Thursday, December 13, 2007

How Does a Teenageer Get Into Visual Effects for Film and Video?

A couple of years ago, my friend's precocious 11 year-old son was obsessed with buying his first Macintosh computer, and was similarly interested in how he could create visual effects for video and film production. After being warned that the topic was vast, he begged me to write as long a letter as was required.

Well, I definitely think that the Macintosh operating system (Mac OS) is the right platform for "special effects and stuff like that." People are pretty divided and emotional about Macintoshes (Macs) and Windows, but I have intellectual motives for being a Macintosh advocate. Some are esoteric - and have to do with how I think and work with software tools, and how Apple Computer (who makes Macintoshes and the Mac OS) has always approached software and hardware design and implementation a bit differently. I'm not just a "Mac guy" because I want to be part of that cult - it just makes sense to me.

It's an important factor for you, being interested in media production, that the Mac OS is firmly established in the media community as the platform of choice. Though Macintoshes are a small minority of all the computers sold (around 7 per cent now), they represent the majority of people who manipulate still images, moving images and sound for a living. There is Windows software, and more of it, for doing pretty much anything you can do on a Mac. But if I have the choice, I'll still do all my production on a Mac. Part of the reason is kind of deep down in the Mac OS - a really slick kind of integration of a lot of things that mean, for instance, that you can just expect to be able to drag a video file on your Mac's "desktop" into an open window of a program you've never used, and expect that program to try to do the most logical thing with that piece of video. This isn't just the program, or just the Mac OS, but decades of a way of thinking, and people who program for Macs tend to consistently subscribe to these ideas. The Windows landscape is a bit more chaotic - no two programs behave, look, work, or "feel" the same, and you have no expectations about how you might accomplish a task.

OK - I didn't really need to *sell* you on Macs - you already said you wanted one - I was just telling you why I think it's a good choice.

I'm not the kind of guy who can usually tell you "you need to buy this," or "this is the best thing you can be doing." I can't make those kind of clear choices for myself - I'm just too aware of all the variables, and every thing is kind of a compromise. I also can't in good conscience tell someone to spend a lot of money - I'm very careful about that myself - so I'm always mindful when advising about purchases to keep things as economically sensible as I can. I tell you all this because I know that I'm going to end up telling you too much information, and probably won't have clear choices - especially since we haven't talked about this yet (except for your one email paragraph). I want your purchase to suit you, and to complicate matters, you don't yet know what you want.

So what follows won't yet be a guide to buying. For now, I'll just throw a bunch of thoughts at you about this. We need to establish some direction in which you want to proceed, and how fast you want to get there (which includes how much you can spend, or get for free from somewhere else). So here goes some first thoughts. Ask questions, and we'll keep going. We can talk on the phone, or even over the Internet (depending on what kinds of computers, etc. you have at home). Eventually, after you get a Mac, we can easily talk and even video chat.


Assuming you're wanting to spend as little as possible, and assuming you want to buy a new computer (although you could buy a used one), there are a few obvious choices:

(This info about Mac models is obviously out of date now, but I'll leave it historically intact. This is a moving target anyway, and not the point of the article. -Ed)

Apple iMac G5 - - This is the most powerful of these three choices, and the most expensive. It is the only one of the three to use the current state-of-the-art G5 processor, so it's faster, and a bit more "future-proof" (meaning that it will work with software not yet released). These start at $1300, but are a complete computer with software with which you can do a lot of cool stuff. They're ready for video editing (all you need is a digital video camera, which your family might already have), and for making your own video DVDs. Apple's iLife '05 ( software suite is included, and lets you edit video, manage digital still pictures, make and record music, and create DVDs.

