Category Archives: Useful

Great software: Multi-Monitor Wallpaper

Two monitors are great for productivity, but aesthetics are important too. Who wants to stare at the same picture on both desktops? No one, that’s who.

IMAG0145_e

The NVidia display control panel that came with Vista allowed me to set a unique image for each monitor. But fie, Windows 7 hasn’t caught up yet and I was stuck staring at the same image, duplicated on both monitors. Well thanks to Arian Kulp’s Multi-Monitor Wallpaper code sample I’m no longer annoyed by my desktop.  No longer do I see sameness, I instead have a beautiful view of Killary Bay.

Excellent and free panorama software: MS ICE

Panoramic pictures are a great way to convey the scale and beauty of a scene, but building a panorama requires a good set of tools. Fortunately Microsoft Research is giving one away for free.

For the longest time I kept Microsoft Digital Image Suite on my computer only for the purpose of stitching panoramas. My photo editing tool of choice is Photoshop, but Photoshop CS’s panorama stitching was so cumbersome and ineffective that I didn’t even try CS4 until I was writing this. Digital Image Suite does a good job… but only if images are really well lined up. Thankfully, however, Microsoft Research released Microsoft Image Composite Editor (ICE).

I’ve compared the results of Microsoft Digital Image Suite, Photoshop CS, Photoshop CS4 and Microsoft ICE.

Photoshop CS did only a passable job at creating a panorama. Items weren’t lined up and there is obvious banding where the exposure differs between pictures.

DI did a beter job of lining up the pictures and blending the exposures, but still not great.

Photoshop CS4’s Photomerge feature does a nice job both of lining up the images as well as adjusting the exposure across the frame.

Microsoft ICE generated very similar results to Photoshop CS4 on my set of test images. Both CS4 and ICE had trouble lining up the railing in the center of the picture (probably a result of me shooting the sequence without a tripod). CS4 has a more even feel to the exposure and the perspective feels less warped.

Bottom line: ICE is by far the easiest tool to use of the set and generates results comparable to the $700 CS4. While I still live in Photoshop for image editing I use ICE for stitching panoramas. It’s a smaller application and has nice features like "autocrop" which automatically removes the inevitable curved seams on a stitch.

Should you sit through the credits? Check MovieStinger

You’ve made it to the end of the movie and the credits start to roll. Your soda is empty, your pop corn bag is mostly empty (it’s cold and you’re out of soda) and you probably really need to use the restroom.

Hang on a second… there might be still be more movie. Should you leave?

Worry no more, MovieStinger has the info you need, and it’s in a handy mobile phone friendly format (if you visit from your phone).

image image

New releases will tend to show on the first page, but if a movie isn’t shown (or if you’re watching an oldie) you can also browse their database by genre or title.

You also don’t need to worry about MovieStinger spoiling the surprise either, it just tells you if there are extras or not. Note: if you want to know exactly what to expect, you can click on an entry to get the full details, but where’s the fun in that?

Turn your handwriting into a true type font, for free!

Want a vanity font to go with your vanity plates and vanity domains? You can do it without having to learn post script or hiring a typography expert. Just hop on over to http://www.fontcapture.com.

The process is simple: print out their form, write out the alphabet, scan the form back in and upload to their server. Your font is available pretty much instantly. Best part: it’s free (we’ve already established I’m cheap).


How long does it take you to write 127 letters?

It’s dirt cheap and spike-through-the-head easy. It’s not, however, failsafe. Here’s some stuff to keep in mind:

  • If you have crappy handwriting, this isn’t going to make it look any better
  • You’ll probably be much happier with the results if you use your favorite image editor to line up letters vertically and horizontally
  • Consistent width on the letters will also pay dividends (my “y”s are skewed, making the spacing look bad)


If you take the time to line up all your letters your font will be much nicer

It honestly is easy, I made the first draft of my font in less than 10 minutes. If you want a quality font, however, you will want to tweak the letter size and alignment to make them consistent and aligned. For me that was another 30 minute investment.

And, no… this ain’t one of them crappy bit-mapped fonts. The clever folks at fontcapture.com turn your handwriting into a true type font, so you can blow it up to 120 points if you want:


Clickey for biggie

To be clear, you should not scan letters from your friends and create a font to impersonate them. That would be wrong Steve.

Useful software: A great tool for web or software UI designers

Have you ever had to:
a. take a screen shot of just part of your screen
b. try to match your web page color to something on your screen
c. figure out how wide to make a div or table cell


Working as a program manager at Microsoft typically means you take a lot of screen shots.  Screen shots of web pages, screen shots of application prototypes and (yes) screen shots of screen shots.  There are a ton of tools out there that do a number of these functions, some free, some not.  My current favorite tool happens to also have my current favorite price.


