure the thought behind applying smart software that tracks individuals and adjusts based on habits is that it will stop those that do abuse their work time. I guess my philosophy on this is that instead of using a blacklist method that effects everyone, if you find someone is spending too much time hanging out on YouTube, you deal with them. You warn them, suspend them, fire them, whatever…you deal with the person directly. You don’t puss out and let technology to do your people management for you. That’s just weak. And honestly, I wouldn’t want to work for a company that manages their employees that way.

Everybody works best in different environments. And that’s not limited to physical environments, but digital/on-line environments too. You can’t look at sheer numbers to determine what people are doing. Behaviour doesn’t work by the numbers and by saying, “Brian spends 30 minutes on Gmail a day means he’s wasting time,” is quite ignorant and might do more harm than good in the long.

Of course, all this is assuming companies will pretty much abuse this network management power. Some will, some won’t, but just having that ability will turn even the lax network admin into a network nazi. Actually, software like this might even eliminate that admin job…so you better watch out.

Originally posted on Aug 4, 2008

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Winnie’s new digs

In the great menagerie we call our home lives a cat, a dog, a turtle, and a dog – in that order. Out of them all the turtle, Winnie, requires the least amount of attention. She probably doesn’t get enough attention, actually, but so it goes. She’s a turtle. It’s funny that most people probably think it’s easier to care a turtle than two dogs and cat. Simplicity of often deceiving.

When we got Winnie a couple years ago, the men at the turtle store told us she was a water turtle and needed water to feed and stuff. OK, so we got an aquarium and filled it with water for her to swim around and a little floating dock for her to lay on. And that’s the way it remained for a long time, with regular tank cleanings and the likes to keep things as clean as we could. But let me tell you, a turtle is a dirty, dirty, messy animal.

Emptying 15 gallons of water every two week sucked bears. Well, our thoughts of “easy” care for a turtle changed when we discovered Winnie’s shell had a few bad spots on it. We think it’s shell rot, which, from what we’ve read, is easily cared for with a little soap wash and less water time. And that’s where we goofed in the past – we had too much water and not enough “sun” for her – which led to her shell problems. So action had to be taken immediately.

That action was a new apartment for Winnie. A trip to the pet store had me coming home with a stone barrier that needed to be siliconed into the aquarium so one half could be set with rocks for basking and the other for her pool. And it’s pretty nice, although I’m not sure Winnie knows what to do with it all yet.

Now there’s 1/4 as much water in the tank, which should make cleaning much easier while still giving her plenty of water for her bodily needs. The project as a whole was a lot easier than I expected. I’m glad I found the little barrier thing. My first thoughts were buying rocks or something and piling them up to create a nice basking area but still having mostly water. The new setup should be nice for her and for us.

I just hope the dogs don’t ask for a new house too.

Originally posted on Aug 19, 2008

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The Presidents and Amazon MP3

Despite my regular use of iTunes for playing and sometimes purchasing music, I’m not necessarily an iTunes-lover. I think iTunes is a nice music organizer/player. It certainly has its issues and I can’t say I’ve been 100% happy with it, but it does the trick. But then there’s the music, by far the biggest wrinkle in the sheet. Damn their DMA songs!

Even though I use iTunes as my main music player, I hate having my music locked down. My solution around it has been what most people have probably been doing too…burning the iTunes songs to a CD and then ripping them back as MP3s. Tedious and stupid, but it works.

When Amazon announced their MP3 service would be cheaper and offer standard MP3 files I told myself the next time I plan on getting a song or album I’d use it. Well, with money sitting in my iTunes account thanks to gift cards and redeeming, I hadn’t not followed through on that promise until today when I found a good reason to go elsewhere.

Much to my happiness I discovered that one of my favorite groups, The Presidents of the United States of America, did not disband as I had once thought. Actually, they did back in 1998 and then reformed a few years later to release a handful of albums.

“Peaches” – The Presidents of the United States of America
[audio:peaches.mp3]

I remember buying The President’s first album at Media Play. I thought the album cover was strange, and the music was pretty nutty too, but that’s why I like it so. It’s poppy, fast, it rocks, and has a heaping helping of fun and humor. That first record was really solid. The follow up album II was 50/50. A third release just before their break-up had even fewer singles. After I heard they broke up I had pretty much written them off and had just accepted I’d have 2.5 albums to enjoy for the rest of time.

I was at YouTube watching some Weird Al videos and that led me to The Presidents’ Wikipedia page where learned they regrouped and have been making new albums. It’s great to find out they’re still making music and still keeping it fun and light. I went the web site and listened to a few tracks from newer albums and decided to go ahead and download one of the “lost albums” I had missed. I decided on Love Everybody and headed over to iTunes to make the purchase.

Now most albums at iTunes are $10 regardless of the number of tracks. But low and behold this one album from an essentially nobody band was $12. Sucko. But wait! I have an alternative – Amazon MP3. A quick jump to Amazon found the album for $9, so I was ready to dive in.

Although a bummer, I was not surprised to have to install Amazon’s MP3 Downloader, a desktop client that does the downloading for you. After a very quick install I was faced with something I did not expect at all – something helpful – a free song to download. This is very smart because not only is it a great bonus for a new user, but Amazon presents as a way for you to learn how the downloader works before you pay any money. It told me, “Hey, watch the downloader in action by getting this free song.” I happily took their recommendation. Very smart on Amazon’s part and much appreciated as a customer.

So with the downloader installed I click the Buy button and after a quick authorization the downloads came in swiftly. And surprisingly enough, the Amazon Downloader even added the songs to iTunes for me. How considerate. And as advertised, the tracks are straight MP3s (high 256 bitrate too) and I can use them as I see fit and burn them as often as I’d like.

I can’t speak on the depth of Amazon’s MP3 catalog as I was looking for something specific and found it, but if you’re looking for an iTunes alternative for music then I will happily recommend Amazon MP3. It’s easy to use, good quality tracks, and even cheaper than iTunes. Even the single songs are $.89 instead of $.99 – I’ll certainly be back.

(Oh, and the President’s album I downloaded is pretty solid too. Nothing earth-shattering as far as they’re concerned, but it’s great to have some new songs to bust out on the way to work. They’ve stuck with their original formula and it’s very welcome in today’s vast pit of otherwise shotty music.)

Originally posted on Aug 18, 2008

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A reason to keep your CDs

Our walls are pretty bare. Shy of a few of my old college paintings and a couple prints, we don’t have much hanging around. We don’t like cluttered, busy walls anyway, but you have to have something on the walls otherwise it looks too…well, too migrant. Bare walls work if you have some sort of Zen theme going with minimalist furniture and bamboo floors, but we don’t. We’re pretty average folks with an average house. So in an attempt to find something meaningful for our walls without having to go the large poster/print route, I looked at what we have to work with.

And we have a lot of CDs. Our generation has seen a lot of technology change when it comes to music and we’re not even halfway through life. I know you all still have a box somewhere with cassettes in it and needless to say there’s a few shelves of CDs somewhere too. It’s safe to say we have way more MP3s these days than we do CDs, and we do most of our music listening on the computer, so the CDs have just become clutter. Recently though I thought about hanging up CD covers as art. We both love our music and the CDs weren’t doing anything else.

I think album covers as wall art (CD or otherwise) is a good solution to get use out of something that otherwise has no purpose anymore. It’s easy, clean, and shows off your love and tastes for music. Not to mention some album covers are considered art in their own right, so it’s not that far fetched. The trick, it turned out, was finding frames for the little buggers.

Compact disc album covers are square. Most small frames are designed for standard photos, which are rectangles. Going to a craft store or even Target didn’t find us the frames we needed. No, we found just the right size frames at the Dollar Store…but of course! We didn’t go to the Dollar Store looking for frames, but while there noticed some that were just the right size. They’re glass front frames so there’s no “frame” around the album, and it looks pretty nice.

This is still a work in progress, but even with only four covers up the staircase it looks pretty good. About two to four more covers to complete the journey should be enough. Now the hard part is picking which albums to feature. But then again, it’s convenient enough that we can change them whenever we like.

So if you have some bare spots on your walls and need something small to fill the void, consider your favorite (or best looking) album covers. An easy afternoon project.

Originally posted on Aug 16, 2008

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Don’t bust a Nutsie

I’ve been using FineTune.com for on-line music for a long time now. I’ve found it to be be all I need to get through my day. At FineTune you pick songs to add to your pool (playlist) and then it plays back those songs in random order. You never know what song is going to play next, but you know it’ll be a song you picked. Nutsie, on the other hand, takes a different approach and lets you bring your own music collection on-line.

I heard about Nutsie when drummer Duff McKagan was on a local radio show. He was pimping the service, which I believe he invested in (and also adorns the home page) so I figured I’d give it a try. Nutsie expects you to be using iTunes. Now one might see this is a narrow strategy, but these days iTunes is probably a safe bet. Unlike some other services, Nutsie doesn’t want you to upload your MP3s, it only wants your iTunes database. All you need to do with Nutside is export your iTunes library and upload it. Nutsie then does all the work to find the songs so you can listen on-line.

It’s actually a nifty concept but I’ve found it has one fatal flaw – it exposes you to all the crappy music you have in your library. If you’re like me, you’ve ripped just about every CD you have and also any CD that you might even only be remotely interested in. In my catalog there is a lot of classical, a lot of movie scores/sounndtracks, and a lot of country thanks to the wife – and most of that is not stuff I listen to all that often. Nutsie, unfortunately, reminds me that my library has about 70% of crap, 20% of good stuff, and 10% of, “when did I get that song?”

Another flaw in Nutsie is the lack of making playlists within Nutsie. Chances are you have playlists within iTunes. Well, when you upload your library Nutsie retains these playlists but doesn’t let you create new ones with your music. So if want to create your “Ultimate Death Metal” playlist in Nutsie using your collection of songs, you’re out of luck. You also can’t play any individual song with Nutsie. Much like all the other services, the site will play songs from your playlists randomly.

Another very annoying unfeature in Nutsie is the audio player itself. An embedded music player can be found on just about every page, including your personal playlist home page. This works great until you click a link on the page and takes you away, thus stopping your music and making you start all over again. One simple improvement Nutsie could add is to simply let you pop-out the player so you can navigate around Nutsie without disrupting your music. This even works against them because the always-present “Buy” button next to each song stops the music and just makes you mad. You’ll also find the music players start automagically, so just about every web page will start blaring out music when you arrive.

On the good side of Nutsie is the standard shared playlist abilities. Even if you don’t upload your own music library, you’ll find a good host of themed playlists that will keep you going for a while. They have a nice list of dated playlists so you can hear the Best Rock Songs of 1977 anytime you want (which I recommend). And assuming you’re a Nutsie member – which is free – you are allowed unlimited song skips. Where as places like FineTune and Pandora limit you to five skips per hour, Nutsie lets you skip forever if you want. Of course, you’ll need unlimited skips to get through all the crap in your personal library. For one session I actually did more skipping than listening.

And perhaps the most unique feature of Nutsie is the Nutsie Picks slider that appears above every music player. This lets you choose if you want Nutsie to recommend other songs and mix them while you’re listening. This doesn’t add songs to your playlist or library, it works on-the-fly. So if you have a playlist of 50 tunes and slide the Nutsie Picks to some percentage and it’ll toss in a few related artists and songs. Kind of nifty, but in my experience not all that “accurate” as you’ll find Barry Manilow and Rod Stewart dropped in the middle of your Glam Metal playlist.

I think Nutsie is working along the right path but has a long way to go. Design and user experience problems keep me from using the service, and its tendency to replay the same songs from my playlist over and over keeps me sitting at FineTune instead. I like the idea of just uploading my iTunes library and being able to listen anywhere I am, but until they give me more control over what is essentially my music, I’ll stick with my playlists at FineTune.

Originally posted on Aug 16, 2008

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The Wii redeems itself with the Homebrew Channel

I wrote a bit back about my increasing loss of faith in the Wii. The games slated to come out through the rest of the year and into 2009 are quite, shall we say, “weak” and include many uber-family friendly games. I have nothing against family friendly, but you can only have so many pet and puzzle games before a system starts to lose its appeal. However, a recent investigation into a well known hack for the Wii has me singing a different tune.

Reading Wii news as regularly as I do, quite some time ago I read about a thing called the Twilight Hack, which exploits a bug in the Wii Zelda game that let hackers into the core system. I typically try not to bother with console hacks because I’ve spent way to much on the deck to possibly ruin it by hacking. But over the weekend I found and read more about the Twilight Hack that sold me on the idea.

tmpphpT41Nzl.jpgBut why hack the Wii in the first place? Well, hacking in this case means you can load homebrew games (indie games) on the Wii. The hack actually adds the “Homebrew Channel” to your standard Wii menu (in English). Along with standalone indie games, you can also load emulators with the channel. As is well documented, I am an emulator junkie, especially for the classic decks like the NES, SNES, and PC Engine. With the promise of emulators on the Wii, I couldn’t not try the hack.

The Twilight Hack was stupidly simple to install. The only thing you need is an SD memory card and the Zelda game disc. Fortunately friend-of-the-Toast, Thee, had the Zelda game and once I had it in my hand I gave the hack a go. I held my breath and watched the DOS-like screen fly by, doing something to my Wii, and just hoped I wasn’t bricking my Wii. Bang! Zoom! The Homebrew Channel is ready to go!

And much (very much) to my surprise the NES emulator ran just fine and I was able to load all the NES ROMs I’ve had for years. Then I tried the TurboGrafix16 emulator…worked. Then the SNES emulator…worked. How awesome is this?! And all the emulators have multi-player support. So now I can play my old NES and other games just about everywhere: on my original NES deck, my PC, my DS portable, and now my Wii. Wherever I go, the NES will follow. Nuts? Yes. Fun? You betcha.

I’ve spent a lot of time and money on my NES PowerPak so I could play ROMs on my actual NES console, and nothing beats that experience, but having the NES games on my Wii is just way too convenient. Then toss on the SNES, Genesis and PCE games that I never had elsewhere other than my computer…you can’t beat it. I’m still playing around with the emulators and homebrew games, but so far the so good shy of a few ROMs that just haven’t loaded. But I don’t know if that means it’s a bad ROM, which is highly likely, or the emulator…time will tell. I’ve also found I now have a really good reason to buy a classic Wii controller.

tmpphpfZjYsl.jpgBut wait…can’t you download all the old games with the Wii Virtual Console? Why yes, you can…for anywhere from $5 – $10 a pop. We all have our favorite classic games. Even with over 500 NES games, I play the same dozen over and over. Same will go with PCE, SNES, and Genesis…but if I can get them easily for free, why do the whole download thing? Plus, now I can play the games I never played before but wanted to without the risk. It’s just nice.

Having this homebrew option opens up the Wii to a whole new realm of games even beyond old emulators. Now you can also play games made by indie developers that you won’t find in retail. One such game I found is called GuitarFun and is a clone of clone…it’s a clone of Frets on Fire, the PC Guitar Hero clone. I have yet to get GuitarFun to load and play on the Wii Homebrew, but when/if it does, it means I can play custom songs (real songs) with the actual guitar controller. Now that’ll be spiffy! I’ll post up a note when I get it working…but there are YouTubes of the game working.

All in all, I don’t see any reason you wouldn’t want to use the Twilight Hack and install the Homebrew Channel. It doesn’t hurt and the manual claims you can even uninstall it all. This isn’t a hardware-level hack, it’s just software, so there shouldn’t ever be any permanent damage. If you’re after some classic console gaming and don’t want go crazy like I did with my NES, this Wii hack is the sweet spot that turns your console into the perfect (and free) retro game machine. And since you’re saving on VC downloads, you can justify more retail Wii games and accessories.

If you’re wanting to setup the Homebrew Channel on your Wii, hit up WiiBrew.com and look for their WiiPack Generator. Use it to download all the parts you want and need, including the Twilight Hack. And to see just how easy the hack is to install, there’s a handy video…which I watched like five times before doing it myself (it just made me feel better).

Now pardon me while I go run through some Excite Bike, F-Zero, Keith Courage, and maybe a little Street Fighter II.

Originally posted on Aug 13, 2008

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Seventeen pounds of Hot Wheels

I’ve been “collecting” Hot Wheels for probably close to eight years by now. I collect but I don’t invest in Hot Wheels. A recent trip to the Ohio State Fair’s and its famed Junk Barn (where every Harry, Dick, and Tom can attempt to sell their junk) had me face-to-face with a ton of “collectible” Hot Wheels.

They were all in the box and ranged in age from 2008 models to some that stretched back to the mid-80s. And not surprisingly, I had many of the cars I saw…but much to my surprise, these cars were selling for $2 – $5. While a few bucks may not sound like much, considering each Hot Wheels car costs less than a dollar to buy it’s a pretty good return on the value.

It’s hard for me to see Hot Wheels as a collectibles investment. Sure, it kind of sucks to see a car I bought for 97 cents just a week ago already selling for $3 (which is bull anyway), but then I realize why I collect Hot Wheels – because I like them. I like to look at them, play with them, take pictures of them, let others play with them…it’s about the fun of toy cars, not the fun of buying and selling. I wouldn’t be any good at selling them anyway because I wouldn’t be able to give them up, even at a profit.

With my upgraded Flickr Pro account at my disposal, I decided to do something I had been wanting to do for a while, shoot my cars in more “artistic” ways, rather than the straight up showroom-quality photos I’ve been taking for the Hot Wheels Showcase I have on-line.

Hot Wheels are so vivid and fantastic that they lend themselves to photographs, both macro photography (which I can’t do well) and just general fun shooting (which I can do well). So with a sunny Saturday on hand I took all (well, most) of my cars out and set them up for some shots. It’s funny because when you tell people you have 193 Hot Wheels it sounds like a lot…but when you line them all up for a family photo, it doesn’t look like much, at least not to me. I guess in my head I thought they would take up more space all laid out, but I guess they’re only 2-inch cars anyway.

So yes, I have upwards of 190 Hot Wheels cars and all together they weigh an even 17 pounds. And for those wanting to keep track, each Hot Wheels cars cost me a dollar, so my total investment should be pretty simple. Now consider if I was investing in the toys how much I would have in value if each one could (on average) resell for $3.

I don’t really plan to stop my collecting. It’s cheap and it’s fun. And they make for some awesome photos.

Stop by the Flickr page for more shots.

Originally posted on Aug 9, 2008

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Tesla, still comin’ atcha live…again

You go to a concert early for one reason: to get good seats. And even though we saw Tesla in concert just six months ago, we still showed up early to make sure we got the spot we wanted. Last time we saw Tesla it was bare nuts cold outside and the line to get in was down the block. This time it was hot, but the line wasn’t so long, however, we noticed a small group of people gathering away from the main line. They were gathering outside the tour bus entrance where last time Frank Hannon chatted with shivering fans so we figured members of Tesla were once again mingling with fans, and we were right.

Before you continue, please enjoy some Tesla as you read:
[audio:tesla.mp3]

This time lead singer Jeff Keith was signing autographs and taking pictures from behind the entrance gate. We didn’t bring our camera because the venue doesn’t allow cameras, but we did have a convenient phone camera. And just after we got a shot of Jeff behind bars he says, “hell with this, I’m coming out there,” and he walked around the gate to meet fans up close and personal right there on the sidewalk. What luck! So we calmly waited to say “Hello” and get a photo op and autograph. Unfortunately, given the sun and the low-fi camera, the photo of Jen and Jeff didn’t turn out as well as I’d hope (although you can tell who it is), but he also signed the ticket stub…making this one of the first ticket stubs I’ll actually be keeping.

Before too long the rest of people waiting in line took notice and gathered around getting their jeans, arms, and children signed by Jeff Keith. At that point we moved back into the line and waited for the doors to open. Once we were in we found the spot we wanted, along the back wall of the floor section. We were at the same venue as before but this time we were outside and oh what a difference it made. The sound and experience of an indoor show just can’t compare to that of a outdoor concert. So we sat a waited for things to kick off while other came to sit along side us.

Not too long after we claimed our spot a girl sitting about three people down from me leaned forward and…well, she just puked her guts out. What?! Vomiting already? That’s what one guy was thinking as he passed by the pool of vomit and then looked at his watch, as though to think, “isn’t it a bit early for barf?”

Out of all the concerts we’ve seen in the past few years, this is the first time we’ve been near, let alone witness, some vomiting, as surprising as that may be. It’s very interesting watching people notice a pile of vomit. It actually became the game of the night, watching people’s reactions when they noticed the pool…assuming they did notice. Although few and far between, there were a handful of people that just didn’t notice and walked right through it. If you learn one thing from this entry, please learn that you should always look down when at a concert because you never know what you’ll find on the ground. Needless to say, the vomit kept many people away so we enjoyed the concert in relative peace. Thankfully we were far enough away from it that it didn’t encroach our space.

The opening band did their thing and after a quick stage change Tesla came out and rocked a perfect night. And it was a perfect night for a concert, very comfortable with clear skies. They changed up their set list just enough from their last visit, playing their standards but also including ones like “Edison’s Medicine” and “Mama’s Fool,” of which neither they played last time. They also removed the cover songs from their line-up, which I appreciated.

And if you thought having a pool of throw-up next you all night wasn’t a good way to enjoy Tesla, it gets better. Because about three quarters through the set victim number too spun around in front of us and spewed. This lady spewed first in the same spot as the first girl, then ran off the floor to toss it in the grass. Not sure if it was the combination of heat and beer, which is always fun, or if that spot on the floor had low gravity or some other anomaly that would cause people to chuck. Vomit to the left of me, vomit to the right of me…had it not been for Tesla in front of me, it would have been a rough night.

Another thing this concert proved is that Tesla is a prime example of a solid band. Being the only band we’ve seen twice, we know that Tesla puts on a good show just about every time they perform. It doesn’t matter if they’re inside or outside, they just lay it down. Nothing too fancy, not a lot of “show,” just a straight set of hits. To top things off, they did something other bands could learn from – they skipped the encore. It seems these days the encore is a given, which kind of defeats the specialness of an encore. No, instead Tesla said, “we don’t need to make people scream and shout, we’ll just keep on going.” So instead of taking a break, making us wait and then coming out to play one more song, they played two more songs instead. Awesome. Just awesome. Why make us clap? You know you’re coming back out to play.

The fact that Jeff Keith was willing to stand in the middle of the sidewalk and get up close with fans also tells me that Tesla knows what’s important. I know Tesla is way past their prime and not exactly filling stadiums anymore, but find me another band that will go that far out of their way to keep people happy. It tells me they know what’s important – the fans – because if you don’t keep your fans happy, they won’t come see you and they won’t buy your records.

So next time there’s a band you want to see, show up a bit early because not only will you usually get a good seat, you never know who’ll you find signing autographs. And you might miss the vomit.

Originally posted on Aug 5, 2008

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It’s a good time to bring back blimps

I love blimps. Blimps just make sense to me. They’re elegant, classy, efficient, and it many ways, quite practical. Just by chance I happened to come across an article in the NYT Europe section about Zeppelin blimps. I didn’t read the entire article but just the first few paragraphs were enough to have me thinking happy blimp thoughts.

Blimps are just like airplanes or trains but are far more efficient. All three follow more direct routes than car or truck, but blimps don’t use regular jet fuel. They use reusable gas to fill the blimp, so right there they are better off than the rest of us. Blimps may be a bit slower than jets or trains, but I say that blimps are not for trans-atlantic or even cross-country shipments. I see blimps as tri-state, regional solution to delivering goods.

Not only do blimps make fuel sense, they make delivery sense. Blimps don’t need acres and miles of runway, they just need a small field or even a tall building with which to dock and unload. Blimps can go vertical, making them more flexible than planes and have more reach than a train.

Blimps just…blimps just make sense. As the article points out, in a time when fuel prices are sky high (ha ha), blimps provide an alternative that could help cut costs at a critical time. I doubt it will catch on, but just imagine how beautiful a sky filled with blimps would be. Imagine traveling from Chicago to New York by blimp…no, wait, luxury blimp. Even if blimps didn’t become a shipping standard, I think blimps would have a cool-factor that would make them work as a novelty travel for a long while.

Bring back blimps!!

Originally posted on Aug 4, 2008

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Work will be watching

A recent article in the NY Times talks about new network monitoring software that will “learn” about employee’s web behaviour and give the company finite control over restrictions and settings. I won’t repost the whole article, but this pretty much sums it up:

…one company might say that marketing folks can only visit YouTube during lunch hour, and even then, they can only upload two megabytes to the site each day. Engineers might be blocked from visiting Facebook…but everyone else can.

I’m not saying companies shouldn’t monitor network traffic and use, it’s a legit concern. But if software like this works as well as promoted, I see one problem: we’re not machines. Applying strict rules onto users will just make them unhappy and that ultimately results is poor results.

I’m one that believes people will naturally find their balance at work. No one works 8-hours solid. It’s just not possible, and frankly, not healthy. Everybody needs some time during the day to just chill for a few. Some people may go outside for a smoke, some might walk around the building, some might scratch their butt, some, like me, just stay on-line and visit web sites they enjoy but aren’t work-related.

Me, I hit up my video game blogs, check my personal e-mail, manage my personal sites and that type stuff. All said and done, it maybe takes 15-30 minutes of my day. No big deal. If I spend more time than that I feel like I’m jipping myself out of work time. I know I have stuff to do and I know how much time it takes to get it done. Most people won’t abuse their time because fear will keep them in check – at least that’s what I’ve witnessed. If you just trust people things will usually work out for the best.

I’m sure the thought behind applying smart software that tracks individuals and adjusts based on habits is that it will stop those that do abuse their work time. I guess my philosophy on this is that instead of using a blacklist method that effects everyone, if you find someone is spending too much time hanging out on YouTube, you deal with them. You warn them, suspend them, fire them, whatever…you deal with the person directly. You don’t puss out and let technology to do your people management for you. That’s just weak. And honestly, I wouldn’t want to work for a company that manages their employees that way.

Everybody works best in different environments. And that’s not limited to physical environments, but digital/on-line environments too. You can’t look at sheer numbers to determine what people are doing. Behaviour doesn’t work by the numbers and by saying, “Brian spends 30 minutes on Gmail a day means he’s wasting time,” is quite ignorant and might do more harm than good in the long.

Of course, all this is assuming companies will pretty much abuse this network management power. Some will, some won’t, but just having that ability will turn even the lax network admin into a network nazi. Actually, software like this might even eliminate that admin job…so you better watch out.

Originally posted on Aug 4, 2008

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Winnie’s new digs

In the great menagerie we call our home lives a cat, a dog, a turtle, and a dog – in that order. Out of them all the turtle, Winnie, requires the least amount of attention. She probably doesn’t get enough attention, actually, but so it goes. She’s a turtle. It’s funny that most people probably think it’s easier to care a turtle than two dogs and cat. Simplicity of often deceiving.

When we got Winnie a couple years ago, the men at the turtle store told us she was a water turtle and needed water to feed and stuff. OK, so we got an aquarium and filled it with water for her to swim around and a little floating dock for her to lay on. And that’s the way it remained for a long time, with regular tank cleanings and the likes to keep things as clean as we could. But let me tell you, a turtle is a dirty, dirty, messy animal.

Emptying 15 gallons of water every two week sucked bears. Well, our thoughts of “easy” care for a turtle changed when we discovered Winnie’s shell had a few bad spots on it. We think it’s shell rot, which, from what we’ve read, is easily cared for with a little soap wash and less water time. And that’s where we goofed in the past – we had too much water and not enough “sun” for her – which led to her shell problems. So action had to be taken immediately.

That action was a new apartment for Winnie. A trip to the pet store had me coming home with a stone barrier that needed to be siliconed into the aquarium so one half could be set with rocks for basking and the other for her pool. And it’s pretty nice, although I’m not sure Winnie knows what to do with it all yet.

Now there’s 1/4 as much water in the tank, which should make cleaning much easier while still giving her plenty of water for her bodily needs. The project as a whole was a lot easier than I expected. I’m glad I found the little barrier thing. My first thoughts were buying rocks or something and piling them up to create a nice basking area but still having mostly water. The new setup should be nice for her and for us.

I just hope the dogs don’t ask for a new house too.

Originally posted on Aug 19, 2008

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The Presidents and Amazon MP3

Despite my regular use of iTunes for playing and sometimes purchasing music, I’m not necessarily an iTunes-lover. I think iTunes is a nice music organizer/player. It certainly has its issues and I can’t say I’ve been 100% happy with it, but it does the trick. But then there’s the music, by far the biggest wrinkle in the sheet. Damn their DMA songs!

Even though I use iTunes as my main music player, I hate having my music locked down. My solution around it has been what most people have probably been doing too…burning the iTunes songs to a CD and then ripping them back as MP3s. Tedious and stupid, but it works.

When Amazon announced their MP3 service would be cheaper and offer standard MP3 files I told myself the next time I plan on getting a song or album I’d use it. Well, with money sitting in my iTunes account thanks to gift cards and redeeming, I hadn’t not followed through on that promise until today when I found a good reason to go elsewhere.

Much to my happiness I discovered that one of my favorite groups, The Presidents of the United States of America, did not disband as I had once thought. Actually, they did back in 1998 and then reformed a few years later to release a handful of albums.

“Peaches” – The Presidents of the United States of America
[audio:peaches.mp3]

I remember buying The President’s first album at Media Play. I thought the album cover was strange, and the music was pretty nutty too, but that’s why I like it so. It’s poppy, fast, it rocks, and has a heaping helping of fun and humor. That first record was really solid. The follow up album II was 50/50. A third release just before their break-up had even fewer singles. After I heard they broke up I had pretty much written them off and had just accepted I’d have 2.5 albums to enjoy for the rest of time.

I was at YouTube watching some Weird Al videos and that led me to The Presidents’ Wikipedia page where learned they regrouped and have been making new albums. It’s great to find out they’re still making music and still keeping it fun and light. I went the web site and listened to a few tracks from newer albums and decided to go ahead and download one of the “lost albums” I had missed. I decided on Love Everybody and headed over to iTunes to make the purchase.

Now most albums at iTunes are $10 regardless of the number of tracks. But low and behold this one album from an essentially nobody band was $12. Sucko. But wait! I have an alternative – Amazon MP3. A quick jump to Amazon found the album for $9, so I was ready to dive in.

Although a bummer, I was not surprised to have to install Amazon’s MP3 Downloader, a desktop client that does the downloading for you. After a very quick install I was faced with something I did not expect at all – something helpful – a free song to download. This is very smart because not only is it a great bonus for a new user, but Amazon presents as a way for you to learn how the downloader works before you pay any money. It told me, “Hey, watch the downloader in action by getting this free song.” I happily took their recommendation. Very smart on Amazon’s part and much appreciated as a customer.

So with the downloader installed I click the Buy button and after a quick authorization the downloads came in swiftly. And surprisingly enough, the Amazon Downloader even added the songs to iTunes for me. How considerate. And as advertised, the tracks are straight MP3s (high 256 bitrate too) and I can use them as I see fit and burn them as often as I’d like.

I can’t speak on the depth of Amazon’s MP3 catalog as I was looking for something specific and found it, but if you’re looking for an iTunes alternative for music then I will happily recommend Amazon MP3. It’s easy to use, good quality tracks, and even cheaper than iTunes. Even the single songs are $.89 instead of $.99 – I’ll certainly be back.

(Oh, and the President’s album I downloaded is pretty solid too. Nothing earth-shattering as far as they’re concerned, but it’s great to have some new songs to bust out on the way to work. They’ve stuck with their original formula and it’s very welcome in today’s vast pit of otherwise shotty music.)

Originally posted on Aug 18, 2008

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A reason to keep your CDs

Our walls are pretty bare. Shy of a few of my old college paintings and a couple prints, we don’t have much hanging around. We don’t like cluttered, busy walls anyway, but you have to have something on the walls otherwise it looks too…well, too migrant. Bare walls work if you have some sort of Zen theme going with minimalist furniture and bamboo floors, but we don’t. We’re pretty average folks with an average house. So in an attempt to find something meaningful for our walls without having to go the large poster/print route, I looked at what we have to work with.

And we have a lot of CDs. Our generation has seen a lot of technology change when it comes to music and we’re not even halfway through life. I know you all still have a box somewhere with cassettes in it and needless to say there’s a few shelves of CDs somewhere too. It’s safe to say we have way more MP3s these days than we do CDs, and we do most of our music listening on the computer, so the CDs have just become clutter. Recently though I thought about hanging up CD covers as art. We both love our music and the CDs weren’t doing anything else.

I think album covers as wall art (CD or otherwise) is a good solution to get use out of something that otherwise has no purpose anymore. It’s easy, clean, and shows off your love and tastes for music. Not to mention some album covers are considered art in their own right, so it’s not that far fetched. The trick, it turned out, was finding frames for the little buggers.

Compact disc album covers are square. Most small frames are designed for standard photos, which are rectangles. Going to a craft store or even Target didn’t find us the frames we needed. No, we found just the right size frames at the Dollar Store…but of course! We didn’t go to the Dollar Store looking for frames, but while there noticed some that were just the right size. They’re glass front frames so there’s no “frame” around the album, and it looks pretty nice.

This is still a work in progress, but even with only four covers up the staircase it looks pretty good. About two to four more covers to complete the journey should be enough. Now the hard part is picking which albums to feature. But then again, it’s convenient enough that we can change them whenever we like.

So if you have some bare spots on your walls and need something small to fill the void, consider your favorite (or best looking) album covers. An easy afternoon project.

Originally posted on Aug 16, 2008

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Don’t bust a Nutsie

I’ve been using FineTune.com for on-line music for a long time now. I’ve found it to be be all I need to get through my day. At FineTune you pick songs to add to your pool (playlist) and then it plays back those songs in random order. You never know what song is going to play next, but you know it’ll be a song you picked. Nutsie, on the other hand, takes a different approach and lets you bring your own music collection on-line.

I heard about Nutsie when drummer Duff McKagan was on a local radio show. He was pimping the service, which I believe he invested in (and also adorns the home page) so I figured I’d give it a try. Nutsie expects you to be using iTunes. Now one might see this is a narrow strategy, but these days iTunes is probably a safe bet. Unlike some other services, Nutsie doesn’t want you to upload your MP3s, it only wants your iTunes database. All you need to do with Nutside is export your iTunes library and upload it. Nutsie then does all the work to find the songs so you can listen on-line.

It’s actually a nifty concept but I’ve found it has one fatal flaw – it exposes you to all the crappy music you have in your library. If you’re like me, you’ve ripped just about every CD you have and also any CD that you might even only be remotely interested in. In my catalog there is a lot of classical, a lot of movie scores/sounndtracks, and a lot of country thanks to the wife – and most of that is not stuff I listen to all that often. Nutsie, unfortunately, reminds me that my library has about 70% of crap, 20% of good stuff, and 10% of, “when did I get that song?”

Another flaw in Nutsie is the lack of making playlists within Nutsie. Chances are you have playlists within iTunes. Well, when you upload your library Nutsie retains these playlists but doesn’t let you create new ones with your music. So if want to create your “Ultimate Death Metal” playlist in Nutsie using your collection of songs, you’re out of luck. You also can’t play any individual song with Nutsie. Much like all the other services, the site will play songs from your playlists randomly.

Another very annoying unfeature in Nutsie is the audio player itself. An embedded music player can be found on just about every page, including your personal playlist home page. This works great until you click a link on the page and takes you away, thus stopping your music and making you start all over again. One simple improvement Nutsie could add is to simply let you pop-out the player so you can navigate around Nutsie without disrupting your music. This even works against them because the always-present “Buy” button next to each song stops the music and just makes you mad. You’ll also find the music players start automagically, so just about every web page will start blaring out music when you arrive.

On the good side of Nutsie is the standard shared playlist abilities. Even if you don’t upload your own music library, you’ll find a good host of themed playlists that will keep you going for a while. They have a nice list of dated playlists so you can hear the Best Rock Songs of 1977 anytime you want (which I recommend). And assuming you’re a Nutsie member – which is free – you are allowed unlimited song skips. Where as places like FineTune and Pandora limit you to five skips per hour, Nutsie lets you skip forever if you want. Of course, you’ll need unlimited skips to get through all the crap in your personal library. For one session I actually did more skipping than listening.

And perhaps the most unique feature of Nutsie is the Nutsie Picks slider that appears above every music player. This lets you choose if you want Nutsie to recommend other songs and mix them while you’re listening. This doesn’t add songs to your playlist or library, it works on-the-fly. So if you have a playlist of 50 tunes and slide the Nutsie Picks to some percentage and it’ll toss in a few related artists and songs. Kind of nifty, but in my experience not all that “accurate” as you’ll find Barry Manilow and Rod Stewart dropped in the middle of your Glam Metal playlist.

I think Nutsie is working along the right path but has a long way to go. Design and user experience problems keep me from using the service, and its tendency to replay the same songs from my playlist over and over keeps me sitting at FineTune instead. I like the idea of just uploading my iTunes library and being able to listen anywhere I am, but until they give me more control over what is essentially my music, I’ll stick with my playlists at FineTune.

Originally posted on Aug 16, 2008

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The Wii redeems itself with the Homebrew Channel

I wrote a bit back about my increasing loss of faith in the Wii. The games slated to come out through the rest of the year and into 2009 are quite, shall we say, “weak” and include many uber-family friendly games. I have nothing against family friendly, but you can only have so many pet and puzzle games before a system starts to lose its appeal. However, a recent investigation into a well known hack for the Wii has me singing a different tune.

Reading Wii news as regularly as I do, quite some time ago I read about a thing called the Twilight Hack, which exploits a bug in the Wii Zelda game that let hackers into the core system. I typically try not to bother with console hacks because I’ve spent way to much on the deck to possibly ruin it by hacking. But over the weekend I found and read more about the Twilight Hack that sold me on the idea.

tmpphpT41Nzl.jpgBut why hack the Wii in the first place? Well, hacking in this case means you can load homebrew games (indie games) on the Wii. The hack actually adds the “Homebrew Channel” to your standard Wii menu (in English). Along with standalone indie games, you can also load emulators with the channel. As is well documented, I am an emulator junkie, especially for the classic decks like the NES, SNES, and PC Engine. With the promise of emulators on the Wii, I couldn’t not try the hack.

The Twilight Hack was stupidly simple to install. The only thing you need is an SD memory card and the Zelda game disc. Fortunately friend-of-the-Toast, Thee, had the Zelda game and once I had it in my hand I gave the hack a go. I held my breath and watched the DOS-like screen fly by, doing something to my Wii, and just hoped I wasn’t bricking my Wii. Bang! Zoom! The Homebrew Channel is ready to go!

And much (very much) to my surprise the NES emulator ran just fine and I was able to load all the NES ROMs I’ve had for years. Then I tried the TurboGrafix16 emulator…worked. Then the SNES emulator…worked. How awesome is this?! And all the emulators have multi-player support. So now I can play my old NES and other games just about everywhere: on my original NES deck, my PC, my DS portable, and now my Wii. Wherever I go, the NES will follow. Nuts? Yes. Fun? You betcha.

I’ve spent a lot of time and money on my NES PowerPak so I could play ROMs on my actual NES console, and nothing beats that experience, but having the NES games on my Wii is just way too convenient. Then toss on the SNES, Genesis and PCE games that I never had elsewhere other than my computer…you can’t beat it. I’m still playing around with the emulators and homebrew games, but so far the so good shy of a few ROMs that just haven’t loaded. But I don’t know if that means it’s a bad ROM, which is highly likely, or the emulator…time will tell. I’ve also found I now have a really good reason to buy a classic Wii controller.

tmpphpfZjYsl.jpgBut wait…can’t you download all the old games with the Wii Virtual Console? Why yes, you can…for anywhere from $5 – $10 a pop. We all have our favorite classic games. Even with over 500 NES games, I play the same dozen over and over. Same will go with PCE, SNES, and Genesis…but if I can get them easily for free, why do the whole download thing? Plus, now I can play the games I never played before but wanted to without the risk. It’s just nice.

Having this homebrew option opens up the Wii to a whole new realm of games even beyond old emulators. Now you can also play games made by indie developers that you won’t find in retail. One such game I found is called GuitarFun and is a clone of clone…it’s a clone of Frets on Fire, the PC Guitar Hero clone. I have yet to get GuitarFun to load and play on the Wii Homebrew, but when/if it does, it means I can play custom songs (real songs) with the actual guitar controller. Now that’ll be spiffy! I’ll post up a note when I get it working…but there are YouTubes of the game working.

All in all, I don’t see any reason you wouldn’t want to use the Twilight Hack and install the Homebrew Channel. It doesn’t hurt and the manual claims you can even uninstall it all. This isn’t a hardware-level hack, it’s just software, so there shouldn’t ever be any permanent damage. If you’re after some classic console gaming and don’t want go crazy like I did with my NES, this Wii hack is the sweet spot that turns your console into the perfect (and free) retro game machine. And since you’re saving on VC downloads, you can justify more retail Wii games and accessories.

If you’re wanting to setup the Homebrew Channel on your Wii, hit up WiiBrew.com and look for their WiiPack Generator. Use it to download all the parts you want and need, including the Twilight Hack. And to see just how easy the hack is to install, there’s a handy video…which I watched like five times before doing it myself (it just made me feel better).

Now pardon me while I go run through some Excite Bike, F-Zero, Keith Courage, and maybe a little Street Fighter II.

Originally posted on Aug 13, 2008

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Seventeen pounds of Hot Wheels

I’ve been “collecting” Hot Wheels for probably close to eight years by now. I collect but I don’t invest in Hot Wheels. A recent trip to the Ohio State Fair’s and its famed Junk Barn (where every Harry, Dick, and Tom can attempt to sell their junk) had me face-to-face with a ton of “collectible” Hot Wheels.

They were all in the box and ranged in age from 2008 models to some that stretched back to the mid-80s. And not surprisingly, I had many of the cars I saw…but much to my surprise, these cars were selling for $2 – $5. While a few bucks may not sound like much, considering each Hot Wheels car costs less than a dollar to buy it’s a pretty good return on the value.

It’s hard for me to see Hot Wheels as a collectibles investment. Sure, it kind of sucks to see a car I bought for 97 cents just a week ago already selling for $3 (which is bull anyway), but then I realize why I collect Hot Wheels – because I like them. I like to look at them, play with them, take pictures of them, let others play with them…it’s about the fun of toy cars, not the fun of buying and selling. I wouldn’t be any good at selling them anyway because I wouldn’t be able to give them up, even at a profit.

With my upgraded Flickr Pro account at my disposal, I decided to do something I had been wanting to do for a while, shoot my cars in more “artistic” ways, rather than the straight up showroom-quality photos I’ve been taking for the Hot Wheels Showcase I have on-line.

Hot Wheels are so vivid and fantastic that they lend themselves to photographs, both macro photography (which I can’t do well) and just general fun shooting (which I can do well). So with a sunny Saturday on hand I took all (well, most) of my cars out and set them up for some shots. It’s funny because when you tell people you have 193 Hot Wheels it sounds like a lot…but when you line them all up for a family photo, it doesn’t look like much, at least not to me. I guess in my head I thought they would take up more space all laid out, but I guess they’re only 2-inch cars anyway.

So yes, I have upwards of 190 Hot Wheels cars and all together they weigh an even 17 pounds. And for those wanting to keep track, each Hot Wheels cars cost me a dollar, so my total investment should be pretty simple. Now consider if I was investing in the toys how much I would have in value if each one could (on average) resell for $3.

I don’t really plan to stop my collecting. It’s cheap and it’s fun. And they make for some awesome photos.

Stop by the Flickr page for more shots.

Originally posted on Aug 9, 2008

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Tesla, still comin’ atcha live…again

You go to a concert early for one reason: to get good seats. And even though we saw Tesla in concert just six months ago, we still showed up early to make sure we got the spot we wanted. Last time we saw Tesla it was bare nuts cold outside and the line to get in was down the block. This time it was hot, but the line wasn’t so long, however, we noticed a small group of people gathering away from the main line. They were gathering outside the tour bus entrance where last time Frank Hannon chatted with shivering fans so we figured members of Tesla were once again mingling with fans, and we were right.

Before you continue, please enjoy some Tesla as you read:
[audio:tesla.mp3]

This time lead singer Jeff Keith was signing autographs and taking pictures from behind the entrance gate. We didn’t bring our camera because the venue doesn’t allow cameras, but we did have a convenient phone camera. And just after we got a shot of Jeff behind bars he says, “hell with this, I’m coming out there,” and he walked around the gate to meet fans up close and personal right there on the sidewalk. What luck! So we calmly waited to say “Hello” and get a photo op and autograph. Unfortunately, given the sun and the low-fi camera, the photo of Jen and Jeff didn’t turn out as well as I’d hope (although you can tell who it is), but he also signed the ticket stub…making this one of the first ticket stubs I’ll actually be keeping.

Before too long the rest of people waiting in line took notice and gathered around getting their jeans, arms, and children signed by Jeff Keith. At that point we moved back into the line and waited for the doors to open. Once we were in we found the spot we wanted, along the back wall of the floor section. We were at the same venue as before but this time we were outside and oh what a difference it made. The sound and experience of an indoor show just can’t compare to that of a outdoor concert. So we sat a waited for things to kick off while other came to sit along side us.

Not too long after we claimed our spot a girl sitting about three people down from me leaned forward and…well, she just puked her guts out. What?! Vomiting already? That’s what one guy was thinking as he passed by the pool of vomit and then looked at his watch, as though to think, “isn’t it a bit early for barf?”

Out of all the concerts we’ve seen in the past few years, this is the first time we’ve been near, let alone witness, some vomiting, as surprising as that may be. It’s very interesting watching people notice a pile of vomit. It actually became the game of the night, watching people’s reactions when they noticed the pool…assuming they did notice. Although few and far between, there were a handful of people that just didn’t notice and walked right through it. If you learn one thing from this entry, please learn that you should always look down when at a concert because you never know what you’ll find on the ground. Needless to say, the vomit kept many people away so we enjoyed the concert in relative peace. Thankfully we were far enough away from it that it didn’t encroach our space.

The opening band did their thing and after a quick stage change Tesla came out and rocked a perfect night. And it was a perfect night for a concert, very comfortable with clear skies. They changed up their set list just enough from their last visit, playing their standards but also including ones like “Edison’s Medicine” and “Mama’s Fool,” of which neither they played last time. They also removed the cover songs from their line-up, which I appreciated.

And if you thought having a pool of throw-up next you all night wasn’t a good way to enjoy Tesla, it gets better. Because about three quarters through the set victim number too spun around in front of us and spewed. This lady spewed first in the same spot as the first girl, then ran off the floor to toss it in the grass. Not sure if it was the combination of heat and beer, which is always fun, or if that spot on the floor had low gravity or some other anomaly that would cause people to chuck. Vomit to the left of me, vomit to the right of me…had it not been for Tesla in front of me, it would have been a rough night.

Another thing this concert proved is that Tesla is a prime example of a solid band. Being the only band we’ve seen twice, we know that Tesla puts on a good show just about every time they perform. It doesn’t matter if they’re inside or outside, they just lay it down. Nothing too fancy, not a lot of “show,” just a straight set of hits. To top things off, they did something other bands could learn from – they skipped the encore. It seems these days the encore is a given, which kind of defeats the specialness of an encore. No, instead Tesla said, “we don’t need to make people scream and shout, we’ll just keep on going.” So instead of taking a break, making us wait and then coming out to play one more song, they played two more songs instead. Awesome. Just awesome. Why make us clap? You know you’re coming back out to play.

The fact that Jeff Keith was willing to stand in the middle of the sidewalk and get up close with fans also tells me that Tesla knows what’s important. I know Tesla is way past their prime and not exactly filling stadiums anymore, but find me another band that will go that far out of their way to keep people happy. It tells me they know what’s important – the fans – because if you don’t keep your fans happy, they won’t come see you and they won’t buy your records.

So next time there’s a band you want to see, show up a bit early because not only will you usually get a good seat, you never know who’ll you find signing autographs. And you might miss the vomit.

Originally posted on Aug 5, 2008

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It’s a good time to bring back blimps

I love blimps. Blimps just make sense to me. They’re elegant, classy, efficient, and it many ways, quite practical. Just by chance I happened to come across an article in the NYT Europe section about Zeppelin blimps. I didn’t read the entire article but just the first few paragraphs were enough to have me thinking happy blimp thoughts.

Blimps are just like airplanes or trains but are far more efficient. All three follow more direct routes than car or truck, but blimps don’t use regular jet fuel. They use reusable gas to fill the blimp, so right there they are better off than the rest of us. Blimps may be a bit slower than jets or trains, but I say that blimps are not for trans-atlantic or even cross-country shipments. I see blimps as tri-state, regional solution to delivering goods.

Not only do blimps make fuel sense, they make delivery sense. Blimps don’t need acres and miles of runway, they just need a small field or even a tall building with which to dock and unload. Blimps can go vertical, making them more flexible than planes and have more reach than a train.

Blimps just…blimps just make sense. As the article points out, in a time when fuel prices are sky high (ha ha), blimps provide an alternative that could help cut costs at a critical time. I doubt it will catch on, but just imagine how beautiful a sky filled with blimps would be. Imagine traveling from Chicago to New York by blimp…no, wait, luxury blimp. Even if blimps didn’t become a shipping standard, I think blimps would have a cool-factor that would make them work as a novelty travel for a long while.

Bring back blimps!!

Originally posted on Aug 4, 2008

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Work will be watching

A recent article in the NY Times talks about new network monitoring software that will “learn” about employee’s web behaviour and give the company finite control over restrictions and settings. I won’t repost the whole article, but this pretty much sums it up:

…one company might say that marketing folks can only visit YouTube during lunch hour, and even then, they can only upload two megabytes to the site each day. Engineers might be blocked from visiting Facebook…but everyone else can.

I’m not saying companies shouldn’t monitor network traffic and use, it’s a legit concern. But if software like this works as well as promoted, I see one problem: we’re not machines. Applying strict rules onto users will just make them unhappy and that ultimately results is poor results.

I’m one that believes people will naturally find their balance at work. No one works 8-hours solid. It’s just not possible, and frankly, not healthy. Everybody needs some time during the day to just chill for a few. Some people may go outside for a smoke, some might walk around the building, some might scratch their butt, some, like me, just stay on-line and visit web sites they enjoy but aren’t work-related.

Me, I hit up my video game blogs, check my personal e-mail, manage my personal sites and that type stuff. All said and done, it maybe takes 15-30 minutes of my day. No big deal. If I spend more time than that I feel like I’m jipping myself out of work time. I know I have stuff to do and I know how much time it takes to get it done. Most people won’t abuse their time because fear will keep them in check – at least that’s what I’ve witnessed. If you just trust people things will usually work out for the best.

I’m sure the thought behind applying smart software that tracks individuals and adjusts based on habits is that it will stop those that do abuse their work time. I guess my philosophy on this is that instead of using a blacklist method that effects everyone, if you find someone is spending too much time hanging out on YouTube, you deal with them. You warn them, suspend them, fire them, whatever…you deal with the person directly. You don’t puss out and let technology to do your people management for you. That’s just weak. And honestly, I wouldn’t want to work for a company that manages their employees that way.

Everybody works best in different environments. And that’s not limited to physical environments, but digital/on-line environments too. You can’t look at sheer numbers to determine what people are doing. Behaviour doesn’t work by the numbers and by saying, “Brian spends 30 minutes on Gmail a day means he’s wasting time,” is quite ignorant and might do more harm than good in the long.

Of course, all this is assuming companies will pretty much abuse this network management power. Some will, some won’t, but just having that ability will turn even the lax network admin into a network nazi. Actually, software like this might even eliminate that admin job…so you better watch out.

Originally posted on Aug 4, 2008

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Winnie’s new digs

In the great menagerie we call our home lives a cat, a dog, a turtle, and a dog – in that order. Out of them all the turtle, Winnie, requires the least amount of attention. She probably doesn’t get enough attention, actually, but so it goes. She’s a turtle. It’s funny that most people probably think it’s easier to care a turtle than two dogs and cat. Simplicity of often deceiving.

When we got Winnie a couple years ago, the men at the turtle store told us she was a water turtle and needed water to feed and stuff. OK, so we got an aquarium and filled it with water for her to swim around and a little floating dock for her to lay on. And that’s the way it remained for a long time, with regular tank cleanings and the likes to keep things as clean as we could. But let me tell you, a turtle is a dirty, dirty, messy animal.

Emptying 15 gallons of water every two week sucked bears. Well, our thoughts of “easy” care for a turtle changed when we discovered Winnie’s shell had a few bad spots on it. We think it’s shell rot, which, from what we’ve read, is easily cared for with a little soap wash and less water time. And that’s where we goofed in the past – we had too much water and not enough “sun” for her – which led to her shell problems. So action had to be taken immediately.

That action was a new apartment for Winnie. A trip to the pet store had me coming home with a stone barrier that needed to be siliconed into the aquarium so one half could be set with rocks for basking and the other for her pool. And it’s pretty nice, although I’m not sure Winnie knows what to do with it all yet.

Now there’s 1/4 as much water in the tank, which should make cleaning much easier while still giving her plenty of water for her bodily needs. The project as a whole was a lot easier than I expected. I’m glad I found the little barrier thing. My first thoughts were buying rocks or something and piling them up to create a nice basking area but still having mostly water. The new setup should be nice for her and for us.

I just hope the dogs don’t ask for a new house too.

Originally posted on Aug 19, 2008

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The Presidents and Amazon MP3

Despite my regular use of iTunes for playing and sometimes purchasing music, I’m not necessarily an iTunes-lover. I think iTunes is a nice music organizer/player. It certainly has its issues and I can’t say I’ve been 100% happy with it, but it does the trick. But then there’s the music, by far the biggest wrinkle in the sheet. Damn their DMA songs!

Even though I use iTunes as my main music player, I hate having my music locked down. My solution around it has been what most people have probably been doing too…burning the iTunes songs to a CD and then ripping them back as MP3s. Tedious and stupid, but it works.

When Amazon announced their MP3 service would be cheaper and offer standard MP3 files I told myself the next time I plan on getting a song or album I’d use it. Well, with money sitting in my iTunes account thanks to gift cards and redeeming, I hadn’t not followed through on that promise until today when I found a good reason to go elsewhere.

Much to my happiness I discovered that one of my favorite groups, The Presidents of the United States of America, did not disband as I had once thought. Actually, they did back in 1998 and then reformed a few years later to release a handful of albums.

“Peaches” – The Presidents of the United States of America
[audio:peaches.mp3]

I remember buying The President’s first album at Media Play. I thought the album cover was strange, and the music was pretty nutty too, but that’s why I like it so. It’s poppy, fast, it rocks, and has a heaping helping of fun and humor. That first record was really solid. The follow up album II was 50/50. A third release just before their break-up had even fewer singles. After I heard they broke up I had pretty much written them off and had just accepted I’d have 2.5 albums to enjoy for the rest of time.

I was at YouTube watching some Weird Al videos and that led me to The Presidents’ Wikipedia page where learned they regrouped and have been making new albums. It’s great to find out they’re still making music and still keeping it fun and light. I went the web site and listened to a few tracks from newer albums and decided to go ahead and download one of the “lost albums” I had missed. I decided on Love Everybody and headed over to iTunes to make the purchase.

Now most albums at iTunes are $10 regardless of the number of tracks. But low and behold this one album from an essentially nobody band was $12. Sucko. But wait! I have an alternative – Amazon MP3. A quick jump to Amazon found the album for $9, so I was ready to dive in.

Although a bummer, I was not surprised to have to install Amazon’s MP3 Downloader, a desktop client that does the downloading for you. After a very quick install I was faced with something I did not expect at all – something helpful – a free song to download. This is very smart because not only is it a great bonus for a new user, but Amazon presents as a way for you to learn how the downloader works before you pay any money. It told me, “Hey, watch the downloader in action by getting this free song.” I happily took their recommendation. Very smart on Amazon’s part and much appreciated as a customer.

So with the downloader installed I click the Buy button and after a quick authorization the downloads came in swiftly. And surprisingly enough, the Amazon Downloader even added the songs to iTunes for me. How considerate. And as advertised, the tracks are straight MP3s (high 256 bitrate too) and I can use them as I see fit and burn them as often as I’d like.

I can’t speak on the depth of Amazon’s MP3 catalog as I was looking for something specific and found it, but if you’re looking for an iTunes alternative for music then I will happily recommend Amazon MP3. It’s easy to use, good quality tracks, and even cheaper than iTunes. Even the single songs are $.89 instead of $.99 – I’ll certainly be back.

(Oh, and the President’s album I downloaded is pretty solid too. Nothing earth-shattering as far as they’re concerned, but it’s great to have some new songs to bust out on the way to work. They’ve stuck with their original formula and it’s very welcome in today’s vast pit of otherwise shotty music.)

Originally posted on Aug 18, 2008

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A reason to keep your CDs

Our walls are pretty bare. Shy of a few of my old college paintings and a couple prints, we don’t have much hanging around. We don’t like cluttered, busy walls anyway, but you have to have something on the walls otherwise it looks too…well, too migrant. Bare walls work if you have some sort of Zen theme going with minimalist furniture and bamboo floors, but we don’t. We’re pretty average folks with an average house. So in an attempt to find something meaningful for our walls without having to go the large poster/print route, I looked at what we have to work with.

And we have a lot of CDs. Our generation has seen a lot of technology change when it comes to music and we’re not even halfway through life. I know you all still have a box somewhere with cassettes in it and needless to say there’s a few shelves of CDs somewhere too. It’s safe to say we have way more MP3s these days than we do CDs, and we do most of our music listening on the computer, so the CDs have just become clutter. Recently though I thought about hanging up CD covers as art. We both love our music and the CDs weren’t doing anything else.

I think album covers as wall art (CD or otherwise) is a good solution to get use out of something that otherwise has no purpose anymore. It’s easy, clean, and shows off your love and tastes for music. Not to mention some album covers are considered art in their own right, so it’s not that far fetched. The trick, it turned out, was finding frames for the little buggers.

Compact disc album covers are square. Most small frames are designed for standard photos, which are rectangles. Going to a craft store or even Target didn’t find us the frames we needed. No, we found just the right size frames at the Dollar Store…but of course! We didn’t go to the Dollar Store looking for frames, but while there noticed some that were just the right size. They’re glass front frames so there’s no “frame” around the album, and it looks pretty nice.

This is still a work in progress, but even with only four covers up the staircase it looks pretty good. About two to four more covers to complete the journey should be enough. Now the hard part is picking which albums to feature. But then again, it’s convenient enough that we can change them whenever we like.

So if you have some bare spots on your walls and need something small to fill the void, consider your favorite (or best looking) album covers. An easy afternoon project.

Originally posted on Aug 16, 2008

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Don’t bust a Nutsie

I’ve been using FineTune.com for on-line music for a long time now. I’ve found it to be be all I need to get through my day. At FineTune you pick songs to add to your pool (playlist) and then it plays back those songs in random order. You never know what song is going to play next, but you know it’ll be a song you picked. Nutsie, on the other hand, takes a different approach and lets you bring your own music collection on-line.

I heard about Nutsie when drummer Duff McKagan was on a local radio show. He was pimping the service, which I believe he invested in (and also adorns the home page) so I figured I’d give it a try. Nutsie expects you to be using iTunes. Now one might see this is a narrow strategy, but these days iTunes is probably a safe bet. Unlike some other services, Nutsie doesn’t want you to upload your MP3s, it only wants your iTunes database. All you need to do with Nutside is export your iTunes library and upload it. Nutsie then does all the work to find the songs so you can listen on-line.

It’s actually a nifty concept but I’ve found it has one fatal flaw – it exposes you to all the crappy music you have in your library. If you’re like me, you’ve ripped just about every CD you have and also any CD that you might even only be remotely interested in. In my catalog there is a lot of classical, a lot of movie scores/sounndtracks, and a lot of country thanks to the wife – and most of that is not stuff I listen to all that often. Nutsie, unfortunately, reminds me that my library has about 70% of crap, 20% of good stuff, and 10% of, “when did I get that song?”

Another flaw in Nutsie is the lack of making playlists within Nutsie. Chances are you have playlists within iTunes. Well, when you upload your library Nutsie retains these playlists but doesn’t let you create new ones with your music. So if want to create your “Ultimate Death Metal” playlist in Nutsie using your collection of songs, you’re out of luck. You also can’t play any individual song with Nutsie. Much like all the other services, the site will play songs from your playlists randomly.

Another very annoying unfeature in Nutsie is the audio player itself. An embedded music player can be found on just about every page, including your personal playlist home page. This works great until you click a link on the page and takes you away, thus stopping your music and making you start all over again. One simple improvement Nutsie could add is to simply let you pop-out the player so you can navigate around Nutsie without disrupting your music. This even works against them because the always-present “Buy” button next to each song stops the music and just makes you mad. You’ll also find the music players start automagically, so just about every web page will start blaring out music when you arrive.

On the good side of Nutsie is the standard shared playlist abilities. Even if you don’t upload your own music library, you’ll find a good host of themed playlists that will keep you going for a while. They have a nice list of dated playlists so you can hear the Best Rock Songs of 1977 anytime you want (which I recommend). And assuming you’re a Nutsie member – which is free – you are allowed unlimited song skips. Where as places like FineTune and Pandora limit you to five skips per hour, Nutsie lets you skip forever if you want. Of course, you’ll need unlimited skips to get through all the crap in your personal library. For one session I actually did more skipping than listening.