Apple Mac mini - - This is a tiny Macintosh computer based on the older G4 processor. It's still plenty fast enough for video editing and other media tasks (recording sounds, special effects, etc.). It starts at $500, but only the $700 model has the DVD-burning SuperDrive - which you definitely want. This doesn't include a keyboard, mouse, or monitor (they figured people buying them would already have these parts around from old Macs), but you could use it with a monitor you already have, so you might only need a USB keyboard and USB mouse. It's possible (with maybe $60 more) to connect a KVM switch (Keyboard/Video/Mouse) so that one monitor, one USB keyboard and one USB mouse share a Windows PC you already have and the Mac mini (or any Mac). The mini also comes with Apple's iLife '05 software suite.

Apple iBook - - These laptop computers are $1,000 and $1,300, but only the higher-priced model comes with the DVD-burning SuperDrive (it also has a bigger display, and is bigger overall). They also use the older G4 processor, but are similar in performance to the Mac mini. The difference, of course, is that they are laptops. So you could actually be editing video in the car going down the road (actually, you could do this with the other Macs, too, with a power inverted plugged into the car's cigarette lighter, but you can't put a big monitor and keyboard on your lap). You could take it to school with you - lots of cool stuff. Of course, it can get dropped or stolen, so that's a big trade-off for portability. Laptops used to be a lot more expensive than desktops. Apple's higher end PowerBooks _are_ expensive, and more powerful than iBooks. But iBooks are pretty good values, and don't necessarily lose a lot to "desktop" computers. One significant drawback (for me, at least) - iBooks only display 1024 x 768 maximum display resolution - that's how many dots make up the screen's picture. Even when you connect them to an external monitor (with an optional $30 adapter), they still only do 1024 x 768. In contrast, the 17" iMac G5 does 1440 x 900, and the 20" iMac G5 is 1680 x 1050. What this means is that when you are working in programs that have a lot of little windows for tools (called "palettes"), you can see them all at once instead of having to layer them all on top of each other. When you're working with more than one program at once (I'm actually running 8 right now), it means you can have their windows side-by-side, to allow for viewing both without switching back and forth, and "dragging" elements between the programs' windows. Despite this display limitation, many people are willing to compromise with a modest screen resolution to have a completely portable computer.
NOTE: You should know that Apple will be changing a very big thing starting at the end of 2006 - they will begin using processors made by Intel instead of the IBM "PowerPC" processors which they currently use in all Macs. At that point, the Mac OS and all major software will have to change dramatically, and some of your old software may not work, or won't work very well. They probably won't sell an Intel-powered Mac that you would be likely to *buy* until some time in 2007 - I think the first models will be very high-end expensive ones. So that's probably so far off it won't really matter - but I though you should know.
Apple's other computers are much more expensive, and some are much more powerful. But I don't think that will matter to you at this point.


Since we haven't really established what you want to do yet, this is a little vague. As I mentioned, all new Macintoshes come with Apple's "iLife" software suite (

iMovie HD - Capture video from your digital video camera (or even footage from TV, or home videos your family already has), edit it, add titles and some (simple) effects and transitions, and output high-quality video back onto digital tape (or DVD, see "iDVD" below).

iDVD - Turn content captured by a digital camcorder (including video from other sources, like VHS or Hi8 tape, or live television) into DVDs you can play in (most of) your family's and friends' DVD players. You can make title menus with custom graphics and captions while "authoring" your DVDs.

iPhoto - Collect and organize photos taken on your digital camera (or collected from friends). Make DVD movies out of them. Print books with them. Make Web pages out of your photos.

Garage Band - Make music with pre-built "loops" of music. Play and record music on a MIDI keyboard. Record and mix live sources (microphones, guitars, etc.) with the loops and MIDI to make elaborate songs. Burn them to a CD and share them with your friends and relatives.

iTunes - Manage all your MP3s. Rip CDs you already own to smaller high-quality AAC or MP3 files on your computer and iPod. Buy music from the Apple Music Store. Buy videos on the Apple Music Store. Put your own home-made videos on your Video iPod.

The iMac G4 and iBook also come with Appleworks (, which is a program which does word processing, spreadsheet, presentation and other typical office/student tasks. Email, Web browsing, address book and other typical daily software is included, and all pretty excellent stuff - all published by Apple Computer.