Mezer Tools from Bayden Systems is a free little app with a very appropriate icon: a Swiss Army knife.  This great, multi-purpose tool has widgets for measuring linear pixel dimensions and capturing arbitrary rectangles.  The dialog box also has additional tools for converting to and from Hex and for grabbing colors from anywhere on the screen.


 
Screenshots (made with Mezer, of course), click for a closer look.


Here’s a list of some of the cool stuff you can do:



  • Double-click the edge of a window to grow to the edge of the screen (not maximize)

  • Capture a target window or just an arbitrary section of screen

  • Capture screen to clipboard or directly to .JPG or .BMP

  • Flag screen captures with arrows or scribbles

  • Copy arbitrary string lengths to clipboard

  • Measure the number of characters in the clipboard

  • Grab the hex and RGB values from any location on the screen

  • Convert from hex to decimal and back

A great site for the color blind web developer

I’ve built my share of web pages.  I can do the layout.  I can do the CSS, HTML, etc.  I always have problems picking a color scheme.  I’ve now found a site to help me out with that part of the process.


If you aren’t a natural at picking colors and/or were not professionally trained as an artist, you may find getting a set of colors which complement each other is difficult.  I usually use a set of colors from a design book or copy a pretty web.  If, however, I need a specific color… I’m SOL.


Enter ColorBlender.com.  This site is a variation on a tool which has been floating around the net in open source for a while (see “A little history lesson” below).  What I like about this particular implementation is it has a slick interface combined with the ability to export the color blends as a Photoshop Color Tables (great for all the pixel-pushers out there).


Here’s how it works:



  1. Either start with a color in mind our use their blending sliders to construct a color (I decided to go with a nice, bright blue for this run)

  2. If you like your blend, you’re done!

  3. If you’d like to tweak the blend, click the “Direct Edit” radio button then adjust individual colors on your palette using the same sliders from step 1.

That’s really about it, go forth and create.  If you do end up using this on a web site, please let me know, I’d like to provide a link to your creation from this post so others can see how this tool can be applied to web design.





A little history lesson


The original tool was called ColorMatch 5K and was entered by Kim Jensen into a 2001 web competition which required the tools submitted be less than 5, 120 bytes.  Due to the size requirements, ColorMatch 5K was limited and didn’t have a ton of cross-browser compatibility, so many sites took up the code and improved upon it.  ColorBlender.com is my favorite, a quick search could help you to find yours.

A tip for smugmug users – timeline

When I made the choice between smugmug and Phanfare one thing I found I missed was the ability to filter my pictures by year taken.  To my delight, smugmug added this feature shortly after I joined.  The feature is currently hidden and considered beta, but it works quite well – the only bug I’ve found is it got confused about a picture I stamped as being taken in 1959 (seems they weren’t expecting dates that old… shocker).


If you want a nifty timeline on your smugmug page, here’s how to do it:



  1. Go to http://yoursmugmugname.smugmug.com/?showGoodies=1 (be sure to adjust the URL for your member name)
    This will take you to your homepage with the phototimeline module visible

  2. Click the “show” link

  3. Very important: click the “date taken” link
    If you don’t do this all your pictures in the timeline will be shown by date uploaded (which won’t be very interesting unless you’ve been a smugmug member for multiple years)

That’s it, now you have a nifty timeline on your homepage.


Picture sharing sites

Over a year ago I started trying to find a photo sharing site. Now, many moons later, I have finally narrowed down my search and chosen the perfect service… all three of them.


My criteria:


After years of running my own server off my DSL line at home I finally came to the realization that it would be cheaper to pay a web hosting service and my site would be tremendously faster.  Outsourcing had one big negative: I no longer had unlimited photo storage (and I love to upload photos). 


Here’s what I needed from a photo sharing service:



  • Unlimited storage - I will eventually have 100% of my digital pictures online for sharing and as a backup of my important memories.
  • Easy to use - I’d like to get my whole family using the same service… I don’t, however, want to be tech support for it.
  • Per-gallery security - I will have some pictures that I’ll want to lock down for privacy.

I also was hoping for the following features:



  • A custom domain - By putting pictures at pictures.little.org I will never have to tell people where to go… even if I change providers.
  • Fully customizable UI - I don’t like having to have a site which looks “stock”.  
  • Comments - While I think most of my friends are too lazy to add comments to my pictures (heck, I’ll never add them to theirs), I want to post old family pictures and have my parents tell me who is in them.

The added bonus:


I harp on this a lot… BACK UP YOUR CRAP!!!!!


By picking a photosharing site with unlimited storage you are protecting yourself from the inevitable time when your computer will crash.  Think about it: you don’t have negatives anymore.  If your computer crashes, you will loose all your pictures.  That’s a terrible risk to take with your best memories.


