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As most of you no doubt have heard, Facebook
founder Mark Zuckerberg was recently married.
Preparations for the ceremony were kept tightly
under wraps, and measures were taken to
protect the privacy of those who attended.
What incredible irony is this, that Mr.
Zuckerberg and company should be entitled to
privacy whenever they want it, while the rest
of us must suffer our personal information to
be harvested like so much ripe fruit?
Facebook’s data gathering tactics can be
somewhat circumvented, but not everyone knows
how. Some would suggest abstinence from
Facebook services, but really, that’s not quite
enough. It takes a bit of effort, and a fair
amount of irritation. But even then, who’s to
confirm that we’ve really got all our bases
covered in the fight for privacy? Newer and
more clandestine methods of surveilling end-user
activity always seem to turn up after already
having been active for some time. So when
someone shows he actually believes in privacy,
yet still, for all intents and purposes, forces
divulgence upon others, is that not hypocrisy?
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It’s no fun going home to your 25-inch CRT after watching movies on your buddy’s new 50-inch HD flat screen.  It’s a concept most people are familiar with: try a product of higher quality, and the old stuff will seem like garbage in comparison.  Alright, maybe not garbage, but the difference certainly becomes more noticeable than it may have been before.  The same is true of the content you watch on that screen.  I don’t mean half-hour sitcoms, or documentary programs that air on Discovery.  I’m talking about the drama, action, and supernatural shows that usually have sixty-minute run times.

Thanks to channels like HBO, Showtime, and AMC, I’ve been exposed to a multitude of awesome shows, causing me to watch regular television with an even more critical eye.  (And I was pretty critical to begin with.)  The entertainment bar is being held insurmountably high by the likes of Dexter, with its fantastic acting and characters; The Walking Dead, complete with suspense, action, and special effects; and the superbly epic medieval fantasy, Game of Thrones.

The Walking Dead

I know that there are those who might disagree with me about The Walking Dead, claiming that there is room for improvement in the acting department, but I actually thought it was pretty decent.  Sure, there was a character or two at whom I could point a finger, but really the action and cinematography more than made up for whatever thespian shortcomings there may have been.

Now there are shows on regular networks that I, and possibly others, unfairly brush aside.  I probably could have enjoyed ABC’s Once Upon a Time once upon a time, but with my now refined palate I’ve sampled it, pooh-poohed it, and tossed it in the pile along with others like Grimm and Lie to Me.

I know, I know—not all programs have the budgets and special effects that the big guys do, so it’s not completely fair to put them all in the same bracket.  And it is worth mentioning that the standout shows I mentioned all existed previously as celebrated written works.  Nevertheless, the overall effect on me, the viewer, remains the same.  In some sort of weird reverse-desensitization process, I’ve been left constantly expecting breakout acting, jaw-dropping plot twists, or scenes so gruesome that they make me go “Whooooaaaahhh!” and cover my mouth.  Am I so wrong to be disappointed when, instead, I get shoddy green screen effects and evil knights who look like they’ve got helmets made from old Koosh balls?

Once Upon a Time - Koosh Knight

Yup, they really look like that.

Really, once you’ve seen the higher quality programs, the old stuff is ruined. You just can’t watch it without making comments and rolling your eyes at every scene. And if that’s not enough, the good shows are so good that viewers who don’t subscribe to the premium channels resort to Netflix and DVD rentals to watch a series like Dexter, getting hopelessly addicted and winding up going through an entire season in a lethargic weekend of binge watching. But who can really be blamed? Those shows are damn entertaining.

And so, to HBO and its friends I say both sincerely and sarcastically, thanks a lot!

Dexter

Video: HBO via the Game of Thrones Youtube channel
Walking Dead image: AMC (screencap)
Once Upon a Time image: ABC (screencap)
Dexter image: Showtime (screencap)

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You’re watching TV, when suddenly, in a commercial, you see a smartly dressed guy with a slick haircut driving a cool car and you think, there’s my antagonist.  He’s suave, good-looking, and acts like a charming guy on the surface, but deep down, he’s truly evil.  That’s the creative seed.  An external idea that gives rise to your fully developed creation.

Sprout in a Lightbulb by TakingITGlobal

The alternative is to sit and think.  To pore over mental lists of potential character traits and physical characteristics until you’ve built the basis for that ingratiating character out of complete nothingness.

