Archive for the 'Technical Help' Category

YouTube

My wife and her friend get loud when they’re talking on the phone together.

They have such a good time with each other that over the course of their conversations the world gets smaller and smaller until they are barely aware of anything outside of a very small bubble. Inside that bubble there is nothing but their friendship and whatever topic they’re laughing about. Their “bubble-space fun” is great enough that they’ve decided they want to try sharing their fun with the world (or at least a few interested friends) through YouTube.

Image representing YouTube as depicted in Crun...

Image via CrunchBase

It’s not an unreasonable thing to try. Though it’s hard to find exact numbers, there are, at a minimum, hundreds of thousands of YouTube channels out there that have a sizable following. As of today, YouTube’s statistics page mentions that they have over a million content creators monetizing on their videos with thousands of channels making six figures a year.

But even if getting rich isn’t your aim, what makes a YouTube channel worth watching? How do you make videos that appeal to people?

I am a shift worker, and every two months I rotate between three shifts. Only one of those shifts has reasonable hours, so on my days off while on the other two shifts I often find myself looking to YouTube to help pass the time (I am not much of a night owl). I currently subscribe to 84 channels, though many of those belong to people I know personally who rarely upload anything.

This blog post is not meant to be the end-all, definitive lesson on how to attain success on YouTube. However, I do want to share what keeps me coming back for more from some of my favorite channels, and a few things I’ve learned over the years about this sort of thing.

Disclaimer: if I were really good at this stuff I’d be making a living doing it. The following consists of a lot of conjecture and heartfelt opinions intermingled with some useful facts that I know. And I’m not claiming to be sharing the secret to viral videos or anything – I’m sharing what I know about content production and audience retention. Also, to get the full benefit from this “lesson” you’re going to have to sit through some videos, and a few of them are rather lengthy and not all of them are kid friendly.

Let’s get started.

Conventional wisdom in the entertainment industry seems to be based around the misapplication of a basic (and true) principle of human communication: know your audience. Rather than just knowing their audience, they are trying to know their audience. Like, in bed. They want to give the audience what the audience wants because that’s what makes the audience grow and shell out money. Appeal to the widest possible audience and you’ve got yourself a profitable YouTube channel in no time.

But what about you? Will you be happy? And what of your audience? Will your audience come back for more because they’re interested in what you’ll post next time, or are you just generating views because your videos show a thumbnail that got someone to click on it out of interest (boobs)?

Cyril Connolly said: “Better to write for yourself and have no public, than to write for the public and have no self.

I believe that all entertainers should do what they love for their own reasons. Going further than that (here comes your first video assignment, and it’s almost twenty minutes long), Simon Sinek teaches leaders how to inspire people to action by centering everything you do around a primary idea that answers the question, “why?” You will need his advice when planning your content and video “format” (what and how you do what you do).

“Why” is a great place to start. And if you do it right, your “why” is something that is based mostly around feelings. But you’ve got to try to describe it in words.

Now, YouTube is an interesting place. There are a lot of problems with the “audience” on YouTube. The next video I want you to watch covers these issues through a satirical and tongue-in-cheek presentation pretending to be excellent advice on how to run your YouTube channel.

The real trick is in clearly defining why you’re starting your channel and figuring out what kinds of people are going to be watching it. Then you figure out whatever you can about that audience and tailor the presentation to them (not your content).

pewdiepie

pewdiepie (Photo credit: pixesophie)

A great example of this is a guy called PewDiePie. He records himself being an idiot playing video games. As of right now, this guy has over thirteen million subscribers (I am not one of them). YouTube channels that focus on gaming are really big right now. A lot of people want to watch people play video games. But what makes PewDiePie number one?

Another channel I watch from time to time is The Game Theorist. He records videos in which he speculates on gaming related issues, carefully researching the topic and assembling an informed theory to explain what might be going on. He has a great video in which he basically proves that Sonic is not very fast. Very fun videos, but not consistently fun enough to get my subscription.

The Game Theorist did a really great video about why PewDiePie is so popular, and in it he outlines a lot of things that any new content publisher should know.

OK, one more long-ish video that you have to watch all the way through, then we’ll get into individual channels.

This next video is by a guy who I honestly did not expect to subscribe to. I remember the first time I saw one of his videos. I thought, “this guy is ugly, strange, and I do not feel like I connect with him.” That, however, was before I started getting into woodworking. When my wife and I started building a major piece of furniture I began looking for woodworking YouTube videos that were helpful for a novice like me.

That’s when this ugly guy’s channel came back up. After watching a few of his videos I subscribed. Then I found out that he had another channel in which he talks about the videos in his main channel. This intrigued me, so I checked out that second channel. Again, I subscribed.

Then I stumbled upon the following video in his auxiliary channel in which he talks about the video equipment he uses to make videos. But that’s not why I’m having you watch it. I’m having you watch it because the guy is awesome at little tips that make videos better for viewers. His video is kind of long, but it is full of outstanding advice for new channel owners.

If you’ve watched all of the videos I’ve prescribed so far, you’ve just watched 50 minutes and 46 seconds of video. Maybe you did it all in one sitting, maybe you broke it up into manageable segments over the course of a day or more. It’s possible that not all of those videos kept your attention for the entire length, but I’m betting that most of them did (if not all of them). Why did you watch those videos? Not just “because I’m trying to learn how to make good videos.” Really ask yourself, “what kept me watching even though those videos were so long?” If you need to, pick one and go back and watch it again, trying to figure out how the presenter kept your attention.

Now, let’s run through a few of my subscriptions and talk about what I love about them.

When I link to a channel, I recommend you familiarize yourself with their top video (or a few of their top videos). To do this, click on the channel link I provide, then look for the “Videos” tab (next to the little house icon, below the channel name). When the Videos tab first loads their uploads are shown in reverse chronological order (newest videos first). Click on the drop down button that says “Date added (newest – oldest)” and select “Most popular” to view their videos from most to least popular. Then watch at least a few of their top few videos to see what they are like.

The great thing about viewing the most popular video on a channel is that you can see the video that resonated the most with their intended audience. It’s usually the video that initially earned them a strong following of subscribers (but not always).

Alright. I’m not going through these in any particular order (well, except alphabetical order because that’s how I’m viewing the list of my subscriptions).

The first channel I’ll introduce you to feels more like a television show, and perhaps that’s why I’m subscribed. As far as I know, these videos do not air on cable. They are just a YouTube thing, but they have exceptional production value and a pretty nice budget behind them, which leads me to believe that they are professionally produced by a crew that also does television shows.

They do a variety of things on the channel, but the videos I like most are part of a series called “Man at Arms” where a professional blacksmith creates video game character weapons. That particular feature got my subscription, but since then I have enjoyed a few of their other videos as well, videos that I wouldn’t have seen if I hadn’t subscribed. That’s the power of gaining subscribers.

  • Check out this channel: AWE me

This next channel isn’t something that I would have initially thought I’d ever subscribe to (DON’T JUDGE ME). I initially happened upon the channel when I was watching a lot of videos of different accents (I like accents, OK?). The video that got me interested was part of a larger playlist that someone else had put together to showcase accents from around the world. To this day, the video of hers that I saw is still her most popular video (and it’s over two years old).

When watching her video I found that I didn’t just like her accent, I thought she had a lot of fun things to say. So I checked out her more recent videos and found that she was video blogging (vlogging) about a lot of topics in an interesting way (and by interesting I mean that she’s being her own silly self without worrying too much about her audience, though she does ask for suggestions from time to time).