Eventually, you'll find you need software *other* than what comes with a Mac. But you might not need to worry about that yet. If you get a new Mac and just play with iLife stuff, you'll start to get a feel for "production" - thinking of an idea, planning what you need to do (both of these are actually "pre-production"), shooting (production), and editing, effects and finishing (post-production). Joni teaches college students from 18 years old to 80 years old, and some of them take months to get good at this. I suspect you'll be way ahead of most of them in just weeks (most people aren't as good at learning things as they get older, for lots of reasons). But then you'll get involved with making DVDs, and that will keep you learning for a little while longer.


To really make iMovie do anything, you'll need a digital video camera which either records to MiniDV tape or Digital-8 tape. The camera must also have a FireWire, or IEEE-1394, or "Sony iLink" connector. If your family doesn't own one already, maybe they should (hint, hint). Or maybe you have a friend who has one. They can cost as little as under $300 (better ones can cost over $4,000). Some models let you connect them to _record_ video from an old "analog" (not digital) source - like VHS or Hi8 or Video8 tape, to digital tape. So you could edit old home movies together and make a DVD out of them, for instance.

If you really want to play music with Garage Band and you can play a piano-style keyboard, you can connect a MIDI-capable synthesizer (using a MIDI adapter) or a small keyboard made just for computers (using a USB plug). The USB MIDI keyboards start at around $50, I think.


You say you're interested in "special effects." This expression has very broad meaning in the media business. There are "mechanical special effects," like building a real car than crushes itself when some computer-generated creature stomps on it. There are special effects guys who blow things up - both big (like a real building) and small (like a model spaceship). More and more, of course, "special effects' get done with computers, but even here, exactly what gets done, and who does what, varies tremendously. And a lot of the actual "work" people do in special effects is pretty un-exciting stuff. There are computer effects jobs where people just hand-trace the outline of a shot of a person moving in a scene, one frame at a time, 24 frames for every second of film. "Wire removal" jobs have people just using software and laboriously "painting out" heavy cables used to suspend actors or props, so they appear to float or fly through the air.

More and more effects are being done on computers, but I don't think that's always the best solution. For one thing, the best CGI (Computer Generated Imagery) sequences still aren't completely undetectable - and I think audiences can feel that, and they know, even if not consciously, that it's not really happening to the actors. For another thing, it's exciting to try to make things work on the set without resorting to CGI work. Yes, CGI has given us a fantastic tool for moving images, but it shouldn't replace getting to do clever things on the set.

Some people who are really smart, and really into movies eventually become "visual effects supervisors" (VFX supervisors). They have to not only know about every aspect of the craft, but they often have to invent solutions for things no one has ever done. Today, they are often involved during the production phase of a movie, and are actually there on the set with the director and actors, sometimes advising on the way something needs to be shot to make the final effect more convincing, and sometimes to make notes about what's happening on the set so that many months later they will have a good idea about how to manipulate the footage to best achieve desired results. Most VFX supervisors are probably serious movie geeks, and can tell you how every special effect in every famous "genre" movie (science fiction, horror, fantasy, etc.) was done.

You should learn about all kinds of special effects. You can get books about this, and you've probably already seen special features on DVDs of movies about them. You're only (almost) 12 years old, and so you won't be getting a job as in special effects for at least another year :-). By the time you're actually trying to *work* in VFX, a lot of the computer tools will have changed. So learning *specific* pieces of software isn't so important. Knowing what can be done, and what to call it, *is* important, and will serve you in years to come. Just start "playing." I do it all the time. You can't really get that far without actually *making* something, so come up with a project. Maybe small, at first. That will make you figure out how to do it. It might not be great, but you'll learn why, and the next time will be better - maybe a lot better. There's an amazing amount of cool technology right now that means that a 12 year old can do stuff now in his own room that took lots of people millions of dollars only a few years ago. Remind me, and we'll try to dig up some examples of things people have made with basic home equipment and a lot of cleverness.