Creating is something that I think everyone enjoys in one form or another, and people go about it in many different ways.  One person might like to sit in the dark and close themselves off from the world until a thought speaks to them, while another person goes out to get inspired by strolling through a museum and experiencing work that others have done.  “Inspired?” you say.  “But inspiration is a seed in its own right.”  Well, it is and it isn’t.  Inspiration can sometimes be directly related to your subject matter, but I think it’s often a more general concept.  Searching for inspiration doesn’t necessarily mean mining for ideas.  It just means you’re getting a motivational boost from some sort of significant experience.  I think the late Mitch Hedberg summed it up well in one of his jokes:

I like when they say a movie’s inspired by a true story, ’cause that’s weird.  It means the movie’s not a true story—it was just inspired by a true story.  Like, ‘Hey Mitch, did you hear the story about that lady who drove her children into the river and they all drowned?’

     ‘Yes I did, and that inspired me to write a movie about a gorilla!’

One technique is not better than the other.  In fact, I bet most people regularly use a combination of both seed and thought, whether consciously or not.  We often hear of writers who have moulded plots around historical events, artists who draw their characters to resemble people they’ve known, and actors who include well-known peoples’ mannerisms in their roles.  Contrarily, we have books containing completely original worlds and stories, and paintings depicting landscapes that never existed.  And in most cases, the basis is not even the most important part.  As long as the imaginative development is there, the end result will be a good one.

Image: TakingITGlobal via Wikimedia Commons

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Part two of a two-part focus on Gmail.

It’s said that disorganization is a sign of genius.  I guess I’m not a genius—not when it comes to work spaces.  If it’s a place where information is stored, I generally keep it organized, whether it’s my desk, my hard drive, or my email inbox.  And thankfully, with a Gmail account, it’s ridiculously simple to keep order in what can otherwise be a chaotic stack of virtual correspondence.

The following is by no means the be-all, end-all method to organize your mail.  It’s just how I use some of the available tools to make my mail-checking quick and efficient.

Here’s a basic inbox setup.  A few messages—some read, some unread—from various senders.  For the sake of simplicity, I’ll be sticking to the Classic inbox style.

Inbox Before Filter

Inbox, before filtering (click to view full)

It’s not incredibly messy, but there’s enough here to demonstrate how I use filters, labels, and label settings as a sort of ad hoc filing system to split up and organize my mail.  I also eschew email hoarding, making sure instead to delete and archive.  Old mail that will serve no future purpose gets cleared out, and mail that needs to be kept goes into the archive, leaving behind a clean inbox—the goal.

The first thing to do is determine how specifically you want your mail sorted.  You may want some messages filtered at the domain level, such as twitter.com for all your Twitter notifications.  Alternatively, you might want something more specific, like davidwebb@pseudomail.com for only messages from your friend David Webb at the pseudomail.com domain.

Once you’ve chosen how you want your mail filtered, you can create a label that will be applied to all the messages that meet your chosen criteria.  In this example, I’m going to filter emails that come from Google, so I’ll create a label called Google.

Note: Remember that although labels are similar to folders, they don’t work exactly the same way.  In many other email services, a single message can only be in one folder at any given time, whereas in Gmail, a message can have multiple labels applied to it.  You can also think of Gmail’s Inbox as a permanent label, i.e., one that can’t be deleted, that gets applied to all your mail by default.

Click on the settings gear at the top right corner of the inbox and select the Settings option.

Gmail Settings

Settings (click to view full)

In the Settings screen, select Labels.  You’ll be presented with an overview of your current label configurations.  Click the Create new label button, and in the popup that appears, enter the name for your new label.

Creating a Label

Label creation (click to view full)

There is an option that allows you to nest your labels, but again, for simplicity, we’ll leave that option alone for now.

Note: There are several other ways to create the exact same label.  You can even do it on the fly when creating a filter.  I’ve just done it through the basic Labels screen to show you where you can go to view and manage all your labels at once.

Once your label is created, you’ll see it in the list on the left side of the screen, under the Compose button.  Now you can set up your filter.  While still in the Settings screen, select Filters.  Click on Create a new filter.  The search bar will drop down to allow you to specify your criteria.  Since I want to filter mail from Google, I’ll put the domain google.com in the From field.  I could specify criteria for the other fields as well, but because I want to target all Google messages, I’ll leave those fields blank.  Click Create a filter with this search.

Note: If you’re unsure of the domain that you need to enter, open an existing email that you’d like to filter, find the sender’s address, and look at what’s after the @ symbol.  Occasionally, you’ll find emails coming from subdomains as well, such as mail.pseudomail.com, but for the purpose of filtering, subdomains can be used the same way as domains.

