Monday, December 28, 2009
Tuesday, December 22, 2009
[Originally posted in 2007.]
Last night Tonight was another episode of a family tradition. Les and I sat down with Erin, Jon and Gloria (Morgann being a normal cynical 21 23 year old, declined) and watched "A Charlie Brown Christmas" followed by "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" (Dr. Seuss with Chuck Jones animation - it doesn't get any better than that!). We have been doing this every year at Christmas time since the kids were very small. We don't allow them to watch the tapes any other time of year because then they'd just be two more overwatched and then ignored videos in their library. Instead, we always make it the special once-a-year event it was when Les and I were little, and if you missed those shows on broadcast TV (always brought to you by Coca Cola and Dolly Madison), then you were out of luck for an entire year. And of course all your friends watched them, too, and we all talked and laughed about them the next day at school - such was the social nature of only having three channels, but I digress.
So we all snuggled up on the couch together and watched the two shows. It was great. And every year I tear up in exactly the same places, guaranteed. I have since I was small myself. The first is during "Charlie Brown", and it is this scene:
The second is during "Grinch" at the end when "Christmas came, just the same" and then his heart grows, he saves the sleigh and hands out all the presents (couldn't find the clip on YouTube - sorry).
Afterwards I cooked dinner while the soundtrack playing in the background (another tradition). Vince Guaraldi put together such a wonderful jazz album for that show that I don't categorize it as Christmas music so much as I do jazz with a Christmas theme. Lovely.
Christmas time is here
Happiness and cheer
Fun for all that children call
Their favorite time of the year
Snowflakes in the air
Olden times and ancient rhymes
Of love and dreams to share
Sleigh bells in the air
Yuletide by the fireside
And joyful memories there
Christmas time is here
We'll be drawing near
Oh, that we could always see
Such spirit through the year
Oh, that we could always see
Such spirit through the year...
- "Christmas Time is Here", Vince Guaraldi
Sunday, December 20, 2009
We are a house of nerds, and depending on the number of people living here and the number of computers alive at any moment I have to admin somewhere between seven and ten computers. It's a business I am slowly trying to get out of by pushing more and more stuff off our local machines and into "the cloud," but that will be an ongoing process. In the mean time, I thought I'd write a bit about some software packages I like, many of which aren't that well known. You may find them handy, too. All of the following packages are free for personal use, so they won't crimp your holiday budget, either.
- Google Chrome - Apparently only a tiny minority of people even know what a Web browser is, but if you're reading this post, then you're soaking in it. I've been running Google Chrome since the day it was first released and love it. It is fast, safe and easy to use. Give up on Internet Explorer (please) and even if you are happy with Firefox, give Chrome a try. I think you'll like it.
- Ninite.com - I rebuild and maintain machines more than I would like to, and one of the most depressing things when standing up a new machine is getting all the extra software installed (the most depressing is the 13-reboots process of getting Windows up to date the first time). The Ninite site makes that all better. You simply go through and check the different software packages you want installed and it creates an executable that then downloads and installs them all in the background while you can do other work. A great site and service.
- Secunia - You hopefully have Windows Update turned on to keep your operating system automatically up to date and patched against the threats that appear every day. But the new war in computer security is being fought over the applications as much as the OS. How do you keep all those applications patched? How do you even know when a patch is available? Secunia does the work for you - think of it as "Windows Update for everything else."
- Threatfire - You had better have some sort of anti-virus solution installed and kept up to date. But most A/V packages are only as good as their most recent threat signature file. They are helpless against a "zero day" vulnerability until a new signature file is pushed out. Threatfire is different. It is meant to be run in addition to an A/V solution, and it looks for zero-day attacks not by signatures but by the actions of software running on your machine. If something is acting suspicious, it brings it to your attention. It has already saved Les's machine from one threat. Good stuff.
- SyncToy - I am somewhat paranoid about backing up my computer, given the importance of the data that lives on it. I like to have both local and offsite copies. However, I loathe the backup software built into Windows. My friend Jason recently turned me on to this free utility from Microsoft. You can use it to clone a group of directories to an external USB drive and then schedule it to keep them in sync on an ongoing basis. Instead of opaque backup files it instead simply copies your directory structure and files to the second drive, making them easily accessible. Perfect.
- Jungledisk - For backing up files offsite I am a big fan of Jungledisk. It works with Windows PCs, Macs and Linux boxes, and allows you to choose either Rackspace (who recently bought Jungledisk) or Amazon S3 as the back-end storage. I prefer Rackspace because it's cheaper (15 cents per gigabyte per month, same as Amazon, but unlike Amazon they don't charge for the data transfers, just storage). Jungledisk allows for the encryption of not just file contents but also the file names themselves, making unauthorized access to them almost impossible. You can use it with different backup schedules for different directories, to backup multiple machines to the same account and to share files between machines. One note - the first time you run the backup count on it taking a while, perhaps days. After that the scheduled backups will run quickly since it is only backing up what has changed since the last backup.
- Defraggler - If you don't know what defragmenting your hard drive means, then you probably need to do it. Over time, the files on your disk get fragmented (spread in pieces across the disk), which means the disk has to do more work to start programs, open files and the like, and that all translates to you sitting and waiting on that to happen. Defraggers help minimize disk fragmentation and increase system performance. Windows has a built-in program but Defraggler is better because it often defragments files Windows won't. You can set up a schedule for it to work while you sleep at night and know that your disk will be in a better state when you wake.
- 7-Zip - I move a lot of data between Windows systems and Linux boxes, and there are different compressed file formats preferred on each. You too may sometimes get files from a friend that are packaged or compressed in a format that is not native to your machine. Don't worry - 7-Zip can probably handle it. Plus, it can be used to compress files for backup and its native compression format usually yields very high compression ratios. If file extensions like ZIP, GZIP, BZIP2, TAR, ARJ, CAB, DEB, ISO, RAR, RPM and the like mean anything to you, then check out 7-Zip.
- Mediamonkey - Give up on iTunes. Apple is evil and pollutes your computer with all sorts of bloated software and background processes that you don't need that dogs your computer's performance. Try Mediamonkey instead. It syncs with iPods, handles large music libraries with ease, has excellent MP3 tagging support, allows for sharing libraries between computers and has a lot of plugins available to add even more capabilities.
- Picasa - I am not an advanced photographer nor do I pretend to be. I just want something that allows me to do a bit of basic correction and upload and share files on the Web. Picasa does everything I need. It's "I'm feeling lucky" option makes my pictures better nine times out of ten. For example, I've gotten lots of compliments on this photo, and it was taken with my lowly 1.3 megapixel cell phone camera and then Picasa made it better.