And perhaps the most unique feature of Nutsie is the Nutsie Picks slider that appears above every music player. This lets you choose if you want Nutsie to recommend other songs and mix them while you’re listening. This doesn’t add songs to your playlist or library, it works on-the-fly. So if you have a playlist of 50 tunes and slide the Nutsie Picks to some percentage and it’ll toss in a few related artists and songs. Kind of nifty, but in my experience not all that “accurate” as you’ll find Barry Manilow and Rod Stewart dropped in the middle of your Glam Metal playlist.

I think Nutsie is working along the right path but has a long way to go. Design and user experience problems keep me from using the service, and its tendency to replay the same songs from my playlist over and over keeps me sitting at FineTune instead. I like the idea of just uploading my iTunes library and being able to listen anywhere I am, but until they give me more control over what is essentially my music, I’ll stick with my playlists at FineTune.

Originally posted on Aug 16, 2008

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The Wii redeems itself with the Homebrew Channel

I wrote a bit back about my increasing loss of faith in the Wii. The games slated to come out through the rest of the year and into 2009 are quite, shall we say, “weak” and include many uber-family friendly games. I have nothing against family friendly, but you can only have so many pet and puzzle games before a system starts to lose its appeal. However, a recent investigation into a well known hack for the Wii has me singing a different tune.

Reading Wii news as regularly as I do, quite some time ago I read about a thing called the Twilight Hack, which exploits a bug in the Wii Zelda game that let hackers into the core system. I typically try not to bother with console hacks because I’ve spent way to much on the deck to possibly ruin it by hacking. But over the weekend I found and read more about the Twilight Hack that sold me on the idea.

tmpphpT41Nzl.jpgBut why hack the Wii in the first place? Well, hacking in this case means you can load homebrew games (indie games) on the Wii. The hack actually adds the “Homebrew Channel” to your standard Wii menu (in English). Along with standalone indie games, you can also load emulators with the channel. As is well documented, I am an emulator junkie, especially for the classic decks like the NES, SNES, and PC Engine. With the promise of emulators on the Wii, I couldn’t not try the hack.

The Twilight Hack was stupidly simple to install. The only thing you need is an SD memory card and the Zelda game disc. Fortunately friend-of-the-Toast, Thee, had the Zelda game and once I had it in my hand I gave the hack a go. I held my breath and watched the DOS-like screen fly by, doing something to my Wii, and just hoped I wasn’t bricking my Wii. Bang! Zoom! The Homebrew Channel is ready to go!

And much (very much) to my surprise the NES emulator ran just fine and I was able to load all the NES ROMs I’ve had for years. Then I tried the TurboGrafix16 emulator…worked. Then the SNES emulator…worked. How awesome is this?! And all the emulators have multi-player support. So now I can play my old NES and other games just about everywhere: on my original NES deck, my PC, my DS portable, and now my Wii. Wherever I go, the NES will follow. Nuts? Yes. Fun? You betcha.

I’ve spent a lot of time and money on my NES PowerPak so I could play ROMs on my actual NES console, and nothing beats that experience, but having the NES games on my Wii is just way too convenient. Then toss on the SNES, Genesis and PCE games that I never had elsewhere other than my computer…you can’t beat it. I’m still playing around with the emulators and homebrew games, but so far the so good shy of a few ROMs that just haven’t loaded. But I don’t know if that means it’s a bad ROM, which is highly likely, or the emulator…time will tell. I’ve also found I now have a really good reason to buy a classic Wii controller.

tmpphpfZjYsl.jpgBut wait…can’t you download all the old games with the Wii Virtual Console? Why yes, you can…for anywhere from $5 – $10 a pop. We all have our favorite classic games. Even with over 500 NES games, I play the same dozen over and over. Same will go with PCE, SNES, and Genesis…but if I can get them easily for free, why do the whole download thing? Plus, now I can play the games I never played before but wanted to without the risk. It’s just nice.

Having this homebrew option opens up the Wii to a whole new realm of games even beyond old emulators. Now you can also play games made by indie developers that you won’t find in retail. One such game I found is called GuitarFun and is a clone of clone…it’s a clone of Frets on Fire, the PC Guitar Hero clone. I have yet to get GuitarFun to load and play on the Wii Homebrew, but when/if it does, it means I can play custom songs (real songs) with the actual guitar controller. Now that’ll be spiffy! I’ll post up a note when I get it working…but there are YouTubes of the game working.

All in all, I don’t see any reason you wouldn’t want to use the Twilight Hack and install the Homebrew Channel. It doesn’t hurt and the manual claims you can even uninstall it all. This isn’t a hardware-level hack, it’s just software, so there shouldn’t ever be any permanent damage. If you’re after some classic console gaming and don’t want go crazy like I did with my NES, this Wii hack is the sweet spot that turns your console into the perfect (and free) retro game machine. And since you’re saving on VC downloads, you can justify more retail Wii games and accessories.

If you’re wanting to setup the Homebrew Channel on your Wii, hit up WiiBrew.com and look for their WiiPack Generator. Use it to download all the parts you want and need, including the Twilight Hack. And to see just how easy the hack is to install, there’s a handy video…which I watched like five times before doing it myself (it just made me feel better).

Now pardon me while I go run through some Excite Bike, F-Zero, Keith Courage, and maybe a little Street Fighter II.

Originally posted on Aug 13, 2008

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Seventeen pounds of Hot Wheels

I’ve been “collecting” Hot Wheels for probably close to eight years by now. I collect but I don’t invest in Hot Wheels. A recent trip to the Ohio State Fair’s and its famed Junk Barn (where every Harry, Dick, and Tom can attempt to sell their junk) had me face-to-face with a ton of “collectible” Hot Wheels.

They were all in the box and ranged in age from 2008 models to some that stretched back to the mid-80s. And not surprisingly, I had many of the cars I saw…but much to my surprise, these cars were selling for $2 – $5. While a few bucks may not sound like much, considering each Hot Wheels car costs less than a dollar to buy it’s a pretty good return on the value.

It’s hard for me to see Hot Wheels as a collectibles investment. Sure, it kind of sucks to see a car I bought for 97 cents just a week ago already selling for $3 (which is bull anyway), but then I realize why I collect Hot Wheels – because I like them. I like to look at them, play with them, take pictures of them, let others play with them…it’s about the fun of toy cars, not the fun of buying and selling. I wouldn’t be any good at selling them anyway because I wouldn’t be able to give them up, even at a profit.

With my upgraded Flickr Pro account at my disposal, I decided to do something I had been wanting to do for a while, shoot my cars in more “artistic” ways, rather than the straight up showroom-quality photos I’ve been taking for the Hot Wheels Showcase I have on-line.

Hot Wheels are so vivid and fantastic that they lend themselves to photographs, both macro photography (which I can’t do well) and just general fun shooting (which I can do well). So with a sunny Saturday on hand I took all (well, most) of my cars out and set them up for some shots. It’s funny because when you tell people you have 193 Hot Wheels it sounds like a lot…but when you line them all up for a family photo, it doesn’t look like much, at least not to me. I guess in my head I thought they would take up more space all laid out, but I guess they’re only 2-inch cars anyway.

So yes, I have upwards of 190 Hot Wheels cars and all together they weigh an even 17 pounds. And for those wanting to keep track, each Hot Wheels cars cost me a dollar, so my total investment should be pretty simple. Now consider if I was investing in the toys how much I would have in value if each one could (on average) resell for $3.

I don’t really plan to stop my collecting. It’s cheap and it’s fun. And they make for some awesome photos.

Stop by the Flickr page for more shots.

Originally posted on Aug 9, 2008

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Tesla, still comin’ atcha live…again

You go to a concert early for one reason: to get good seats. And even though we saw Tesla in concert just six months ago, we still showed up early to make sure we got the spot we wanted. Last time we saw Tesla it was bare nuts cold outside and the line to get in was down the block. This time it was hot, but the line wasn’t so long, however, we noticed a small group of people gathering away from the main line. They were gathering outside the tour bus entrance where last time Frank Hannon chatted with shivering fans so we figured members of Tesla were once again mingling with fans, and we were right.

Before you continue, please enjoy some Tesla as you read:
[audio:tesla.mp3]

This time lead singer Jeff Keith was signing autographs and taking pictures from behind the entrance gate. We didn’t bring our camera because the venue doesn’t allow cameras, but we did have a convenient phone camera. And just after we got a shot of Jeff behind bars he says, “hell with this, I’m coming out there,” and he walked around the gate to meet fans up close and personal right there on the sidewalk. What luck! So we calmly waited to say “Hello” and get a photo op and autograph. Unfortunately, given the sun and the low-fi camera, the photo of Jen and Jeff didn’t turn out as well as I’d hope (although you can tell who it is), but he also signed the ticket stub…making this one of the first ticket stubs I’ll actually be keeping.

Before too long the rest of people waiting in line took notice and gathered around getting their jeans, arms, and children signed by Jeff Keith. At that point we moved back into the line and waited for the doors to open. Once we were in we found the spot we wanted, along the back wall of the floor section. We were at the same venue as before but this time we were outside and oh what a difference it made. The sound and experience of an indoor show just can’t compare to that of a outdoor concert. So we sat a waited for things to kick off while other came to sit along side us.

Not too long after we claimed our spot a girl sitting about three people down from me leaned forward and…well, she just puked her guts out. What?! Vomiting already? That’s what one guy was thinking as he passed by the pool of vomit and then looked at his watch, as though to think, “isn’t it a bit early for barf?”

Out of all the concerts we’ve seen in the past few years, this is the first time we’ve been near, let alone witness, some vomiting, as surprising as that may be. It’s very interesting watching people notice a pile of vomit. It actually became the game of the night, watching people’s reactions when they noticed the pool…assuming they did notice. Although few and far between, there were a handful of people that just didn’t notice and walked right through it. If you learn one thing from this entry, please learn that you should always look down when at a concert because you never know what you’ll find on the ground. Needless to say, the vomit kept many people away so we enjoyed the concert in relative peace. Thankfully we were far enough away from it that it didn’t encroach our space.

The opening band did their thing and after a quick stage change Tesla came out and rocked a perfect night. And it was a perfect night for a concert, very comfortable with clear skies. They changed up their set list just enough from their last visit, playing their standards but also including ones like “Edison’s Medicine” and “Mama’s Fool,” of which neither they played last time. They also removed the cover songs from their line-up, which I appreciated.

And if you thought having a pool of throw-up next you all night wasn’t a good way to enjoy Tesla, it gets better. Because about three quarters through the set victim number too spun around in front of us and spewed. This lady spewed first in the same spot as the first girl, then ran off the floor to toss it in the grass. Not sure if it was the combination of heat and beer, which is always fun, or if that spot on the floor had low gravity or some other anomaly that would cause people to chuck. Vomit to the left of me, vomit to the right of me…had it not been for Tesla in front of me, it would have been a rough night.

Another thing this concert proved is that Tesla is a prime example of a solid band. Being the only band we’ve seen twice, we know that Tesla puts on a good show just about every time they perform. It doesn’t matter if they’re inside or outside, they just lay it down. Nothing too fancy, not a lot of “show,” just a straight set of hits. To top things off, they did something other bands could learn from – they skipped the encore. It seems these days the encore is a given, which kind of defeats the specialness of an encore. No, instead Tesla said, “we don’t need to make people scream and shout, we’ll just keep on going.” So instead of taking a break, making us wait and then coming out to play one more song, they played two more songs instead. Awesome. Just awesome. Why make us clap? You know you’re coming back out to play.

The fact that Jeff Keith was willing to stand in the middle of the sidewalk and get up close with fans also tells me that Tesla knows what’s important. I know Tesla is way past their prime and not exactly filling stadiums anymore, but find me another band that will go that far out of their way to keep people happy. It tells me they know what’s important – the fans – because if you don’t keep your fans happy, they won’t come see you and they won’t buy your records.

So next time there’s a band you want to see, show up a bit early because not only will you usually get a good seat, you never know who’ll you find signing autographs. And you might miss the vomit.

Originally posted on Aug 5, 2008

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It’s a good time to bring back blimps

I love blimps. Blimps just make sense to me. They’re elegant, classy, efficient, and it many ways, quite practical. Just by chance I happened to come across an article in the NYT Europe section about Zeppelin blimps. I didn’t read the entire article but just the first few paragraphs were enough to have me thinking happy blimp thoughts.

Blimps are just like airplanes or trains but are far more efficient. All three follow more direct routes than car or truck, but blimps don’t use regular jet fuel. They use reusable gas to fill the blimp, so right there they are better off than the rest of us. Blimps may be a bit slower than jets or trains, but I say that blimps are not for trans-atlantic or even cross-country shipments. I see blimps as tri-state, regional solution to delivering goods.

Not only do blimps make fuel sense, they make delivery sense. Blimps don’t need acres and miles of runway, they just need a small field or even a tall building with which to dock and unload. Blimps can go vertical, making them more flexible than planes and have more reach than a train.

Blimps just…blimps just make sense. As the article points out, in a time when fuel prices are sky high (ha ha), blimps provide an alternative that could help cut costs at a critical time. I doubt it will catch on, but just imagine how beautiful a sky filled with blimps would be. Imagine traveling from Chicago to New York by blimp…no, wait, luxury blimp. Even if blimps didn’t become a shipping standard, I think blimps would have a cool-factor that would make them work as a novelty travel for a long while.

Bring back blimps!!

Originally posted on Aug 4, 2008

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Work will be watching

A recent article in the NY Times talks about new network monitoring software that will “learn” about employee’s web behaviour and give the company finite control over restrictions and settings. I won’t repost the whole article, but this pretty much sums it up:

…one company might say that marketing folks can only visit YouTube during lunch hour, and even then, they can only upload two megabytes to the site each day. Engineers might be blocked from visiting Facebook…but everyone else can.

I’m not saying companies shouldn’t monitor network traffic and use, it’s a legit concern. But if software like this works as well as promoted, I see one problem: we’re not machines. Applying strict rules onto users will just make them unhappy and that ultimately results is poor results.

I’m one that believes people will naturally find their balance at work. No one works 8-hours solid. It’s just not possible, and frankly, not healthy. Everybody needs some time during the day to just chill for a few. Some people may go outside for a smoke, some might walk around the building, some might scratch their butt, some, like me, just stay on-line and visit web sites they enjoy but aren’t work-related.

Me, I hit up my video game blogs, check my personal e-mail, manage my personal sites and that type stuff. All said and done, it maybe takes 15-30 minutes of my day. No big deal. If I spend more time than that I feel like I’m jipping myself out of work time. I know I have stuff to do and I know how much time it takes to get it done. Most people won’t abuse their time because fear will keep them in check – at least that’s what I’ve witnessed. If you just trust people things will usually work out for the best.

I’m sure the thought behind applying smart software that tracks individuals and adjusts based on habits is that it will stop those that do abuse their work time. I guess my philosophy on this is that instead of using a blacklist method that effects everyone, if you find someone is spending too much time hanging out on YouTube, you deal with them. You warn them, suspend them, fire them, whatever…you deal with the person directly. You don’t puss out and let technology to do your people management for you. That’s just weak. And honestly, I wouldn’t want to work for a company that manages their employees that way.

Everybody works best in different environments. And that’s not limited to physical environments, but digital/on-line environments too. You can’t look at sheer numbers to determine what people are doing. Behaviour doesn’t work by the numbers and by saying, “Brian spends 30 minutes on Gmail a day means he’s wasting time,” is quite ignorant and might do more harm than good in the long.

Of course, all this is assuming companies will pretty much abuse this network management power. Some will, some won’t, but just having that ability will turn even the lax network admin into a network nazi. Actually, software like this might even eliminate that admin job…so you better watch out.

Originally posted on Aug 4, 2008

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Winnie’s new digs

In the great menagerie we call our home lives a cat, a dog, a turtle, and a dog – in that order. Out of them all the turtle, Winnie, requires the least amount of attention. She probably doesn’t get enough attention, actually, but so it goes. She’s a turtle. It’s funny that most people probably think it’s easier to care a turtle than two dogs and cat. Simplicity of often deceiving.

When we got Winnie a couple years ago, the men at the turtle store told us she was a water turtle and needed water to feed and stuff. OK, so we got an aquarium and filled it with water for her to swim around and a little floating dock for her to lay on. And that’s the way it remained for a long time, with regular tank cleanings and the likes to keep things as clean as we could. But let me tell you, a turtle is a dirty, dirty, messy animal.

Emptying 15 gallons of water every two week sucked bears. Well, our thoughts of “easy” care for a turtle changed when we discovered Winnie’s shell had a few bad spots on it. We think it’s shell rot, which, from what we’ve read, is easily cared for with a little soap wash and less water time. And that’s where we goofed in the past – we had too much water and not enough “sun” for her – which led to her shell problems. So action had to be taken immediately.

That action was a new apartment for Winnie. A trip to the pet store had me coming home with a stone barrier that needed to be siliconed into the aquarium so one half could be set with rocks for basking and the other for her pool. And it’s pretty nice, although I’m not sure Winnie knows what to do with it all yet.

Now there’s 1/4 as much water in the tank, which should make cleaning much easier while still giving her plenty of water for her bodily needs. The project as a whole was a lot easier than I expected. I’m glad I found the little barrier thing. My first thoughts were buying rocks or something and piling them up to create a nice basking area but still having mostly water. The new setup should be nice for her and for us.

I just hope the dogs don’t ask for a new house too.

Originally posted on Aug 19, 2008

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The Presidents and Amazon MP3

Despite my regular use of iTunes for playing and sometimes purchasing music, I’m not necessarily an iTunes-lover. I think iTunes is a nice music organizer/player. It certainly has its issues and I can’t say I’ve been 100% happy with it, but it does the trick. But then there’s the music, by far the biggest wrinkle in the sheet. Damn their DMA songs!

Even though I use iTunes as my main music player, I hate having my music locked down. My solution around it has been what most people have probably been doing too…burning the iTunes songs to a CD and then ripping them back as MP3s. Tedious and stupid, but it works.

When Amazon announced their MP3 service would be cheaper and offer standard MP3 files I told myself the next time I plan on getting a song or album I’d use it. Well, with money sitting in my iTunes account thanks to gift cards and redeeming, I hadn’t not followed through on that promise until today when I found a good reason to go elsewhere.

Much to my happiness I discovered that one of my favorite groups, The Presidents of the United States of America, did not disband as I had once thought. Actually, they did back in 1998 and then reformed a few years later to release a handful of albums.

“Peaches” – The Presidents of the United States of America
[audio:peaches.mp3]

I remember buying The President’s first album at Media Play. I thought the album cover was strange, and the music was pretty nutty too, but that’s why I like it so. It’s poppy, fast, it rocks, and has a heaping helping of fun and humor. That first record was really solid. The follow up album II was 50/50. A third release just before their break-up had even fewer singles. After I heard they broke up I had pretty much written them off and had just accepted I’d have 2.5 albums to enjoy for the rest of time.

I was at YouTube watching some Weird Al videos and that led me to The Presidents’ Wikipedia page where learned they regrouped and have been making new albums. It’s great to find out they’re still making music and still keeping it fun and light. I went the web site and listened to a few tracks from newer albums and decided to go ahead and download one of the “lost albums” I had missed. I decided on Love Everybody and headed over to iTunes to make the purchase.

Now most albums at iTunes are $10 regardless of the number of tracks. But low and behold this one album from an essentially nobody band was $12. Sucko. But wait! I have an alternative – Amazon MP3. A quick jump to Amazon found the album for $9, so I was ready to dive in.

Although a bummer, I was not surprised to have to install Amazon’s MP3 Downloader, a desktop client that does the downloading for you. After a very quick install I was faced with something I did not expect at all – something helpful – a free song to download. This is very smart because not only is it a great bonus for a new user, but Amazon presents as a way for you to learn how the downloader works before you pay any money. It told me, “Hey, watch the downloader in action by getting this free song.” I happily took their recommendation. Very smart on Amazon’s part and much appreciated as a customer.

So with the downloader installed I click the Buy button and after a quick authorization the downloads came in swiftly. And surprisingly enough, the Amazon Downloader even added the songs to iTunes for me. How considerate. And as advertised, the tracks are straight MP3s (high 256 bitrate too) and I can use them as I see fit and burn them as often as I’d like.

I can’t speak on the depth of Amazon’s MP3 catalog as I was looking for something specific and found it, but if you’re looking for an iTunes alternative for music then I will happily recommend Amazon MP3. It’s easy to use, good quality tracks, and even cheaper than iTunes. Even the single songs are $.89 instead of $.99 – I’ll certainly be back.

(Oh, and the President’s album I downloaded is pretty solid too. Nothing earth-shattering as far as they’re concerned, but it’s great to have some new songs to bust out on the way to work. They’ve stuck with their original formula and it’s very welcome in today’s vast pit of otherwise shotty music.)

Originally posted on Aug 18, 2008

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A reason to keep your CDs

Our walls are pretty bare. Shy of a few of my old college paintings and a couple prints, we don’t have much hanging around. We don’t like cluttered, busy walls anyway, but you have to have something on the walls otherwise it looks too…well, too migrant. Bare walls work if you have some sort of Zen theme going with minimalist furniture and bamboo floors, but we don’t. We’re pretty average folks with an average house. So in an attempt to find something meaningful for our walls without having to go the large poster/print route, I looked at what we have to work with.

And we have a lot of CDs. Our generation has seen a lot of technology change when it comes to music and we’re not even halfway through life. I know you all still have a box somewhere with cassettes in it and needless to say there’s a few shelves of CDs somewhere too. It’s safe to say we have way more MP3s these days than we do CDs, and we do most of our music listening on the computer, so the CDs have just become clutter. Recently though I thought about hanging up CD covers as art. We both love our music and the CDs weren’t doing anything else.

I think album covers as wall art (CD or otherwise) is a good solution to get use out of something that otherwise has no purpose anymore. It’s easy, clean, and shows off your love and tastes for music. Not to mention some album covers are considered art in their own right, so it’s not that far fetched. The trick, it turned out, was finding frames for the little buggers.

Compact disc album covers are square. Most small frames are designed for standard photos, which are rectangles. Going to a craft store or even Target didn’t find us the frames we needed. No, we found just the right size frames at the Dollar Store…but of course! We didn’t go to the Dollar Store looking for frames, but while there noticed some that were just the right size. They’re glass front frames so there’s no “frame” around the album, and it looks pretty nice.

This is still a work in progress, but even with only four covers up the staircase it looks pretty good. About two to four more covers to complete the journey should be enough. Now the hard part is picking which albums to feature. But then again, it’s convenient enough that we can change them whenever we like.

So if you have some bare spots on your walls and need something small to fill the void, consider your favorite (or best looking) album covers. An easy afternoon project.

Originally posted on Aug 16, 2008

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Don’t bust a Nutsie

I’ve been using FineTune.com for on-line music for a long time now. I’ve found it to be be all I need to get through my day. At FineTune you pick songs to add to your pool (playlist) and then it plays back those songs in random order. You never know what song is going to play next, but you know it’ll be a song you picked. Nutsie, on the other hand, takes a different approach and lets you bring your own music collection on-line.

I heard about Nutsie when drummer Duff McKagan was on a local radio show. He was pimping the service, which I believe he invested in (and also adorns the home page) so I figured I’d give it a try. Nutsie expects you to be using iTunes. Now one might see this is a narrow strategy, but these days iTunes is probably a safe bet. Unlike some other services, Nutsie doesn’t want you to upload your MP3s, it only wants your iTunes database. All you need to do with Nutside is export your iTunes library and upload it. Nutsie then does all the work to find the songs so you can listen on-line.

It’s actually a nifty concept but I’ve found it has one fatal flaw – it exposes you to all the crappy music you have in your library. If you’re like me, you’ve ripped just about every CD you have and also any CD that you might even only be remotely interested in. In my catalog there is a lot of classical, a lot of movie scores/sounndtracks, and a lot of country thanks to the wife – and most of that is not stuff I listen to all that often. Nutsie, unfortunately, reminds me that my library has about 70% of crap, 20% of good stuff, and 10% of, “when did I get that song?”

Another flaw in Nutsie is the lack of making playlists within Nutsie. Chances are you have playlists within iTunes. Well, when you upload your library Nutsie retains these playlists but doesn’t let you create new ones with your music. So if want to create your “Ultimate Death Metal” playlist in Nutsie using your collection of songs, you’re out of luck. You also can’t play any individual song with Nutsie. Much like all the other services, the site will play songs from your playlists randomly.

Another very annoying unfeature in Nutsie is the audio player itself. An embedded music player can be found on just about every page, including your personal playlist home page. This works great until you click a link on the page and takes you away, thus stopping your music and making you start all over again. One simple improvement Nutsie could add is to simply let you pop-out the player so you can navigate around Nutsie without disrupting your music. This even works against them because the always-present “Buy” button next to each song stops the music and just makes you mad. You’ll also find the music players start automagically, so just about every web page will start blaring out music when you arrive.

On the good side of Nutsie is the standard shared playlist abilities. Even if you don’t upload your own music library, you’ll find a good host of themed playlists that will keep you going for a while. They have a nice list of dated playlists so you can hear the Best Rock Songs of 1977 anytime you want (which I recommend). And assuming you’re a Nutsie member – which is free – you are allowed unlimited song skips. Where as places like FineTune and Pandora limit you to five skips per hour, Nutsie lets you skip forever if you want. Of course, you’ll need unlimited skips to get through all the crap in your personal library. For one session I actually did more skipping than listening.

And perhaps the most unique feature of Nutsie is the Nutsie Picks slider that appears above every music player. This lets you choose if you want Nutsie to recommend other songs and mix them while you’re listening. This doesn’t add songs to your playlist or library, it works on-the-fly. So if you have a playlist of 50 tunes and slide the Nutsie Picks to some percentage and it’ll toss in a few related artists and songs. Kind of nifty, but in my experience not all that “accurate” as you’ll find Barry Manilow and Rod Stewart dropped in the middle of your Glam Metal playlist.

I think Nutsie is working along the right path but has a long way to go. Design and user experience problems keep me from using the service, and its tendency to replay the same songs from my playlist over and over keeps me sitting at FineTune instead. I like the idea of just uploading my iTunes library and being able to listen anywhere I am, but until they give me more control over what is essentially my music, I’ll stick with my playlists at FineTune.

Originally posted on Aug 16, 2008

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The Wii redeems itself with the Homebrew Channel

I wrote a bit back about my increasing loss of faith in the Wii. The games slated to come out through the rest of the year and into 2009 are quite, shall we say, “weak” and include many uber-family friendly games. I have nothing against family friendly, but you can only have so many pet and puzzle games before a system starts to lose its appeal. However, a recent investigation into a well known hack for the Wii has me singing a different tune.

Reading Wii news as regularly as I do, quite some time ago I read about a thing called the Twilight Hack, which exploits a bug in the Wii Zelda game that let hackers into the core system. I typically try not to bother with console hacks because I’ve spent way to much on the deck to possibly ruin it by hacking. But over the weekend I found and read more about the Twilight Hack that sold me on the idea.

tmpphpT41Nzl.jpgBut why hack the Wii in the first place? Well, hacking in this case means you can load homebrew games (indie games) on the Wii. The hack actually adds the “Homebrew Channel” to your standard Wii menu (in English). Along with standalone indie games, you can also load emulators with the channel. As is well documented, I am an emulator junkie, especially for the classic decks like the NES, SNES, and PC Engine. With the promise of emulators on the Wii, I couldn’t not try the hack.

The Twilight Hack was stupidly simple to install. The only thing you need is an SD memory card and the Zelda game disc. Fortunately friend-of-the-Toast, Thee, had the Zelda game and once I had it in my hand I gave the hack a go. I held my breath and watched the DOS-like screen fly by, doing something to my Wii, and just hoped I wasn’t bricking my Wii. Bang! Zoom! The Homebrew Channel is ready to go!

And much (very much) to my surprise the NES emulator ran just fine and I was able to load all the NES ROMs I’ve had for years. Then I tried the TurboGrafix16 emulator…worked. Then the SNES emulator…worked. How awesome is this?! And all the emulators have multi-player support. So now I can play my old NES and other games just about everywhere: on my original NES deck, my PC, my DS portable, and now my Wii. Wherever I go, the NES will follow. Nuts? Yes. Fun? You betcha.

I’ve spent a lot of time and money on my NES PowerPak so I could play ROMs on my actual NES console, and nothing beats that experience, but having the NES games on my Wii is just way too convenient. Then toss on the SNES, Genesis and PCE games that I never had elsewhere other than my computer…you can’t beat it. I’m still playing around with the emulators and homebrew games, but so far the so good shy of a few ROMs that just haven’t loaded. But I don’t know if that means it’s a bad ROM, which is highly likely, or the emulator…time will tell. I’ve also found I now have a really good reason to buy a classic Wii controller.

tmpphpfZjYsl.jpgBut wait…can’t you download all the old games with the Wii Virtual Console? Why yes, you can…for anywhere from $5 – $10 a pop. We all have our favorite classic games. Even with over 500 NES games, I play the same dozen over and over. Same will go with PCE, SNES, and Genesis…but if I can get them easily for free, why do the whole download thing? Plus, now I can play the games I never played before but wanted to without the risk. It’s just nice.

Having this homebrew option opens up the Wii to a whole new realm of games even beyond old emulators. Now you can also play games made by indie developers that you won’t find in retail. One such game I found is called GuitarFun and is a clone of clone…it’s a clone of Frets on Fire, the PC Guitar Hero clone. I have yet to get GuitarFun to load and play on the Wii Homebrew, but when/if it does, it means I can play custom songs (real songs) with the actual guitar controller. Now that’ll be spiffy! I’ll post up a note when I get it working…but there are YouTubes of the game working.

All in all, I don’t see any reason you wouldn’t want to use the Twilight Hack and install the Homebrew Channel. It doesn’t hurt and the manual claims you can even uninstall it all. This isn’t a hardware-level hack, it’s just software, so there shouldn’t ever be any permanent damage. If you’re after some classic console gaming and don’t want go crazy like I did with my NES, this Wii hack is the sweet spot that turns your console into the perfect (and free) retro game machine. And since you’re saving on VC downloads, you can justify more retail Wii games and accessories.

If you’re wanting to setup the Homebrew Channel on your Wii, hit up WiiBrew.com and look for their WiiPack Generator. Use it to download all the parts you want and need, including the Twilight Hack. And to see just how easy the hack is to install, there’s a handy video…which I watched like five times before doing it myself (it just made me feel better).

Now pardon me while I go run through some Excite Bike, F-Zero, Keith Courage, and maybe a little Street Fighter II.

Originally posted on Aug 13, 2008

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Seventeen pounds of Hot Wheels

I’ve been “collecting” Hot Wheels for probably close to eight years by now. I collect but I don’t invest in Hot Wheels. A recent trip to the Ohio State Fair’s and its famed Junk Barn (where every Harry, Dick, and Tom can attempt to sell their junk) had me face-to-face with a ton of “collectible” Hot Wheels.

They were all in the box and ranged in age from 2008 models to some that stretched back to the mid-80s. And not surprisingly, I had many of the cars I saw…but much to my surprise, these cars were selling for $2 – $5. While a few bucks may not sound like much, considering each Hot Wheels car costs less than a dollar to buy it’s a pretty good return on the value.

It’s hard for me to see Hot Wheels as a collectibles investment. Sure, it kind of sucks to see a car I bought for 97 cents just a week ago already selling for $3 (which is bull anyway), but then I realize why I collect Hot Wheels – because I like them. I like to look at them, play with them, take pictures of them, let others play with them…it’s about the fun of toy cars, not the fun of buying and selling. I wouldn’t be any good at selling them anyway because I wouldn’t be able to give them up, even at a profit.

With my upgraded Flickr Pro account at my disposal, I decided to do something I had been wanting to do for a while, shoot my cars in more “artistic” ways, rather than the straight up showroom-quality photos I’ve been taking for the Hot Wheels Showcase I have on-line.

Hot Wheels are so vivid and fantastic that they lend themselves to photographs, both macro photography (which I can’t do well) and just general fun shooting (which I can do well). So with a sunny Saturday on hand I took all (well, most) of my cars out and set them up for some shots. It’s funny because when you tell people you have 193 Hot Wheels it sounds like a lot…but when you line them all up for a family photo, it doesn’t look like much, at least not to me. I guess in my head I thought they would take up more space all laid out, but I guess they’re only 2-inch cars anyway.

So yes, I have upwards of 190 Hot Wheels cars and all together they weigh an even 17 pounds. And for those wanting to keep track, each Hot Wheels cars cost me a dollar, so my total investment should be pretty simple. Now consider if I was investing in the toys how much I would have in value if each one could (on average) resell for $3.

I don’t really plan to stop my collecting. It’s cheap and it’s fun. And they make for some awesome photos.

Stop by the Flickr page for more shots.

Originally posted on Aug 9, 2008

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Tesla, still comin’ atcha live…again

You go to a concert early for one reason: to get good seats. And even though we saw Tesla in concert just six months ago, we still showed up early to make sure we got the spot we wanted. Last time we saw Tesla it was bare nuts cold outside and the line to get in was down the block. This time it was hot, but the line wasn’t so long, however, we noticed a small group of people gathering away from the main line. They were gathering outside the tour bus entrance where last time Frank Hannon chatted with shivering fans so we figured members of Tesla were once again mingling with fans, and we were right.

Before you continue, please enjoy some Tesla as you read:
[audio:tesla.mp3]

This time lead singer Jeff Keith was signing autographs and taking pictures from behind the entrance gate. We didn’t bring our camera because the venue doesn’t allow cameras, but we did have a convenient phone camera. And just after we got a shot of Jeff behind bars he says, “hell with this, I’m coming out there,” and he walked around the gate to meet fans up close and personal right there on the sidewalk. What luck! So we calmly waited to say “Hello” and get a photo op and autograph. Unfortunately, given the sun and the low-fi camera, the photo of Jen and Jeff didn’t turn out as well as I’d hope (although you can tell who it is), but he also signed the ticket stub…making this one of the first ticket stubs I’ll actually be keeping.

Before too long the rest of people waiting in line took notice and gathered around getting their jeans, arms, and children signed by Jeff Keith. At that point we moved back into the line and waited for the doors to open. Once we were in we found the spot we wanted, along the back wall of the floor section. We were at the same venue as before but this time we were outside and oh what a difference it made. The sound and experience of an indoor show just can’t compare to that of a outdoor concert. So we sat a waited for things to kick off while other came to sit along side us.

Not too long after we claimed our spot a girl sitting about three people down from me leaned forward and…well, she just puked her guts out. What?! Vomiting already? That’s what one guy was thinking as he passed by the pool of vomit and then looked at his watch, as though to think, “isn’t it a bit early for barf?”

Out of all the concerts we’ve seen in the past few years, this is the first time we’ve been near, let alone witness, some vomiting, as surprising as that may be. It’s very interesting watching people notice a pile of vomit. It actually became the game of the night, watching people’s reactions when they noticed the pool…assuming they did notice. Although few and far between, there were a handful of people that just didn’t notice and walked right through it. If you learn one thing from this entry, please learn that you should always look down when at a concert because you never know what you’ll find on the ground. Needless to say, the vomit kept many people away so we enjoyed the concert in relative peace. Thankfully we were far enough away from it that it didn’t encroach our space.

The opening band did their thing and after a quick stage change Tesla came out and rocked a perfect night. And it was a perfect night for a concert, very comfortable with clear skies. They changed up their set list just enough from their last visit, playing their standards but also including ones like “Edison’s Medicine” and “Mama’s Fool,” of which neither they played last time. They also removed the cover songs from their line-up, which I appreciated.

And if you thought having a pool of throw-up next you all night wasn’t a good way to enjoy Tesla, it gets better. Because about three quarters through the set victim number too spun around in front of us and spewed. This lady spewed first in the same spot as the first girl, then ran off the floor to toss it in the grass. Not sure if it was the combination of heat and beer, which is always fun, or if that spot on the floor had low gravity or some other anomaly that would cause people to chuck. Vomit to the left of me, vomit to the right of me…had it not been for Tesla in front of me, it would have been a rough night.

Another thing this concert proved is that Tesla is a prime example of a solid band. Being the only band we’ve seen twice, we know that Tesla puts on a good show just about every time they perform. It doesn’t matter if they’re inside or outside, they just lay it down. Nothing too fancy, not a lot of “show,” just a straight set of hits. To top things off, they did something other bands could learn from – they skipped the encore. It seems these days the encore is a given, which kind of defeats the specialness of an encore. No, instead Tesla said, “we don’t need to make people scream and shout, we’ll just keep on going.” So instead of taking a break, making us wait and then coming out to play one more song, they played two more songs instead. Awesome. Just awesome. Why make us clap? You know you’re coming back out to play.

The fact that Jeff Keith was willing to stand in the middle of the sidewalk and get up close with fans also tells me that Tesla knows what’s important. I know Tesla is way past their prime and not exactly filling stadiums anymore, but find me another band that will go that far out of their way to keep people happy. It tells me they know what’s important – the fans – because if you don’t keep your fans happy, they won’t come see you and they won’t buy your records.

So next time there’s a band you want to see, show up a bit early because not only will you usually get a good seat, you never know who’ll you find signing autographs. And you might miss the vomit.

Originally posted on Aug 5, 2008

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It’s a good time to bring back blimps

I love blimps. Blimps just make sense to me. They’re elegant, classy, efficient, and it many ways, quite practical. Just by chance I happened to come across an article in the NYT Europe section about Zeppelin blimps. I didn’t read the entire article but just the first few paragraphs were enough to have me thinking happy blimp thoughts.

Blimps are just like airplanes or trains but are far more efficient. All three follow more direct routes than car or truck, but blimps don’t use regular jet fuel. They use reusable gas to fill the blimp, so right there they are better off than the rest of us. Blimps may be a bit slower than jets or trains, but I say that blimps are not for trans-atlantic or even cross-country shipments. I see blimps as tri-state, regional solution to delivering goods.

Not only do blimps make fuel sense, they make delivery sense. Blimps don’t need acres and miles of runway, they just need a small field or even a tall building with which to dock and unload. Blimps can go vertical, making them more flexible than planes and have more reach than a train.

Blimps just…blimps just make sense. As the article points out, in a time when fuel prices are sky high (ha ha), blimps provide an alternative that could help cut costs at a critical time. I doubt it will catch on, but just imagine how beautiful a sky filled with blimps would be. Imagine traveling from Chicago to New York by blimp…no, wait, luxury blimp. Even if blimps didn’t become a shipping standard, I think blimps would have a cool-factor that would make them work as a novelty travel for a long while.

Bring back blimps!!

Originally posted on Aug 4, 2008

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Work will be watching

A recent article in the NY Times talks about new network monitoring software that will “learn” about employee’s web behaviour and give the company finite control over restrictions and settings. I won’t repost the whole article, but this pretty much sums it up:

…one company might say that marketing folks can only visit YouTube during lunch hour, and even then, they can only upload two megabytes to the site each day. Engineers might be blocked from visiting Facebook…but everyone else can.

I’m not saying companies shouldn’t monitor network traffic and use, it’s a legit concern. But if software like this works as well as promoted, I see one problem: we’re not machines. Applying strict rules onto users will just make them unhappy and that ultimately results is poor results.

I’m one that believes people will naturally find their balance at work. No one works 8-hours solid. It’s just not possible, and frankly, not healthy. Everybody needs some time during the day to just chill for a few. Some people may go outside for a smoke, some might walk around the building, some might scratch their butt, some, like me, just stay on-line and visit web sites they enjoy but aren’t work-related.

Me, I hit up my video game blogs, check my personal e-mail, manage my personal sites and that type stuff. All said and done, it maybe takes 15-30 minutes of my day. No big deal. If I spend more time than that I feel like I’m jipping myself out of work time. I know I have stuff to do and I know how much time it takes to get it done. Most people won’t abuse their time because fear will keep them in check – at least that’s what I’ve witnessed. If you just trust people things will usually work out for the best.

I’m sure the thought behind applying smart software that tracks individuals and adjusts based on habits is that it will stop those that do abuse their work time. I guess my philosophy on this is that instead of using a blacklist method that effects everyone, if you find someone is spending too much time hanging out on YouTube, you deal with them. You warn them, suspend them, fire them, whatever…you deal with the person directly. You don’t puss out and let technology to do your people management for you. That’s just weak. And honestly, I wouldn’t want to work for a company that manages their employees that way.

Everybody works best in different environments. And that’s not limited to physical environments, but digital/on-line environments too. You can’t look at sheer numbers to determine what people are doing. Behaviour doesn’t work by the numbers and by saying, “Brian spends 30 minutes on Gmail a day means he’s wasting time,” is quite ignorant and might do more harm than good in the long.

Of course, all this is assuming companies will pretty much abuse this network management power. Some will, some won’t, but just having that ability will turn even the lax network admin into a network nazi. Actually, software like this might even eliminate that admin job…so you better watch out.

Originally posted on Aug 4, 2008

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Winnie’s new digs

In the great menagerie we call our home lives a cat, a dog, a turtle, and a dog – in that order. Out of them all the turtle, Winnie, requires the least amount of attention. She probably doesn’t get enough attention, actually, but so it goes. She’s a turtle. It’s funny that most people probably think it’s easier to care a turtle than two dogs and cat. Simplicity of often deceiving.

When we got Winnie a couple years ago, the men at the turtle store told us she was a water turtle and needed water to feed and stuff. OK, so we got an aquarium and filled it with water for her to swim around and a little floating dock for her to lay on. And that’s the way it remained for a long time, with regular tank cleanings and the likes to keep things as clean as we could. But let me tell you, a turtle is a dirty, dirty, messy animal.

Emptying 15 gallons of water every two week sucked bears. Well, our thoughts of “easy” care for a turtle changed when we discovered Winnie’s shell had a few bad spots on it. We think it’s shell rot, which, from what we’ve read, is easily cared for with a little soap wash and less water time. And that’s where we goofed in the past – we had too much water and not enough “sun” for her – which led to her shell problems. So action had to be taken immediately.

That action was a new apartment for Winnie. A trip to the pet store had me coming home with a stone barrier that needed to be siliconed into the aquarium so one half could be set with rocks for basking and the other for her pool. And it’s pretty nice, although I’m not sure Winnie knows what to do with it all yet.

Now there’s 1/4 as much water in the tank, which should make cleaning much easier while still giving her plenty of water for her bodily needs. The project as a whole was a lot easier than I expected. I’m glad I found the little barrier thing. My first thoughts were buying rocks or something and piling them up to create a nice basking area but still having mostly water. The new setup should be nice for her and for us.

I just hope the dogs don’t ask for a new house too.

Originally posted on Aug 19, 2008

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The Presidents and Amazon MP3

Despite my regular use of iTunes for playing and sometimes purchasing music, I’m not necessarily an iTunes-lover. I think iTunes is a nice music organizer/player. It certainly has its issues and I can’t say I’ve been 100% happy with it, but it does the trick. But then there’s the music, by far the biggest wrinkle in the sheet. Damn their DMA songs!

Even though I use iTunes as my main music player, I hate having my music locked down. My solution around it has been what most people have probably been doing too…burning the iTunes songs to a CD and then ripping them back as MP3s. Tedious and stupid, but it works.

When Amazon announced their MP3 service would be cheaper and offer standard MP3 files I told myself the next time I plan on getting a song or album I’d use it. Well, with money sitting in my iTunes account thanks to gift cards and redeeming, I hadn’t not followed through on that promise until today when I found a good reason to go elsewhere.

Much to my happiness I discovered that one of my favorite groups, The Presidents of the United States of America, did not disband as I had once thought. Actually, they did back in 1998 and then reformed a few years later to release a handful of albums.

“Peaches” – The Presidents of the United States of America
[audio:peaches.mp3]

I remember buying The President’s first album at Media Play. I thought the album cover was strange, and the music was pretty nutty too, but that’s why I like it so. It’s poppy, fast, it rocks, and has a heaping helping of fun and humor. That first record was really solid. The follow up album II was 50/50. A third release just before their break-up had even fewer singles. After I heard they broke up I had pretty much written them off and had just accepted I’d have 2.5 albums to enjoy for the rest of time.

I was at YouTube watching some Weird Al videos and that led me to The Presidents’ Wikipedia page where learned they regrouped and have been making new albums. It’s great to find out they’re still making music and still keeping it fun and light. I went the web site and listened to a few tracks from newer albums and decided to go ahead and download one of the “lost albums” I had missed. I decided on Love Everybody and headed over to iTunes to make the purchase.

Now most albums at iTunes are $10 regardless of the number of tracks. But low and behold this one album from an essentially nobody band was $12. Sucko. But wait! I have an alternative – Amazon MP3. A quick jump to Amazon found the album for $9, so I was ready to dive in.

Although a bummer, I was not surprised to have to install Amazon’s MP3 Downloader, a desktop client that does the downloading for you. After a very quick install I was faced with something I did not expect at all – something helpful – a free song to download. This is very smart because not only is it a great bonus for a new user, but Amazon presents as a way for you to learn how the downloader works before you pay any money. It told me, “Hey, watch the downloader in action by getting this free song.” I happily took their recommendation. Very smart on Amazon’s part and much appreciated as a customer.

So with the downloader installed I click the Buy button and after a quick authorization the downloads came in swiftly. And surprisingly enough, the Amazon Downloader even added the songs to iTunes for me. How considerate. And as advertised, the tracks are straight MP3s (high 256 bitrate too) and I can use them as I see fit and burn them as often as I’d like.

I can’t speak on the depth of Amazon’s MP3 catalog as I was looking for something specific and found it, but if you’re looking for an iTunes alternative for music then I will happily recommend Amazon MP3. It’s easy to use, good quality tracks, and even cheaper than iTunes. Even the single songs are $.89 instead of $.99 – I’ll certainly be back.

(Oh, and the President’s album I downloaded is pretty solid too. Nothing earth-shattering as far as they’re concerned, but it’s great to have some new songs to bust out on the way to work. They’ve stuck with their original formula and it’s very welcome in today’s vast pit of otherwise shotty music.)

Originally posted on Aug 18, 2008

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A reason to keep your CDs

Our walls are pretty bare. Shy of a few of my old college paintings and a couple prints, we don’t have much hanging around. We don’t like cluttered, busy walls anyway, but you have to have something on the walls otherwise it looks too…well, too migrant. Bare walls work if you have some sort of Zen theme going with minimalist furniture and bamboo floors, but we don’t. We’re pretty average folks with an average house. So in an attempt to find something meaningful for our walls without having to go the large poster/print route, I looked at what we have to work with.

And we have a lot of CDs. Our generation has seen a lot of technology change when it comes to music and we’re not even halfway through life. I know you all still have a box somewhere with cassettes in it and needless to say there’s a few shelves of CDs somewhere too. It’s safe to say we have way more MP3s these days than we do CDs, and we do most of our music listening on the computer, so the CDs have just become clutter. Recently though I thought about hanging up CD covers as art. We both love our music and the CDs weren’t doing anything else.

I think album covers as wall art (CD or otherwise) is a good solution to get use out of something that otherwise has no purpose anymore. It’s easy, clean, and shows off your love and tastes for music. Not to mention some album covers are considered art in their own right, so it’s not that far fetched. The trick, it turned out, was finding frames for the little buggers.

Compact disc album covers are square. Most small frames are designed for standard photos, which are rectangles. Going to a craft store or even Target didn’t find us the frames we needed. No, we found just the right size frames at the Dollar Store…but of course! We didn’t go to the Dollar Store looking for frames, but while there noticed some that were just the right size. They’re glass front frames so there’s no “frame” around the album, and it looks pretty nice.

This is still a work in progress, but even with only four covers up the staircase it looks pretty good. About two to four more covers to complete the journey should be enough. Now the hard part is picking which albums to feature. But then again, it’s convenient enough that we can change them whenever we like.

So if you have some bare spots on your walls and need something small to fill the void, consider your favorite (or best looking) album covers. An easy afternoon project.

Originally posted on Aug 16, 2008

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Don’t bust a Nutsie

I’ve been using FineTune.com for on-line music for a long time now. I’ve found it to be be all I need to get through my day. At FineTune you pick songs to add to your pool (playlist) and then it plays back those songs in random order. You never know what song is going to play next, but you know it’ll be a song you picked. Nutsie, on the other hand, takes a different approach and lets you bring your own music collection on-line.

I heard about Nutsie when drummer Duff McKagan was on a local radio show. He was pimping the service, which I believe he invested in (and also adorns the home page) so I figured I’d give it a try. Nutsie expects you to be using iTunes. Now one might see this is a narrow strategy, but these days iTunes is probably a safe bet. Unlike some other services, Nutsie doesn’t want you to upload your MP3s, it only wants your iTunes database. All you need to do with Nutside is export your iTunes library and upload it. Nutsie then does all the work to find the songs so you can listen on-line.

It’s actually a nifty concept but I’ve found it has one fatal flaw – it exposes you to all the crappy music you have in your library. If you’re like me, you’ve ripped just about every CD you have and also any CD that you might even only be remotely interested in. In my catalog there is a lot of classical, a lot of movie scores/sounndtracks, and a lot of country thanks to the wife – and most of that is not stuff I listen to all that often. Nutsie, unfortunately, reminds me that my library has about 70% of crap, 20% of good stuff, and 10% of, “when did I get that song?”

Another flaw in Nutsie is the lack of making playlists within Nutsie. Chances are you have playlists within iTunes. Well, when you upload your library Nutsie retains these playlists but doesn’t let you create new ones with your music. So if want to create your “Ultimate Death Metal” playlist in Nutsie using your collection of songs, you’re out of luck. You also can’t play any individual song with Nutsie. Much like all the other services, the site will play songs from your playlists randomly.

Another very annoying unfeature in Nutsie is the audio player itself. An embedded music player can be found on just about every page, including your personal playlist home page. This works great until you click a link on the page and takes you away, thus stopping your music and making you start all over again. One simple improvement Nutsie could add is to simply let you pop-out the player so you can navigate around Nutsie without disrupting your music. This even works against them because the always-present “Buy” button next to each song stops the music and just makes you mad. You’ll also find the music players start automagically, so just about every web page will start blaring out music when you arrive.

On the good side of Nutsie is the standard shared playlist abilities. Even if you don’t upload your own music library, you’ll find a good host of themed playlists that will keep you going for a while. They have a nice list of dated playlists so you can hear the Best Rock Songs of 1977 anytime you want (which I recommend). And assuming you’re a Nutsie member – which is free – you are allowed unlimited song skips. Where as places like FineTune and Pandora limit you to five skips per hour, Nutsie lets you skip forever if you want. Of course, you’ll need unlimited skips to get through all the crap in your personal library. For one session I actually did more skipping than listening.

And perhaps the most unique feature of Nutsie is the Nutsie Picks slider that appears above every music player. This lets you choose if you want Nutsie to recommend other songs and mix them while you’re listening. This doesn’t add songs to your playlist or library, it works on-the-fly. So if you have a playlist of 50 tunes and slide the Nutsie Picks to some percentage and it’ll toss in a few related artists and songs. Kind of nifty, but in my experience not all that “accurate” as you’ll find Barry Manilow and Rod Stewart dropped in the middle of your Glam Metal playlist.

I think Nutsie is working along the right path but has a long way to go. Design and user experience problems keep me from using the service, and its tendency to replay the same songs from my playlist over and over keeps me sitting at FineTune instead. I like the idea of just uploading my iTunes library and being able to listen anywhere I am, but until they give me more control over what is essentially my music, I’ll stick with my playlists at FineTune.

Originally posted on Aug 16, 2008

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The Wii redeems itself with the Homebrew Channel

I wrote a bit back about my increasing loss of faith in the Wii. The games slated to come out through the rest of the year and into 2009 are quite, shall we say, “weak” and include many uber-family friendly games. I have nothing against family friendly, but you can only have so many pet and puzzle games before a system starts to lose its appeal. However, a recent investigation into a well known hack for the Wii has me singing a different tune.

Reading Wii news as regularly as I do, quite some time ago I read about a thing called the Twilight Hack, which exploits a bug in the Wii Zelda game that let hackers into the core system. I typically try not to bother with console hacks because I’ve spent way to much on the deck to possibly ruin it by hacking. But over the weekend I found and read more about the Twilight Hack that sold me on the idea.

tmpphpT41Nzl.jpgBut why hack the Wii in the first place? Well, hacking in this case means you can load homebrew games (indie games) on the Wii. The hack actually adds the “Homebrew Channel” to your standard Wii menu (in English). Along with standalone indie games, you can also load emulators with the channel. As is well documented, I am an emulator junkie, especially for the classic decks like the NES, SNES, and PC Engine. With the promise of emulators on the Wii, I couldn’t not try the hack.

The Twilight Hack was stupidly simple to install. The only thing you need is an SD memory card and the Zelda game disc. Fortunately friend-of-the-Toast, Thee, had the Zelda game and once I had it in my hand I gave the hack a go. I held my breath and watched the DOS-like screen fly by, doing something to my Wii, and just hoped I wasn’t bricking my Wii. Bang! Zoom! The Homebrew Channel is ready to go!

And much (very much) to my surprise the NES emulator ran just fine and I was able to load all the NES ROMs I’ve had for years. Then I tried the TurboGrafix16 emulator…worked. Then the SNES emulator…worked. How awesome is this?! And all the emulators have multi-player support. So now I can play my old NES and other games just about everywhere: on my original NES deck, my PC, my DS portable, and now my Wii. Wherever I go, the NES will follow. Nuts? Yes. Fun? You betcha.

I’ve spent a lot of time and money on my NES PowerPak so I could play ROMs on my actual NES console, and nothing beats that experience, but having the NES games on my Wii is just way too convenient. Then toss on the SNES, Genesis and PCE games that I never had elsewhere other than my computer…you can’t beat it. I’m still playing around with the emulators and homebrew games, but so far the so good shy of a few ROMs that just haven’t loaded. But I don’t know if that means it’s a bad ROM, which is highly likely, or the emulator…time will tell. I’ve also found I now have a really good reason to buy a classic Wii controller.

tmpphpfZjYsl.jpgBut wait…can’t you download all the old games with the Wii Virtual Console? Why yes, you can…for anywhere from $5 – $10 a pop. We all have our favorite classic games. Even with over 500 NES games, I play the same dozen over and over. Same will go with PCE, SNES, and Genesis…but if I can get them easily for free, why do the whole download thing? Plus, now I can play the games I never played before but wanted to without the risk. It’s just nice.

Having this homebrew option opens up the Wii to a whole new realm of games even beyond old emulators. Now you can also play games made by indie developers that you won’t find in retail. One such game I found is called GuitarFun and is a clone of clone…it’s a clone of Frets on Fire, the PC Guitar Hero clone. I have yet to get GuitarFun to load and play on the Wii Homebrew, but when/if it does, it means I can play custom songs (real songs) with the actual guitar controller. Now that’ll be spiffy! I’ll post up a note when I get it working…but there are YouTubes of the game working.

All in all, I don’t see any reason you wouldn’t want to use the Twilight Hack and install the Homebrew Channel. It doesn’t hurt and the manual claims you can even uninstall it all. This isn’t a hardware-level hack, it’s just software, so there shouldn’t ever be any permanent damage. If you’re after some classic console gaming and don’t want go crazy like I did with my NES, this Wii hack is the sweet spot that turns your console into the perfect (and free) retro game machine. And since you’re saving on VC downloads, you can justify more retail Wii games and accessories.

If you’re wanting to setup the Homebrew Channel on your Wii, hit up WiiBrew.com and look for their WiiPack Generator. Use it to download all the parts you want and need, including the Twilight Hack. And to see just how easy the hack is to install, there’s a handy video…which I watched like five times before doing it myself (it just made me feel better).

Now pardon me while I go run through some Excite Bike, F-Zero, Keith Courage, and maybe a little Street Fighter II.

Originally posted on Aug 13, 2008

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Seventeen pounds of Hot Wheels

I’ve been “collecting” Hot Wheels for probably close to eight years by now. I collect but I don’t invest in Hot Wheels. A recent trip to the Ohio State Fair’s and its famed Junk Barn (where every Harry, Dick, and Tom can attempt to sell their junk) had me face-to-face with a ton of “collectible” Hot Wheels.

They were all in the box and ranged in age from 2008 models to some that stretched back to the mid-80s. And not surprisingly, I had many of the cars I saw…but much to my surprise, these cars were selling for $2 – $5. While a few bucks may not sound like much, considering each Hot Wheels car costs less than a dollar to buy it’s a pretty good return on the value.

It’s hard for me to see Hot Wheels as a collectibles investment. Sure, it kind of sucks to see a car I bought for 97 cents just a week ago already selling for $3 (which is bull anyway), but then I realize why I collect Hot Wheels – because I like them. I like to look at them, play with them, take pictures of them, let others play with them…it’s about the fun of toy cars, not the fun of buying and selling. I wouldn’t be any good at selling them anyway because I wouldn’t be able to give them up, even at a profit.

With my upgraded Flickr Pro account at my disposal, I decided to do something I had been wanting to do for a while, shoot my cars in more “artistic” ways, rather than the straight up showroom-quality photos I’ve been taking for the Hot Wheels Showcase I have on-line.

Hot Wheels are so vivid and fantastic that they lend themselves to photographs, both macro photography (which I can’t do well) and just general fun shooting (which I can do well). So with a sunny Saturday on hand I took all (well, most) of my cars out and set them up for some shots. It’s funny because when you tell people you have 193 Hot Wheels it sounds like a lot…but when you line them all up for a family photo, it doesn’t look like much, at least not to me. I guess in my head I thought they would take up more space all laid out, but I guess they’re only 2-inch cars anyway.

So yes, I have upwards of 190 Hot Wheels cars and all together they weigh an even 17 pounds. And for those wanting to keep track, each Hot Wheels cars cost me a dollar, so my total investment should be pretty simple. Now consider if I was investing in the toys how much I would have in value if each one could (on average) resell for $3.

I don’t really plan to stop my collecting. It’s cheap and it’s fun. And they make for some awesome photos.

Stop by the Flickr page for more shots.

Originally posted on Aug 9, 2008

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Tesla, still comin’ atcha live…again

You go to a concert early for one reason: to get good seats. And even though we saw Tesla in concert just six months ago, we still showed up early to make sure we got the spot we wanted. Last time we saw Tesla it was bare nuts cold outside and the line to get in was down the block. This time it was hot, but the line wasn’t so long, however, we noticed a small group of people gathering away from the main line. They were gathering outside the tour bus entrance where last time Frank Hannon chatted with shivering fans so we figured members of Tesla were once again mingling with fans, and we were right.

Before you continue, please enjoy some Tesla as you read:
[audio:tesla.mp3]

This time lead singer Jeff Keith was signing autographs and taking pictures from behind the entrance gate. We didn’t bring our camera because the venue doesn’t allow cameras, but we did have a convenient phone camera. And just after we got a shot of Jeff behind bars he says, “hell with this, I’m coming out there,” and he walked around the gate to meet fans up close and personal right there on the sidewalk. What luck! So we calmly waited to say “Hello” and get a photo op and autograph. Unfortunately, given the sun and the low-fi camera, the photo of Jen and Jeff didn’t turn out as well as I’d hope (although you can tell who it is), but he also signed the ticket stub…making this one of the first ticket stubs I’ll actually be keeping.

Before too long the rest of people waiting in line took notice and gathered around getting their jeans, arms, and children signed by Jeff Keith. At that point we moved back into the line and waited for the doors to open. Once we were in we found the spot we wanted, along the back wall of the floor section. We were at the same venue as before but this time we were outside and oh what a difference it made. The sound and experience of an indoor show just can’t compare to that of a outdoor concert. So we sat a waited for things to kick off while other came to sit along side us.

Not too long after we claimed our spot a girl sitting about three people down from me leaned forward and…well, she just puked her guts out. What?! Vomiting already? That’s what one guy was thinking as he passed by the pool of vomit and then looked at his watch, as though to think, “isn’t it a bit early for barf?”

Out of all the concerts we’ve seen in the past few years, this is the first time we’ve been near, let alone witness, some vomiting, as surprising as that may be. It’s very interesting watching people notice a pile of vomit. It actually became the game of the night, watching people’s reactions when they noticed the pool…assuming they did notice. Although few and far between, there were a handful of people that just didn’t notice and walked right through it. If you learn one thing from this entry, please learn that you should always look down when at a concert because you never know what you’ll find on the ground. Needless to say, the vomit kept many people away so we enjoyed the concert in relative peace. Thankfully we were far enough away from it that it didn’t encroach our space.

The opening band did their thing and after a quick stage change Tesla came out and rocked a perfect night. And it was a perfect night for a concert, very comfortable with clear skies. They changed up their set list just enough from their last visit, playing their standards but also including ones like “Edison’s Medicine” and “Mama’s Fool,” of which neither they played last time. They also removed the cover songs from their line-up, which I appreciated.

