Friday, June 29, 2007

MUSIC: A New Find from Garage Band

Found this electro-pop tune from one of my favourite music sites, Garage Band. I've found about 30 blog-worthy commons-licensed songs there. The site os going through some changes lately, and I know of at least one artist I have blogged about before who has pulled their stuff from the site. But there are some gems to be found there is one looks hard enough :) Thankfully, you have me to do it for you :)

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Wednesday, June 27, 2007

WEBSITE: Open Educational Resources

The Open Educational Resources Commons Search has a large variety of educational materials, searchable by subject or grade level. Items available include podcast lectures, lesson plans, on-line courses, lecture transcripts and basically anything useful. The site has a slick interface, a handy tagging system and advanced search options.

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Thursday, June 21, 2007

WEBSITE: New Feature from Project Gutenberg

Some over at Teleread alerted me to an interesting new feature over at Project Gutenberg. It's called the Bookshelf, and it's a wiki-esque collection of thematic lists for browsing. What makes it interesting is the inclusion on certain of the lists, when relevant, of works not in the database. It's handy when a series has multiple works of which only some are in the public domain: you can see at a glance which works are missing and you can make other arrangements to find them should you wish to. They also have links to Gutenberg of Australia when relevant, but they don't direct link to any titles there, only indicate that more works by that author are available for those who live in Life Plus 70 countries.

I am still waiting for an amazon.com-style browsing experience, with capsule summaries of every title, user-generated thematic lists and system-generated 'people who downloaded this book also downloaded' lists and user-editable wiki-style info for every title. Manybooks comes closer, but nobody has hit the need exactly. The growing database of public-domain etexts is a fabulous thing, but many people still need help in filtering it down a little when they browse. It's all well and good when you go in there knowing that you just want to download Wuthering Heights and be done with it. But if you just want to browse, I think the user experience out there in ebookland is still a little lacking.

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Wednesday, June 20, 2007

MUSIC: Music by James Hurst

I have been meaning to blog about this one for awhile :) It's an EP by James Hurst, rock-pop-type stuff with a little bit of flourish in places :) The title track, "Spread the News," was definitely the highlight for me. Download the whole album, or the tracks individually, at the artist's website or at Jamendo.

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Saturday, June 16, 2007

REVIEW: One Last Open Office Round-Up

Firstly, my previous comments on Open Office:
Now, onto some final comments on my Great Open Office Experiment of 2007 :)

I made the decision last night to un-install Open Office. What happened? Well, to put it bluntly, I made the mistake of venturing outof the safety of Writer :) And? Both Calc and Impress crahsed my machine so many times that I could not imagine ever working with them in their current incarnations. And I found one more glitch in Writer that I couldn't live with. Some observations:
  • Calc was fine as long as I stayed away from the charts. Firstly, they did not import correctly when present on existing Excel spreadsheets. Secondly, they crashed the program when I tried to create them in Calc directly. I was not able to save any to see how Excel would read them. I do not use charts often. I have maybe one existing spreadsheet which has them. I really only use basic spreadsheet functions like sums and averages. But the crashing? Unacceptable. Even a basic user like me needs a little stability.
  • I have no major complaints with Impress as a 'user experience' type of thing, except that it crashed several times. The biggie for me was that after using it, I was not able to open or start any other Open Office application for some reason and had to restart my machine.
  • I discovered that Writer does not play nice with MS Word in regards to files containing graphics or layouts. Plain text shared back and forth just fine, but anything with graphics for mangled to bits when imported into Word, and remained that way when opened back up in Writer, even if I didn't save anything when in Word. Unacceptable!
Bottom line for me is, I am for the moment still on a Windows system, and Microsoft Office seems to be working for me there. Am I discounting Open Office completely? No. And honestly, I did like user experience in Writer quite a bit, and would be happy with Calc were it not for the above-mentioned issue. I just suspect that Open Office might be a little less glitchy in its native environment, on Linux. So I'll save my upgrade to it until I get to that point. And who knows, by then, they might be up to the next release, and some of my other complaints may be addressed by then :)

