Found Ephemera: Obsidian Dawn

Obsidian Dawn is a digital design studio offering gorgeous graphical elements with both reasonable prices and terms of use. You will find most of her packages can be downloaded for free, but I would recommend going for the commercial licenses (a whopping $3.00 per package) if you’re planning any kind of book project you may put up for sale.

You will find many delightful packages ranging from brushes, shapes and patterns that can be used in Photoshop/Photoshop Elements to vectors for use in illustration apps to images that can be used just about anywhere. And, if you don’t know what these things are, there are also tutorials explaining everything. Here are just a few examples of the goodness you’ll find at Obsidian Dawn. Stop by and see what else is waiting for you there.

Brushes are the digital version of rubber stamps, only more versatile.

Patterns can be used to create backgrounds for slides or scrapbook pages.

Shapes can be used as frames, clipart and much more.

Stock images – especially PNGs with transparent backgrounds – have tons of uses in all kinds of projects.

Tech Notes – 6 July 2012

Summer’s here and from now thru September you’re most likely to find me in my favorite chair – which just so happens to be located right under an air-conditioning vent. Fortunately, the wi-fi signal is very strong there too.

Apparently it’s the DRM Apple adds to each app that’s causing the problem. I’m waiting for an “all clear” before I install any updates or new apps.

DNSchanger hits Monday. Have you checked your system yet to see if you’ll be affected? Follow Paul’s link to TeleRead for information on how to check and how to clean your computer if it is one of those affected.

By the way . . . Caroline has introduced a video tutorial library at her 4YourFamilyStory site. It’s high on my list of things to do this weekend.

This is just part of the conversations this week related to genealogy conferences. Y’all know I’m promoting virtual conferences as an affordable option.

Over at the Cottage Arts.net blog, there’s a scrumptious (literally) article on photographing food – along with some scrapbook ideas for showing them off. I challenge you not to drool as you read the article. You’ll also find even more food goodness over at The Family Curator with Denise’s article on Preserving Old Cookbooks.

Great article from MacWorld on how to present from your iPad.

ResearchBUZZ does:

Just barely, hon. And speaking as someone who’s been watching all this silliness since 1994, Google is going down the same road as AltaVista, only with better special effects. What may save it is the fact that AltaVista only had eggs in a few baskets. Google: lots of eggs, lots of baskets, lots of money, probably too big and too critical to the social and actual infrastructure of the Internet to fail. That doesn’t mean that it can’t diminish. That having been said, I’m thrilled that Google does things that end up being huge failures. What’s the point of having a market cap of over 190 billion dollars if you don’t have the pinwheels to occasionally try ridiculous stuff? It’s the overfocus on advertising, and the cramming of ads into search results, that I object to…

 

New features include longer battery life and built-in camera with one-touch sharing to Facebook. The phone costs $99 and the service is $15/month. Details at GreatCall.

An Introduction to BuddyPress

BuddyPress is a WordPress plugin that can turn a self-hosted version of WordPress into a collaborative and social platform supporting any number of functions. It supports activity streams similar to Twitter to include @mentions and a nice threaded view of conversations. Members can friend other members for both public and private messaging. The group feature is similar to Facebook in that any member can create one. The difference is in the conversation within the group. With BuddyPress, you can create a forum for you group which keeps the conversations associated with topics in an easy-to-read threaded view. There’s also a notification system to let you know when new content is posted.

The truly amazing thing about BuddyPress is that it is a WordPress plugin. Basically, all you have to do to create a BuddyPress site is install and activate the BuddyPress plugin and then activate a BuddyPress-supported theme. Yes, it’s that easy. That’s also where the fun begins. It’s still a totally functional WordPress blog, but now with all this social goodness added. And, there are hundreds of BuddyPress plugins offering additional features like photo albums within member profiles, collaborative document creation and even a full-blown courseware platform.

So, how can you put BuddyPress to work? Here are a few ideas:

  • A private family social network. It won’t have all the functionality of Facebook, but it won’t have all the strangers watching everything you do and say either. This would be a great way to share news, photos and maybe even post a bit of family history too.
  • Societies could use BuddyPress for members-only areas, as a collaboration site for board members or as a committee or project  workspace.
  • It can be used to support special-interest groups who want to build a collaborative and social network without the distractions of a larger network like Facebook.
  • When incorporated into a multi-site version of WordPress, it could be the backbone that supports a virtual conference. Speakers and exhibitors could be given their own blog sites which would serve as the booth – for vendors – or room – for speakers. Groups provide social centers where attendees could get together to get acquainted, compare notes or just socialize. Plugins can maintain the conference schedule, handle registration and access and offer additional functionality. Yes, some custom themes would be needed, but much of the rest of it could be done using existing plugins.