The site:


Well, there isn’t just one site, there are three.  The one that will work best for you will depend upon your personality, preferences and, quite likely, your friends.  For ease of selection I have arbitrarily divided the world into three groups:



  1. The social crowd (teenagers, college students and Pablo)
  2. Your average person (my sister, for example)
  3. The power user (computer and photography geeks)

The best social site:



The coolest features in Flickr revolve around tagging and sharing of pictures.  You can add comments to friend’s pictures and even annotate specific regions of a picture (this is great for labeling people in a picture or pointing out that a friend’s fly is open).  A strong social bent makes this service perfect for the high school/college crowd, at $25 a year for unlimited pictures (upload bandwidth is throttled) Flickr is also the least expensive (so it won’t cut to deep into Pablo’s beer budget).


The best everyman site:



My absolute favorite feature of Phanfare is how quickly a gallery is uploaded and posted to your site.  The trick is they use the desktop application to resize the picture before it’s uploaded to the web site, and later they upload the full-sized image in the background.  Phanfare also has the best support for videos and the largest range of image formats.  For $50 a year you get unlimited storage and a fast, easy interface.


The best power-user site:



I love the annotation features in Flickr and the ease of use of Phanfare… but when push came to shove I really wanted to have more customization than either of the two other services offered.  Smugmug is also great for professional photographers as it allows users with a pro account to completely re-brand the site and charge for prints of their pictures.  Adding more wood to the fire was Smugmug’s exposed APIs that allow third-party developers to expand the Smugmug functionality.  There are three plans, all with unlimited storage: $39.95, $59.95 and $149.95 (note: use this coupon code and get $5 off – btqOt6mLHMm4Y).


Top Feature comparison:










































































Feature      
Unlimited Storage Yes (metered upload) Yes Yes
Custom UI No Preset Templates Templates or CSS
Custom Domain No Yes Yes (for pro only)
Per-gallery password Yes (per picture) Yes Yes
Comments Yes No Yes
RSS feeds Yes Yes Yes
Video clip support No QuickTime, MPEG and AVI MPEG-1 only
Upload via e-mail Yes Yes Yes
Published API Yes No Yes
What’s special Annotating photos Uploads in the background Pros can sell pictures and set prices
Awards    

  Editor’s choice for 2004 & 2005


Top rated site for 2005

Press/news Flickr Phanfare Smugmug
Yearly cost $24.95 $54.95 $39.95 to $149.95


But wait, there’s more:


If you go with either Flickr or Smugmug, be sure to go looking for software which uses the published APIs.  Omar has created some handy tools for Smugmug and there are also nifty tools for Flickr.


As a bonus, both Flickr and Smugmug support geotagged pictures… take note travelers, this is a killer feature.


My personal verdict:


What’d I pick?  I was torn between Phanfare and SmugmugPhanfare supports many more image and video formats but is just not as customizable as Smugmug.  I elected to miss out on the variety of file formats in favor of the customizability (it’s really all about looking good ;)).

Keeping multiple PCs in sync

I have a work laptop, a work desktop and a personal computer at home.  Moving between each of these machines could be frustrating if it weren’t for a couple nifty tools.  The two big areas for me are my IE favorites and my OneNote folders.  While I have been happily using Favorites Sync for a while now I have only recently settled on a solution to keep my documents folders in sync. 


MS offers folder redirection to their employees that keeps your entire My Documents folder up on a server.  When you’re off the corporate network XP automatically makes the folder available in a cached mode.  It’s pretty slick.  But… the folder size is limited and, for employees in California, very slow.


Back in April Microsoft purchased Groove Networks.  The Groove product is very cool, creating what amounts to a peer to peer Share Point server.   Groove will sync folders and files across multiple computers and allows you to control access so you can easily work with multiple people on a projects covering a whole mess of files.  Groove is really cool, and since MS bought it, employees can use it for free.  But… it takes a while for a computer running Groove to boot up (not a ton of time, but I’m impatient).  Groove also has chat, project and people management functionality.  It’s a great product but overkill for simply sharing files.


That brings me to FolderShare.  FolderShare is much more light-weight than Groove, focusing only folder sharing.  Groove is great for a multi-person office environment and FolderShare is perfect for individuals.  FolderShare offers both free and for-pay versions of their service.  The free version of the service limits the number of files and sub-folders which can be shared as well as the speed of the file sync.  I’ve been able to stick to just using the free service by keeping a sub-folder in my documents folder where I put the items I want to share (typically my current work) and moving them out when I’m done.


This morning we announced that we purchased FolderShare…  I’m hoping I can get the upgraded service now for free.  Yep, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again… I’m cheap. :)