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May 2008 Archives

May 1, 2008

Taking Stock of Your Life

Don't worry, this article is not about justifying your existence! By "taking stock of your life," I quite literally mean making an inventory of your worldly goods, something I've been meaning to do for years for insurance purposes.

Living just two blocks from the Hayward Fault in Berkeley, and being subjected to ever-more strident headlines about how we are due for the next "big one" any moment now, insurance and earthquake preparedness are hot topics among my neighbors.

One has only to look at Hurricane Katrina, umpteen California brush fires (including the big Oakland Hills fire less than two miles from me), and various other floods, tornados and tsunamis to recognize the importance of a good home inventory and disaster plan. If a fire wiped out your home today, would you be able to remember everything in it and document ownership with receipts? Even if you have great insurance, it will be worthless without being able to prove your losses.

So how to get started? Creating an inventory for an entire house is a daunting task, especially if you have been living in it for many years. That's the main reason it's been on my To-Do list for nearly 10 years now. Searching the Web for inspiration, I found a great site created by the Insurance Information Institute that not only tells you exactly what to do, but provides the free software to do it, for both PCs and Macs.

Here's how it works: First, you set up the outline your home by naming all the rooms, including the basement, garage and attic. Then you go room by room adding items to the inventory. The software has spaces for importing pictures and receipts for each item, or you can store these separately.


The Institute also recommends taking a video inventory. By simply going around each room opening drawers and cabinets and zooming in on each object, you can create an quick inventory without having to itemize a thing. While you'll still need to document purchase prices and values in the event of a loss, the video will at least remind you of what was there, and provide some proof that you owned it.

I plan to do the video inventory first, and then tackle the digital photos and software-based inventory room by room. VideoWave and PhotoSuite are perfect for editing the video and organizing the photos for this task, and once completed, I will store the inventory, video and photos on a DVD in my safe deposit box.

There, I feel better just having a plan! What's yours?

May 6, 2008

Taking the Blu-ray Recording Leap

With Toast 9's groundbreaking support for AVCHD and Blu-ray video disc burning, I decided it was finally time to hop on the Blu-ray bandwagon and spring for a recorder, even if Apple isn't yet building them into new equipment. Like a lot of video buffs, I have a spanking new HDTV and an AVCHD camcorder, and want to be able to show off new family movies in all their high-def glory...

So I started shopping around, and found several external Blu-ray recorder options (external drives will be required for all but Mac Pro owners, a complete list can be found on EmediaLive.com). But even the cheapest was $599, almost as much as my state-of-the-art camcorder. And media is expensive too, from $15 for a 25GB write-once disc, all the way up to $50 for a 50GB rewriteable. I started having second thoughts about how much I needed that Blu-ray recorder right this minute...maybe I should wait till prices come down more (which they will).

Imagine my delight, then, when I found out that with Toast 9 and the HD/BD Plug-in, you don't even need a Blu-ray recorder to burn high-definition AVCHD discs that will play right in your set-top Blu-ray player or PS3! Toast can burn HD video onto regular DVD media, with the DVD recorder you already have.

But just how much HD video can you fit on a DVD? After all, Blu-ray discs can hold up to 50GB, whereas dual-layer DVDs hold only 8.5GB. Fortunately, the AVCHD video compression format is pretty efficient, compared to the space-eating DV format used by standard-definition MiniDV tape camcorders. The highest quality AVCHD bit rates currently available in HD camcorders is about 17Mbps, or 8GB per hour. Most AVCHD camcorders record at lower bit rates. So you should be able to fit approximately an hour of home movies on a dual-layer DVD that will play in your Blu-ray player. That's plenty for your average home movie.


Toast 9 makes importing video from your AVCHD camcorder "drag-and-drop" simple with its integrated Media Browser. You just drag and drop video from your camcorder to the Toast window and you’re done! You can also crop and trim your AVCHD clips, and arrange them in the order you'd like them viewed. You won't need to touch iMovie '08 unless you want transitions and special effects, so using Toast 9 greatly speeds up the time from camera to disc.

I'm off to try it all out right now, using the dual-layer DVD recorder already in my MacBook Pro. In the meantime, what are your experiences with AVCHD and Blu-ray?

May 14, 2008

Piece of Me

Now eager to learn as much as I can about PhotoShow, I’ve created another very cool show of my recent trip to Chicago. I learned a few interesting things along the way too…

1. I can import my own MP3 into my production! I chose an instrumental version of Britney Spears's “Piece of Me.” I still love Britney, I confess.