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Friday, June 15, 2007

UPDATE: More on Open Office

Now that I've been using Open Office for a couple of days, I have a few more comments on the user experience and about the quirks to this program which may take some getting used to for MS Office users :)
  • Even in its Windows version, this is very much a Linux-inspired program, so certain things like file names are set up a bit differently. Linux must dislike multi-word file names, because every bit associated with this program used the_underscore when naming files which are more than one word long. I wonder, if one changed them to Windows standard and then tried to migrate to Linux, if this would be a problem.
  • The Gallery is extremely non-intuitive to configure. As I said in my previous review, I do think most people don't really use clip art anymore. But just the same, a few little tweaks would make this neat little applet much more workable. I think it should operate as the templates do: those have a directory in your program files, and if I add a folder to it, for example, 'letters,' then 'letters' will show up in the program as one of my template choices, and anything added to that folder will automatically appear in the list. The Gallery, in contrast, requires you to set up a new 'theme' from within the program and then right-click to access a hidden menu which will allow you to add files. If you add files to the actual folder the new theme creates, they will not appear in the Gallery. Also, there were a few Gallery themes it came with which could not be deleted. I did finally realize that they could at least be renamed, so I renamed them to themes I had planned to add anyway and filled them with my own stuff. But again, this was needlessly clunky, and managing the whole thing using folders would ne so much easier.
  • Certain keys do not function the same way. For example, I could right-click while in the 'open files' dialog to delete a file, but I couldn't do that when in the 'open a template' dialog. And you can't use backpspace or delete to erase a table in your document---the only way to do that is via selecting the 'delete table' command from a menu. Also, I really miss the ability to customize toolbars via the right-click. In Open Office, you have to go through a menu command and then click on two buttons before it will let you get to that stage. I did finally get the job done, but again, needlessly clunky!
  • The page layout capabilities in Writer turned out to be, on experimentation, fairly robust. I was able to create multi-column layouts using both tables and frames, mix graphics with text and do simple and medium-complexity layouts. Handling text wrap was a little fiddly (the command to adjust the settings and margins on the wrap were a little more buried than I felt they should have been) and I spent several minutes trying in vain to select more than one picture object at once to group them. I finally opened up Draw and got it done quickly and easily, then pasted my grouped graphic back into Writer. I had been hoping to uninstall Draw as I don't think I would use it much, but I suppose I have to keep it around now :)
  • The context toolbars which popped up for various tasks were generally handy, but imho could be managed better. For example, a picture popped up TWO toolbars, one for 'picture' and one for 'frame.' A bit of screen clutter :) I would have rather had a fixed spot in the toolbar which would change depending on the context, as in the old Wordperfect version I once had. They had the two main toolbars, and then one underneath it whose contents would adjust depending on the context.
  • I am still not happy with the language handling. I really do miss the auto-detect on language that MS Word has, and I think it is a big problem that the spell-checker does not correct accent mistakes (i.e. if the word is missing an accent, but otherwise correct, it doesn't flag it). I miss being able to set my own keyboard shortcuts for accents (there is a macro for Open Office which claims to do this, but I could not get it working and it made the program crash) and I wish I could have shortcut buttons for specific characters and therefore bypass the giant, cluttered 'insert special character' thing.
  • There are not as many page view options available. Specifically, the 'normal' view in MS Word is not there. There is only 'print layout' and 'web layout.' I find the 'normal' view a bit less fatiguing on the eyes, but I am not sure its absence is a fatal flaw for me. MS Word does have other interesting layout options (the 'reading layout' which lets you read your document e-book style is kind of neat) and this might be an area for Open Office to expand on in the future. But as I said, not a fatal flaw.
  • Minor annoyances with a few program crashes when I tried to install a macro add-in, and apparently I will have to uninstall the whole thing and start again if I want to upgrade to a new version. But perhaps by the time the next version comes out, they will have a patch-based upgrader available, or at least, some way to preserve custom settings. One hopes that each upgrade will offer some sort of useful improvement...
  • Of the good: the program loads much faster than MS Office, thanks to the quick loader add-in. It does make the computer's start-up time a little slower, but that's a small price to pay. If I try and load Open Office the conventional way (using a desktop shortcut) its start-up is on par (or perhaps a tiny bit slower) than MS Office. But if I use the quick loader, it's almost instant. That's very nice. Also, I like the template handlinga lot better (and have actually installed more templates than I currently have in MS Word). I think they would benefit from a more centralized template library where users could easily contribute content. They do have a small template section on the Open Office home page, but the only wayto add to it is to email some guy. I don't think a slick, massive archive like the Microsoft one should necessarily be a development priority given other issues they are working on, but it can't be that hard to set up a template page on the main site with some sort of automated submission tool...
  • Of the good 2: Page layout is much easier in Open Office than in MS Word. Except for the graphics problem already mentioned, it was a much speedier and smoother process to lay out different elements on the page. I did at first miss the slickness of MS Publisher, but on the other hand, I have seen many a sign or poster in my day that was so obviously created that way thatt here is something to be said for doing it yourself and opting out of the homogenizing blandness. Still...MS Publisher's one-click simplicity to change the background or border or page size or whatever, is very handy. That's why perhaps Open Office might benefit from a more dedicated desktop publishing application.
  • Verdict: For me, Open Office can easily replace Powerpoint (which I hardly ever use) and Excel (although I do miss the tab colours a tiny bit). Quirks aside, I like working in Writer. It's more fun to fiddle with than MS Word, and a little more adjustable. But...I will probably keep MS Word around for my French work. I can live with the clunky customization, limited page view options and finicky right-click settings. They really are minor annoyances when compared with the ease of use overall, and the advantage Writer has as far as Gallry integration, page layout, speediness thanks to the quick launch, and general customization. But...the language handling is terrible. It's far too much effort to change back and forth, and the spell-check not flagging accent mistakes is inexcusable. So, for me, Open Office will not, for now, be the complete MS Office replacement I thought it would be. I'll use it, happily, for my more general needs. But I'll need to keep MS Word around for the time being.