And if you thought having a pool of throw-up next you all night wasn’t a good way to enjoy Tesla, it gets better. Because about three quarters through the set victim number too spun around in front of us and spewed. This lady spewed first in the same spot as the first girl, then ran off the floor to toss it in the grass. Not sure if it was the combination of heat and beer, which is always fun, or if that spot on the floor had low gravity or some other anomaly that would cause people to chuck. Vomit to the left of me, vomit to the right of me…had it not been for Tesla in front of me, it would have been a rough night.

Another thing this concert proved is that Tesla is a prime example of a solid band. Being the only band we’ve seen twice, we know that Tesla puts on a good show just about every time they perform. It doesn’t matter if they’re inside or outside, they just lay it down. Nothing too fancy, not a lot of “show,” just a straight set of hits. To top things off, they did something other bands could learn from – they skipped the encore. It seems these days the encore is a given, which kind of defeats the specialness of an encore. No, instead Tesla said, “we don’t need to make people scream and shout, we’ll just keep on going.” So instead of taking a break, making us wait and then coming out to play one more song, they played two more songs instead. Awesome. Just awesome. Why make us clap? You know you’re coming back out to play.

The fact that Jeff Keith was willing to stand in the middle of the sidewalk and get up close with fans also tells me that Tesla knows what’s important. I know Tesla is way past their prime and not exactly filling stadiums anymore, but find me another band that will go that far out of their way to keep people happy. It tells me they know what’s important – the fans – because if you don’t keep your fans happy, they won’t come see you and they won’t buy your records.

So next time there’s a band you want to see, show up a bit early because not only will you usually get a good seat, you never know who’ll you find signing autographs. And you might miss the vomit.

Originally posted on Aug 5, 2008

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It’s a good time to bring back blimps

I love blimps. Blimps just make sense to me. They’re elegant, classy, efficient, and it many ways, quite practical. Just by chance I happened to come across an article in the NYT Europe section about Zeppelin blimps. I didn’t read the entire article but just the first few paragraphs were enough to have me thinking happy blimp thoughts.

Blimps are just like airplanes or trains but are far more efficient. All three follow more direct routes than car or truck, but blimps don’t use regular jet fuel. They use reusable gas to fill the blimp, so right there they are better off than the rest of us. Blimps may be a bit slower than jets or trains, but I say that blimps are not for trans-atlantic or even cross-country shipments. I see blimps as tri-state, regional solution to delivering goods.

Not only do blimps make fuel sense, they make delivery sense. Blimps don’t need acres and miles of runway, they just need a small field or even a tall building with which to dock and unload. Blimps can go vertical, making them more flexible than planes and have more reach than a train.

Blimps just…blimps just make sense. As the article points out, in a time when fuel prices are sky high (ha ha), blimps provide an alternative that could help cut costs at a critical time. I doubt it will catch on, but just imagine how beautiful a sky filled with blimps would be. Imagine traveling from Chicago to New York by blimp…no, wait, luxury blimp. Even if blimps didn’t become a shipping standard, I think blimps would have a cool-factor that would make them work as a novelty travel for a long while.

Bring back blimps!!

Originally posted on Aug 4, 2008

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Work will be watching

A recent article in the NY Times talks about new network monitoring software that will “learn” about employee’s web behaviour and give the company finite control over restrictions and settings. I won’t repost the whole article, but this pretty much sums it up:

…one company might say that marketing folks can only visit YouTube during lunch hour, and even then, they can only upload two megabytes to the site each day. Engineers might be blocked from visiting Facebook…but everyone else can.

I’m not saying companies shouldn’t monitor network traffic and use, it’s a legit concern. But if software like this works as well as promoted, I see one problem: we’re not machines. Applying strict rules onto users will just make them unhappy and that ultimately results is poor results.

I’m one that believes people will naturally find their balance at work. No one works 8-hours solid. It’s just not possible, and frankly, not healthy. Everybody needs some time during the day to just chill for a few. Some people may go outside for a smoke, some might walk around the building, some might scratch their butt, some, like me, just stay on-line and visit web sites they enjoy but aren’t work-related.

Me, I hit up my video game blogs, check my personal e-mail, manage my personal sites and that type stuff. All said and done, it maybe takes 15-30 minutes of my day. No big deal. If I spend more time than that I feel like I’m jipping myself out of work time. I know I have stuff to do and I know how much time it takes to get it done. Most people won’t abuse their time because fear will keep them in check – at least that’s what I’ve witnessed. If you just trust people things will usually work out for the best.

I’m sure the thought behind applying smart software that tracks individuals and adjusts based on habits is that it will stop those that do abuse their work time. I guess my philosophy on this is that instead of using a blacklist method that effects everyone, if you find someone is spending too much time hanging out on YouTube, you deal with them. You warn them, suspend them, fire them, whatever…you deal with the person directly. You don’t puss out and let technology to do your people management for you. That’s just weak. And honestly, I wouldn’t want to work for a company that manages their employees that way.

Everybody works best in different environments. And that’s not limited to physical environments, but digital/on-line environments too. You can’t look at sheer numbers to determine what people are doing. Behaviour doesn’t work by the numbers and by saying, “Brian spends 30 minutes on Gmail a day means he’s wasting time,” is quite ignorant and might do more harm than good in the long.

Of course, all this is assuming companies will pretty much abuse this network management power. Some will, some won’t, but just having that ability will turn even the lax network admin into a network nazi. Actually, software like this might even eliminate that admin job…so you better watch out.

Originally posted on Aug 4, 2008

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Winnie’s new digs

In the great menagerie we call our home lives a cat, a dog, a turtle, and a dog – in that order. Out of them all the turtle, Winnie, requires the least amount of attention. She probably doesn’t get enough attention, actually, but so it goes. She’s a turtle. It’s funny that most people probably think it’s easier to care a turtle than two dogs and cat. Simplicity of often deceiving.

When we got Winnie a couple years ago, the men at the turtle store told us she was a water turtle and needed water to feed and stuff. OK, so we got an aquarium and filled it with water for her to swim around and a little floating dock for her to lay on. And that’s the way it remained for a long time, with regular tank cleanings and the likes to keep things as clean as we could. But let me tell you, a turtle is a dirty, dirty, messy animal.

Emptying 15 gallons of water every two week sucked bears. Well, our thoughts of “easy” care for a turtle changed when we discovered Winnie’s shell had a few bad spots on it. We think it’s shell rot, which, from what we’ve read, is easily cared for with a little soap wash and less water time. And that’s where we goofed in the past – we had too much water and not enough “sun” for her – which led to her shell problems. So action had to be taken immediately.

That action was a new apartment for Winnie. A trip to the pet store had me coming home with a stone barrier that needed to be siliconed into the aquarium so one half could be set with rocks for basking and the other for her pool. And it’s pretty nice, although I’m not sure Winnie knows what to do with it all yet.

Now there’s 1/4 as much water in the tank, which should make cleaning much easier while still giving her plenty of water for her bodily needs. The project as a whole was a lot easier than I expected. I’m glad I found the little barrier thing. My first thoughts were buying rocks or something and piling them up to create a nice basking area but still having mostly water. The new setup should be nice for her and for us.

I just hope the dogs don’t ask for a new house too.

Originally posted on Aug 19, 2008

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The Presidents and Amazon MP3

Despite my regular use of iTunes for playing and sometimes purchasing music, I’m not necessarily an iTunes-lover. I think iTunes is a nice music organizer/player. It certainly has its issues and I can’t say I’ve been 100% happy with it, but it does the trick. But then there’s the music, by far the biggest wrinkle in the sheet. Damn their DMA songs!

Even though I use iTunes as my main music player, I hate having my music locked down. My solution around it has been what most people have probably been doing too…burning the iTunes songs to a CD and then ripping them back as MP3s. Tedious and stupid, but it works.

When Amazon announced their MP3 service would be cheaper and offer standard MP3 files I told myself the next time I plan on getting a song or album I’d use it. Well, with money sitting in my iTunes account thanks to gift cards and redeeming, I hadn’t not followed through on that promise until today when I found a good reason to go elsewhere.

Much to my happiness I discovered that one of my favorite groups, The Presidents of the United States of America, did not disband as I had once thought. Actually, they did back in 1998 and then reformed a few years later to release a handful of albums.

“Peaches” – The Presidents of the United States of America
[audio:peaches.mp3]

I remember buying The President’s first album at Media Play. I thought the album cover was strange, and the music was pretty nutty too, but that’s why I like it so. It’s poppy, fast, it rocks, and has a heaping helping of fun and humor. That first record was really solid. The follow up album II was 50/50. A third release just before their break-up had even fewer singles. After I heard they broke up I had pretty much written them off and had just accepted I’d have 2.5 albums to enjoy for the rest of time.

I was at YouTube watching some Weird Al videos and that led me to The Presidents’ Wikipedia page where learned they regrouped and have been making new albums. It’s great to find out they’re still making music and still keeping it fun and light. I went the web site and listened to a few tracks from newer albums and decided to go ahead and download one of the “lost albums” I had missed. I decided on Love Everybody and headed over to iTunes to make the purchase.

Now most albums at iTunes are $10 regardless of the number of tracks. But low and behold this one album from an essentially nobody band was $12. Sucko. But wait! I have an alternative – Amazon MP3. A quick jump to Amazon found the album for $9, so I was ready to dive in.

Although a bummer, I was not surprised to have to install Amazon’s MP3 Downloader, a desktop client that does the downloading for you. After a very quick install I was faced with something I did not expect at all – something helpful – a free song to download. This is very smart because not only is it a great bonus for a new user, but Amazon presents as a way for you to learn how the downloader works before you pay any money. It told me, “Hey, watch the downloader in action by getting this free song.” I happily took their recommendation. Very smart on Amazon’s part and much appreciated as a customer.

So with the downloader installed I click the Buy button and after a quick authorization the downloads came in swiftly. And surprisingly enough, the Amazon Downloader even added the songs to iTunes for me. How considerate. And as advertised, the tracks are straight MP3s (high 256 bitrate too) and I can use them as I see fit and burn them as often as I’d like.

I can’t speak on the depth of Amazon’s MP3 catalog as I was looking for something specific and found it, but if you’re looking for an iTunes alternative for music then I will happily recommend Amazon MP3. It’s easy to use, good quality tracks, and even cheaper than iTunes. Even the single songs are $.89 instead of $.99 – I’ll certainly be back.

(Oh, and the President’s album I downloaded is pretty solid too. Nothing earth-shattering as far as they’re concerned, but it’s great to have some new songs to bust out on the way to work. They’ve stuck with their original formula and it’s very welcome in today’s vast pit of otherwise shotty music.)

Originally posted on Aug 18, 2008

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A reason to keep your CDs

Our walls are pretty bare. Shy of a few of my old college paintings and a couple prints, we don’t have much hanging around. We don’t like cluttered, busy walls anyway, but you have to have something on the walls otherwise it looks too…well, too migrant. Bare walls work if you have some sort of Zen theme going with minimalist furniture and bamboo floors, but we don’t. We’re pretty average folks with an average house. So in an attempt to find something meaningful for our walls without having to go the large poster/print route, I looked at what we have to work with.

And we have a lot of CDs. Our generation has seen a lot of technology change when it comes to music and we’re not even halfway through life. I know you all still have a box somewhere with cassettes in it and needless to say there’s a few shelves of CDs somewhere too. It’s safe to say we have way more MP3s these days than we do CDs, and we do most of our music listening on the computer, so the CDs have just become clutter. Recently though I thought about hanging up CD covers as art. We both love our music and the CDs weren’t doing anything else.

I think album covers as wall art (CD or otherwise) is a good solution to get use out of something that otherwise has no purpose anymore. It’s easy, clean, and shows off your love and tastes for music. Not to mention some album covers are considered art in their own right, so it’s not that far fetched. The trick, it turned out, was finding frames for the little buggers.

Compact disc album covers are square. Most small frames are designed for standard photos, which are rectangles. Going to a craft store or even Target didn’t find us the frames we needed. No, we found just the right size frames at the Dollar Store…but of course! We didn’t go to the Dollar Store looking for frames, but while there noticed some that were just the right size. They’re glass front frames so there’s no “frame” around the album, and it looks pretty nice.

This is still a work in progress, but even with only four covers up the staircase it looks pretty good. About two to four more covers to complete the journey should be enough. Now the hard part is picking which albums to feature. But then again, it’s convenient enough that we can change them whenever we like.

So if you have some bare spots on your walls and need something small to fill the void, consider your favorite (or best looking) album covers. An easy afternoon project.

Originally posted on Aug 16, 2008

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Don’t bust a Nutsie

I’ve been using FineTune.com for on-line music for a long time now. I’ve found it to be be all I need to get through my day. At FineTune you pick songs to add to your pool (playlist) and then it plays back those songs in random order. You never know what song is going to play next, but you know it’ll be a song you picked. Nutsie, on the other hand, takes a different approach and lets you bring your own music collection on-line.

I heard about Nutsie when drummer Duff McKagan was on a local radio show. He was pimping the service, which I believe he invested in (and also adorns the home page) so I figured I’d give it a try. Nutsie expects you to be using iTunes. Now one might see this is a narrow strategy, but these days iTunes is probably a safe bet. Unlike some other services, Nutsie doesn’t want you to upload your MP3s, it only wants your iTunes database. All you need to do with Nutside is export your iTunes library and upload it. Nutsie then does all the work to find the songs so you can listen on-line.

It’s actually a nifty concept but I’ve found it has one fatal flaw – it exposes you to all the crappy music you have in your library. If you’re like me, you’ve ripped just about every CD you have and also any CD that you might even only be remotely interested in. In my catalog there is a lot of classical, a lot of movie scores/sounndtracks, and a lot of country thanks to the wife – and most of that is not stuff I listen to all that often. Nutsie, unfortunately, reminds me that my library has about 70% of crap, 20% of good stuff, and 10% of, “when did I get that song?”

Another flaw in Nutsie is the lack of making playlists within Nutsie. Chances are you have playlists within iTunes. Well, when you upload your library Nutsie retains these playlists but doesn’t let you create new ones with your music. So if want to create your “Ultimate Death Metal” playlist in Nutsie using your collection of songs, you’re out of luck. You also can’t play any individual song with Nutsie. Much like all the other services, the site will play songs from your playlists randomly.

Another very annoying unfeature in Nutsie is the audio player itself. An embedded music player can be found on just about every page, including your personal playlist home page. This works great until you click a link on the page and takes you away, thus stopping your music and making you start all over again. One simple improvement Nutsie could add is to simply let you pop-out the player so you can navigate around Nutsie without disrupting your music. This even works against them because the always-present “Buy” button next to each song stops the music and just makes you mad. You’ll also find the music players start automagically, so just about every web page will start blaring out music when you arrive.

On the good side of Nutsie is the standard shared playlist abilities. Even if you don’t upload your own music library, you’ll find a good host of themed playlists that will keep you going for a while. They have a nice list of dated playlists so you can hear the Best Rock Songs of 1977 anytime you want (which I recommend). And assuming you’re a Nutsie member – which is free – you are allowed unlimited song skips. Where as places like FineTune and Pandora limit you to five skips per hour, Nutsie lets you skip forever if you want. Of course, you’ll need unlimited skips to get through all the crap in your personal library. For one session I actually did more skipping than listening.

And perhaps the most unique feature of Nutsie is the Nutsie Picks slider that appears above every music player. This lets you choose if you want Nutsie to recommend other songs and mix them while you’re listening. This doesn’t add songs to your playlist or library, it works on-the-fly. So if you have a playlist of 50 tunes and slide the Nutsie Picks to some percentage and it’ll toss in a few related artists and songs. Kind of nifty, but in my experience not all that “accurate” as you’ll find Barry Manilow and Rod Stewart dropped in the middle of your Glam Metal playlist.

I think Nutsie is working along the right path but has a long way to go. Design and user experience problems keep me from using the service, and its tendency to replay the same songs from my playlist over and over keeps me sitting at FineTune instead. I like the idea of just uploading my iTunes library and being able to listen anywhere I am, but until they give me more control over what is essentially my music, I’ll stick with my playlists at FineTune.

Originally posted on Aug 16, 2008

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The Wii redeems itself with the Homebrew Channel

I wrote a bit back about my increasing loss of faith in the Wii. The games slated to come out through the rest of the year and into 2009 are quite, shall we say, “weak” and include many uber-family friendly games. I have nothing against family friendly, but you can only have so many pet and puzzle games before a system starts to lose its appeal. However, a recent investigation into a well known hack for the Wii has me singing a different tune.

Reading Wii news as regularly as I do, quite some time ago I read about a thing called the Twilight Hack, which exploits a bug in the Wii Zelda game that let hackers into the core system. I typically try not to bother with console hacks because I’ve spent way to much on the deck to possibly ruin it by hacking. But over the weekend I found and read more about the Twilight Hack that sold me on the idea.

tmpphpT41Nzl.jpgBut why hack the Wii in the first place? Well, hacking in this case means you can load homebrew games (indie games) on the Wii. The hack actually adds the “Homebrew Channel” to your standard Wii menu (in English). Along with standalone indie games, you can also load emulators with the channel. As is well documented, I am an emulator junkie, especially for the classic decks like the NES, SNES, and PC Engine. With the promise of emulators on the Wii, I couldn’t not try the hack.

The Twilight Hack was stupidly simple to install. The only thing you need is an SD memory card and the Zelda game disc. Fortunately friend-of-the-Toast, Thee, had the Zelda game and once I had it in my hand I gave the hack a go. I held my breath and watched the DOS-like screen fly by, doing something to my Wii, and just hoped I wasn’t bricking my Wii. Bang! Zoom! The Homebrew Channel is ready to go!

And much (very much) to my surprise the NES emulator ran just fine and I was able to load all the NES ROMs I’ve had for years. Then I tried the TurboGrafix16 emulator…worked. Then the SNES emulator…worked. How awesome is this?! And all the emulators have multi-player support. So now I can play my old NES and other games just about everywhere: on my original NES deck, my PC, my DS portable, and now my Wii. Wherever I go, the NES will follow. Nuts? Yes. Fun? You betcha.

I’ve spent a lot of time and money on my NES PowerPak so I could play ROMs on my actual NES console, and nothing beats that experience, but having the NES games on my Wii is just way too convenient. Then toss on the SNES, Genesis and PCE games that I never had elsewhere other than my computer…you can’t beat it. I’m still playing around with the emulators and homebrew games, but so far the so good shy of a few ROMs that just haven’t loaded. But I don’t know if that means it’s a bad ROM, which is highly likely, or the emulator…time will tell. I’ve also found I now have a really good reason to buy a classic Wii controller.

tmpphpfZjYsl.jpgBut wait…can’t you download all the old games with the Wii Virtual Console? Why yes, you can…for anywhere from $5 – $10 a pop. We all have our favorite classic games. Even with over 500 NES games, I play the same dozen over and over. Same will go with PCE, SNES, and Genesis…but if I can get them easily for free, why do the whole download thing? Plus, now I can play the games I never played before but wanted to without the risk. It’s just nice.

Having this homebrew option opens up the Wii to a whole new realm of games even beyond old emulators. Now you can also play games made by indie developers that you won’t find in retail. One such game I found is called GuitarFun and is a clone of clone…it’s a clone of Frets on Fire, the PC Guitar Hero clone. I have yet to get GuitarFun to load and play on the Wii Homebrew, but when/if it does, it means I can play custom songs (real songs) with the actual guitar controller. Now that’ll be spiffy! I’ll post up a note when I get it working…but there are YouTubes of the game working.

All in all, I don’t see any reason you wouldn’t want to use the Twilight Hack and install the Homebrew Channel. It doesn’t hurt and the manual claims you can even uninstall it all. This isn’t a hardware-level hack, it’s just software, so there shouldn’t ever be any permanent damage. If you’re after some classic console gaming and don’t want go crazy like I did with my NES, this Wii hack is the sweet spot that turns your console into the perfect (and free) retro game machine. And since you’re saving on VC downloads, you can justify more retail Wii games and accessories.

If you’re wanting to setup the Homebrew Channel on your Wii, hit up WiiBrew.com and look for their WiiPack Generator. Use it to download all the parts you want and need, including the Twilight Hack. And to see just how easy the hack is to install, there’s a handy video…which I watched like five times before doing it myself (it just made me feel better).

Now pardon me while I go run through some Excite Bike, F-Zero, Keith Courage, and maybe a little Street Fighter II.

Originally posted on Aug 13, 2008

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Seventeen pounds of Hot Wheels

I’ve been “collecting” Hot Wheels for probably close to eight years by now. I collect but I don’t invest in Hot Wheels. A recent trip to the Ohio State Fair’s and its famed Junk Barn (where every Harry, Dick, and Tom can attempt to sell their junk) had me face-to-face with a ton of “collectible” Hot Wheels.

They were all in the box and ranged in age from 2008 models to some that stretched back to the mid-80s. And not surprisingly, I had many of the cars I saw…but much to my surprise, these cars were selling for $2 – $5. While a few bucks may not sound like much, considering each Hot Wheels car costs less than a dollar to buy it’s a pretty good return on the value.

It’s hard for me to see Hot Wheels as a collectibles investment. Sure, it kind of sucks to see a car I bought for 97 cents just a week ago already selling for $3 (which is bull anyway), but then I realize why I collect Hot Wheels – because I like them. I like to look at them, play with them, take pictures of them, let others play with them…it’s about the fun of toy cars, not the fun of buying and selling. I wouldn’t be any good at selling them anyway because I wouldn’t be able to give them up, even at a profit.

With my upgraded Flickr Pro account at my disposal, I decided to do something I had been wanting to do for a while, shoot my cars in more “artistic” ways, rather than the straight up showroom-quality photos I’ve been taking for the Hot Wheels Showcase I have on-line.

Hot Wheels are so vivid and fantastic that they lend themselves to photographs, both macro photography (which I can’t do well) and just general fun shooting (which I can do well). So with a sunny Saturday on hand I took all (well, most) of my cars out and set them up for some shots. It’s funny because when you tell people you have 193 Hot Wheels it sounds like a lot…but when you line them all up for a family photo, it doesn’t look like much, at least not to me. I guess in my head I thought they would take up more space all laid out, but I guess they’re only 2-inch cars anyway.

So yes, I have upwards of 190 Hot Wheels cars and all together they weigh an even 17 pounds. And for those wanting to keep track, each Hot Wheels cars cost me a dollar, so my total investment should be pretty simple. Now consider if I was investing in the toys how much I would have in value if each one could (on average) resell for $3.

I don’t really plan to stop my collecting. It’s cheap and it’s fun. And they make for some awesome photos.

Stop by the Flickr page for more shots.

Originally posted on Aug 9, 2008

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Tesla, still comin’ atcha live…again

You go to a concert early for one reason: to get good seats. And even though we saw Tesla in concert just six months ago, we still showed up early to make sure we got the spot we wanted. Last time we saw Tesla it was bare nuts cold outside and the line to get in was down the block. This time it was hot, but the line wasn’t so long, however, we noticed a small group of people gathering away from the main line. They were gathering outside the tour bus entrance where last time Frank Hannon chatted with shivering fans so we figured members of Tesla were once again mingling with fans, and we were right.

Before you continue, please enjoy some Tesla as you read:
[audio:tesla.mp3]

This time lead singer Jeff Keith was signing autographs and taking pictures from behind the entrance gate. We didn’t bring our camera because the venue doesn’t allow cameras, but we did have a convenient phone camera. And just after we got a shot of Jeff behind bars he says, “hell with this, I’m coming out there,” and he walked around the gate to meet fans up close and personal right there on the sidewalk. What luck! So we calmly waited to say “Hello” and get a photo op and autograph. Unfortunately, given the sun and the low-fi camera, the photo of Jen and Jeff didn’t turn out as well as I’d hope (although you can tell who it is), but he also signed the ticket stub…making this one of the first ticket stubs I’ll actually be keeping.

Before too long the rest of people waiting in line took notice and gathered around getting their jeans, arms, and children signed by Jeff Keith. At that point we moved back into the line and waited for the doors to open. Once we were in we found the spot we wanted, along the back wall of the floor section. We were at the same venue as before but this time we were outside and oh what a difference it made. The sound and experience of an indoor show just can’t compare to that of a outdoor concert. So we sat a waited for things to kick off while other came to sit along side us.

Not too long after we claimed our spot a girl sitting about three people down from me leaned forward and…well, she just puked her guts out. What?! Vomiting already? That’s what one guy was thinking as he passed by the pool of vomit and then looked at his watch, as though to think, “isn’t it a bit early for barf?”

Out of all the concerts we’ve seen in the past few years, this is the first time we’ve been near, let alone witness, some vomiting, as surprising as that may be. It’s very interesting watching people notice a pile of vomit. It actually became the game of the night, watching people’s reactions when they noticed the pool…assuming they did notice. Although few and far between, there were a handful of people that just didn’t notice and walked right through it. If you learn one thing from this entry, please learn that you should always look down when at a concert because you never know what you’ll find on the ground. Needless to say, the vomit kept many people away so we enjoyed the concert in relative peace. Thankfully we were far enough away from it that it didn’t encroach our space.

The opening band did their thing and after a quick stage change Tesla came out and rocked a perfect night. And it was a perfect night for a concert, very comfortable with clear skies. They changed up their set list just enough from their last visit, playing their standards but also including ones like “Edison’s Medicine” and “Mama’s Fool,” of which neither they played last time. They also removed the cover songs from their line-up, which I appreciated.

And if you thought having a pool of throw-up next you all night wasn’t a good way to enjoy Tesla, it gets better. Because about three quarters through the set victim number too spun around in front of us and spewed. This lady spewed first in the same spot as the first girl, then ran off the floor to toss it in the grass. Not sure if it was the combination of heat and beer, which is always fun, or if that spot on the floor had low gravity or some other anomaly that would cause people to chuck. Vomit to the left of me, vomit to the right of me…had it not been for Tesla in front of me, it would have been a rough night.

Another thing this concert proved is that Tesla is a prime example of a solid band. Being the only band we’ve seen twice, we know that Tesla puts on a good show just about every time they perform. It doesn’t matter if they’re inside or outside, they just lay it down. Nothing too fancy, not a lot of “show,” just a straight set of hits. To top things off, they did something other bands could learn from – they skipped the encore. It seems these days the encore is a given, which kind of defeats the specialness of an encore. No, instead Tesla said, “we don’t need to make people scream and shout, we’ll just keep on going.” So instead of taking a break, making us wait and then coming out to play one more song, they played two more songs instead. Awesome. Just awesome. Why make us clap? You know you’re coming back out to play.

The fact that Jeff Keith was willing to stand in the middle of the sidewalk and get up close with fans also tells me that Tesla knows what’s important. I know Tesla is way past their prime and not exactly filling stadiums anymore, but find me another band that will go that far out of their way to keep people happy. It tells me they know what’s important – the fans – because if you don’t keep your fans happy, they won’t come see you and they won’t buy your records.

So next time there’s a band you want to see, show up a bit early because not only will you usually get a good seat, you never know who’ll you find signing autographs. And you might miss the vomit.

Originally posted on Aug 5, 2008

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It’s a good time to bring back blimps

I love blimps. Blimps just make sense to me. They’re elegant, classy, efficient, and it many ways, quite practical. Just by chance I happened to come across an article in the NYT Europe section about Zeppelin blimps. I didn’t read the entire article but just the first few paragraphs were enough to have me thinking happy blimp thoughts.

Blimps are just like airplanes or trains but are far more efficient. All three follow more direct routes than car or truck, but blimps don’t use regular jet fuel. They use reusable gas to fill the blimp, so right there they are better off than the rest of us. Blimps may be a bit slower than jets or trains, but I say that blimps are not for trans-atlantic or even cross-country shipments. I see blimps as tri-state, regional solution to delivering goods.

Not only do blimps make fuel sense, they make delivery sense. Blimps don’t need acres and miles of runway, they just need a small field or even a tall building with which to dock and unload. Blimps can go vertical, making them more flexible than planes and have more reach than a train.

Blimps just…blimps just make sense. As the article points out, in a time when fuel prices are sky high (ha ha), blimps provide an alternative that could help cut costs at a critical time. I doubt it will catch on, but just imagine how beautiful a sky filled with blimps would be. Imagine traveling from Chicago to New York by blimp…no, wait, luxury blimp. Even if blimps didn’t become a shipping standard, I think blimps would have a cool-factor that would make them work as a novelty travel for a long while.

Bring back blimps!!

Originally posted on Aug 4, 2008

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Work will be watching

A recent article in the NY Times talks about new network monitoring software that will “learn” about employee’s web behaviour and give the company finite control over restrictions and settings. I won’t repost the whole article, but this pretty much sums it up:

…one company might say that marketing folks can only visit YouTube during lunch hour, and even then, they can only upload two megabytes to the site each day. Engineers might be blocked from visiting Facebook…but everyone else can.

I’m not saying companies shouldn’t monitor network traffic and use, it’s a legit concern. But if software like this works as well as promoted, I see one problem: we’re not machines. Applying strict rules onto users will just make them unhappy and that ultimately results is poor results.

I’m one that believes people will naturally find their balance at work. No one works 8-hours solid. It’s just not possible, and frankly, not healthy. Everybody needs some time during the day to just chill for a few. Some people may go outside for a smoke, some might walk around the building, some might scratch their butt, some, like me, just stay on-line and visit web sites they enjoy but aren’t work-related.

Me, I hit up my video game blogs, check my personal e-mail, manage my personal sites and that type stuff. All said and done, it maybe takes 15-30 minutes of my day. No big deal. If I spend more time than that I feel like I’m jipping myself out of work time. I know I have stuff to do and I know how much time it takes to get it done. Most people won’t abuse their time because fear will keep them in check – at least that’s what I’ve witnessed. If you just trust people things will usually work out for the best.

I’m sure the thought behind applying smart software that tracks individuals and adjusts based on habits is that it will stop those that do abuse their work time. I guess my philosophy on this is that instead of using a blacklist method that effects everyone, if you find someone is spending too much time hanging out on YouTube, you deal with them. You warn them, suspend them, fire them, whatever…you deal with the person directly. You don’t puss out and let technology to do your people management for you. That’s just weak. And honestly, I wouldn’t want to work for a company that manages their employees that way.

Everybody works best in different environments. And that’s not limited to physical environments, but digital/on-line environments too. You can’t look at sheer numbers to determine what people are doing. Behaviour doesn’t work by the numbers and by saying, “Brian spends 30 minutes on Gmail a day means he’s wasting time,” is quite ignorant and might do more harm than good in the long.

Of course, all this is assuming companies will pretty much abuse this network management power. Some will, some won’t, but just having that ability will turn even the lax network admin into a network nazi. Actually, software like this might even eliminate that admin job…so you better watch out.

Originally posted on Aug 4, 2008

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Winnie’s new digs

In the great menagerie we call our home lives a cat, a dog, a turtle, and a dog – in that order. Out of them all the turtle, Winnie, requires the least amount of attention. She probably doesn’t get enough attention, actually, but so it goes. She’s a turtle. It’s funny that most people probably think it’s easier to care a turtle than two dogs and cat. Simplicity of often deceiving.

When we got Winnie a couple years ago, the men at the turtle store told us she was a water turtle and needed water to feed and stuff. OK, so we got an aquarium and filled it with water for her to swim around and a little floating dock for her to lay on. And that’s the way it remained for a long time, with regular tank cleanings and the likes to keep things as clean as we could. But let me tell you, a turtle is a dirty, dirty, messy animal.

Emptying 15 gallons of water every two week sucked bears. Well, our thoughts of “easy” care for a turtle changed when we discovered Winnie’s shell had a few bad spots on it. We think it’s shell rot, which, from what we’ve read, is easily cared for with a little soap wash and less water time. And that’s where we goofed in the past – we had too much water and not enough “sun” for her – which led to her shell problems. So action had to be taken immediately.

That action was a new apartment for Winnie. A trip to the pet store had me coming home with a stone barrier that needed to be siliconed into the aquarium so one half could be set with rocks for basking and the other for her pool. And it’s pretty nice, although I’m not sure Winnie knows what to do with it all yet.

Now there’s 1/4 as much water in the tank, which should make cleaning much easier while still giving her plenty of water for her bodily needs. The project as a whole was a lot easier than I expected. I’m glad I found the little barrier thing. My first thoughts were buying rocks or something and piling them up to create a nice basking area but still having mostly water. The new setup should be nice for her and for us.

I just hope the dogs don’t ask for a new house too.

Originally posted on Aug 19, 2008

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The Presidents and Amazon MP3

Despite my regular use of iTunes for playing and sometimes purchasing music, I’m not necessarily an iTunes-lover. I think iTunes is a nice music organizer/player. It certainly has its issues and I can’t say I’ve been 100% happy with it, but it does the trick. But then there’s the music, by far the biggest wrinkle in the sheet. Damn their DMA songs!

Even though I use iTunes as my main music player, I hate having my music locked down. My solution around it has been what most people have probably been doing too…burning the iTunes songs to a CD and then ripping them back as MP3s. Tedious and stupid, but it works.

When Amazon announced their MP3 service would be cheaper and offer standard MP3 files I told myself the next time I plan on getting a song or album I’d use it. Well, with money sitting in my iTunes account thanks to gift cards and redeeming, I hadn’t not followed through on that promise until today when I found a good reason to go elsewhere.

Much to my happiness I discovered that one of my favorite groups, The Presidents of the United States of America, did not disband as I had once thought. Actually, they did back in 1998 and then reformed a few years later to release a handful of albums.

“Peaches” – The Presidents of the United States of America
[audio:peaches.mp3]

I remember buying The President’s first album at Media Play. I thought the album cover was strange, and the music was pretty nutty too, but that’s why I like it so. It’s poppy, fast, it rocks, and has a heaping helping of fun and humor. That first record was really solid. The follow up album II was 50/50. A third release just before their break-up had even fewer singles. After I heard they broke up I had pretty much written them off and had just accepted I’d have 2.5 albums to enjoy for the rest of time.

I was at YouTube watching some Weird Al videos and that led me to The Presidents’ Wikipedia page where learned they regrouped and have been making new albums. It’s great to find out they’re still making music and still keeping it fun and light. I went the web site and listened to a few tracks from newer albums and decided to go ahead and download one of the “lost albums” I had missed. I decided on Love Everybody and headed over to iTunes to make the purchase.

Now most albums at iTunes are $10 regardless of the number of tracks. But low and behold this one album from an essentially nobody band was $12. Sucko. But wait! I have an alternative – Amazon MP3. A quick jump to Amazon found the album for $9, so I was ready to dive in.

Although a bummer, I was not surprised to have to install Amazon’s MP3 Downloader, a desktop client that does the downloading for you. After a very quick install I was faced with something I did not expect at all – something helpful – a free song to download. This is very smart because not only is it a great bonus for a new user, but Amazon presents as a way for you to learn how the downloader works before you pay any money. It told me, “Hey, watch the downloader in action by getting this free song.” I happily took their recommendation. Very smart on Amazon’s part and much appreciated as a customer.

So with the downloader installed I click the Buy button and after a quick authorization the downloads came in swiftly. And surprisingly enough, the Amazon Downloader even added the songs to iTunes for me. How considerate. And as advertised, the tracks are straight MP3s (high 256 bitrate too) and I can use them as I see fit and burn them as often as I’d like.

I can’t speak on the depth of Amazon’s MP3 catalog as I was looking for something specific and found it, but if you’re looking for an iTunes alternative for music then I will happily recommend Amazon MP3. It’s easy to use, good quality tracks, and even cheaper than iTunes. Even the single songs are $.89 instead of $.99 – I’ll certainly be back.

(Oh, and the President’s album I downloaded is pretty solid too. Nothing earth-shattering as far as they’re concerned, but it’s great to have some new songs to bust out on the way to work. They’ve stuck with their original formula and it’s very welcome in today’s vast pit of otherwise shotty music.)

Originally posted on Aug 18, 2008

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A reason to keep your CDs

Our walls are pretty bare. Shy of a few of my old college paintings and a couple prints, we don’t have much hanging around. We don’t like cluttered, busy walls anyway, but you have to have something on the walls otherwise it looks too…well, too migrant. Bare walls work if you have some sort of Zen theme going with minimalist furniture and bamboo floors, but we don’t. We’re pretty average folks with an average house. So in an attempt to find something meaningful for our walls without having to go the large poster/print route, I looked at what we have to work with.

And we have a lot of CDs. Our generation has seen a lot of technology change when it comes to music and we’re not even halfway through life. I know you all still have a box somewhere with cassettes in it and needless to say there’s a few shelves of CDs somewhere too. It’s safe to say we have way more MP3s these days than we do CDs, and we do most of our music listening on the computer, so the CDs have just become clutter. Recently though I thought about hanging up CD covers as art. We both love our music and the CDs weren’t doing anything else.

I think album covers as wall art (CD or otherwise) is a good solution to get use out of something that otherwise has no purpose anymore. It’s easy, clean, and shows off your love and tastes for music. Not to mention some album covers are considered art in their own right, so it’s not that far fetched. The trick, it turned out, was finding frames for the little buggers.

Compact disc album covers are square. Most small frames are designed for standard photos, which are rectangles. Going to a craft store or even Target didn’t find us the frames we needed. No, we found just the right size frames at the Dollar Store…but of course! We didn’t go to the Dollar Store looking for frames, but while there noticed some that were just the right size. They’re glass front frames so there’s no “frame” around the album, and it looks pretty nice.

This is still a work in progress, but even with only four covers up the staircase it looks pretty good. About two to four more covers to complete the journey should be enough. Now the hard part is picking which albums to feature. But then again, it’s convenient enough that we can change them whenever we like.

So if you have some bare spots on your walls and need something small to fill the void, consider your favorite (or best looking) album covers. An easy afternoon project.

Originally posted on Aug 16, 2008

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Don’t bust a Nutsie

I’ve been using FineTune.com for on-line music for a long time now. I’ve found it to be be all I need to get through my day. At FineTune you pick songs to add to your pool (playlist) and then it plays back those songs in random order. You never know what song is going to play next, but you know it’ll be a song you picked. Nutsie, on the other hand, takes a different approach and lets you bring your own music collection on-line.

I heard about Nutsie when drummer Duff McKagan was on a local radio show. He was pimping the service, which I believe he invested in (and also adorns the home page) so I figured I’d give it a try. Nutsie expects you to be using iTunes. Now one might see this is a narrow strategy, but these days iTunes is probably a safe bet. Unlike some other services, Nutsie doesn’t want you to upload your MP3s, it only wants your iTunes database. All you need to do with Nutside is export your iTunes library and upload it. Nutsie then does all the work to find the songs so you can listen on-line.

It’s actually a nifty concept but I’ve found it has one fatal flaw – it exposes you to all the crappy music you have in your library. If you’re like me, you’ve ripped just about every CD you have and also any CD that you might even only be remotely interested in. In my catalog there is a lot of classical, a lot of movie scores/sounndtracks, and a lot of country thanks to the wife – and most of that is not stuff I listen to all that often. Nutsie, unfortunately, reminds me that my library has about 70% of crap, 20% of good stuff, and 10% of, “when did I get that song?”

Another flaw in Nutsie is the lack of making playlists within Nutsie. Chances are you have playlists within iTunes. Well, when you upload your library Nutsie retains these playlists but doesn’t let you create new ones with your music. So if want to create your “Ultimate Death Metal” playlist in Nutsie using your collection of songs, you’re out of luck. You also can’t play any individual song with Nutsie. Much like all the other services, the site will play songs from your playlists randomly.

Another very annoying unfeature in Nutsie is the audio player itself. An embedded music player can be found on just about every page, including your personal playlist home page. This works great until you click a link on the page and takes you away, thus stopping your music and making you start all over again. One simple improvement Nutsie could add is to simply let you pop-out the player so you can navigate around Nutsie without disrupting your music. This even works against them because the always-present “Buy” button next to each song stops the music and just makes you mad. You’ll also find the music players start automagically, so just about every web page will start blaring out music when you arrive.

On the good side of Nutsie is the standard shared playlist abilities. Even if you don’t upload your own music library, you’ll find a good host of themed playlists that will keep you going for a while. They have a nice list of dated playlists so you can hear the Best Rock Songs of 1977 anytime you want (which I recommend). And assuming you’re a Nutsie member – which is free – you are allowed unlimited song skips. Where as places like FineTune and Pandora limit you to five skips per hour, Nutsie lets you skip forever if you want. Of course, you’ll need unlimited skips to get through all the crap in your personal library. For one session I actually did more skipping than listening.

And perhaps the most unique feature of Nutsie is the Nutsie Picks slider that appears above every music player. This lets you choose if you want Nutsie to recommend other songs and mix them while you’re listening. This doesn’t add songs to your playlist or library, it works on-the-fly. So if you have a playlist of 50 tunes and slide the Nutsie Picks to some percentage and it’ll toss in a few related artists and songs. Kind of nifty, but in my experience not all that “accurate” as you’ll find Barry Manilow and Rod Stewart dropped in the middle of your Glam Metal playlist.

I think Nutsie is working along the right path but has a long way to go. Design and user experience problems keep me from using the service, and its tendency to replay the same songs from my playlist over and over keeps me sitting at FineTune instead. I like the idea of just uploading my iTunes library and being able to listen anywhere I am, but until they give me more control over what is essentially my music, I’ll stick with my playlists at FineTune.

Originally posted on Aug 16, 2008

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The Wii redeems itself with the Homebrew Channel

I wrote a bit back about my increasing loss of faith in the Wii. The games slated to come out through the rest of the year and into 2009 are quite, shall we say, “weak” and include many uber-family friendly games. I have nothing against family friendly, but you can only have so many pet and puzzle games before a system starts to lose its appeal. However, a recent investigation into a well known hack for the Wii has me singing a different tune.

Reading Wii news as regularly as I do, quite some time ago I read about a thing called the Twilight Hack, which exploits a bug in the Wii Zelda game that let hackers into the core system. I typically try not to bother with console hacks because I’ve spent way to much on the deck to possibly ruin it by hacking. But over the weekend I found and read more about the Twilight Hack that sold me on the idea.

tmpphpT41Nzl.jpgBut why hack the Wii in the first place? Well, hacking in this case means you can load homebrew games (indie games) on the Wii. The hack actually adds the “Homebrew Channel” to your standard Wii menu (in English). Along with standalone indie games, you can also load emulators with the channel. As is well documented, I am an emulator junkie, especially for the classic decks like the NES, SNES, and PC Engine. With the promise of emulators on the Wii, I couldn’t not try the hack.

The Twilight Hack was stupidly simple to install. The only thing you need is an SD memory card and the Zelda game disc. Fortunately friend-of-the-Toast, Thee, had the Zelda game and once I had it in my hand I gave the hack a go. I held my breath and watched the DOS-like screen fly by, doing something to my Wii, and just hoped I wasn’t bricking my Wii. Bang! Zoom! The Homebrew Channel is ready to go!

And much (very much) to my surprise the NES emulator ran just fine and I was able to load all the NES ROMs I’ve had for years. Then I tried the TurboGrafix16 emulator…worked. Then the SNES emulator…worked. How awesome is this?! And all the emulators have multi-player support. So now I can play my old NES and other games just about everywhere: on my original NES deck, my PC, my DS portable, and now my Wii. Wherever I go, the NES will follow. Nuts? Yes. Fun? You betcha.

I’ve spent a lot of time and money on my NES PowerPak so I could play ROMs on my actual NES console, and nothing beats that experience, but having the NES games on my Wii is just way too convenient. Then toss on the SNES, Genesis and PCE games that I never had elsewhere other than my computer…you can’t beat it. I’m still playing around with the emulators and homebrew games, but so far the so good shy of a few ROMs that just haven’t loaded. But I don’t know if that means it’s a bad ROM, which is highly likely, or the emulator…time will tell. I’ve also found I now have a really good reason to buy a classic Wii controller.

tmpphpfZjYsl.jpgBut wait…can’t you download all the old games with the Wii Virtual Console? Why yes, you can…for anywhere from $5 – $10 a pop. We all have our favorite classic games. Even with over 500 NES games, I play the same dozen over and over. Same will go with PCE, SNES, and Genesis…but if I can get them easily for free, why do the whole download thing? Plus, now I can play the games I never played before but wanted to without the risk. It’s just nice.

Having this homebrew option opens up the Wii to a whole new realm of games even beyond old emulators. Now you can also play games made by indie developers that you won’t find in retail. One such game I found is called GuitarFun and is a clone of clone…it’s a clone of Frets on Fire, the PC Guitar Hero clone. I have yet to get GuitarFun to load and play on the Wii Homebrew, but when/if it does, it means I can play custom songs (real songs) with the actual guitar controller. Now that’ll be spiffy! I’ll post up a note when I get it working…but there are YouTubes of the game working.

All in all, I don’t see any reason you wouldn’t want to use the Twilight Hack and install the Homebrew Channel. It doesn’t hurt and the manual claims you can even uninstall it all. This isn’t a hardware-level hack, it’s just software, so there shouldn’t ever be any permanent damage. If you’re after some classic console gaming and don’t want go crazy like I did with my NES, this Wii hack is the sweet spot that turns your console into the perfect (and free) retro game machine. And since you’re saving on VC downloads, you can justify more retail Wii games and accessories.

If you’re wanting to setup the Homebrew Channel on your Wii, hit up WiiBrew.com and look for their WiiPack Generator. Use it to download all the parts you want and need, including the Twilight Hack. And to see just how easy the hack is to install, there’s a handy video…which I watched like five times before doing it myself (it just made me feel better).

Now pardon me while I go run through some Excite Bike, F-Zero, Keith Courage, and maybe a little Street Fighter II.

Originally posted on Aug 13, 2008

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Seventeen pounds of Hot Wheels

I’ve been “collecting” Hot Wheels for probably close to eight years by now. I collect but I don’t invest in Hot Wheels. A recent trip to the Ohio State Fair’s and its famed Junk Barn (where every Harry, Dick, and Tom can attempt to sell their junk) had me face-to-face with a ton of “collectible” Hot Wheels.

They were all in the box and ranged in age from 2008 models to some that stretched back to the mid-80s. And not surprisingly, I had many of the cars I saw…but much to my surprise, these cars were selling for $2 – $5. While a few bucks may not sound like much, considering each Hot Wheels car costs less than a dollar to buy it’s a pretty good return on the value.

It’s hard for me to see Hot Wheels as a collectibles investment. Sure, it kind of sucks to see a car I bought for 97 cents just a week ago already selling for $3 (which is bull anyway), but then I realize why I collect Hot Wheels – because I like them. I like to look at them, play with them, take pictures of them, let others play with them…it’s about the fun of toy cars, not the fun of buying and selling. I wouldn’t be any good at selling them anyway because I wouldn’t be able to give them up, even at a profit.

With my upgraded Flickr Pro account at my disposal, I decided to do something I had been wanting to do for a while, shoot my cars in more “artistic” ways, rather than the straight up showroom-quality photos I’ve been taking for the Hot Wheels Showcase I have on-line.

Hot Wheels are so vivid and fantastic that they lend themselves to photographs, both macro photography (which I can’t do well) and just general fun shooting (which I can do well). So with a sunny Saturday on hand I took all (well, most) of my cars out and set them up for some shots. It’s funny because when you tell people you have 193 Hot Wheels it sounds like a lot…but when you line them all up for a family photo, it doesn’t look like much, at least not to me. I guess in my head I thought they would take up more space all laid out, but I guess they’re only 2-inch cars anyway.

So yes, I have upwards of 190 Hot Wheels cars and all together they weigh an even 17 pounds. And for those wanting to keep track, each Hot Wheels cars cost me a dollar, so my total investment should be pretty simple. Now consider if I was investing in the toys how much I would have in value if each one could (on average) resell for $3.

I don’t really plan to stop my collecting. It’s cheap and it’s fun. And they make for some awesome photos.

Stop by the Flickr page for more shots.

Originally posted on Aug 9, 2008

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Tesla, still comin’ atcha live…again

You go to a concert early for one reason: to get good seats. And even though we saw Tesla in concert just six months ago, we still showed up early to make sure we got the spot we wanted. Last time we saw Tesla it was bare nuts cold outside and the line to get in was down the block. This time it was hot, but the line wasn’t so long, however, we noticed a small group of people gathering away from the main line. They were gathering outside the tour bus entrance where last time Frank Hannon chatted with shivering fans so we figured members of Tesla were once again mingling with fans, and we were right.

Before you continue, please enjoy some Tesla as you read:
[audio:tesla.mp3]

This time lead singer Jeff Keith was signing autographs and taking pictures from behind the entrance gate. We didn’t bring our camera because the venue doesn’t allow cameras, but we did have a convenient phone camera. And just after we got a shot of Jeff behind bars he says, “hell with this, I’m coming out there,” and he walked around the gate to meet fans up close and personal right there on the sidewalk. What luck! So we calmly waited to say “Hello” and get a photo op and autograph. Unfortunately, given the sun and the low-fi camera, the photo of Jen and Jeff didn’t turn out as well as I’d hope (although you can tell who it is), but he also signed the ticket stub…making this one of the first ticket stubs I’ll actually be keeping.

Before too long the rest of people waiting in line took notice and gathered around getting their jeans, arms, and children signed by Jeff Keith. At that point we moved back into the line and waited for the doors to open. Once we were in we found the spot we wanted, along the back wall of the floor section. We were at the same venue as before but this time we were outside and oh what a difference it made. The sound and experience of an indoor show just can’t compare to that of a outdoor concert. So we sat a waited for things to kick off while other came to sit along side us.

Not too long after we claimed our spot a girl sitting about three people down from me leaned forward and…well, she just puked her guts out. What?! Vomiting already? That’s what one guy was thinking as he passed by the pool of vomit and then looked at his watch, as though to think, “isn’t it a bit early for barf?”

Out of all the concerts we’ve seen in the past few years, this is the first time we’ve been near, let alone witness, some vomiting, as surprising as that may be. It’s very interesting watching people notice a pile of vomit. It actually became the game of the night, watching people’s reactions when they noticed the pool…assuming they did notice. Although few and far between, there were a handful of people that just didn’t notice and walked right through it. If you learn one thing from this entry, please learn that you should always look down when at a concert because you never know what you’ll find on the ground. Needless to say, the vomit kept many people away so we enjoyed the concert in relative peace. Thankfully we were far enough away from it that it didn’t encroach our space.

The opening band did their thing and after a quick stage change Tesla came out and rocked a perfect night. And it was a perfect night for a concert, very comfortable with clear skies. They changed up their set list just enough from their last visit, playing their standards but also including ones like “Edison’s Medicine” and “Mama’s Fool,” of which neither they played last time. They also removed the cover songs from their line-up, which I appreciated.

And if you thought having a pool of throw-up next you all night wasn’t a good way to enjoy Tesla, it gets better. Because about three quarters through the set victim number too spun around in front of us and spewed. This lady spewed first in the same spot as the first girl, then ran off the floor to toss it in the grass. Not sure if it was the combination of heat and beer, which is always fun, or if that spot on the floor had low gravity or some other anomaly that would cause people to chuck. Vomit to the left of me, vomit to the right of me…had it not been for Tesla in front of me, it would have been a rough night.

Another thing this concert proved is that Tesla is a prime example of a solid band. Being the only band we’ve seen twice, we know that Tesla puts on a good show just about every time they perform. It doesn’t matter if they’re inside or outside, they just lay it down. Nothing too fancy, not a lot of “show,” just a straight set of hits. To top things off, they did something other bands could learn from – they skipped the encore. It seems these days the encore is a given, which kind of defeats the specialness of an encore. No, instead Tesla said, “we don’t need to make people scream and shout, we’ll just keep on going.” So instead of taking a break, making us wait and then coming out to play one more song, they played two more songs instead. Awesome. Just awesome. Why make us clap? You know you’re coming back out to play.

The fact that Jeff Keith was willing to stand in the middle of the sidewalk and get up close with fans also tells me that Tesla knows what’s important. I know Tesla is way past their prime and not exactly filling stadiums anymore, but find me another band that will go that far out of their way to keep people happy. It tells me they know what’s important – the fans – because if you don’t keep your fans happy, they won’t come see you and they won’t buy your records.

So next time there’s a band you want to see, show up a bit early because not only will you usually get a good seat, you never know who’ll you find signing autographs. And you might miss the vomit.

Originally posted on Aug 5, 2008

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It’s a good time to bring back blimps

I love blimps. Blimps just make sense to me. They’re elegant, classy, efficient, and it many ways, quite practical. Just by chance I happened to come across an article in the NYT Europe section about Zeppelin blimps. I didn’t read the entire article but just the first few paragraphs were enough to have me thinking happy blimp thoughts.

Blimps are just like airplanes or trains but are far more efficient. All three follow more direct routes than car or truck, but blimps don’t use regular jet fuel. They use reusable gas to fill the blimp, so right there they are better off than the rest of us. Blimps may be a bit slower than jets or trains, but I say that blimps are not for trans-atlantic or even cross-country shipments. I see blimps as tri-state, regional solution to delivering goods.

Not only do blimps make fuel sense, they make delivery sense. Blimps don’t need acres and miles of runway, they just need a small field or even a tall building with which to dock and unload. Blimps can go vertical, making them more flexible than planes and have more reach than a train.

Blimps just…blimps just make sense. As the article points out, in a time when fuel prices are sky high (ha ha), blimps provide an alternative that could help cut costs at a critical time. I doubt it will catch on, but just imagine how beautiful a sky filled with blimps would be. Imagine traveling from Chicago to New York by blimp…no, wait, luxury blimp. Even if blimps didn’t become a shipping standard, I think blimps would have a cool-factor that would make them work as a novelty travel for a long while.

Bring back blimps!!

Originally posted on Aug 4, 2008

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Work will be watching

A recent article in the NY Times talks about new network monitoring software that will “learn” about employee’s web behaviour and give the company finite control over restrictions and settings. I won’t repost the whole article, but this pretty much sums it up:

…one company might say that marketing folks can only visit YouTube during lunch hour, and even then, they can only upload two megabytes to the site each day. Engineers might be blocked from visiting Facebook…but everyone else can.

I’m not saying companies shouldn’t monitor network traffic and use, it’s a legit concern. But if software like this works as well as promoted, I see one problem: we’re not machines. Applying strict rules onto users will just make them unhappy and that ultimately results is poor results.

I’m one that believes people will naturally find their balance at work. No one works 8-hours solid. It’s just not possible, and frankly, not healthy. Everybody needs some time during the day to just chill for a few. Some people may go outside for a smoke, some might walk around the building, some might scratch their butt, some, like me, just stay on-line and visit web sites they enjoy but aren’t work-related.

Me, I hit up my video game blogs, check my personal e-mail, manage my personal sites and that type stuff. All said and done, it maybe takes 15-30 minutes of my day. No big deal. If I spend more time than that I feel like I’m jipping myself out of work time. I know I have stuff to do and I know how much time it takes to get it done. Most people won’t abuse their time because fear will keep them in check – at least that’s what I’ve witnessed. If you just trust people things will usually work out for the best.

I’m sure the thought behind applying smart software that tracks individuals and adjusts based on habits is that it will stop those that do abuse their work time. I guess my philosophy on this is that instead of using a blacklist method that effects everyone, if you find someone is spending too much time hanging out on YouTube, you deal with them. You warn them, suspend them, fire them, whatever…you deal with the person directly. You don’t puss out and let technology to do your people management for you. That’s just weak. And honestly, I wouldn’t want to work for a company that manages their employees that way.

Everybody works best in different environments. And that’s not limited to physical environments, but digital/on-line environments too. You can’t look at sheer numbers to determine what people are doing. Behaviour doesn’t work by the numbers and by saying, “Brian spends 30 minutes on Gmail a day means he’s wasting time,” is quite ignorant and might do more harm than good in the long.

Of course, all this is assuming companies will pretty much abuse this network management power. Some will, some won’t, but just having that ability will turn even the lax network admin into a network nazi. Actually, software like this might even eliminate that admin job…so you better watch out.

Originally posted on Aug 4, 2008

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Winnie’s new digs

In the great menagerie we call our home lives a cat, a dog, a turtle, and a dog – in that order. Out of them all the turtle, Winnie, requires the least amount of attention. She probably doesn’t get enough attention, actually, but so it goes. She’s a turtle. It’s funny that most people probably think it’s easier to care a turtle than two dogs and cat. Simplicity of often deceiving.

When we got Winnie a couple years ago, the men at the turtle store told us she was a water turtle and needed water to feed and stuff. OK, so we got an aquarium and filled it with water for her to swim around and a little floating dock for her to lay on. And that’s the way it remained for a long time, with regular tank cleanings and the likes to keep things as clean as we could. But let me tell you, a turtle is a dirty, dirty, messy animal.

Emptying 15 gallons of water every two week sucked bears. Well, our thoughts of “easy” care for a turtle changed when we discovered Winnie’s shell had a few bad spots on it. We think it’s shell rot, which, from what we’ve read, is easily cared for with a little soap wash and less water time. And that’s where we goofed in the past – we had too much water and not enough “sun” for her – which led to her shell problems. So action had to be taken immediately.

That action was a new apartment for Winnie. A trip to the pet store had me coming home with a stone barrier that needed to be siliconed into the aquarium so one half could be set with rocks for basking and the other for her pool. And it’s pretty nice, although I’m not sure Winnie knows what to do with it all yet.

Now there’s 1/4 as much water in the tank, which should make cleaning much easier while still giving her plenty of water for her bodily needs. The project as a whole was a lot easier than I expected. I’m glad I found the little barrier thing. My first thoughts were buying rocks or something and piling them up to create a nice basking area but still having mostly water. The new setup should be nice for her and for us.

I just hope the dogs don’t ask for a new house too.

Originally posted on Aug 19, 2008

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The Presidents and Amazon MP3

Despite my regular use of iTunes for playing and sometimes purchasing music, I’m not necessarily an iTunes-lover. I think iTunes is a nice music organizer/player. It certainly has its issues and I can’t say I’ve been 100% happy with it, but it does the trick. But then there’s the music, by far the biggest wrinkle in the sheet. Damn their DMA songs!

Even though I use iTunes as my main music player, I hate having my music locked down. My solution around it has been what most people have probably been doing too…burning the iTunes songs to a CD and then ripping them back as MP3s. Tedious and stupid, but it works.

When Amazon announced their MP3 service would be cheaper and offer standard MP3 files I told myself the next time I plan on getting a song or album I’d use it. Well, with money sitting in my iTunes account thanks to gift cards and redeeming, I hadn’t not followed through on that promise until today when I found a good reason to go elsewhere.

Much to my happiness I discovered that one of my favorite groups, The Presidents of the United States of America, did not disband as I had once thought. Actually, they did back in 1998 and then reformed a few years later to release a handful of albums.

“Peaches” – The Presidents of the United States of America
[audio:peaches.mp3]

I remember buying The President’s first album at Media Play. I thought the album cover was strange, and the music was pretty nutty too, but that’s why I like it so. It’s poppy, fast, it rocks, and has a heaping helping of fun and humor. That first record was really solid. The follow up album II was 50/50. A third release just before their break-up had even fewer singles. After I heard they broke up I had pretty much written them off and had just accepted I’d have 2.5 albums to enjoy for the rest of time.

I was at YouTube watching some Weird Al videos and that led me to The Presidents’ Wikipedia page where learned they regrouped and have been making new albums. It’s great to find out they’re still making music and still keeping it fun and light. I went the web site and listened to a few tracks from newer albums and decided to go ahead and download one of the “lost albums” I had missed. I decided on Love Everybody and headed over to iTunes to make the purchase.

Now most albums at iTunes are $10 regardless of the number of tracks. But low and behold this one album from an essentially nobody band was $12. Sucko. But wait! I have an alternative – Amazon MP3. A quick jump to Amazon found the album for $9, so I was ready to dive in.

Although a bummer, I was not surprised to have to install Amazon’s MP3 Downloader, a desktop client that does the downloading for you. After a very quick install I was faced with something I did not expect at all – something helpful – a free song to download. This is very smart because not only is it a great bonus for a new user, but Amazon presents as a way for you to learn how the downloader works before you pay any money. It told me, “Hey, watch the downloader in action by getting this free song.” I happily took their recommendation. Very smart on Amazon’s part and much appreciated as a customer.

So with the downloader installed I click the Buy button and after a quick authorization the downloads came in swiftly. And surprisingly enough, the Amazon Downloader even added the songs to iTunes for me. How considerate. And as advertised, the tracks are straight MP3s (high 256 bitrate too) and I can use them as I see fit and burn them as often as I’d like.

I can’t speak on the depth of Amazon’s MP3 catalog as I was looking for something specific and found it, but if you’re looking for an iTunes alternative for music then I will happily recommend Amazon MP3. It’s easy to use, good quality tracks, and even cheaper than iTunes. Even the single songs are $.89 instead of $.99 – I’ll certainly be back.

(Oh, and the President’s album I downloaded is pretty solid too. Nothing earth-shattering as far as they’re concerned, but it’s great to have some new songs to bust out on the way to work. They’ve stuck with their original formula and it’s very welcome in today’s vast pit of otherwise shotty music.)

