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Photo Gallery Updates

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Hey all,

In the past couple of weeks I’ve uploaded a number of new photos to both the Wallpaper Portfolio as well as my Smugmug account.

California & Arizona

In January, my family and I took a vacation to the Monterey/San Francisco area of California, and then stopped at the Grand Canyon on the way home.  It was my first time visiting either place, and I’d definitely like to return to California and bring my motorcycle or rent one.  As we drove those awesome roads along the coast I couldn’t help but long to be feeling that cool air rush by me on my bike while getting a full view of the gorgeous scenery.  Not to say I’d be opposed to going back anyway, but definitely would’ve been great on a bike.

I posted the pictures from this trip to Smugmug a while back, but just recently created wallpaper out of them for my portfolio site.  Check ‘em out:

California Wallpaper
Arizona Wallpaper

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I’ve been a Netflix subscriber now for over a year and have been consistently impressed with them.  I remember when they began their limited “Watch Instantly” feature, and then when they made it unlimited without charging a cent more for the service.  Then I remember getting a message saying my monthly subscription rate was being lowered because they had repriced my plan.  In other words, in a matter of months I got the huge value add of their “Watch Instantly” feature (which now has an impressive library featuring lots of great movies and TV shows), and was paying less for it!  That alone bought them some serious points in my book.

Recently I ran across a movie that looked interesting (Bottle Shock) which was available on Netflix to view online.  However, unlike every other movie I’ve tried streaming through Netflix, this one had an error whenever I tried to play it.  I tried to find an answer through the website but it seemed the only way to tell them about the problem was via their customer service phone number.  Not excited to wait on hold to fix this problem, I finally gave in after being unable to find a fix otherwise.  The website gave a code that I could give once I called which tied that service call to my account, bypassing any need to give their representative any information.  After I typed this in, a friendly guy named Brian immediately answered.  I told him my problem, and he quickly confirmed that that movie was having issues playing in their “old player.”  I wasn’t aware there was a new one, but he had an email sent to me telling me how to upgrade.  After maybe 2 minutes on the phone, I had the email, clicked a link (www.netflix.com/silver), pushed a browser button, and viola, their new Silverlight-based player was activated and the movie played in the new player (and seemed to take less time to buffer at that).  For a company with so many subscribers to have such friendly and responsive customer service is extremely impressive, and yet another reason I plan to remain a loyal Netflix customer.

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Music Apps Galore!

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As a lover of music and someone who’s tried out a number of programs, services, etc. in hopes of growing my musical repertoire, I figured I’d share what I’ve tried and what I’ve kept using.  The following are in alphabetical order, so look to the rating to see if I think it’s worth looking into.

