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  • Newsletter Issue #365

    November 27th, 2006

    THIS WEEK’S TECH NIGHT OWL RADIO UPDATE

    After putting industry analyst Rob Enderle on last week’s episode of The Tech Night Owl LIVE, I received a number of inquiries suggesting that I shouldn’t give him any air time? Why? Well, because he has made some comments that were considered wrong, such as sounding a death knell for Apple some years back.

    But that really doesn’t matter. We all deserve the right to be wrong, to be controversial, to be outrageous. The fact is that Enderle is a widely-quoted source in the tech industry, and he deserves a chance to express his point of view. In fact, I thought he was more right than wrong this time out, and only his comment about people preferring to rent rather than buy music raised alarm bells. In addition, he’s a pleasant, articulate fellow, and you might like him if you can get past the issues on which you disagree.

    I hope you all understand that we don’t give people a guest spot on the show because they agree with me, or with you. That’s the why it’s going to be, because I want to present a cross-section of views. If you think someone is off base, that’s just fine. Just tell us in our message boards, which is one reason why we have them. If you don’t want to hear a guest, you can always fast forward to the next segment.

    If an HDTV is on your holiday shopping list, you’ll want to hear from Robert Heron, Technology Analyst for PC Magazine, who talked about the latest models and how to choose the TV that’s perfect for you. In addition, Stanley Ossias, from the ATI division of AMD, delivered the latest news about the company’s high-end Mac graphics cards. We also presented an update on how email providers cope with the growing spam problem from Bill Boebel, CTO of Webmail.

    On Sunday’s episode of The Paracast, Tim “Mr. UFO” Beckley, the Associate Producer of The Paracast, joined us in a wide ranging session covering what many consider to be the sorry state of UFO investigation. Will things ever get better? The possibilities were debated. This topic will also be discussed in a special UFO Roundtable, which is scheduled for our December 10th episode.

    Also on the show was religious scholar Acharya S, author of “The Christ Conspiracy,” who challenged our listener’s belief systems with information on what she calls “The Greatest Story Ever Sold.”

    On future episodes, The Paracast will explore Martian mysteries, and whether such phenomena as the “Face on Mars” truly represent evidence of extraterrestrial artifacts. You’ll also hear discussions about crop circles and other mysteries.

    By the way, The Paracast has been nominated for something called The Zorgy Award. Feel free to check out the site and, if you decide to honor us with your vote, we’d appreciate it.

    DO YOU REALLY NEED THAT SYSTEM ENHANCEMENT?

    The other day I read that there are over 4,300 Universal applications available, which means lots of choices for your Intel-based Mac. But many of these applications aren’t high-power productivity programs you might need for your work. In fact, some of the most important entrants, such as Adobe Photoshop, and Microsoft Office for the Mac, are months away from joining them.

    The real mark of the power user, however, is supposedly the number of tweaks and enhancements you install on your system. It’s not enough, for example, to just feel the surface of your Power Mac, Mac Pro, or Intel-based Mac note-book to see if they’re running hot. Instead, you may want to check out a number of handy utilities that monitor such things as CPU temperature, subdivided by core, and speed of the cooling fans.

    My particular preference is iStat Pro, a Dashboard widget, which provides more information about system status than anyone could possibly need.

    However, that’s only the beginning. There are loads and loads of menu bar add-ons that can stretch the iconic display almost across the screen, right up to the menu bar labels. Other utilities can restore some of the features that have yet to arrive in Mac OS X, such as a window shade function and a a configurable Apple menu.

    That’s just a start, however.

    Did you ever wish for a different skin or theme for your Mac OS X interface? What about killing the drab brushed metal look in Safari, adding double scrollbars and performing other features of visual legerdemain? It’s all possible if you do a little research and experimentation.

    What you might be surprised to learn is that there are actually built-in tools to change the look and feel of Mac OS X far more extensively than Apple allows in System Preferences. As a result, there are third-party applications that put a pretty face on Terminal commands that allow you to perform all sorts of tricks that begin with putting the Dock on top of the screen and end in ways you can only imagine.

    You’ll notice, however, that I am not recommending any specific products, beyond that widget. There’s an important reason for this and that is the dark side of installing all those system changers.

    In the old days of the Classic Mac OS, even installing a couple of enhancements might be sufficient to render your Mac totally unstable. It was so easy to have a few extensions, programs that patched the operating system in ways that even the developers might barely understand, step on each other with duplicate or conflicting functions. If you didn’t remove one before adding another, you could expect frequent crashes or even the inability to complete the startup process.

    Sure, Mac OS X is supposedly more resilient to such abuse, and adding a double scrollbar or a Quit menu to the Finder shouldn’t damage anything. Besides, the programs that do this job best have a Restore option that sets things back to their normal state.

    However, some utilities add kernel extensions that do affect core operating system functionality in some fashion. You’ll know them by the fact that you usually have to restart your Mac to make them operate.