To me, her channel is a great example of what one normal person (and sometimes she has her friends on with her) can do to hold an audience, even without great equipment or professional training. With just over 8,000 subscribers she’s not the biggest channel that I’m covering, but she’s got her audience and she does a good job keeping their attention (though I don’t watch her videos all the way through when they stray too far from my interests — for example sometimes she goes to parties and films it).

Here’s an odd one for you. I subscribed to this guy on a whim when I found a video he posted of a nickel ball that he heated with a blow torch until it was red hot before dropping it in some water. I think Randall Munroe linked to it on his What If blog when referring to the cavitation effect (that’s probably not what it’s called) that occurs when super hot things contact water. Anyhow, the video owner got a sudden surge in traffic for the red hot nickel ball in water video and began doing more videos like it (using the RHNB acronym rather than writing out red hot nickel ball all the time). Now he’s got 45 thousand subscribers that just want to see what he’ll drop his red hot nickel ball onto next. It’s a simple premise, but one that has obviously gained him quite a strong following.

Sometimes the best channels are focused on just one interest. In this next channel’s case, it’s slingshots. In fact, he calls himself “the slingshot channel.” While some of his “slingshot” videos kind of stretch the concept of slingshot (see what I did there?), his razor focus on a single subject secures him a steady viewership that shares his passion. All in all he’s just shy of 300,000 subscribers at the moment, and he really loves making his videos.

I recommend you check out a few of his videos for sure. He is a fun, lovable guy and after watching a couple of his videos you’ll never forget the way he says, “That’s all for today. I hope you liked it. Thanks, and bye bye.” Super great guy.

A while back Google released a product that didn’t make a lot of sense. The Internet was complaining about its price, its unusual technical specifications, and all sorts of other things about it. Then I stumbled upon this guy explaining the features of this product and it totally made sense. This kid is sharp, great at explaining things in a way that is relevant to the average technology user, and really gets into the tech industry to relay the best news to his viewers. And it pays off. He’s got over 500,000 subscribers and through his YouTube income is able to pay for all the neat toys and gadgets he could possibly want. Plus, it seems that some product manufacturers send him their latest gadgets to try out and review on his channel.

In addition to having fantastically well planned content and presentation, he excels at production. His videos are clear and vibrant, and they have outstanding audio quality. When my father moved from newspaper publishing to running a couple dozen news websites for a corporation he had to learn to do web video. In his research he found that the main difference between obviously amateur videos and apparently professional videos was the sound quality. Good sound quality can put your channel in an entirely different category when it comes to perceived quality, and if anyone knows that Marques Brownlee does.

Here’s one of those video game channels. This guy is just plain silly. I found his channel when a coworker showed me a video from a different channel and one of this guy’s videos was a related video. I thought his video was way funnier than the one my coworker shared with me. So I subscribed. His videos are almost all short (2 to 5 minutes) and well edited to contain all of the funniest bits and enough back story to know why they’re funny. Do not show these videos to young children.

This next guy came out of nowhere. As someone who once frequented but now occasionally peruses reddit, I have learned to appreciate the power of certain social media platforms (especially reddit). One day this guy’s first video got posted to reddit when he only had about five videos up (to date he still only has 14 videos posted). The video was an explanation of the book Crime and Punishment and the reddit post title indicated that watching this video would grant me some insight into the book that I previously lacked.

The video delivered on that promise and then some. The production quality leads me to wonder if there isn’t a professional studio behind these videos, but I don’t care if they’re just going to try to sell me something in the end. I subscribed because I want to know as much about literature as this character is going to teach me. These are fantastic videos because they provide a service and do it in a way that is more than just entertaining, it is original. Original ideas (or just ideas that seem original) go a long way so long as they are presented well and given the right exposure.

Back when Lindsey Stirling was on America’s Got Talent and her YouTube channel teamed up with some big shot videographer, I discovered another violin-playing girl with a YouTube channel and I decided that I like her style better. And I’m glad I did, because soon Lindsey’s work began to feel heartless. I think more recently she may be rediscovering her old self, but for a while she lost her way when she lost sight of her “why.”

Anyhow, this other violin player has remained humble, innovative, and relevant to my interests for a couple of years now, and she just released her first original song. She may not have as many fans as Lindsey (only 220,000 subscribers vs. Lindsey’s 3 million), but she is just as talented (if not more) at playing the violin. Just looking at the comments on their videos and channels you can get an idea of how her 220,000 subscribers are just as valuable as Lindsey’s 3 million to someone who is not doing what they do for their audience, but for their self.

OK, just one more. This girl is a member of a game-playing, video-making team called The Yogscast. They actually have a Wikipedia page (yes, they’re that big of a deal and you had no idea they existed). They got their start playing World of Warcraft in a guild called “Ye Olde Goone Squad” (from whence they derive their current name, YOGScast) and eventually gained popularity with their Let’s Play video series about Minecraft.

I don’t really care for most of the Yogscast stuff (though some of it can be pretty fun), but I found Hannah’s channel when I was looking up videos of the recent game The Last of Us. I had heard that the story was good, so I wanted to watch someone play through it. Hannah’s first game play video of the game caught my attention when she cried at the end of the opening sequence. I enjoy her accent, her commentary, and what she adds to the game experience just by being herself. Her videos are pretty long (about 20 minutes on average) but I highly recommend you watch one or two of them. She’s great at holding her audience. She does all of her own video editing, and manages to edit out “boring” parts without making you miss any of the important content of the game.

Alright. That is a good general sampling of channels I subscribe to and why I subscribe. There are quite a few more, of course, but I think these ones are each unique enough that you should be able to figure out what you want to do by watching them do what they love.

I apologize for how freakishly long this is and how clumsy my writing is. I wrote it all out and lost the steam to go back and do a thorough editing.

Compressed Air Rocket Launcher Update

I just realized that Compressed Air Rocket Launcher can be shortened to CARL. I like that. I think I shall use this name from now on to refer to my launching platform.

Anyhow, we took CARL out again on Friday to test a few new rockets we had made since every one of them blew up last time. Since CARL had some sensitivity in the air tube leading into the main tank last time, I got some zip ties of my own to add a second tie. It seemed to make the seal a lot more secure up until about 85 psi, which is plenty of pressure for some awesome launches.

CARL’s battery box received just one more upgrade as well. If you recall from last time, the only thing I had left to do in the battery box was to secure the 9v battery clips to the inside so they wouldn’t rattle around.

We went to Target and got a cheap hot glue gun, which I thought would be good because the metal battery clips had several holes that the glue could rise above and spread out, securing the metal to the plastic base. Since the holes were right by where the battery sits inside the clip, I wrapped the 9v batteries in parchment paper to prevent the glue from sticking to them, then I applied glue to each of the holes from the bottom, and pressed them into position inside the box. After the glue hardened I removed the batteries, unwrapped the parchment paper, and replaced the batteries. It worked perfectly, and those clips are very secure.

During the operation one of the wires snapped. That’s where a nice wire stripper comes in handy. The wire was weakened when I used a knife to strip the wire and accidentally nicked the copper in the center. Anyhow, I just re-soldered a new wire into the clips (it was the wire connecting the two clips to combine the batteries into a single power source) and made sure I remembered the heat shrink this time.

In all, the battery clips ended up looking very nice, they are extremely secure in there, and the system still functions wonderfully. I only wish I had taken some photos of the process.

As for the rockets, we wanted to try a few different approaches this time. Here are the three models we came up with:

Starting from the right, my first attempt at a tougher body didn’t go very well. I went ahead and threw a couple of fins and a nose cone on it, but it was fatally flawed – I had wrapped it around the 1/2″ pipe a little too tightly. Even my attempts at removing some of the inner paper couldn’t remedy the situation.

