DiscountLinuxDVD.com

A couple of weeks ago my DVD burner decided to kick the bucket. I was wanting to download Fedora 8 and burn it to a DVD so I could install it onto my computer. Unfortunately, that wasn’t going to happen. I decided that I would seek out a website that sold pressed copies of Linux distributions. I found DiscountLinuxDVD.com and am very pleased with their services.

I was only going to buy Fedora 8 but I wound up purchasing several others because they were a good price and I have been wanting to play with some of the updated distributions. I also prefer carrying around a pressed copy of some of the live Linux distributions that I use. People get weary sometimes of you putting in a home burned CD or DVD. I ordered the following: CentOS 5 DVD, CentOS 5 Live CD, Feespire 2.0, Slax 5.1.8 Live CD, openSUSE 10.3 DVD (i386 32-bit), openSUSE 10.3 (DVD x86_64 64-bit), openSUSE 10.3 (DVD PPC), Mandriva One 2008 Live/Install CD (KDE), Mandriva Free 2008 DVD, Ubuntu Studio 7.10, Fedora 8 (DVD PPC), Fedora 8 (DVD x86_64 64-bit), Fedora 8 (DVD i386 32-bit). All of that for $25.12. I thought that was a great deal to have pressed copies of all those distributions and different versions.

The other reason I enjoyed making my purchase at this site instead of the other sites out there was the fact that I did not have to order with a credit card. I simply ordered with my PayPal account and the funds were automatically deducted from my balance on PayPal. That’s how I like it and I greatly appreciate any company that allows me to do that.

If you’re looking for a easy way to play around with Linux and see what all the fuss is about I would highly recommend going over to DiscountLinuxDVD.com and purchasing a live CD. Slax, Puppy or Damm Small Linux (DSL) are great for older machines.

Mailplane for Gmail

Since I got this iBook G3 I’ve been primarily using it for communication (email, instant messaging) and multimedia (audio podcasts and my music collection). Unfortunately, the iBook doesn’t have a great deal of power since it is running Tiger which is a bit more resource intensive than OS 9 which is what the iBook shipped from the factory with. Checking my Gmail account was extremely painful because with all of the browsers it took an incredibly long time to load the interface and every email that I would click on would load painfully slow.

Fast forward a couple of months after getting the iBook I found an application called Mailplane. When I first saw the application I was extremely skeptical of it. I questioned why there was a need for such an application when I could simply load Gmail in a web browser and do everything I needed to do in the browser. I figured it was one of those applications that just made it easy for lazy people to gain access to their Gmail account. I didn’t sign up for the beta then but fast forward a couple of months and I got to wondering about it again.

I signed up for the beta and downloaded the application. Immediately it hit me as to why this application was needed. Accessing my Gmail account was extremely fast using Mailplane. Accessing Gmail using Mailplane was much faster than accessing the account with a browser even if I was using my best computer. I am not an application developer but my guess would be that there is some sort of caching happening behind the scenes. There has to be because it is so fast! When I get an email I am notified in the menu bar of Tiger and if I want to go view the message I can simply click on the Mailplane icon and have immediate access to my email.

Mailplane has other features but I will be honest with you, I don’t use them. The icon toolbar at the top of the application allows you to navigate your Gmail account, add stars, archive, access the online version of Google Talk, access your photos for sending via email. All of that is great but again, I don’t use them because I still primarily use the interface that is provided inside of Gmail. The only feature that is available that I will probably use in the future is the multiple accounts feature which I’ll be using once I get my domains set up with Google Apps (which is also supported by Mailplane).

I don’t have a complaint about the application however I would definitely like to see the application upgraded so it can take advantage of the new features availalbe in the updated version of Gmail. I especially like the ability to easily filter my messages and would like to be able to do that using Mailplane instead of going to another computer to access my Gmail account to create filters. I realize that you can do filtering via the settings and I have been doing that ever since I got my Gmail account in 2004 but the updated version of Gmail allows you to “Filter messages like this” very easily via the drop-down menu in your message pane.

The application is still in beta but I was able to purchase the application at a special discount since I was a beta user. I am not sure what the pricing will be once it is out of beta. I don’t regret purchasing this application due to the convenience it has added to using my Gmail account and I do recommend it especially if you are like me and have an older machine or hate having to wait on your Gmail account to load.

I think the developer of Mailplane has done a tremendous job and I look forward to more updates. I’d also love to see the developer create an application like Mailplane but for Google Reader. That would be really useful, too!

Mailplane for Mac OS X

Article update: Sunday, December 2, 2007: The latest unstable beta of Mailplane that I just installed does take advantage of the latest version of Gmail 2.0. Thanks!

Article update: Wednesday, October 1, 2008: I have updated this article with a screen shot from the latest version.

Since writing this article in November of 2007 the developer has made many improvements to Mailplane. When Gmail 2.0 was first supported it was very slow. That has been improved and the application is much more responsive with the latest version of Gmail.