    Sure, they may work just fine; that is, until Apple sends out a system update that renders them incompatible. Suddenly all those changes you’ve made to Mac OS X can come back to haunt you. There’s no way, of course, for Apple to predict what you’ve done to your Mac, and account for the alterations.

    At the very least, before you install a system update, you should take account of any change you’ve made to Mac OS X, particularly the stuff that required that restart. While you may not want to have to go through setting things up all over again, it may be safer to temporarily restore your system to its default state, run your update, and then reinstall the enhancements.

    But first check the publisher’s site for updates, just in case.

    However, before you begin, think for a moment whether any of these system toys truly matter in the scheme of things. Yes, you do want your Mac to reflect your tastes and desires, and perhaps overcome some of the artificial limitations imposed by Apple. Sometimes, however, in your quest to make things better, things can actually get worse. So just be cautious, particularly if your Mac is a critical tool for your work, where lean and mean is always the best approach.

    THE TECH NIGHT OWL: SO YOU WANT TO BE A PODCASTER

    It all started for me when I was maybe 11 years old. I suffered from a bad stutter, and I recall somehow persuading my parents to buy me a tape recorder. It was a cheap model, one that lasted maybe a few weeks before it had to be replaced. But the chance for me to listen to myself over and over again helped me overcome the problem. It also cemented a career decision, which is why I’m never so far away from the broadcasting industry.

    Today, with Podcasting still on the rapid growth curve, it is very easy and very inexpensive to create your own radio show. All you need is a cheap headset, or even the built in mic on your Apple note-book or iMac, a copy of GarageBand, and you’re good to go. Or at least that’s how it seems, but is that truly correct?

    No, you no longer need that deep, resonant voice that was once a mainstay on radio stations. These days, your voice merely has to be listenable, and free of any serious speech impediment. You don’t need a degree in broadcast journalism, but it helps to have a little bit of talent and, most important, something to say.

    You don’t want to bore your listeners, right?

    Once you’re past the basics, assembling an affordable home studio isn’t too daunting. No, I do not think that those cheap USB headsets are adequate for anything but a private conversation with iChat or Skype. In a recent issue, I reviewed a pair of USB microphones that definitely provide superior sound, and ended up preferring the Snowball from Blue Microphones for its unique looks and reliability.

    Both are fine for monologues, and the Snowball will suit for interviews, because of its switchable omnidirectional option, which picks up sounds to a decent degree from all sides. If you plan on mixing several sound sources, such as additional mics and perhaps a musical instrument or two, however, you’ll want to visit your local Guitar Center or similar outlet for a full-blown mixing device. You can actually find some decent models for less than $100 from such companies as Behringer. More expensive models include a USB or FireWire interface, but if you’re going to get a more elaborate setup, you’ll want to do a little research and perhaps locate a salesperson who is willing to spend the time to help you find the products that fit your budget.

    When it comes to recording telephone interviews, don’t rush for the cheap phone patch at Radio Shack. It’s definitely not acceptable for broadcasting, and the “digital hybrid” products that radio stations use can set you back over $400 for each telephone line.

    The most popular alternative that Podcasters use these days is Skype, the peer-to-peer networking software now a part of the eBay empire. Skype not only lets you talk to someone else on a Mac or a PC, but you can also make and receive phone calls to folks with regular telephone lines with a quality that can often match that of a traditional phone service. There’s even a special deal where those outgoing calls are free in the U.S. and Canada until the end of the year.

    Even though I do have the broadcast hardware, I find myself using Skype more and more frequently for my two radio shows because of its relative freedom from background noise.

    Skype is, however, flaky. Disconnects are common, which doesn’t make it suitable for live broadcasting, and it can be frustrating to have a connection end abruptly just when your guest is making a pithy comment that you are certain will truly entertain your listeners. Recapturing the moment isn’t so easy.

    iChat is acceptable if you don’t need to call anyone on the traditional phone network, but audio quality doesn’t quite match that of Skype, although it tends to be a little more reliable. Alas, Apple has said nothing about any sound quality enhancements to accompany the eye-candy in Mac OS 10.5 Leopard.

    As to sound recording software, there’s nothing wrong with GarageBand. But if you want a little more sophistication to normalize volume levels and handle precision editing chores, you might consider Amadeus II, a shareware application or the old standby, Sound Studio. Only the latter, by the way, is Universal.

    Regardless of your ultimate decision for hardware and software, the next best advice is to plan out your program as much as you can in advance. Use notes if you need guidance as to the direction of the show, but reading a script can sound artificial if you don’t have a little experience at such things. As for me, I work best without a script, although I have a mental picture and an occasional set of handwritten notes as to the direction and scope of an interview. Then I let nature take its course and let the guest have his or her say.

    THE FINAL WORD

    The Tech Night Owl Newsletter is a weekly information service of Making The Impossible, Inc.

    Publisher/Editor: Gene Steinberg
    Managing Editor: Grayson Steinberg
    Marketing and Public Relations: Barbara Kaplan
    Worldwide Licensing and Marketing: Sharon Jarvis



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