My approach with this rocket was to use clear packing tape in such a way as to prevent air from escaping through the seams. I think the best approach was to cover the entire length in overlapping rings (overlapping by at least half the width of the tape), then start at the top and go down the entire length in a spiral pattern, again overlapping as much as possible. If the first spiral descended in a counter-clockwise spiral, I then did a second spiral clockwise. Then I reinforced each end of the spirals (top and bottom) with duct tape.

This rocket proved tough enough for the pressure, but because it was too tight I couldn’t get it all the way onto the pipe, causing poor performance (not much altitude, crooked flight path).

The middle rocket was built by my friend James. He showed up in the last post helping me with some of the soldering. You can see in the photo that his rocket is about 10% thicker than the other two. His technique for preventing a blowout was to put several thick layers on. Some of his layers were spiraled, some weren’t. I think he spend a full hour applying tape to his rocket’s body. Keeping with the thick build theme, he decided to use cardboard for the fins. For that we brought out the hot glue gun again.

Seeing how fun the hot glue behaved and how hard it hardened, he decided to “armor plate” his nose cone and the leading edges of his fins with the glue. Below you can see a video of all three rockets and their performance. Make sure you pay special attention to how the armored nose cone looked after the landing.

The final rocket, on the left, was my follow-up attempt after getting the other one too tight. To prevent myself from getting it too tight, I wrapped a whole sheet of paper around the length of the pipe before even starting my rocket. That way, when I finished the rocket and the body was on there real tight, I could pull it all off and remove the inner layer of paper. This resulted in a nice, loose fit on the pipe.

I ended up putting a tad too much tape on there, I think. At first I was only going to put packing tape on, so there are several layers of that, but then I decided to put duct tape on as well. I ended up putting about three or four layers of duct tape on (following the opposing spirals rule and finishing with a neat overlapping rings pattern).

Finally, I put three fins on it that had a slight angle to them that caused a really great spiraling motion after launch. The spin appeared to be just right to keep the rocket on a relatively straight flight path.

Check out the video of the launches below.

We finished up the weekend with a camping trip (CARL was not invited) which I will write about on our family blog in a couple of weeks.

Compressed Air Rocket Launcher

A while ago I read a neat article that detailed how to make a compressed air rocket launcher.  The thought of making rockets from scrap paper and launching them several hundred feet high with nothing but compressed air sounded pretty neat (and economical). So over the last several months we gathered materials and purchased a few necessary tools in preparation for building this great little device. Of course, I wasn’t satisfied with a few aspects of the original design, so I made some small modifications to the plans.

The Maker Shed sells a kit with all of the parts, precut and ready to go, for about $50 (but be prepared to spend upwards of $20 on shipping). I’m glad we got the kit because shortly after ordering it I found that I can’t make a straight, clean cut in PVC to save my life. Other than tools, the only thing you really need to get that doesn’t come in the kit is the PVC primer and cement. Notice my sloppy application of the purple primer in the photo below.

Following the plans to the letter, I assembled the compression chamber last week, but a friend of mine from work wanted to sit in on the electronics portion, so I held off on that until today. Tools required to get to this point were slip jaw pliers, Channellock Griplock pliers, a rubber mallet, and a few other things I didn’t have. I wished I had some kind of sand paper (something other than a metal file) to get the rest of the rubber off the tire valve (at the end of the hose in the photo). Since I couldn’t get it completely clean, the valve didn’t make a great seal with the tube. Also, the little metal ring that you crimp on there to seal it tight requires side cutters (or something similar) to make the crimp. I didn’t have tools to adequately crimp it. So the end of my tube leaked a lot on the first pressure test. I fixed it with some good, old-fashioned super glue and wrapped the mess in electrical tape pulled tight to add a little more seal.

Oh, and make sure you have or get some rubber gloves to use when working with the PVC primer and cement. You need to keep that stuff off your skin, but it will get all over your hands and everything else (no matter how careful you think you can be). I used leather and canvass work gloves and worked inside of a cardboard box, but I think some of it still leaked through to my hands a couple of times and a few drops somehow ended up staining my computer mouse. The warning on the cans said to wear rubber gloves, and I should have just bought some rubber gloves. Oh, and work in a VERY well ventilated area.

Another note: above 60 psi I noticed that the hose started leaking from the hose attachment closer to the chamber. Jiggling the zip tie fixed it, but this kit’s main problems all seem to be with the sealing methods used at each end of the hose. If I worked more with airtight, pressurized systems I might be able to fix those issues, but for now I’ll just keep jiggling things to keep them in line.

To pressurize the chamber you need a bicycle pump. We found a cheap one (under $20) with a pressure gauge built in (DO NOT surpass 90 psi) at Target, but we had been planning on getting the pump on Amazon before we found the one at Target.I can’t tell you how nice it is to have the pressure gauge built in. Knowing exactly how charged the chamber is can be essential, and taking the pump off to use a tire pressure gauge would be annoying.

As of this morning, that’s as far as I had gotten. All of that work (assembling the pressure chamber, testing it and cleaning up my mess) took about four hours. The rest of the work, which I did very slowly today to prevent errors, took about six hours. That’s about ten hours to fully complete my version of the project. Following the stock instructions and moving with more confidence would probably cut that time in half.

As for today’s work…

The pressure chamber will eventually fail, and when it does you don’t want a bunch of PVC shards flying at your face. So it is recommended that you wrap it up in a few layers of duct tape.

Once that was finished, the only structural element remaining was the stand (which looked easy enough, so I put it off because I couldn’t wait to get to the electrical portion). I didn’t want to install the stand until we had put a layer of colored duct tape on the chamber, which was my wife’s job since it had to be pretty (and I stink at that).

Since I would be doing some electrical work, and I wanted to solder the leads (much more secure than just taping them), I needed to get some supplies. So a week and a half ago I turned to my new favorite online electronics store and bought the following:

The electrical portion in the provided plans was simple. There is a small pipe with end fittings, you drill holes in the ends, stick a button in one hole and pull two twisted wires out the other end, wire a couple of nine volt batteries into the circuit, zip tie them to the launcher, and hook the valve motor up to the whole circuit. Push the button, and the valve releases the air (which is pumped in with the bicycle pump).

I didn’t like the weak look of the two little wires coming out of the launch button tube, and I didn’t want to zip tie the batteries to the launcher. So I came up with an alternate circuit design. I wanted something modular – I wanted to house the batteries in a box, I wanted to plug the launch button into the battery box, and have the motor plug in as well. That way you can unplug everything, wrap the cords up, and store everything without worrying about stuff tangling up too bad. Plus, if I used better wires, I figured it’d be tougher.

Then I got the idea to put a power indicator light on the battery box with a switch. Then I was browsing around a neat electronics parts store and found this missile switch cover and I knew that my project needed that part.

That’s when I got excited and ordered the following parts to make my vision for improving the device a reality.

From Sparkfun:

From RadioShack:

From Parts-Express:

From Amazon:

So one night I thought long and hard about how I could make this circuit work (especially since I already knew exactly what parts were going into it), and I came up with the following hybrid, nearly technical drawing of how it could work (after several hours of research).

The toggle switch, two jacks (RCA, not drawn well), batteries and little red power light are all pretty clear. That zig zag line is a mystery resistor.

Since the light I found was a 12v light, and the circuit was running off two 9v batteries (that 18 volts!), I knew that I would need a resistor to be in series with the light (which, incidentally, is in parallel with the push button and valve motor). Finding the proper values for that resistor took another few hours of research. I finally found the ratings for the lamp I chose, and using those I was able to calculate that I needed a 100 ohm resistor rated at around .5 Watts. So I added to my list of things to buy from RadioShack:

I also decided to get some cheap 9 volt batteries there.