  • Amazon MP3: 5/5
    I now buy the vast majority of all my music from Amazon MP3.  Every track they sell is a 256kbps DRM-free MP3 file (meaning it will play on any music player and can be copied/burned as much as you want).  They have a huge and growing selection and chances are good that they’ll have the album you’re looking for.  Prices are consistently lower than the physical albums, and the best part of the site is the daily deal which often features a good album for $1-4.  They also select 5 albums every Friday to be $5 through through the weekend, and there will frequently be a good one or two in the list.  If I have one complaint it’s that it can be a bit difficult to browse music if you don’t already know what you’re looking for, but I guess they can’t be good at everything.  Check the homepage daily to catch great music deals, and check it when you’re shopping for a new album.
  • iTunes: 2/5
    I’ll admit, I’m no Apple fanboy.  My MP3 player is a Creative Zen NX that I bought more than 6 years ago which is still running strong, and my phone is an HTC Touch Pro.  That said, I have installed iTunes and tried it out on more than one occassion and both times promptly uninstalled it.  I honestly don’t get what everyone loves about it.  The interface isn’t nearly as useful as Winamp, and the store still has lots of DRMed tracks, and I’m not aware of them having routinely good deals on music.  Not to mention the fact that the files have to be converted to play on non-iPods.  To make matters worse, Quicktime keeps promting me to install iTunes and Safari every week, despite my deselecting “check for updates.”  I’m seriously inches from uninstalling Quicktime just to stop the annoyances. If you’re on Windows and don’t have an iPod, don’t bother with iTunes.
  • Last.fm: 5/5
    Last.fm is a site that helps you discover new music while keeping record of everything you already listen to.  Through their small Last.fm application, you can “scrobble” tracks you listen to on your computer which logs them to your online profile.  It’s completely automatic and all you have to do is listen as you normally would, then check online periodically to see your listening statistics.  It’s really cool to see every artist you listen to ranked by listens, and you can drill down further to see what tracks you listen to most, etc.  The official application only supports WMP, Winamp and a few other players, but there are third party scrobbling apps for most other programs, including Rhapsody (RhapsodyScrobbler) and Zune (Zuse).  I mainly use the service for this statistics feature, but it’s also a good place to listen to artists, play full-length tracks, and find related bands.  Check out what I’ve been listening to here.
  • MiniLyrics: 4/5
    This is a program that I’ve had an on-again/off-again history with.  It’s a powerful little program, but the fact that many songs aren’t in the database means I frequently just close it as soon as it opens with Winamp.  MiniLyrics is a lyrics reader that also automatically searches a reasonably large database for lyric files. Many of the lyrics are .lrc files which synchronize with the song and scroll as the words are sung.  When the song you’re playing has a good .lrc file, it’s an awesome app.  But unfortunately, many songs don’t, so frequently you end up either seeing a static text file of the lyrics, lyrics for a different song with the same name, or nothing at all.  You can, however, make your own synchronized lyrics with the program and upload them to the database.  I’ve done this and it’s actually kind of fun, but it’s not something I see myself doing for every song I play.  Anyway, check it out and see if you like it.  It’s free forever, but you have to deal with a registration reminder popup if you don’t pay for it.
  • Pandora: 3/5
    If you’re looking for a good internet radio station, look no further than Pandora.  Simply tell it a band you like and it’ll start playing a random assortment of tracks which are considered similar based on some special algorithm they’ve developed.  I made a bunch of stations based on some of my favorite bands in different genres, and the songs it picked were all good ones.  However, as a friend of mine pointed out, the songs it picks are usually pretty mainstream, so while you may find some songs you hadn’t heard of before, it doesn’t seem to get too inventive.  It’s also nothing more than a radio, so you’re pretty much stuck with what they pick (although it’ll get smarter based on your feedback, and you can skip tracks on a limited basis).
  • Rhapsody Unlimited: 4/5
    I used to subscribe to Yahoo Music Unlimited which allowed full-length streaming of nearly every track in their large library of songs for only $6/month (with a year subscription).  It was an unbelievable deal for what you got, and I loved being able to immediately check out an artist when someone recommended them to me, without having to pay anything extra or just listen to whatever was on youtube/myspace/last.fm.  Earlier this year, Yahoo merged their music service with Rhapsody, which is more expensive.  I was grandfathered at the old rate for a year at least, so I’m still a subscriber, but if the rates go up I may shop around (Napster Unlimited is a similar service, as is Zune Pass).  Still, even at $13-$15/month (which seems to be the going rate now), it’s something to consider if you love music.  Rhapsody’s not usually a great place to buy music…they are high-quality and DRM-free, but generally more expensive than Amazon Mp3.  But for checking out new artists or listening to an album before deciding whether to buy it, Rhapsody (or other similar services) is awesome.  It also has a bunch of good radio stations and is a great program to have running at parties (I played the Cool Yule station at a Christmas party recently…jazzy Christmas songs).  Might want to see what other services have to offer and compare the prices, but I consider this an indispensible service for music lovers looking to expand their horizons and/or legally listen to music before buying it.
  • Winamp 5: 4/5
    Winamp is my jukebox player of choice because I like it’s compact mode and no-frills layout.  It’s not perfect (automatic scanning of folders doesn’t seem to work very well, and it’s not as slick as other players), but I love its simplicity and responsiveness.  I also like the feature that lets you crossfade the volume between songs and when pausing/unpausing a track. There’s also a ton of skins available, although I like the Bento skin that comes with it.
  • Windows Media Player 11: 3/5
    If you’re on Windows, I’m sure you’re familiar with this so I won’t go into much detail.  Suffice it to say, WMP isn’t a bad media player and if you don’t listen to a lot of music it should get the job done just fine.  It’s also a decent video player, music ripper and audio CD burner program.  I actually still use it to rip CDs to WMA format because I think it’s a better encoding algorithm than MP3 (although at high bitrates the differences are negligible).  Still, I prefer Winamp for navigating my library of music.
  • Zune 3 (software): 4.5/5
    I don’t have a Zune, but decided to check out the software anyway since I’ve been hearing some positive things about it.  Turns out, it is impressive indeed.  It’s definitely better than iTunes and I’d actually consider replacing winamp with it if it weren’t lacking a couple of features.  Installation took longer than expected, mainly because the “check for updates” took a really long time.  But once it fired up the program is incredibly slick.  Everything animates and fades smoothly, and it did a great job of finding my music (even imported winamp playlists) and everything.  It’s a very simple interface, but pretty, easy to use, and responsive.  Album art is featured heavily with good results, and the Zune Marketplace is seemlessly integrated into the application without looking like it’s just loading some website in a window (and even has tour dates on the artist information page).  I also like how the marketplace track listings will recognize when you already own the track, and lets you play your own track right there without switching back to the “collection” view.  Zune has a really cool MixView feature that graphically arranges similar artists/albums/songs/users around your selected artist, which you can just click to see more information about and/or preview/buy their music.  It’s pretty nifty, and I already found a cool band with it after playing with it for about a minute.  The application looks great in full-screen and the “now playing” view shows a really cool mosaic of album covers from your library which switch out periodically, keeping it always fresh.  And even more awesome, if the program finds artist photos online it will fade out of the mosaic and instead display the artist photos along with song/artist/album information…all animated with some really slick effects.  The main things I don’t like about the program are the apparent lack of a compact mode and an accompanying “always on top” setting.  What keeps me coming back to Winamp is its tiny yet informative compact mode that I can just tuck along the edge of the screen while doing other things.  The Zune program doesn’t seem to have this and thus, while I do like it and can see myself using it when I want to use my entire screen to explore music, I doubt I’ll be using it to play music while I’m focusing on other things.  Unfortunate, because it’s really a great jukebox program otherwise.
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