Some of what people call "special effects" these days is computer animation. The Battle Droids and Gungans in "Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace" are completely synthetic creations - entirely generated in a computer. Some of their movements may have been "captured" by analyzing how real humans or animals move, but ultimately, even their movements are controlled by software routines written by human programmers. There are some romantic and very unromantic parts of this process. Some of the people involved are doing serious computer programming. For the epic Invasion of Naboo, they created software that actually makes each of the thousands of Gungans move a little bit differently, not positioned by the animators, but actually following some of the key members of their group, without bumping into each other. They don't even move because of direct actions of the animators - they have kind of a library of possible behaviors, and each Gungan warrior has a little bit of randomness about how he moves.

Other programmers are just writing "code" to make smoke effects, or make things look like they're under water. Their contributions might be profound, but their work is extremely tedious work, trying to write strings of letters, characters and numbers which have the desired affect upon image files in computers. So some of these people are computer programmers, and not really doing what you'd call "art." They probably got computer programming degrees in college, and may or may not have ever thought they would be involved in show business.

Other CGI professionals work doing aesthetic work - designing. They probably studied art in school, and may or may not have used computers along the way. Over the years, software tools have developed to allow traditional artists to apply their talents in painting, photography and sculpture in the "virtual" world of CGI. These tools sometimes look and feel like traditional non-computer art tools - paint brushes, sculpting tools, cameras. These art professionals would have sculpted the first Gungan prototypes out of clay with their hands, then when the final ideas were approved, they tediously translate their sculptures to computer models.

Animators are another specialized kind of craftsperson. They have studied the art of a figure in motion. This is a very special craft, and involves being very observant and analytical about how people and animals move and act. Animation is done with many media forms - ink on paper, clay models, real objects, and computer models. Many experienced animators from the pre-computer days now work as animators in the computer world. Their skills are still valuable because they understand movement, and how it is simulated on film (which is really a bunch of still pictures played very rapidly in succession).

The the professionals that comprise a CGI "crew" on a movie have very different jobs and backgrounds. You may be interested in them all, or perhaps only one aspect of this seems interesting. Next time we talk (by email or otherswise), tell me more about what sounds like something you want to do, and we'll continue from there.

Do Ferrets Make Good Pets?

A couple of years ago, a friend's then 11 year-old son found out that we had owned a ferret as a pet, and asked me to tell him all about ferrets. This was email written to him.

Ferrets are cool pets. My wife gave me a female sable (that's a color type) ferret for Christmas many years ago. I named her Sasha.

My observations and comments about ferret behaviors and characteristics are based upon having Sasha as a pet. I also read a few books about ferrets - there are plenty of books available in pet stores (even here in California, where they are not legal to have as pets).

Ferrets are weasels - I guess you probably know that. Other members of the mustelidae family include minks, skunks, wolverines, otters and badgers. Though ferrets are among the smaller mustelids (males of the domesticated species rarely reach 4 pounds, females typically don't exceed 2 pounds), they share a lot of characteristics with their family members:

THEY ARE CARNIVORES - They might look like the other small animals in pet stores (rabbits, chinchillas, rats, hamsters, gerbils), but all those animals are strictly vegetarians. Ferrets in the wild eat most of those other animals that pet stores sell. Ferrets have been used to hunt rabbits for humans, who send them down into rabbit warrens on long cords, then drag the ferret out with a rabbit in its mouth (which weighs twice as much as the ferret). Commercial ferret food, unlike rabbit, hamster, etc., is made of animal meat - like cat food. In fact, there tends to be more animal protein in ferret food than cat foot. Ferrets can and will eat cat food (and I fed some cat food to Sasha), but ferret experts typically suggest that you stick to the higher-protein foods custom-made for pet ferrets.