Originally posted on Aug 18, 2008

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A reason to keep your CDs

Our walls are pretty bare. Shy of a few of my old college paintings and a couple prints, we don’t have much hanging around. We don’t like cluttered, busy walls anyway, but you have to have something on the walls otherwise it looks too…well, too migrant. Bare walls work if you have some sort of Zen theme going with minimalist furniture and bamboo floors, but we don’t. We’re pretty average folks with an average house. So in an attempt to find something meaningful for our walls without having to go the large poster/print route, I looked at what we have to work with.

And we have a lot of CDs. Our generation has seen a lot of technology change when it comes to music and we’re not even halfway through life. I know you all still have a box somewhere with cassettes in it and needless to say there’s a few shelves of CDs somewhere too. It’s safe to say we have way more MP3s these days than we do CDs, and we do most of our music listening on the computer, so the CDs have just become clutter. Recently though I thought about hanging up CD covers as art. We both love our music and the CDs weren’t doing anything else.

I think album covers as wall art (CD or otherwise) is a good solution to get use out of something that otherwise has no purpose anymore. It’s easy, clean, and shows off your love and tastes for music. Not to mention some album covers are considered art in their own right, so it’s not that far fetched. The trick, it turned out, was finding frames for the little buggers.

Compact disc album covers are square. Most small frames are designed for standard photos, which are rectangles. Going to a craft store or even Target didn’t find us the frames we needed. No, we found just the right size frames at the Dollar Store…but of course! We didn’t go to the Dollar Store looking for frames, but while there noticed some that were just the right size. They’re glass front frames so there’s no “frame” around the album, and it looks pretty nice.

This is still a work in progress, but even with only four covers up the staircase it looks pretty good. About two to four more covers to complete the journey should be enough. Now the hard part is picking which albums to feature. But then again, it’s convenient enough that we can change them whenever we like.

So if you have some bare spots on your walls and need something small to fill the void, consider your favorite (or best looking) album covers. An easy afternoon project.

Originally posted on Aug 16, 2008

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Don’t bust a Nutsie

I’ve been using FineTune.com for on-line music for a long time now. I’ve found it to be be all I need to get through my day. At FineTune you pick songs to add to your pool (playlist) and then it plays back those songs in random order. You never know what song is going to play next, but you know it’ll be a song you picked. Nutsie, on the other hand, takes a different approach and lets you bring your own music collection on-line.

I heard about Nutsie when drummer Duff McKagan was on a local radio show. He was pimping the service, which I believe he invested in (and also adorns the home page) so I figured I’d give it a try. Nutsie expects you to be using iTunes. Now one might see this is a narrow strategy, but these days iTunes is probably a safe bet. Unlike some other services, Nutsie doesn’t want you to upload your MP3s, it only wants your iTunes database. All you need to do with Nutside is export your iTunes library and upload it. Nutsie then does all the work to find the songs so you can listen on-line.

It’s actually a nifty concept but I’ve found it has one fatal flaw – it exposes you to all the crappy music you have in your library. If you’re like me, you’ve ripped just about every CD you have and also any CD that you might even only be remotely interested in. In my catalog there is a lot of classical, a lot of movie scores/sounndtracks, and a lot of country thanks to the wife – and most of that is not stuff I listen to all that often. Nutsie, unfortunately, reminds me that my library has about 70% of crap, 20% of good stuff, and 10% of, “when did I get that song?”

Another flaw in Nutsie is the lack of making playlists within Nutsie. Chances are you have playlists within iTunes. Well, when you upload your library Nutsie retains these playlists but doesn’t let you create new ones with your music. So if want to create your “Ultimate Death Metal” playlist in Nutsie using your collection of songs, you’re out of luck. You also can’t play any individual song with Nutsie. Much like all the other services, the site will play songs from your playlists randomly.

Another very annoying unfeature in Nutsie is the audio player itself. An embedded music player can be found on just about every page, including your personal playlist home page. This works great until you click a link on the page and takes you away, thus stopping your music and making you start all over again. One simple improvement Nutsie could add is to simply let you pop-out the player so you can navigate around Nutsie without disrupting your music. This even works against them because the always-present “Buy” button next to each song stops the music and just makes you mad. You’ll also find the music players start automagically, so just about every web page will start blaring out music when you arrive.

On the good side of Nutsie is the standard shared playlist abilities. Even if you don’t upload your own music library, you’ll find a good host of themed playlists that will keep you going for a while. They have a nice list of dated playlists so you can hear the Best Rock Songs of 1977 anytime you want (which I recommend). And assuming you’re a Nutsie member – which is free – you are allowed unlimited song skips. Where as places like FineTune and Pandora limit you to five skips per hour, Nutsie lets you skip forever if you want. Of course, you’ll need unlimited skips to get through all the crap in your personal library. For one session I actually did more skipping than listening.

And perhaps the most unique feature of Nutsie is the Nutsie Picks slider that appears above every music player. This lets you choose if you want Nutsie to recommend other songs and mix them while you’re listening. This doesn’t add songs to your playlist or library, it works on-the-fly. So if you have a playlist of 50 tunes and slide the Nutsie Picks to some percentage and it’ll toss in a few related artists and songs. Kind of nifty, but in my experience not all that “accurate” as you’ll find Barry Manilow and Rod Stewart dropped in the middle of your Glam Metal playlist.

I think Nutsie is working along the right path but has a long way to go. Design and user experience problems keep me from using the service, and its tendency to replay the same songs from my playlist over and over keeps me sitting at FineTune instead. I like the idea of just uploading my iTunes library and being able to listen anywhere I am, but until they give me more control over what is essentially my music, I’ll stick with my playlists at FineTune.

Originally posted on Aug 16, 2008

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The Wii redeems itself with the Homebrew Channel

I wrote a bit back about my increasing loss of faith in the Wii. The games slated to come out through the rest of the year and into 2009 are quite, shall we say, “weak” and include many uber-family friendly games. I have nothing against family friendly, but you can only have so many pet and puzzle games before a system starts to lose its appeal. However, a recent investigation into a well known hack for the Wii has me singing a different tune.

Reading Wii news as regularly as I do, quite some time ago I read about a thing called the Twilight Hack, which exploits a bug in the Wii Zelda game that let hackers into the core system. I typically try not to bother with console hacks because I’ve spent way to much on the deck to possibly ruin it by hacking. But over the weekend I found and read more about the Twilight Hack that sold me on the idea.

tmpphpT41Nzl.jpgBut why hack the Wii in the first place? Well, hacking in this case means you can load homebrew games (indie games) on the Wii. The hack actually adds the “Homebrew Channel” to your standard Wii menu (in English). Along with standalone indie games, you can also load emulators with the channel. As is well documented, I am an emulator junkie, especially for the classic decks like the NES, SNES, and PC Engine. With the promise of emulators on the Wii, I couldn’t not try the hack.

The Twilight Hack was stupidly simple to install. The only thing you need is an SD memory card and the Zelda game disc. Fortunately friend-of-the-Toast, Thee, had the Zelda game and once I had it in my hand I gave the hack a go. I held my breath and watched the DOS-like screen fly by, doing something to my Wii, and just hoped I wasn’t bricking my Wii. Bang! Zoom! The Homebrew Channel is ready to go!

And much (very much) to my surprise the NES emulator ran just fine and I was able to load all the NES ROMs I’ve had for years. Then I tried the TurboGrafix16 emulator…worked. Then the SNES emulator…worked. How awesome is this?! And all the emulators have multi-player support. So now I can play my old NES and other games just about everywhere: on my original NES deck, my PC, my DS portable, and now my Wii. Wherever I go, the NES will follow. Nuts? Yes. Fun? You betcha.

I’ve spent a lot of time and money on my NES PowerPak so I could play ROMs on my actual NES console, and nothing beats that experience, but having the NES games on my Wii is just way too convenient. Then toss on the SNES, Genesis and PCE games that I never had elsewhere other than my computer…you can’t beat it. I’m still playing around with the emulators and homebrew games, but so far the so good shy of a few ROMs that just haven’t loaded. But I don’t know if that means it’s a bad ROM, which is highly likely, or the emulator…time will tell. I’ve also found I now have a really good reason to buy a classic Wii controller.

tmpphpfZjYsl.jpgBut wait…can’t you download all the old games with the Wii Virtual Console? Why yes, you can…for anywhere from $5 – $10 a pop. We all have our favorite classic games. Even with over 500 NES games, I play the same dozen over and over. Same will go with PCE, SNES, and Genesis…but if I can get them easily for free, why do the whole download thing? Plus, now I can play the games I never played before but wanted to without the risk. It’s just nice.

Having this homebrew option opens up the Wii to a whole new realm of games even beyond old emulators. Now you can also play games made by indie developers that you won’t find in retail. One such game I found is called GuitarFun and is a clone of clone…it’s a clone of Frets on Fire, the PC Guitar Hero clone. I have yet to get GuitarFun to load and play on the Wii Homebrew, but when/if it does, it means I can play custom songs (real songs) with the actual guitar controller. Now that’ll be spiffy! I’ll post up a note when I get it working…but there are YouTubes of the game working.

All in all, I don’t see any reason you wouldn’t want to use the Twilight Hack and install the Homebrew Channel. It doesn’t hurt and the manual claims you can even uninstall it all. This isn’t a hardware-level hack, it’s just software, so there shouldn’t ever be any permanent damage. If you’re after some classic console gaming and don’t want go crazy like I did with my NES, this Wii hack is the sweet spot that turns your console into the perfect (and free) retro game machine. And since you’re saving on VC downloads, you can justify more retail Wii games and accessories.

If you’re wanting to setup the Homebrew Channel on your Wii, hit up WiiBrew.com and look for their WiiPack Generator. Use it to download all the parts you want and need, including the Twilight Hack. And to see just how easy the hack is to install, there’s a handy video…which I watched like five times before doing it myself (it just made me feel better).

Now pardon me while I go run through some Excite Bike, F-Zero, Keith Courage, and maybe a little Street Fighter II.

Originally posted on Aug 13, 2008

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Seventeen pounds of Hot Wheels

I’ve been “collecting” Hot Wheels for probably close to eight years by now. I collect but I don’t invest in Hot Wheels. A recent trip to the Ohio State Fair’s and its famed Junk Barn (where every Harry, Dick, and Tom can attempt to sell their junk) had me face-to-face with a ton of “collectible” Hot Wheels.

They were all in the box and ranged in age from 2008 models to some that stretched back to the mid-80s. And not surprisingly, I had many of the cars I saw…but much to my surprise, these cars were selling for $2 – $5. While a few bucks may not sound like much, considering each Hot Wheels car costs less than a dollar to buy it’s a pretty good return on the value.

It’s hard for me to see Hot Wheels as a collectibles investment. Sure, it kind of sucks to see a car I bought for 97 cents just a week ago already selling for $3 (which is bull anyway), but then I realize why I collect Hot Wheels – because I like them. I like to look at them, play with them, take pictures of them, let others play with them…it’s about the fun of toy cars, not the fun of buying and selling. I wouldn’t be any good at selling them anyway because I wouldn’t be able to give them up, even at a profit.

With my upgraded Flickr Pro account at my disposal, I decided to do something I had been wanting to do for a while, shoot my cars in more “artistic” ways, rather than the straight up showroom-quality photos I’ve been taking for the Hot Wheels Showcase I have on-line.

Hot Wheels are so vivid and fantastic that they lend themselves to photographs, both macro photography (which I can’t do well) and just general fun shooting (which I can do well). So with a sunny Saturday on hand I took all (well, most) of my cars out and set them up for some shots. It’s funny because when you tell people you have 193 Hot Wheels it sounds like a lot…but when you line them all up for a family photo, it doesn’t look like much, at least not to me. I guess in my head I thought they would take up more space all laid out, but I guess they’re only 2-inch cars anyway.

So yes, I have upwards of 190 Hot Wheels cars and all together they weigh an even 17 pounds. And for those wanting to keep track, each Hot Wheels cars cost me a dollar, so my total investment should be pretty simple. Now consider if I was investing in the toys how much I would have in value if each one could (on average) resell for $3.

I don’t really plan to stop my collecting. It’s cheap and it’s fun. And they make for some awesome photos.

Stop by the Flickr page for more shots.

Originally posted on Aug 9, 2008

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Tesla, still comin’ atcha live…again

You go to a concert early for one reason: to get good seats. And even though we saw Tesla in concert just six months ago, we still showed up early to make sure we got the spot we wanted. Last time we saw Tesla it was bare nuts cold outside and the line to get in was down the block. This time it was hot, but the line wasn’t so long, however, we noticed a small group of people gathering away from the main line. They were gathering outside the tour bus entrance where last time Frank Hannon chatted with shivering fans so we figured members of Tesla were once again mingling with fans, and we were right.

Before you continue, please enjoy some Tesla as you read:
[audio:tesla.mp3]

This time lead singer Jeff Keith was signing autographs and taking pictures from behind the entrance gate. We didn’t bring our camera because the venue doesn’t allow cameras, but we did have a convenient phone camera. And just after we got a shot of Jeff behind bars he says, “hell with this, I’m coming out there,” and he walked around the gate to meet fans up close and personal right there on the sidewalk. What luck! So we calmly waited to say “Hello” and get a photo op and autograph. Unfortunately, given the sun and the low-fi camera, the photo of Jen and Jeff didn’t turn out as well as I’d hope (although you can tell who it is), but he also signed the ticket stub…making this one of the first ticket stubs I’ll actually be keeping.

Before too long the rest of people waiting in line took notice and gathered around getting their jeans, arms, and children signed by Jeff Keith. At that point we moved back into the line and waited for the doors to open. Once we were in we found the spot we wanted, along the back wall of the floor section. We were at the same venue as before but this time we were outside and oh what a difference it made. The sound and experience of an indoor show just can’t compare to that of a outdoor concert. So we sat a waited for things to kick off while other came to sit along side us.

Not too long after we claimed our spot a girl sitting about three people down from me leaned forward and…well, she just puked her guts out. What?! Vomiting already? That’s what one guy was thinking as he passed by the pool of vomit and then looked at his watch, as though to think, “isn’t it a bit early for barf?”

Out of all the concerts we’ve seen in the past few years, this is the first time we’ve been near, let alone witness, some vomiting, as surprising as that may be. It’s very interesting watching people notice a pile of vomit. It actually became the game of the night, watching people’s reactions when they noticed the pool…assuming they did notice. Although few and far between, there were a handful of people that just didn’t notice and walked right through it. If you learn one thing from this entry, please learn that you should always look down when at a concert because you never know what you’ll find on the ground. Needless to say, the vomit kept many people away so we enjoyed the concert in relative peace. Thankfully we were far enough away from it that it didn’t encroach our space.

The opening band did their thing and after a quick stage change Tesla came out and rocked a perfect night. And it was a perfect night for a concert, very comfortable with clear skies. They changed up their set list just enough from their last visit, playing their standards but also including ones like “Edison’s Medicine” and “Mama’s Fool,” of which neither they played last time. They also removed the cover songs from their line-up, which I appreciated.

And if you thought having a pool of throw-up next you all night wasn’t a good way to enjoy Tesla, it gets better. Because about three quarters through the set victim number too spun around in front of us and spewed. This lady spewed first in the same spot as the first girl, then ran off the floor to toss it in the grass. Not sure if it was the combination of heat and beer, which is always fun, or if that spot on the floor had low gravity or some other anomaly that would cause people to chuck. Vomit to the left of me, vomit to the right of me…had it not been for Tesla in front of me, it would have been a rough night.

Another thing this concert proved is that Tesla is a prime example of a solid band. Being the only band we’ve seen twice, we know that Tesla puts on a good show just about every time they perform. It doesn’t matter if they’re inside or outside, they just lay it down. Nothing too fancy, not a lot of “show,” just a straight set of hits. To top things off, they did something other bands could learn from – they skipped the encore. It seems these days the encore is a given, which kind of defeats the specialness of an encore. No, instead Tesla said, “we don’t need to make people scream and shout, we’ll just keep on going.” So instead of taking a break, making us wait and then coming out to play one more song, they played two more songs instead. Awesome. Just awesome. Why make us clap? You know you’re coming back out to play.

The fact that Jeff Keith was willing to stand in the middle of the sidewalk and get up close with fans also tells me that Tesla knows what’s important. I know Tesla is way past their prime and not exactly filling stadiums anymore, but find me another band that will go that far out of their way to keep people happy. It tells me they know what’s important – the fans – because if you don’t keep your fans happy, they won’t come see you and they won’t buy your records.

So next time there’s a band you want to see, show up a bit early because not only will you usually get a good seat, you never know who’ll you find signing autographs. And you might miss the vomit.

Originally posted on Aug 5, 2008

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It’s a good time to bring back blimps

I love blimps. Blimps just make sense to me. They’re elegant, classy, efficient, and it many ways, quite practical. Just by chance I happened to come across an article in the NYT Europe section about Zeppelin blimps. I didn’t read the entire article but just the first few paragraphs were enough to have me thinking happy blimp thoughts.

Blimps are just like airplanes or trains but are far more efficient. All three follow more direct routes than car or truck, but blimps don’t use regular jet fuel. They use reusable gas to fill the blimp, so right there they are better off than the rest of us. Blimps may be a bit slower than jets or trains, but I say that blimps are not for trans-atlantic or even cross-country shipments. I see blimps as tri-state, regional solution to delivering goods.

Not only do blimps make fuel sense, they make delivery sense. Blimps don’t need acres and miles of runway, they just need a small field or even a tall building with which to dock and unload. Blimps can go vertical, making them more flexible than planes and have more reach than a train.

Blimps just…blimps just make sense. As the article points out, in a time when fuel prices are sky high (ha ha), blimps provide an alternative that could help cut costs at a critical time. I doubt it will catch on, but just imagine how beautiful a sky filled with blimps would be. Imagine traveling from Chicago to New York by blimp…no, wait, luxury blimp. Even if blimps didn’t become a shipping standard, I think blimps would have a cool-factor that would make them work as a novelty travel for a long while.

Bring back blimps!!

Originally posted on Aug 4, 2008

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Work will be watching

A recent article in the NY Times talks about new network monitoring software that will “learn” about employee’s web behaviour and give the company finite control over restrictions and settings. I won’t repost the whole article, but this pretty much sums it up:

…one company might say that marketing folks can only visit YouTube during lunch hour, and even then, they can only upload two megabytes to the site each day. Engineers might be blocked from visiting Facebook…but everyone else can.

I’m not saying companies shouldn’t monitor network traffic and use, it’s a legit concern. But if software like this works as well as promoted, I see one problem: we’re not machines. Applying strict rules onto users will just make them unhappy and that ultimately results is poor results.

I’m one that believes people will naturally find their balance at work. No one works 8-hours solid. It’s just not possible, and frankly, not healthy. Everybody needs some time during the day to just chill for a few. Some people may go outside for a smoke, some might walk around the building, some might scratch their butt, some, like me, just stay on-line and visit web sites they enjoy but aren’t work-related.

Me, I hit up my video game blogs, check my personal e-mail, manage my personal sites and that type stuff. All said and done, it maybe takes 15-30 minutes of my day. No big deal. If I spend more time than that I feel like I’m jipping myself out of work time. I know I have stuff to do and I know how much time it takes to get it done. Most people won’t abuse their time because fear will keep them in check – at least that’s what I’ve witnessed. If you just trust people things will usually work out for the best.

I’m sure the thought behind applying smart software that tracks individuals and adjusts based on habits is that it will stop those that do abuse their work time. I guess my philosophy on this is that instead of using a blacklist method that effects everyone, if you find someone is spending too much time hanging out on YouTube, you deal with them. You warn them, suspend them, fire them, whatever…you deal with the person directly. You don’t puss out and let technology to do your people management for you. That’s just weak. And honestly, I wouldn’t want to work for a company that manages their employees that way.

Everybody works best in different environments. And that’s not limited to physical environments, but digital/on-line environments too. You can’t look at sheer numbers to determine what people are doing. Behaviour doesn’t work by the numbers and by saying, “Brian spends 30 minutes on Gmail a day means he’s wasting time,” is quite ignorant and might do more harm than good in the long.

Of course, all this is assuming companies will pretty much abuse this network management power. Some will, some won’t, but just having that ability will turn even the lax network admin into a network nazi. Actually, software like this might even eliminate that admin job…so you better watch out.

Originally posted on Aug 4, 2008

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Winnie’s new digs

In the great menagerie we call our home lives a cat, a dog, a turtle, and a dog – in that order. Out of them all the turtle, Winnie, requires the least amount of attention. She probably doesn’t get enough attention, actually, but so it goes. She’s a turtle. It’s funny that most people probably think it’s easier to care a turtle than two dogs and cat. Simplicity of often deceiving.

When we got Winnie a couple years ago, the men at the turtle store told us she was a water turtle and needed water to feed and stuff. OK, so we got an aquarium and filled it with water for her to swim around and a little floating dock for her to lay on. And that’s the way it remained for a long time, with regular tank cleanings and the likes to keep things as clean as we could. But let me tell you, a turtle is a dirty, dirty, messy animal.

Emptying 15 gallons of water every two week sucked bears. Well, our thoughts of “easy” care for a turtle changed when we discovered Winnie’s shell had a few bad spots on it. We think it’s shell rot, which, from what we’ve read, is easily cared for with a little soap wash and less water time. And that’s where we goofed in the past – we had too much water and not enough “sun” for her – which led to her shell problems. So action had to be taken immediately.

That action was a new apartment for Winnie. A trip to the pet store had me coming home with a stone barrier that needed to be siliconed into the aquarium so one half could be set with rocks for basking and the other for her pool. And it’s pretty nice, although I’m not sure Winnie knows what to do with it all yet.

Now there’s 1/4 as much water in the tank, which should make cleaning much easier while still giving her plenty of water for her bodily needs. The project as a whole was a lot easier than I expected. I’m glad I found the little barrier thing. My first thoughts were buying rocks or something and piling them up to create a nice basking area but still having mostly water. The new setup should be nice for her and for us.

I just hope the dogs don’t ask for a new house too.

Originally posted on Aug 19, 2008

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The Presidents and Amazon MP3

Despite my regular use of iTunes for playing and sometimes purchasing music, I’m not necessarily an iTunes-lover. I think iTunes is a nice music organizer/player. It certainly has its issues and I can’t say I’ve been 100% happy with it, but it does the trick. But then there’s the music, by far the biggest wrinkle in the sheet. Damn their DMA songs!

Even though I use iTunes as my main music player, I hate having my music locked down. My solution around it has been what most people have probably been doing too…burning the iTunes songs to a CD and then ripping them back as MP3s. Tedious and stupid, but it works.

When Amazon announced their MP3 service would be cheaper and offer standard MP3 files I told myself the next time I plan on getting a song or album I’d use it. Well, with money sitting in my iTunes account thanks to gift cards and redeeming, I hadn’t not followed through on that promise until today when I found a good reason to go elsewhere.

Much to my happiness I discovered that one of my favorite groups, The Presidents of the United States of America, did not disband as I had once thought. Actually, they did back in 1998 and then reformed a few years later to release a handful of albums.

“Peaches” – The Presidents of the United States of America
[audio:peaches.mp3]

I remember buying The President’s first album at Media Play. I thought the album cover was strange, and the music was pretty nutty too, but that’s why I like it so. It’s poppy, fast, it rocks, and has a heaping helping of fun and humor. That first record was really solid. The follow up album II was 50/50. A third release just before their break-up had even fewer singles. After I heard they broke up I had pretty much written them off and had just accepted I’d have 2.5 albums to enjoy for the rest of time.

I was at YouTube watching some Weird Al videos and that led me to The Presidents’ Wikipedia page where learned they regrouped and have been making new albums. It’s great to find out they’re still making music and still keeping it fun and light. I went the web site and listened to a few tracks from newer albums and decided to go ahead and download one of the “lost albums” I had missed. I decided on Love Everybody and headed over to iTunes to make the purchase.

Now most albums at iTunes are $10 regardless of the number of tracks. But low and behold this one album from an essentially nobody band was $12. Sucko. But wait! I have an alternative – Amazon MP3. A quick jump to Amazon found the album for $9, so I was ready to dive in.

Although a bummer, I was not surprised to have to install Amazon’s MP3 Downloader, a desktop client that does the downloading for you. After a very quick install I was faced with something I did not expect at all – something helpful – a free song to download. This is very smart because not only is it a great bonus for a new user, but Amazon presents as a way for you to learn how the downloader works before you pay any money. It told me, “Hey, watch the downloader in action by getting this free song.” I happily took their recommendation. Very smart on Amazon’s part and much appreciated as a customer.

So with the downloader installed I click the Buy button and after a quick authorization the downloads came in swiftly. And surprisingly enough, the Amazon Downloader even added the songs to iTunes for me. How considerate. And as advertised, the tracks are straight MP3s (high 256 bitrate too) and I can use them as I see fit and burn them as often as I’d like.

I can’t speak on the depth of Amazon’s MP3 catalog as I was looking for something specific and found it, but if you’re looking for an iTunes alternative for music then I will happily recommend Amazon MP3. It’s easy to use, good quality tracks, and even cheaper than iTunes. Even the single songs are $.89 instead of $.99 – I’ll certainly be back.

(Oh, and the President’s album I downloaded is pretty solid too. Nothing earth-shattering as far as they’re concerned, but it’s great to have some new songs to bust out on the way to work. They’ve stuck with their original formula and it’s very welcome in today’s vast pit of otherwise shotty music.)

Originally posted on Aug 18, 2008

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A reason to keep your CDs

Our walls are pretty bare. Shy of a few of my old college paintings and a couple prints, we don’t have much hanging around. We don’t like cluttered, busy walls anyway, but you have to have something on the walls otherwise it looks too…well, too migrant. Bare walls work if you have some sort of Zen theme going with minimalist furniture and bamboo floors, but we don’t. We’re pretty average folks with an average house. So in an attempt to find something meaningful for our walls without having to go the large poster/print route, I looked at what we have to work with.

And we have a lot of CDs. Our generation has seen a lot of technology change when it comes to music and we’re not even halfway through life. I know you all still have a box somewhere with cassettes in it and needless to say there’s a few shelves of CDs somewhere too. It’s safe to say we have way more MP3s these days than we do CDs, and we do most of our music listening on the computer, so the CDs have just become clutter. Recently though I thought about hanging up CD covers as art. We both love our music and the CDs weren’t doing anything else.

I think album covers as wall art (CD or otherwise) is a good solution to get use out of something that otherwise has no purpose anymore. It’s easy, clean, and shows off your love and tastes for music. Not to mention some album covers are considered art in their own right, so it’s not that far fetched. The trick, it turned out, was finding frames for the little buggers.

Compact disc album covers are square. Most small frames are designed for standard photos, which are rectangles. Going to a craft store or even Target didn’t find us the frames we needed. No, we found just the right size frames at the Dollar Store…but of course! We didn’t go to the Dollar Store looking for frames, but while there noticed some that were just the right size. They’re glass front frames so there’s no “frame” around the album, and it looks pretty nice.

This is still a work in progress, but even with only four covers up the staircase it looks pretty good. About two to four more covers to complete the journey should be enough. Now the hard part is picking which albums to feature. But then again, it’s convenient enough that we can change them whenever we like.

So if you have some bare spots on your walls and need something small to fill the void, consider your favorite (or best looking) album covers. An easy afternoon project.

Originally posted on Aug 16, 2008

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Don’t bust a Nutsie

I’ve been using FineTune.com for on-line music for a long time now. I’ve found it to be be all I need to get through my day. At FineTune you pick songs to add to your pool (playlist) and then it plays back those songs in random order. You never know what song is going to play next, but you know it’ll be a song you picked. Nutsie, on the other hand, takes a different approach and lets you bring your own music collection on-line.

I heard about Nutsie when drummer Duff McKagan was on a local radio show. He was pimping the service, which I believe he invested in (and also adorns the home page) so I figured I’d give it a try. Nutsie expects you to be using iTunes. Now one might see this is a narrow strategy, but these days iTunes is probably a safe bet. Unlike some other services, Nutsie doesn’t want you to upload your MP3s, it only wants your iTunes database. All you need to do with Nutside is export your iTunes library and upload it. Nutsie then does all the work to find the songs so you can listen on-line.

It’s actually a nifty concept but I’ve found it has one fatal flaw – it exposes you to all the crappy music you have in your library. If you’re like me, you’ve ripped just about every CD you have and also any CD that you might even only be remotely interested in. In my catalog there is a lot of classical, a lot of movie scores/sounndtracks, and a lot of country thanks to the wife – and most of that is not stuff I listen to all that often. Nutsie, unfortunately, reminds me that my library has about 70% of crap, 20% of good stuff, and 10% of, “when did I get that song?”

Another flaw in Nutsie is the lack of making playlists within Nutsie. Chances are you have playlists within iTunes. Well, when you upload your library Nutsie retains these playlists but doesn’t let you create new ones with your music. So if want to create your “Ultimate Death Metal” playlist in Nutsie using your collection of songs, you’re out of luck. You also can’t play any individual song with Nutsie. Much like all the other services, the site will play songs from your playlists randomly.

Another very annoying unfeature in Nutsie is the audio player itself. An embedded music player can be found on just about every page, including your personal playlist home page. This works great until you click a link on the page and takes you away, thus stopping your music and making you start all over again. One simple improvement Nutsie could add is to simply let you pop-out the player so you can navigate around Nutsie without disrupting your music. This even works against them because the always-present “Buy” button next to each song stops the music and just makes you mad. You’ll also find the music players start automagically, so just about every web page will start blaring out music when you arrive.

On the good side of Nutsie is the standard shared playlist abilities. Even if you don’t upload your own music library, you’ll find a good host of themed playlists that will keep you going for a while. They have a nice list of dated playlists so you can hear the Best Rock Songs of 1977 anytime you want (which I recommend). And assuming you’re a Nutsie member – which is free – you are allowed unlimited song skips. Where as places like FineTune and Pandora limit you to five skips per hour, Nutsie lets you skip forever if you want. Of course, you’ll need unlimited skips to get through all the crap in your personal library. For one session I actually did more skipping than listening.

And perhaps the most unique feature of Nutsie is the Nutsie Picks slider that appears above every music player. This lets you choose if you want Nutsie to recommend other songs and mix them while you’re listening. This doesn’t add songs to your playlist or library, it works on-the-fly. So if you have a playlist of 50 tunes and slide the Nutsie Picks to some percentage and it’ll toss in a few related artists and songs. Kind of nifty, but in my experience not all that “accurate” as you’ll find Barry Manilow and Rod Stewart dropped in the middle of your Glam Metal playlist.

I think Nutsie is working along the right path but has a long way to go. Design and user experience problems keep me from using the service, and its tendency to replay the same songs from my playlist over and over keeps me sitting at FineTune instead. I like the idea of just uploading my iTunes library and being able to listen anywhere I am, but until they give me more control over what is essentially my music, I’ll stick with my playlists at FineTune.

Originally posted on Aug 16, 2008

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The Wii redeems itself with the Homebrew Channel

I wrote a bit back about my increasing loss of faith in the Wii. The games slated to come out through the rest of the year and into 2009 are quite, shall we say, “weak” and include many uber-family friendly games. I have nothing against family friendly, but you can only have so many pet and puzzle games before a system starts to lose its appeal. However, a recent investigation into a well known hack for the Wii has me singing a different tune.

Reading Wii news as regularly as I do, quite some time ago I read about a thing called the Twilight Hack, which exploits a bug in the Wii Zelda game that let hackers into the core system. I typically try not to bother with console hacks because I’ve spent way to much on the deck to possibly ruin it by hacking. But over the weekend I found and read more about the Twilight Hack that sold me on the idea.

tmpphpT41Nzl.jpgBut why hack the Wii in the first place? Well, hacking in this case means you can load homebrew games (indie games) on the Wii. The hack actually adds the “Homebrew Channel” to your standard Wii menu (in English). Along with standalone indie games, you can also load emulators with the channel. As is well documented, I am an emulator junkie, especially for the classic decks like the NES, SNES, and PC Engine. With the promise of emulators on the Wii, I couldn’t not try the hack.

The Twilight Hack was stupidly simple to install. The only thing you need is an SD memory card and the Zelda game disc. Fortunately friend-of-the-Toast, Thee, had the Zelda game and once I had it in my hand I gave the hack a go. I held my breath and watched the DOS-like screen fly by, doing something to my Wii, and just hoped I wasn’t bricking my Wii. Bang! Zoom! The Homebrew Channel is ready to go!

And much (very much) to my surprise the NES emulator ran just fine and I was able to load all the NES ROMs I’ve had for years. Then I tried the TurboGrafix16 emulator…worked. Then the SNES emulator…worked. How awesome is this?! And all the emulators have multi-player support. So now I can play my old NES and other games just about everywhere: on my original NES deck, my PC, my DS portable, and now my Wii. Wherever I go, the NES will follow. Nuts? Yes. Fun? You betcha.

I’ve spent a lot of time and money on my NES PowerPak so I could play ROMs on my actual NES console, and nothing beats that experience, but having the NES games on my Wii is just way too convenient. Then toss on the SNES, Genesis and PCE games that I never had elsewhere other than my computer…you can’t beat it. I’m still playing around with the emulators and homebrew games, but so far the so good shy of a few ROMs that just haven’t loaded. But I don’t know if that means it’s a bad ROM, which is highly likely, or the emulator…time will tell. I’ve also found I now have a really good reason to buy a classic Wii controller.

tmpphpfZjYsl.jpgBut wait…can’t you download all the old games with the Wii Virtual Console? Why yes, you can…for anywhere from $5 – $10 a pop. We all have our favorite classic games. Even with over 500 NES games, I play the same dozen over and over. Same will go with PCE, SNES, and Genesis…but if I can get them easily for free, why do the whole download thing? Plus, now I can play the games I never played before but wanted to without the risk. It’s just nice.

Having this homebrew option opens up the Wii to a whole new realm of games even beyond old emulators. Now you can also play games made by indie developers that you won’t find in retail. One such game I found is called GuitarFun and is a clone of clone…it’s a clone of Frets on Fire, the PC Guitar Hero clone. I have yet to get GuitarFun to load and play on the Wii Homebrew, but when/if it does, it means I can play custom songs (real songs) with the actual guitar controller. Now that’ll be spiffy! I’ll post up a note when I get it working…but there are YouTubes of the game working.

All in all, I don’t see any reason you wouldn’t want to use the Twilight Hack and install the Homebrew Channel. It doesn’t hurt and the manual claims you can even uninstall it all. This isn’t a hardware-level hack, it’s just software, so there shouldn’t ever be any permanent damage. If you’re after some classic console gaming and don’t want go crazy like I did with my NES, this Wii hack is the sweet spot that turns your console into the perfect (and free) retro game machine. And since you’re saving on VC downloads, you can justify more retail Wii games and accessories.

If you’re wanting to setup the Homebrew Channel on your Wii, hit up WiiBrew.com and look for their WiiPack Generator. Use it to download all the parts you want and need, including the Twilight Hack. And to see just how easy the hack is to install, there’s a handy video…which I watched like five times before doing it myself (it just made me feel better).

Now pardon me while I go run through some Excite Bike, F-Zero, Keith Courage, and maybe a little Street Fighter II.

Originally posted on Aug 13, 2008

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Seventeen pounds of Hot Wheels

I’ve been “collecting” Hot Wheels for probably close to eight years by now. I collect but I don’t invest in Hot Wheels. A recent trip to the Ohio State Fair’s and its famed Junk Barn (where every Harry, Dick, and Tom can attempt to sell their junk) had me face-to-face with a ton of “collectible” Hot Wheels.

They were all in the box and ranged in age from 2008 models to some that stretched back to the mid-80s. And not surprisingly, I had many of the cars I saw…but much to my surprise, these cars were selling for $2 – $5. While a few bucks may not sound like much, considering each Hot Wheels car costs less than a dollar to buy it’s a pretty good return on the value.

It’s hard for me to see Hot Wheels as a collectibles investment. Sure, it kind of sucks to see a car I bought for 97 cents just a week ago already selling for $3 (which is bull anyway), but then I realize why I collect Hot Wheels – because I like them. I like to look at them, play with them, take pictures of them, let others play with them…it’s about the fun of toy cars, not the fun of buying and selling. I wouldn’t be any good at selling them anyway because I wouldn’t be able to give them up, even at a profit.

With my upgraded Flickr Pro account at my disposal, I decided to do something I had been wanting to do for a while, shoot my cars in more “artistic” ways, rather than the straight up showroom-quality photos I’ve been taking for the Hot Wheels Showcase I have on-line.

Hot Wheels are so vivid and fantastic that they lend themselves to photographs, both macro photography (which I can’t do well) and just general fun shooting (which I can do well). So with a sunny Saturday on hand I took all (well, most) of my cars out and set them up for some shots. It’s funny because when you tell people you have 193 Hot Wheels it sounds like a lot…but when you line them all up for a family photo, it doesn’t look like much, at least not to me. I guess in my head I thought they would take up more space all laid out, but I guess they’re only 2-inch cars anyway.

So yes, I have upwards of 190 Hot Wheels cars and all together they weigh an even 17 pounds. And for those wanting to keep track, each Hot Wheels cars cost me a dollar, so my total investment should be pretty simple. Now consider if I was investing in the toys how much I would have in value if each one could (on average) resell for $3.

I don’t really plan to stop my collecting. It’s cheap and it’s fun. And they make for some awesome photos.

Stop by the Flickr page for more shots.

Originally posted on Aug 9, 2008

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Tesla, still comin’ atcha live…again

You go to a concert early for one reason: to get good seats. And even though we saw Tesla in concert just six months ago, we still showed up early to make sure we got the spot we wanted. Last time we saw Tesla it was bare nuts cold outside and the line to get in was down the block. This time it was hot, but the line wasn’t so long, however, we noticed a small group of people gathering away from the main line. They were gathering outside the tour bus entrance where last time Frank Hannon chatted with shivering fans so we figured members of Tesla were once again mingling with fans, and we were right.

Before you continue, please enjoy some Tesla as you read:
[audio:tesla.mp3]

This time lead singer Jeff Keith was signing autographs and taking pictures from behind the entrance gate. We didn’t bring our camera because the venue doesn’t allow cameras, but we did have a convenient phone camera. And just after we got a shot of Jeff behind bars he says, “hell with this, I’m coming out there,” and he walked around the gate to meet fans up close and personal right there on the sidewalk. What luck! So we calmly waited to say “Hello” and get a photo op and autograph. Unfortunately, given the sun and the low-fi camera, the photo of Jen and Jeff didn’t turn out as well as I’d hope (although you can tell who it is), but he also signed the ticket stub…making this one of the first ticket stubs I’ll actually be keeping.

Before too long the rest of people waiting in line took notice and gathered around getting their jeans, arms, and children signed by Jeff Keith. At that point we moved back into the line and waited for the doors to open. Once we were in we found the spot we wanted, along the back wall of the floor section. We were at the same venue as before but this time we were outside and oh what a difference it made. The sound and experience of an indoor show just can’t compare to that of a outdoor concert. So we sat a waited for things to kick off while other came to sit along side us.

Not too long after we claimed our spot a girl sitting about three people down from me leaned forward and…well, she just puked her guts out. What?! Vomiting already? That’s what one guy was thinking as he passed by the pool of vomit and then looked at his watch, as though to think, “isn’t it a bit early for barf?”

Out of all the concerts we’ve seen in the past few years, this is the first time we’ve been near, let alone witness, some vomiting, as surprising as that may be. It’s very interesting watching people notice a pile of vomit. It actually became the game of the night, watching people’s reactions when they noticed the pool…assuming they did notice. Although few and far between, there were a handful of people that just didn’t notice and walked right through it. If you learn one thing from this entry, please learn that you should always look down when at a concert because you never know what you’ll find on the ground. Needless to say, the vomit kept many people away so we enjoyed the concert in relative peace. Thankfully we were far enough away from it that it didn’t encroach our space.

The opening band did their thing and after a quick stage change Tesla came out and rocked a perfect night. And it was a perfect night for a concert, very comfortable with clear skies. They changed up their set list just enough from their last visit, playing their standards but also including ones like “Edison’s Medicine” and “Mama’s Fool,” of which neither they played last time. They also removed the cover songs from their line-up, which I appreciated.

And if you thought having a pool of throw-up next you all night wasn’t a good way to enjoy Tesla, it gets better. Because about three quarters through the set victim number too spun around in front of us and spewed. This lady spewed first in the same spot as the first girl, then ran off the floor to toss it in the grass. Not sure if it was the combination of heat and beer, which is always fun, or if that spot on the floor had low gravity or some other anomaly that would cause people to chuck. Vomit to the left of me, vomit to the right of me…had it not been for Tesla in front of me, it would have been a rough night.

Another thing this concert proved is that Tesla is a prime example of a solid band. Being the only band we’ve seen twice, we know that Tesla puts on a good show just about every time they perform. It doesn’t matter if they’re inside or outside, they just lay it down. Nothing too fancy, not a lot of “show,” just a straight set of hits. To top things off, they did something other bands could learn from – they skipped the encore. It seems these days the encore is a given, which kind of defeats the specialness of an encore. No, instead Tesla said, “we don’t need to make people scream and shout, we’ll just keep on going.” So instead of taking a break, making us wait and then coming out to play one more song, they played two more songs instead. Awesome. Just awesome. Why make us clap? You know you’re coming back out to play.

The fact that Jeff Keith was willing to stand in the middle of the sidewalk and get up close with fans also tells me that Tesla knows what’s important. I know Tesla is way past their prime and not exactly filling stadiums anymore, but find me another band that will go that far out of their way to keep people happy. It tells me they know what’s important – the fans – because if you don’t keep your fans happy, they won’t come see you and they won’t buy your records.

So next time there’s a band you want to see, show up a bit early because not only will you usually get a good seat, you never know who’ll you find signing autographs. And you might miss the vomit.

Originally posted on Aug 5, 2008

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It’s a good time to bring back blimps

I love blimps. Blimps just make sense to me. They’re elegant, classy, efficient, and it many ways, quite practical. Just by chance I happened to come across an article in the NYT Europe section about Zeppelin blimps. I didn’t read the entire article but just the first few paragraphs were enough to have me thinking happy blimp thoughts.

Blimps are just like airplanes or trains but are far more efficient. All three follow more direct routes than car or truck, but blimps don’t use regular jet fuel. They use reusable gas to fill the blimp, so right there they are better off than the rest of us. Blimps may be a bit slower than jets or trains, but I say that blimps are not for trans-atlantic or even cross-country shipments. I see blimps as tri-state, regional solution to delivering goods.

Not only do blimps make fuel sense, they make delivery sense. Blimps don’t need acres and miles of runway, they just need a small field or even a tall building with which to dock and unload. Blimps can go vertical, making them more flexible than planes and have more reach than a train.

Blimps just…blimps just make sense. As the article points out, in a time when fuel prices are sky high (ha ha), blimps provide an alternative that could help cut costs at a critical time. I doubt it will catch on, but just imagine how beautiful a sky filled with blimps would be. Imagine traveling from Chicago to New York by blimp…no, wait, luxury blimp. Even if blimps didn’t become a shipping standard, I think blimps would have a cool-factor that would make them work as a novelty travel for a long while.

Bring back blimps!!

Originally posted on Aug 4, 2008

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Work will be watching

A recent article in the NY Times talks about new network monitoring software that will “learn” about employee’s web behaviour and give the company finite control over restrictions and settings. I won’t repost the whole article, but this pretty much sums it up:

…one company might say that marketing folks can only visit YouTube during lunch hour, and even then, they can only upload two megabytes to the site each day. Engineers might be blocked from visiting Facebook…but everyone else can.

I’m not saying companies shouldn’t monitor network traffic and use, it’s a legit concern. But if software like this works as well as promoted, I see one problem: we’re not machines. Applying strict rules onto users will just make them unhappy and that ultimately results is poor results.

I’m one that believes people will naturally find their balance at work. No one works 8-hours solid. It’s just not possible, and frankly, not healthy. Everybody needs some time during the day to just chill for a few. Some people may go outside for a smoke, some might walk around the building, some might scratch their butt, some, like me, just stay on-line and visit web sites they enjoy but aren’t work-related.

Me, I hit up my video game blogs, check my personal e-mail, manage my personal sites and that type stuff. All said and done, it maybe takes 15-30 minutes of my day. No big deal. If I spend more time than that I feel like I’m jipping myself out of work time. I know I have stuff to do and I know how much time it takes to get it done. Most people won’t abuse their time because fear will keep them in check – at least that’s what I’ve witnessed. If you just trust people things will usually work out for the best.

I’m sure the thought behind applying smart software that tracks individuals and adjusts based on habits is that it will stop those that do abuse their work time. I guess my philosophy on this is that instead of using a blacklist method that effects everyone, if you find someone is spending too much time hanging out on YouTube, you deal with them. You warn them, suspend them, fire them, whatever…you deal with the person directly. You don’t puss out and let technology to do your people management for you. That’s just weak. And honestly, I wouldn’t want to work for a company that manages their employees that way.

Everybody works best in different environments. And that’s not limited to physical environments, but digital/on-line environments too. You can’t look at sheer numbers to determine what people are doing. Behaviour doesn’t work by the numbers and by saying, “Brian spends 30 minutes on Gmail a day means he’s wasting time,” is quite ignorant and might do more harm than good in the long.

Of course, all this is assuming companies will pretty much abuse this network management power. Some will, some won’t, but just having that ability will turn even the lax network admin into a network nazi. Actually, software like this might even eliminate that admin job…so you better watch out.

Originally posted on Aug 4, 2008

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Winnie’s new digs

In the great menagerie we call our home lives a cat, a dog, a turtle, and a dog – in that order. Out of them all the turtle, Winnie, requires the least amount of attention. She probably doesn’t get enough attention, actually, but so it goes. She’s a turtle. It’s funny that most people probably think it’s easier to care a turtle than two dogs and cat. Simplicity of often deceiving.

When we got Winnie a couple years ago, the men at the turtle store told us she was a water turtle and needed water to feed and stuff. OK, so we got an aquarium and filled it with water for her to swim around and a little floating dock for her to lay on. And that’s the way it remained for a long time, with regular tank cleanings and the likes to keep things as clean as we could. But let me tell you, a turtle is a dirty, dirty, messy animal.

Emptying 15 gallons of water every two week sucked bears. Well, our thoughts of “easy” care for a turtle changed when we discovered Winnie’s shell had a few bad spots on it. We think it’s shell rot, which, from what we’ve read, is easily cared for with a little soap wash and less water time. And that’s where we goofed in the past – we had too much water and not enough “sun” for her – which led to her shell problems. So action had to be taken immediately.

That action was a new apartment for Winnie. A trip to the pet store had me coming home with a stone barrier that needed to be siliconed into the aquarium so one half could be set with rocks for basking and the other for her pool. And it’s pretty nice, although I’m not sure Winnie knows what to do with it all yet.

Now there’s 1/4 as much water in the tank, which should make cleaning much easier while still giving her plenty of water for her bodily needs. The project as a whole was a lot easier than I expected. I’m glad I found the little barrier thing. My first thoughts were buying rocks or something and piling them up to create a nice basking area but still having mostly water. The new setup should be nice for her and for us.

I just hope the dogs don’t ask for a new house too.

Originally posted on Aug 19, 2008

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The Presidents and Amazon MP3

Despite my regular use of iTunes for playing and sometimes purchasing music, I’m not necessarily an iTunes-lover. I think iTunes is a nice music organizer/player. It certainly has its issues and I can’t say I’ve been 100% happy with it, but it does the trick. But then there’s the music, by far the biggest wrinkle in the sheet. Damn their DMA songs!

Even though I use iTunes as my main music player, I hate having my music locked down. My solution around it has been what most people have probably been doing too…burning the iTunes songs to a CD and then ripping them back as MP3s. Tedious and stupid, but it works.

When Amazon announced their MP3 service would be cheaper and offer standard MP3 files I told myself the next time I plan on getting a song or album I’d use it. Well, with money sitting in my iTunes account thanks to gift cards and redeeming, I hadn’t not followed through on that promise until today when I found a good reason to go elsewhere.

Much to my happiness I discovered that one of my favorite groups, The Presidents of the United States of America, did not disband as I had once thought. Actually, they did back in 1998 and then reformed a few years later to release a handful of albums.

“Peaches” – The Presidents of the United States of America
[audio:peaches.mp3]

I remember buying The President’s first album at Media Play. I thought the album cover was strange, and the music was pretty nutty too, but that’s why I like it so. It’s poppy, fast, it rocks, and has a heaping helping of fun and humor. That first record was really solid. The follow up album II was 50/50. A third release just before their break-up had even fewer singles. After I heard they broke up I had pretty much written them off and had just accepted I’d have 2.5 albums to enjoy for the rest of time.

I was at YouTube watching some Weird Al videos and that led me to The Presidents’ Wikipedia page where learned they regrouped and have been making new albums. It’s great to find out they’re still making music and still keeping it fun and light. I went the web site and listened to a few tracks from newer albums and decided to go ahead and download one of the “lost albums” I had missed. I decided on Love Everybody and headed over to iTunes to make the purchase.

Now most albums at iTunes are $10 regardless of the number of tracks. But low and behold this one album from an essentially nobody band was $12. Sucko. But wait! I have an alternative – Amazon MP3. A quick jump to Amazon found the album for $9, so I was ready to dive in.

Although a bummer, I was not surprised to have to install Amazon’s MP3 Downloader, a desktop client that does the downloading for you. After a very quick install I was faced with something I did not expect at all – something helpful – a free song to download. This is very smart because not only is it a great bonus for a new user, but Amazon presents as a way for you to learn how the downloader works before you pay any money. It told me, “Hey, watch the downloader in action by getting this free song.” I happily took their recommendation. Very smart on Amazon’s part and much appreciated as a customer.

So with the downloader installed I click the Buy button and after a quick authorization the downloads came in swiftly. And surprisingly enough, the Amazon Downloader even added the songs to iTunes for me. How considerate. And as advertised, the tracks are straight MP3s (high 256 bitrate too) and I can use them as I see fit and burn them as often as I’d like.

I can’t speak on the depth of Amazon’s MP3 catalog as I was looking for something specific and found it, but if you’re looking for an iTunes alternative for music then I will happily recommend Amazon MP3. It’s easy to use, good quality tracks, and even cheaper than iTunes. Even the single songs are $.89 instead of $.99 – I’ll certainly be back.

(Oh, and the President’s album I downloaded is pretty solid too. Nothing earth-shattering as far as they’re concerned, but it’s great to have some new songs to bust out on the way to work. They’ve stuck with their original formula and it’s very welcome in today’s vast pit of otherwise shotty music.)

Originally posted on Aug 18, 2008

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A reason to keep your CDs

Our walls are pretty bare. Shy of a few of my old college paintings and a couple prints, we don’t have much hanging around. We don’t like cluttered, busy walls anyway, but you have to have something on the walls otherwise it looks too…well, too migrant. Bare walls work if you have some sort of Zen theme going with minimalist furniture and bamboo floors, but we don’t. We’re pretty average folks with an average house. So in an attempt to find something meaningful for our walls without having to go the large poster/print route, I looked at what we have to work with.

And we have a lot of CDs. Our generation has seen a lot of technology change when it comes to music and we’re not even halfway through life. I know you all still have a box somewhere with cassettes in it and needless to say there’s a few shelves of CDs somewhere too. It’s safe to say we have way more MP3s these days than we do CDs, and we do most of our music listening on the computer, so the CDs have just become clutter. Recently though I thought about hanging up CD covers as art. We both love our music and the CDs weren’t doing anything else.

I think album covers as wall art (CD or otherwise) is a good solution to get use out of something that otherwise has no purpose anymore. It’s easy, clean, and shows off your love and tastes for music. Not to mention some album covers are considered art in their own right, so it’s not that far fetched. The trick, it turned out, was finding frames for the little buggers.

Compact disc album covers are square. Most small frames are designed for standard photos, which are rectangles. Going to a craft store or even Target didn’t find us the frames we needed. No, we found just the right size frames at the Dollar Store…but of course! We didn’t go to the Dollar Store looking for frames, but while there noticed some that were just the right size. They’re glass front frames so there’s no “frame” around the album, and it looks pretty nice.

This is still a work in progress, but even with only four covers up the staircase it looks pretty good. About two to four more covers to complete the journey should be enough. Now the hard part is picking which albums to feature. But then again, it’s convenient enough that we can change them whenever we like.

So if you have some bare spots on your walls and need something small to fill the void, consider your favorite (or best looking) album covers. An easy afternoon project.

Originally posted on Aug 16, 2008

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Don’t bust a Nutsie

I’ve been using FineTune.com for on-line music for a long time now. I’ve found it to be be all I need to get through my day. At FineTune you pick songs to add to your pool (playlist) and then it plays back those songs in random order. You never know what song is going to play next, but you know it’ll be a song you picked. Nutsie, on the other hand, takes a different approach and lets you bring your own music collection on-line.

I heard about Nutsie when drummer Duff McKagan was on a local radio show. He was pimping the service, which I believe he invested in (and also adorns the home page) so I figured I’d give it a try. Nutsie expects you to be using iTunes. Now one might see this is a narrow strategy, but these days iTunes is probably a safe bet. Unlike some other services, Nutsie doesn’t want you to upload your MP3s, it only wants your iTunes database. All you need to do with Nutside is export your iTunes library and upload it. Nutsie then does all the work to find the songs so you can listen on-line.

It’s actually a nifty concept but I’ve found it has one fatal flaw – it exposes you to all the crappy music you have in your library. If you’re like me, you’ve ripped just about every CD you have and also any CD that you might even only be remotely interested in. In my catalog there is a lot of classical, a lot of movie scores/sounndtracks, and a lot of country thanks to the wife – and most of that is not stuff I listen to all that often. Nutsie, unfortunately, reminds me that my library has about 70% of crap, 20% of good stuff, and 10% of, “when did I get that song?”

Another flaw in Nutsie is the lack of making playlists within Nutsie. Chances are you have playlists within iTunes. Well, when you upload your library Nutsie retains these playlists but doesn’t let you create new ones with your music. So if want to create your “Ultimate Death Metal” playlist in Nutsie using your collection of songs, you’re out of luck. You also can’t play any individual song with Nutsie. Much like all the other services, the site will play songs from your playlists randomly.

Another very annoying unfeature in Nutsie is the audio player itself. An embedded music player can be found on just about every page, including your personal playlist home page. This works great until you click a link on the page and takes you away, thus stopping your music and making you start all over again. One simple improvement Nutsie could add is to simply let you pop-out the player so you can navigate around Nutsie without disrupting your music. This even works against them because the always-present “Buy” button next to each song stops the music and just makes you mad. You’ll also find the music players start automagically, so just about every web page will start blaring out music when you arrive.

On the good side of Nutsie is the standard shared playlist abilities. Even if you don’t upload your own music library, you’ll find a good host of themed playlists that will keep you going for a while. They have a nice list of dated playlists so you can hear the Best Rock Songs of 1977 anytime you want (which I recommend). And assuming you’re a Nutsie member – which is free – you are allowed unlimited song skips. Where as places like FineTune and Pandora limit you to five skips per hour, Nutsie lets you skip forever if you want. Of course, you’ll need unlimited skips to get through all the crap in your personal library. For one session I actually did more skipping than listening.

And perhaps the most unique feature of Nutsie is the Nutsie Picks slider that appears above every music player. This lets you choose if you want Nutsie to recommend other songs and mix them while you’re listening. This doesn’t add songs to your playlist or library, it works on-the-fly. So if you have a playlist of 50 tunes and slide the Nutsie Picks to some percentage and it’ll toss in a few related artists and songs. Kind of nifty, but in my experience not all that “accurate” as you’ll find Barry Manilow and Rod Stewart dropped in the middle of your Glam Metal playlist.

I think Nutsie is working along the right path but has a long way to go. Design and user experience problems keep me from using the service, and its tendency to replay the same songs from my playlist over and over keeps me sitting at FineTune instead. I like the idea of just uploading my iTunes library and being able to listen anywhere I am, but until they give me more control over what is essentially my music, I’ll stick with my playlists at FineTune.

Originally posted on Aug 16, 2008

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The Wii redeems itself with the Homebrew Channel

I wrote a bit back about my increasing loss of faith in the Wii. The games slated to come out through the rest of the year and into 2009 are quite, shall we say, “weak” and include many uber-family friendly games. I have nothing against family friendly, but you can only have so many pet and puzzle games before a system starts to lose its appeal. However, a recent investigation into a well known hack for the Wii has me singing a different tune.

Reading Wii news as regularly as I do, quite some time ago I read about a thing called the Twilight Hack, which exploits a bug in the Wii Zelda game that let hackers into the core system. I typically try not to bother with console hacks because I’ve spent way to much on the deck to possibly ruin it by hacking. But over the weekend I found and read more about the Twilight Hack that sold me on the idea.

tmpphpT41Nzl.jpgBut why hack the Wii in the first place? Well, hacking in this case means you can load homebrew games (indie games) on the Wii. The hack actually adds the “Homebrew Channel” to your standard Wii menu (in English). Along with standalone indie games, you can also load emulators with the channel. As is well documented, I am an emulator junkie, especially for the classic decks like the NES, SNES, and PC Engine. With the promise of emulators on the Wii, I couldn’t not try the hack.

The Twilight Hack was stupidly simple to install. The only thing you need is an SD memory card and the Zelda game disc. Fortunately friend-of-the-Toast, Thee, had the Zelda game and once I had it in my hand I gave the hack a go. I held my breath and watched the DOS-like screen fly by, doing something to my Wii, and just hoped I wasn’t bricking my Wii. Bang! Zoom! The Homebrew Channel is ready to go!

And much (very much) to my surprise the NES emulator ran just fine and I was able to load all the NES ROMs I’ve had for years. Then I tried the TurboGrafix16 emulator…worked. Then the SNES emulator…worked. How awesome is this?! And all the emulators have multi-player support. So now I can play my old NES and other games just about everywhere: on my original NES deck, my PC, my DS portable, and now my Wii. Wherever I go, the NES will follow. Nuts? Yes. Fun? You betcha.

I’ve spent a lot of time and money on my NES PowerPak so I could play ROMs on my actual NES console, and nothing beats that experience, but having the NES games on my Wii is just way too convenient. Then toss on the SNES, Genesis and PCE games that I never had elsewhere other than my computer…you can’t beat it. I’m still playing around with the emulators and homebrew games, but so far the so good shy of a few ROMs that just haven’t loaded. But I don’t know if that means it’s a bad ROM, which is highly likely, or the emulator…time will tell. I’ve also found I now have a really good reason to buy a classic Wii controller.

tmpphpfZjYsl.jpgBut wait…can’t you download all the old games with the Wii Virtual Console? Why yes, you can…for anywhere from $5 – $10 a pop. We all have our favorite classic games. Even with over 500 NES games, I play the same dozen over and over. Same will go with PCE, SNES, and Genesis…but if I can get them easily for free, why do the whole download thing? Plus, now I can play the games I never played before but wanted to without the risk. It’s just nice.

Having this homebrew option opens up the Wii to a whole new realm of games even beyond old emulators. Now you can also play games made by indie developers that you won’t find in retail. One such game I found is called GuitarFun and is a clone of clone…it’s a clone of Frets on Fire, the PC Guitar Hero clone. I have yet to get GuitarFun to load and play on the Wii Homebrew, but when/if it does, it means I can play custom songs (real songs) with the actual guitar controller. Now that’ll be spiffy! I’ll post up a note when I get it working…but there are YouTubes of the game working.

All in all, I don’t see any reason you wouldn’t want to use the Twilight Hack and install the Homebrew Channel. It doesn’t hurt and the manual claims you can even uninstall it all. This isn’t a hardware-level hack, it’s just software, so there shouldn’t ever be any permanent damage. If you’re after some classic console gaming and don’t want go crazy like I did with my NES, this Wii hack is the sweet spot that turns your console into the perfect (and free) retro game machine. And since you’re saving on VC downloads, you can justify more retail Wii games and accessories.

If you’re wanting to setup the Homebrew Channel on your Wii, hit up WiiBrew.com and look for their WiiPack Generator. Use it to download all the parts you want and need, including the Twilight Hack. And to see just how easy the hack is to install, there’s a handy video…which I watched like five times before doing it myself (it just made me feel better).

Now pardon me while I go run through some Excite Bike, F-Zero, Keith Courage, and maybe a little Street Fighter II.

Originally posted on Aug 13, 2008

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Seventeen pounds of Hot Wheels

I’ve been “collecting” Hot Wheels for probably close to eight years by now. I collect but I don’t invest in Hot Wheels. A recent trip to the Ohio State Fair’s and its famed Junk Barn (where every Harry, Dick, and Tom can attempt to sell their junk) had me face-to-face with a ton of “collectible” Hot Wheels.

They were all in the box and ranged in age from 2008 models to some that stretched back to the mid-80s. And not surprisingly, I had many of the cars I saw…but much to my surprise, these cars were selling for $2 – $5. While a few bucks may not sound like much, considering each Hot Wheels car costs less than a dollar to buy it’s a pretty good return on the value.

