Everything is Awesome

Everything is Awesome (reprinted from the Metro Spirit 2-27-14)

The Lego Movie is awesome!  My daughters and I went to go see it with some family friends this past weekend, and we had a blast.  The Lego Universe comes alive on the screen right before you.  And the depth of character found in those 1-inch plastic figures…well, you would have never thought it possible.  One of my daughters sees herself as WyldStyle, and the other keeps purring like UniKitty.  Of course, I easily related to Emmit, the non-descript, overly-average and often looked-over soul, that turns out to the have the character of a hero and ends up saving the world.

Of course, the best part of the movie is the soundtrack, especially the theme song “Everything is Awesome!”  Naysayers might imply that this song belongs in the overly-peppy, nerve-grating, can’t-get-this-mess-out-of-my-head, please-just-make-it-stop category.  But not I.  As I sit here during my 7th hour of listening, I continue to think of new things that are just plain awesome!  For example…

 1.     Tonight while my daughter and I were cooking frozen popcorn shrimp and potato chips for dinner, we created a dance routine to KC and the Sunshine Band.  No doubt my wife has it posted on You Tube by now.  Check it out.  It’s awesome!

 2.     During the cleanup from the ice storm, I got poison ivy all over my arms and legs.  My right ankle swelled to the size of a grapefruit, and I scratched all the skin off my left leg.  What’s the awesome part?  That’s easy.  It’s the cortisone shot, the taper of prednisone, the antibiotics for the secondary infection and the half-gallon of calamine lotion that takes the itch away and makes me feel awesome!

 3.     BTW, did you hear about the Comcast-Netflix deal?  It’s likely to change the nature of the Internet.  Big companies will end up with preferred access to users, and small companies are in danger of getting shut out of the system.  In addition, alternative content of any kind may become hard to access if the big ISP’s decide to go back to an AOL-type business model.  But we’ll be able to watch Netflix without those annoying interruptions – and that’s awesome!

 4.     The Samsung Galaxy S5 was released at the Mobile World Congress.  No pricing or availability yet.  Based on the specs, though, the phone looks to be awesome!

 5.     Also, what’s with the new heart rate monitor gadgets?  The Galaxy S5 has one, just like the new Samsung Gear wearables.  At least the new wearable has the ability to play music without having to keep your phone handy.  Totally awesome!

 6.     It’s been a while since I’ve seen a truly awesome video, so I want to pass along this one from Hungarian singer Csemer Boglarka (“Boggie”) for her song Nouveau Parfum.  The song itself is a commentary on the unrealistic images of beauty created by entertainment media.  To further show the point, Boggie undergoes a live photoshop transformation during the video.  Google it.  It’s awesome.

 7.     Finally, it’s awesome that I’ve been able to write over 100 straight columns without resorting to some literary gimmick like a top ten list to fill up space.  And since I can only come up with seven for this list, my anti-top ten streak continues.  Now that is awesome!  🙂

Until next time, I’m off the grid@gregory_a_baker


Prepper Status: Epic Fail!

Prepper Status: Epic Fail! (reprinted from the Metro Spirit 2-20-14)

Every once in a while, we get the opportunity to see just how well we are really doing.  For example, the Great Ice Storm of 2014 gave us the chance to see how prepared we are to handle extreme circumstances.  Before last week (if had I even thought about it), I would have thought that while our family was not fully prepared, we were not completely unprepared.  Real life, however, has a way of serving up a harsh dose of reality.

Let’s start with the necessity that usually hits first – food.  Our family, like many others, started out the storm with a full fridge.  That’s all fine and dandy until the power goes out.  At first, spoilage wasn’t a problem since the winter storm provided a simple solution – put all the food outside.  As the weather improved, spoilage did become a concern.  I’m sorry to say the pork roast that my wife made the day before the storm didn’t make it.

Our gas stove gave us an advantage over others that have all electric kitchens.  All it took is a lighter and a twist of a knob to get cooking.  For those without gas service, I’ve heard that some folks pulled out their camping stoves.  Most of all electric crowd stayed relatively close to their gas grill.  (Rumor has it you can conjure up a mighty fine piece of toast on the grill.)  Bottom line is that for two days we did fine.  Add a couple of more days and/or take away our gas stove, the best we could have done is boil spaghetti over a campfire.