THEY ARE FEARLESS - I've seen film of a 30-pound wolverine chasing away a 250-pound black bear. Ferrets can be like this - they seem to have no sense of being smaller than other creatures. Sasha used to play with a cat of mine that was over twice her size, and they ran and wrestled and had a great time. Domestic ferrets aren't usually too aggressive to handle - they can actually be a bit affectionate (more about this in a minute), but they can and do bite, though I've never been injured by a ferret's biting.

THEY ARE HYPERACTIVE - Ferrets don't stop moving unless they're asleep. They're not like cats - they can't really focus their attention on one thing for a long time. A cat can watch a bird out a window for minutes - stalking it. Ferrets don't work like that. When we put Sasha in a room with an unfamiliar cat, the cat would hunker down on the floor and watch the ferret without even blinking, following it around the room, and not sure what to make of it. Sasha constantly moved around the new room, poking her head into every crack and crevice, climbing under every chair, table, sofa, etc. At the point where Sasha noticed the cat, she paused for maybe three seconds - then she kept on going. Eventually, she walked right up to the cat. The cat kind of arched it back, not quite sure whether to run or fight. Sasha just walked right up toward the cat. When she got six inches away, the cat whacked her on the top of her head with her paw. Sasha backed up about a foot and blinked a few times, then just tended to walk in a bigger circle around the cat from then on.

THEY ARE CURIOUS - On the Christmas morning I got Sasha, I put a cardboard tube from wrapping paper on the floor near Sasha (who was probably only 3 or 4 months old). When she noticed the end of it, she immediately walked through to the other end. When she popped out, she looked around until she noticed *that* end of the tube, then she went through again. She would do this almost indefinitely, until I removed the tube. I think you could do this to many adult ferrets, and they couldn't resist going through - it's how they hunt in the wild, so it's an instinctive trait, but it represents how they are inquisitive about their environment. I remember reading an article 25 years ago about scientists at a Particle Accelerator facility sending a ferret through the tiny tubular core of their miles-long underground loop to make sure there were no obstructions before they fired a high-energy stream of subatomic particles through it. The ferret would happily walk through the long tube until it popped out the other end of the giant loop.

THEY ARE TOUGH - Sasha was about the size of a small sock. But I stepped on her with pretty much my whole weight at least once, and it didn't seem to matter. She kind of squeaked (probably just the air getting forced out of her lungs), but was none the worse for wear. On more than one occasion, she fell from the second floor down onto the hardwood stairs below (she was always poking around between the railing around the stairwell) - but she'd just kind a blink a few times, and start running up and down the stairs again.

THEY ARE INTELLIGENT - Very much unlike all those rodents and Leporida (the family name of rabbits) in pet stores, these are pretty clever animals. They are hunters, remember, so they tend to need skills which exceed those of their prey.

IS A FERRET A GOOD PET? - This depends upon what you want out of a pet. Sasha wasn't exactly capable of affection - certainly nothing like the devotion of a dog, and not like the mutual affection which a cat can provide. But they do know who you are, and will come when you call. Sasha understood when she was being told not to do something - she'd stop, whine a little, then go do something else. We handled her a lot, and she was very patient about it, and I think she even liked it, if only because it was less boring than nothing. She'd always come to see what we wanted if we called her, and on rare occasions, she'd fall asleep in your lap. It's pretty cool to have any animal trust you like that.

Ferrets probably aren't really to happy being kept in a cage. If they were out in the wild, I think they'd travel miles every day on their short little legs. This means you have to give them a lot of attention - more than a dog or cat. I actually let Sasha run around on her own in one of my houses while I was home. Keep in mind that keeping a ferret contained is really tricky. I used to find Sasha in our hall linen closet, with the door closed. The first couple of times, I thought she'd run in while the door was open. Then I began to wonder. The gap under the closet door was maybe 3/4" of an inch high. Sasha was about 2" in diameter. So one day, I got in the closet, and called to her. First, she scratched at the floor, and whined a little. I called her again. She scratched some more. Then, I started to see her nose under the door. For about 20 seconds, she squashed herself under the door, squishing her body so it looked like a half-full water balloon, until she was inside the closet with me. The moral of that story is - you'd better be *very* careful about the space in which you think you can enclose your ferret. If the hole around the pipes under your bathroom sink have a 3/4" gap - a ferret might give that a shot.