All of that planning and researching was accomplished last week. Today all I did was wire it all together (thinking in reverse order to prevent myself from making mistakes), solder everything and put heat shrink over bare wire whenever I remembered, and stuff it all the the box. Amazingly, without any testing along the way, after everything was soldered and screwed inside the box, I flipped the switch and the power light went on. Even more amazingly, when I plugged the launch button and the motor into the battery box, I was able to activate the motor with the launch button! I was amazed that it all worked so perfectly right away. I guess all that research really paid off.

The great thing about the circuit is that it doesn’t matter which jack you plug which item into. The switch and motor are interchangeable. Also, if you are planning on attempting this and you’ve never done anything like it, keep in mind that the lamp and resistor can go in any order along their little parallel circuit. I actually reversed them from the drawing, but they would work either way. I’m not going to go into a detailed explanation of why or how, but that’s just the way DC works with those particular parts.

So, to get started putting it all together, I cut the RCA cable into three parts: I measured off a few feet from one end and made a cut, then I measured about 20 feet from the other end and made a cut. That left a bunch of spare cable that I didn’t need (but could use for another project in the future). The longer cable is for the launcher button, and the shorter one is for the motor. Since I didn’t have a nice cable stripper, I had to use my Leatherman blade to prepare it for attachment to the components. If you’ve never done this, practice on the extra cable – you need to make sure you don’t cut the little tiny wires under the surface of the black jacket. These wires cut really easily. After removing the jacket I grabbed them all up and twisted them tightly into a single wire bunch. Then I stripped the cladding from the center wire. Again, don’t nick that center wire too badly or it will break later.

Note: I ended up stripping the rest of the white cladding off on both of these cables. I originally thought I might want it on there, but I didn’t need it.

Afterward I drilled holes in the end caps for the launch button handle and threaded everything onto the longer cable.

Finding just the right spot to put that knot was impossible before soldering the wire onto the button. Put the knot in anyhow right away and you can move it later. Also, on top of that knot don’t forget to thread on the nut and washer for the button that goes in the other cap. Then thread the cable through the top cap’s hole and solder the button on there.

Perhaps one of the hardest things was figuring out how to screw the nut onto the bottom of the button after it was inserted into the cap since I used a thicker cable than was recommended by the project designers. I don’t have a picture of my solution, but in the above photo you can see some of the black jacket from the coaxial cable. I cut about a half an inch off of that and slipped it over the end of a small (but NOT a precision) flat head screwdriver. This created a tiny finger with a little more grip against the metal nut than I had with the screwdriver alone. After a few minutes of jiggling, wiggling and maneuvering, I was able to get it screwed together pretty securely in there.

After drilling all the holes in my project case I began wiring it all together. This part was simple. I just followed my diagram, thought in reverse (what do I need to thread through where to make sure it ends up in the right place after everything is attached?), and went very, very slowly. The one part of the project that isn’t yet complete is anchoring down those battery holders inside the enclosure. I’m still debating on whether I want to hot glue them in, super glue them in, or use some other fancy bonding technique or chemical.

Here are some pictures of everything after it was completed:

The finished battery box and launcher button handle.

The valve motor and it’s cable with an RCA plug on the end.

The back of the battery box with its RCA plugs. You can plug either the launcher or the motor into either jack.

Here’s everything completed. Notice the new coloring on the pressure chamber. Another few layers of duct tape certainly can’t hurt.

That’s pretty much the whole build process. In all, making the silly little paper rockets was probably the most difficult thing. Those nose cones and fins are nearly impossible to mount properly. Also, put several more layers of tape around the body of the rocket than you believe necessary unless you are going to launch at low psi (below 40, we think). At 80 psi none of our rockets survived and none of them flew very high with gaping gashes in their sides (one of them split in two across the middle). When we get the rocket building process right, I’ll let you know.

A silly note though: If you shop at Costco and you buy their Kirkland Spring Water in bulk, the normal 16.9 OZ bottles fit perfectly over the launch tube and fly off spectacularly in an explosion of mist. It’s pretty cool, but they aren’t aerodynamic enough to go very high (even with fins and a nosecone). Oh, and dropping Nerf darts (the screamers work well) into the launch tube is a riot. A Nerf dart shot out at 80 psi will completely disappear, but if it’s a screamer you can hear it squealing as it leaves the atmosphere and enters orbit around the Earth.

To see more of the family aspect of this project, head over to our family album and YouTube channel to see pictures and video. If you have any questions or comments, or if you use any of my ideas when you build your project, please share in the comments below. Thanks for reading.

**EDIT**

We resolved many of the issues we had here. I think the tube is more secure now, I’ve attached the 9v battery clips to the inside of the battery box, and we finally built rockets that don’t rupture when launched. Oh, and the launcher is now named CARL. For details on all of these improvements, see the follow-up article.

WRT54G Wireless Router Not in Swedish Any More

I was in the middle of studying for my Network+ certification when I happened upon the tracert command (which I was aware of, but hadn’t tried since high school). When I tried it out, I realized my Linksys wireless router was still configured with the default IP address (192.168.1.1). What I was faced with was a chance to fix something I should have done years ago. What did I do? I totally seized the day.

When I set up the access point many moons ago I was smart enough to change the default SSID, I set up an admin password (which I promptly forgot), and I encrypted the signal using WPA2 with a good password. However, I was a major noob (I picked WPA2 not because it was the best – I had no idea – I picked it because it looked fancier than the rest), and I had no idea that I was leaving myself open to attack by not changing the default IP address. Heck, I didn’t even realize I could change the IP address.

Now, however, in order to change it, I needed to figure out what my login name and password were.

I found out that some Linksys equipment (mine, in particular) uses a default username of admin and a default password of, you guessed it, password (others may use a blank username and a password of admin). So, using the appropriate login name I was quickly able to guess my password, which is good.

Unfortunately, I quickly realized that I wasn’t going to be able to do much. All of the admin pages were in Swedish. Now, I remember setting the thing up several years ago, and it wasn’t in Swedish. What happened since then? I don’t know.

Lucky for me, I use the all-powerful Google Chrome web browser, which automatically noticed my predicament and graciously offered to translate the page for me. I clicked the, “gee thanks” button and was presented with awkward but passable English.

I quickly changed my router’s IP address to something top-secret, then went about poking around the settings tabs. I wanted to change the language. You know, it’s usually pretty easy. You’ve got your cell phone, your Nintendo DS, your home game consoles, your computer, Facebook, movies, your banking site, your children… They all make it relatively easy to change the language you use to interact with them. For some strange reason, Cisco decided to hide the language settings page. I poked around for several long minutes before realizing it wasn’t there. Bologna.

Hey, 1 was good for them too!

While poking around I noticed some other things to do. I changed the broadcast channel finally. Months ago I downloaded the excellent WiFi Analyzer app for my Motorola Droid, and had seen that I was broadcasting on the most popular channel in the neighborhood, but I hadn’t been able to get into my router at the time. Now that I was in, I used the application to select a better channel than the default (6, I believe). In my area, channel 1 was pretty empty.

I also changed the timezone since I originally set up the router in California but I’m now on the East Coast.

Sadly, changing the timezone didn’t change the language (I wouldn’t have been surprised to find that Swedish is the default language when you use the router in California, but this was not the case). So, I went to my good friend Google for help.

I immediately found that the answer was buried online as well as being buried on the router. One user on Yahoo Answers suggested contacting Cisco technical support for the answer. That’s not very helpful!

That’s when I realized, “if I find the answer, I should write a blog post about it to make it easier for people to find, then I’ll write a whole bunch of crap before the solution, forcing them to read pages and pages of stuff they don’t care about.” Either way, I hope that this brings people to my site for something useful, rather than looking for pictures of Robert Downey Jr. (apparently my single post the merely mentions him is galaxies more popular than any of my other posts).