2. I can change the pace of the entire show or of just one photo within the show – customizing the look of it and giving some images with lengthier captions extra time.

3. I can output the show as a video file and then import it into Videowave for further editing (in my case, adding narration!).

So, my pics from this trip were odd at best. My digi cam broke the moment we landed and we hastily purchased two throwaways (which took surprisingly decent photos!).

Note: if this happens to you it’s not the end of the world because you can have your developer put the photos on disc and then get them on your computer just as you would from your digital camera or mobile device.

Because I had a smattering of moments caught on camera (from first meeting our pet goldfish in our hotel room, on down to finding specific pieces of cool art at the Chicago art fair) I thought I could add narration to help guide viewers through the experience. I’m basically saving you from having to hear me say “oh, I guess you had to be there for that.” Now it’s like you WERE there!

So take a look at what I’ve done here:

You’ll notice that I’ve not only added text to bring clarity to certain situations, but captions (some even animated), graphics (like the fireworks around the puppet show and Garfield burping in the cab), and cool transitions so that each picture doesn’t enter and exit in the same dull way.

Tip: people lose interest fast when they’re looking at anyone’s photos but their own. Do as much as you can to keep them engaged. Even if you feel you’re selling out by glamming it up, it’s worth it to retain viewership I always say! ;)

Speaking of viewership, and I will digress for a sec, I have been totally uninspired to enter any contests as of late. I guess it’s a combo of not seeing anything particularly challenging out there, along with a mild funk I believe I may be in. But that’ll be another article altogether.

Back to business. Take a pass at creating a PhotoShow and seriously don’t stress about the boring nature of the photos you want to upload. You can make them interesting in this application – I swear it. Conversely, if your photos rock and you take amazing pictures of unrivaled beauty then you don’t have to go and muck up your photos the way that you may think I have…you can instead create a gentle, flowing PhotoShow chock full of care and thoughtfulness that only the author of said photos can impart.

Publish your show privately on the personal web page that you get when you buy the program, or post it publicly as I’ve done so the whole world can see just how non-linear your thinking can be!

Most of all, just have fun. I did!

May 23, 2008

Getting a Handle on Information Overload

As a high-tech journalist, I get literally dozens of press releases every day, and have to keep up with umpteen news sources, from The New York Times to Engadget. While getting news via the Web and email is relatively fast and efficient compared to dealing with the baskets full of snail mail I used to get (not to mention better for the forests of the world), the volume and pace of information arrival is ever increasing, taking bigger and bigger bites out of my workday. When you add in the constant pings from people who want to chat on Skype or MSN, it's easy to spend entire days immersed in the Web without doing any actual work (like writing this blog entry...).

So I'm constantly looking for better ways to manage the information flow, and decided to try out the new MediaTicker 3 from Roxio Labs. This completely free utility is basically a graphical photo and RSS news reader that docks itself to the side, top or bottom of your Windows desktop, and presents a scrolling display of headlines and photos.


This display is great since it alerts you passively to hot new stories -- you don't have to stop what you are doing to check your feeds every hour to see what's new. You can just click on ticker items when you have a moment to read them, and ignore items that don't interest you. Clicking on a ticker item enlarges it (for photo and video feeds) or opens the appropriate Web page.

When you first open MediaTicker, you'll be directed to create an account on Roxio.com, where a master list of your feeds is kept, from Flickr to Wired News. You can choose from a list of popular feeds, or add your own by dropping in the URL. Even better, if you have MediaTicker installed on multiple machines, you can customize which feeds are displayed on each computer, using the same Roxio.com account. At home you could receive your photo and video feeds, plus ESPN and Gizmodo for example, while at work you get CNN and stock tickers. If you are at a remote computer without MediaTicker, you can also check your feeds directly on Roxio.com. You can even check them from a browser-enabled mobile phone!


But Media Ticker doesn't stop there. You can also just click to email any feed item to a friend, including photos and videos. Another great way to use it is to keep family and friends updated with your latest photos right on their desktop. Just have them install MediaTicker and add your Flickr or other online photo feed to their list. They'll get all your new photos as soon as you upload them, and can save them to their hard drive!

I've got MediaTicker running all the time now. I've still got information overload, but it's a bit more manageable, and a whole lot more fun to deal with.

About May 2008

This page contains all entries posted to MyMoments in May 2008. They are listed from oldest to newest.

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