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Thursday, June 14, 2007

AUDIOBOOK: Moby Dick by Herman Melville

A classic, audio-book style, thanks to Librivox. Enjoy!

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Tuesday, June 12, 2007

OTHER: Open Office Review

OpenOffice.org is the official name of this well-known open source office suite. It is robust enough to give Microsoft Office a real run for its money, and will certainly more than meet the productivity needs of most users. I downloaded it yesterday, finally, after becoming disillusioned with the increasingly slow performance of MS Office on my aging laptop. Here are my comments:

1) The Good
  • This program is extremely similar to MS Office in look and feel. Transition was easy for me. A few of the commands are in different places, and while some of them took some hunting around, several others were in much more intiutive places.
  • I had absolutely no problems reading my existing MS Office files. I have heard that there can be some issues with extremely complex, formula-laden, footnote-containing hard-core files. But for the general spreadsheet and word processing I tend to need, no problems at all. I can't imagine anyone I know, aside from my very techie sister, having any files this will not read, or needing to create any this will not create.
  • I like the little clipart organizer. It is much faster to access than the MS Clipart Organizer, and it's easy to add your own items and have them be accessible. Once I figured out where it was storing things, I found it simple enough to go and add in my own pictures in a batch.
  • I like the way templates are handled. Again, once you figure out where it's storing them, it is quite easy to add new ones. I found many new ones on-line here and here and here (under the "extensions" section). And remember that Word and Excel documents can be read by it too, so you can download those and just save them in Open Office.
    EDITED TO ADD: I tried this with a few Office Onlien templates, and many of them worked. A few did not: some of the margins did not line up, complex layouts appeared as pictures and not editable objects, and anything with wizard-like 'fields' in it didn't work. But many of the simpler things like lists or calendars worked wonderfully.
  • I like the open formats support. I was surprised to go into my Microsoft folder and find everything in a private format only Microsoft can read! None of that clipart can easily be imported into Open Office (although there are ways if you fiddle a little bit). Open Office in contrast has everything in formats other programs can read.
    EDITED TO ADD: Microsoft clip art in photo format did import with no problems, and windows media files were useable too, but those had to be opened up in another program and then pasted in. An extra step, but if you really want a certain picture, you can have it.
2) The Less Good
  • The Gallery (clip art) is not searchable and does not have a tagging system. I tried to put everything into Picasa, but Picasa made duplicates and messed everything up. It took me some time to get everything right again. I am not sure this is a fatal flaw. I think most people these days do not rely on canned clip art anyway and if they need a graphic for a particular project, they will find it on Flickr or something. I suspect they intend the gallery to be used for frequently used items and not so much as a massive clipart repository. Still...a tag system and search feature wouldn't kill you, you guys :)
  • Menu and toolbar customization is a little bit clunky. It's there, but it takes quite a few steps. And once you add something, you can't take it off. You can de-select it, so it does not appear on the toolbar anymore. But it'll still be on the list when you go into the settings again. A little clunky, as I said :)
    EDITED TO ADD: I stand corrected. You can remove list items with the delete key. I was confused because there was no button, and backspace had no effect. Further research revealed that Open Office treats backspace and delete keys a little differently :) I stand by my assertion that the customization is a little clunky, though :)
  • I did not find the language settings as useful to me as those in Word. I occasionally write in French, and am still looking for a program that will let me painlessly switch back and forth without going into the settings and changing the program preferences. Additionally, I did not find the spell check in French to be as good as that of MS Word. It did catch words which were outright spelled incorrectly, but it did not catch accent mistakes, and that's mostly what I use the French spell-check for in Word: to catch the accent and put it in for me when I am too lazy to access keyboard shortcuts and make one properly. Note to office suite developers: language should not be buried in program settings. One should be able to go back and forth with one menu command! This is the modern era and many people write in more than one language. I can want to write a document in French without wanting the whole program to BE French, you know? Oh, and there's no grammar checker. I don't care, but some people might.