Anyhow, I eventually found the answer in the comments section of a post about configuring one of these wireless doohickeys (yeah, I thought it should end in “ies” also, but spellcheck liked this better).

The humble comment posting from this genius, karthickjck, appears below:

How to fix the access point of Babbel

So that’s it? There’s a language.htm page? Where was the link for it? Why couldn’t I find it? Where does Mr. karthickjck get his information? For those of you who can’t read images, here’s a transcription of karthickjck’s secret information:

In your browser try opening the page http://192.168.1.1/language.htm then try selecting the language you prefer. It may ask for a language pack. Insert your setup CD and in the CD look for the folder Langauge and select the appropriate language pack.

Just to let you know, it didn’t ask me for a language pack, but I kept hitting the button directly below the Language Selection drop-down box (which, as you can see below, is the “Upgrade Language” button) rather than the save button below it. Don’t do that, it’s confusing and it takes you to a page where it asks you to upload one of those language packs. Also, the address in the solution is the default IP address for Linksys wireless routers – if it doesn’t work then your router’s IP address has been changed and you’ll need to use the correct IP address. Running tracert http://www.google.com like I did (or you can use some other destination) will show your router’s IP address (should be the first one listed, unless you have a vastly more complicated home network than I do).

WRT54G From Google Image SearchSo we’re on the same page, I’m using an old but reliable WRT54G Linksys Wireless B/G router, but I think this should work for a lot of older (and perhaps newer) Linksys routers if they use the same HTML based interface for configurations and settings.

Anyhow, here’s a screenshot of the magical Language page (called Multi Language in the title bar) that is not directly linked to in the rest of the interface:

Multi Language(Click to enlarge.)

See in the sub-menu area below the big ADMINISTRATION menu header where it says, “… Config Management | Language” ? That “Language” link goes away when you click on any other menu link anywhere on the page. Why did they do that? Why couldn’t the language option be a permanent resident in the menu? So many questions, not enough answers.

I hope that helps you. If this helped you solve your problem, please leave a quick comment for me. It’ll make me feel good, and you’ll feel good for making my day.

Writing Today

I didn’t actually plan on writing today, but when I got online and checked Facebook and my feed reader, it turns out I just couldn’t stop writing.

So, I thought I’d share my thoughts with everyone.

The first item that sparked a slew of written thought was this:

This is a good comic, you should subscribe to it.

This is from a webcomic I subscribe to in Google Reader. Usually, this sort of comic doesn’t elicit a very strong reaction from me (I didn’t even laugh at this one, it wasn’t very funny). However, the author’s commentary below the comic brought back some memories:

In junior high I took one of those future career tests. I was really hoping the result would be cartoonist, but instead it was screenwriter or artist. I later found out that cartoonist wasn’t in the database, so that must have been the closest it could find since cartooning is a little of both.

Anyone else take one of those tests?

Yes, I did take one of those kinds of tests, and I wanted to share my thoughts. So I went to the post’s page and left a comment:

True story – In early grade school I took one of those career aptitude tests on an Apple IIe computer with a green and black screen. Taking the test I felt inspired, like there were so many possibilities out there for me to go out and enjoy after my long, arduous but essential years in the education system, which would ultimately prepare me to be a successful member of a highly qualified working force.
It asked questions about my hobbies, my interests, my skills, and so much more. By the time I finished the test, I felt as though the software and I had formed a bond that would last a lifetime. I eagerly waited while the computer calculated my scores and searched through an endlessly fascinating list of exciting jobs. My heart skipped beats every time I giddily considered a possible career – astronaut, fighter jet pilot, robotics engineer… The list seemed endless.
At the end of a grueling wait, the result popped up on the screen:
ELEVATOR OPERATOR
My heart sunk, and twenty years later it hasn’t risen. That test killed my hopes and dreams.

OK. Now that I’ve got that out of the way, I wandered over to Facebook where I had a message waiting for me. Here is an edited, summarized and fabricated version of the message (to protect the privacy of the involved parties):

Brian,

I recently had something change in my extended family. This change resulted in the separation of two parties which left me with Facebook friends that I no longer have any reason to keep in touch with. Facebook has changed a lot recently, and I am unable to find how to break my connection with these individuals. Could you please help?

So, in response I went crazy on my keyboard:

Hey. Sorry it took me a little while to check my messages because I’ve been in class all week (preparing to get A+ certification).

If you haven’t yet had your question answered by someone quicker than I am, I think you will find the following helpful.

They seem to be making it more and more difficult to get rid of friends these days. I understand it’s something they don’t want to make too easy or people would be doing it accidentally all the time, causing a lot of very awkward situations.

Anyhow, the fastest, easiest way I could find to get to my list of friends (for editing) was to go up to the upper right-hand corner where it says “Home | Profile | Account.”  The “Account” link has a little down arrow next to it, and when you click on it you’ll see a little menu pop up, and at the top of those options you’ll see “Edit Friends.”

Of course, clicking on “Edit Friends” and finding an editable list of your friends would be too easy, right? So they had to hide your friends under one more layer of security (as if hiding this in the corner wasn’t enough).

On the left-hand menu area you’ll see “Lists,” and at the top of the lists (if you’ve created any, they will help you find the people you’re trying to remove easier) you can click on “Friends” to pull up your complete list of friends.

Each friend has their photo, their name, their network, then a little drop-down menu for managing which lists they appear in. Beside all of that, on the far right there is an “X.” Clicking on that “X” removes your connection to them – deleting them from your list of friends.

Oddly enough, I don’t think they get any kind of notification that you’ve removed them (or, as the new generation is calling it, “unfriended”). So, you can do this without worrying about them becoming offended (if that’s a concern of yours, thought I don’t think you believe they will even notice).

I hope that helps. If you need more instructions or even step-by-step screen captures to guide you, I’d be happy to email you (I have this neat tool in Windows 7 that can capture every step I take to do something, record in text what I do, then create a webpage type file that I can send to other people or edit and post to the web).

Any time you have any technical questions, do not hesitate to contact me. I’m always happy to help, and sometimes, when I’ve heard a question enough times, it prompts me to write a detailed instructional article and post it to my blog. So keep them coming!

Your friend,

Brian Haddad

I hope this post was somewhat entertaining. I regret not writing more, but I’ve been extremely busy and somewhat stressed about several things that have spiraled out of control in my life, and I will resume regular writing when I feel able. Until then, watch for random posts like this one.

New Computer? – Start Here

**EDIT**

If you’re just looking for a list of free software to install on your computer, I’ve created a Springpad notebook full of links to my favorites. If I find anything else to add, I’ll put it there.

I want to start out by saying that I am just a guy. I wasn’t paid to write any of this, I don’t work for any of the companies mentioned, and these are all just my opinions. If any of the mentioned companies wanted to pay me because I wrote all these nice things about them, I’d be willing to talk to them about an arrangement. 😉

Having said that, here are the chronicles of my recent adventure procuring and setting up my new laptop. I’m going to break this down into three separate categories: Hardware, Pre-installed Software you Don’t Need, and Free Software you Might Need. Lucky for you, I’m all about free, open-source and simplicity; so the only part that I spent money on was the hardware.

I’ve designed this as a sort of guide to assist YOU in purchasing and setting up a new computer. People are always looking at my glasses. After they get a good look at my glasses, they say, “Hey, I need a new computer. What kind should I get?” People with new computers are always asking me, “Is it better to just use Internet Explorer, or should I get one of those new browsers?” Also, it has been my own experience that just using all of the default software (that ships with the system) for document editing, virus handling, and many other tasks is a bad idea. So, here are all of my answers and tips in one place. This may not be the definitive guide to getting a new computer, but it is MY definitive guide for those who need it.