Now you can choose what happens to the emails that match your criteria.  This is where you’ll use the label that you just created.  From the Apply the label drop-down list, select your label.  The check box should check itself off automatically.

Creating a Filter

Filter creation (click to view full)

There are also a few other options available, such as marking the mail as important, or making it immune to the spam filter.  An option I like is Skip the Inbox (Archive it).  With this checked, the filtered emails will only show up under the new label, and not under the inbox.  I use this on my filters because it keeps my inbox that much cleaner, and since I recommend archiving emails that you intend to keep anyway, this option saves you a step when reading your mail.  Check off the option to apply the filter to any matching emails that it has already found, then click the Create filter button, and you’re pretty much done.  The inbox now looks like this:

Inbox After Filter

Inbox, after one filter (click to view full)

The email that was filtered remains in an unread state, but no longer appears in the inbox.  Instead, the new label is displayed in boldface and indicates the number of unread messages (1) to which it has been applied.  If I hadn’t checked off Skip the Inbox, I’d see this:

Without Skipping the Inbox

Without skipping the inbox (click to view full)

The email is displayed in the inbox with its label visible, but the corresponding label in the list also indicates that there is an unread message.  This can be a bit confusing, because at first glance it looks as though there are three new messages when, in fact, there are only two.  That’s one reason I prefer to skip the inbox.  You can also color code your label, or choose to have it hidden from view if it has no unread messages. To view these options, click the down arrow that appears when you place the cursor over the label. I encourage you to play around with the label settings to find the setup that looks and works best for you.

A few filters and labels can dramatically clean up your email workspace.  That, combined with more liberal deletion of messages, can even leave you with an empty inbox, at which time you’ll see a little cheerful word from Google.

Empty Inbox

Empty inbox (click to view full)

As I said earlier, there are many other options available to promote inbox cleanliness.  To find out how to use things like stars, importance markers, inbox styles, nested labelling, etc., you can either check out Gmail Help, or just experiment with your settings.

If you missed part one (A Brief Overview of the New Gmail Interface), it can be found here.

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Part one of a two-part focus on Gmail.

Google has quietly introduced an updated interface for their Gmail service.  In their paradigmatic try-out-before-roll-out procedure, the new interface is currently available as an optional upgrade, but will become the standard for all Gmail accounts at some point in the near future.

An immediately noticeable aspect of the upgrade is conservation and improved management of screen real estate.  Elements of the interface have been changed to either free up space on the screen or make better use of the space you’ve got—a sure benefit for those who aren’t yet surfing on 23-inch LCDs.

The toolbar above the inbox is now dynamic.  For example, if you don’t have any mail selected, you won’t have the Delete option (among others).  The end result is an interface that looks a lot cleaner and less cluttered.

Gmail toolbar, reduced options

Gmail toolbar, reduced options (click to view full)
Gmail toolbar, full options

Gmail toolbar, full options (click to view full)

In the same space-saving vein, there are three new options available that affect the structure of the Gmail screen as a whole.  The options have been trendily named Comfortable, Cozy, and Compact.  As you can probably guess from the names, they give users a choice as to how much spacing is provided between elements on the screen, almost like a predefined zoom value.  Comfortable is the most spacious of the three, while Compact keeps everything small and tightly knit, leaving Cozy as the happy medium.  The spacing, in turn, affects how many emails you can see at one time in your inbox.  I prefer the Compact option, myself, because with a service like email, I like being able to see a lot of information at once without having to scroll.  Switching between the three options is effortless, so it’s easy to decide which one works for you.

Labels and Chat/Gadgets

Movable Chat/Gadgets module

A feature that I was happy to finally have is the movable separator between the labels area and the chat module (which has been merged with the gadgets module).  I never chat while logged into my Gmail account, so I always found it annoying that the chat module took up space that could have been devoted to my rather extensive list of labels.  I was frequently clicking the “More” option to view the rest of my labels in a little pop-up menu.  Blech.  Now, there’s no problem.  I can simply drag the chat module to where it belongs: neglected, in the bottom corner of the screen.

My one real gripe is Google’s removal of “create your own theme”.  There are still plenty of premade themes to choose from, many of them sleek and attractive, but I’m the type of person who always likes to modify layouts and colors, especially for a service that I use often.  I tweak layouts wherever I’ve got them, from my operating systems to my blog, and, until recently, my Gmail account.  Although the choice of colors (or lack thereof) doesn’t really detract from Gmail’s usability, it was still a nice option to have.  As I stated in a feedback response to Google, the inability to customize the theme isn’t a deal-breaker for me—I’ll still continue to use the service.  But boy, does it bug me.