Sasha had a great time with our cat Sonja. Sonja came into our household when she was just a 4 month old kitten, and pretty soon Sonja and Sasha were racing all over the house together. Sonja would run sideways along the back of an old sofa (in our bachelor's pad house) and leap across the furniture - Sasha could get to almost any place Sonja went by climbing or falling. They'd start to wrestle and bite at each other sometimes. Sonja could bite Sasha anywhere, and Sasha never seemed to care much. But occasionally we'd hear Sonja meowing, and see that Sasha had her cheek or ear or something in a vice-like grip. They loved playing rough, and never seemed to take anything personally.

Ferrets will use a litter box. This is great, and a pretty important factor that makes them potential pets. But Sasha wasn't above using a convenient corner if she was a long way from her box, so be warned if you leave a ferret unsupervised for any period of time.

Some people carry ferrets with them in public, in pocketbooks and handbags, and in custom-made ferret carriers that you wear like a chest-pack. So some ferrets are "tame" enough to be in that kind of hostile environment (some cats couldn't deal with this, for instance).

Ferrets have a strong, sweet, musky odor (remember, they're related to skunks). Domesticated male ferrets typically have some scent glands surgically removed when they are young (all pet store ferrets will have been neutered and de-scented), but they still have strong scent. My wife and I didn't mind it - it's actually kind of interesting. But you might want to test-smell a ferret before you decide to keep one as a pet. They're not so smelly that you can smell one at a distance - you pretty much have to hold them up to your nose, but you can do this in a pet store.

Ferrets can be more destructive to personal belongings that you might think. Sasha loved rubber things: she'd drag a video camera tripod (which weighs about 10 pounds - she weighed 1.5 pounds) all over the house by a rubber ring around part of the center post. She ate about 1/4 of a Nerf football over a year or two's time (it showed back up, sort of, in her litter box). She'd steal and chew up the insoles out of my roommate's running shoes, and chew through the end of his dirty socks (the smellier the better) until she came out the other end. So they need some supervision. We were just bachelors living in a mostly empty house, so we weren't too concerned (though my roommate didn't really like having to replace his insoles and socks all the time).

Sasha was a good pet. We had her until she passed away when she was eight years old. Ferrets can live longer - usually 10-12 years, and sometimes more, but Sasha also contracted feline leukemia from a feline leukemia vaccination when she was young. She wasn't expected to live - the disease is almost 100 per cent fatal to ferrets. But she survived, and was a great curiosity to North Carolina veterinarians. We suspect that might have shortened her life a bit.

Ferrets are legal in every state of the U.S. except California and Hawaii (as of the end of 2007). I'm not sure what these state's real objections are, but I think the fact that California is a huge state with enormous agricultural business and Hawaii has such a small ecosystem makes them sensitive to altering their ecological balance. There are certainly plenty of examples where man has introduced a species of plant or animal to a new environment with disastrous results. So far, pet ferrets have not created a significant ecological problem. Despite this, pro-ferret organizations in California claim that hundreds of thousands of families in the state own ferrets as pets. We've had many people in pet stores say that if we wanted a ferret, they knew who to call, and several years ago, all the major pet store chains in California started carrying ferret supplies - even though ferrets are illegal in California. They continue to campaign to state government to legalize pet ferrets here.