Basic photo enhancements with The GIMP

For a while now I have been using the trial version of Adobe Photoshop Lightroom. The trial expired and it’s still a bit too much for me to pay for. I love Picasa but it doesn’t have all the features that Lightroom spoiled me with while I was using it. Fortunately, there is The GIMP (Gnu Image Manipulation Program). It’s free which is the part that matters to most people. It’s got a ton of features and is comparable to Adobe Photoshop in many aspects. I’ve been using The GIMP on and off again since 2003. I have always wanted to switch to it because I love free and open source software. Unfortunately, I’ve never been able to completely switch because I haven’t taken the time to sit down and learn it. Fortunately, with the latest version of The GIMP I am able to say that it can become my primary photo enhancement/editing tool. One of these days I hope it will become my tool for creating web graphics, but that’s another post for another day.

Although I am not very fluent with the GIMP for creating web graphics I have been using it for the past couple of weeks to enhance my photos before I upload them to Flickr. I don’t know how to do really cool effects, yet. Those will take time. But for the most part whenever I pull images off of my camera I really only need to do a few things like: increase saturation of individual colors, white balance correction, brightness/contrast and sharpening. Picasa from Google will do most of those but it doesn’t really allow you to fine tune color saturation like I was spoiled with while using Lightroom. Now, some people may think that it’s wrong to increase the saturation of colors in a photo but in my opinion I am going to make the photo look exactly like I remember it.

White Balance

Whenever I first open a photo to enhance the first thing that I do is use the auto white balance tool (Colors >> Auto >> White Balance). It’s a very quick and simply way of ensuring that your whites are whites. It’s like bleach for your photos. The great thing about this bleach is it’s color-safe, too! Ok. Seriously though it really does help, for the most part. A lot of times I will take a photo of an object, like a flower, on a white piece of paper with two desk lamps hovering above it. The two desk lamps have regular incandescent light bulbs in them and they generally produce a yellow cast in my images. Using the auto white balance the yellow cast is usually removed quickly and effortlessly.

If the auto white balance tool doesn’t work to your liking (which it sometimes won’t, count on it) another way to get the white balance correct in an image is to use the levels tool (Colors >> Levels). When the dialog box opens you can use the eye dropper tool on the far left to choose a spot on your photo that is completely black. Using the eye dropper tool on the far right you will choose a spot that is completely white. I have generally found that if there isn’t a completely white point in my photo choosing only the black spot works pretty well for correcting white balance. The same goes if there isn’t a black point in my photo, simply choose a white point. Also using this tool you can choose a gray point in your photo using the middle eye dropper under “All Channels.”

Color Enhancement

A lot of times when I pull images off of my camera and get to looking at them I think the colors are a little duller than what I remember the object I took the photo of being. In actuality it may not have been but what I remember isn’t what I’m seeing so I want to correct these. By going to Colors >> Hue-Saturation you can improve what you see by adjusting the hue of the color, the lightness and the saturation of the primary colors (red, yellow, green, cyan, blue and magenta). The lightness setting is really useful if you have a photo that came out dark and you have a photo where you really only wanted that color to stand out anyways. Increase it’s lightness value and optionally it’s hue and saturation and it will really stand out.

I will caution you on one thing. Don’t use too much saturation. One obvious reason is that your image will wind up looking fake (leaves are generally not neon green!). Also, if you increase the blue too much you’ll notice it really quickly because you will start seeing spots in other parts of your photo where you didn’t even know there was blue. The same holds true for any color. Just be realistic with this tool. In my opinion as long as it looks good and is believable then it’s okay, unless of course you want neon pink grass!

Brightness/Contrast

Before I talk about contrast I want to say something quickly about brightness. I don’t use the brightness tool of image editing applications a whole lot. I do, just not often. I only use it in extreme cases. I find that when I use the brightness tool that my images become too grainy to be accepted by my extremely critical eyes. Also whenever I use the brightness tool I find myself quickly adding more contrast to a photo. I try to avoid the brightness tool. You however may have different opinions on this so experiment with it.

Using the contrast tool (Colors >> Brightness-Contrast) is something that I am very fond of. Adding contrast to an images is one of the quickest and easiest ways to enhance your photos. Adding contrast to a photo deepens the dark colors of an image while still allowing the bright colors to shine through more brilliantly. Let’s take a photo of a flower as an example. The flower petals are bright and beautiful but there is a slight problem, they aren’t as brilliant as we remember them. Adding just a little bit of contrast will help increase the beauty of the photo immediately.

Again, this is something to use in moderation. Using The GIMP I generally start out with 5, 10 and 15 but try my best to stay under 15 if it’s at all possible. Play around with it though and see what it does. See what works best for you!

Converting Color to Black and White

When my parents were growing up the only option for photography was black and white. Now the default is color and you have to either buy black and white film or change your camera’s setting to black and white. I normally tend to only shoot in color and adjust the colors after I have taken the images off of my camera. That way I can decide whether I want the image to be in color, black and white, infrared, cyan or any other number of wacky color combinations.

There are many different ways to change a color image to black and white using The GIMP. The quickest and easiest way is to click on Image >> Mode >> Grayscale. You can also click on Colors >> Hue-Saturation, making sure that “Master” in the center is selected and move the Saturation slider all the way to the left or enter a value of -100.

