Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Did Microsoft Get Some New Blood for Windows 7?

Microsoft is scheduled to release Windows 7 at the end of October. I've been editing a bunch of articles at work about the upcoming Windows 7 release (based on the release candidate), and I must say that I'm pleased with some of the changes to the OS. Perhaps Microsoft finally got sick of being accused of copying the look and feel of Apple's OSes and hired some new people with new ideas, because these sound to me like bona fide unique additions. Granted, they're mostly bells and whistles, but they're the type of bells and whistles that I love to have fun with. Here are a few things you have to look forward to with Windows 7:

  • Slideshow backgrounds: Instead of choosing one picture as a background, you can choose multiple pictures to create a slideshow background. Can it be long before we start seeing animated backgrounds, perhaps based on the trademarked animated screen savers of a decade ago? (I still remember a Disney screen saver in which Goofy physically moved file icons around the desktop, and Donald Duck, descending on a window-cleaner's trolley, painted over everything on the screen in plaid.)
  • Aero Shake: This is just a neat idea. Say you have ten different windows open, and you just want to concentrate on one. Click and hold on to that window's title bar and then shake your mouse back and forth, and every window but that one automatically minimizes.
  • Aero Snap: This is more than a bell or whistle: drag a window all the way to the left side of the screen, and it automatically docks there and shrinks to half-width. You can then do the same on the right side of the screen with another window, making side-by side windows a breeze with any applications.
  • Expanded calculator: I don't know why, if Microsoft is going to take the time to upgrade the built-in calculator, they don't just go all the way and put in a complete graphing calculator. Windows 7's calculator offers Standard mode, your basic desk calculator; Scientific mode, for trigonometric calculations; Programming mode, for dealing with binary, octal, decimal, and hexadecimal calculations; and Statistics mode, for doing linear regressions and other statistical number-crunching. It also includes some special features that normally I would open Excel to calculate, like calculating a mortgage payment, making calculations based on dates, converting among measurement systems, and figuring interest. You can probably treat this like a Gadget by dropping its shortcut in the StartUp folder.
  • Adjustable User Account Control settings: Microsoft promises that, even if you don't change a thing, you'll see fewer of those annoying UAC dialog boxes, but they also give you the opportunity to adjust how closely you want the UAC to watch what goes on. You can even turn it completely off.
  • New parental settings: You can now set when, what, and how much a child can play on the computer. I'll definitely use this. (I wish Nintendo would build this into the Wii!)
  • Frequently accessed/recent documents from the toolbar: From the Windows toolbar (which itself has undergone a facelift), you can access a pop-up window for each application showing a) any open documents or files; and b) a list of recently used or frequently used documents or files — presumably the same type of list that appears in the Office button of any of the Office programs.
  • Internet-like search speed with auto suggestions: The online demonstrations of new Windows 7 search feature show it working a lot like Google does now. You start typing in the search box, and as you type, Windows suggests what you might be typing. (Assuming it works this well . . .) This type of searching won't seem "new," but the underlying Windows indexing and search process is supposed to be improved and extremely sped up, making it actually useful.

Although they aren't quite as exciting and/or useful, here are a few other changes you can expect in Windows 7:

  • New Aero Glass colors: With Windows Vista,
    Microsoft introduced Aero, the translucent window effect. Windows 7 offers more colors for translucency. If you look at the world through rose-colored glasses, you can now look at your computer desktop through rose-colored Aero Glass, as well as a few other colors.
  • The Sidebar is gone, but the gadgets stay: Vista came (and no doubt Windows 7 will come) with a slew of gadgets that you could add to the Windows Sidebar — things like an analogue clock, a CPU usage gauge, a slider game, etc. — and plenty more were available online. I, for one, have a piano gadget that lets me play an octave worth of notes. The Windows Sidebar was docked to an edge of the screen and held all those gadgets. In Windows 7, the Sidebar is gone, but the gadgets can stay — they're now free-floating!

No word yet on what the upgrade will cost. The Mac OS X Snow Leopard upgrade hits shelves this week for a mere $29. Dare I dream that Microsoft will attempt to compete with this price? Would a $24.99 Windows 7 upgrade be too much to ask?



Saturday, August 22, 2009

Three Stooges, Two Children, One Video

Today, thanks to the Indianapolis-Marion County Public Library, I introduced my children to The Three Stooges. I haven't been much of a fan of Moe, Larry, and Curly — it had been a long time since I'd seen any Stooges — but while I was perusing the DVDs at the library, I saw this one and had to snag it.