Ferrets can be interesting pets, but require a bit more attention than dogs or cats, and should be appreciated as being far higher-order mammals than rodents and rabbits. Perhaps a ferret would be a good pet for you.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

More Misguided DRM

The nasty case of "guilty until proven otherwise" in which a file-sharing utility included with Western Digital hard drives doesn't allow users to share video or audio over the Internet.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Discover Music You'll Like at Pandora Radio

(I wrote this email February 2006, but when writing some friends about it again today, I realized I should post it here.)
UPDATE: Early in 2007, SoundExchange, a non-profit performance rights organization (created as an unincorporated division of the Recording Industry Association of America, or RIAA) convinced the U.S. Copyright Royalty Board (CRB) to propose new, higher royalty rates for webcasts and streaming music sites, which is retroactive for 2006 and in effect until 2010. This may be the death knell for much of live Internet radio. Pandora's founder, Tim Westergren, says there is no way that his business can survive if this decision is not overturned. Here's an interview with Westergren about the impact of the proposed royalty rates on Pandora and Internet music.
Here's something great I just discovered, it's Pandora Radio. It's ad-based Internet radio which plays on your Web browser, but with a very cool twist. A staff of 40+ musical academics analyze songs based upon proprietary parameters about music - NOT song popularity - and this data becomes part of their Music Genome Project. When you create a "radio station" in Pandora (you can have 100 at a time), you "seed" the station with a song or artist. The station streams music to you based upon these characteristics. You can "guide" Pandora by indicating that you like or dislike the songs played, and (natch) you can click to buy from Amazon or iTunes. It's a very cool way to listen to free music, and to discover other music you might like.

My wife and I both enjoy using Pandora as a "radio" listening solution, and we've both found new performers which we would never had an opportunity to discover otherwise.

Some caveats and comments about running Pandora:
  • Pandora plays on any browser and any OS with Macromedia Flash v7 and above. Broadband is necessary to handle the 128Kbps (typical MP3 bitrate) streams.
  • Ads appear in a frame of the browser. Pretty unintrusive.
  • "Accounts" are free, and allow you to log in and play your Pandora stations anywhere.
  • The interface is less than intuitive. I didn't read any documentation (typical for me), and it was a bit awkward to get started.
  • Because the Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA) prohibits "on-demand" characteristics of free online music delivery, you're restricted about how many songs you can "skip" in an hour - the theory being that if you could keep skipping until you liked something, that would be "on-demand." If you just let Panora play (in a browser windows - Firefox works better than Safari for this), it just delivers 128Kbps streams all day long. As it turns out, if I listen to at least a minute or so of each song, I seem to be able to get away with skipping - so it seems that part of the arrangement is that artists get a certain amount of exposure. If you listen for 30 seconds or so and click "I don't like it" on a song's album art pop-up, it will skip automatically.
  • Once a song has played, or you've skipped a song, you can't return to play it again (that would be "on-demand," remember?). But you can still get a pop-up list of actions, including "add to favorites" and purchasing options.
  • We've found that entering an artist's name rather than a song title seems to yield better results sooner.
  • I can't say I've discovered that clicking "Guide Us" and entering another artist or title has been terribly effective, but I haven't experimented that much with Pandora, I just use it.
  • You can rename and delete Radio Stations, so I think it makes the most sense to go crazy and make another station when have a new idea of a song/artist to try. Again, trying to "tune" a single station by adding more songs I like has not be very rewarding.
All in all, if you want to discover new music, and like to have music playing around you, this is a fantastic solution.

I discovered Pandora listening to a Podcast interview with it's founder, Tim Westergren.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

AIM in Gmail

Google has introduced AIM in Gmail, allowing Gmail users to include AIM/AOL chat in their Gmail window (Gmail users have been able to text-chat with each other for some time) on most Web browsers. Pretty slick, and especially useful in workplace environments or on borrowed computers where installing an IM client application isn't allowed or practical.

Even though IM in Gmail isn't as full-featured as application-based clients such as AOL Instant Messenger, iChat or Trillian, one really cool thing Gmail can do is offline chat. You can send IMs to people who aren't online, and they receive them the next time they log in.

I appreciate that Google fosters continuous innovation in their products - it keeps me using them.