So, without further chit-chat, let’s look at your hardware options.

HARDWARE

This one’s easier than you might be inclined to believe. Sure there are a lot of choices, but it all comes down to what you want to use the computer for.

The computer I wanted this time around was a laptop I could actually take places. Last time I got a laptop (over five years ago) it weighed ten pounds, it was more of a desktop replacement and cost me over two thousand dollars. Now I’ve got a desktop, and I wanted an inexpensive computer that could go places with me AND do stuff. I’ve got an Asus eee PC (a netbook), but that thing can’t really do stuff. I mean, it can do some stuff (I use it for NaNoWriMo every year), but it’s a little wimpy when it comes to multitasking and other processor/RAM intensive activities.

The Argument for Desktops

First, if you’ve got the space for it and you don’t need to move it, get a desktop. Laptops have really gone down in price lately, but an equivalent (as far as hardware and capabilities) desktop will always cost less than its laptop counterpart (as of this writing).

Desktops have the greatest range in options as well. You can get a cheap-o system that is really only good for running your web browser and a word processor for under a hundred dollars, or you can pay tens of thousands of dollars for systems that can perform at speeds rivaling supercomputers. No matter what you’ll be using the desktop for, you can always find a system that perfectly meets your needs without spending more than you have to. Always.

The first step in selecting a desktop is to imagine yourself using that computer for the next two years. What will you use it for? Do you play many games? You might need to spend more for a system that will be compatible with future game releases. Will you be hooking it up to your TV to watch shows and movies? There are a lot of media center pc options. If you’re a Mac person (which, I might be if I had more money), you might want an Apple TV rather than a new computer.

Just decide what you’ll need the computer to be able to do, and consider these simple guidelines (which, unless you’re a “power user,” will more than cover the basics). I don’t need to say it, but if you know enough about computers to know that these guidelines aren’t comprehensive, then these guidelines weren’t written for you.

  • RAM – For most users, this is arguably the most important decision. More RAM means faster, smoother, more powerful computing. You want to open and use every program installed on your computer at the same time? You need lots of RAM. Will you only do one thing at a time for the rest of the time you own the computer? You can get by with 2 Gigs or less (depending on that one program you’ll be running!).
  • Operating System Bits – Related to RAM, but separate, is the operating system you’ll be using. Right away I have to mention that a 32 bit operating system cannot handle a full 4 Gigabytes of RAM, and certainly not more. If you will want 4 Gigs or more of RAM, you’ll need a 64 bit OS. Otherwise, 32 vs 64 bits will not have much of an impact on you.
  • Operating System Flavor – Which OS you choose will depend on many factors, but at the risk of bringing on hoards of criticism, I’m going to go ahead and simplify things this way: If you’re lost when it comes to choosing your operating system, just get Windows 7. Sure, Macs are simple, but getting software for them can be a hassle. Windows may have a poor track-record when it comes to stability and ease of use, but I’m putting a lot of faith in Windows 7, and I think it’s a safe choice for YOU. If you know you want a Mac though, please get it!
  • Processor – When it comes to desktops, you’re really only going to concern yourself with how many cores and processors you want. Adding processors and cores means better ability to process multiple instructions at a time (translating to blazing speed and excellent multitasking), while a single core on a single processor will more than meet the needs of most users. Don’t get the fancy processor set-up unless you know you need it. For most modern operating systems and software, though, I recommend at least a single processor with dual cores. More than that and you’d better be doing some serious video editing or 3D graphics (like games).
  • Hard Drive – If you’re doing video editing or if you’re archiving your DVD collection on the hard drive, get something huge. If you’re just surfing the Internet and writing papers in Word, you don’t need much hard drive space. Even the smallest hard drives shipping these days are more than ample for the average user. Note that media center systems should have more hard drive space to store videos or recorded television.

Sure, there are more factors than just these to consider, but if you’re not a power user who already knows about the other factors, then you don’t need to worry about them. What you don’t know can’t hurt you here.

The only other thing I would caution is to avoid brands you’re not familiar with and be wary of prices that are significantly lower than competing systems with similar capabilities. Your desktop shouldn’t be too expensive, but don’t be a cheapskate once you know what you want. Just pay what the trusted manufacturers are charging.

I currently use a first generation HP TouchSmart for my desktop, and it’s held up very well in the two years we’ve owned it. Both of my laptops are Toshibas, and we love them. Namebrand systems are always a good bet.

Where Desktops Fail

The only problem with a desktop is that it is not very portable. Sure, some of the newer CPU box form-factors (especially in the case of media center computers) are very small and lightweight. However, the screen and input devices are not built in, thus to use the system it must be hooked up to these things, and to move it you have to unplug everything. Convenient? No.

So what if you really need something you can take to class with you? You need either a laptop or a netbook. Can’t decide which one? Consider this:

I thought I could get a netbook and do the same things with it as I do with my laptop. I was wrong. Even with a full size keyboard attached and an external mouse, the netbook screens are too small to be practical in a number of applications. For a true, natural computing experience, you’ll still want a larger system. They make laptops that are much closer in size (and price) to netbooks, but they are much more convenient. If you’re not sure about getting a netbook, don’t. Just go for a smaller laptop. I promise you’ll be happy with it.

If you know you want a netbook, get it. If you’re not sure, don’t. You’ve got to be committed to liking your netbook, or you’re going to hate it.

Other than the netbook vs laptop decision, there isn’t a whole lot more to think about. How portable do you want it? There are a range of sizes from 13 inches to over 18 inches for screens. Some are less than an inch thin, and others have huge 12 cell batteries that lift them about three inches off your table top. Some run hot from having their hardware crammed in to a small space, while others have minimal hardware configurations and are quiet and cool. Again, the considerations for desktops will all hold true for laptops, but you might want to consider the following IN ADDITION to the desktop suggestions:

  • Overall Size – You’re getting a laptop because a desktop isn’t portable enough for you, but how portable do you need your laptop to be? If you are still just going to leave it set up in one place for long periods of time, you might consider a larger desktop replacement laptop. These systems offer the same performance as a desktop, at often competitive prices, but at the end of the day the screen folds up and you can pack it away in a bag. Expect these to weigh close to ten pounds though! Then there are the ultra portables that weigh in at under five pounds (mine weighs like three pounds!). Keep in mind that a netbook can weigh close to one pound, but you’ve already decided you want a laptop, right?
  • Battery Size/Usage – Some laptops these days are being designed as marathon machines. They can squeeze almost a full day of usage out of a single charge, but that efficiency comes at a price (both in dollars and performance). Most laptops are designed to fully contain a six cell battery, but by doubling the number of cells to twelve (and subsequently, increasing the size of the battery pack itself, causing it to protrude out the back or bottom of the computer), you can double the life of the battery. Also, Intel and AMD make processors specifically designed to use less power. They usually run at far less than 2 Gigahertz, and they cannot handle too many big tasks like gaming and video editing as well. You could try, but if that’s what you need the system for (primarily) you’ll just have to charge the system more often.
  • USB Ports – If you use a lot of devices at once, you’ll need at least three USB ports. I always recommend using an external keyboard and mouse with a laptop whenever possible simply because they can be replaced much easier than the built-in devices. The less you use them, the less likely they are to break. So, with a keyboard and mouse plugged in, you will want to have at least one more USB port for external hard drives, thumb drives, cameras or whatever else tickles your fancy. A few laptops only have two ports (one on each side), most have three, and a few have up to five USB ports. Get as many as you can without spending too much just for that feature. Also keep in mind that some USB devices have a special “Y” shaped cable that plugs into two USB ports. If you might need one of these devices, you’ll want a laptop with two USB ports that are close together, not one on each side.