"Try out" option

“Try out” option

Overall, the interface has changed for the better.  It’s more polished, and the usability has become further streamlined.  Unless you’re intent on keeping your customized theme for as long as humanly possible, I recommend giving the new look a go.  Just click the little floating label in the bottom right corner of your Gmail screen.

If you don’t like it, you can revert to the old one—at least until Google decides to make the change final.  For more information and a full list of details regarding the changes to the interface, check out Google’s About page for the new look.

Coming up soon: part two of my focus on Gmail.  I’ll be talking about simple ways to keep your email organized, and why a clean inbox is pleasant to use.

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Paranormal Activity 3 Poster

“The last 15 minutes will mess you up for life” . . . or so the TV spot claims. I’d been waiting for Paranormal Activity 3 since I first got wind of it several months back. The trailers were finally released and some of the scenes looked pretty good, but when I saw the movie the biggest shock was that the majority of the scenes from the trailers weren’t even there! I don’t know if they got cut, or were just intended to be used for advertising, but if you were hoping to see kids jumping from the tops of staircases and people getting thrashed non-stop by invisible forces, prepare to be disappointed.

Some parts were probably left out for the better—the paranormal investigator, for example. We’ve seen enough of that horror cliché in other movies. And to be perfectly honest, I was glad they cut some of the thrashing scenes. Too much of that and it gets gimmicky. But there were some scenes that I was really looking forward to seeing, like the “knocking game” and the Bloody Mary ritual. In the film’s defense, the Bloody Mary scene was there, just not exactly as it was in the trailer, and as it turns out, the theatrical version ended up being the better of the two. There was also a brief shot in the previews of a house engulfed in flames. You may remember references to “the fire” in the previous films, so I figured we’d finally be given an explanation. Nope. “The fire” remains a mystery.

The story takes place over roughly a two-week period in 1988 and centralizes on the childhood haunting of sisters Katie and Kristi. What begins as seemingly harmless interactions with an imaginary friend soon escalates into a series of increasingly disturbing and violent encounters.

The movie is filmed similarly to its predecessors, using handheld cameras and tripods. But if you think watching footage resembling a security camera is boring, think again. Some cool creativity was employed that allowed a stationary camera to shoot both the foyer and kitchen by being mounted on an oscillating fan. It then pans eerily back and forth—empty kitchen . . . empty foyer . . . empty kitchen . . . not-so-empty foyer. That element was really well done and for me was one of the stand-out suspense builders.

As far as the acting goes, on the whole it was tolerable for a film that makes heavy use of improvisation. Surprisingly, the scenes that were the most intense (which I would have thought to be the most difficult) had the best acting. Apparently, what’s not so easy is realistically depicting natural, casual conversation. I remember there being one character in PA 2 whose acting bothered me throughout the entire film. Thankfully, this movie had no such characters.

I was particularly curious as to whether the writers would be able to work this film into the story as well as they did with PA 2, because although I wasn’t impressed with the fright level of the second movie, I thought it was fantastically tied into the first, especially considering that they weren’t written at the same time. Naturally, I was doubtful of their abilities to demonstrate similar writing prowess again, but sure enough, like a puzzle piece, they snapped this movie into place as smoothly as the last one. I did notice a little plot hiccup regarding mentions of the mother in the second movie, but I found it to be a very minor issue.

Of course, this movie comes complete with a few typical horror situations like skeptic vs. believer, as well as conflicts that could easily have been solved with a simple “why doesn’t he just show her the tape!” But at least it was refreshing to see a role reversal of the common skeptical male and credulous female.

I tend to judge scary movies quite harshly. While scenes designed to make you jump and scream can be fun, especially in a pitch black theatre full of people, I find such tactics to be cheap when overused. A jump scene comes and goes very quickly, and the sense of fear isn’t a lasting one. I prefer that a movie be scary as a result of the atmosphere, the events, the story. If you’re still creeped out when you leave the theatre, then the filmmakers have done a decent job. In Paranormal Activity 3 there were a lot of make-you-jump scenes, but at least they were complemented by a story that had a moderate fear factor.

I don’t think the Paranormal Activity franchise will ever really scare people who need a corporeal being—whether a monster, alien, or psychotic killer—on which to project their fear. The strength of this style of film lies with the invisibility of the villain. It causes the viewers’ imaginations to run wild which, for many people (myself included), is usually more frightening than anything that can be depicted with special effects and makeup. That said, keeping the spooky entity hidden doesn’t automatically guarantee a successful fright. Paranormal Activity 3 certainly had some creepy parts, but came far from messing me up for life.