Image Sharpening

Sometimes we are not able to capture an image as sharply as we remember. Fortunately for us sharpening is a standard feature in image editing applications today. It’s a bit harder to find in The GIMP than you’d expect but it’s located at Filters >> Enhance >> Sharpen. In that same area there is another tool called Unsharp Mask that you might enjoy playing with. I won’t go into detail about sharpening images because that’s pretty straight-forward. There are plenty of techniques you can use in The GIMP to sharpen an image, one in particular I am wanting to try out soon is called “Smart” Sharpening.

Image Cropping/Rotation

Another simple alteration that you’ll probably want to make on some of your photos is to crop them. Crop someone out or crop just the important part of a picture. Select the rectangle select tool from the tools dock (on the left by default), draw a selection of what you’d like to crop and adjust it to your liking and click on Image >> Crop to Selection and there you have a cropped image. Remember to not crop your images too much or when you print them you won’t have enough of an image to stretch out across the paper and the image will be blurry or pixelated.

Along with cropping an image you’ll probably occasionally have to rotate a few of them. That’s very simple as well. Go to Image >> Transform and choose which direction you would like to rotate your image.

Final Thoughts

I realize that this tutorial is fairly basic. I wanted to write it because when someone new to photo editing opens a program like The GIMP they are blown away by all the features and options that it offers. My hope is to give you a few tips that you can use to jump into The GIMP and start editing your photos. I think once you do jump into the program you’ll start to learn more about it. You’ll find many other tutorials online and like I said, I’m still learning it as well so when I learn something new I will be writing a new tutorial!

One other thing I would like to suggest is to make sure you follow my advice for backing up your digital media collection. What I have been doing is pulling photos off of my camera, copying the ones I like and want to edit into another folder. If I edit them there and save them and later decide I don’t like the change that I made I can go back and retrieve the original photo and adjust the photo again.

When you do save an image, make absolute certain you are saving the image at the highest quality possible. The GIMP defaults to something in the 90-98 quality range. If you’re uploading your photos to Flickr or going to print these photos, increase the slider to 100% and save it as the default. Also, make sure that you go to the advanced options to make sure the “Save EXIF data” option is checkmarked. This is one really great thing about digital photos if you can get the exposure, time/date, frame, camera model, etc from the data saved in the file. Make sure this data is retained!


Basic photo enhancements with The GIMP from andymelton on Vimeo.

When DRM Sucks

A couple of weeks ago my younger brother asked me to buy some songs for him from the iTunes store. So I thought this would be no big deal. Normally I buy, download and burn the songs to a CD and also put them onto his iPod shuffle for him. Well, that wasn’t the case this time. I had some issues and thought I would share them.

The music was bought and I transferred it over to my PC because the iBook doesn’t have a CD buner. No big deal. I get the tracks into iTunes on the PC and put them into a playlist and click on burn, no luck. There is an error that it can’t find a burner. The drive was being recognized by Windows as well as Nero. I got to thinking about it and I decided to disconnect the hard drive that was also on the same cable as the CD/DVD burner. Ok, first of all. I know it’s probably not wise to do that but I needed to connect the drive to the computer and it worked, so shush! Anyways. After taking my computer case apart, unplugging the hard drive and getting it all put back together again I turn the PC on and I still get the same error in iTunes. The drive is still being recognized by Windows and Nero but not iTunes.

I then realize that Nero is not displaying the drive as a CD or DVD Burner. I don’t know what the deal with that was. I’m still having issues copying CDs or DVDs. I’m thinking that I’m either needing to re-flash the optical drive, re-install Windows or buy a new DVD burner. But anyways. That’s not why I am writing.

Once I finally got the music over onto the PC and found out that I was not going to be able to burn the music using iTunes, I needed to try and burn it using Nero or something else. Of course you can’t do that without removing the DRM from the music! So I found myFairTunes, a Windows only application. DRM Dumpster does the same thing for Mac users but you’ll need a CD-RW drive and disc. Also, the software is not free. I removed the DRM, converted the tracks to MP3 format in iTunes and tried to burn the music using Nero. Of course I thought the music had burned succesfully because it went through the entire process and said it was successful. However, looking at the CD after it came out of the drive you can tell that there was nothing on the disc. When you put it into a CD player it makes the blank disc noise and when you put it back into a computer it says it is blank.

My point to this entire entry is that DRM is only making it harder for people who actually purchase music. We all know that. However the music industry still does not understand that fact. Thankfully, iTunes is now offering DRM free music. Also, fortunately, there are amazing companies like Magnatune who are against DRM. Magnatune allows you share the music you purchase with 3 people and they also let you license the music for videos, podcasts and other productions under a Creative Commons license.

The issue I had isn’t the only reason DRM needs to be sent to the dumpster. People want to buy music players and put their music on it. When a player is tied to one music store and one DRM format, you can’t do it. Maybe one of these days this will be a thing of the past and our descendants will look at us like we were crazy for using DRM (along with many, many other things).