In my most recent purchase, I wanted something far more portable than my old laptop but more capable than a netbook. I went with a Toshiba Satellite, ultra thin system. This particular system (like most ultra thin, lightweight systems) does not have an optical drive (no DVD or CD drive). That wasn’t an issue for me because I knew that all of the software I could ever need I was going to download for free once I got it connected to the Internet. If you install a lot of software from disks but still want a system like mine, there are some great external drives that will meet your needs. I may end up getting one too so I can watch movies on my laptop, but for now I’m fine without an optical drive.

Accessories

The final hardware consideration is, what else do you need? Some people need lots of storage but end up choosing a laptop with a smaller hard drive. In that case, just get an external hard drive. Do you transfer a lot of files between systems? Get a thumb drive. Actually, I recommend that people get thumb drives even if they don’t need them for transferring files. They make a great place to keep backups of your most important files.

Keyboard:

The only thing I know you’ll need if you got a laptop is a mouse and keyboard. There’s no getting around it – using the laptop keyboard puts wear on it that could eventually require maintenance. If you use an external keyboard, and it breaks, you can just unplug it and get another one. My favorite typing keyboard ever (that I’ve used anyhow) is the Logitech Classic Keyboard 200. It currently sells for $13.99 on Amazon.com, it is comfortable, and I’ve never had any problems with it. I love it.

Mouse:

I do recommend spending a little more for your external mouse though. Touch pads are great for basic navigation and occasional clicking, but nothing beats a scroll wheel on the Internet, and when doing graphics work or gaming you just can’t live without a mouse. My current favorite is the Microsoft Explorer series. Specifically, my wife and I love our Explorer Mini mice. Amazon.com sells them for about $40, they retail for about $60, and there is currently a vendor on Amazon that is selling them for under $20 (with $4 shipping). The great thing about the Explorer mice is that they will track on literally anything but glass and mirrors (although in some tests these mice have actually tracked on glass and mirrors!). We can use them on shag carpet, glossy surfaces, pitted surfaces, hair, clothing, anything at all, and more. If you want a great mouse, Microsoft actually has a great product.

PRE-INSTALLED SOFTWARE YOU DON’T NEED

All computers come with what is lovingly called “bloat-ware.” This is software that people pay the manufacturer to include pre-installed from the factory. In some ways I guess it’s good because I’d like to think that the money they earn from that endeavor goes toward keeping costs lower for me, but I rather doubt it.

Anyhow, the first program I highly suggest you uninstall (if it’s installed) is Norton Anti-Virus. Many computers come with it pre-installed along with an offer for a whole year or month or day of free updates. It’s not worth it. Microsoft has a free program you can download right away that does the same thing (well, roughly the same thing).

To get rid of Norton (or any program, for that matter), just go to the control panel and look for “Add/Remove Programs” or something like that. Find the offender, click “uninstall,” and follow the directions. Most virus protection software will require that you restart after removing it. That’s OK.

Now, I don’t recommend you leave your computer virus-protection-free for long. It is a dangerous thing. So once you’ve finished uninstalling the crud you don’t need, make sure you immediately download the “essential” software I have listed below, in the order I’ve listed them.

First though, look for any programs that say “offer” or “setup” next to them and get rid of them (still in the Add/Remove Software tool). Also, some systems (most Toshibas and HPs) come with some kind of game portal that you should get rid of.

Many people will tell you to get rid of a lot more than this, but it’s not always necessary. After you’ve been using the computer for a month or so, go back to the Add/Remove Software tool and look over the list. If you recognize the program and you know you use it a lot, don’t get rid of it. If you recognize it and you know you don’t use it a lot, get rid of it (just make sure you know what it does first!). Everything else is probably OK to leave installed.

FREE SOFTWARE YOU MIGHT NEED

Some of these are more essential than others. I’ll categorize them to simplify this. In some cases it won’t matter what program you get as long as you get something that does the job. So, if you’re ready to get started, open Internet Explorer (unless your system came with another browser pre-installed, in which case you should DEFINITELY use the other one!).

Note: This list is designed for Windows users ONLY. Many of these programs are cross platform, but I’m not going to say which ones because I’m not making this list for Mac users. Sorry guys. Maybe another time.

Essential Software

These are programs that you will need to get – almost everyone needs these programs. Right away, before downloading anything, you need virus protection!

  • Virus Protection – Search for “Microsoft Security Essentials,” or go to http://www.microsoft.com/Security_Essentials/. Click on the big “Download Now” button, save the executable and run it. Make sure you have already removed any virus protection that shipped with your computer, then close your web browser while the program installs. Once it installs make sure it runs OK, then let it scan your system. Depending on the size of your hard drive, this can take anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours. Since this is the first thing you’re doing on your new system, everything should be clean. After it scans your system, you may proceed with this list.
  • New Browser – DO NOT USE INTERNET EXPLORER. Sure, there are a lot of sites that require it, but I can show you how to get around that later. For now, just download one or both of the following browsers and try them out. You won’t miss Internet Explorer after a few days. I promise. My favorite is Google Chrome, but I was once a die-hard Firefox fan (I even have an embroidered FireFox shirt). They are both worlds better than IE, more secure, faster, and prettier. While I might catch some heat for this, I am going to recommend that you just get Google Chrome. It’s better. Once you’ve downloaded and selected a new browser, close Internet Explorer and never open it again (unless you really have to).
  • Free Office Software – While there are a few options for this, my favorite (and arguably the most user friendly and robust) is OpenOffice.org. Just go to their website in your new, shiny browser, and download. It’s that easy. The installation is easy and the program operates a lot like Microsoft Office. There are some differences, but OpenOffice.org can do just about anything Microsoft Office can do, and in some cases it does it better. If you ever find that OpenOffice.org just isn’t meeting your needs, feel free to go back to the Microsoft version, but I don’t think most people will ever need to.
  • Media Player – Windows Media Player is pretty good, but there are a lot of things it can’t handle. For everything else, there’s VLC. VLC can’t do everything, but I’ve never found a video it couldn’t play.
  • Photo Organizer – Since most people maintain some kind of image collection (from digital cameras, web graphics, etc.), you’ll probably want a good program to organize and lightly edit those photos. Google Picasa is a great product that is completely free and I recommend it to everyone.

Everything Else

Those, to me, represent the bare-bones necessities for a new computer. If you get nothing else, make sure you get those things. The remainder of my list is specific to my needs and wants, based on what I want to use the computer for. If you know of other great free programs that aren’t listed here, please add them in the comments.