  • Page layout tasks are a little clunky. I had no trouble getting pictures to wrap properly, but I could not get ruled borders to do so. And when I took the borders off my tables, it didn't leave any shadows or guidelines or whatever so I could see that they still were there. It's possible that with some fiddling, I could get these somehow. It just is not very intuitive to me as to how, and I think it is a common enough command that perhaps it should be.
    EDITED TO ADD: Okay, I did the fiddling and I got all the wraps to work, and I got guides on the tables too. I stand by my assertion that it is not intuitive though:) And if the Draw program only had a proper handling of textboxes, suite could handle basic page layout...one can dream :)
  • Okay, this one is a bit petty and shallow, but...I miss being able to colour in the tabs on my spreadsheet files :) If this is do-able in Open Office, I don't see where or how. Again, this falls under intuitive commands. Maybe it's there and I just don't see it. Maybe it isn't there. But I can't find it at this point.
3) Wish List for the Future
  • I would not mind a basic Publisher-style program with a few pre-set templates or wizards for simple tasks like labels or greeting cards. I find the layout controls in Writer a little clunky, and I am not at all sure how Draw works. By "slide" does it mean "page" and are we meant to be using the Draw program for the type of basic page layout work I am talking about? I associate slides with the presentation program, so maybe the terminology is confusing me. But I want to be able to lay out text boxes, graphics etc on a page in a basic capacity. I played around a little with Draw and it will let me put these elements on a page, but it won't let me see the edges on them so I can do actual layout work.
    EDITED TO ADD: All they need to do is have a 'show guides' option on the text fields in order to fix this, so I hope they consider adding this small fix. All I want to do is be able to lay out text and graphics together. They have a text function, but it'd a field and not a text box. You need to be able to see the borders. So, Office Editors, what do you think? Can we have proper text boxes in Draw?
  • I don't want a whole bloated Front Page-style app, but a few site management tools for those doing websites wouldn't hurt. Most of my web page work is just graphics, text and hyperlinks. But it would be nice to have a sorter or organizer for web site stuff built into the program somewhere.
  • As I said, better support for those doing multi-language work. Maybe a pop-up toolbar with common accented symbols on it so we don't need to pull up that huge special character window and hunt through it every time we want to do an accent? And a one-button "switch to my second language" command for swapping spell checks without having to go into the program settings?
4) Overall verdict

I am still playing with it. Right now, it is still a little slow for me because I'm not used to it and don't know where everything is. But performance-wise, it is comparable to MS Office, and I suspect that eventually, I will be fully changed over to it. If I was not so into the open source principle, would I go to the bother I have? To be honest, probably not until I had to. MS Office was working, and why rock the boat? On my next computer though, when I would have had to face buying something to run? Maybe I would have.

For the summer at least, I plan to keep at minimum MS Word still installed on my computer, so I can get continue to get templates from Office Online, and so I can work more easily with my French documents for the course I am taking right now. But I have faith that Open Office is the way to go long-term. They will keep improving it, and I will be there :)

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Thursday, June 07, 2007

MUSIC: Music by Ralph Buckley

A good old-fashioned protest song, from a recent Garage Band find.

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Tuesday, June 05, 2007

E-BOOK: Tales of Giants from Brazil

I know nothing at all about this book except that I saw it in the new releases page of Manybooks, and swooned at the title. Who can resist? According to the blurb, everything in Brazil is giant. Especially the giants. And the stories about the giants, which are, of course, giant. Or, 68 pages, as the case may be. But still, admit it: when you think about Brazil, isn't the first word that pops to mind 'giants'? I didn't think so, but the author makes it sound so obvious, doesn't she?

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