It’s hard for me to see Hot Wheels as a collectibles investment. Sure, it kind of sucks to see a car I bought for 97 cents just a week ago already selling for $3 (which is bull anyway), but then I realize why I collect Hot Wheels – because I like them. I like to look at them, play with them, take pictures of them, let others play with them…it’s about the fun of toy cars, not the fun of buying and selling. I wouldn’t be any good at selling them anyway because I wouldn’t be able to give them up, even at a profit.

With my upgraded Flickr Pro account at my disposal, I decided to do something I had been wanting to do for a while, shoot my cars in more “artistic” ways, rather than the straight up showroom-quality photos I’ve been taking for the Hot Wheels Showcase I have on-line.

Hot Wheels are so vivid and fantastic that they lend themselves to photographs, both macro photography (which I can’t do well) and just general fun shooting (which I can do well). So with a sunny Saturday on hand I took all (well, most) of my cars out and set them up for some shots. It’s funny because when you tell people you have 193 Hot Wheels it sounds like a lot…but when you line them all up for a family photo, it doesn’t look like much, at least not to me. I guess in my head I thought they would take up more space all laid out, but I guess they’re only 2-inch cars anyway.

So yes, I have upwards of 190 Hot Wheels cars and all together they weigh an even 17 pounds. And for those wanting to keep track, each Hot Wheels cars cost me a dollar, so my total investment should be pretty simple. Now consider if I was investing in the toys how much I would have in value if each one could (on average) resell for $3.

I don’t really plan to stop my collecting. It’s cheap and it’s fun. And they make for some awesome photos.

Stop by the Flickr page for more shots.

Originally posted on Aug 9, 2008

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Tesla, still comin’ atcha live…again

You go to a concert early for one reason: to get good seats. And even though we saw Tesla in concert just six months ago, we still showed up early to make sure we got the spot we wanted. Last time we saw Tesla it was bare nuts cold outside and the line to get in was down the block. This time it was hot, but the line wasn’t so long, however, we noticed a small group of people gathering away from the main line. They were gathering outside the tour bus entrance where last time Frank Hannon chatted with shivering fans so we figured members of Tesla were once again mingling with fans, and we were right.

Before you continue, please enjoy some Tesla as you read:
[audio:tesla.mp3]

This time lead singer Jeff Keith was signing autographs and taking pictures from behind the entrance gate. We didn’t bring our camera because the venue doesn’t allow cameras, but we did have a convenient phone camera. And just after we got a shot of Jeff behind bars he says, “hell with this, I’m coming out there,” and he walked around the gate to meet fans up close and personal right there on the sidewalk. What luck! So we calmly waited to say “Hello” and get a photo op and autograph. Unfortunately, given the sun and the low-fi camera, the photo of Jen and Jeff didn’t turn out as well as I’d hope (although you can tell who it is), but he also signed the ticket stub…making this one of the first ticket stubs I’ll actually be keeping.

Before too long the rest of people waiting in line took notice and gathered around getting their jeans, arms, and children signed by Jeff Keith. At that point we moved back into the line and waited for the doors to open. Once we were in we found the spot we wanted, along the back wall of the floor section. We were at the same venue as before but this time we were outside and oh what a difference it made. The sound and experience of an indoor show just can’t compare to that of a outdoor concert. So we sat a waited for things to kick off while other came to sit along side us.

Not too long after we claimed our spot a girl sitting about three people down from me leaned forward and…well, she just puked her guts out. What?! Vomiting already? That’s what one guy was thinking as he passed by the pool of vomit and then looked at his watch, as though to think, “isn’t it a bit early for barf?”

Out of all the concerts we’ve seen in the past few years, this is the first time we’ve been near, let alone witness, some vomiting, as surprising as that may be. It’s very interesting watching people notice a pile of vomit. It actually became the game of the night, watching people’s reactions when they noticed the pool…assuming they did notice. Although few and far between, there were a handful of people that just didn’t notice and walked right through it. If you learn one thing from this entry, please learn that you should always look down when at a concert because you never know what you’ll find on the ground. Needless to say, the vomit kept many people away so we enjoyed the concert in relative peace. Thankfully we were far enough away from it that it didn’t encroach our space.

The opening band did their thing and after a quick stage change Tesla came out and rocked a perfect night. And it was a perfect night for a concert, very comfortable with clear skies. They changed up their set list just enough from their last visit, playing their standards but also including ones like “Edison’s Medicine” and “Mama’s Fool,” of which neither they played last time. They also removed the cover songs from their line-up, which I appreciated.

And if you thought having a pool of throw-up next you all night wasn’t a good way to enjoy Tesla, it gets better. Because about three quarters through the set victim number too spun around in front of us and spewed. This lady spewed first in the same spot as the first girl, then ran off the floor to toss it in the grass. Not sure if it was the combination of heat and beer, which is always fun, or if that spot on the floor had low gravity or some other anomaly that would cause people to chuck. Vomit to the left of me, vomit to the right of me…had it not been for Tesla in front of me, it would have been a rough night.

Another thing this concert proved is that Tesla is a prime example of a solid band. Being the only band we’ve seen twice, we know that Tesla puts on a good show just about every time they perform. It doesn’t matter if they’re inside or outside, they just lay it down. Nothing too fancy, not a lot of “show,” just a straight set of hits. To top things off, they did something other bands could learn from – they skipped the encore. It seems these days the encore is a given, which kind of defeats the specialness of an encore. No, instead Tesla said, “we don’t need to make people scream and shout, we’ll just keep on going.” So instead of taking a break, making us wait and then coming out to play one more song, they played two more songs instead. Awesome. Just awesome. Why make us clap? You know you’re coming back out to play.

The fact that Jeff Keith was willing to stand in the middle of the sidewalk and get up close with fans also tells me that Tesla knows what’s important. I know Tesla is way past their prime and not exactly filling stadiums anymore, but find me another band that will go that far out of their way to keep people happy. It tells me they know what’s important – the fans – because if you don’t keep your fans happy, they won’t come see you and they won’t buy your records.

So next time there’s a band you want to see, show up a bit early because not only will you usually get a good seat, you never know who’ll you find signing autographs. And you might miss the vomit.

Originally posted on Aug 5, 2008

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It’s a good time to bring back blimps

I love blimps. Blimps just make sense to me. They’re elegant, classy, efficient, and it many ways, quite practical. Just by chance I happened to come across an article in the NYT Europe section about Zeppelin blimps. I didn’t read the entire article but just the first few paragraphs were enough to have me thinking happy blimp thoughts.

Blimps are just like airplanes or trains but are far more efficient. All three follow more direct routes than car or truck, but blimps don’t use regular jet fuel. They use reusable gas to fill the blimp, so right there they are better off than the rest of us. Blimps may be a bit slower than jets or trains, but I say that blimps are not for trans-atlantic or even cross-country shipments. I see blimps as tri-state, regional solution to delivering goods.

Not only do blimps make fuel sense, they make delivery sense. Blimps don’t need acres and miles of runway, they just need a small field or even a tall building with which to dock and unload. Blimps can go vertical, making them more flexible than planes and have more reach than a train.

Blimps just…blimps just make sense. As the article points out, in a time when fuel prices are sky high (ha ha), blimps provide an alternative that could help cut costs at a critical time. I doubt it will catch on, but just imagine how beautiful a sky filled with blimps would be. Imagine traveling from Chicago to New York by blimp…no, wait, luxury blimp. Even if blimps didn’t become a shipping standard, I think blimps would have a cool-factor that would make them work as a novelty travel for a long while.

Bring back blimps!!

Originally posted on Aug 4, 2008

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Work will be watching

A recent article in the NY Times talks about new network monitoring software that will “learn” about employee’s web behaviour and give the company finite control over restrictions and settings. I won’t repost the whole article, but this pretty much sums it up:

…one company might say that marketing folks can only visit YouTube during lunch hour, and even then, they can only upload two megabytes to the site each day. Engineers might be blocked from visiting Facebook…but everyone else can.

I’m not saying companies shouldn’t monitor network traffic and use, it’s a legit concern. But if software like this works as well as promoted, I see one problem: we’re not machines. Applying strict rules onto users will just make them unhappy and that ultimately results is poor results.

I’m one that believes people will naturally find their balance at work. No one works 8-hours solid. It’s just not possible, and frankly, not healthy. Everybody needs some time during the day to just chill for a few. Some people may go outside for a smoke, some might walk around the building, some might scratch their butt, some, like me, just stay on-line and visit web sites they enjoy but aren’t work-related.

Me, I hit up my video game blogs, check my personal e-mail, manage my personal sites and that type stuff. All said and done, it maybe takes 15-30 minutes of my day. No big deal. If I spend more time than that I feel like I’m jipping myself out of work time. I know I have stuff to do and I know how much time it takes to get it done. Most people won’t abuse their time because fear will keep them in check – at least that’s what I’ve witnessed. If you just trust people things will usually work out for the best.

I’m sure the thought behind applying smart software that tracks individuals and adjusts based on habits is that it will stop those that do abuse their work time. I guess my philosophy on this is that instead of using a blacklist method that effects everyone, if you find someone is spending too much time hanging out on YouTube, you deal with them. You warn them, suspend them, fire them, whatever…you deal with the person directly. You don’t puss out and let technology to do your people management for you. That’s just weak. And honestly, I wouldn’t want to work for a company that manages their employees that way.

Everybody works best in different environments. And that’s not limited to physical environments, but digital/on-line environments too. You can’t look at sheer numbers to determine what people are doing. Behaviour doesn’t work by the numbers and by saying, “Brian spends 30 minutes on Gmail a day means he’s wasting time,” is quite ignorant and might do more harm than good in the long.

Of course, all this is assuming companies will pretty much abuse this network management power. Some will, some won’t, but just having that ability will turn even the lax network admin into a network nazi. Actually, software like this might even eliminate that admin job…so you better watch out.

Originally posted on Aug 4, 2008

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Winnie’s new digs

In the great menagerie we call our home lives a cat, a dog, a turtle, and a dog – in that order. Out of them all the turtle, Winnie, requires the least amount of attention. She probably doesn’t get enough attention, actually, but so it goes. She’s a turtle. It’s funny that most people probably think it’s easier to care a turtle than two dogs and cat. Simplicity of often deceiving.

When we got Winnie a couple years ago, the men at the turtle store told us she was a water turtle and needed water to feed and stuff. OK, so we got an aquarium and filled it with water for her to swim around and a little floating dock for her to lay on. And that’s the way it remained for a long time, with regular tank cleanings and the likes to keep things as clean as we could. But let me tell you, a turtle is a dirty, dirty, messy animal.

Emptying 15 gallons of water every two week sucked bears. Well, our thoughts of “easy” care for a turtle changed when we discovered Winnie’s shell had a few bad spots on it. We think it’s shell rot, which, from what we’ve read, is easily cared for with a little soap wash and less water time. And that’s where we goofed in the past – we had too much water and not enough “sun” for her – which led to her shell problems. So action had to be taken immediately.

That action was a new apartment for Winnie. A trip to the pet store had me coming home with a stone barrier that needed to be siliconed into the aquarium so one half could be set with rocks for basking and the other for her pool. And it’s pretty nice, although I’m not sure Winnie knows what to do with it all yet.

Now there’s 1/4 as much water in the tank, which should make cleaning much easier while still giving her plenty of water for her bodily needs. The project as a whole was a lot easier than I expected. I’m glad I found the little barrier thing. My first thoughts were buying rocks or something and piling them up to create a nice basking area but still having mostly water. The new setup should be nice for her and for us.

I just hope the dogs don’t ask for a new house too.

Originally posted on Aug 19, 2008

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The Presidents and Amazon MP3

Despite my regular use of iTunes for playing and sometimes purchasing music, I’m not necessarily an iTunes-lover. I think iTunes is a nice music organizer/player. It certainly has its issues and I can’t say I’ve been 100% happy with it, but it does the trick. But then there’s the music, by far the biggest wrinkle in the sheet. Damn their DMA songs!

Even though I use iTunes as my main music player, I hate having my music locked down. My solution around it has been what most people have probably been doing too…burning the iTunes songs to a CD and then ripping them back as MP3s. Tedious and stupid, but it works.

When Amazon announced their MP3 service would be cheaper and offer standard MP3 files I told myself the next time I plan on getting a song or album I’d use it. Well, with money sitting in my iTunes account thanks to gift cards and redeeming, I hadn’t not followed through on that promise until today when I found a good reason to go elsewhere.

Much to my happiness I discovered that one of my favorite groups, The Presidents of the United States of America, did not disband as I had once thought. Actually, they did back in 1998 and then reformed a few years later to release a handful of albums.

“Peaches” – The Presidents of the United States of America
[audio:peaches.mp3]

I remember buying The President’s first album at Media Play. I thought the album cover was strange, and the music was pretty nutty too, but that’s why I like it so. It’s poppy, fast, it rocks, and has a heaping helping of fun and humor. That first record was really solid. The follow up album II was 50/50. A third release just before their break-up had even fewer singles. After I heard they broke up I had pretty much written them off and had just accepted I’d have 2.5 albums to enjoy for the rest of time.

I was at YouTube watching some Weird Al videos and that led me to The Presidents’ Wikipedia page where learned they regrouped and have been making new albums. It’s great to find out they’re still making music and still keeping it fun and light. I went the web site and listened to a few tracks from newer albums and decided to go ahead and download one of the “lost albums” I had missed. I decided on Love Everybody and headed over to iTunes to make the purchase.

Now most albums at iTunes are $10 regardless of the number of tracks. But low and behold this one album from an essentially nobody band was $12. Sucko. But wait! I have an alternative – Amazon MP3. A quick jump to Amazon found the album for $9, so I was ready to dive in.

Although a bummer, I was not surprised to have to install Amazon’s MP3 Downloader, a desktop client that does the downloading for you. After a very quick install I was faced with something I did not expect at all – something helpful – a free song to download. This is very smart because not only is it a great bonus for a new user, but Amazon presents as a way for you to learn how the downloader works before you pay any money. It told me, “Hey, watch the downloader in action by getting this free song.” I happily took their recommendation. Very smart on Amazon’s part and much appreciated as a customer.

So with the downloader installed I click the Buy button and after a quick authorization the downloads came in swiftly. And surprisingly enough, the Amazon Downloader even added the songs to iTunes for me. How considerate. And as advertised, the tracks are straight MP3s (high 256 bitrate too) and I can use them as I see fit and burn them as often as I’d like.

I can’t speak on the depth of Amazon’s MP3 catalog as I was looking for something specific and found it, but if you’re looking for an iTunes alternative for music then I will happily recommend Amazon MP3. It’s easy to use, good quality tracks, and even cheaper than iTunes. Even the single songs are $.89 instead of $.99 – I’ll certainly be back.

(Oh, and the President’s album I downloaded is pretty solid too. Nothing earth-shattering as far as they’re concerned, but it’s great to have some new songs to bust out on the way to work. They’ve stuck with their original formula and it’s very welcome in today’s vast pit of otherwise shotty music.)

Originally posted on Aug 18, 2008

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A reason to keep your CDs

Our walls are pretty bare. Shy of a few of my old college paintings and a couple prints, we don’t have much hanging around. We don’t like cluttered, busy walls anyway, but you have to have something on the walls otherwise it looks too…well, too migrant. Bare walls work if you have some sort of Zen theme going with minimalist furniture and bamboo floors, but we don’t. We’re pretty average folks with an average house. So in an attempt to find something meaningful for our walls without having to go the large poster/print route, I looked at what we have to work with.

And we have a lot of CDs. Our generation has seen a lot of technology change when it comes to music and we’re not even halfway through life. I know you all still have a box somewhere with cassettes in it and needless to say there’s a few shelves of CDs somewhere too. It’s safe to say we have way more MP3s these days than we do CDs, and we do most of our music listening on the computer, so the CDs have just become clutter. Recently though I thought about hanging up CD covers as art. We both love our music and the CDs weren’t doing anything else.

I think album covers as wall art (CD or otherwise) is a good solution to get use out of something that otherwise has no purpose anymore. It’s easy, clean, and shows off your love and tastes for music. Not to mention some album covers are considered art in their own right, so it’s not that far fetched. The trick, it turned out, was finding frames for the little buggers.

Compact disc album covers are square. Most small frames are designed for standard photos, which are rectangles. Going to a craft store or even Target didn’t find us the frames we needed. No, we found just the right size frames at the Dollar Store…but of course! We didn’t go to the Dollar Store looking for frames, but while there noticed some that were just the right size. They’re glass front frames so there’s no “frame” around the album, and it looks pretty nice.

This is still a work in progress, but even with only four covers up the staircase it looks pretty good. About two to four more covers to complete the journey should be enough. Now the hard part is picking which albums to feature. But then again, it’s convenient enough that we can change them whenever we like.

So if you have some bare spots on your walls and need something small to fill the void, consider your favorite (or best looking) album covers. An easy afternoon project.

Originally posted on Aug 16, 2008

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Don’t bust a Nutsie

I’ve been using FineTune.com for on-line music for a long time now. I’ve found it to be be all I need to get through my day. At FineTune you pick songs to add to your pool (playlist) and then it plays back those songs in random order. You never know what song is going to play next, but you know it’ll be a song you picked. Nutsie, on the other hand, takes a different approach and lets you bring your own music collection on-line.

I heard about Nutsie when drummer Duff McKagan was on a local radio show. He was pimping the service, which I believe he invested in (and also adorns the home page) so I figured I’d give it a try. Nutsie expects you to be using iTunes. Now one might see this is a narrow strategy, but these days iTunes is probably a safe bet. Unlike some other services, Nutsie doesn’t want you to upload your MP3s, it only wants your iTunes database. All you need to do with Nutside is export your iTunes library and upload it. Nutsie then does all the work to find the songs so you can listen on-line.

It’s actually a nifty concept but I’ve found it has one fatal flaw – it exposes you to all the crappy music you have in your library. If you’re like me, you’ve ripped just about every CD you have and also any CD that you might even only be remotely interested in. In my catalog there is a lot of classical, a lot of movie scores/sounndtracks, and a lot of country thanks to the wife – and most of that is not stuff I listen to all that often. Nutsie, unfortunately, reminds me that my library has about 70% of crap, 20% of good stuff, and 10% of, “when did I get that song?”

Another flaw in Nutsie is the lack of making playlists within Nutsie. Chances are you have playlists within iTunes. Well, when you upload your library Nutsie retains these playlists but doesn’t let you create new ones with your music. So if want to create your “Ultimate Death Metal” playlist in Nutsie using your collection of songs, you’re out of luck. You also can’t play any individual song with Nutsie. Much like all the other services, the site will play songs from your playlists randomly.

Another very annoying unfeature in Nutsie is the audio player itself. An embedded music player can be found on just about every page, including your personal playlist home page. This works great until you click a link on the page and takes you away, thus stopping your music and making you start all over again. One simple improvement Nutsie could add is to simply let you pop-out the player so you can navigate around Nutsie without disrupting your music. This even works against them because the always-present “Buy” button next to each song stops the music and just makes you mad. You’ll also find the music players start automagically, so just about every web page will start blaring out music when you arrive.

On the good side of Nutsie is the standard shared playlist abilities. Even if you don’t upload your own music library, you’ll find a good host of themed playlists that will keep you going for a while. They have a nice list of dated playlists so you can hear the Best Rock Songs of 1977 anytime you want (which I recommend). And assuming you’re a Nutsie member – which is free – you are allowed unlimited song skips. Where as places like FineTune and Pandora limit you to five skips per hour, Nutsie lets you skip forever if you want. Of course, you’ll need unlimited skips to get through all the crap in your personal library. For one session I actually did more skipping than listening.

And perhaps the most unique feature of Nutsie is the Nutsie Picks slider that appears above every music player. This lets you choose if you want Nutsie to recommend other songs and mix them while you’re listening. This doesn’t add songs to your playlist or library, it works on-the-fly. So if you have a playlist of 50 tunes and slide the Nutsie Picks to some percentage and it’ll toss in a few related artists and songs. Kind of nifty, but in my experience not all that “accurate” as you’ll find Barry Manilow and Rod Stewart dropped in the middle of your Glam Metal playlist.

I think Nutsie is working along the right path but has a long way to go. Design and user experience problems keep me from using the service, and its tendency to replay the same songs from my playlist over and over keeps me sitting at FineTune instead. I like the idea of just uploading my iTunes library and being able to listen anywhere I am, but until they give me more control over what is essentially my music, I’ll stick with my playlists at FineTune.

Originally posted on Aug 16, 2008

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The Wii redeems itself with the Homebrew Channel

I wrote a bit back about my increasing loss of faith in the Wii. The games slated to come out through the rest of the year and into 2009 are quite, shall we say, “weak” and include many uber-family friendly games. I have nothing against family friendly, but you can only have so many pet and puzzle games before a system starts to lose its appeal. However, a recent investigation into a well known hack for the Wii has me singing a different tune.

Reading Wii news as regularly as I do, quite some time ago I read about a thing called the Twilight Hack, which exploits a bug in the Wii Zelda game that let hackers into the core system. I typically try not to bother with console hacks because I’ve spent way to much on the deck to possibly ruin it by hacking. But over the weekend I found and read more about the Twilight Hack that sold me on the idea.

tmpphpT41Nzl.jpgBut why hack the Wii in the first place? Well, hacking in this case means you can load homebrew games (indie games) on the Wii. The hack actually adds the “Homebrew Channel” to your standard Wii menu (in English). Along with standalone indie games, you can also load emulators with the channel. As is well documented, I am an emulator junkie, especially for the classic decks like the NES, SNES, and PC Engine. With the promise of emulators on the Wii, I couldn’t not try the hack.

The Twilight Hack was stupidly simple to install. The only thing you need is an SD memory card and the Zelda game disc. Fortunately friend-of-the-Toast, Thee, had the Zelda game and once I had it in my hand I gave the hack a go. I held my breath and watched the DOS-like screen fly by, doing something to my Wii, and just hoped I wasn’t bricking my Wii. Bang! Zoom! The Homebrew Channel is ready to go!

And much (very much) to my surprise the NES emulator ran just fine and I was able to load all the NES ROMs I’ve had for years. Then I tried the TurboGrafix16 emulator…worked. Then the SNES emulator…worked. How awesome is this?! And all the emulators have multi-player support. So now I can play my old NES and other games just about everywhere: on my original NES deck, my PC, my DS portable, and now my Wii. Wherever I go, the NES will follow. Nuts? Yes. Fun? You betcha.

I’ve spent a lot of time and money on my NES PowerPak so I could play ROMs on my actual NES console, and nothing beats that experience, but having the NES games on my Wii is just way too convenient. Then toss on the SNES, Genesis and PCE games that I never had elsewhere other than my computer…you can’t beat it. I’m still playing around with the emulators and homebrew games, but so far the so good shy of a few ROMs that just haven’t loaded. But I don’t know if that means it’s a bad ROM, which is highly likely, or the emulator…time will tell. I’ve also found I now have a really good reason to buy a classic Wii controller.

tmpphpfZjYsl.jpgBut wait…can’t you download all the old games with the Wii Virtual Console? Why yes, you can…for anywhere from $5 – $10 a pop. We all have our favorite classic games. Even with over 500 NES games, I play the same dozen over and over. Same will go with PCE, SNES, and Genesis…but if I can get them easily for free, why do the whole download thing? Plus, now I can play the games I never played before but wanted to without the risk. It’s just nice.

Having this homebrew option opens up the Wii to a whole new realm of games even beyond old emulators. Now you can also play games made by indie developers that you won’t find in retail. One such game I found is called GuitarFun and is a clone of clone…it’s a clone of Frets on Fire, the PC Guitar Hero clone. I have yet to get GuitarFun to load and play on the Wii Homebrew, but when/if it does, it means I can play custom songs (real songs) with the actual guitar controller. Now that’ll be spiffy! I’ll post up a note when I get it working…but there are YouTubes of the game working.

All in all, I don’t see any reason you wouldn’t want to use the Twilight Hack and install the Homebrew Channel. It doesn’t hurt and the manual claims you can even uninstall it all. This isn’t a hardware-level hack, it’s just software, so there shouldn’t ever be any permanent damage. If you’re after some classic console gaming and don’t want go crazy like I did with my NES, this Wii hack is the sweet spot that turns your console into the perfect (and free) retro game machine. And since you’re saving on VC downloads, you can justify more retail Wii games and accessories.

If you’re wanting to setup the Homebrew Channel on your Wii, hit up WiiBrew.com and look for their WiiPack Generator. Use it to download all the parts you want and need, including the Twilight Hack. And to see just how easy the hack is to install, there’s a handy video…which I watched like five times before doing it myself (it just made me feel better).

Now pardon me while I go run through some Excite Bike, F-Zero, Keith Courage, and maybe a little Street Fighter II.

Originally posted on Aug 13, 2008

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Seventeen pounds of Hot Wheels

I’ve been “collecting” Hot Wheels for probably close to eight years by now. I collect but I don’t invest in Hot Wheels. A recent trip to the Ohio State Fair’s and its famed Junk Barn (where every Harry, Dick, and Tom can attempt to sell their junk) had me face-to-face with a ton of “collectible” Hot Wheels.

They were all in the box and ranged in age from 2008 models to some that stretched back to the mid-80s. And not surprisingly, I had many of the cars I saw…but much to my surprise, these cars were selling for $2 – $5. While a few bucks may not sound like much, considering each Hot Wheels car costs less than a dollar to buy it’s a pretty good return on the value.

It’s hard for me to see Hot Wheels as a collectibles investment. Sure, it kind of sucks to see a car I bought for 97 cents just a week ago already selling for $3 (which is bull anyway), but then I realize why I collect Hot Wheels – because I like them. I like to look at them, play with them, take pictures of them, let others play with them…it’s about the fun of toy cars, not the fun of buying and selling. I wouldn’t be any good at selling them anyway because I wouldn’t be able to give them up, even at a profit.

With my upgraded Flickr Pro account at my disposal, I decided to do something I had been wanting to do for a while, shoot my cars in more “artistic” ways, rather than the straight up showroom-quality photos I’ve been taking for the Hot Wheels Showcase I have on-line.

Hot Wheels are so vivid and fantastic that they lend themselves to photographs, both macro photography (which I can’t do well) and just general fun shooting (which I can do well). So with a sunny Saturday on hand I took all (well, most) of my cars out and set them up for some shots. It’s funny because when you tell people you have 193 Hot Wheels it sounds like a lot…but when you line them all up for a family photo, it doesn’t look like much, at least not to me. I guess in my head I thought they would take up more space all laid out, but I guess they’re only 2-inch cars anyway.

So yes, I have upwards of 190 Hot Wheels cars and all together they weigh an even 17 pounds. And for those wanting to keep track, each Hot Wheels cars cost me a dollar, so my total investment should be pretty simple. Now consider if I was investing in the toys how much I would have in value if each one could (on average) resell for $3.

I don’t really plan to stop my collecting. It’s cheap and it’s fun. And they make for some awesome photos.

Stop by the Flickr page for more shots.

Originally posted on Aug 9, 2008

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Tesla, still comin’ atcha live…again

You go to a concert early for one reason: to get good seats. And even though we saw Tesla in concert just six months ago, we still showed up early to make sure we got the spot we wanted. Last time we saw Tesla it was bare nuts cold outside and the line to get in was down the block. This time it was hot, but the line wasn’t so long, however, we noticed a small group of people gathering away from the main line. They were gathering outside the tour bus entrance where last time Frank Hannon chatted with shivering fans so we figured members of Tesla were once again mingling with fans, and we were right.

Before you continue, please enjoy some Tesla as you read:
[audio:tesla.mp3]

This time lead singer Jeff Keith was signing autographs and taking pictures from behind the entrance gate. We didn’t bring our camera because the venue doesn’t allow cameras, but we did have a convenient phone camera. And just after we got a shot of Jeff behind bars he says, “hell with this, I’m coming out there,” and he walked around the gate to meet fans up close and personal right there on the sidewalk. What luck! So we calmly waited to say “Hello” and get a photo op and autograph. Unfortunately, given the sun and the low-fi camera, the photo of Jen and Jeff didn’t turn out as well as I’d hope (although you can tell who it is), but he also signed the ticket stub…making this one of the first ticket stubs I’ll actually be keeping.

Before too long the rest of people waiting in line took notice and gathered around getting their jeans, arms, and children signed by Jeff Keith. At that point we moved back into the line and waited for the doors to open. Once we were in we found the spot we wanted, along the back wall of the floor section. We were at the same venue as before but this time we were outside and oh what a difference it made. The sound and experience of an indoor show just can’t compare to that of a outdoor concert. So we sat a waited for things to kick off while other came to sit along side us.

Not too long after we claimed our spot a girl sitting about three people down from me leaned forward and…well, she just puked her guts out. What?! Vomiting already? That’s what one guy was thinking as he passed by the pool of vomit and then looked at his watch, as though to think, “isn’t it a bit early for barf?”

Out of all the concerts we’ve seen in the past few years, this is the first time we’ve been near, let alone witness, some vomiting, as surprising as that may be. It’s very interesting watching people notice a pile of vomit. It actually became the game of the night, watching people’s reactions when they noticed the pool…assuming they did notice. Although few and far between, there were a handful of people that just didn’t notice and walked right through it. If you learn one thing from this entry, please learn that you should always look down when at a concert because you never know what you’ll find on the ground. Needless to say, the vomit kept many people away so we enjoyed the concert in relative peace. Thankfully we were far enough away from it that it didn’t encroach our space.

The opening band did their thing and after a quick stage change Tesla came out and rocked a perfect night. And it was a perfect night for a concert, very comfortable with clear skies. They changed up their set list just enough from their last visit, playing their standards but also including ones like “Edison’s Medicine” and “Mama’s Fool,” of which neither they played last time. They also removed the cover songs from their line-up, which I appreciated.

And if you thought having a pool of throw-up next you all night wasn’t a good way to enjoy Tesla, it gets better. Because about three quarters through the set victim number too spun around in front of us and spewed. This lady spewed first in the same spot as the first girl, then ran off the floor to toss it in the grass. Not sure if it was the combination of heat and beer, which is always fun, or if that spot on the floor had low gravity or some other anomaly that would cause people to chuck. Vomit to the left of me, vomit to the right of me…had it not been for Tesla in front of me, it would have been a rough night.

Another thing this concert proved is that Tesla is a prime example of a solid band. Being the only band we’ve seen twice, we know that Tesla puts on a good show just about every time they perform. It doesn’t matter if they’re inside or outside, they just lay it down. Nothing too fancy, not a lot of “show,” just a straight set of hits. To top things off, they did something other bands could learn from – they skipped the encore. It seems these days the encore is a given, which kind of defeats the specialness of an encore. No, instead Tesla said, “we don’t need to make people scream and shout, we’ll just keep on going.” So instead of taking a break, making us wait and then coming out to play one more song, they played two more songs instead. Awesome. Just awesome. Why make us clap? You know you’re coming back out to play.

The fact that Jeff Keith was willing to stand in the middle of the sidewalk and get up close with fans also tells me that Tesla knows what’s important. I know Tesla is way past their prime and not exactly filling stadiums anymore, but find me another band that will go that far out of their way to keep people happy. It tells me they know what’s important – the fans – because if you don’t keep your fans happy, they won’t come see you and they won’t buy your records.

So next time there’s a band you want to see, show up a bit early because not only will you usually get a good seat, you never know who’ll you find signing autographs. And you might miss the vomit.

Originally posted on Aug 5, 2008

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It’s a good time to bring back blimps

I love blimps. Blimps just make sense to me. They’re elegant, classy, efficient, and it many ways, quite practical. Just by chance I happened to come across an article in the NYT Europe section about Zeppelin blimps. I didn’t read the entire article but just the first few paragraphs were enough to have me thinking happy blimp thoughts.

Blimps are just like airplanes or trains but are far more efficient. All three follow more direct routes than car or truck, but blimps don’t use regular jet fuel. They use reusable gas to fill the blimp, so right there they are better off than the rest of us. Blimps may be a bit slower than jets or trains, but I say that blimps are not for trans-atlantic or even cross-country shipments. I see blimps as tri-state, regional solution to delivering goods.

Not only do blimps make fuel sense, they make delivery sense. Blimps don’t need acres and miles of runway, they just need a small field or even a tall building with which to dock and unload. Blimps can go vertical, making them more flexible than planes and have more reach than a train.

Blimps just…blimps just make sense. As the article points out, in a time when fuel prices are sky high (ha ha), blimps provide an alternative that could help cut costs at a critical time. I doubt it will catch on, but just imagine how beautiful a sky filled with blimps would be. Imagine traveling from Chicago to New York by blimp…no, wait, luxury blimp. Even if blimps didn’t become a shipping standard, I think blimps would have a cool-factor that would make them work as a novelty travel for a long while.

Bring back blimps!!

Originally posted on Aug 4, 2008

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Work will be watching

A recent article in the NY Times talks about new network monitoring software that will “learn” about employee’s web behaviour and give the company finite control over restrictions and settings. I won’t repost the whole article, but this pretty much sums it up:

…one company might say that marketing folks can only visit YouTube during lunch hour, and even then, they can only upload two megabytes to the site each day. Engineers might be blocked from visiting Facebook…but everyone else can.

I’m not saying companies shouldn’t monitor network traffic and use, it’s a legit concern. But if software like this works as well as promoted, I see one problem: we’re not machines. Applying strict rules onto users will just make them unhappy and that ultimately results is poor results.

I’m one that believes people will naturally find their balance at work. No one works 8-hours solid. It’s just not possible, and frankly, not healthy. Everybody needs some time during the day to just chill for a few. Some people may go outside for a smoke, some might walk around the building, some might scratch their butt, some, like me, just stay on-line and visit web sites they enjoy but aren’t work-related.

Me, I hit up my video game blogs, check my personal e-mail, manage my personal sites and that type stuff. All said and done, it maybe takes 15-30 minutes of my day. No big deal. If I spend more time than that I feel like I’m jipping myself out of work time. I know I have stuff to do and I know how much time it takes to get it done. Most people won’t abuse their time because fear will keep them in check – at least that’s what I’ve witnessed. If you just trust people things will usually work out for the best.

I’m sure the thought behind applying smart software that tracks individuals and adjusts based on habits is that it will stop those that do abuse their work time. I guess my philosophy on this is that instead of using a blacklist method that effects everyone, if you find someone is spending too much time hanging out on YouTube, you deal with them. You warn them, suspend them, fire them, whatever…you deal with the person directly. You don’t puss out and let technology to do your people management for you. That’s just weak. And honestly, I wouldn’t want to work for a company that manages their employees that way.

Everybody works best in different environments. And that’s not limited to physical environments, but digital/on-line environments too. You can’t look at sheer numbers to determine what people are doing. Behaviour doesn’t work by the numbers and by saying, “Brian spends 30 minutes on Gmail a day means he’s wasting time,” is quite ignorant and might do more harm than good in the long.

Of course, all this is assuming companies will pretty much abuse this network management power. Some will, some won’t, but just having that ability will turn even the lax network admin into a network nazi. Actually, software like this might even eliminate that admin job…so you better watch out.

Originally posted on Aug 4, 2008

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Winnie’s new digs

In the great menagerie we call our home lives a cat, a dog, a turtle, and a dog – in that order. Out of them all the turtle, Winnie, requires the least amount of attention. She probably doesn’t get enough attention, actually, but so it goes. She’s a turtle. It’s funny that most people probably think it’s easier to care a turtle than two dogs and cat. Simplicity of often deceiving.

When we got Winnie a couple years ago, the men at the turtle store told us she was a water turtle and needed water to feed and stuff. OK, so we got an aquarium and filled it with water for her to swim around and a little floating dock for her to lay on. And that’s the way it remained for a long time, with regular tank cleanings and the likes to keep things as clean as we could. But let me tell you, a turtle is a dirty, dirty, messy animal.

Emptying 15 gallons of water every two week sucked bears. Well, our thoughts of “easy” care for a turtle changed when we discovered Winnie’s shell had a few bad spots on it. We think it’s shell rot, which, from what we’ve read, is easily cared for with a little soap wash and less water time. And that’s where we goofed in the past – we had too much water and not enough “sun” for her – which led to her shell problems. So action had to be taken immediately.

That action was a new apartment for Winnie. A trip to the pet store had me coming home with a stone barrier that needed to be siliconed into the aquarium so one half could be set with rocks for basking and the other for her pool. And it’s pretty nice, although I’m not sure Winnie knows what to do with it all yet.

Now there’s 1/4 as much water in the tank, which should make cleaning much easier while still giving her plenty of water for her bodily needs. The project as a whole was a lot easier than I expected. I’m glad I found the little barrier thing. My first thoughts were buying rocks or something and piling them up to create a nice basking area but still having mostly water. The new setup should be nice for her and for us.

I just hope the dogs don’t ask for a new house too.

Originally posted on Aug 19, 2008

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The Presidents and Amazon MP3

Despite my regular use of iTunes for playing and sometimes purchasing music, I’m not necessarily an iTunes-lover. I think iTunes is a nice music organizer/player. It certainly has its issues and I can’t say I’ve been 100% happy with it, but it does the trick. But then there’s the music, by far the biggest wrinkle in the sheet. Damn their DMA songs!

Even though I use iTunes as my main music player, I hate having my music locked down. My solution around it has been what most people have probably been doing too…burning the iTunes songs to a CD and then ripping them back as MP3s. Tedious and stupid, but it works.

When Amazon announced their MP3 service would be cheaper and offer standard MP3 files I told myself the next time I plan on getting a song or album I’d use it. Well, with money sitting in my iTunes account thanks to gift cards and redeeming, I hadn’t not followed through on that promise until today when I found a good reason to go elsewhere.

Much to my happiness I discovered that one of my favorite groups, The Presidents of the United States of America, did not disband as I had once thought. Actually, they did back in 1998 and then reformed a few years later to release a handful of albums.

“Peaches” – The Presidents of the United States of America
[audio:peaches.mp3]

I remember buying The President’s first album at Media Play. I thought the album cover was strange, and the music was pretty nutty too, but that’s why I like it so. It’s poppy, fast, it rocks, and has a heaping helping of fun and humor. That first record was really solid. The follow up album II was 50/50. A third release just before their break-up had even fewer singles. After I heard they broke up I had pretty much written them off and had just accepted I’d have 2.5 albums to enjoy for the rest of time.

I was at YouTube watching some Weird Al videos and that led me to The Presidents’ Wikipedia page where learned they regrouped and have been making new albums. It’s great to find out they’re still making music and still keeping it fun and light. I went the web site and listened to a few tracks from newer albums and decided to go ahead and download one of the “lost albums” I had missed. I decided on Love Everybody and headed over to iTunes to make the purchase.

Now most albums at iTunes are $10 regardless of the number of tracks. But low and behold this one album from an essentially nobody band was $12. Sucko. But wait! I have an alternative – Amazon MP3. A quick jump to Amazon found the album for $9, so I was ready to dive in.

Although a bummer, I was not surprised to have to install Amazon’s MP3 Downloader, a desktop client that does the downloading for you. After a very quick install I was faced with something I did not expect at all – something helpful – a free song to download. This is very smart because not only is it a great bonus for a new user, but Amazon presents as a way for you to learn how the downloader works before you pay any money. It told me, “Hey, watch the downloader in action by getting this free song.” I happily took their recommendation. Very smart on Amazon’s part and much appreciated as a customer.

So with the downloader installed I click the Buy button and after a quick authorization the downloads came in swiftly. And surprisingly enough, the Amazon Downloader even added the songs to iTunes for me. How considerate. And as advertised, the tracks are straight MP3s (high 256 bitrate too) and I can use them as I see fit and burn them as often as I’d like.

I can’t speak on the depth of Amazon’s MP3 catalog as I was looking for something specific and found it, but if you’re looking for an iTunes alternative for music then I will happily recommend Amazon MP3. It’s easy to use, good quality tracks, and even cheaper than iTunes. Even the single songs are $.89 instead of $.99 – I’ll certainly be back.

(Oh, and the President’s album I downloaded is pretty solid too. Nothing earth-shattering as far as they’re concerned, but it’s great to have some new songs to bust out on the way to work. They’ve stuck with their original formula and it’s very welcome in today’s vast pit of otherwise shotty music.)

Originally posted on Aug 18, 2008

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A reason to keep your CDs

Our walls are pretty bare. Shy of a few of my old college paintings and a couple prints, we don’t have much hanging around. We don’t like cluttered, busy walls anyway, but you have to have something on the walls otherwise it looks too…well, too migrant. Bare walls work if you have some sort of Zen theme going with minimalist furniture and bamboo floors, but we don’t. We’re pretty average folks with an average house. So in an attempt to find something meaningful for our walls without having to go the large poster/print route, I looked at what we have to work with.

And we have a lot of CDs. Our generation has seen a lot of technology change when it comes to music and we’re not even halfway through life. I know you all still have a box somewhere with cassettes in it and needless to say there’s a few shelves of CDs somewhere too. It’s safe to say we have way more MP3s these days than we do CDs, and we do most of our music listening on the computer, so the CDs have just become clutter. Recently though I thought about hanging up CD covers as art. We both love our music and the CDs weren’t doing anything else.

I think album covers as wall art (CD or otherwise) is a good solution to get use out of something that otherwise has no purpose anymore. It’s easy, clean, and shows off your love and tastes for music. Not to mention some album covers are considered art in their own right, so it’s not that far fetched. The trick, it turned out, was finding frames for the little buggers.

Compact disc album covers are square. Most small frames are designed for standard photos, which are rectangles. Going to a craft store or even Target didn’t find us the frames we needed. No, we found just the right size frames at the Dollar Store…but of course! We didn’t go to the Dollar Store looking for frames, but while there noticed some that were just the right size. They’re glass front frames so there’s no “frame” around the album, and it looks pretty nice.

This is still a work in progress, but even with only four covers up the staircase it looks pretty good. About two to four more covers to complete the journey should be enough. Now the hard part is picking which albums to feature. But then again, it’s convenient enough that we can change them whenever we like.

So if you have some bare spots on your walls and need something small to fill the void, consider your favorite (or best looking) album covers. An easy afternoon project.

Originally posted on Aug 16, 2008

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Don’t bust a Nutsie

I’ve been using FineTune.com for on-line music for a long time now. I’ve found it to be be all I need to get through my day. At FineTune you pick songs to add to your pool (playlist) and then it plays back those songs in random order. You never know what song is going to play next, but you know it’ll be a song you picked. Nutsie, on the other hand, takes a different approach and lets you bring your own music collection on-line.

I heard about Nutsie when drummer Duff McKagan was on a local radio show. He was pimping the service, which I believe he invested in (and also adorns the home page) so I figured I’d give it a try. Nutsie expects you to be using iTunes. Now one might see this is a narrow strategy, but these days iTunes is probably a safe bet. Unlike some other services, Nutsie doesn’t want you to upload your MP3s, it only wants your iTunes database. All you need to do with Nutside is export your iTunes library and upload it. Nutsie then does all the work to find the songs so you can listen on-line.

It’s actually a nifty concept but I’ve found it has one fatal flaw – it exposes you to all the crappy music you have in your library. If you’re like me, you’ve ripped just about every CD you have and also any CD that you might even only be remotely interested in. In my catalog there is a lot of classical, a lot of movie scores/sounndtracks, and a lot of country thanks to the wife – and most of that is not stuff I listen to all that often. Nutsie, unfortunately, reminds me that my library has about 70% of crap, 20% of good stuff, and 10% of, “when did I get that song?”

Another flaw in Nutsie is the lack of making playlists within Nutsie. Chances are you have playlists within iTunes. Well, when you upload your library Nutsie retains these playlists but doesn’t let you create new ones with your music. So if want to create your “Ultimate Death Metal” playlist in Nutsie using your collection of songs, you’re out of luck. You also can’t play any individual song with Nutsie. Much like all the other services, the site will play songs from your playlists randomly.

Another very annoying unfeature in Nutsie is the audio player itself. An embedded music player can be found on just about every page, including your personal playlist home page. This works great until you click a link on the page and takes you away, thus stopping your music and making you start all over again. One simple improvement Nutsie could add is to simply let you pop-out the player so you can navigate around Nutsie without disrupting your music. This even works against them because the always-present “Buy” button next to each song stops the music and just makes you mad. You’ll also find the music players start automagically, so just about every web page will start blaring out music when you arrive.

On the good side of Nutsie is the standard shared playlist abilities. Even if you don’t upload your own music library, you’ll find a good host of themed playlists that will keep you going for a while. They have a nice list of dated playlists so you can hear the Best Rock Songs of 1977 anytime you want (which I recommend). And assuming you’re a Nutsie member – which is free – you are allowed unlimited song skips. Where as places like FineTune and Pandora limit you to five skips per hour, Nutsie lets you skip forever if you want. Of course, you’ll need unlimited skips to get through all the crap in your personal library. For one session I actually did more skipping than listening.

And perhaps the most unique feature of Nutsie is the Nutsie Picks slider that appears above every music player. This lets you choose if you want Nutsie to recommend other songs and mix them while you’re listening. This doesn’t add songs to your playlist or library, it works on-the-fly. So if you have a playlist of 50 tunes and slide the Nutsie Picks to some percentage and it’ll toss in a few related artists and songs. Kind of nifty, but in my experience not all that “accurate” as you’ll find Barry Manilow and Rod Stewart dropped in the middle of your Glam Metal playlist.

I think Nutsie is working along the right path but has a long way to go. Design and user experience problems keep me from using the service, and its tendency to replay the same songs from my playlist over and over keeps me sitting at FineTune instead. I like the idea of just uploading my iTunes library and being able to listen anywhere I am, but until they give me more control over what is essentially my music, I’ll stick with my playlists at FineTune.

Originally posted on Aug 16, 2008

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The Wii redeems itself with the Homebrew Channel

I wrote a bit back about my increasing loss of faith in the Wii. The games slated to come out through the rest of the year and into 2009 are quite, shall we say, “weak” and include many uber-family friendly games. I have nothing against family friendly, but you can only have so many pet and puzzle games before a system starts to lose its appeal. However, a recent investigation into a well known hack for the Wii has me singing a different tune.

Reading Wii news as regularly as I do, quite some time ago I read about a thing called the Twilight Hack, which exploits a bug in the Wii Zelda game that let hackers into the core system. I typically try not to bother with console hacks because I’ve spent way to much on the deck to possibly ruin it by hacking. But over the weekend I found and read more about the Twilight Hack that sold me on the idea.

tmpphpT41Nzl.jpgBut why hack the Wii in the first place? Well, hacking in this case means you can load homebrew games (indie games) on the Wii. The hack actually adds the “Homebrew Channel” to your standard Wii menu (in English). Along with standalone indie games, you can also load emulators with the channel. As is well documented, I am an emulator junkie, especially for the classic decks like the NES, SNES, and PC Engine. With the promise of emulators on the Wii, I couldn’t not try the hack.

The Twilight Hack was stupidly simple to install. The only thing you need is an SD memory card and the Zelda game disc. Fortunately friend-of-the-Toast, Thee, had the Zelda game and once I had it in my hand I gave the hack a go. I held my breath and watched the DOS-like screen fly by, doing something to my Wii, and just hoped I wasn’t bricking my Wii. Bang! Zoom! The Homebrew Channel is ready to go!

And much (very much) to my surprise the NES emulator ran just fine and I was able to load all the NES ROMs I’ve had for years. Then I tried the TurboGrafix16 emulator…worked. Then the SNES emulator…worked. How awesome is this?! And all the emulators have multi-player support. So now I can play my old NES and other games just about everywhere: on my original NES deck, my PC, my DS portable, and now my Wii. Wherever I go, the NES will follow. Nuts? Yes. Fun? You betcha.

I’ve spent a lot of time and money on my NES PowerPak so I could play ROMs on my actual NES console, and nothing beats that experience, but having the NES games on my Wii is just way too convenient. Then toss on the SNES, Genesis and PCE games that I never had elsewhere other than my computer…you can’t beat it. I’m still playing around with the emulators and homebrew games, but so far the so good shy of a few ROMs that just haven’t loaded. But I don’t know if that means it’s a bad ROM, which is highly likely, or the emulator…time will tell. I’ve also found I now have a really good reason to buy a classic Wii controller.

tmpphpfZjYsl.jpgBut wait…can’t you download all the old games with the Wii Virtual Console? Why yes, you can…for anywhere from $5 – $10 a pop. We all have our favorite classic games. Even with over 500 NES games, I play the same dozen over and over. Same will go with PCE, SNES, and Genesis…but if I can get them easily for free, why do the whole download thing? Plus, now I can play the games I never played before but wanted to without the risk. It’s just nice.

Having this homebrew option opens up the Wii to a whole new realm of games even beyond old emulators. Now you can also play games made by indie developers that you won’t find in retail. One such game I found is called GuitarFun and is a clone of clone…it’s a clone of Frets on Fire, the PC Guitar Hero clone. I have yet to get GuitarFun to load and play on the Wii Homebrew, but when/if it does, it means I can play custom songs (real songs) with the actual guitar controller. Now that’ll be spiffy! I’ll post up a note when I get it working…but there are YouTubes of the game working.

All in all, I don’t see any reason you wouldn’t want to use the Twilight Hack and install the Homebrew Channel. It doesn’t hurt and the manual claims you can even uninstall it all. This isn’t a hardware-level hack, it’s just software, so there shouldn’t ever be any permanent damage. If you’re after some classic console gaming and don’t want go crazy like I did with my NES, this Wii hack is the sweet spot that turns your console into the perfect (and free) retro game machine. And since you’re saving on VC downloads, you can justify more retail Wii games and accessories.

If you’re wanting to setup the Homebrew Channel on your Wii, hit up WiiBrew.com and look for their WiiPack Generator. Use it to download all the parts you want and need, including the Twilight Hack. And to see just how easy the hack is to install, there’s a handy video…which I watched like five times before doing it myself (it just made me feel better).

Now pardon me while I go run through some Excite Bike, F-Zero, Keith Courage, and maybe a little Street Fighter II.

Originally posted on Aug 13, 2008

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Seventeen pounds of Hot Wheels

I’ve been “collecting” Hot Wheels for probably close to eight years by now. I collect but I don’t invest in Hot Wheels. A recent trip to the Ohio State Fair’s and its famed Junk Barn (where every Harry, Dick, and Tom can attempt to sell their junk) had me face-to-face with a ton of “collectible” Hot Wheels.

They were all in the box and ranged in age from 2008 models to some that stretched back to the mid-80s. And not surprisingly, I had many of the cars I saw…but much to my surprise, these cars were selling for $2 – $5. While a few bucks may not sound like much, considering each Hot Wheels car costs less than a dollar to buy it’s a pretty good return on the value.

It’s hard for me to see Hot Wheels as a collectibles investment. Sure, it kind of sucks to see a car I bought for 97 cents just a week ago already selling for $3 (which is bull anyway), but then I realize why I collect Hot Wheels – because I like them. I like to look at them, play with them, take pictures of them, let others play with them…it’s about the fun of toy cars, not the fun of buying and selling. I wouldn’t be any good at selling them anyway because I wouldn’t be able to give them up, even at a profit.

With my upgraded Flickr Pro account at my disposal, I decided to do something I had been wanting to do for a while, shoot my cars in more “artistic” ways, rather than the straight up showroom-quality photos I’ve been taking for the Hot Wheels Showcase I have on-line.

Hot Wheels are so vivid and fantastic that they lend themselves to photographs, both macro photography (which I can’t do well) and just general fun shooting (which I can do well). So with a sunny Saturday on hand I took all (well, most) of my cars out and set them up for some shots. It’s funny because when you tell people you have 193 Hot Wheels it sounds like a lot…but when you line them all up for a family photo, it doesn’t look like much, at least not to me. I guess in my head I thought they would take up more space all laid out, but I guess they’re only 2-inch cars anyway.

So yes, I have upwards of 190 Hot Wheels cars and all together they weigh an even 17 pounds. And for those wanting to keep track, each Hot Wheels cars cost me a dollar, so my total investment should be pretty simple. Now consider if I was investing in the toys how much I would have in value if each one could (on average) resell for $3.

I don’t really plan to stop my collecting. It’s cheap and it’s fun. And they make for some awesome photos.

Stop by the Flickr page for more shots.

Originally posted on Aug 9, 2008

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Tesla, still comin’ atcha live…again

You go to a concert early for one reason: to get good seats. And even though we saw Tesla in concert just six months ago, we still showed up early to make sure we got the spot we wanted. Last time we saw Tesla it was bare nuts cold outside and the line to get in was down the block. This time it was hot, but the line wasn’t so long, however, we noticed a small group of people gathering away from the main line. They were gathering outside the tour bus entrance where last time Frank Hannon chatted with shivering fans so we figured members of Tesla were once again mingling with fans, and we were right.

Before you continue, please enjoy some Tesla as you read:
[audio:tesla.mp3]

This time lead singer Jeff Keith was signing autographs and taking pictures from behind the entrance gate. We didn’t bring our camera because the venue doesn’t allow cameras, but we did have a convenient phone camera. And just after we got a shot of Jeff behind bars he says, “hell with this, I’m coming out there,” and he walked around the gate to meet fans up close and personal right there on the sidewalk. What luck! So we calmly waited to say “Hello” and get a photo op and autograph. Unfortunately, given the sun and the low-fi camera, the photo of Jen and Jeff didn’t turn out as well as I’d hope (although you can tell who it is), but he also signed the ticket stub…making this one of the first ticket stubs I’ll actually be keeping.

Before too long the rest of people waiting in line took notice and gathered around getting their jeans, arms, and children signed by Jeff Keith. At that point we moved back into the line and waited for the doors to open. Once we were in we found the spot we wanted, along the back wall of the floor section. We were at the same venue as before but this time we were outside and oh what a difference it made. The sound and experience of an indoor show just can’t compare to that of a outdoor concert. So we sat a waited for things to kick off while other came to sit along side us.

Not too long after we claimed our spot a girl sitting about three people down from me leaned forward and…well, she just puked her guts out. What?! Vomiting already? That’s what one guy was thinking as he passed by the pool of vomit and then looked at his watch, as though to think, “isn’t it a bit early for barf?”

Out of all the concerts we’ve seen in the past few years, this is the first time we’ve been near, let alone witness, some vomiting, as surprising as that may be. It’s very interesting watching people notice a pile of vomit. It actually became the game of the night, watching people’s reactions when they noticed the pool…assuming they did notice. Although few and far between, there were a handful of people that just didn’t notice and walked right through it. If you learn one thing from this entry, please learn that you should always look down when at a concert because you never know what you’ll find on the ground. Needless to say, the vomit kept many people away so we enjoyed the concert in relative peace. Thankfully we were far enough away from it that it didn’t encroach our space.

The opening band did their thing and after a quick stage change Tesla came out and rocked a perfect night. And it was a perfect night for a concert, very comfortable with clear skies. They changed up their set list just enough from their last visit, playing their standards but also including ones like “Edison’s Medicine” and “Mama’s Fool,” of which neither they played last time. They also removed the cover songs from their line-up, which I appreciated.

And if you thought having a pool of throw-up next you all night wasn’t a good way to enjoy Tesla, it gets better. Because about three quarters through the set victim number too spun around in front of us and spewed. This lady spewed first in the same spot as the first girl, then ran off the floor to toss it in the grass. Not sure if it was the combination of heat and beer, which is always fun, or if that spot on the floor had low gravity or some other anomaly that would cause people to chuck. Vomit to the left of me, vomit to the right of me…had it not been for Tesla in front of me, it would have been a rough night.

Another thing this concert proved is that Tesla is a prime example of a solid band. Being the only band we’ve seen twice, we know that Tesla puts on a good show just about every time they perform. It doesn’t matter if they’re inside or outside, they just lay it down. Nothing too fancy, not a lot of “show,” just a straight set of hits. To top things off, they did something other bands could learn from – they skipped the encore. It seems these days the encore is a given, which kind of defeats the specialness of an encore. No, instead Tesla said, “we don’t need to make people scream and shout, we’ll just keep on going.” So instead of taking a break, making us wait and then coming out to play one more song, they played two more songs instead. Awesome. Just awesome. Why make us clap? You know you’re coming back out to play.

The fact that Jeff Keith was willing to stand in the middle of the sidewalk and get up close with fans also tells me that Tesla knows what’s important. I know Tesla is way past their prime and not exactly filling stadiums anymore, but find me another band that will go that far out of their way to keep people happy. It tells me they know what’s important – the fans – because if you don’t keep your fans happy, they won’t come see you and they won’t buy your records.

So next time there’s a band you want to see, show up a bit early because not only will you usually get a good seat, you never know who’ll you find signing autographs. And you might miss the vomit.

Originally posted on Aug 5, 2008

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It’s a good time to bring back blimps

I love blimps. Blimps just make sense to me. They’re elegant, classy, efficient, and it many ways, quite practical. Just by chance I happened to come across an article in the NYT Europe section about Zeppelin blimps. I didn’t read the entire article but just the first few paragraphs were enough to have me thinking happy blimp thoughts.

Blimps are just like airplanes or trains but are far more efficient. All three follow more direct routes than car or truck, but blimps don’t use regular jet fuel. They use reusable gas to fill the blimp, so right there they are better off than the rest of us. Blimps may be a bit slower than jets or trains, but I say that blimps are not for trans-atlantic or even cross-country shipments. I see blimps as tri-state, regional solution to delivering goods.

Not only do blimps make fuel sense, they make delivery sense. Blimps don’t need acres and miles of runway, they just need a small field or even a tall building with which to dock and unload. Blimps can go vertical, making them more flexible than planes and have more reach than a train.

Blimps just…blimps just make sense. As the article points out, in a time when fuel prices are sky high (ha ha), blimps provide an alternative that could help cut costs at a critical time. I doubt it will catch on, but just imagine how beautiful a sky filled with blimps would be. Imagine traveling from Chicago to New York by blimp…no, wait, luxury blimp. Even if blimps didn’t become a shipping standard, I think blimps would have a cool-factor that would make them work as a novelty travel for a long while.

Bring back blimps!!

Originally posted on Aug 4, 2008

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Work will be watching

A recent article in the NY Times talks about new network monitoring software that will “learn” about employee’s web behaviour and give the company finite control over restrictions and settings. I won’t repost the whole article, but this pretty much sums it up:

…one company might say that marketing folks can only visit YouTube during lunch hour, and even then, they can only upload two megabytes to the site each day. Engineers might be blocked from visiting Facebook…but everyone else can.

I’m not saying companies shouldn’t monitor network traffic and use, it’s a legit concern. But if software like this works as well as promoted, I see one problem: we’re not machines. Applying strict rules onto users will just make them unhappy and that ultimately results is poor results.

I’m one that believes people will naturally find their balance at work. No one works 8-hours solid. It’s just not possible, and frankly, not healthy. Everybody needs some time during the day to just chill for a few. Some people may go outside for a smoke, some might walk around the building, some might scratch their butt, some, like me, just stay on-line and visit web sites they enjoy but aren’t work-related.

Me, I hit up my video game blogs, check my personal e-mail, manage my personal sites and that type stuff. All said and done, it maybe takes 15-30 minutes of my day. No big deal. If I spend more time than that I feel like I’m jipping myself out of work time. I know I have stuff to do and I know how much time it takes to get it done. Most people won’t abuse their time because fear will keep them in check – at least that’s what I’ve witnessed. If you just trust people things will usually work out for the best.

I’m sure the thought behind applying smart software that tracks individuals and adjusts based on habits is that it will stop those that do abuse their work time. I guess my philosophy on this is that instead of using a blacklist method that effects everyone, if you find someone is spending too much time hanging out on YouTube, you deal with them. You warn them, suspend them, fire them, whatever…you deal with the person directly. You don’t puss out and let technology to do your people management for you. That’s just weak. And honestly, I wouldn’t want to work for a company that manages their employees that way.

Everybody works best in different environments. And that’s not limited to physical environments, but digital/on-line environments too. You can’t look at sheer numbers to determine what people are doing. Behaviour doesn’t work by the numbers and by saying, “Brian spends 30 minutes on Gmail a day means he’s wasting time,” is quite ignorant and might do more harm than good in the long.

Of course, all this is assuming companies will pretty much abuse this network management power. Some will, some won’t, but just having that ability will turn even the lax network admin into a network nazi. Actually, software like this might even eliminate that admin job…so you better watch out.

Originally posted on Aug 4, 2008

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Winnie’s new digs

In the great menagerie we call our home lives a cat, a dog, a turtle, and a dog – in that order. Out of them all the turtle, Winnie, requires the least amount of attention. She probably doesn’t get enough attention, actually, but so it goes. She’s a turtle. It’s funny that most people probably think it’s easier to care a turtle than two dogs and cat. Simplicity of often deceiving.

When we got Winnie a couple years ago, the men at the turtle store told us she was a water turtle and needed water to feed and stuff. OK, so we got an aquarium and filled it with water for her to swim around and a little floating dock for her to lay on. And that’s the way it remained for a long time, with regular tank cleanings and the likes to keep things as clean as we could. But let me tell you, a turtle is a dirty, dirty, messy animal.