Although my elder son was much more interested in playing Civilization IV, my younger son just loved the slapstick. I have to admit, I got a lot more laughs out of it than I remember. We might start getting

So I've put in my share of contributions to the delinquency of minors this weeking. Tomorrow, we're going to the zoo. I just hope neither of my children poke any baboons in the eyes.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Tonight Was a Good Night

What a great, relaxing night! First, I performed with the IWS in an outdoor concert at the Carmel Gazebo, and we couldn't have had better weather. We had a decent and appreciative audience. With the exception of an accidental piccolo solo at the end of the first piece and some drag during Nimrod, the music went really well and we sounded really good. All in all, a great concert.

After tearing down the set, a bunch of us went to Bub's in Carmel, where I had a delicious quarter-pound elk burger with all the fixins. After a concert like this, six or eight band members sometimes pick a restaurant and have a little after-dinner gathering. Tonight, we had 17, which involved squeezing us all around 4 round tables on the patio. A cool evening, yummy food, and camaraderie. No deadlines, no expectations.

Like I said, it was a good night. Wish I had more of them.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

The Importance of Planning a Vacation, or, Stymied by God

I and my sons (the Elder and the Younger) have the whole first week of August together — one last hurrah before school starts up again. On the Thursday before, still not certain what we would do with our week together, I got the idea of going to Vincennes to see the George Rogers Clark Memorial and camp out. The Elder studied his Indiana history last year in the fourth grade, so he knew a lot more about GR Clark and Vincennes than either I or the Younger did. So I thought he, especially, would enjoy the trip.I made some hasty plans and, after plotting our journey while the oil was changed and the tires rotated, we set out on a sunny early Monday afternoon.

I saw that not far off I-70 is the largest waterfall in Indiana, Cataract Falls. So we made a little side-trip to see the wonders of nature and the unstoppable force of gravity. It started okay, with a covered bridge to nowhere.

Through a portal on the covered bridge at Cataract Falls.

This is near the top of the falls:

"What do you mean it's bath time?"

Sure, it was pretty there, but we were hoping for a mighty drop, the deafening rush of millions of pounds of relentless water. So we hopped back into the car and followed the signs to “the lower falls.” When we got there,

"You call this a waterfall?!"

The Elder pondering the nature of water, the sound of one hand clapping, and whether Ivysaur can defeat Pikachu.

No constant thunder. No misty rainbows. Just Bigfoot’s shower. We were underwhelmed.

So we went on to Vincennes. About two hours later (it could have been five), we arrived at our destination, the George Rogers Clark Memorial:

What was it the ranger said? The largest Greek revival memorial in the United States outside of Washington, D.C.?

I had come here with my fourth grade class a good two decades ago and remembered seeing an awesome, massive, limestone structure. It’s still awesome, still massive, and, er, still limestone. Unfortunately, there was a little snag:

The largest closed-for-renovation Greek revival memorial in the United States outside of Washington, D.C.

The memorial is closed for renovation. The visitors’ center was open, though, and we got there just in time to watch a rather old half-hour movie about Clark and what he and his troops did. Historically, he sounds like an impressive character and military strategist, but I wouldn’t have wanted to know him in person. He came off sounding like a dick.

"You don't think he'd really fire, do you?"

Not exactly Injun Joe

Reenacting our favorite Bugs Bunny cartoon

After getting directions from the park ranger, we drove a short distance to Ouabache Trails State Park. (Ouabache is the French spelling of Wabash.) We paid our fee, got our camping permit, and set up the brand new tent that we had purchased from Gander Mountain that weekend.

Hoosier ingenuity . . . and well-written instructions.

I had originally thought we might stay in Vincennes (or at least the area) for two nights, but with the memorial closed and the town pretty much dead, I changed my mind. Looking over the map, I traced my finger along more central areas and found that Bluespring Caverns was a straight shot east from Vincennes. I was hoping we could enjoy a nice, hike-resistant underground boat ride the next day. That could have saved the vacation.

We still needed hot dogs, buns, drinks, ice, and breakfast, so we set off in search of a nearby Vincennes supermarket. I drove up and down 6th street — north to south — passing two ice cream parlors, four pizza places, and three tattoo parlors, but no supermarkets. ‘Perhaps perpendicular paths could prove profitable,’ I thought. I ended up driving about three miles out, nearer the highway, before finding a Wal-Mart supercenter.

Now, I hate Wal-Mart, but I hate going hungry even more. Worse than that is spending time with two pre-teens with rumbly bellies. So I sucked it up and we got some food at Wally-World.