That is, assuming we could make fire.  Fire is one of the most important survival tools.  That fact is sometimes lost in our modern society.  Nowadays, we only use fire to set the mood, provide an ambiance or create a symbolic gesture (i.e., signaling the start of the Olympic Games).  However, even the most casual fans of Survivor understand that “fire represents life”.  Fire allows us to cook food, boil unsafe drinking water, and keep us warm.  Were we prepared to make fire?  Well, since we have a gas fireplace, the ice storm really isn’t a legitimate test of our preparedness.  We just sealed up the living room and cranked up the therms.  I don’t think we get any points for that.

In contrast, some friends of ours don’t have natural gas service, and we saw what happened to them after a few days.  They came and stayed with us.

The lack of communications also hit pretty hard.  Whether we like it our not, the world is a 24×7 place, and we depend on our smartphones and laptops to stay connected.  After the first day without power, as the batteries started running dry, we all discovered that our cars are extremely useful, albeit inefficient, mobile device chargers.  Personally, wireless was the only way to stay in touch during the outages.  That is, until my carrier failed for most of the day on Thursday.  (Ugh.)  Fortunately, my wife’s mobile (different carrier) still worked fine.  It was just a matter of getting the kids off Minecraft.

In the end, last week’s outages didn’t pose a real threat to our society, just an inconvenience to our lifestyle.  However, it’s useful to think about how we would fair during a more extreme situation.  Based on this experience, I score my personal prepper status as EPIC FAIL!  While we can’t prepare for everything, we all have one thing that we want to do better next time.  A more extreme outage would create great hardship and possible danger for our families and other members of the community.  And if we can’t take care of ourselves, how in the world are we going to be able to be there for others and help those that can’t help themselves?

Until next time, I’m off the grid@gregory_a_baker





Flappy Birds over Sochi

Flappy Birds over Sochi (reprinted from the Metro Spirit, 2-13-14)

You’re going to have to pardon me for a moment.  I’m trying to get the TV connected in my study.  We have one less cable box than we have TV’s.  My wife likes to steal this one and connect it to another TV in some random room.  I’m not sure if its punishment for sneaking away to my study or if she just enjoys being a little bit annoying on occasion.  (Personally, I think it’s the latter.)

The cable box is now re-installed, and we can talk about the biggest event of the season.  Of course, I’m talking about the Winter Olympics.  Having grown up in Augusta, where just the threat of snow closes the city, the Winter Olympics provides all of us the opportunity to enjoy the best of winter sports.  I don’t know if it’s the mountains, the cold weather or the fact that everything is white, but it’s nice to watch something a little different.  And since the Winter Olympics occurs between the Super Bowl and March Madness, the timing creates the perfect distraction.

During the opening ceremonies, we opened up Google Maps.  First of all, is anyone really sure where Sochi is?  Well, it turns out that the Olympic Stadium is right near close to our sister country.  The stadium is about 15 minutes from the downtown area of Sochi, but it’s only a few miles from the Georgia border.  From a geographical perspective, it’s almost identical to the Aiken Olympics building its Olympic Stadium in Clearwater.  Here’s another geography trivial question: Russia and Georgia have coastlines on the Black Sea.  Name the other four countries that border the Black Sea.  Hmmm…

If you happen to be traveling to the Olympics next week, you might want to try out a Google Maps alternative called OpenStreetMaps.  OpenStreetMaps is an open source application that receives its map data directly from user input.  This crowdsourcing approach can create some ridiculously detailed, albeit inconsistent, maps.  OpenStreetMaps has shown up in a few articles about the Winter Games.  Supposedly, it contains more details than Google Maps due to the number of folks providing inputs.  I logged on to take a look, and it did appear to have more notations with regards to local resources.  However, all the notes were in Russian.  For all I know, the notes could be saying, “This is where I got the Jamaican bobsled team’s autograph.” 

On a completely different subject, how many folks downloaded Flappy Bird over the past couple of weeks?  If you did, congratulations!  As of this writing, an iPhone 5S with Flappy Bird installed has received a bid of $16,100 (!).

What is a Flappy Bird, you might ask?  Flappy Bird is perhaps one of the most simplistic games one could make.  There is only one control.  You tap the screen, the bird flaps its wings and goes up.  If you don’t tap the screen, the bird falls to its death.  The goal of the game is to fly the bird between pipe ends that are reminiscent of Mario Bros.  By all accounts, the game is horribly difficult with multiple efforts needed just to pass the first gate.