Emptying 15 gallons of water every two week sucked bears. Well, our thoughts of “easy” care for a turtle changed when we discovered Winnie’s shell had a few bad spots on it. We think it’s shell rot, which, from what we’ve read, is easily cared for with a little soap wash and less water time. And that’s where we goofed in the past – we had too much water and not enough “sun” for her – which led to her shell problems. So action had to be taken immediately.

That action was a new apartment for Winnie. A trip to the pet store had me coming home with a stone barrier that needed to be siliconed into the aquarium so one half could be set with rocks for basking and the other for her pool. And it’s pretty nice, although I’m not sure Winnie knows what to do with it all yet.

Now there’s 1/4 as much water in the tank, which should make cleaning much easier while still giving her plenty of water for her bodily needs. The project as a whole was a lot easier than I expected. I’m glad I found the little barrier thing. My first thoughts were buying rocks or something and piling them up to create a nice basking area but still having mostly water. The new setup should be nice for her and for us.

I just hope the dogs don’t ask for a new house too.

Originally posted on Aug 19, 2008

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The Presidents and Amazon MP3

Despite my regular use of iTunes for playing and sometimes purchasing music, I’m not necessarily an iTunes-lover. I think iTunes is a nice music organizer/player. It certainly has its issues and I can’t say I’ve been 100% happy with it, but it does the trick. But then there’s the music, by far the biggest wrinkle in the sheet. Damn their DMA songs!

Even though I use iTunes as my main music player, I hate having my music locked down. My solution around it has been what most people have probably been doing too…burning the iTunes songs to a CD and then ripping them back as MP3s. Tedious and stupid, but it works.

When Amazon announced their MP3 service would be cheaper and offer standard MP3 files I told myself the next time I plan on getting a song or album I’d use it. Well, with money sitting in my iTunes account thanks to gift cards and redeeming, I hadn’t not followed through on that promise until today when I found a good reason to go elsewhere.

Much to my happiness I discovered that one of my favorite groups, The Presidents of the United States of America, did not disband as I had once thought. Actually, they did back in 1998 and then reformed a few years later to release a handful of albums.

“Peaches” – The Presidents of the United States of America
[audio:peaches.mp3]

I remember buying The President’s first album at Media Play. I thought the album cover was strange, and the music was pretty nutty too, but that’s why I like it so. It’s poppy, fast, it rocks, and has a heaping helping of fun and humor. That first record was really solid. The follow up album II was 50/50. A third release just before their break-up had even fewer singles. After I heard they broke up I had pretty much written them off and had just accepted I’d have 2.5 albums to enjoy for the rest of time.

I was at YouTube watching some Weird Al videos and that led me to The Presidents’ Wikipedia page where learned they regrouped and have been making new albums. It’s great to find out they’re still making music and still keeping it fun and light. I went the web site and listened to a few tracks from newer albums and decided to go ahead and download one of the “lost albums” I had missed. I decided on Love Everybody and headed over to iTunes to make the purchase.

Now most albums at iTunes are $10 regardless of the number of tracks. But low and behold this one album from an essentially nobody band was $12. Sucko. But wait! I have an alternative – Amazon MP3. A quick jump to Amazon found the album for $9, so I was ready to dive in.

Although a bummer, I was not surprised to have to install Amazon’s MP3 Downloader, a desktop client that does the downloading for you. After a very quick install I was faced with something I did not expect at all – something helpful – a free song to download. This is very smart because not only is it a great bonus for a new user, but Amazon presents as a way for you to learn how the downloader works before you pay any money. It told me, “Hey, watch the downloader in action by getting this free song.” I happily took their recommendation. Very smart on Amazon’s part and much appreciated as a customer.

So with the downloader installed I click the Buy button and after a quick authorization the downloads came in swiftly. And surprisingly enough, the Amazon Downloader even added the songs to iTunes for me. How considerate. And as advertised, the tracks are straight MP3s (high 256 bitrate too) and I can use them as I see fit and burn them as often as I’d like.

I can’t speak on the depth of Amazon’s MP3 catalog as I was looking for something specific and found it, but if you’re looking for an iTunes alternative for music then I will happily recommend Amazon MP3. It’s easy to use, good quality tracks, and even cheaper than iTunes. Even the single songs are $.89 instead of $.99 – I’ll certainly be back.

(Oh, and the President’s album I downloaded is pretty solid too. Nothing earth-shattering as far as they’re concerned, but it’s great to have some new songs to bust out on the way to work. They’ve stuck with their original formula and it’s very welcome in today’s vast pit of otherwise shotty music.)

Originally posted on Aug 18, 2008

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A reason to keep your CDs

Our walls are pretty bare. Shy of a few of my old college paintings and a couple prints, we don’t have much hanging around. We don’t like cluttered, busy walls anyway, but you have to have something on the walls otherwise it looks too…well, too migrant. Bare walls work if you have some sort of Zen theme going with minimalist furniture and bamboo floors, but we don’t. We’re pretty average folks with an average house. So in an attempt to find something meaningful for our walls without having to go the large poster/print route, I looked at what we have to work with.

And we have a lot of CDs. Our generation has seen a lot of technology change when it comes to music and we’re not even halfway through life. I know you all still have a box somewhere with cassettes in it and needless to say there’s a few shelves of CDs somewhere too. It’s safe to say we have way more MP3s these days than we do CDs, and we do most of our music listening on the computer, so the CDs have just become clutter. Recently though I thought about hanging up CD covers as art. We both love our music and the CDs weren’t doing anything else.

I think album covers as wall art (CD or otherwise) is a good solution to get use out of something that otherwise has no purpose anymore. It’s easy, clean, and shows off your love and tastes for music. Not to mention some album covers are considered art in their own right, so it’s not that far fetched. The trick, it turned out, was finding frames for the little buggers.

Compact disc album covers are square. Most small frames are designed for standard photos, which are rectangles. Going to a craft store or even Target didn’t find us the frames we needed. No, we found just the right size frames at the Dollar Store…but of course! We didn’t go to the Dollar Store looking for frames, but while there noticed some that were just the right size. They’re glass front frames so there’s no “frame” around the album, and it looks pretty nice.

This is still a work in progress, but even with only four covers up the staircase it looks pretty good. About two to four more covers to complete the journey should be enough. Now the hard part is picking which albums to feature. But then again, it’s convenient enough that we can change them whenever we like.

So if you have some bare spots on your walls and need something small to fill the void, consider your favorite (or best looking) album covers. An easy afternoon project.

Originally posted on Aug 16, 2008

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Don’t bust a Nutsie

I’ve been using FineTune.com for on-line music for a long time now. I’ve found it to be be all I need to get through my day. At FineTune you pick songs to add to your pool (playlist) and then it plays back those songs in random order. You never know what song is going to play next, but you know it’ll be a song you picked. Nutsie, on the other hand, takes a different approach and lets you bring your own music collection on-line.

I heard about Nutsie when drummer Duff McKagan was on a local radio show. He was pimping the service, which I believe he invested in (and also adorns the home page) so I figured I’d give it a try. Nutsie expects you to be using iTunes. Now one might see this is a narrow strategy, but these days iTunes is probably a safe bet. Unlike some other services, Nutsie doesn’t want you to upload your MP3s, it only wants your iTunes database. All you need to do with Nutside is export your iTunes library and upload it. Nutsie then does all the work to find the songs so you can listen on-line.

It’s actually a nifty concept but I’ve found it has one fatal flaw – it exposes you to all the crappy music you have in your library. If you’re like me, you’ve ripped just about every CD you have and also any CD that you might even only be remotely interested in. In my catalog there is a lot of classical, a lot of movie scores/sounndtracks, and a lot of country thanks to the wife – and most of that is not stuff I listen to all that often. Nutsie, unfortunately, reminds me that my library has about 70% of crap, 20% of good stuff, and 10% of, “when did I get that song?”

Another flaw in Nutsie is the lack of making playlists within Nutsie. Chances are you have playlists within iTunes. Well, when you upload your library Nutsie retains these playlists but doesn’t let you create new ones with your music. So if want to create your “Ultimate Death Metal” playlist in Nutsie using your collection of songs, you’re out of luck. You also can’t play any individual song with Nutsie. Much like all the other services, the site will play songs from your playlists randomly.

Another very annoying unfeature in Nutsie is the audio player itself. An embedded music player can be found on just about every page, including your personal playlist home page. This works great until you click a link on the page and takes you away, thus stopping your music and making you start all over again. One simple improvement Nutsie could add is to simply let you pop-out the player so you can navigate around Nutsie without disrupting your music. This even works against them because the always-present “Buy” button next to each song stops the music and just makes you mad. You’ll also find the music players start automagically, so just about every web page will start blaring out music when you arrive.

On the good side of Nutsie is the standard shared playlist abilities. Even if you don’t upload your own music library, you’ll find a good host of themed playlists that will keep you going for a while. They have a nice list of dated playlists so you can hear the Best Rock Songs of 1977 anytime you want (which I recommend). And assuming you’re a Nutsie member – which is free – you are allowed unlimited song skips. Where as places like FineTune and Pandora limit you to five skips per hour, Nutsie lets you skip forever if you want. Of course, you’ll need unlimited skips to get through all the crap in your personal library. For one session I actually did more skipping than listening.

And perhaps the most unique feature of Nutsie is the Nutsie Picks slider that appears above every music player. This lets you choose if you want Nutsie to recommend other songs and mix them while you’re listening. This doesn’t add songs to your playlist or library, it works on-the-fly. So if you have a playlist of 50 tunes and slide the Nutsie Picks to some percentage and it’ll toss in a few related artists and songs. Kind of nifty, but in my experience not all that “accurate” as you’ll find Barry Manilow and Rod Stewart dropped in the middle of your Glam Metal playlist.

I think Nutsie is working along the right path but has a long way to go. Design and user experience problems keep me from using the service, and its tendency to replay the same songs from my playlist over and over keeps me sitting at FineTune instead. I like the idea of just uploading my iTunes library and being able to listen anywhere I am, but until they give me more control over what is essentially my music, I’ll stick with my playlists at FineTune.

Originally posted on Aug 16, 2008

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The Wii redeems itself with the Homebrew Channel

I wrote a bit back about my increasing loss of faith in the Wii. The games slated to come out through the rest of the year and into 2009 are quite, shall we say, “weak” and include many uber-family friendly games. I have nothing against family friendly, but you can only have so many pet and puzzle games before a system starts to lose its appeal. However, a recent investigation into a well known hack for the Wii has me singing a different tune.

Reading Wii news as regularly as I do, quite some time ago I read about a thing called the Twilight Hack, which exploits a bug in the Wii Zelda game that let hackers into the core system. I typically try not to bother with console hacks because I’ve spent way to much on the deck to possibly ruin it by hacking. But over the weekend I found and read more about the Twilight Hack that sold me on the idea.

tmpphpT41Nzl.jpgBut why hack the Wii in the first place? Well, hacking in this case means you can load homebrew games (indie games) on the Wii. The hack actually adds the “Homebrew Channel” to your standard Wii menu (in English). Along with standalone indie games, you can also load emulators with the channel. As is well documented, I am an emulator junkie, especially for the classic decks like the NES, SNES, and PC Engine. With the promise of emulators on the Wii, I couldn’t not try the hack.

The Twilight Hack was stupidly simple to install. The only thing you need is an SD memory card and the Zelda game disc. Fortunately friend-of-the-Toast, Thee, had the Zelda game and once I had it in my hand I gave the hack a go. I held my breath and watched the DOS-like screen fly by, doing something to my Wii, and just hoped I wasn’t bricking my Wii. Bang! Zoom! The Homebrew Channel is ready to go!

And much (very much) to my surprise the NES emulator ran just fine and I was able to load all the NES ROMs I’ve had for years. Then I tried the TurboGrafix16 emulator…worked. Then the SNES emulator…worked. How awesome is this?! And all the emulators have multi-player support. So now I can play my old NES and other games just about everywhere: on my original NES deck, my PC, my DS portable, and now my Wii. Wherever I go, the NES will follow. Nuts? Yes. Fun? You betcha.

I’ve spent a lot of time and money on my NES PowerPak so I could play ROMs on my actual NES console, and nothing beats that experience, but having the NES games on my Wii is just way too convenient. Then toss on the SNES, Genesis and PCE games that I never had elsewhere other than my computer…you can’t beat it. I’m still playing around with the emulators and homebrew games, but so far the so good shy of a few ROMs that just haven’t loaded. But I don’t know if that means it’s a bad ROM, which is highly likely, or the emulator…time will tell. I’ve also found I now have a really good reason to buy a classic Wii controller.

tmpphpfZjYsl.jpgBut wait…can’t you download all the old games with the Wii Virtual Console? Why yes, you can…for anywhere from $5 – $10 a pop. We all have our favorite classic games. Even with over 500 NES games, I play the same dozen over and over. Same will go with PCE, SNES, and Genesis…but if I can get them easily for free, why do the whole download thing? Plus, now I can play the games I never played before but wanted to without the risk. It’s just nice.

Having this homebrew option opens up the Wii to a whole new realm of games even beyond old emulators. Now you can also play games made by indie developers that you won’t find in retail. One such game I found is called GuitarFun and is a clone of clone…it’s a clone of Frets on Fire, the PC Guitar Hero clone. I have yet to get GuitarFun to load and play on the Wii Homebrew, but when/if it does, it means I can play custom songs (real songs) with the actual guitar controller. Now that’ll be spiffy! I’ll post up a note when I get it working…but there are YouTubes of the game working.

All in all, I don’t see any reason you wouldn’t want to use the Twilight Hack and install the Homebrew Channel. It doesn’t hurt and the manual claims you can even uninstall it all. This isn’t a hardware-level hack, it’s just software, so there shouldn’t ever be any permanent damage. If you’re after some classic console gaming and don’t want go crazy like I did with my NES, this Wii hack is the sweet spot that turns your console into the perfect (and free) retro game machine. And since you’re saving on VC downloads, you can justify more retail Wii games and accessories.

If you’re wanting to setup the Homebrew Channel on your Wii, hit up WiiBrew.com and look for their WiiPack Generator. Use it to download all the parts you want and need, including the Twilight Hack. And to see just how easy the hack is to install, there’s a handy video…which I watched like five times before doing it myself (it just made me feel better).

Now pardon me while I go run through some Excite Bike, F-Zero, Keith Courage, and maybe a little Street Fighter II.

Originally posted on Aug 13, 2008

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Seventeen pounds of Hot Wheels

I’ve been “collecting” Hot Wheels for probably close to eight years by now. I collect but I don’t invest in Hot Wheels. A recent trip to the Ohio State Fair’s and its famed Junk Barn (where every Harry, Dick, and Tom can attempt to sell their junk) had me face-to-face with a ton of “collectible” Hot Wheels.

They were all in the box and ranged in age from 2008 models to some that stretched back to the mid-80s. And not surprisingly, I had many of the cars I saw…but much to my surprise, these cars were selling for $2 – $5. While a few bucks may not sound like much, considering each Hot Wheels car costs less than a dollar to buy it’s a pretty good return on the value.

It’s hard for me to see Hot Wheels as a collectibles investment. Sure, it kind of sucks to see a car I bought for 97 cents just a week ago already selling for $3 (which is bull anyway), but then I realize why I collect Hot Wheels – because I like them. I like to look at them, play with them, take pictures of them, let others play with them…it’s about the fun of toy cars, not the fun of buying and selling. I wouldn’t be any good at selling them anyway because I wouldn’t be able to give them up, even at a profit.

With my upgraded Flickr Pro account at my disposal, I decided to do something I had been wanting to do for a while, shoot my cars in more “artistic” ways, rather than the straight up showroom-quality photos I’ve been taking for the Hot Wheels Showcase I have on-line.

Hot Wheels are so vivid and fantastic that they lend themselves to photographs, both macro photography (which I can’t do well) and just general fun shooting (which I can do well). So with a sunny Saturday on hand I took all (well, most) of my cars out and set them up for some shots. It’s funny because when you tell people you have 193 Hot Wheels it sounds like a lot…but when you line them all up for a family photo, it doesn’t look like much, at least not to me. I guess in my head I thought they would take up more space all laid out, but I guess they’re only 2-inch cars anyway.

So yes, I have upwards of 190 Hot Wheels cars and all together they weigh an even 17 pounds. And for those wanting to keep track, each Hot Wheels cars cost me a dollar, so my total investment should be pretty simple. Now consider if I was investing in the toys how much I would have in value if each one could (on average) resell for $3.

I don’t really plan to stop my collecting. It’s cheap and it’s fun. And they make for some awesome photos.

Stop by the Flickr page for more shots.

Originally posted on Aug 9, 2008

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Tesla, still comin’ atcha live…again

You go to a concert early for one reason: to get good seats. And even though we saw Tesla in concert just six months ago, we still showed up early to make sure we got the spot we wanted. Last time we saw Tesla it was bare nuts cold outside and the line to get in was down the block. This time it was hot, but the line wasn’t so long, however, we noticed a small group of people gathering away from the main line. They were gathering outside the tour bus entrance where last time Frank Hannon chatted with shivering fans so we figured members of Tesla were once again mingling with fans, and we were right.

Before you continue, please enjoy some Tesla as you read:
[audio:tesla.mp3]

This time lead singer Jeff Keith was signing autographs and taking pictures from behind the entrance gate. We didn’t bring our camera because the venue doesn’t allow cameras, but we did have a convenient phone camera. And just after we got a shot of Jeff behind bars he says, “hell with this, I’m coming out there,” and he walked around the gate to meet fans up close and personal right there on the sidewalk. What luck! So we calmly waited to say “Hello” and get a photo op and autograph. Unfortunately, given the sun and the low-fi camera, the photo of Jen and Jeff didn’t turn out as well as I’d hope (although you can tell who it is), but he also signed the ticket stub…making this one of the first ticket stubs I’ll actually be keeping.

Before too long the rest of people waiting in line took notice and gathered around getting their jeans, arms, and children signed by Jeff Keith. At that point we moved back into the line and waited for the doors to open. Once we were in we found the spot we wanted, along the back wall of the floor section. We were at the same venue as before but this time we were outside and oh what a difference it made. The sound and experience of an indoor show just can’t compare to that of a outdoor concert. So we sat a waited for things to kick off while other came to sit along side us.

Not too long after we claimed our spot a girl sitting about three people down from me leaned forward and…well, she just puked her guts out. What?! Vomiting already? That’s what one guy was thinking as he passed by the pool of vomit and then looked at his watch, as though to think, “isn’t it a bit early for barf?”

Out of all the concerts we’ve seen in the past few years, this is the first time we’ve been near, let alone witness, some vomiting, as surprising as that may be. It’s very interesting watching people notice a pile of vomit. It actually became the game of the night, watching people’s reactions when they noticed the pool…assuming they did notice. Although few and far between, there were a handful of people that just didn’t notice and walked right through it. If you learn one thing from this entry, please learn that you should always look down when at a concert because you never know what you’ll find on the ground. Needless to say, the vomit kept many people away so we enjoyed the concert in relative peace. Thankfully we were far enough away from it that it didn’t encroach our space.

The opening band did their thing and after a quick stage change Tesla came out and rocked a perfect night. And it was a perfect night for a concert, very comfortable with clear skies. They changed up their set list just enough from their last visit, playing their standards but also including ones like “Edison’s Medicine” and “Mama’s Fool,” of which neither they played last time. They also removed the cover songs from their line-up, which I appreciated.

And if you thought having a pool of throw-up next you all night wasn’t a good way to enjoy Tesla, it gets better. Because about three quarters through the set victim number too spun around in front of us and spewed. This lady spewed first in the same spot as the first girl, then ran off the floor to toss it in the grass. Not sure if it was the combination of heat and beer, which is always fun, or if that spot on the floor had low gravity or some other anomaly that would cause people to chuck. Vomit to the left of me, vomit to the right of me…had it not been for Tesla in front of me, it would have been a rough night.

Another thing this concert proved is that Tesla is a prime example of a solid band. Being the only band we’ve seen twice, we know that Tesla puts on a good show just about every time they perform. It doesn’t matter if they’re inside or outside, they just lay it down. Nothing too fancy, not a lot of “show,” just a straight set of hits. To top things off, they did something other bands could learn from – they skipped the encore. It seems these days the encore is a given, which kind of defeats the specialness of an encore. No, instead Tesla said, “we don’t need to make people scream and shout, we’ll just keep on going.” So instead of taking a break, making us wait and then coming out to play one more song, they played two more songs instead. Awesome. Just awesome. Why make us clap? You know you’re coming back out to play.

The fact that Jeff Keith was willing to stand in the middle of the sidewalk and get up close with fans also tells me that Tesla knows what’s important. I know Tesla is way past their prime and not exactly filling stadiums anymore, but find me another band that will go that far out of their way to keep people happy. It tells me they know what’s important – the fans – because if you don’t keep your fans happy, they won’t come see you and they won’t buy your records.

So next time there’s a band you want to see, show up a bit early because not only will you usually get a good seat, you never know who’ll you find signing autographs. And you might miss the vomit.

Originally posted on Aug 5, 2008

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It’s a good time to bring back blimps

I love blimps. Blimps just make sense to me. They’re elegant, classy, efficient, and it many ways, quite practical. Just by chance I happened to come across an article in the NYT Europe section about Zeppelin blimps. I didn’t read the entire article but just the first few paragraphs were enough to have me thinking happy blimp thoughts.

Blimps are just like airplanes or trains but are far more efficient. All three follow more direct routes than car or truck, but blimps don’t use regular jet fuel. They use reusable gas to fill the blimp, so right there they are better off than the rest of us. Blimps may be a bit slower than jets or trains, but I say that blimps are not for trans-atlantic or even cross-country shipments. I see blimps as tri-state, regional solution to delivering goods.

Not only do blimps make fuel sense, they make delivery sense. Blimps don’t need acres and miles of runway, they just need a small field or even a tall building with which to dock and unload. Blimps can go vertical, making them more flexible than planes and have more reach than a train.

Blimps just…blimps just make sense. As the article points out, in a time when fuel prices are sky high (ha ha), blimps provide an alternative that could help cut costs at a critical time. I doubt it will catch on, but just imagine how beautiful a sky filled with blimps would be. Imagine traveling from Chicago to New York by blimp…no, wait, luxury blimp. Even if blimps didn’t become a shipping standard, I think blimps would have a cool-factor that would make them work as a novelty travel for a long while.

Bring back blimps!!

Originally posted on Aug 4, 2008

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Work will be watching

A recent article in the NY Times talks about new network monitoring software that will “learn” about employee’s web behaviour and give the company finite control over restrictions and settings. I won’t repost the whole article, but this pretty much sums it up:

…one company might say that marketing folks can only visit YouTube during lunch hour, and even then, they can only upload two megabytes to the site each day. Engineers might be blocked from visiting Facebook…but everyone else can.

I’m not saying companies shouldn’t monitor network traffic and use, it’s a legit concern. But if software like this works as well as promoted, I see one problem: we’re not machines. Applying strict rules onto users will just make them unhappy and that ultimately results is poor results.

I’m one that believes people will naturally find their balance at work. No one works 8-hours solid. It’s just not possible, and frankly, not healthy. Everybody needs some time during the day to just chill for a few. Some people may go outside for a smoke, some might walk around the building, some might scratch their butt, some, like me, just stay on-line and visit web sites they enjoy but aren’t work-related.

Me, I hit up my video game blogs, check my personal e-mail, manage my personal sites and that type stuff. All said and done, it maybe takes 15-30 minutes of my day. No big deal. If I spend more time than that I feel like I’m jipping myself out of work time. I know I have stuff to do and I know how much time it takes to get it done. Most people won’t abuse their time because fear will keep them in check – at least that’s what I’ve witnessed. If you just trust people things will usually work out for the best.

I’m sure the thought behind applying smart software that tracks individuals and adjusts based on habits is that it will stop those that do abuse their work time. I guess my philosophy on this is that instead of using a blacklist method that effects everyone, if you find someone is spending too much time hanging out on YouTube, you deal with them. You warn them, suspend them, fire them, whatever…you deal with the person directly. You don’t puss out and let technology to do your people management for you. That’s just weak. And honestly, I wouldn’t want to work for a company that manages their employees that way.

Everybody works best in different environments. And that’s not limited to physical environments, but digital/on-line environments too. You can’t look at sheer numbers to determine what people are doing. Behaviour doesn’t work by the numbers and by saying, “Brian spends 30 minutes on Gmail a day means he’s wasting time,” is quite ignorant and might do more harm than good in the long.

Of course, all this is assuming companies will pretty much abuse this network management power. Some will, some won’t, but just having that ability will turn even the lax network admin into a network nazi. Actually, software like this might even eliminate that admin job…so you better watch out.

Originally posted on Aug 4, 2008

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Winnie’s new digs

In the great menagerie we call our home lives a cat, a dog, a turtle, and a dog – in that order. Out of them all the turtle, Winnie, requires the least amount of attention. She probably doesn’t get enough attention, actually, but so it goes. She’s a turtle. It’s funny that most people probably think it’s easier to care a turtle than two dogs and cat. Simplicity of often deceiving.

When we got Winnie a couple years ago, the men at the turtle store told us she was a water turtle and needed water to feed and stuff. OK, so we got an aquarium and filled it with water for her to swim around and a little floating dock for her to lay on. And that’s the way it remained for a long time, with regular tank cleanings and the likes to keep things as clean as we could. But let me tell you, a turtle is a dirty, dirty, messy animal.

Emptying 15 gallons of water every two week sucked bears. Well, our thoughts of “easy” care for a turtle changed when we discovered Winnie’s shell had a few bad spots on it. We think it’s shell rot, which, from what we’ve read, is easily cared for with a little soap wash and less water time. And that’s where we goofed in the past – we had too much water and not enough “sun” for her – which led to her shell problems. So action had to be taken immediately.

That action was a new apartment for Winnie. A trip to the pet store had me coming home with a stone barrier that needed to be siliconed into the aquarium so one half could be set with rocks for basking and the other for her pool. And it’s pretty nice, although I’m not sure Winnie knows what to do with it all yet.

Now there’s 1/4 as much water in the tank, which should make cleaning much easier while still giving her plenty of water for her bodily needs. The project as a whole was a lot easier than I expected. I’m glad I found the little barrier thing. My first thoughts were buying rocks or something and piling them up to create a nice basking area but still having mostly water. The new setup should be nice for her and for us.

I just hope the dogs don’t ask for a new house too.

Originally posted on Aug 19, 2008

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The Presidents and Amazon MP3

Despite my regular use of iTunes for playing and sometimes purchasing music, I’m not necessarily an iTunes-lover. I think iTunes is a nice music organizer/player. It certainly has its issues and I can’t say I’ve been 100% happy with it, but it does the trick. But then there’s the music, by far the biggest wrinkle in the sheet. Damn their DMA songs!

Even though I use iTunes as my main music player, I hate having my music locked down. My solution around it has been what most people have probably been doing too…burning the iTunes songs to a CD and then ripping them back as MP3s. Tedious and stupid, but it works.

When Amazon announced their MP3 service would be cheaper and offer standard MP3 files I told myself the next time I plan on getting a song or album I’d use it. Well, with money sitting in my iTunes account thanks to gift cards and redeeming, I hadn’t not followed through on that promise until today when I found a good reason to go elsewhere.

Much to my happiness I discovered that one of my favorite groups, The Presidents of the United States of America, did not disband as I had once thought. Actually, they did back in 1998 and then reformed a few years later to release a handful of albums.

“Peaches” – The Presidents of the United States of America
[audio:peaches.mp3]

I remember buying The President’s first album at Media Play. I thought the album cover was strange, and the music was pretty nutty too, but that’s why I like it so. It’s poppy, fast, it rocks, and has a heaping helping of fun and humor. That first record was really solid. The follow up album II was 50/50. A third release just before their break-up had even fewer singles. After I heard they broke up I had pretty much written them off and had just accepted I’d have 2.5 albums to enjoy for the rest of time.

I was at YouTube watching some Weird Al videos and that led me to The Presidents’ Wikipedia page where learned they regrouped and have been making new albums. It’s great to find out they’re still making music and still keeping it fun and light. I went the web site and listened to a few tracks from newer albums and decided to go ahead and download one of the “lost albums” I had missed. I decided on Love Everybody and headed over to iTunes to make the purchase.

Now most albums at iTunes are $10 regardless of the number of tracks. But low and behold this one album from an essentially nobody band was $12. Sucko. But wait! I have an alternative – Amazon MP3. A quick jump to Amazon found the album for $9, so I was ready to dive in.

Although a bummer, I was not surprised to have to install Amazon’s MP3 Downloader, a desktop client that does the downloading for you. After a very quick install I was faced with something I did not expect at all – something helpful – a free song to download. This is very smart because not only is it a great bonus for a new user, but Amazon presents as a way for you to learn how the downloader works before you pay any money. It told me, “Hey, watch the downloader in action by getting this free song.” I happily took their recommendation. Very smart on Amazon’s part and much appreciated as a customer.

So with the downloader installed I click the Buy button and after a quick authorization the downloads came in swiftly. And surprisingly enough, the Amazon Downloader even added the songs to iTunes for me. How considerate. And as advertised, the tracks are straight MP3s (high 256 bitrate too) and I can use them as I see fit and burn them as often as I’d like.

I can’t speak on the depth of Amazon’s MP3 catalog as I was looking for something specific and found it, but if you’re looking for an iTunes alternative for music then I will happily recommend Amazon MP3. It’s easy to use, good quality tracks, and even cheaper than iTunes. Even the single songs are $.89 instead of $.99 – I’ll certainly be back.

(Oh, and the President’s album I downloaded is pretty solid too. Nothing earth-shattering as far as they’re concerned, but it’s great to have some new songs to bust out on the way to work. They’ve stuck with their original formula and it’s very welcome in today’s vast pit of otherwise shotty music.)

Originally posted on Aug 18, 2008

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A reason to keep your CDs

Our walls are pretty bare. Shy of a few of my old college paintings and a couple prints, we don’t have much hanging around. We don’t like cluttered, busy walls anyway, but you have to have something on the walls otherwise it looks too…well, too migrant. Bare walls work if you have some sort of Zen theme going with minimalist furniture and bamboo floors, but we don’t. We’re pretty average folks with an average house. So in an attempt to find something meaningful for our walls without having to go the large poster/print route, I looked at what we have to work with.

And we have a lot of CDs. Our generation has seen a lot of technology change when it comes to music and we’re not even halfway through life. I know you all still have a box somewhere with cassettes in it and needless to say there’s a few shelves of CDs somewhere too. It’s safe to say we have way more MP3s these days than we do CDs, and we do most of our music listening on the computer, so the CDs have just become clutter. Recently though I thought about hanging up CD covers as art. We both love our music and the CDs weren’t doing anything else.

I think album covers as wall art (CD or otherwise) is a good solution to get use out of something that otherwise has no purpose anymore. It’s easy, clean, and shows off your love and tastes for music. Not to mention some album covers are considered art in their own right, so it’s not that far fetched. The trick, it turned out, was finding frames for the little buggers.

Compact disc album covers are square. Most small frames are designed for standard photos, which are rectangles. Going to a craft store or even Target didn’t find us the frames we needed. No, we found just the right size frames at the Dollar Store…but of course! We didn’t go to the Dollar Store looking for frames, but while there noticed some that were just the right size. They’re glass front frames so there’s no “frame” around the album, and it looks pretty nice.

This is still a work in progress, but even with only four covers up the staircase it looks pretty good. About two to four more covers to complete the journey should be enough. Now the hard part is picking which albums to feature. But then again, it’s convenient enough that we can change them whenever we like.

So if you have some bare spots on your walls and need something small to fill the void, consider your favorite (or best looking) album covers. An easy afternoon project.

Originally posted on Aug 16, 2008

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Don’t bust a Nutsie

I’ve been using FineTune.com for on-line music for a long time now. I’ve found it to be be all I need to get through my day. At FineTune you pick songs to add to your pool (playlist) and then it plays back those songs in random order. You never know what song is going to play next, but you know it’ll be a song you picked. Nutsie, on the other hand, takes a different approach and lets you bring your own music collection on-line.

I heard about Nutsie when drummer Duff McKagan was on a local radio show. He was pimping the service, which I believe he invested in (and also adorns the home page) so I figured I’d give it a try. Nutsie expects you to be using iTunes. Now one might see this is a narrow strategy, but these days iTunes is probably a safe bet. Unlike some other services, Nutsie doesn’t want you to upload your MP3s, it only wants your iTunes database. All you need to do with Nutside is export your iTunes library and upload it. Nutsie then does all the work to find the songs so you can listen on-line.

It’s actually a nifty concept but I’ve found it has one fatal flaw – it exposes you to all the crappy music you have in your library. If you’re like me, you’ve ripped just about every CD you have and also any CD that you might even only be remotely interested in. In my catalog there is a lot of classical, a lot of movie scores/sounndtracks, and a lot of country thanks to the wife – and most of that is not stuff I listen to all that often. Nutsie, unfortunately, reminds me that my library has about 70% of crap, 20% of good stuff, and 10% of, “when did I get that song?”

Another flaw in Nutsie is the lack of making playlists within Nutsie. Chances are you have playlists within iTunes. Well, when you upload your library Nutsie retains these playlists but doesn’t let you create new ones with your music. So if want to create your “Ultimate Death Metal” playlist in Nutsie using your collection of songs, you’re out of luck. You also can’t play any individual song with Nutsie. Much like all the other services, the site will play songs from your playlists randomly.

Another very annoying unfeature in Nutsie is the audio player itself. An embedded music player can be found on just about every page, including your personal playlist home page. This works great until you click a link on the page and takes you away, thus stopping your music and making you start all over again. One simple improvement Nutsie could add is to simply let you pop-out the player so you can navigate around Nutsie without disrupting your music. This even works against them because the always-present “Buy” button next to each song stops the music and just makes you mad. You’ll also find the music players start automagically, so just about every web page will start blaring out music when you arrive.

On the good side of Nutsie is the standard shared playlist abilities. Even if you don’t upload your own music library, you’ll find a good host of themed playlists that will keep you going for a while. They have a nice list of dated playlists so you can hear the Best Rock Songs of 1977 anytime you want (which I recommend). And assuming you’re a Nutsie member – which is free – you are allowed unlimited song skips. Where as places like FineTune and Pandora limit you to five skips per hour, Nutsie lets you skip forever if you want. Of course, you’ll need unlimited skips to get through all the crap in your personal library. For one session I actually did more skipping than listening.

And perhaps the most unique feature of Nutsie is the Nutsie Picks slider that appears above every music player. This lets you choose if you want Nutsie to recommend other songs and mix them while you’re listening. This doesn’t add songs to your playlist or library, it works on-the-fly. So if you have a playlist of 50 tunes and slide the Nutsie Picks to some percentage and it’ll toss in a few related artists and songs. Kind of nifty, but in my experience not all that “accurate” as you’ll find Barry Manilow and Rod Stewart dropped in the middle of your Glam Metal playlist.

I think Nutsie is working along the right path but has a long way to go. Design and user experience problems keep me from using the service, and its tendency to replay the same songs from my playlist over and over keeps me sitting at FineTune instead. I like the idea of just uploading my iTunes library and being able to listen anywhere I am, but until they give me more control over what is essentially my music, I’ll stick with my playlists at FineTune.

Originally posted on Aug 16, 2008

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The Wii redeems itself with the Homebrew Channel

I wrote a bit back about my increasing loss of faith in the Wii. The games slated to come out through the rest of the year and into 2009 are quite, shall we say, “weak” and include many uber-family friendly games. I have nothing against family friendly, but you can only have so many pet and puzzle games before a system starts to lose its appeal. However, a recent investigation into a well known hack for the Wii has me singing a different tune.

Reading Wii news as regularly as I do, quite some time ago I read about a thing called the Twilight Hack, which exploits a bug in the Wii Zelda game that let hackers into the core system. I typically try not to bother with console hacks because I’ve spent way to much on the deck to possibly ruin it by hacking. But over the weekend I found and read more about the Twilight Hack that sold me on the idea.

tmpphpT41Nzl.jpgBut why hack the Wii in the first place? Well, hacking in this case means you can load homebrew games (indie games) on the Wii. The hack actually adds the “Homebrew Channel” to your standard Wii menu (in English). Along with standalone indie games, you can also load emulators with the channel. As is well documented, I am an emulator junkie, especially for the classic decks like the NES, SNES, and PC Engine. With the promise of emulators on the Wii, I couldn’t not try the hack.

The Twilight Hack was stupidly simple to install. The only thing you need is an SD memory card and the Zelda game disc. Fortunately friend-of-the-Toast, Thee, had the Zelda game and once I had it in my hand I gave the hack a go. I held my breath and watched the DOS-like screen fly by, doing something to my Wii, and just hoped I wasn’t bricking my Wii. Bang! Zoom! The Homebrew Channel is ready to go!

And much (very much) to my surprise the NES emulator ran just fine and I was able to load all the NES ROMs I’ve had for years. Then I tried the TurboGrafix16 emulator…worked. Then the SNES emulator…worked. How awesome is this?! And all the emulators have multi-player support. So now I can play my old NES and other games just about everywhere: on my original NES deck, my PC, my DS portable, and now my Wii. Wherever I go, the NES will follow. Nuts? Yes. Fun? You betcha.

I’ve spent a lot of time and money on my NES PowerPak so I could play ROMs on my actual NES console, and nothing beats that experience, but having the NES games on my Wii is just way too convenient. Then toss on the SNES, Genesis and PCE games that I never had elsewhere other than my computer…you can’t beat it. I’m still playing around with the emulators and homebrew games, but so far the so good shy of a few ROMs that just haven’t loaded. But I don’t know if that means it’s a bad ROM, which is highly likely, or the emulator…time will tell. I’ve also found I now have a really good reason to buy a classic Wii controller.

tmpphpfZjYsl.jpgBut wait…can’t you download all the old games with the Wii Virtual Console? Why yes, you can…for anywhere from $5 – $10 a pop. We all have our favorite classic games. Even with over 500 NES games, I play the same dozen over and over. Same will go with PCE, SNES, and Genesis…but if I can get them easily for free, why do the whole download thing? Plus, now I can play the games I never played before but wanted to without the risk. It’s just nice.

Having this homebrew option opens up the Wii to a whole new realm of games even beyond old emulators. Now you can also play games made by indie developers that you won’t find in retail. One such game I found is called GuitarFun and is a clone of clone…it’s a clone of Frets on Fire, the PC Guitar Hero clone. I have yet to get GuitarFun to load and play on the Wii Homebrew, but when/if it does, it means I can play custom songs (real songs) with the actual guitar controller. Now that’ll be spiffy! I’ll post up a note when I get it working…but there are YouTubes of the game working.

All in all, I don’t see any reason you wouldn’t want to use the Twilight Hack and install the Homebrew Channel. It doesn’t hurt and the manual claims you can even uninstall it all. This isn’t a hardware-level hack, it’s just software, so there shouldn’t ever be any permanent damage. If you’re after some classic console gaming and don’t want go crazy like I did with my NES, this Wii hack is the sweet spot that turns your console into the perfect (and free) retro game machine. And since you’re saving on VC downloads, you can justify more retail Wii games and accessories.

If you’re wanting to setup the Homebrew Channel on your Wii, hit up WiiBrew.com and look for their WiiPack Generator. Use it to download all the parts you want and need, including the Twilight Hack. And to see just how easy the hack is to install, there’s a handy video…which I watched like five times before doing it myself (it just made me feel better).

Now pardon me while I go run through some Excite Bike, F-Zero, Keith Courage, and maybe a little Street Fighter II.

Originally posted on Aug 13, 2008

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Seventeen pounds of Hot Wheels

I’ve been “collecting” Hot Wheels for probably close to eight years by now. I collect but I don’t invest in Hot Wheels. A recent trip to the Ohio State Fair’s and its famed Junk Barn (where every Harry, Dick, and Tom can attempt to sell their junk) had me face-to-face with a ton of “collectible” Hot Wheels.

They were all in the box and ranged in age from 2008 models to some that stretched back to the mid-80s. And not surprisingly, I had many of the cars I saw…but much to my surprise, these cars were selling for $2 – $5. While a few bucks may not sound like much, considering each Hot Wheels car costs less than a dollar to buy it’s a pretty good return on the value.

It’s hard for me to see Hot Wheels as a collectibles investment. Sure, it kind of sucks to see a car I bought for 97 cents just a week ago already selling for $3 (which is bull anyway), but then I realize why I collect Hot Wheels – because I like them. I like to look at them, play with them, take pictures of them, let others play with them…it’s about the fun of toy cars, not the fun of buying and selling. I wouldn’t be any good at selling them anyway because I wouldn’t be able to give them up, even at a profit.

With my upgraded Flickr Pro account at my disposal, I decided to do something I had been wanting to do for a while, shoot my cars in more “artistic” ways, rather than the straight up showroom-quality photos I’ve been taking for the Hot Wheels Showcase I have on-line.

Hot Wheels are so vivid and fantastic that they lend themselves to photographs, both macro photography (which I can’t do well) and just general fun shooting (which I can do well). So with a sunny Saturday on hand I took all (well, most) of my cars out and set them up for some shots. It’s funny because when you tell people you have 193 Hot Wheels it sounds like a lot…but when you line them all up for a family photo, it doesn’t look like much, at least not to me. I guess in my head I thought they would take up more space all laid out, but I guess they’re only 2-inch cars anyway.

So yes, I have upwards of 190 Hot Wheels cars and all together they weigh an even 17 pounds. And for those wanting to keep track, each Hot Wheels cars cost me a dollar, so my total investment should be pretty simple. Now consider if I was investing in the toys how much I would have in value if each one could (on average) resell for $3.

I don’t really plan to stop my collecting. It’s cheap and it’s fun. And they make for some awesome photos.

Stop by the Flickr page for more shots.

Originally posted on Aug 9, 2008

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Tesla, still comin’ atcha live…again

You go to a concert early for one reason: to get good seats. And even though we saw Tesla in concert just six months ago, we still showed up early to make sure we got the spot we wanted. Last time we saw Tesla it was bare nuts cold outside and the line to get in was down the block. This time it was hot, but the line wasn’t so long, however, we noticed a small group of people gathering away from the main line. They were gathering outside the tour bus entrance where last time Frank Hannon chatted with shivering fans so we figured members of Tesla were once again mingling with fans, and we were right.

Before you continue, please enjoy some Tesla as you read:
[audio:tesla.mp3]

This time lead singer Jeff Keith was signing autographs and taking pictures from behind the entrance gate. We didn’t bring our camera because the venue doesn’t allow cameras, but we did have a convenient phone camera. And just after we got a shot of Jeff behind bars he says, “hell with this, I’m coming out there,” and he walked around the gate to meet fans up close and personal right there on the sidewalk. What luck! So we calmly waited to say “Hello” and get a photo op and autograph. Unfortunately, given the sun and the low-fi camera, the photo of Jen and Jeff didn’t turn out as well as I’d hope (although you can tell who it is), but he also signed the ticket stub…making this one of the first ticket stubs I’ll actually be keeping.

Before too long the rest of people waiting in line took notice and gathered around getting their jeans, arms, and children signed by Jeff Keith. At that point we moved back into the line and waited for the doors to open. Once we were in we found the spot we wanted, along the back wall of the floor section. We were at the same venue as before but this time we were outside and oh what a difference it made. The sound and experience of an indoor show just can’t compare to that of a outdoor concert. So we sat a waited for things to kick off while other came to sit along side us.

Not too long after we claimed our spot a girl sitting about three people down from me leaned forward and…well, she just puked her guts out. What?! Vomiting already? That’s what one guy was thinking as he passed by the pool of vomit and then looked at his watch, as though to think, “isn’t it a bit early for barf?”

Out of all the concerts we’ve seen in the past few years, this is the first time we’ve been near, let alone witness, some vomiting, as surprising as that may be. It’s very interesting watching people notice a pile of vomit. It actually became the game of the night, watching people’s reactions when they noticed the pool…assuming they did notice. Although few and far between, there were a handful of people that just didn’t notice and walked right through it. If you learn one thing from this entry, please learn that you should always look down when at a concert because you never know what you’ll find on the ground. Needless to say, the vomit kept many people away so we enjoyed the concert in relative peace. Thankfully we were far enough away from it that it didn’t encroach our space.

The opening band did their thing and after a quick stage change Tesla came out and rocked a perfect night. And it was a perfect night for a concert, very comfortable with clear skies. They changed up their set list just enough from their last visit, playing their standards but also including ones like “Edison’s Medicine” and “Mama’s Fool,” of which neither they played last time. They also removed the cover songs from their line-up, which I appreciated.

And if you thought having a pool of throw-up next you all night wasn’t a good way to enjoy Tesla, it gets better. Because about three quarters through the set victim number too spun around in front of us and spewed. This lady spewed first in the same spot as the first girl, then ran off the floor to toss it in the grass. Not sure if it was the combination of heat and beer, which is always fun, or if that spot on the floor had low gravity or some other anomaly that would cause people to chuck. Vomit to the left of me, vomit to the right of me…had it not been for Tesla in front of me, it would have been a rough night.

Another thing this concert proved is that Tesla is a prime example of a solid band. Being the only band we’ve seen twice, we know that Tesla puts on a good show just about every time they perform. It doesn’t matter if they’re inside or outside, they just lay it down. Nothing too fancy, not a lot of “show,” just a straight set of hits. To top things off, they did something other bands could learn from – they skipped the encore. It seems these days the encore is a given, which kind of defeats the specialness of an encore. No, instead Tesla said, “we don’t need to make people scream and shout, we’ll just keep on going.” So instead of taking a break, making us wait and then coming out to play one more song, they played two more songs instead. Awesome. Just awesome. Why make us clap? You know you’re coming back out to play.

The fact that Jeff Keith was willing to stand in the middle of the sidewalk and get up close with fans also tells me that Tesla knows what’s important. I know Tesla is way past their prime and not exactly filling stadiums anymore, but find me another band that will go that far out of their way to keep people happy. It tells me they know what’s important – the fans – because if you don’t keep your fans happy, they won’t come see you and they won’t buy your records.

So next time there’s a band you want to see, show up a bit early because not only will you usually get a good seat, you never know who’ll you find signing autographs. And you might miss the vomit.

Originally posted on Aug 5, 2008

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It’s a good time to bring back blimps

I love blimps. Blimps just make sense to me. They’re elegant, classy, efficient, and it many ways, quite practical. Just by chance I happened to come across an article in the NYT Europe section about Zeppelin blimps. I didn’t read the entire article but just the first few paragraphs were enough to have me thinking happy blimp thoughts.

Blimps are just like airplanes or trains but are far more efficient. All three follow more direct routes than car or truck, but blimps don’t use regular jet fuel. They use reusable gas to fill the blimp, so right there they are better off than the rest of us. Blimps may be a bit slower than jets or trains, but I say that blimps are not for trans-atlantic or even cross-country shipments. I see blimps as tri-state, regional solution to delivering goods.

Not only do blimps make fuel sense, they make delivery sense. Blimps don’t need acres and miles of runway, they just need a small field or even a tall building with which to dock and unload. Blimps can go vertical, making them more flexible than planes and have more reach than a train.

Blimps just…blimps just make sense. As the article points out, in a time when fuel prices are sky high (ha ha), blimps provide an alternative that could help cut costs at a critical time. I doubt it will catch on, but just imagine how beautiful a sky filled with blimps would be. Imagine traveling from Chicago to New York by blimp…no, wait, luxury blimp. Even if blimps didn’t become a shipping standard, I think blimps would have a cool-factor that would make them work as a novelty travel for a long while.

Bring back blimps!!

Originally posted on Aug 4, 2008

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Work will be watching

A recent article in the NY Times talks about new network monitoring software that will “learn” about employee’s web behaviour and give the company finite control over restrictions and settings. I won’t repost the whole article, but this pretty much sums it up:

…one company might say that marketing folks can only visit YouTube during lunch hour, and even then, they can only upload two megabytes to the site each day. Engineers might be blocked from visiting Facebook…but everyone else can.

I’m not saying companies shouldn’t monitor network traffic and use, it’s a legit concern. But if software like this works as well as promoted, I see one problem: we’re not machines. Applying strict rules onto users will just make them unhappy and that ultimately results is poor results.

I’m one that believes people will naturally find their balance at work. No one works 8-hours solid. It’s just not possible, and frankly, not healthy. Everybody needs some time during the day to just chill for a few. Some people may go outside for a smoke, some might walk around the building, some might scratch their butt, some, like me, just stay on-line and visit web sites they enjoy but aren’t work-related.

Me, I hit up my video game blogs, check my personal e-mail, manage my personal sites and that type stuff. All said and done, it maybe takes 15-30 minutes of my day. No big deal. If I spend more time than that I feel like I’m jipping myself out of work time. I know I have stuff to do and I know how much time it takes to get it done. Most people won’t abuse their time because fear will keep them in check – at least that’s what I’ve witnessed. If you just trust people things will usually work out for the best.

I’m sure the thought behind applying smart software that tracks individuals and adjusts based on habits is that it will stop those that do abuse their work time. I guess my philosophy on this is that instead of using a blacklist method that effects everyone, if you find someone is spending too much time hanging out on YouTube, you deal with them. You warn them, suspend them, fire them, whatever…you deal with the person directly. You don’t puss out and let technology to do your people management for you. That’s just weak. And honestly, I wouldn’t want to work for a company that manages their employees that way.

Everybody works best in different environments. And that’s not limited to physical environments, but digital/on-line environments too. You can’t look at sheer numbers to determine what people are doing. Behaviour doesn’t work by the numbers and by saying, “Brian spends 30 minutes on Gmail a day means he’s wasting time,” is quite ignorant and might do more harm than good in the long.

Of course, all this is assuming companies will pretty much abuse this network management power. Some will, some won’t, but just having that ability will turn even the lax network admin into a network nazi. Actually, software like this might even eliminate that admin job…so you better watch out.

Originally posted on Aug 4, 2008

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Winnie’s new digs

In the great menagerie we call our home lives a cat, a dog, a turtle, and a dog – in that order. Out of them all the turtle, Winnie, requires the least amount of attention. She probably doesn’t get enough attention, actually, but so it goes. She’s a turtle. It’s funny that most people probably think it’s easier to care a turtle than two dogs and cat. Simplicity of often deceiving.

When we got Winnie a couple years ago, the men at the turtle store told us she was a water turtle and needed water to feed and stuff. OK, so we got an aquarium and filled it with water for her to swim around and a little floating dock for her to lay on. And that’s the way it remained for a long time, with regular tank cleanings and the likes to keep things as clean as we could. But let me tell you, a turtle is a dirty, dirty, messy animal.

Emptying 15 gallons of water every two week sucked bears. Well, our thoughts of “easy” care for a turtle changed when we discovered Winnie’s shell had a few bad spots on it. We think it’s shell rot, which, from what we’ve read, is easily cared for with a little soap wash and less water time. And that’s where we goofed in the past – we had too much water and not enough “sun” for her – which led to her shell problems. So action had to be taken immediately.

That action was a new apartment for Winnie. A trip to the pet store had me coming home with a stone barrier that needed to be siliconed into the aquarium so one half could be set with rocks for basking and the other for her pool. And it’s pretty nice, although I’m not sure Winnie knows what to do with it all yet.

Now there’s 1/4 as much water in the tank, which should make cleaning much easier while still giving her plenty of water for her bodily needs. The project as a whole was a lot easier than I expected. I’m glad I found the little barrier thing. My first thoughts were buying rocks or something and piling them up to create a nice basking area but still having mostly water. The new setup should be nice for her and for us.

I just hope the dogs don’t ask for a new house too.

Originally posted on Aug 19, 2008

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The Presidents and Amazon MP3

Despite my regular use of iTunes for playing and sometimes purchasing music, I’m not necessarily an iTunes-lover. I think iTunes is a nice music organizer/player. It certainly has its issues and I can’t say I’ve been 100% happy with it, but it does the trick. But then there’s the music, by far the biggest wrinkle in the sheet. Damn their DMA songs!

Even though I use iTunes as my main music player, I hate having my music locked down. My solution around it has been what most people have probably been doing too…burning the iTunes songs to a CD and then ripping them back as MP3s. Tedious and stupid, but it works.

When Amazon announced their MP3 service would be cheaper and offer standard MP3 files I told myself the next time I plan on getting a song or album I’d use it. Well, with money sitting in my iTunes account thanks to gift cards and redeeming, I hadn’t not followed through on that promise until today when I found a good reason to go elsewhere.

Much to my happiness I discovered that one of my favorite groups, The Presidents of the United States of America, did not disband as I had once thought. Actually, they did back in 1998 and then reformed a few years later to release a handful of albums.

“Peaches” – The Presidents of the United States of America
[audio:peaches.mp3]

I remember buying The President’s first album at Media Play. I thought the album cover was strange, and the music was pretty nutty too, but that’s why I like it so. It’s poppy, fast, it rocks, and has a heaping helping of fun and humor. That first record was really solid. The follow up album II was 50/50. A third release just before their break-up had even fewer singles. After I heard they broke up I had pretty much written them off and had just accepted I’d have 2.5 albums to enjoy for the rest of time.

I was at YouTube watching some Weird Al videos and that led me to The Presidents’ Wikipedia page where learned they regrouped and have been making new albums. It’s great to find out they’re still making music and still keeping it fun and light. I went the web site and listened to a few tracks from newer albums and decided to go ahead and download one of the “lost albums” I had missed. I decided on Love Everybody and headed over to iTunes to make the purchase.

Now most albums at iTunes are $10 regardless of the number of tracks. But low and behold this one album from an essentially nobody band was $12. Sucko. But wait! I have an alternative – Amazon MP3. A quick jump to Amazon found the album for $9, so I was ready to dive in.

Although a bummer, I was not surprised to have to install Amazon’s MP3 Downloader, a desktop client that does the downloading for you. After a very quick install I was faced with something I did not expect at all – something helpful – a free song to download. This is very smart because not only is it a great bonus for a new user, but Amazon presents as a way for you to learn how the downloader works before you pay any money. It told me, “Hey, watch the downloader in action by getting this free song.” I happily took their recommendation. Very smart on Amazon’s part and much appreciated as a customer.

So with the downloader installed I click the Buy button and after a quick authorization the downloads came in swiftly. And surprisingly enough, the Amazon Downloader even added the songs to iTunes for me. How considerate. And as advertised, the tracks are straight MP3s (high 256 bitrate too) and I can use them as I see fit and burn them as often as I’d like.

I can’t speak on the depth of Amazon’s MP3 catalog as I was looking for something specific and found it, but if you’re looking for an iTunes alternative for music then I will happily recommend Amazon MP3. It’s easy to use, good quality tracks, and even cheaper than iTunes. Even the single songs are $.89 instead of $.99 – I’ll certainly be back.

(Oh, and the President’s album I downloaded is pretty solid too. Nothing earth-shattering as far as they’re concerned, but it’s great to have some new songs to bust out on the way to work. They’ve stuck with their original formula and it’s very welcome in today’s vast pit of otherwise shotty music.)

Originally posted on Aug 18, 2008

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A reason to keep your CDs

Our walls are pretty bare. Shy of a few of my old college paintings and a couple prints, we don’t have much hanging around. We don’t like cluttered, busy walls anyway, but you have to have something on the walls otherwise it looks too…well, too migrant. Bare walls work if you have some sort of Zen theme going with minimalist furniture and bamboo floors, but we don’t. We’re pretty average folks with an average house. So in an attempt to find something meaningful for our walls without having to go the large poster/print route, I looked at what we have to work with.

And we have a lot of CDs. Our generation has seen a lot of technology change when it comes to music and we’re not even halfway through life. I know you all still have a box somewhere with cassettes in it and needless to say there’s a few shelves of CDs somewhere too. It’s safe to say we have way more MP3s these days than we do CDs, and we do most of our music listening on the computer, so the CDs have just become clutter. Recently though I thought about hanging up CD covers as art. We both love our music and the CDs weren’t doing anything else.

I think album covers as wall art (CD or otherwise) is a good solution to get use out of something that otherwise has no purpose anymore. It’s easy, clean, and shows off your love and tastes for music. Not to mention some album covers are considered art in their own right, so it’s not that far fetched. The trick, it turned out, was finding frames for the little buggers.

Compact disc album covers are square. Most small frames are designed for standard photos, which are rectangles. Going to a craft store or even Target didn’t find us the frames we needed. No, we found just the right size frames at the Dollar Store…but of course! We didn’t go to the Dollar Store looking for frames, but while there noticed some that were just the right size. They’re glass front frames so there’s no “frame” around the album, and it looks pretty nice.

This is still a work in progress, but even with only four covers up the staircase it looks pretty good. About two to four more covers to complete the journey should be enough. Now the hard part is picking which albums to feature. But then again, it’s convenient enough that we can change them whenever we like.

So if you have some bare spots on your walls and need something small to fill the void, consider your favorite (or best looking) album covers. An easy afternoon project.

Originally posted on Aug 16, 2008

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Don’t bust a Nutsie

I’ve been using FineTune.com for on-line music for a long time now. I’ve found it to be be all I need to get through my day. At FineTune you pick songs to add to your pool (playlist) and then it plays back those songs in random order. You never know what song is going to play next, but you know it’ll be a song you picked. Nutsie, on the other hand, takes a different approach and lets you bring your own music collection on-line.

I heard about Nutsie when drummer Duff McKagan was on a local radio show. He was pimping the service, which I believe he invested in (and also adorns the home page) so I figured I’d give it a try. Nutsie expects you to be using iTunes. Now one might see this is a narrow strategy, but these days iTunes is probably a safe bet. Unlike some other services, Nutsie doesn’t want you to upload your MP3s, it only wants your iTunes database. All you need to do with Nutside is export your iTunes library and upload it. Nutsie then does all the work to find the songs so you can listen on-line.

It’s actually a nifty concept but I’ve found it has one fatal flaw – it exposes you to all the crappy music you have in your library. If you’re like me, you’ve ripped just about every CD you have and also any CD that you might even only be remotely interested in. In my catalog there is a lot of classical, a lot of movie scores/sounndtracks, and a lot of country thanks to the wife – and most of that is not stuff I listen to all that often. Nutsie, unfortunately, reminds me that my library has about 70% of crap, 20% of good stuff, and 10% of, “when did I get that song?”

Another flaw in Nutsie is the lack of making playlists within Nutsie. Chances are you have playlists within iTunes. Well, when you upload your library Nutsie retains these playlists but doesn’t let you create new ones with your music. So if want to create your “Ultimate Death Metal” playlist in Nutsie using your collection of songs, you’re out of luck. You also can’t play any individual song with Nutsie. Much like all the other services, the site will play songs from your playlists randomly.

Another very annoying unfeature in Nutsie is the audio player itself. An embedded music player can be found on just about every page, including your personal playlist home page. This works great until you click a link on the page and takes you away, thus stopping your music and making you start all over again. One simple improvement Nutsie could add is to simply let you pop-out the player so you can navigate around Nutsie without disrupting your music. This even works against them because the always-present “Buy” button next to each song stops the music and just makes you mad. You’ll also find the music players start automagically, so just about every web page will start blaring out music when you arrive.

On the good side of Nutsie is the standard shared playlist abilities. Even if you don’t upload your own music library, you’ll find a good host of themed playlists that will keep you going for a while. They have a nice list of dated playlists so you can hear the Best Rock Songs of 1977 anytime you want (which I recommend). And assuming you’re a Nutsie member – which is free – you are allowed unlimited song skips. Where as places like FineTune and Pandora limit you to five skips per hour, Nutsie lets you skip forever if you want. Of course, you’ll need unlimited skips to get through all the crap in your personal library. For one session I actually did more skipping than listening.

And perhaps the most unique feature of Nutsie is the Nutsie Picks slider that appears above every music player. This lets you choose if you want Nutsie to recommend other songs and mix them while you’re listening. This doesn’t add songs to your playlist or library, it works on-the-fly. So if you have a playlist of 50 tunes and slide the Nutsie Picks to some percentage and it’ll toss in a few related artists and songs. Kind of nifty, but in my experience not all that “accurate” as you’ll find Barry Manilow and Rod Stewart dropped in the middle of your Glam Metal playlist.

I think Nutsie is working along the right path but has a long way to go. Design and user experience problems keep me from using the service, and its tendency to replay the same songs from my playlist over and over keeps me sitting at FineTune instead. I like the idea of just uploading my iTunes library and being able to listen anywhere I am, but until they give me more control over what is essentially my music, I’ll stick with my playlists at FineTune.

Originally posted on Aug 16, 2008

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The Wii redeems itself with the Homebrew Channel

I wrote a bit back about my increasing loss of faith in the Wii. The games slated to come out through the rest of the year and into 2009 are quite, shall we say, “weak” and include many uber-family friendly games. I have nothing against family friendly, but you can only have so many pet and puzzle games before a system starts to lose its appeal. However, a recent investigation into a well known hack for the Wii has me singing a different tune.