Back to camp, where my Webelo and I built a healthy fire upon which to feast on weiners and s’mores. (A tip: “Regular” s’mores are good. S’mores made from very dark chocolate are superb!)

My little scout prepares to feed and warm the family.

I tried to get a good picture of the Elder in the firelight; this is what I ended up with.

That night, I learned that the Younger really doesn’t like to camp — at least he doesn’t like to go camping when there isn’t something fun planned for every second of every hour until bedtime, which ought to be somewhere north of 11pm. Eventually, we went to bed — well, to bag.

A few hours later, after both children were unconscious and I was trying to get comfortable, the rolling thunder started, followed closely by some impressive lightning. After a while, this died away and the rain began. I thought it might rain, so I had put everything in either the car or the tent, so our stuff was relatively safe. This turned out to be the night that we tested the tent’s imperviousness to rain.

There was at least one leak — directly above where I laid my head.

I didn’t get much sleep, and when I did, I had strange, exhausting dreams.

The next morning, the rain had stopped. I discovered that I hadn’t gotten everything out of the elements. My little styrofoam cooler was lying on the ground under the picnic table. A racoon had apparently knocked it off the table and clawed his way into it in the night. He made off with our three extra hot dogs and two juice pouches. He wasn’t much interest in the ketchup.

After donuts and juice water, we (which is to say, I) packed away the damp, dirty tent, took showers in the nearby facilities, and made the short drive to Fort Knox II because it was there.

Fort Knox II is easy to miss. And if you miss it, you shouldn’t be too upset about it.

Keeping an eye out for injuns.

We had decided the day before that, for lunch, we would try out a local pizza place — Bill Bobe’s. The crust was thin and the cheese was plentiful. I loved it; neither the Younger (who got his own cheese-only pizza and who immediately complained about the “green stuff” [oregano] on it) nor the Elder (who tried to act like he was really enjoying and savoring his one thin piece) liked it. It was a whiny, hard-fought meal.

The rain started up again toward the end of the meal. We dashed to the car through quickly forming puddles and took off to the east. The rain picked up, turning into a downpour, and then into a deluge, and then into something that would send the Biblically minded to the Internet in search of ark blueprints. The only traffic on the road was my little red Jeep and some kamikaze truckers, still driving ten miles over the speed limit.

I decided that I must be heading in the same direction and at the same speed as the storm, and then the Elder’s bladder started screaming, so I pulled off in the first town I came across that looked like it still had electricity: Loogootee.

This picture hasn't been color-corrected or anything. This is how gray and dark it was after the rain let up a bit.

It was one of those small-town restaurants with holes in the tablecloths, mismatched chairs, and a dry-erase board showing misspelled daily specials. It seemed like a good place to stop and have a snack. The Younger had a chocolate sundae: three small, round scoops of vanilla ice cream drizzled with chocolate syrup and topped with oily, generic, aerosol whipped cream. No cherry. He loved it. I had two cups of coffee (in a mug advertising the local insurance salesman) and a piece of chocolate swirl cheesecake, which they obviously did not make themselves — it was so thick, rich, and delicious that it must have been store-bought. The Elder had a vanilla milkshake, thin and mostly flavorless. It could have been a few drops of vanilla flavoring in a glass of plain old cold milk whipped into a foam.

While we waited for the rain to subside, I concluded that Bluespring Caverns was probably not feasible. With all the rain, the underground rivers were probably too high to accommodate boating tourists, and everything else would just be too blamed muddy.

We decided the best bet, the safest bet, was to retreat to Grandma’s house, about halfway between Loogootee and home.

That took us near Bloomington, which really is one of the neatest small cities I know. (I’d love to spend a week there just trying out all the restaurants.) Bloomington is home to Wonderlab, the neatest little children’s museum you could pack in a space that size. The folks at Wonderlab know how to do it up right to make learning fun. The only things that really qualify as exhibits are the half-dozen aquaria and terraria holding various fish, lizards, and snakes; and a small beehive with lots of information about bees and honey. Everything else is hands-on, from the heat-sensing camera to the makeshift oscilloscope (made from a spinning cylinder and a neckless guitar) to a whole room dedicated to making bubbles in various ways.

It really is a neat place. If you’re ever in Bloomington, take your kids there. (Good luck figuring out where to park, though.) I won’t say that Wonderlab saved our little outing, but it made it not a complete loss.

And now we’re back home. The tent is airing out on the balcony, the kids are watching Star Wars, and I need to make us some dinner.

I’m setting my sights not so high for the second half of the week. A movie, maybe, or the Indianapolis Children’s Museum. And lots of sleeping in.