A few weeks ago, Flappy Bird went viral.  Most software developers would be overjoyed at this occurrence.  However, Flappy Bird developer, Dong Nguyen, responded by doing the unthinkable.  He removed the application from the app stores.  That attention, and pressure, that comes with having a successful app was apparently too much.  Also, and I didn’t realize this, the haters and trolls seem to really target successful game writers, even to the level of death threats.  (See Number 1 Rule – Stay out of the way of crazies.)  At any rate, folks that have downloaded the game can continue to play, but no more downloads are available.

And if you are one of those lucky few, maybe you can get some goofball to pay thousands of dollars for the your “Flappy Bird”-installed phone!

Until next time, I’m off the grid. @gregory_a_baker



The New iMovie is a Maverick

The New iMovie is a Maverick (reprinted from the Metro Spirit 2-6-14)

My first encounter with iMovie was a total disaster.  It happened about five years ago as I was trying to put together a marketing video.  The user interface was less than intuitive.  I couldn’t figure out how to upload raw video clips, never mind the tasks of editing and overlaying.  I had purchased the Mac specifically to create and manage multimedia.  Macs are supposed to be great at these activities, and I cannot express the amount of disappointment I felt at the time.  Oh well, life is full of disappointment, right?  Get over it, and move on…

Fast forward to a month ago.  I am in a similar situation with a basket full of media to roll-up into a presentation for my Dad’s retirement dinner.  iMovie is really my only choice since I wasn’t going to invest hundreds of dollars into Adobe for a one shot deal.  As much as I hated it, I knew I was going to have to suck it up and learn iMovie.  I clicked on the Star icon and hoped for the best.

I could not have been more pleased with the result.

For starters, the user interface is much improved from the prior version I used.  To start a new movie, all you have to do is click on the big plus sign icon that says “Create”.  Media clips and pictures are added to the movie by drag-and-drop into the timeline.  Sound tracks from iTunes can also be dragged into the timeline to provide background music.  A basic movie can be produced in a manner of minutes!

The video I was producing consisted mostly of pictures taken throughout the 35 year history of our company.  When including pictures into the timeline, iMovie automatically includes the “Ken Burns” effect. The “Ken Burns” effect automatically zooms or pans over the picture in order to create motion.  By default, iMovie also inserts a cross-dissolve transition between pictures to provide a continuous flow from one picture to the next.  Other transition patterns are available.  The basic functionality is similar to what you get when you play a slideshow in iPhoto.  However, iMovie provides the controls to customize length, transitions and motion for each picture.

Of course, a video must have an appropriate sound track to truly grab the viewer’s attention.  A quick search of the iTunes is all that is needed to find the right track, and a quick drag-and-drop of the track will load the music into the timeline. 

Video and sound editing is straightforward once you learn a few tricks.  Dragging the beginning or end of the clip will change the clip length.  The real editing power comes from splitting the clip into one or more pieces.  For example, if you need to reduce the volume of a background track when someone begins to speak, split the sound clip just before the person speaks and reduce the volume.  Sometimes it’s necessary to cut dead space from an interview or rearrange someone’s words in order to tell a better story (I wouldn’t do that, of course).  Simply split the clip in the appropriate spot and reshuffle or discard as appropriate!

We were able to create two pretty cool segments that ended up being pretty easy to produce.  The first segment is a “Star Wars”-like introduction complete with scrolling text.  Appropriate sounding theme music is available from iTunes.  Knock-offs of the Star Wars font can be found through an Internet search, and the scrolling text is available in iMovie.  Place all this on an iMovie star background, and voila, instant introduction.

The second segment is a series of movie outtakes that run during the ending credits.  A couple of tricks are needed to get this working correctly.  iMovie contains a credit scroll, but it runs down the middle of the screen.  If you cut-and-paste the credit scroll into the Mac Text editor, you can change the tab stops and shift the placement of the text.  Also, I found it helpful to create the outtake clips in a separate movie.  In this manner, you can insert transitions and sounds (e.g., “Beep”) between outtakes.  The outtake movie can be finalized into a mpeg and then dropped on top of the credits using the picture-in-picture effect.

Of course, these are only but a few of the many effects that you can create using iMovie.  I am particularly looking forward to trying out the blue screen capability.  Many ideas are already starting to run a-muck inside my skull.  Bottom line: iMovie v10 gets two big thumbs up from this user.