Reading Wii news as regularly as I do, quite some time ago I read about a thing called the Twilight Hack, which exploits a bug in the Wii Zelda game that let hackers into the core system. I typically try not to bother with console hacks because I’ve spent way to much on the deck to possibly ruin it by hacking. But over the weekend I found and read more about the Twilight Hack that sold me on the idea.

tmpphpT41Nzl.jpgBut why hack the Wii in the first place? Well, hacking in this case means you can load homebrew games (indie games) on the Wii. The hack actually adds the “Homebrew Channel” to your standard Wii menu (in English). Along with standalone indie games, you can also load emulators with the channel. As is well documented, I am an emulator junkie, especially for the classic decks like the NES, SNES, and PC Engine. With the promise of emulators on the Wii, I couldn’t not try the hack.

The Twilight Hack was stupidly simple to install. The only thing you need is an SD memory card and the Zelda game disc. Fortunately friend-of-the-Toast, Thee, had the Zelda game and once I had it in my hand I gave the hack a go. I held my breath and watched the DOS-like screen fly by, doing something to my Wii, and just hoped I wasn’t bricking my Wii. Bang! Zoom! The Homebrew Channel is ready to go!

And much (very much) to my surprise the NES emulator ran just fine and I was able to load all the NES ROMs I’ve had for years. Then I tried the TurboGrafix16 emulator…worked. Then the SNES emulator…worked. How awesome is this?! And all the emulators have multi-player support. So now I can play my old NES and other games just about everywhere: on my original NES deck, my PC, my DS portable, and now my Wii. Wherever I go, the NES will follow. Nuts? Yes. Fun? You betcha.

I’ve spent a lot of time and money on my NES PowerPak so I could play ROMs on my actual NES console, and nothing beats that experience, but having the NES games on my Wii is just way too convenient. Then toss on the SNES, Genesis and PCE games that I never had elsewhere other than my computer…you can’t beat it. I’m still playing around with the emulators and homebrew games, but so far the so good shy of a few ROMs that just haven’t loaded. But I don’t know if that means it’s a bad ROM, which is highly likely, or the emulator…time will tell. I’ve also found I now have a really good reason to buy a classic Wii controller.

tmpphpfZjYsl.jpgBut wait…can’t you download all the old games with the Wii Virtual Console? Why yes, you can…for anywhere from $5 – $10 a pop. We all have our favorite classic games. Even with over 500 NES games, I play the same dozen over and over. Same will go with PCE, SNES, and Genesis…but if I can get them easily for free, why do the whole download thing? Plus, now I can play the games I never played before but wanted to without the risk. It’s just nice.

Having this homebrew option opens up the Wii to a whole new realm of games even beyond old emulators. Now you can also play games made by indie developers that you won’t find in retail. One such game I found is called GuitarFun and is a clone of clone…it’s a clone of Frets on Fire, the PC Guitar Hero clone. I have yet to get GuitarFun to load and play on the Wii Homebrew, but when/if it does, it means I can play custom songs (real songs) with the actual guitar controller. Now that’ll be spiffy! I’ll post up a note when I get it working…but there are YouTubes of the game working.

All in all, I don’t see any reason you wouldn’t want to use the Twilight Hack and install the Homebrew Channel. It doesn’t hurt and the manual claims you can even uninstall it all. This isn’t a hardware-level hack, it’s just software, so there shouldn’t ever be any permanent damage. If you’re after some classic console gaming and don’t want go crazy like I did with my NES, this Wii hack is the sweet spot that turns your console into the perfect (and free) retro game machine. And since you’re saving on VC downloads, you can justify more retail Wii games and accessories.

If you’re wanting to setup the Homebrew Channel on your Wii, hit up WiiBrew.com and look for their WiiPack Generator. Use it to download all the parts you want and need, including the Twilight Hack. And to see just how easy the hack is to install, there’s a handy video…which I watched like five times before doing it myself (it just made me feel better).

Now pardon me while I go run through some Excite Bike, F-Zero, Keith Courage, and maybe a little Street Fighter II.

Originally posted on Aug 13, 2008

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Seventeen pounds of Hot Wheels

I’ve been “collecting” Hot Wheels for probably close to eight years by now. I collect but I don’t invest in Hot Wheels. A recent trip to the Ohio State Fair’s and its famed Junk Barn (where every Harry, Dick, and Tom can attempt to sell their junk) had me face-to-face with a ton of “collectible” Hot Wheels.

They were all in the box and ranged in age from 2008 models to some that stretched back to the mid-80s. And not surprisingly, I had many of the cars I saw…but much to my surprise, these cars were selling for $2 – $5. While a few bucks may not sound like much, considering each Hot Wheels car costs less than a dollar to buy it’s a pretty good return on the value.

It’s hard for me to see Hot Wheels as a collectibles investment. Sure, it kind of sucks to see a car I bought for 97 cents just a week ago already selling for $3 (which is bull anyway), but then I realize why I collect Hot Wheels – because I like them. I like to look at them, play with them, take pictures of them, let others play with them…it’s about the fun of toy cars, not the fun of buying and selling. I wouldn’t be any good at selling them anyway because I wouldn’t be able to give them up, even at a profit.

With my upgraded Flickr Pro account at my disposal, I decided to do something I had been wanting to do for a while, shoot my cars in more “artistic” ways, rather than the straight up showroom-quality photos I’ve been taking for the Hot Wheels Showcase I have on-line.

Hot Wheels are so vivid and fantastic that they lend themselves to photographs, both macro photography (which I can’t do well) and just general fun shooting (which I can do well). So with a sunny Saturday on hand I took all (well, most) of my cars out and set them up for some shots. It’s funny because when you tell people you have 193 Hot Wheels it sounds like a lot…but when you line them all up for a family photo, it doesn’t look like much, at least not to me. I guess in my head I thought they would take up more space all laid out, but I guess they’re only 2-inch cars anyway.

So yes, I have upwards of 190 Hot Wheels cars and all together they weigh an even 17 pounds. And for those wanting to keep track, each Hot Wheels cars cost me a dollar, so my total investment should be pretty simple. Now consider if I was investing in the toys how much I would have in value if each one could (on average) resell for $3.

I don’t really plan to stop my collecting. It’s cheap and it’s fun. And they make for some awesome photos.

Stop by the Flickr page for more shots.

Originally posted on Aug 9, 2008

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Tesla, still comin’ atcha live…again

You go to a concert early for one reason: to get good seats. And even though we saw Tesla in concert just six months ago, we still showed up early to make sure we got the spot we wanted. Last time we saw Tesla it was bare nuts cold outside and the line to get in was down the block. This time it was hot, but the line wasn’t so long, however, we noticed a small group of people gathering away from the main line. They were gathering outside the tour bus entrance where last time Frank Hannon chatted with shivering fans so we figured members of Tesla were once again mingling with fans, and we were right.

Before you continue, please enjoy some Tesla as you read:
[audio:tesla.mp3]

This time lead singer Jeff Keith was signing autographs and taking pictures from behind the entrance gate. We didn’t bring our camera because the venue doesn’t allow cameras, but we did have a convenient phone camera. And just after we got a shot of Jeff behind bars he says, “hell with this, I’m coming out there,” and he walked around the gate to meet fans up close and personal right there on the sidewalk. What luck! So we calmly waited to say “Hello” and get a photo op and autograph. Unfortunately, given the sun and the low-fi camera, the photo of Jen and Jeff didn’t turn out as well as I’d hope (although you can tell who it is), but he also signed the ticket stub…making this one of the first ticket stubs I’ll actually be keeping.

Before too long the rest of people waiting in line took notice and gathered around getting their jeans, arms, and children signed by Jeff Keith. At that point we moved back into the line and waited for the doors to open. Once we were in we found the spot we wanted, along the back wall of the floor section. We were at the same venue as before but this time we were outside and oh what a difference it made. The sound and experience of an indoor show just can’t compare to that of a outdoor concert. So we sat a waited for things to kick off while other came to sit along side us.

Not too long after we claimed our spot a girl sitting about three people down from me leaned forward and…well, she just puked her guts out. What?! Vomiting already? That’s what one guy was thinking as he passed by the pool of vomit and then looked at his watch, as though to think, “isn’t it a bit early for barf?”

Out of all the concerts we’ve seen in the past few years, this is the first time we’ve been near, let alone witness, some vomiting, as surprising as that may be. It’s very interesting watching people notice a pile of vomit. It actually became the game of the night, watching people’s reactions when they noticed the pool…assuming they did notice. Although few and far between, there were a handful of people that just didn’t notice and walked right through it. If you learn one thing from this entry, please learn that you should always look down when at a concert because you never know what you’ll find on the ground. Needless to say, the vomit kept many people away so we enjoyed the concert in relative peace. Thankfully we were far enough away from it that it didn’t encroach our space.

The opening band did their thing and after a quick stage change Tesla came out and rocked a perfect night. And it was a perfect night for a concert, very comfortable with clear skies. They changed up their set list just enough from their last visit, playing their standards but also including ones like “Edison’s Medicine” and “Mama’s Fool,” of which neither they played last time. They also removed the cover songs from their line-up, which I appreciated.

And if you thought having a pool of throw-up next you all night wasn’t a good way to enjoy Tesla, it gets better. Because about three quarters through the set victim number too spun around in front of us and spewed. This lady spewed first in the same spot as the first girl, then ran off the floor to toss it in the grass. Not sure if it was the combination of heat and beer, which is always fun, or if that spot on the floor had low gravity or some other anomaly that would cause people to chuck. Vomit to the left of me, vomit to the right of me…had it not been for Tesla in front of me, it would have been a rough night.

Another thing this concert proved is that Tesla is a prime example of a solid band. Being the only band we’ve seen twice, we know that Tesla puts on a good show just about every time they perform. It doesn’t matter if they’re inside or outside, they just lay it down. Nothing too fancy, not a lot of “show,” just a straight set of hits. To top things off, they did something other bands could learn from – they skipped the encore. It seems these days the encore is a given, which kind of defeats the specialness of an encore. No, instead Tesla said, “we don’t need to make people scream and shout, we’ll just keep on going.” So instead of taking a break, making us wait and then coming out to play one more song, they played two more songs instead. Awesome. Just awesome. Why make us clap? You know you’re coming back out to play.

The fact that Jeff Keith was willing to stand in the middle of the sidewalk and get up close with fans also tells me that Tesla knows what’s important. I know Tesla is way past their prime and not exactly filling stadiums anymore, but find me another band that will go that far out of their way to keep people happy. It tells me they know what’s important – the fans – because if you don’t keep your fans happy, they won’t come see you and they won’t buy your records.

So next time there’s a band you want to see, show up a bit early because not only will you usually get a good seat, you never know who’ll you find signing autographs. And you might miss the vomit.

Originally posted on Aug 5, 2008

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It’s a good time to bring back blimps

I love blimps. Blimps just make sense to me. They’re elegant, classy, efficient, and it many ways, quite practical. Just by chance I happened to come across an article in the NYT Europe section about Zeppelin blimps. I didn’t read the entire article but just the first few paragraphs were enough to have me thinking happy blimp thoughts.

Blimps are just like airplanes or trains but are far more efficient. All three follow more direct routes than car or truck, but blimps don’t use regular jet fuel. They use reusable gas to fill the blimp, so right there they are better off than the rest of us. Blimps may be a bit slower than jets or trains, but I say that blimps are not for trans-atlantic or even cross-country shipments. I see blimps as tri-state, regional solution to delivering goods.

Not only do blimps make fuel sense, they make delivery sense. Blimps don’t need acres and miles of runway, they just need a small field or even a tall building with which to dock and unload. Blimps can go vertical, making them more flexible than planes and have more reach than a train.

Blimps just…blimps just make sense. As the article points out, in a time when fuel prices are sky high (ha ha), blimps provide an alternative that could help cut costs at a critical time. I doubt it will catch on, but just imagine how beautiful a sky filled with blimps would be. Imagine traveling from Chicago to New York by blimp…no, wait, luxury blimp. Even if blimps didn’t become a shipping standard, I think blimps would have a cool-factor that would make them work as a novelty travel for a long while.

Bring back blimps!!

Originally posted on Aug 4, 2008

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Work will be watching

A recent article in the NY Times talks about new network monitoring software that will “learn” about employee’s web behaviour and give the company finite control over restrictions and settings. I won’t repost the whole article, but this pretty much sums it up:

…one company might say that marketing folks can only visit YouTube during lunch hour, and even then, they can only upload two megabytes to the site each day. Engineers might be blocked from visiting Facebook…but everyone else can.

I’m not saying companies shouldn’t monitor network traffic and use, it’s a legit concern. But if software like this works as well as promoted, I see one problem: we’re not machines. Applying strict rules onto users will just make them unhappy and that ultimately results is poor results.

I’m one that believes people will naturally find their balance at work. No one works 8-hours solid. It’s just not possible, and frankly, not healthy. Everybody needs some time during the day to just chill for a few. Some people may go outside for a smoke, some might walk around the building, some might scratch their butt, some, like me, just stay on-line and visit web sites they enjoy but aren’t work-related.

Me, I hit up my video game blogs, check my personal e-mail, manage my personal sites and that type stuff. All said and done, it maybe takes 15-30 minutes of my day. No big deal. If I spend more time than that I feel like I’m jipping myself out of work time. I know I have stuff to do and I know how much time it takes to get it done. Most people won’t abuse their time because fear will keep them in check – at least that’s what I’ve witnessed. If you just trust people things will usually work out for the best.

I’m sure the thought behind applying smart software that tracks individuals and adjusts based on habits is that it will stop those that do abuse their work time. I guess my philosophy on this is that instead of using a blacklist method that effects everyone, if you find someone is spending too much time hanging out on YouTube, you deal with them. You warn them, suspend them, fire them, whatever…you deal with the person directly. You don’t puss out and let technology to do your people management for you. That’s just weak. And honestly, I wouldn’t want to work for a company that manages their employees that way.

Everybody works best in different environments. And that’s not limited to physical environments, but digital/on-line environments too. You can’t look at sheer numbers to determine what people are doing. Behaviour doesn’t work by the numbers and by saying, “Brian spends 30 minutes on Gmail a day means he’s wasting time,” is quite ignorant and might do more harm than good in the long.

Of course, all this is assuming companies will pretty much abuse this network management power. Some will, some won’t, but just having that ability will turn even the lax network admin into a network nazi. Actually, software like this might even eliminate that admin job…so you better watch out.

Originally posted on Aug 4, 2008

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Winnie’s new digs

In the great menagerie we call our home lives a cat, a dog, a turtle, and a dog – in that order. Out of them all the turtle, Winnie, requires the least amount of attention. She probably doesn’t get enough attention, actually, but so it goes. She’s a turtle. It’s funny that most people probably think it’s easier to care a turtle than two dogs and cat. Simplicity of often deceiving.

When we got Winnie a couple years ago, the men at the turtle store told us she was a water turtle and needed water to feed and stuff. OK, so we got an aquarium and filled it with water for her to swim around and a little floating dock for her to lay on. And that’s the way it remained for a long time, with regular tank cleanings and the likes to keep things as clean as we could. But let me tell you, a turtle is a dirty, dirty, messy animal.

Emptying 15 gallons of water every two week sucked bears. Well, our thoughts of “easy” care for a turtle changed when we discovered Winnie’s shell had a few bad spots on it. We think it’s shell rot, which, from what we’ve read, is easily cared for with a little soap wash and less water time. And that’s where we goofed in the past – we had too much water and not enough “sun” for her – which led to her shell problems. So action had to be taken immediately.

That action was a new apartment for Winnie. A trip to the pet store had me coming home with a stone barrier that needed to be siliconed into the aquarium so one half could be set with rocks for basking and the other for her pool. And it’s pretty nice, although I’m not sure Winnie knows what to do with it all yet.

Now there’s 1/4 as much water in the tank, which should make cleaning much easier while still giving her plenty of water for her bodily needs. The project as a whole was a lot easier than I expected. I’m glad I found the little barrier thing. My first thoughts were buying rocks or something and piling them up to create a nice basking area but still having mostly water. The new setup should be nice for her and for us.

I just hope the dogs don’t ask for a new house too.

Originally posted on Aug 19, 2008

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The Presidents and Amazon MP3

Despite my regular use of iTunes for playing and sometimes purchasing music, I’m not necessarily an iTunes-lover. I think iTunes is a nice music organizer/player. It certainly has its issues and I can’t say I’ve been 100% happy with it, but it does the trick. But then there’s the music, by far the biggest wrinkle in the sheet. Damn their DMA songs!

Even though I use iTunes as my main music player, I hate having my music locked down. My solution around it has been what most people have probably been doing too…burning the iTunes songs to a CD and then ripping them back as MP3s. Tedious and stupid, but it works.

When Amazon announced their MP3 service would be cheaper and offer standard MP3 files I told myself the next time I plan on getting a song or album I’d use it. Well, with money sitting in my iTunes account thanks to gift cards and redeeming, I hadn’t not followed through on that promise until today when I found a good reason to go elsewhere.

Much to my happiness I discovered that one of my favorite groups, The Presidents of the United States of America, did not disband as I had once thought. Actually, they did back in 1998 and then reformed a few years later to release a handful of albums.

“Peaches” – The Presidents of the United States of America
[audio:peaches.mp3]

I remember buying The President’s first album at Media Play. I thought the album cover was strange, and the music was pretty nutty too, but that’s why I like it so. It’s poppy, fast, it rocks, and has a heaping helping of fun and humor. That first record was really solid. The follow up album II was 50/50. A third release just before their break-up had even fewer singles. After I heard they broke up I had pretty much written them off and had just accepted I’d have 2.5 albums to enjoy for the rest of time.

I was at YouTube watching some Weird Al videos and that led me to The Presidents’ Wikipedia page where learned they regrouped and have been making new albums. It’s great to find out they’re still making music and still keeping it fun and light. I went the web site and listened to a few tracks from newer albums and decided to go ahead and download one of the “lost albums” I had missed. I decided on Love Everybody and headed over to iTunes to make the purchase.

Now most albums at iTunes are $10 regardless of the number of tracks. But low and behold this one album from an essentially nobody band was $12. Sucko. But wait! I have an alternative – Amazon MP3. A quick jump to Amazon found the album for $9, so I was ready to dive in.

Although a bummer, I was not surprised to have to install Amazon’s MP3 Downloader, a desktop client that does the downloading for you. After a very quick install I was faced with something I did not expect at all – something helpful – a free song to download. This is very smart because not only is it a great bonus for a new user, but Amazon presents as a way for you to learn how the downloader works before you pay any money. It told me, “Hey, watch the downloader in action by getting this free song.” I happily took their recommendation. Very smart on Amazon’s part and much appreciated as a customer.

So with the downloader installed I click the Buy button and after a quick authorization the downloads came in swiftly. And surprisingly enough, the Amazon Downloader even added the songs to iTunes for me. How considerate. And as advertised, the tracks are straight MP3s (high 256 bitrate too) and I can use them as I see fit and burn them as often as I’d like.

I can’t speak on the depth of Amazon’s MP3 catalog as I was looking for something specific and found it, but if you’re looking for an iTunes alternative for music then I will happily recommend Amazon MP3. It’s easy to use, good quality tracks, and even cheaper than iTunes. Even the single songs are $.89 instead of $.99 – I’ll certainly be back.

(Oh, and the President’s album I downloaded is pretty solid too. Nothing earth-shattering as far as they’re concerned, but it’s great to have some new songs to bust out on the way to work. They’ve stuck with their original formula and it’s very welcome in today’s vast pit of otherwise shotty music.)

Originally posted on Aug 18, 2008

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A reason to keep your CDs

Our walls are pretty bare. Shy of a few of my old college paintings and a couple prints, we don’t have much hanging around. We don’t like cluttered, busy walls anyway, but you have to have something on the walls otherwise it looks too…well, too migrant. Bare walls work if you have some sort of Zen theme going with minimalist furniture and bamboo floors, but we don’t. We’re pretty average folks with an average house. So in an attempt to find something meaningful for our walls without having to go the large poster/print route, I looked at what we have to work with.

And we have a lot of CDs. Our generation has seen a lot of technology change when it comes to music and we’re not even halfway through life. I know you all still have a box somewhere with cassettes in it and needless to say there’s a few shelves of CDs somewhere too. It’s safe to say we have way more MP3s these days than we do CDs, and we do most of our music listening on the computer, so the CDs have just become clutter. Recently though I thought about hanging up CD covers as art. We both love our music and the CDs weren’t doing anything else.

I think album covers as wall art (CD or otherwise) is a good solution to get use out of something that otherwise has no purpose anymore. It’s easy, clean, and shows off your love and tastes for music. Not to mention some album covers are considered art in their own right, so it’s not that far fetched. The trick, it turned out, was finding frames for the little buggers.

Compact disc album covers are square. Most small frames are designed for standard photos, which are rectangles. Going to a craft store or even Target didn’t find us the frames we needed. No, we found just the right size frames at the Dollar Store…but of course! We didn’t go to the Dollar Store looking for frames, but while there noticed some that were just the right size. They’re glass front frames so there’s no “frame” around the album, and it looks pretty nice.

This is still a work in progress, but even with only four covers up the staircase it looks pretty good. About two to four more covers to complete the journey should be enough. Now the hard part is picking which albums to feature. But then again, it’s convenient enough that we can change them whenever we like.

So if you have some bare spots on your walls and need something small to fill the void, consider your favorite (or best looking) album covers. An easy afternoon project.

Originally posted on Aug 16, 2008

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Don’t bust a Nutsie

I’ve been using FineTune.com for on-line music for a long time now. I’ve found it to be be all I need to get through my day. At FineTune you pick songs to add to your pool (playlist) and then it plays back those songs in random order. You never know what song is going to play next, but you know it’ll be a song you picked. Nutsie, on the other hand, takes a different approach and lets you bring your own music collection on-line.

I heard about Nutsie when drummer Duff McKagan was on a local radio show. He was pimping the service, which I believe he invested in (and also adorns the home page) so I figured I’d give it a try. Nutsie expects you to be using iTunes. Now one might see this is a narrow strategy, but these days iTunes is probably a safe bet. Unlike some other services, Nutsie doesn’t want you to upload your MP3s, it only wants your iTunes database. All you need to do with Nutside is export your iTunes library and upload it. Nutsie then does all the work to find the songs so you can listen on-line.

It’s actually a nifty concept but I’ve found it has one fatal flaw – it exposes you to all the crappy music you have in your library. If you’re like me, you’ve ripped just about every CD you have and also any CD that you might even only be remotely interested in. In my catalog there is a lot of classical, a lot of movie scores/sounndtracks, and a lot of country thanks to the wife – and most of that is not stuff I listen to all that often. Nutsie, unfortunately, reminds me that my library has about 70% of crap, 20% of good stuff, and 10% of, “when did I get that song?”

Another flaw in Nutsie is the lack of making playlists within Nutsie. Chances are you have playlists within iTunes. Well, when you upload your library Nutsie retains these playlists but doesn’t let you create new ones with your music. So if want to create your “Ultimate Death Metal” playlist in Nutsie using your collection of songs, you’re out of luck. You also can’t play any individual song with Nutsie. Much like all the other services, the site will play songs from your playlists randomly.

Another very annoying unfeature in Nutsie is the audio player itself. An embedded music player can be found on just about every page, including your personal playlist home page. This works great until you click a link on the page and takes you away, thus stopping your music and making you start all over again. One simple improvement Nutsie could add is to simply let you pop-out the player so you can navigate around Nutsie without disrupting your music. This even works against them because the always-present “Buy” button next to each song stops the music and just makes you mad. You’ll also find the music players start automagically, so just about every web page will start blaring out music when you arrive.

On the good side of Nutsie is the standard shared playlist abilities. Even if you don’t upload your own music library, you’ll find a good host of themed playlists that will keep you going for a while. They have a nice list of dated playlists so you can hear the Best Rock Songs of 1977 anytime you want (which I recommend). And assuming you’re a Nutsie member – which is free – you are allowed unlimited song skips. Where as places like FineTune and Pandora limit you to five skips per hour, Nutsie lets you skip forever if you want. Of course, you’ll need unlimited skips to get through all the crap in your personal library. For one session I actually did more skipping than listening.

And perhaps the most unique feature of Nutsie is the Nutsie Picks slider that appears above every music player. This lets you choose if you want Nutsie to recommend other songs and mix them while you’re listening. This doesn’t add songs to your playlist or library, it works on-the-fly. So if you have a playlist of 50 tunes and slide the Nutsie Picks to some percentage and it’ll toss in a few related artists and songs. Kind of nifty, but in my experience not all that “accurate” as you’ll find Barry Manilow and Rod Stewart dropped in the middle of your Glam Metal playlist.

I think Nutsie is working along the right path but has a long way to go. Design and user experience problems keep me from using the service, and its tendency to replay the same songs from my playlist over and over keeps me sitting at FineTune instead. I like the idea of just uploading my iTunes library and being able to listen anywhere I am, but until they give me more control over what is essentially my music, I’ll stick with my playlists at FineTune.

Originally posted on Aug 16, 2008

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The Wii redeems itself with the Homebrew Channel

I wrote a bit back about my increasing loss of faith in the Wii. The games slated to come out through the rest of the year and into 2009 are quite, shall we say, “weak” and include many uber-family friendly games. I have nothing against family friendly, but you can only have so many pet and puzzle games before a system starts to lose its appeal. However, a recent investigation into a well known hack for the Wii has me singing a different tune.

Reading Wii news as regularly as I do, quite some time ago I read about a thing called the Twilight Hack, which exploits a bug in the Wii Zelda game that let hackers into the core system. I typically try not to bother with console hacks because I’ve spent way to much on the deck to possibly ruin it by hacking. But over the weekend I found and read more about the Twilight Hack that sold me on the idea.

tmpphpT41Nzl.jpgBut why hack the Wii in the first place? Well, hacking in this case means you can load homebrew games (indie games) on the Wii. The hack actually adds the “Homebrew Channel” to your standard Wii menu (in English). Along with standalone indie games, you can also load emulators with the channel. As is well documented, I am an emulator junkie, especially for the classic decks like the NES, SNES, and PC Engine. With the promise of emulators on the Wii, I couldn’t not try the hack.

The Twilight Hack was stupidly simple to install. The only thing you need is an SD memory card and the Zelda game disc. Fortunately friend-of-the-Toast, Thee, had the Zelda game and once I had it in my hand I gave the hack a go. I held my breath and watched the DOS-like screen fly by, doing something to my Wii, and just hoped I wasn’t bricking my Wii. Bang! Zoom! The Homebrew Channel is ready to go!

And much (very much) to my surprise the NES emulator ran just fine and I was able to load all the NES ROMs I’ve had for years. Then I tried the TurboGrafix16 emulator…worked. Then the SNES emulator…worked. How awesome is this?! And all the emulators have multi-player support. So now I can play my old NES and other games just about everywhere: on my original NES deck, my PC, my DS portable, and now my Wii. Wherever I go, the NES will follow. Nuts? Yes. Fun? You betcha.

I’ve spent a lot of time and money on my NES PowerPak so I could play ROMs on my actual NES console, and nothing beats that experience, but having the NES games on my Wii is just way too convenient. Then toss on the SNES, Genesis and PCE games that I never had elsewhere other than my computer…you can’t beat it. I’m still playing around with the emulators and homebrew games, but so far the so good shy of a few ROMs that just haven’t loaded. But I don’t know if that means it’s a bad ROM, which is highly likely, or the emulator…time will tell. I’ve also found I now have a really good reason to buy a classic Wii controller.

tmpphpfZjYsl.jpgBut wait…can’t you download all the old games with the Wii Virtual Console? Why yes, you can…for anywhere from $5 – $10 a pop. We all have our favorite classic games. Even with over 500 NES games, I play the same dozen over and over. Same will go with PCE, SNES, and Genesis…but if I can get them easily for free, why do the whole download thing? Plus, now I can play the games I never played before but wanted to without the risk. It’s just nice.

Having this homebrew option opens up the Wii to a whole new realm of games even beyond old emulators. Now you can also play games made by indie developers that you won’t find in retail. One such game I found is called GuitarFun and is a clone of clone…it’s a clone of Frets on Fire, the PC Guitar Hero clone. I have yet to get GuitarFun to load and play on the Wii Homebrew, but when/if it does, it means I can play custom songs (real songs) with the actual guitar controller. Now that’ll be spiffy! I’ll post up a note when I get it working…but there are YouTubes of the game working.

All in all, I don’t see any reason you wouldn’t want to use the Twilight Hack and install the Homebrew Channel. It doesn’t hurt and the manual claims you can even uninstall it all. This isn’t a hardware-level hack, it’s just software, so there shouldn’t ever be any permanent damage. If you’re after some classic console gaming and don’t want go crazy like I did with my NES, this Wii hack is the sweet spot that turns your console into the perfect (and free) retro game machine. And since you’re saving on VC downloads, you can justify more retail Wii games and accessories.

If you’re wanting to setup the Homebrew Channel on your Wii, hit up WiiBrew.com and look for their WiiPack Generator. Use it to download all the parts you want and need, including the Twilight Hack. And to see just how easy the hack is to install, there’s a handy video…which I watched like five times before doing it myself (it just made me feel better).

Now pardon me while I go run through some Excite Bike, F-Zero, Keith Courage, and maybe a little Street Fighter II.

Originally posted on Aug 13, 2008

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Seventeen pounds of Hot Wheels

I’ve been “collecting” Hot Wheels for probably close to eight years by now. I collect but I don’t invest in Hot Wheels. A recent trip to the Ohio State Fair’s and its famed Junk Barn (where every Harry, Dick, and Tom can attempt to sell their junk) had me face-to-face with a ton of “collectible” Hot Wheels.

They were all in the box and ranged in age from 2008 models to some that stretched back to the mid-80s. And not surprisingly, I had many of the cars I saw…but much to my surprise, these cars were selling for $2 – $5. While a few bucks may not sound like much, considering each Hot Wheels car costs less than a dollar to buy it’s a pretty good return on the value.

It’s hard for me to see Hot Wheels as a collectibles investment. Sure, it kind of sucks to see a car I bought for 97 cents just a week ago already selling for $3 (which is bull anyway), but then I realize why I collect Hot Wheels – because I like them. I like to look at them, play with them, take pictures of them, let others play with them…it’s about the fun of toy cars, not the fun of buying and selling. I wouldn’t be any good at selling them anyway because I wouldn’t be able to give them up, even at a profit.

With my upgraded Flickr Pro account at my disposal, I decided to do something I had been wanting to do for a while, shoot my cars in more “artistic” ways, rather than the straight up showroom-quality photos I’ve been taking for the Hot Wheels Showcase I have on-line.

Hot Wheels are so vivid and fantastic that they lend themselves to photographs, both macro photography (which I can’t do well) and just general fun shooting (which I can do well). So with a sunny Saturday on hand I took all (well, most) of my cars out and set them up for some shots. It’s funny because when you tell people you have 193 Hot Wheels it sounds like a lot…but when you line them all up for a family photo, it doesn’t look like much, at least not to me. I guess in my head I thought they would take up more space all laid out, but I guess they’re only 2-inch cars anyway.

So yes, I have upwards of 190 Hot Wheels cars and all together they weigh an even 17 pounds. And for those wanting to keep track, each Hot Wheels cars cost me a dollar, so my total investment should be pretty simple. Now consider if I was investing in the toys how much I would have in value if each one could (on average) resell for $3.

I don’t really plan to stop my collecting. It’s cheap and it’s fun. And they make for some awesome photos.

Stop by the Flickr page for more shots.

Originally posted on Aug 9, 2008

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Tesla, still comin’ atcha live…again

You go to a concert early for one reason: to get good seats. And even though we saw Tesla in concert just six months ago, we still showed up early to make sure we got the spot we wanted. Last time we saw Tesla it was bare nuts cold outside and the line to get in was down the block. This time it was hot, but the line wasn’t so long, however, we noticed a small group of people gathering away from the main line. They were gathering outside the tour bus entrance where last time Frank Hannon chatted with shivering fans so we figured members of Tesla were once again mingling with fans, and we were right.

Before you continue, please enjoy some Tesla as you read:
[audio:tesla.mp3]

This time lead singer Jeff Keith was signing autographs and taking pictures from behind the entrance gate. We didn’t bring our camera because the venue doesn’t allow cameras, but we did have a convenient phone camera. And just after we got a shot of Jeff behind bars he says, “hell with this, I’m coming out there,” and he walked around the gate to meet fans up close and personal right there on the sidewalk. What luck! So we calmly waited to say “Hello” and get a photo op and autograph. Unfortunately, given the sun and the low-fi camera, the photo of Jen and Jeff didn’t turn out as well as I’d hope (although you can tell who it is), but he also signed the ticket stub…making this one of the first ticket stubs I’ll actually be keeping.

Before too long the rest of people waiting in line took notice and gathered around getting their jeans, arms, and children signed by Jeff Keith. At that point we moved back into the line and waited for the doors to open. Once we were in we found the spot we wanted, along the back wall of the floor section. We were at the same venue as before but this time we were outside and oh what a difference it made. The sound and experience of an indoor show just can’t compare to that of a outdoor concert. So we sat a waited for things to kick off while other came to sit along side us.

Not too long after we claimed our spot a girl sitting about three people down from me leaned forward and…well, she just puked her guts out. What?! Vomiting already? That’s what one guy was thinking as he passed by the pool of vomit and then looked at his watch, as though to think, “isn’t it a bit early for barf?”

Out of all the concerts we’ve seen in the past few years, this is the first time we’ve been near, let alone witness, some vomiting, as surprising as that may be. It’s very interesting watching people notice a pile of vomit. It actually became the game of the night, watching people’s reactions when they noticed the pool…assuming they did notice. Although few and far between, there were a handful of people that just didn’t notice and walked right through it. If you learn one thing from this entry, please learn that you should always look down when at a concert because you never know what you’ll find on the ground. Needless to say, the vomit kept many people away so we enjoyed the concert in relative peace. Thankfully we were far enough away from it that it didn’t encroach our space.

The opening band did their thing and after a quick stage change Tesla came out and rocked a perfect night. And it was a perfect night for a concert, very comfortable with clear skies. They changed up their set list just enough from their last visit, playing their standards but also including ones like “Edison’s Medicine” and “Mama’s Fool,” of which neither they played last time. They also removed the cover songs from their line-up, which I appreciated.

And if you thought having a pool of throw-up next you all night wasn’t a good way to enjoy Tesla, it gets better. Because about three quarters through the set victim number too spun around in front of us and spewed. This lady spewed first in the same spot as the first girl, then ran off the floor to toss it in the grass. Not sure if it was the combination of heat and beer, which is always fun, or if that spot on the floor had low gravity or some other anomaly that would cause people to chuck. Vomit to the left of me, vomit to the right of me…had it not been for Tesla in front of me, it would have been a rough night.

Another thing this concert proved is that Tesla is a prime example of a solid band. Being the only band we’ve seen twice, we know that Tesla puts on a good show just about every time they perform. It doesn’t matter if they’re inside or outside, they just lay it down. Nothing too fancy, not a lot of “show,” just a straight set of hits. To top things off, they did something other bands could learn from – they skipped the encore. It seems these days the encore is a given, which kind of defeats the specialness of an encore. No, instead Tesla said, “we don’t need to make people scream and shout, we’ll just keep on going.” So instead of taking a break, making us wait and then coming out to play one more song, they played two more songs instead. Awesome. Just awesome. Why make us clap? You know you’re coming back out to play.

The fact that Jeff Keith was willing to stand in the middle of the sidewalk and get up close with fans also tells me that Tesla knows what’s important. I know Tesla is way past their prime and not exactly filling stadiums anymore, but find me another band that will go that far out of their way to keep people happy. It tells me they know what’s important – the fans – because if you don’t keep your fans happy, they won’t come see you and they won’t buy your records.

So next time there’s a band you want to see, show up a bit early because not only will you usually get a good seat, you never know who’ll you find signing autographs. And you might miss the vomit.

Originally posted on Aug 5, 2008

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It’s a good time to bring back blimps

I love blimps. Blimps just make sense to me. They’re elegant, classy, efficient, and it many ways, quite practical. Just by chance I happened to come across an article in the NYT Europe section about Zeppelin blimps. I didn’t read the entire article but just the first few paragraphs were enough to have me thinking happy blimp thoughts.

Blimps are just like airplanes or trains but are far more efficient. All three follow more direct routes than car or truck, but blimps don’t use regular jet fuel. They use reusable gas to fill the blimp, so right there they are better off than the rest of us. Blimps may be a bit slower than jets or trains, but I say that blimps are not for trans-atlantic or even cross-country shipments. I see blimps as tri-state, regional solution to delivering goods.

Not only do blimps make fuel sense, they make delivery sense. Blimps don’t need acres and miles of runway, they just need a small field or even a tall building with which to dock and unload. Blimps can go vertical, making them more flexible than planes and have more reach than a train.

Blimps just…blimps just make sense. As the article points out, in a time when fuel prices are sky high (ha ha), blimps provide an alternative that could help cut costs at a critical time. I doubt it will catch on, but just imagine how beautiful a sky filled with blimps would be. Imagine traveling from Chicago to New York by blimp…no, wait, luxury blimp. Even if blimps didn’t become a shipping standard, I think blimps would have a cool-factor that would make them work as a novelty travel for a long while.

Bring back blimps!!

Originally posted on Aug 4, 2008

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Work will be watching

A recent article in the NY Times talks about new network monitoring software that will “learn” about employee’s web behaviour and give the company finite control over restrictions and settings. I won’t repost the whole article, but this pretty much sums it up:

…one company might say that marketing folks can only visit YouTube during lunch hour, and even then, they can only upload two megabytes to the site each day. Engineers might be blocked from visiting Facebook…but everyone else can.

I’m not saying companies shouldn’t monitor network traffic and use, it’s a legit concern. But if software like this works as well as promoted, I see one problem: we’re not machines. Applying strict rules onto users will just make them unhappy and that ultimately results is poor results.

I’m one that believes people will naturally find their balance at work. No one works 8-hours solid. It’s just not possible, and frankly, not healthy. Everybody needs some time during the day to just chill for a few. Some people may go outside for a smoke, some might walk around the building, some might scratch their butt, some, like me, just stay on-line and visit web sites they enjoy but aren’t work-related.

Me, I hit up my video game blogs, check my personal e-mail, manage my personal sites and that type stuff. All said and done, it maybe takes 15-30 minutes of my day. No big deal. If I spend more time than that I feel like I’m jipping myself out of work time. I know I have stuff to do and I know how much time it takes to get it done. Most people won’t abuse their time because fear will keep them in check – at least that’s what I’ve witnessed. If you just trust people things will usually work out for the best.

I’m sure the thought behind applying smart software that tracks individuals and adjusts based on habits is that it will stop those that do abuse their work time. I guess my philosophy on this is that instead of using a blacklist method that effects everyone, if you find someone is spending too much time hanging out on YouTube, you deal with them. You warn them, suspend them, fire them, whatever…you deal with the person directly. You don’t puss out and let technology to do your people management for you. That’s just weak. And honestly, I wouldn’t want to work for a company that manages their employees that way.

Everybody works best in different environments. And that’s not limited to physical environments, but digital/on-line environments too. You can’t look at sheer numbers to determine what people are doing. Behaviour doesn’t work by the numbers and by saying, “Brian spends 30 minutes on Gmail a day means he’s wasting time,” is quite ignorant and might do more harm than good in the long.

Of course, all this is assuming companies will pretty much abuse this network management power. Some will, some won’t, but just having that ability will turn even the lax network admin into a network nazi. Actually, software like this might even eliminate that admin job…so you better watch out.

Originally posted on Aug 4, 2008

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Winnie’s new digs

In the great menagerie we call our home lives a cat, a dog, a turtle, and a dog – in that order. Out of them all the turtle, Winnie, requires the least amount of attention. She probably doesn’t get enough attention, actually, but so it goes. She’s a turtle. It’s funny that most people probably think it’s easier to care a turtle than two dogs and cat. Simplicity of often deceiving.

When we got Winnie a couple years ago, the men at the turtle store told us she was a water turtle and needed water to feed and stuff. OK, so we got an aquarium and filled it with water for her to swim around and a little floating dock for her to lay on. And that’s the way it remained for a long time, with regular tank cleanings and the likes to keep things as clean as we could. But let me tell you, a turtle is a dirty, dirty, messy animal.

Emptying 15 gallons of water every two week sucked bears. Well, our thoughts of “easy” care for a turtle changed when we discovered Winnie’s shell had a few bad spots on it. We think it’s shell rot, which, from what we’ve read, is easily cared for with a little soap wash and less water time. And that’s where we goofed in the past – we had too much water and not enough “sun” for her – which led to her shell problems. So action had to be taken immediately.

That action was a new apartment for Winnie. A trip to the pet store had me coming home with a stone barrier that needed to be siliconed into the aquarium so one half could be set with rocks for basking and the other for her pool. And it’s pretty nice, although I’m not sure Winnie knows what to do with it all yet.

Now there’s 1/4 as much water in the tank, which should make cleaning much easier while still giving her plenty of water for her bodily needs. The project as a whole was a lot easier than I expected. I’m glad I found the little barrier thing. My first thoughts were buying rocks or something and piling them up to create a nice basking area but still having mostly water. The new setup should be nice for her and for us.

I just hope the dogs don’t ask for a new house too.

Originally posted on Aug 19, 2008

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The Presidents and Amazon MP3

Despite my regular use of iTunes for playing and sometimes purchasing music, I’m not necessarily an iTunes-lover. I think iTunes is a nice music organizer/player. It certainly has its issues and I can’t say I’ve been 100% happy with it, but it does the trick. But then there’s the music, by far the biggest wrinkle in the sheet. Damn their DMA songs!

Even though I use iTunes as my main music player, I hate having my music locked down. My solution around it has been what most people have probably been doing too…burning the iTunes songs to a CD and then ripping them back as MP3s. Tedious and stupid, but it works.

When Amazon announced their MP3 service would be cheaper and offer standard MP3 files I told myself the next time I plan on getting a song or album I’d use it. Well, with money sitting in my iTunes account thanks to gift cards and redeeming, I hadn’t not followed through on that promise until today when I found a good reason to go elsewhere.

Much to my happiness I discovered that one of my favorite groups, The Presidents of the United States of America, did not disband as I had once thought. Actually, they did back in 1998 and then reformed a few years later to release a handful of albums.

“Peaches” – The Presidents of the United States of America
[audio:peaches.mp3]

I remember buying The President’s first album at Media Play. I thought the album cover was strange, and the music was pretty nutty too, but that’s why I like it so. It’s poppy, fast, it rocks, and has a heaping helping of fun and humor. That first record was really solid. The follow up album II was 50/50. A third release just before their break-up had even fewer singles. After I heard they broke up I had pretty much written them off and had just accepted I’d have 2.5 albums to enjoy for the rest of time.

I was at YouTube watching some Weird Al videos and that led me to The Presidents’ Wikipedia page where learned they regrouped and have been making new albums. It’s great to find out they’re still making music and still keeping it fun and light. I went the web site and listened to a few tracks from newer albums and decided to go ahead and download one of the “lost albums” I had missed. I decided on Love Everybody and headed over to iTunes to make the purchase.

Now most albums at iTunes are $10 regardless of the number of tracks. But low and behold this one album from an essentially nobody band was $12. Sucko. But wait! I have an alternative – Amazon MP3. A quick jump to Amazon found the album for $9, so I was ready to dive in.

Although a bummer, I was not surprised to have to install Amazon’s MP3 Downloader, a desktop client that does the downloading for you. After a very quick install I was faced with something I did not expect at all – something helpful – a free song to download. This is very smart because not only is it a great bonus for a new user, but Amazon presents as a way for you to learn how the downloader works before you pay any money. It told me, “Hey, watch the downloader in action by getting this free song.” I happily took their recommendation. Very smart on Amazon’s part and much appreciated as a customer.

So with the downloader installed I click the Buy button and after a quick authorization the downloads came in swiftly. And surprisingly enough, the Amazon Downloader even added the songs to iTunes for me. How considerate. And as advertised, the tracks are straight MP3s (high 256 bitrate too) and I can use them as I see fit and burn them as often as I’d like.

I can’t speak on the depth of Amazon’s MP3 catalog as I was looking for something specific and found it, but if you’re looking for an iTunes alternative for music then I will happily recommend Amazon MP3. It’s easy to use, good quality tracks, and even cheaper than iTunes. Even the single songs are $.89 instead of $.99 – I’ll certainly be back.

(Oh, and the President’s album I downloaded is pretty solid too. Nothing earth-shattering as far as they’re concerned, but it’s great to have some new songs to bust out on the way to work. They’ve stuck with their original formula and it’s very welcome in today’s vast pit of otherwise shotty music.)

Originally posted on Aug 18, 2008

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A reason to keep your CDs

Our walls are pretty bare. Shy of a few of my old college paintings and a couple prints, we don’t have much hanging around. We don’t like cluttered, busy walls anyway, but you have to have something on the walls otherwise it looks too…well, too migrant. Bare walls work if you have some sort of Zen theme going with minimalist furniture and bamboo floors, but we don’t. We’re pretty average folks with an average house. So in an attempt to find something meaningful for our walls without having to go the large poster/print route, I looked at what we have to work with.

And we have a lot of CDs. Our generation has seen a lot of technology change when it comes to music and we’re not even halfway through life. I know you all still have a box somewhere with cassettes in it and needless to say there’s a few shelves of CDs somewhere too. It’s safe to say we have way more MP3s these days than we do CDs, and we do most of our music listening on the computer, so the CDs have just become clutter. Recently though I thought about hanging up CD covers as art. We both love our music and the CDs weren’t doing anything else.

I think album covers as wall art (CD or otherwise) is a good solution to get use out of something that otherwise has no purpose anymore. It’s easy, clean, and shows off your love and tastes for music. Not to mention some album covers are considered art in their own right, so it’s not that far fetched. The trick, it turned out, was finding frames for the little buggers.

Compact disc album covers are square. Most small frames are designed for standard photos, which are rectangles. Going to a craft store or even Target didn’t find us the frames we needed. No, we found just the right size frames at the Dollar Store…but of course! We didn’t go to the Dollar Store looking for frames, but while there noticed some that were just the right size. They’re glass front frames so there’s no “frame” around the album, and it looks pretty nice.

This is still a work in progress, but even with only four covers up the staircase it looks pretty good. About two to four more covers to complete the journey should be enough. Now the hard part is picking which albums to feature. But then again, it’s convenient enough that we can change them whenever we like.

So if you have some bare spots on your walls and need something small to fill the void, consider your favorite (or best looking) album covers. An easy afternoon project.

Originally posted on Aug 16, 2008

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Don’t bust a Nutsie

I’ve been using FineTune.com for on-line music for a long time now. I’ve found it to be be all I need to get through my day. At FineTune you pick songs to add to your pool (playlist) and then it plays back those songs in random order. You never know what song is going to play next, but you know it’ll be a song you picked. Nutsie, on the other hand, takes a different approach and lets you bring your own music collection on-line.

I heard about Nutsie when drummer Duff McKagan was on a local radio show. He was pimping the service, which I believe he invested in (and also adorns the home page) so I figured I’d give it a try. Nutsie expects you to be using iTunes. Now one might see this is a narrow strategy, but these days iTunes is probably a safe bet. Unlike some other services, Nutsie doesn’t want you to upload your MP3s, it only wants your iTunes database. All you need to do with Nutside is export your iTunes library and upload it. Nutsie then does all the work to find the songs so you can listen on-line.

It’s actually a nifty concept but I’ve found it has one fatal flaw – it exposes you to all the crappy music you have in your library. If you’re like me, you’ve ripped just about every CD you have and also any CD that you might even only be remotely interested in. In my catalog there is a lot of classical, a lot of movie scores/sounndtracks, and a lot of country thanks to the wife – and most of that is not stuff I listen to all that often. Nutsie, unfortunately, reminds me that my library has about 70% of crap, 20% of good stuff, and 10% of, “when did I get that song?”

Another flaw in Nutsie is the lack of making playlists within Nutsie. Chances are you have playlists within iTunes. Well, when you upload your library Nutsie retains these playlists but doesn’t let you create new ones with your music. So if want to create your “Ultimate Death Metal” playlist in Nutsie using your collection of songs, you’re out of luck. You also can’t play any individual song with Nutsie. Much like all the other services, the site will play songs from your playlists randomly.

Another very annoying unfeature in Nutsie is the audio player itself. An embedded music player can be found on just about every page, including your personal playlist home page. This works great until you click a link on the page and takes you away, thus stopping your music and making you start all over again. One simple improvement Nutsie could add is to simply let you pop-out the player so you can navigate around Nutsie without disrupting your music. This even works against them because the always-present “Buy” button next to each song stops the music and just makes you mad. You’ll also find the music players start automagically, so just about every web page will start blaring out music when you arrive.

On the good side of Nutsie is the standard shared playlist abilities. Even if you don’t upload your own music library, you’ll find a good host of themed playlists that will keep you going for a while. They have a nice list of dated playlists so you can hear the Best Rock Songs of 1977 anytime you want (which I recommend). And assuming you’re a Nutsie member – which is free – you are allowed unlimited song skips. Where as places like FineTune and Pandora limit you to five skips per hour, Nutsie lets you skip forever if you want. Of course, you’ll need unlimited skips to get through all the crap in your personal library. For one session I actually did more skipping than listening.

And perhaps the most unique feature of Nutsie is the Nutsie Picks slider that appears above every music player. This lets you choose if you want Nutsie to recommend other songs and mix them while you’re listening. This doesn’t add songs to your playlist or library, it works on-the-fly. So if you have a playlist of 50 tunes and slide the Nutsie Picks to some percentage and it’ll toss in a few related artists and songs. Kind of nifty, but in my experience not all that “accurate” as you’ll find Barry Manilow and Rod Stewart dropped in the middle of your Glam Metal playlist.

I think Nutsie is working along the right path but has a long way to go. Design and user experience problems keep me from using the service, and its tendency to replay the same songs from my playlist over and over keeps me sitting at FineTune instead. I like the idea of just uploading my iTunes library and being able to listen anywhere I am, but until they give me more control over what is essentially my music, I’ll stick with my playlists at FineTune.

Originally posted on Aug 16, 2008

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The Wii redeems itself with the Homebrew Channel

I wrote a bit back about my increasing loss of faith in the Wii. The games slated to come out through the rest of the year and into 2009 are quite, shall we say, “weak” and include many uber-family friendly games. I have nothing against family friendly, but you can only have so many pet and puzzle games before a system starts to lose its appeal. However, a recent investigation into a well known hack for the Wii has me singing a different tune.

Reading Wii news as regularly as I do, quite some time ago I read about a thing called the Twilight Hack, which exploits a bug in the Wii Zelda game that let hackers into the core system. I typically try not to bother with console hacks because I’ve spent way to much on the deck to possibly ruin it by hacking. But over the weekend I found and read more about the Twilight Hack that sold me on the idea.

tmpphpT41Nzl.jpgBut why hack the Wii in the first place? Well, hacking in this case means you can load homebrew games (indie games) on the Wii. The hack actually adds the “Homebrew Channel” to your standard Wii menu (in English). Along with standalone indie games, you can also load emulators with the channel. As is well documented, I am an emulator junkie, especially for the classic decks like the NES, SNES, and PC Engine. With the promise of emulators on the Wii, I couldn’t not try the hack.

The Twilight Hack was stupidly simple to install. The only thing you need is an SD memory card and the Zelda game disc. Fortunately friend-of-the-Toast, Thee, had the Zelda game and once I had it in my hand I gave the hack a go. I held my breath and watched the DOS-like screen fly by, doing something to my Wii, and just hoped I wasn’t bricking my Wii. Bang! Zoom! The Homebrew Channel is ready to go!

And much (very much) to my surprise the NES emulator ran just fine and I was able to load all the NES ROMs I’ve had for years. Then I tried the TurboGrafix16 emulator…worked. Then the SNES emulator…worked. How awesome is this?! And all the emulators have multi-player support. So now I can play my old NES and other games just about everywhere: on my original NES deck, my PC, my DS portable, and now my Wii. Wherever I go, the NES will follow. Nuts? Yes. Fun? You betcha.

I’ve spent a lot of time and money on my NES PowerPak so I could play ROMs on my actual NES console, and nothing beats that experience, but having the NES games on my Wii is just way too convenient. Then toss on the SNES, Genesis and PCE games that I never had elsewhere other than my computer…you can’t beat it. I’m still playing around with the emulators and homebrew games, but so far the so good shy of a few ROMs that just haven’t loaded. But I don’t know if that means it’s a bad ROM, which is highly likely, or the emulator…time will tell. I’ve also found I now have a really good reason to buy a classic Wii controller.

tmpphpfZjYsl.jpgBut wait…can’t you download all the old games with the Wii Virtual Console? Why yes, you can…for anywhere from $5 – $10 a pop. We all have our favorite classic games. Even with over 500 NES games, I play the same dozen over and over. Same will go with PCE, SNES, and Genesis…but if I can get them easily for free, why do the whole download thing? Plus, now I can play the games I never played before but wanted to without the risk. It’s just nice.

Having this homebrew option opens up the Wii to a whole new realm of games even beyond old emulators. Now you can also play games made by indie developers that you won’t find in retail. One such game I found is called GuitarFun and is a clone of clone…it’s a clone of Frets on Fire, the PC Guitar Hero clone. I have yet to get GuitarFun to load and play on the Wii Homebrew, but when/if it does, it means I can play custom songs (real songs) with the actual guitar controller. Now that’ll be spiffy! I’ll post up a note when I get it working…but there are YouTubes of the game working.

All in all, I don’t see any reason you wouldn’t want to use the Twilight Hack and install the Homebrew Channel. It doesn’t hurt and the manual claims you can even uninstall it all. This isn’t a hardware-level hack, it’s just software, so there shouldn’t ever be any permanent damage. If you’re after some classic console gaming and don’t want go crazy like I did with my NES, this Wii hack is the sweet spot that turns your console into the perfect (and free) retro game machine. And since you’re saving on VC downloads, you can justify more retail Wii games and accessories.

If you’re wanting to setup the Homebrew Channel on your Wii, hit up WiiBrew.com and look for their WiiPack Generator. Use it to download all the parts you want and need, including the Twilight Hack. And to see just how easy the hack is to install, there’s a handy video…which I watched like five times before doing it myself (it just made me feel better).

Now pardon me while I go run through some Excite Bike, F-Zero, Keith Courage, and maybe a little Street Fighter II.

Originally posted on Aug 13, 2008

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Seventeen pounds of Hot Wheels

I’ve been “collecting” Hot Wheels for probably close to eight years by now. I collect but I don’t invest in Hot Wheels. A recent trip to the Ohio State Fair’s and its famed Junk Barn (where every Harry, Dick, and Tom can attempt to sell their junk) had me face-to-face with a ton of “collectible” Hot Wheels.

They were all in the box and ranged in age from 2008 models to some that stretched back to the mid-80s. And not surprisingly, I had many of the cars I saw…but much to my surprise, these cars were selling for $2 – $5. While a few bucks may not sound like much, considering each Hot Wheels car costs less than a dollar to buy it’s a pretty good return on the value.

It’s hard for me to see Hot Wheels as a collectibles investment. Sure, it kind of sucks to see a car I bought for 97 cents just a week ago already selling for $3 (which is bull anyway), but then I realize why I collect Hot Wheels – because I like them. I like to look at them, play with them, take pictures of them, let others play with them…it’s about the fun of toy cars, not the fun of buying and selling. I wouldn’t be any good at selling them anyway because I wouldn’t be able to give them up, even at a profit.

With my upgraded Flickr Pro account at my disposal, I decided to do something I had been wanting to do for a while, shoot my cars in more “artistic” ways, rather than the straight up showroom-quality photos I’ve been taking for the Hot Wheels Showcase I have on-line.

Hot Wheels are so vivid and fantastic that they lend themselves to photographs, both macro photography (which I can’t do well) and just general fun shooting (which I can do well). So with a sunny Saturday on hand I took all (well, most) of my cars out and set them up for some shots. It’s funny because when you tell people you have 193 Hot Wheels it sounds like a lot…but when you line them all up for a family photo, it doesn’t look like much, at least not to me. I guess in my head I thought they would take up more space all laid out, but I guess they’re only 2-inch cars anyway.

So yes, I have upwards of 190 Hot Wheels cars and all together they weigh an even 17 pounds. And for those wanting to keep track, each Hot Wheels cars cost me a dollar, so my total investment should be pretty simple. Now consider if I was investing in the toys how much I would have in value if each one could (on average) resell for $3.

I don’t really plan to stop my collecting. It’s cheap and it’s fun. And they make for some awesome photos.

Stop by the Flickr page for more shots.

Originally posted on Aug 9, 2008

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Tesla, still comin’ atcha live…again

You go to a concert early for one reason: to get good seats. And even though we saw Tesla in concert just six months ago, we still showed up early to make sure we got the spot we wanted. Last time we saw Tesla it was bare nuts cold outside and the line to get in was down the block. This time it was hot, but the line wasn’t so long, however, we noticed a small group of people gathering away from the main line. They were gathering outside the tour bus entrance where last time Frank Hannon chatted with shivering fans so we figured members of Tesla were once again mingling with fans, and we were right.

Before you continue, please enjoy some Tesla as you read:
[audio:tesla.mp3]

This time lead singer Jeff Keith was signing autographs and taking pictures from behind the entrance gate. We didn’t bring our camera because the venue doesn’t allow cameras, but we did have a convenient phone camera. And just after we got a shot of Jeff behind bars he says, “hell with this, I’m coming out there,” and he walked around the gate to meet fans up close and personal right there on the sidewalk. What luck! So we calmly waited to say “Hello” and get a photo op and autograph. Unfortunately, given the sun and the low-fi camera, the photo of Jen and Jeff didn’t turn out as well as I’d hope (although you can tell who it is), but he also signed the ticket stub…making this one of the first ticket stubs I’ll actually be keeping.

Before too long the rest of people waiting in line took notice and gathered around getting their jeans, arms, and children signed by Jeff Keith. At that point we moved back into the line and waited for the doors to open. Once we were in we found the spot we wanted, along the back wall of the floor section. We were at the same venue as before but this time we were outside and oh what a difference it made. The sound and experience of an indoor show just can’t compare to that of a outdoor concert. So we sat a waited for things to kick off while other came to sit along side us.

Not too long after we claimed our spot a girl sitting about three people down from me leaned forward and…well, she just puked her guts out. What?! Vomiting already? That’s what one guy was thinking as he passed by the pool of vomit and then looked at his watch, as though to think, “isn’t it a bit early for barf?”

Out of all the concerts we’ve seen in the past few years, this is the first time we’ve been near, let alone witness, some vomiting, as surprising as that may be. It’s very interesting watching people notice a pile of vomit. It actually became the game of the night, watching people’s reactions when they noticed the pool…assuming they did notice. Although few and far between, there were a handful of people that just didn’t notice and walked right through it. If you learn one thing from this entry, please learn that you should always look down when at a concert because you never know what you’ll find on the ground. Needless to say, the vomit kept many people away so we enjoyed the concert in relative peace. Thankfully we were far enough away from it that it didn’t encroach our space.

The opening band did their thing and after a quick stage change Tesla came out and rocked a perfect night. And it was a perfect night for a concert, very comfortable with clear skies. They changed up their set list just enough from their last visit, playing their standards but also including ones like “Edison’s Medicine” and “Mama’s Fool,” of which neither they played last time. They also removed the cover songs from their line-up, which I appreciated.

And if you thought having a pool of throw-up next you all night wasn’t a good way to enjoy Tesla, it gets better. Because about three quarters through the set victim number too spun around in front of us and spewed. This lady spewed first in the same spot as the first girl, then ran off the floor to toss it in the grass. Not sure if it was the combination of heat and beer, which is always fun, or if that spot on the floor had low gravity or some other anomaly that would cause people to chuck. Vomit to the left of me, vomit to the right of me…had it not been for Tesla in front of me, it would have been a rough night.

Another thing this concert proved is that Tesla is a prime example of a solid band. Being the only band we’ve seen twice, we know that Tesla puts on a good show just about every time they perform. It doesn’t matter if they’re inside or outside, they just lay it down. Nothing too fancy, not a lot of “show,” just a straight set of hits. To top things off, they did something other bands could learn from – they skipped the encore. It seems these days the encore is a given, which kind of defeats the specialness of an encore. No, instead Tesla said, “we don’t need to make people scream and shout, we’ll just keep on going.” So instead of taking a break, making us wait and then coming out to play one more song, they played two more songs instead. Awesome. Just awesome. Why make us clap? You know you’re coming back out to play.

The fact that Jeff Keith was willing to stand in the middle of the sidewalk and get up close with fans also tells me that Tesla knows what’s important. I know Tesla is way past their prime and not exactly filling stadiums anymore, but find me another band that will go that far out of their way to keep people happy. It tells me they know what’s important – the fans – because if you don’t keep your fans happy, they won’t come see you and they won’t buy your records.

So next time there’s a band you want to see, show up a bit early because not only will you usually get a good seat, you never know who’ll you find signing autographs. And you might miss the vomit.

Originally posted on Aug 5, 2008

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It’s a good time to bring back blimps

I love blimps. Blimps just make sense to me. They’re elegant, classy, efficient, and it many ways, quite practical. Just by chance I happened to come across an article in the NYT Europe section about Zeppelin blimps. I didn’t read the entire article but just the first few paragraphs were enough to have me thinking happy blimp thoughts.