6/10

6 on 10

 
Image: Paramount Pictures via Wikipedia
Video: Paramount Pictures via YouTube

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You might have seen a certain Microsoft ad on TV recently.  It stars Cheryl, who is surprised to find a PC store in her living room when she gets home.

There is something very wrong with this commercial.  Can you tell what it is?  Here’s a hint: it’s not Cheryl’s acting.  We’re told that “this is her four year old computer she doesn’t think she needs to update.”  Four years?  Are you kidding me?

I was lucky to have been introduced to the tech world when computers were still geeky, not trendy and a pivotal part of the market—back before it was commonplace to have an Internet hookup (or even a computer, for that matter) in every home.  We would upgrade our PCs when it was necessary, i.e., they could no longer perform the tasks for which we used them.  And even then, upgrading didn’t mean buying a whole new machine.  It meant buying only the components you needed to make the computer faster, or more powerful, or to give it more storage space.

PC Exploded

Today, computers are marketed a little differently.  They are treated only as the aggregates of their components.  It’s a false premise (likely the result of advertising), but it brings in more money, so that’s the way it is.  New is good.  New is fast.  New is cool.  If you want to keep up with the trends, it has to be new and cutting edge.

Running out of space for your photos and videos?  This PC comes with 500 gigs of storage!

A hard drive upgrade is very simple.  You replace your current drive with a bigger one, or add a second drive to your system.  External/portable hard drives are also a handy option.  The need for space alone doesn’t warrant a new PC.

Your computer isn’t fast enough?  This one has four gigs of memory!

Memory, or RAM, will certainly affect how fast you can get things done on your computer.  But like a hard drive, it can be easily added to an existing system, and it’s certainly less expensive than a new machine.  Here’s a great article by Worth Godwin that explains the function of RAM using non-geek terminology.

Want the latest operating system?  You’re in luck.  This shiny new PC has Windows 7 pre-installed!  (Along with a boat-load of useless junk.)

A new OS is often pushed because of its security, usability and speed, along with hosts of new widgets and baubles.  But remember: an OS is software.  You can buy it on its own and install it.  All you have to do is make sure your PC meets the minimum requirements.  However, since the cost of new OS software can sometimes run over a hundred (depending on whether it’s Home, Pro, etc.), this particular dilemma remains a judgement call on the part of the user.  Some do prefer to shell out an extra few hundred for a new machine if they’ve got it to spare, but it’s not a necessity.  Plus, installing an OS yourself will keep your PC free of bloatware (junk that PC manufacturers install, like free 30-day trials of software).

A couple of years ago I bought a new PC.  My reason for the purchase was strictly portability.  I wanted a laptop because I was moving around a lot.  If it hadn’t been for that, I’d have kept my now eleven-year-old desktop computer.  Why?  Because as far as everyday computing tasks go, there was nothing wrong with it.  Email, web browsing, watching movies, listening to music, banking, organizing digital photos—it could easily handle it all.

Let’s take a look at the operating system example. Imagine that I wanted to install Windows 7 on my eleven-year-old PC.  The minimum requirements specified by Microsoft are as follows:

Required 11-Year-Old PC  
1 GHz 32-bit 1.1 GHz 32-bit Yes
1 GB RAM 512 MB RAM No
16 GB space 220 GB space Yes
DX 9 capable graphics w/ WDDM 1.0 DX 9 capable graphics Yes*

* WDDM is apparently only required for the Aero theme.

I could potentially run the latest Windows OS on my old PC and all it would cost me is about $25 to double my RAM, netting me a few hundred dollars in savings (hardware-wise) versus the cost of a completely new computer.  If your computer is only four years old, like Cheryl’s, chances are it’s much more powerful than my beige, steam-powered antique PC.

There are those who do need to buy new computers more often, but they’re usually either hardcore gamers who need the fastest everything, or people who do resource-intensive audio/video work.  You might also need a top-notch rig if you’re mining Bitcoins.

If you moved north where it’s snowy, would you buy a new car because it had snow tires on it?  Or would you just buy the tires and have them installed on the car you already own?  The notion of buying a car for the tires is, of course, ridiculous.  So why is it any less ridiculous to completely replace your PC when only part of it may need upgrading?

 
Video: Microsoft via WindowsVideos on YouTube
Image: Gustavb via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 3.0

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