  • Dropbox – This is a really cool file program. It creates a special folder that automatically backs itself up online any time you add or change files in the folder. If you install Dropbox on other computers and link them with your account, Dropbox will synchronize all of the folders across all of the computers and devices you have Dropbox installed on. I love it.
  • Notepad ++ – If you do any web development or coding the old fashioned way (in notepad) you might want to try Notepad ++. I found this little gem several years ago and have installed it on all of my computers ever since.
  • Skype – For video calls and VoIP, my favorite is still Skype. We’ve been using it for quite a while now and we love it.
  • Google Talk – Actually, I didn’t download the Talk program, I installed the Video and Voice plug-in. While most of our video chats are handled over Skype, we have more friends with Google accounts than Skype accounts. With this plug-in, I can have a video call with any Google Talk contact who is also using the plug-in or the desktop client. I’ve only done it once, and it was a long time ago, but this is a valuable thing to have on standby.
  • Google Earth – There’s nothing cooler than exploring your planet in 3D with a nearly infinitely scalable, detailed and textured model with Google Maps plastered all over it. This is as fun as it is useful.
  • Google SketchUp – I am a bit of a 3D hobbyist, and SketchUp is a great way to rapidly visualize a model. It’s a wildly different experience from most of the 3D software I’ve used, but once I got the hang of it I realize it was easier and more intuitive than anything else I’ve ever tried. Plus, it’s free!
  • Blender – On the subject of 3D, how does a free 3D program with advanced features sound? SketchUp may be easy and fast, but it’s not anywhere near Blender’s level. I don’t know if it’s just me, but Blender is extremely un-intuitive to learn. However, I’ve seen what it can do, and I’m impressed enough to trudge over the learning curve and figure it out.
  • Paint.NET – If I’m going to make awesome 3D images in Blender, I’ll need software like Photoshop to make textures, composites, do touch-ups, and more. Windows Paint won’t do any of that. In fact, Paint is nearly useless. Luckily, there’s a better Paint. This program can do layers, adjustments, transparency and even some cool effects. Sure, there’s a lot that it can’t do, but it’s free. If it does what you need it to then you’ve lost nothing, right? I even made the cover for my new book entirely in Paint.NET.
  • Inkscape – Paint.NET can handle most of my 2D needs, but it is primarily for raster images (bitmaps). For vector images, I love Inkscape. It’s relatively easy to learn, and it can handle almost anything you can dream up.
  • GIMP – Many people believe GIMP capable of anything Photoshop can do. I don’t agree, but I do think GIMP is better than Paint.NET for more advanced jobs. A lot like Blender, I find GIMP hard to learn, but that doesn’t stop me from trying. I want to learn it so I can see how long I can live without Photoshop. Someday I’ll be rich and it won’t matter. Until then, I’ll be struggling with GIMP.
  • WavePad – I haven’t tried this yet, but it’s a free audio editing tool that I hope will allow me to make simple audio tracks for animations or an audio book. We shall see. Once I’ve tried it, I’ll write a review (and link to it from here).
  • VideoPad – Like WavePad, I downloaded this to see if it would be suitable for creating simple promotional or family videos. I just want to be able to cut scenes together, edit things out and add simple effects. If this program is a winner, I’ll write a review.

CONCLUSION

I hope this helped. As I use my system and learn more about what programs are meeting my needs and which ones I don’t have that could help, I may modify this list.

I’m 100% sure of all of the hardware tips though, as well as the “essential software” bit. The important thing to remember is that there are hundreds of thousands of free programs out there that you can find that will do the same things that more expensive software can do. Look to the free stuff first, and if it doesn’t work out, pay for what you need.

Good luck and happy computing!

On Electronic Chain-Letters

I’ve been sick, and I’ve felt like writing, but I didn’t know what to write. Funny thing about inspiration though, it can hit you at any time, and in any text box. I just happened to get the urge to write while responding to an email, and the result was something I wanted to share with everyone.

Blah

I'm not fat - I'm puffing my cheeks.

Hey there. I’m sick today, and I lack the will to do anything except sleep, sit at the computer or at the couch, and do almost nothing. I’ve been thinking for quite some time that I’d like to write an unnecessarily lengthy letter to someone in my immediate or extended family, and since you’re my father-in-law and we haven’t exchanged words in a while, you win the prize.

So, when you forwarded that “touching true story” I thought I’d take a look at it rather than AUA it (Archive Upon Arrival).

The fact of the matter is, that I don’t care for forwards. I’ve got one friend (that’s one person, in the whole of my 200+ email contacts) that has ever forwarded me anything I thought was interesting. Most of the forwards I receive are silly “touching stories” that really don’t mean much to me. I’ve had too much experience with fabricated and embellished stories on the Internet, I suppose.

Anyhow, a really good friend of mine introduced me to snopes.com last year, and ever since then I have used it when faced with something on the Internet that seems outlandish. A quick query on snopes.com revealed a most interesting article written specifically about the email you passed along today. Interestingly, this particular story actually has quite a few true elements in it (most of the stories I have seen circulated in email forwards are so exaggerated and embellished that they are rarely representative of any truth that may have served as their premise). However, several key facts were changed and exaggerated.

The story took place in the early eighties, the boy’s name was Frank, and the Make-a-Wish foundation actually granted this as a wish (along with a ride in a hot-air balloon, and a trip to Disneyland). The most touching part of the real story doesn’t even appear in the email, and to make it worse, the email is copied nearly word for word from one of the Chicken Soup for the Soul books. The night that the boy died, it was five firemen that climbed into his room, not sixteen.

Here’s the link to the true account (along with the version of the email that the author saw, which is slightly different still from the one you sent me):

http://www.snopes.com/glurge/fireman.asp

So, yes. The story is touching, but I hate reading these stories in email forwards because they are almost all full of embellishment and twisted truths. I find it much more satisfying to scour the news for heartwarming articles that are presented as a collection of facts with the purpose of informing the reader. That way I’m getting completely true stories, which are better than the big, bold, colorful words (usually in the Comic Sans font) that have been changed or invented to elicit an “oh, how darling” response and usually wrap up with a self-righteous plea from the author to get me to say a prayer for some cause (usually, something I don’t care about).

In my view, the Internet is only good for six things, and half of them I don’t want any part of (pornography, gambling and robbery). The only three things I use it for are (presented in order of the value I place on them):

  1. Humor/Entertainment
  2. Communication (keeping in touch with close friends and family)
  3. Access to accounts and services (banking, on-demand-self-publishing services, etc.)

Even getting factual news on the Internet can be a challenge. My father runs the Internet arm of a newspaper corporation in Arizona, and this is a problem they deal with on a regular basis. Sure, there are news sources on the Internet that can be trusted, but they are drowned out by all the chatter and clutter from sources like the mysterious writer of that email you sent me (who, again, did little more than poorly copy another “touching” email, which was nearly a direct copy of a segment of the Chicken Soup for the Soul book).

So, I just use the Internet to look at fun stuff, like this article and clip from Robert Downey Jr.’s acceptance speech. Occasionally there is some interesting news at those trusted sites, like this article about a group of apes that had never had human contact before. Mostly, the Internet loves things that are silly and irreverent, like this historical look at a group of entertainers known throughout history as fartistes, among other names.
The main reason I love the Internet, though, is because of people like David Thorne. I really can’t explain all that well what it is that I love about his work, but I would encourage you to read this email exchange he had with his renters, and this exchange he had with a Blockbuster employee. He is extremely irreverent and at times a tad inappropriate. However, he is a comedic genius. After one of his earliest email exchanges went viral a coworker told David that he would never be able to do it again. David bet him his Christmas bonus that he could, and two weeks later he had another email exchange that went viral.

Essentially, what I love about David Thorne is that he embodies the idea that the Internet is not to be taken seriously. He is quoted as saying, “the Internet is a playground.” I agree, and that is why I don’t like coming across stories that are supposed to be “touching” on the Internet, unless they come directly from trusted news sources. If they don’t come from a trusted news site, then I’m a sucker for believing them until I’ve researched the facts myself.

As you can see, between David Thorne, funny/interesting stuff that comes to me in my feed reader, and finding funny videos like these ones, the Internet provides me with far more entertainment than I even have time for. It barely even leaves me time to read email, especially forwards. However, next time I get a forward from you that claims to tell a “true” story, I’ll check the facts on fark.com and tell you what they say. Sometimes the truth is better than the lies that circulate in chain-emails.

I hope you enjoy the links I’ve provided you with, and we all here love and appreciate the effort you make to maintain a presence in our life. Your daughter and grandchildren send their love, as do I.

Love,

-Brian


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