Blimps are just like airplanes or trains but are far more efficient. All three follow more direct routes than car or truck, but blimps don’t use regular jet fuel. They use reusable gas to fill the blimp, so right there they are better off than the rest of us. Blimps may be a bit slower than jets or trains, but I say that blimps are not for trans-atlantic or even cross-country shipments. I see blimps as tri-state, regional solution to delivering goods.

Not only do blimps make fuel sense, they make delivery sense. Blimps don’t need acres and miles of runway, they just need a small field or even a tall building with which to dock and unload. Blimps can go vertical, making them more flexible than planes and have more reach than a train.

Blimps just…blimps just make sense. As the article points out, in a time when fuel prices are sky high (ha ha), blimps provide an alternative that could help cut costs at a critical time. I doubt it will catch on, but just imagine how beautiful a sky filled with blimps would be. Imagine traveling from Chicago to New York by blimp…no, wait, luxury blimp. Even if blimps didn’t become a shipping standard, I think blimps would have a cool-factor that would make them work as a novelty travel for a long while.

Bring back blimps!!

Originally posted on Aug 4, 2008

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Work will be watching

A recent article in the NY Times talks about new network monitoring software that will “learn” about employee’s web behaviour and give the company finite control over restrictions and settings. I won’t repost the whole article, but this pretty much sums it up:

…one company might say that marketing folks can only visit YouTube during lunch hour, and even then, they can only upload two megabytes to the site each day. Engineers might be blocked from visiting Facebook…but everyone else can.

I’m not saying companies shouldn’t monitor network traffic and use, it’s a legit concern. But if software like this works as well as promoted, I see one problem: we’re not machines. Applying strict rules onto users will just make them unhappy and that ultimately results is poor results.

I’m one that believes people will naturally find their balance at work. No one works 8-hours solid. It’s just not possible, and frankly, not healthy. Everybody needs some time during the day to just chill for a few. Some people may go outside for a smoke, some might walk around the building, some might scratch their butt, some, like me, just stay on-line and visit web sites they enjoy but aren’t work-related.

Me, I hit up my video game blogs, check my personal e-mail, manage my personal sites and that type stuff. All said and done, it maybe takes 15-30 minutes of my day. No big deal. If I spend more time than that I feel like I’m jipping myself out of work time. I know I have stuff to do and I know how much time it takes to get it done. Most people won’t abuse their time because fear will keep them in check – at least that’s what I’ve witnessed. If you just trust people things will usually work out for the best.

I’m sure the thought behind applying smart software that tracks individuals and adjusts based on habits is that it will stop those that do abuse their work time. I guess my philosophy on this is that instead of using a blacklist method that effects everyone, if you find someone is spending too much time hanging out on YouTube, you deal with them. You warn them, suspend them, fire them, whatever…you deal with the person directly. You don’t puss out and let technology to do your people management for you. That’s just weak. And honestly, I wouldn’t want to work for a company that manages their employees that way.

Everybody works best in different environments. And that’s not limited to physical environments, but digital/on-line environments too. You can’t look at sheer numbers to determine what people are doing. Behaviour doesn’t work by the numbers and by saying, “Brian spends 30 minutes on Gmail a day means he’s wasting time,” is quite ignorant and might do more harm than good in the long.

Of course, all this is assuming companies will pretty much abuse this network management power. Some will, some won’t, but just having that ability will turn even the lax network admin into a network nazi. Actually, software like this might even eliminate that admin job…so you better watch out.

Originally posted on Aug 4, 2008

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Winnie’s new digs

In the great menagerie we call our home lives a cat, a dog, a turtle, and a dog – in that order. Out of them all the turtle, Winnie, requires the least amount of attention. She probably doesn’t get enough attention, actually, but so it goes. She’s a turtle. It’s funny that most people probably think it’s easier to care a turtle than two dogs and cat. Simplicity of often deceiving.

When we got Winnie a couple years ago, the men at the turtle store told us she was a water turtle and needed water to feed and stuff. OK, so we got an aquarium and filled it with water for her to swim around and a little floating dock for her to lay on. And that’s the way it remained for a long time, with regular tank cleanings and the likes to keep things as clean as we could. But let me tell you, a turtle is a dirty, dirty, messy animal.

Emptying 15 gallons of water every two week sucked bears. Well, our thoughts of “easy” care for a turtle changed when we discovered Winnie’s shell had a few bad spots on it. We think it’s shell rot, which, from what we’ve read, is easily cared for with a little soap wash and less water time. And that’s where we goofed in the past – we had too much water and not enough “sun” for her – which led to her shell problems. So action had to be taken immediately.

That action was a new apartment for Winnie. A trip to the pet store had me coming home with a stone barrier that needed to be siliconed into the aquarium so one half could be set with rocks for basking and the other for her pool. And it’s pretty nice, although I’m not sure Winnie knows what to do with it all yet.

Now there’s 1/4 as much water in the tank, which should make cleaning much easier while still giving her plenty of water for her bodily needs. The project as a whole was a lot easier than I expected. I’m glad I found the little barrier thing. My first thoughts were buying rocks or something and piling them up to create a nice basking area but still having mostly water. The new setup should be nice for her and for us.

I just hope the dogs don’t ask for a new house too.

Originally posted on Aug 19, 2008

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The Presidents and Amazon MP3

Despite my regular use of iTunes for playing and sometimes purchasing music, I’m not necessarily an iTunes-lover. I think iTunes is a nice music organizer/player. It certainly has its issues and I can’t say I’ve been 100% happy with it, but it does the trick. But then there’s the music, by far the biggest wrinkle in the sheet. Damn their DMA songs!

Even though I use iTunes as my main music player, I hate having my music locked down. My solution around it has been what most people have probably been doing too…burning the iTunes songs to a CD and then ripping them back as MP3s. Tedious and stupid, but it works.

When Amazon announced their MP3 service would be cheaper and offer standard MP3 files I told myself the next time I plan on getting a song or album I’d use it. Well, with money sitting in my iTunes account thanks to gift cards and redeeming, I hadn’t not followed through on that promise until today when I found a good reason to go elsewhere.

Much to my happiness I discovered that one of my favorite groups, The Presidents of the United States of America, did not disband as I had once thought. Actually, they did back in 1998 and then reformed a few years later to release a handful of albums.

“Peaches” – The Presidents of the United States of America
[audio:peaches.mp3]

I remember buying The President’s first album at Media Play. I thought the album cover was strange, and the music was pretty nutty too, but that’s why I like it so. It’s poppy, fast, it rocks, and has a heaping helping of fun and humor. That first record was really solid. The follow up album II was 50/50. A third release just before their break-up had even fewer singles. After I heard they broke up I had pretty much written them off and had just accepted I’d have 2.5 albums to enjoy for the rest of time.

I was at YouTube watching some Weird Al videos and that led me to The Presidents’ Wikipedia page where learned they regrouped and have been making new albums. It’s great to find out they’re still making music and still keeping it fun and light. I went the web site and listened to a few tracks from newer albums and decided to go ahead and download one of the “lost albums” I had missed. I decided on Love Everybody and headed over to iTunes to make the purchase.

Now most albums at iTunes are $10 regardless of the number of tracks. But low and behold this one album from an essentially nobody band was $12. Sucko. But wait! I have an alternative – Amazon MP3. A quick jump to Amazon found the album for $9, so I was ready to dive in.

Although a bummer, I was not surprised to have to install Amazon’s MP3 Downloader, a desktop client that does the downloading for you. After a very quick install I was faced with something I did not expect at all – something helpful – a free song to download. This is very smart because not only is it a great bonus for a new user, but Amazon presents as a way for you to learn how the downloader works before you pay any money. It told me, “Hey, watch the downloader in action by getting this free song.” I happily took their recommendation. Very smart on Amazon’s part and much appreciated as a customer.

So with the downloader installed I click the Buy button and after a quick authorization the downloads came in swiftly. And surprisingly enough, the Amazon Downloader even added the songs to iTunes for me. How considerate. And as advertised, the tracks are straight MP3s (high 256 bitrate too) and I can use them as I see fit and burn them as often as I’d like.

I can’t speak on the depth of Amazon’s MP3 catalog as I was looking for something specific and found it, but if you’re looking for an iTunes alternative for music then I will happily recommend Amazon MP3. It’s easy to use, good quality tracks, and even cheaper than iTunes. Even the single songs are $.89 instead of $.99 – I’ll certainly be back.

(Oh, and the President’s album I downloaded is pretty solid too. Nothing earth-shattering as far as they’re concerned, but it’s great to have some new songs to bust out on the way to work. They’ve stuck with their original formula and it’s very welcome in today’s vast pit of otherwise shotty music.)

Originally posted on Aug 18, 2008

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A reason to keep your CDs

Our walls are pretty bare. Shy of a few of my old college paintings and a couple prints, we don’t have much hanging around. We don’t like cluttered, busy walls anyway, but you have to have something on the walls otherwise it looks too…well, too migrant. Bare walls work if you have some sort of Zen theme going with minimalist furniture and bamboo floors, but we don’t. We’re pretty average folks with an average house. So in an attempt to find something meaningful for our walls without having to go the large poster/print route, I looked at what we have to work with.

And we have a lot of CDs. Our generation has seen a lot of technology change when it comes to music and we’re not even halfway through life. I know you all still have a box somewhere with cassettes in it and needless to say there’s a few shelves of CDs somewhere too. It’s safe to say we have way more MP3s these days than we do CDs, and we do most of our music listening on the computer, so the CDs have just become clutter. Recently though I thought about hanging up CD covers as art. We both love our music and the CDs weren’t doing anything else.

I think album covers as wall art (CD or otherwise) is a good solution to get use out of something that otherwise has no purpose anymore. It’s easy, clean, and shows off your love and tastes for music. Not to mention some album covers are considered art in their own right, so it’s not that far fetched. The trick, it turned out, was finding frames for the little buggers.

Compact disc album covers are square. Most small frames are designed for standard photos, which are rectangles. Going to a craft store or even Target didn’t find us the frames we needed. No, we found just the right size frames at the Dollar Store…but of course! We didn’t go to the Dollar Store looking for frames, but while there noticed some that were just the right size. They’re glass front frames so there’s no “frame” around the album, and it looks pretty nice.

This is still a work in progress, but even with only four covers up the staircase it looks pretty good. About two to four more covers to complete the journey should be enough. Now the hard part is picking which albums to feature. But then again, it’s convenient enough that we can change them whenever we like.

So if you have some bare spots on your walls and need something small to fill the void, consider your favorite (or best looking) album covers. An easy afternoon project.

Originally posted on Aug 16, 2008

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Don’t bust a Nutsie

I’ve been using FineTune.com for on-line music for a long time now. I’ve found it to be be all I need to get through my day. At FineTune you pick songs to add to your pool (playlist) and then it plays back those songs in random order. You never know what song is going to play next, but you know it’ll be a song you picked. Nutsie, on the other hand, takes a different approach and lets you bring your own music collection on-line.

I heard about Nutsie when drummer Duff McKagan was on a local radio show. He was pimping the service, which I believe he invested in (and also adorns the home page) so I figured I’d give it a try. Nutsie expects you to be using iTunes. Now one might see this is a narrow strategy, but these days iTunes is probably a safe bet. Unlike some other services, Nutsie doesn’t want you to upload your MP3s, it only wants your iTunes database. All you need to do with Nutside is export your iTunes library and upload it. Nutsie then does all the work to find the songs so you can listen on-line.

It’s actually a nifty concept but I’ve found it has one fatal flaw – it exposes you to all the crappy music you have in your library. If you’re like me, you’ve ripped just about every CD you have and also any CD that you might even only be remotely interested in. In my catalog there is a lot of classical, a lot of movie scores/sounndtracks, and a lot of country thanks to the wife – and most of that is not stuff I listen to all that often. Nutsie, unfortunately, reminds me that my library has about 70% of crap, 20% of good stuff, and 10% of, “when did I get that song?”

Another flaw in Nutsie is the lack of making playlists within Nutsie. Chances are you have playlists within iTunes. Well, when you upload your library Nutsie retains these playlists but doesn’t let you create new ones with your music. So if want to create your “Ultimate Death Metal” playlist in Nutsie using your collection of songs, you’re out of luck. You also can’t play any individual song with Nutsie. Much like all the other services, the site will play songs from your playlists randomly.

Another very annoying unfeature in Nutsie is the audio player itself. An embedded music player can be found on just about every page, including your personal playlist home page. This works great until you click a link on the page and takes you away, thus stopping your music and making you start all over again. One simple improvement Nutsie could add is to simply let you pop-out the player so you can navigate around Nutsie without disrupting your music. This even works against them because the always-present “Buy” button next to each song stops the music and just makes you mad. You’ll also find the music players start automagically, so just about every web page will start blaring out music when you arrive.

On the good side of Nutsie is the standard shared playlist abilities. Even if you don’t upload your own music library, you’ll find a good host of themed playlists that will keep you going for a while. They have a nice list of dated playlists so you can hear the Best Rock Songs of 1977 anytime you want (which I recommend). And assuming you’re a Nutsie member – which is free – you are allowed unlimited song skips. Where as places like FineTune and Pandora limit you to five skips per hour, Nutsie lets you skip forever if you want. Of course, you’ll need unlimited skips to get through all the crap in your personal library. For one session I actually did more skipping than listening.

And perhaps the most unique feature of Nutsie is the Nutsie Picks slider that appears above every music player. This lets you choose if you want Nutsie to recommend other songs and mix them while you’re listening. This doesn’t add songs to your playlist or library, it works on-the-fly. So if you have a playlist of 50 tunes and slide the Nutsie Picks to some percentage and it’ll toss in a few related artists and songs. Kind of nifty, but in my experience not all that “accurate” as you’ll find Barry Manilow and Rod Stewart dropped in the middle of your Glam Metal playlist.

I think Nutsie is working along the right path but has a long way to go. Design and user experience problems keep me from using the service, and its tendency to replay the same songs from my playlist over and over keeps me sitting at FineTune instead. I like the idea of just uploading my iTunes library and being able to listen anywhere I am, but until they give me more control over what is essentially my music, I’ll stick with my playlists at FineTune.

Originally posted on Aug 16, 2008

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The Wii redeems itself with the Homebrew Channel

I wrote a bit back about my increasing loss of faith in the Wii. The games slated to come out through the rest of the year and into 2009 are quite, shall we say, “weak” and include many uber-family friendly games. I have nothing against family friendly, but you can only have so many pet and puzzle games before a system starts to lose its appeal. However, a recent investigation into a well known hack for the Wii has me singing a different tune.

Reading Wii news as regularly as I do, quite some time ago I read about a thing called the Twilight Hack, which exploits a bug in the Wii Zelda game that let hackers into the core system. I typically try not to bother with console hacks because I’ve spent way to much on the deck to possibly ruin it by hacking. But over the weekend I found and read more about the Twilight Hack that sold me on the idea.

tmpphpT41Nzl.jpgBut why hack the Wii in the first place? Well, hacking in this case means you can load homebrew games (indie games) on the Wii. The hack actually adds the “Homebrew Channel” to your standard Wii menu (in English). Along with standalone indie games, you can also load emulators with the channel. As is well documented, I am an emulator junkie, especially for the classic decks like the NES, SNES, and PC Engine. With the promise of emulators on the Wii, I couldn’t not try the hack.

The Twilight Hack was stupidly simple to install. The only thing you need is an SD memory card and the Zelda game disc. Fortunately friend-of-the-Toast, Thee, had the Zelda game and once I had it in my hand I gave the hack a go. I held my breath and watched the DOS-like screen fly by, doing something to my Wii, and just hoped I wasn’t bricking my Wii. Bang! Zoom! The Homebrew Channel is ready to go!

And much (very much) to my surprise the NES emulator ran just fine and I was able to load all the NES ROMs I’ve had for years. Then I tried the TurboGrafix16 emulator…worked. Then the SNES emulator…worked. How awesome is this?! And all the emulators have multi-player support. So now I can play my old NES and other games just about everywhere: on my original NES deck, my PC, my DS portable, and now my Wii. Wherever I go, the NES will follow. Nuts? Yes. Fun? You betcha.

I’ve spent a lot of time and money on my NES PowerPak so I could play ROMs on my actual NES console, and nothing beats that experience, but having the NES games on my Wii is just way too convenient. Then toss on the SNES, Genesis and PCE games that I never had elsewhere other than my computer…you can’t beat it. I’m still playing around with the emulators and homebrew games, but so far the so good shy of a few ROMs that just haven’t loaded. But I don’t know if that means it’s a bad ROM, which is highly likely, or the emulator…time will tell. I’ve also found I now have a really good reason to buy a classic Wii controller.

tmpphpfZjYsl.jpgBut wait…can’t you download all the old games with the Wii Virtual Console? Why yes, you can…for anywhere from $5 – $10 a pop. We all have our favorite classic games. Even with over 500 NES games, I play the same dozen over and over. Same will go with PCE, SNES, and Genesis…but if I can get them easily for free, why do the whole download thing? Plus, now I can play the games I never played before but wanted to without the risk. It’s just nice.

Having this homebrew option opens up the Wii to a whole new realm of games even beyond old emulators. Now you can also play games made by indie developers that you won’t find in retail. One such game I found is called GuitarFun and is a clone of clone…it’s a clone of Frets on Fire, the PC Guitar Hero clone. I have yet to get GuitarFun to load and play on the Wii Homebrew, but when/if it does, it means I can play custom songs (real songs) with the actual guitar controller. Now that’ll be spiffy! I’ll post up a note when I get it working…but there are YouTubes of the game working.

All in all, I don’t see any reason you wouldn’t want to use the Twilight Hack and install the Homebrew Channel. It doesn’t hurt and the manual claims you can even uninstall it all. This isn’t a hardware-level hack, it’s just software, so there shouldn’t ever be any permanent damage. If you’re after some classic console gaming and don’t want go crazy like I did with my NES, this Wii hack is the sweet spot that turns your console into the perfect (and free) retro game machine. And since you’re saving on VC downloads, you can justify more retail Wii games and accessories.

If you’re wanting to setup the Homebrew Channel on your Wii, hit up WiiBrew.com and look for their WiiPack Generator. Use it to download all the parts you want and need, including the Twilight Hack. And to see just how easy the hack is to install, there’s a handy video…which I watched like five times before doing it myself (it just made me feel better).

Now pardon me while I go run through some Excite Bike, F-Zero, Keith Courage, and maybe a little Street Fighter II.

Originally posted on Aug 13, 2008

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Seventeen pounds of Hot Wheels

I’ve been “collecting” Hot Wheels for probably close to eight years by now. I collect but I don’t invest in Hot Wheels. A recent trip to the Ohio State Fair’s and its famed Junk Barn (where every Harry, Dick, and Tom can attempt to sell their junk) had me face-to-face with a ton of “collectible” Hot Wheels.

They were all in the box and ranged in age from 2008 models to some that stretched back to the mid-80s. And not surprisingly, I had many of the cars I saw…but much to my surprise, these cars were selling for $2 – $5. While a few bucks may not sound like much, considering each Hot Wheels car costs less than a dollar to buy it’s a pretty good return on the value.

It’s hard for me to see Hot Wheels as a collectibles investment. Sure, it kind of sucks to see a car I bought for 97 cents just a week ago already selling for $3 (which is bull anyway), but then I realize why I collect Hot Wheels – because I like them. I like to look at them, play with them, take pictures of them, let others play with them…it’s about the fun of toy cars, not the fun of buying and selling. I wouldn’t be any good at selling them anyway because I wouldn’t be able to give them up, even at a profit.

With my upgraded Flickr Pro account at my disposal, I decided to do something I had been wanting to do for a while, shoot my cars in more “artistic” ways, rather than the straight up showroom-quality photos I’ve been taking for the Hot Wheels Showcase I have on-line.

Hot Wheels are so vivid and fantastic that they lend themselves to photographs, both macro photography (which I can’t do well) and just general fun shooting (which I can do well). So with a sunny Saturday on hand I took all (well, most) of my cars out and set them up for some shots. It’s funny because when you tell people you have 193 Hot Wheels it sounds like a lot…but when you line them all up for a family photo, it doesn’t look like much, at least not to me. I guess in my head I thought they would take up more space all laid out, but I guess they’re only 2-inch cars anyway.

So yes, I have upwards of 190 Hot Wheels cars and all together they weigh an even 17 pounds. And for those wanting to keep track, each Hot Wheels cars cost me a dollar, so my total investment should be pretty simple. Now consider if I was investing in the toys how much I would have in value if each one could (on average) resell for $3.

I don’t really plan to stop my collecting. It’s cheap and it’s fun. And they make for some awesome photos.

Stop by the Flickr page for more shots.

Originally posted on Aug 9, 2008

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Tesla, still comin’ atcha live…again

You go to a concert early for one reason: to get good seats. And even though we saw Tesla in concert just six months ago, we still showed up early to make sure we got the spot we wanted. Last time we saw Tesla it was bare nuts cold outside and the line to get in was down the block. This time it was hot, but the line wasn’t so long, however, we noticed a small group of people gathering away from the main line. They were gathering outside the tour bus entrance where last time Frank Hannon chatted with shivering fans so we figured members of Tesla were once again mingling with fans, and we were right.

Before you continue, please enjoy some Tesla as you read:
[audio:tesla.mp3]

This time lead singer Jeff Keith was signing autographs and taking pictures from behind the entrance gate. We didn’t bring our camera because the venue doesn’t allow cameras, but we did have a convenient phone camera. And just after we got a shot of Jeff behind bars he says, “hell with this, I’m coming out there,” and he walked around the gate to meet fans up close and personal right there on the sidewalk. What luck! So we calmly waited to say “Hello” and get a photo op and autograph. Unfortunately, given the sun and the low-fi camera, the photo of Jen and Jeff didn’t turn out as well as I’d hope (although you can tell who it is), but he also signed the ticket stub…making this one of the first ticket stubs I’ll actually be keeping.

Before too long the rest of people waiting in line took notice and gathered around getting their jeans, arms, and children signed by Jeff Keith. At that point we moved back into the line and waited for the doors to open. Once we were in we found the spot we wanted, along the back wall of the floor section. We were at the same venue as before but this time we were outside and oh what a difference it made. The sound and experience of an indoor show just can’t compare to that of a outdoor concert. So we sat a waited for things to kick off while other came to sit along side us.

Not too long after we claimed our spot a girl sitting about three people down from me leaned forward and…well, she just puked her guts out. What?! Vomiting already? That’s what one guy was thinking as he passed by the pool of vomit and then looked at his watch, as though to think, “isn’t it a bit early for barf?”

Out of all the concerts we’ve seen in the past few years, this is the first time we’ve been near, let alone witness, some vomiting, as surprising as that may be. It’s very interesting watching people notice a pile of vomit. It actually became the game of the night, watching people’s reactions when they noticed the pool…assuming they did notice. Although few and far between, there were a handful of people that just didn’t notice and walked right through it. If you learn one thing from this entry, please learn that you should always look down when at a concert because you never know what you’ll find on the ground. Needless to say, the vomit kept many people away so we enjoyed the concert in relative peace. Thankfully we were far enough away from it that it didn’t encroach our space.

The opening band did their thing and after a quick stage change Tesla came out and rocked a perfect night. And it was a perfect night for a concert, very comfortable with clear skies. They changed up their set list just enough from their last visit, playing their standards but also including ones like “Edison’s Medicine” and “Mama’s Fool,” of which neither they played last time. They also removed the cover songs from their line-up, which I appreciated.

And if you thought having a pool of throw-up next you all night wasn’t a good way to enjoy Tesla, it gets better. Because about three quarters through the set victim number too spun around in front of us and spewed. This lady spewed first in the same spot as the first girl, then ran off the floor to toss it in the grass. Not sure if it was the combination of heat and beer, which is always fun, or if that spot on the floor had low gravity or some other anomaly that would cause people to chuck. Vomit to the left of me, vomit to the right of me…had it not been for Tesla in front of me, it would have been a rough night.

Another thing this concert proved is that Tesla is a prime example of a solid band. Being the only band we’ve seen twice, we know that Tesla puts on a good show just about every time they perform. It doesn’t matter if they’re inside or outside, they just lay it down. Nothing too fancy, not a lot of “show,” just a straight set of hits. To top things off, they did something other bands could learn from – they skipped the encore. It seems these days the encore is a given, which kind of defeats the specialness of an encore. No, instead Tesla said, “we don’t need to make people scream and shout, we’ll just keep on going.” So instead of taking a break, making us wait and then coming out to play one more song, they played two more songs instead. Awesome. Just awesome. Why make us clap? You know you’re coming back out to play.

The fact that Jeff Keith was willing to stand in the middle of the sidewalk and get up close with fans also tells me that Tesla knows what’s important. I know Tesla is way past their prime and not exactly filling stadiums anymore, but find me another band that will go that far out of their way to keep people happy. It tells me they know what’s important – the fans – because if you don’t keep your fans happy, they won’t come see you and they won’t buy your records.

So next time there’s a band you want to see, show up a bit early because not only will you usually get a good seat, you never know who’ll you find signing autographs. And you might miss the vomit.

Originally posted on Aug 5, 2008

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It’s a good time to bring back blimps

I love blimps. Blimps just make sense to me. They’re elegant, classy, efficient, and it many ways, quite practical. Just by chance I happened to come across an article in the NYT Europe section about Zeppelin blimps. I didn’t read the entire article but just the first few paragraphs were enough to have me thinking happy blimp thoughts.

Blimps are just like airplanes or trains but are far more efficient. All three follow more direct routes than car or truck, but blimps don’t use regular jet fuel. They use reusable gas to fill the blimp, so right there they are better off than the rest of us. Blimps may be a bit slower than jets or trains, but I say that blimps are not for trans-atlantic or even cross-country shipments. I see blimps as tri-state, regional solution to delivering goods.

Not only do blimps make fuel sense, they make delivery sense. Blimps don’t need acres and miles of runway, they just need a small field or even a tall building with which to dock and unload. Blimps can go vertical, making them more flexible than planes and have more reach than a train.

Blimps just…blimps just make sense. As the article points out, in a time when fuel prices are sky high (ha ha), blimps provide an alternative that could help cut costs at a critical time. I doubt it will catch on, but just imagine how beautiful a sky filled with blimps would be. Imagine traveling from Chicago to New York by blimp…no, wait, luxury blimp. Even if blimps didn’t become a shipping standard, I think blimps would have a cool-factor that would make them work as a novelty travel for a long while.

Bring back blimps!!

Originally posted on Aug 4, 2008

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Work will be watching

A recent article in the NY Times talks about new network monitoring software that will “learn” about employee’s web behaviour and give the company finite control over restrictions and settings. I won’t repost the whole article, but this pretty much sums it up:

…one company might say that marketing folks can only visit YouTube during lunch hour, and even then, they can only upload two megabytes to the site each day. Engineers might be blocked from visiting Facebook…but everyone else can.

I’m not saying companies shouldn’t monitor network traffic and use, it’s a legit concern. But if software like this works as well as promoted, I see one problem: we’re not machines. Applying strict rules onto users will just make them unhappy and that ultimately results is poor results.

I’m one that believes people will naturally find their balance at work. No one works 8-hours solid. It’s just not possible, and frankly, not healthy. Everybody needs some time during the day to just chill for a few. Some people may go outside for a smoke, some might walk around the building, some might scratch their butt, some, like me, just stay on-line and visit web sites they enjoy but aren’t work-related.

Me, I hit up my video game blogs, check my personal e-mail, manage my personal sites and that type stuff. All said and done, it maybe takes 15-30 minutes of my day. No big deal. If I spend more time than that I feel like I’m jipping myself out of work time. I know I have stuff to do and I know how much time it takes to get it done. Most people won’t abuse their time because fear will keep them in check – at least that’s what I’ve witnessed. If you just trust people things will usually work out for the best.

I’m sure the thought behind applying smart software that tracks individuals and adjusts based on habits is that it will stop those that do abuse their work time. I guess my philosophy on this is that instead of using a blacklist method that effects everyone, if you find someone is spending too much time hanging out on YouTube, you deal with them. You warn them, suspend them, fire them, whatever…you deal with the person directly. You don’t puss out and let technology to do your people management for you. That’s just weak. And honestly, I wouldn’t want to work for a company that manages their employees that way.

Everybody works best in different environments. And that’s not limited to physical environments, but digital/on-line environments too. You can’t look at sheer numbers to determine what people are doing. Behaviour doesn’t work by the numbers and by saying, “Brian spends 30 minutes on Gmail a day means he’s wasting time,” is quite ignorant and might do more harm than good in the long.

Of course, all this is assuming companies will pretty much abuse this network management power. Some will, some won’t, but just having that ability will turn even the lax network admin into a network nazi. Actually, software like this might even eliminate that admin job…so you better watch out.

Originally posted on Aug 4, 2008

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Winnie’s new digs

In the great menagerie we call our home lives a cat, a dog, a turtle, and a dog – in that order. Out of them all the turtle, Winnie, requires the least amount of attention. She probably doesn’t get enough attention, actually, but so it goes. She’s a turtle. It’s funny that most people probably think it’s easier to care a turtle than two dogs and cat. Simplicity of often deceiving.

When we got Winnie a couple years ago, the men at the turtle store told us she was a water turtle and needed water to feed and stuff. OK, so we got an aquarium and filled it with water for her to swim around and a little floating dock for her to lay on. And that’s the way it remained for a long time, with regular tank cleanings and the likes to keep things as clean as we could. But let me tell you, a turtle is a dirty, dirty, messy animal.

Emptying 15 gallons of water every two week sucked bears. Well, our thoughts of “easy” care for a turtle changed when we discovered Winnie’s shell had a few bad spots on it. We think it’s shell rot, which, from what we’ve read, is easily cared for with a little soap wash and less water time. And that’s where we goofed in the past – we had too much water and not enough “sun” for her – which led to her shell problems. So action had to be taken immediately.

That action was a new apartment for Winnie. A trip to the pet store had me coming home with a stone barrier that needed to be siliconed into the aquarium so one half could be set with rocks for basking and the other for her pool. And it’s pretty nice, although I’m not sure Winnie knows what to do with it all yet.

Now there’s 1/4 as much water in the tank, which should make cleaning much easier while still giving her plenty of water for her bodily needs. The project as a whole was a lot easier than I expected. I’m glad I found the little barrier thing. My first thoughts were buying rocks or something and piling them up to create a nice basking area but still having mostly water. The new setup should be nice for her and for us.

I just hope the dogs don’t ask for a new house too.

Originally posted on Aug 19, 2008

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The Presidents and Amazon MP3

Despite my regular use of iTunes for playing and sometimes purchasing music, I’m not necessarily an iTunes-lover. I think iTunes is a nice music organizer/player. It certainly has its issues and I can’t say I’ve been 100% happy with it, but it does the trick. But then there’s the music, by far the biggest wrinkle in the sheet. Damn their DMA songs!

Even though I use iTunes as my main music player, I hate having my music locked down. My solution around it has been what most people have probably been doing too…burning the iTunes songs to a CD and then ripping them back as MP3s. Tedious and stupid, but it works.

When Amazon announced their MP3 service would be cheaper and offer standard MP3 files I told myself the next time I plan on getting a song or album I’d use it. Well, with money sitting in my iTunes account thanks to gift cards and redeeming, I hadn’t not followed through on that promise until today when I found a good reason to go elsewhere.

Much to my happiness I discovered that one of my favorite groups, The Presidents of the United States of America, did not disband as I had once thought. Actually, they did back in 1998 and then reformed a few years later to release a handful of albums.

“Peaches” – The Presidents of the United States of America
[audio:peaches.mp3]

I remember buying The President’s first album at Media Play. I thought the album cover was strange, and the music was pretty nutty too, but that’s why I like it so. It’s poppy, fast, it rocks, and has a heaping helping of fun and humor. That first record was really solid. The follow up album II was 50/50. A third release just before their break-up had even fewer singles. After I heard they broke up I had pretty much written them off and had just accepted I’d have 2.5 albums to enjoy for the rest of time.

I was at YouTube watching some Weird Al videos and that led me to The Presidents’ Wikipedia page where learned they regrouped and have been making new albums. It’s great to find out they’re still making music and still keeping it fun and light. I went the web site and listened to a few tracks from newer albums and decided to go ahead and download one of the “lost albums” I had missed. I decided on Love Everybody and headed over to iTunes to make the purchase.

Now most albums at iTunes are $10 regardless of the number of tracks. But low and behold this one album from an essentially nobody band was $12. Sucko. But wait! I have an alternative – Amazon MP3. A quick jump to Amazon found the album for $9, so I was ready to dive in.

Although a bummer, I was not surprised to have to install Amazon’s MP3 Downloader, a desktop client that does the downloading for you. After a very quick install I was faced with something I did not expect at all – something helpful – a free song to download. This is very smart because not only is it a great bonus for a new user, but Amazon presents as a way for you to learn how the downloader works before you pay any money. It told me, “Hey, watch the downloader in action by getting this free song.” I happily took their recommendation. Very smart on Amazon’s part and much appreciated as a customer.

So with the downloader installed I click the Buy button and after a quick authorization the downloads came in swiftly. And surprisingly enough, the Amazon Downloader even added the songs to iTunes for me. How considerate. And as advertised, the tracks are straight MP3s (high 256 bitrate too) and I can use them as I see fit and burn them as often as I’d like.

I can’t speak on the depth of Amazon’s MP3 catalog as I was looking for something specific and found it, but if you’re looking for an iTunes alternative for music then I will happily recommend Amazon MP3. It’s easy to use, good quality tracks, and even cheaper than iTunes. Even the single songs are $.89 instead of $.99 – I’ll certainly be back.

(Oh, and the President’s album I downloaded is pretty solid too. Nothing earth-shattering as far as they’re concerned, but it’s great to have some new songs to bust out on the way to work. They’ve stuck with their original formula and it’s very welcome in today’s vast pit of otherwise shotty music.)

Originally posted on Aug 18, 2008

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A reason to keep your CDs

Our walls are pretty bare. Shy of a few of my old college paintings and a couple prints, we don’t have much hanging around. We don’t like cluttered, busy walls anyway, but you have to have something on the walls otherwise it looks too…well, too migrant. Bare walls work if you have some sort of Zen theme going with minimalist furniture and bamboo floors, but we don’t. We’re pretty average folks with an average house. So in an attempt to find something meaningful for our walls without having to go the large poster/print route, I looked at what we have to work with.

And we have a lot of CDs. Our generation has seen a lot of technology change when it comes to music and we’re not even halfway through life. I know you all still have a box somewhere with cassettes in it and needless to say there’s a few shelves of CDs somewhere too. It’s safe to say we have way more MP3s these days than we do CDs, and we do most of our music listening on the computer, so the CDs have just become clutter. Recently though I thought about hanging up CD covers as art. We both love our music and the CDs weren’t doing anything else.

I think album covers as wall art (CD or otherwise) is a good solution to get use out of something that otherwise has no purpose anymore. It’s easy, clean, and shows off your love and tastes for music. Not to mention some album covers are considered art in their own right, so it’s not that far fetched. The trick, it turned out, was finding frames for the little buggers.

Compact disc album covers are square. Most small frames are designed for standard photos, which are rectangles. Going to a craft store or even Target didn’t find us the frames we needed. No, we found just the right size frames at the Dollar Store…but of course! We didn’t go to the Dollar Store looking for frames, but while there noticed some that were just the right size. They’re glass front frames so there’s no “frame” around the album, and it looks pretty nice.

This is still a work in progress, but even with only four covers up the staircase it looks pretty good. About two to four more covers to complete the journey should be enough. Now the hard part is picking which albums to feature. But then again, it’s convenient enough that we can change them whenever we like.

So if you have some bare spots on your walls and need something small to fill the void, consider your favorite (or best looking) album covers. An easy afternoon project.

Originally posted on Aug 16, 2008

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Don’t bust a Nutsie

I’ve been using FineTune.com for on-line music for a long time now. I’ve found it to be be all I need to get through my day. At FineTune you pick songs to add to your pool (playlist) and then it plays back those songs in random order. You never know what song is going to play next, but you know it’ll be a song you picked. Nutsie, on the other hand, takes a different approach and lets you bring your own music collection on-line.

I heard about Nutsie when drummer Duff McKagan was on a local radio show. He was pimping the service, which I believe he invested in (and also adorns the home page) so I figured I’d give it a try. Nutsie expects you to be using iTunes. Now one might see this is a narrow strategy, but these days iTunes is probably a safe bet. Unlike some other services, Nutsie doesn’t want you to upload your MP3s, it only wants your iTunes database. All you need to do with Nutside is export your iTunes library and upload it. Nutsie then does all the work to find the songs so you can listen on-line.

It’s actually a nifty concept but I’ve found it has one fatal flaw – it exposes you to all the crappy music you have in your library. If you’re like me, you’ve ripped just about every CD you have and also any CD that you might even only be remotely interested in. In my catalog there is a lot of classical, a lot of movie scores/sounndtracks, and a lot of country thanks to the wife – and most of that is not stuff I listen to all that often. Nutsie, unfortunately, reminds me that my library has about 70% of crap, 20% of good stuff, and 10% of, “when did I get that song?”

Another flaw in Nutsie is the lack of making playlists within Nutsie. Chances are you have playlists within iTunes. Well, when you upload your library Nutsie retains these playlists but doesn’t let you create new ones with your music. So if want to create your “Ultimate Death Metal” playlist in Nutsie using your collection of songs, you’re out of luck. You also can’t play any individual song with Nutsie. Much like all the other services, the site will play songs from your playlists randomly.

Another very annoying unfeature in Nutsie is the audio player itself. An embedded music player can be found on just about every page, including your personal playlist home page. This works great until you click a link on the page and takes you away, thus stopping your music and making you start all over again. One simple improvement Nutsie could add is to simply let you pop-out the player so you can navigate around Nutsie without disrupting your music. This even works against them because the always-present “Buy” button next to each song stops the music and just makes you mad. You’ll also find the music players start automagically, so just about every web page will start blaring out music when you arrive.

On the good side of Nutsie is the standard shared playlist abilities. Even if you don’t upload your own music library, you’ll find a good host of themed playlists that will keep you going for a while. They have a nice list of dated playlists so you can hear the Best Rock Songs of 1977 anytime you want (which I recommend). And assuming you’re a Nutsie member – which is free – you are allowed unlimited song skips. Where as places like FineTune and Pandora limit you to five skips per hour, Nutsie lets you skip forever if you want. Of course, you’ll need unlimited skips to get through all the crap in your personal library. For one session I actually did more skipping than listening.

And perhaps the most unique feature of Nutsie is the Nutsie Picks slider that appears above every music player. This lets you choose if you want Nutsie to recommend other songs and mix them while you’re listening. This doesn’t add songs to your playlist or library, it works on-the-fly. So if you have a playlist of 50 tunes and slide the Nutsie Picks to some percentage and it’ll toss in a few related artists and songs. Kind of nifty, but in my experience not all that “accurate” as you’ll find Barry Manilow and Rod Stewart dropped in the middle of your Glam Metal playlist.

I think Nutsie is working along the right path but has a long way to go. Design and user experience problems keep me from using the service, and its tendency to replay the same songs from my playlist over and over keeps me sitting at FineTune instead. I like the idea of just uploading my iTunes library and being able to listen anywhere I am, but until they give me more control over what is essentially my music, I’ll stick with my playlists at FineTune.

Originally posted on Aug 16, 2008

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The Wii redeems itself with the Homebrew Channel

I wrote a bit back about my increasing loss of faith in the Wii. The games slated to come out through the rest of the year and into 2009 are quite, shall we say, “weak” and include many uber-family friendly games. I have nothing against family friendly, but you can only have so many pet and puzzle games before a system starts to lose its appeal. However, a recent investigation into a well known hack for the Wii has me singing a different tune.

Reading Wii news as regularly as I do, quite some time ago I read about a thing called the Twilight Hack, which exploits a bug in the Wii Zelda game that let hackers into the core system. I typically try not to bother with console hacks because I’ve spent way to much on the deck to possibly ruin it by hacking. But over the weekend I found and read more about the Twilight Hack that sold me on the idea.

tmpphpT41Nzl.jpgBut why hack the Wii in the first place? Well, hacking in this case means you can load homebrew games (indie games) on the Wii. The hack actually adds the “Homebrew Channel” to your standard Wii menu (in English). Along with standalone indie games, you can also load emulators with the channel. As is well documented, I am an emulator junkie, especially for the classic decks like the NES, SNES, and PC Engine. With the promise of emulators on the Wii, I couldn’t not try the hack.

The Twilight Hack was stupidly simple to install. The only thing you need is an SD memory card and the Zelda game disc. Fortunately friend-of-the-Toast, Thee, had the Zelda game and once I had it in my hand I gave the hack a go. I held my breath and watched the DOS-like screen fly by, doing something to my Wii, and just hoped I wasn’t bricking my Wii. Bang! Zoom! The Homebrew Channel is ready to go!

And much (very much) to my surprise the NES emulator ran just fine and I was able to load all the NES ROMs I’ve had for years. Then I tried the TurboGrafix16 emulator…worked. Then the SNES emulator…worked. How awesome is this?! And all the emulators have multi-player support. So now I can play my old NES and other games just about everywhere: on my original NES deck, my PC, my DS portable, and now my Wii. Wherever I go, the NES will follow. Nuts? Yes. Fun? You betcha.

I’ve spent a lot of time and money on my NES PowerPak so I could play ROMs on my actual NES console, and nothing beats that experience, but having the NES games on my Wii is just way too convenient. Then toss on the SNES, Genesis and PCE games that I never had elsewhere other than my computer…you can’t beat it. I’m still playing around with the emulators and homebrew games, but so far the so good shy of a few ROMs that just haven’t loaded. But I don’t know if that means it’s a bad ROM, which is highly likely, or the emulator…time will tell. I’ve also found I now have a really good reason to buy a classic Wii controller.

tmpphpfZjYsl.jpgBut wait…can’t you download all the old games with the Wii Virtual Console? Why yes, you can…for anywhere from $5 – $10 a pop. We all have our favorite classic games. Even with over 500 NES games, I play the same dozen over and over. Same will go with PCE, SNES, and Genesis…but if I can get them easily for free, why do the whole download thing? Plus, now I can play the games I never played before but wanted to without the risk. It’s just nice.

Having this homebrew option opens up the Wii to a whole new realm of games even beyond old emulators. Now you can also play games made by indie developers that you won’t find in retail. One such game I found is called GuitarFun and is a clone of clone…it’s a clone of Frets on Fire, the PC Guitar Hero clone. I have yet to get GuitarFun to load and play on the Wii Homebrew, but when/if it does, it means I can play custom songs (real songs) with the actual guitar controller. Now that’ll be spiffy! I’ll post up a note when I get it working…but there are YouTubes of the game working.

All in all, I don’t see any reason you wouldn’t want to use the Twilight Hack and install the Homebrew Channel. It doesn’t hurt and the manual claims you can even uninstall it all. This isn’t a hardware-level hack, it’s just software, so there shouldn’t ever be any permanent damage. If you’re after some classic console gaming and don’t want go crazy like I did with my NES, this Wii hack is the sweet spot that turns your console into the perfect (and free) retro game machine. And since you’re saving on VC downloads, you can justify more retail Wii games and accessories.

If you’re wanting to setup the Homebrew Channel on your Wii, hit up WiiBrew.com and look for their WiiPack Generator. Use it to download all the parts you want and need, including the Twilight Hack. And to see just how easy the hack is to install, there’s a handy video…which I watched like five times before doing it myself (it just made me feel better).

Now pardon me while I go run through some Excite Bike, F-Zero, Keith Courage, and maybe a little Street Fighter II.

Originally posted on Aug 13, 2008

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Seventeen pounds of Hot Wheels

I’ve been “collecting” Hot Wheels for probably close to eight years by now. I collect but I don’t invest in Hot Wheels. A recent trip to the Ohio State Fair’s and its famed Junk Barn (where every Harry, Dick, and Tom can attempt to sell their junk) had me face-to-face with a ton of “collectible” Hot Wheels.

They were all in the box and ranged in age from 2008 models to some that stretched back to the mid-80s. And not surprisingly, I had many of the cars I saw…but much to my surprise, these cars were selling for $2 – $5. While a few bucks may not sound like much, considering each Hot Wheels car costs less than a dollar to buy it’s a pretty good return on the value.

It’s hard for me to see Hot Wheels as a collectibles investment. Sure, it kind of sucks to see a car I bought for 97 cents just a week ago already selling for $3 (which is bull anyway), but then I realize why I collect Hot Wheels – because I like them. I like to look at them, play with them, take pictures of them, let others play with them…it’s about the fun of toy cars, not the fun of buying and selling. I wouldn’t be any good at selling them anyway because I wouldn’t be able to give them up, even at a profit.

With my upgraded Flickr Pro account at my disposal, I decided to do something I had been wanting to do for a while, shoot my cars in more “artistic” ways, rather than the straight up showroom-quality photos I’ve been taking for the Hot Wheels Showcase I have on-line.

Hot Wheels are so vivid and fantastic that they lend themselves to photographs, both macro photography (which I can’t do well) and just general fun shooting (which I can do well). So with a sunny Saturday on hand I took all (well, most) of my cars out and set them up for some shots. It’s funny because when you tell people you have 193 Hot Wheels it sounds like a lot…but when you line them all up for a family photo, it doesn’t look like much, at least not to me. I guess in my head I thought they would take up more space all laid out, but I guess they’re only 2-inch cars anyway.

So yes, I have upwards of 190 Hot Wheels cars and all together they weigh an even 17 pounds. And for those wanting to keep track, each Hot Wheels cars cost me a dollar, so my total investment should be pretty simple. Now consider if I was investing in the toys how much I would have in value if each one could (on average) resell for $3.

I don’t really plan to stop my collecting. It’s cheap and it’s fun. And they make for some awesome photos.

Stop by the Flickr page for more shots.

Originally posted on Aug 9, 2008

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Tesla, still comin’ atcha live…again

You go to a concert early for one reason: to get good seats. And even though we saw Tesla in concert just six months ago, we still showed up early to make sure we got the spot we wanted. Last time we saw Tesla it was bare nuts cold outside and the line to get in was down the block. This time it was hot, but the line wasn’t so long, however, we noticed a small group of people gathering away from the main line. They were gathering outside the tour bus entrance where last time Frank Hannon chatted with shivering fans so we figured members of Tesla were once again mingling with fans, and we were right.

Before you continue, please enjoy some Tesla as you read:
[audio:tesla.mp3]

This time lead singer Jeff Keith was signing autographs and taking pictures from behind the entrance gate. We didn’t bring our camera because the venue doesn’t allow cameras, but we did have a convenient phone camera. And just after we got a shot of Jeff behind bars he says, “hell with this, I’m coming out there,” and he walked around the gate to meet fans up close and personal right there on the sidewalk. What luck! So we calmly waited to say “Hello” and get a photo op and autograph. Unfortunately, given the sun and the low-fi camera, the photo of Jen and Jeff didn’t turn out as well as I’d hope (although you can tell who it is), but he also signed the ticket stub…making this one of the first ticket stubs I’ll actually be keeping.

Before too long the rest of people waiting in line took notice and gathered around getting their jeans, arms, and children signed by Jeff Keith. At that point we moved back into the line and waited for the doors to open. Once we were in we found the spot we wanted, along the back wall of the floor section. We were at the same venue as before but this time we were outside and oh what a difference it made. The sound and experience of an indoor show just can’t compare to that of a outdoor concert. So we sat a waited for things to kick off while other came to sit along side us.

Not too long after we claimed our spot a girl sitting about three people down from me leaned forward and…well, she just puked her guts out. What?! Vomiting already? That’s what one guy was thinking as he passed by the pool of vomit and then looked at his watch, as though to think, “isn’t it a bit early for barf?”

Out of all the concerts we’ve seen in the past few years, this is the first time we’ve been near, let alone witness, some vomiting, as surprising as that may be. It’s very interesting watching people notice a pile of vomit. It actually became the game of the night, watching people’s reactions when they noticed the pool…assuming they did notice. Although few and far between, there were a handful of people that just didn’t notice and walked right through it. If you learn one thing from this entry, please learn that you should always look down when at a concert because you never know what you’ll find on the ground. Needless to say, the vomit kept many people away so we enjoyed the concert in relative peace. Thankfully we were far enough away from it that it didn’t encroach our space.

The opening band did their thing and after a quick stage change Tesla came out and rocked a perfect night. And it was a perfect night for a concert, very comfortable with clear skies. They changed up their set list just enough from their last visit, playing their standards but also including ones like “Edison’s Medicine” and “Mama’s Fool,” of which neither they played last time. They also removed the cover songs from their line-up, which I appreciated.

And if you thought having a pool of throw-up next you all night wasn’t a good way to enjoy Tesla, it gets better. Because about three quarters through the set victim number too spun around in front of us and spewed. This lady spewed first in the same spot as the first girl, then ran off the floor to toss it in the grass. Not sure if it was the combination of heat and beer, which is always fun, or if that spot on the floor had low gravity or some other anomaly that would cause people to chuck. Vomit to the left of me, vomit to the right of me…had it not been for Tesla in front of me, it would have been a rough night.

Another thing this concert proved is that Tesla is a prime example of a solid band. Being the only band we’ve seen twice, we know that Tesla puts on a good show just about every time they perform. It doesn’t matter if they’re inside or outside, they just lay it down. Nothing too fancy, not a lot of “show,” just a straight set of hits. To top things off, they did something other bands could learn from – they skipped the encore. It seems these days the encore is a given, which kind of defeats the specialness of an encore. No, instead Tesla said, “we don’t need to make people scream and shout, we’ll just keep on going.” So instead of taking a break, making us wait and then coming out to play one more song, they played two more songs instead. Awesome. Just awesome. Why make us clap? You know you’re coming back out to play.

The fact that Jeff Keith was willing to stand in the middle of the sidewalk and get up close with fans also tells me that Tesla knows what’s important. I know Tesla is way past their prime and not exactly filling stadiums anymore, but find me another band that will go that far out of their way to keep people happy. It tells me they know what’s important – the fans – because if you don’t keep your fans happy, they won’t come see you and they won’t buy your records.

So next time there’s a band you want to see, show up a bit early because not only will you usually get a good seat, you never know who’ll you find signing autographs. And you might miss the vomit.

Originally posted on Aug 5, 2008

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It’s a good time to bring back blimps

I love blimps. Blimps just make sense to me. They’re elegant, classy, efficient, and it many ways, quite practical. Just by chance I happened to come across an article in the NYT Europe section about Zeppelin blimps. I didn’t read the entire article but just the first few paragraphs were enough to have me thinking happy blimp thoughts.

Blimps are just like airplanes or trains but are far more efficient. All three follow more direct routes than car or truck, but blimps don’t use regular jet fuel. They use reusable gas to fill the blimp, so right there they are better off than the rest of us. Blimps may be a bit slower than jets or trains, but I say that blimps are not for trans-atlantic or even cross-country shipments. I see blimps as tri-state, regional solution to delivering goods.

Not only do blimps make fuel sense, they make delivery sense. Blimps don’t need acres and miles of runway, they just need a small field or even a tall building with which to dock and unload. Blimps can go vertical, making them more flexible than planes and have more reach than a train.

Blimps just…blimps just make sense. As the article points out, in a time when fuel prices are sky high (ha ha), blimps provide an alternative that could help cut costs at a critical time. I doubt it will catch on, but just imagine how beautiful a sky filled with blimps would be. Imagine traveling from Chicago to New York by blimp…no, wait, luxury blimp. Even if blimps didn’t become a shipping standard, I think blimps would have a cool-factor that would make them work as a novelty travel for a long while.

Bring back blimps!!

Originally posted on Aug 4, 2008

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Work will be watching

A recent article in the NY Times talks about new network monitoring software that will “learn” about employee’s web behaviour and give the company finite control over restrictions and settings. I won’t repost the whole article, but this pretty much sums it up:

…one company might say that marketing folks can only visit YouTube during lunch hour, and even then, they can only upload two megabytes to the site each day. Engineers might be blocked from visiting Facebook…but everyone else can.

I’m not saying companies shouldn’t monitor network traffic and use, it’s a legit concern. But if software like this works as well as promoted, I see one problem: we’re not machines. Applying strict rules onto users will just make them unhappy and that ultimately results is poor results.

I’m one that believes people will naturally find their balance at work. No one works 8-hours solid. It’s just not possible, and frankly, not healthy. Everybody needs some time during the day to just chill for a few. Some people may go outside for a smoke, some might walk around the building, some might scratch their butt, some, like me, just stay on-line and visit web sites they enjoy but aren’t work-related.

Me, I hit up my video game blogs, check my personal e-mail, manage my personal sites and that type stuff. All said and done, it maybe takes 15-30 minutes of my day. No big deal. If I spend more time than that I feel like I’m jipping myself out of work time. I know I have stuff to do and I know how much time it takes to get it done. Most people won’t abuse their time because fear will keep them in check – at least that’s what I’ve witnessed. If you just trust people things will usually work out for the best.

I’m sure the thought behind applying smart software that tracks individuals and adjusts based on habits is that it will stop those that do abuse their work time. I guess my philosophy on this is that instead of using a blacklist method that effects everyone, if you find someone is spending too much time hanging out on YouTube, you deal with them. You warn them, suspend them, fire them, whatever…you deal with the person directly. You don’t puss out and let technology to do your people management for you. That’s just weak. And honestly, I wouldn’t want to work for a company that manages their employees that way.

Everybody works best in different environments. And that’s not limited to physical environments, but digital/on-line environments too. You can’t look at sheer numbers to determine what people are doing. Behaviour doesn’t work by the numbers and by saying, “Brian spends 30 minutes on Gmail a day means he’s wasting time,” is quite ignorant and might do more harm than good in the long.

Of course, all this is assuming companies will pretty much abuse this network management power. Some will, some won’t, but just having that ability will turn even the lax network admin into a network nazi. Actually, software like this might even eliminate that admin job…so you better watch out.

Originally posted on Aug 4, 2008

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Winnie’s new digs

In the great menagerie we call our home lives a cat, a dog, a turtle, and a dog – in that order. Out of them all the turtle, Winnie, requires the least amount of attention. She probably doesn’t get enough attention, actually, but so it goes. She’s a turtle. It’s funny that most people probably think it’s easier to care a turtle than two dogs and cat. Simplicity of often deceiving.

When we got Winnie a couple years ago, the men at the turtle store told us she was a water turtle and needed water to feed and stuff. OK, so we got an aquarium and filled it with water for her to swim around and a little floating dock for her to lay on. And that’s the way it remained for a long time, with regular tank cleanings and the likes to keep things as clean as we could. But let me tell you, a turtle is a dirty, dirty, messy animal.

Emptying 15 gallons of water every two week sucked bears. Well, our thoughts of “easy” care for a turtle changed when we discovered Winnie’s shell had a few bad spots on it. We think it’s shell rot, which, from what we’ve read, is easily cared for with a little soap wash and less water time. And that’s where we goofed in the past – we had too much water and not enough “sun” for her – which led to her shell problems. So action had to be taken immediately.

That action was a new apartment for Winnie. A trip to the pet store had me coming home with a stone barrier that needed to be siliconed into the aquarium so one half could be set with rocks for basking and the other for her pool. And it’s pretty nice, although I’m not sure Winnie knows what to do with it all yet.

Now there’s 1/4 as much water in the tank, which should make cleaning much easier while still giving her plenty of water for her bodily needs. The project as a whole was a lot easier than I expected. I’m glad I found the little barrier thing. My first thoughts were buying rocks or something and piling them up to create a nice basking area but still having mostly water. The new setup should be nice for her and for us.

I just hope the dogs don’t ask for a new house too.

Originally posted on Aug 19, 2008

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The Presidents and Amazon MP3

Despite my regular use of iTunes for playing and sometimes purchasing music, I’m not necessarily an iTunes-lover. I think iTunes is a nice music organizer/player. It certainly has its issues and I can’t say I’ve been 100% happy with it, but it does the trick. But then there’s the music, by far the biggest wrinkle in the sheet. Damn their DMA songs!

Even though I use iTunes as my main music player, I hate having my music locked down. My solution around it has been what most people have probably been doing too…burning the iTunes songs to a CD and then ripping them back as MP3s. Tedious and stupid, but it works.

When Amazon announced their MP3 service would be cheaper and offer standard MP3 files I told myself the next time I plan on getting a song or album I’d use it. Well, with money sitting in my iTunes account thanks to gift cards and redeeming, I hadn’t not followed through on that promise until today when I found a good reason to go elsewhere.

Much to my happiness I discovered that one of my favorite groups, The Presidents of the United States of America, did not disband as I had once thought. Actually, they did back in 1998 and then reformed a few years later to release a handful of albums.

“Peaches” – The Presidents of the United States of America
[audio:peaches.mp3]

I remember buying The President’s first album at Media Play. I thought the album cover was strange, and the music was pretty nutty too, but that’s why I like it so. It’s poppy, fast, it rocks, and has a heaping helping of fun and humor. That first record was really solid. The follow up album II was 50/50. A third release just before their break-up had even fewer singles. After I heard they broke up I had pretty much written them off and had just accepted I’d have 2.5 albums to enjoy for the rest of time.

I was at YouTube watching some Weird Al videos and that led me to The Presidents’ Wikipedia page where learned they regrouped and have been making new albums. It’s great to find out they’re still making music and still keeping it fun and light. I went the web site and listened to a few tracks from newer albums and decided to go ahead and download one of the “lost albums” I had missed. I decided on Love Everybody and headed over to iTunes to make the purchase.

Now most albums at iTunes are $10 regardless of the number of tracks. But low and behold this one album from an essentially nobody band was $12. Sucko. But wait! I have an alternative – Amazon MP3. A quick jump to Amazon found the album for $9, so I was ready to dive in.

Although a bummer, I was not surprised to have to install Amazon’s MP3 Downloader, a desktop client that does the downloading for you. After a very quick install I was faced with something I did not expect at all – something helpful – a free song to download. This is very smart because not only is it a great bonus for a new user, but Amazon presents as a way for you to learn how the downloader works before you pay any money. It told me, “Hey, watch the downloader in action by getting this free song.” I happily took their recommendation. Very smart on Amazon’s part and much appreciated as a customer.

So with the downloader installed I click the Buy button and after a quick authorization the downloads came in swiftly. And surprisingly enough, the Amazon Downloader even added the songs to iTunes for me. How considerate. And as advertised, the tracks are straight MP3s (high 256 bitrate too) and I can use them as I see fit and burn them as often as I’d like.

I can’t speak on the depth of Amazon’s MP3 catalog as I was looking for something specific and found it, but if you’re looking for an iTunes alternative for music then I will happily recommend Amazon MP3. It’s easy to use, good quality tracks, and even cheaper than iTunes. Even the single songs are $.89 instead of $.99 – I’ll certainly be back.

(Oh, and the President’s album I downloaded is pretty solid too. Nothing earth-shattering as far as they’re concerned, but it’s great to have some new songs to bust out on the way to work. They’ve stuck with their original formula and it’s very welcome in today’s vast pit of otherwise shotty music.)

Originally posted on Aug 18, 2008

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A reason to keep your CDs

Our walls are pretty bare. Shy of a few of my old college paintings and a couple prints, we don’t have much hanging around. We don’t like cluttered, busy walls anyway, but you have to have something on the walls otherwise it looks too…well, too migrant. Bare walls work if you have some sort of Zen theme going with minimalist furniture and bamboo floors, but we don’t. We’re pretty average folks with an average house. So in an attempt to find something meaningful for our walls without having to go the large poster/print route, I looked at what we have to work with.

And we have a lot of CDs. Our generation has seen a lot of technology change when it comes to music and we’re not even halfway through life. I know you all still have a box somewhere with cassettes in it and needless to say there’s a few shelves of CDs somewhere too. It’s safe to say we have way more MP3s these days than we do CDs, and we do most of our music listening on the computer, so the CDs have just become clutter. Recently though I thought about hanging up CD covers as art. We both love our music and the CDs weren’t doing anything else.

I think album covers as wall art (CD or otherwise) is a good solution to get use out of something that otherwise has no purpose anymore. It’s easy, clean, and shows off your love and tastes for music. Not to mention some album covers are considered art in their own right, so it’s not that far fetched. The trick, it turned out, was finding frames for the little buggers.

Compact disc album covers are square. Most small frames are designed for standard photos, which are rectangles. Going to a craft store or even Target didn’t find us the frames we needed. No, we found just the right size frames at the Dollar Store…but of course! We didn’t go to the Dollar Store looking for frames, but while there noticed some that were just the right size. They’re glass front frames so there’s no “frame” around the album, and it looks pretty nice.

This is still a work in progress, but even with only four covers up the staircase it looks pretty good. About two to four more covers to complete the journey should be enough. Now the hard part is picking which albums to feature. But then again, it’s convenient enough that we can change them whenever we like.

So if you have some bare spots on your walls and need something small to fill the void, consider your favorite (or best looking) album covers. An easy afternoon project.