I’ve been experimenting with BuddyPress to determine its potential as a self-help center. While the genealogy community has been using Facebook groups to share their knowledge on various topics, it does leave a bit to be desired. It’s difficult to keep up with conversational threads and has limited functionality to provide links to documents, articles, tutorials and training resources. With BuddyPress, a self-help center makes it easy for members to find groups discussing the topics they want help with along with pages providing links to outside resources. If there isn’t already a group discussing a topic, any member can create one.

Notebooks for Mac Beta

I haven’t talked about Notebooks for a while, but it’s still has a favored spot on my iThings. Actually, lots of good things are happening with Notebooks including work on desktop versions. A Notebooks for Mac beta app is available through August 20th at the new Notebooks web site. Mobile Notebooks users will be right at home with the desktop version and my installation immediately found my data which I keep in a synched Dropbox folder so notes are immediately available on all my devices.

Notebooks is available on the iPhone [$5.99], iPad [$8.99] and now in beta on the Mac.

A Virtual Genealogy Conference Center

There’s been a lot of discussion this week on the costs and benefits of attending conferences. Like many others, family priorities for limited vacation time as well as costs are the main reason I don’t go. And, like many others, I’ve found the sessions that some conferences have broadcast online have been both informative and enjoyable. In addition, I’ve attended several virtual conferences and have seen that it’s quite possible to do – and do well. One conference on publishing was able to incorporate multiple tracks of presentations with a delightful exhibitors “hall” full of vendors and even a lobby where attendees could connect with each other. Each area allowed two-way interaction – Q&A sessions at the end of each presentation, live chat and even Skype-style conversations and demos from vendors and social networking with other attendees. It was all managed by a virtual conferencing platform which I’m sure cost a pretty penny, but then putting on a brick-and-mortar conference is a huge expense too.

The presentations were basic webinars only with a slicker theme to add more style to the interface. Most of the screen displayed the presentation slides with the speaker shown as a picture-in-a-picture. Like most webinars, a text messaging box allowed interaction with the speaker/facilitator as well as the ability to send private messages to other attendees. Handouts could be downloaded right from the presentation. All presentations were recorded and attendees had a period of time after the conference to view them at their leisure.

I found the exhibit hall quite fascinating. You clicked on a vendor from the graphical directory and were taken right to their “booth”. The screen included a masthead, a sidebar with links to connect with people “manning” the booth, view demonstrations, request information or visit the company’s web site. The main area of the screen was used for product information or to present video demonstrations and such. As soon as you “arrived” at a vendor’s booth, they knew it was you and had some level of contact information pulled from your registration data. Although most vendors had personnel available for live text and voice chats, some only had a static presentation or video demo with email requests for more information. Some vendors even had hands-on demos of their software or platform.

The lobby was sort of a clunky kind of Facebook. There were scrolling conference announcements and the ability to search and connect with other attendees. I think it might have been more useful if I’d known anyone attending the conference. I did chat briefly with a couple of people, but I think it would have been much better experience if I had friends or co-workers attending.

While this conference was all bound up in a very slick, customized platform, components similar to those used to create it are readily available right now. Exhibitors’ booths and speakers’ halls could be built as sites in a multi-site version of WordPress. Add the BuddyPress plugin and there’s your lobby/lounge area. It will probably require a custom registration/login/presence component, but that shouldn’t be too difficult to build. The biggest cost would be the webinar platform. Platforms like Adobe Connect and GoToWebinar have multi-user or enterprise accounts that support multiple simultaneous presentations, but they don’t come cheap. Still, when you consider the costs of a facility and all the equipment involved for a brick-and-mortar conference, it’s probably a very competitive price.

Although you would not be able to experience hands-on interaction with hardware vendors and Thomas would have to create a virtual version of his genea-blogger beads, you wouldn’t be stuck without Internet access either. Tweets, texts and Skype video conference calls would be getting a workout. And, if you’re willing to lose a little sleep, you could even attend virtual conferences anywhere in the world.

The biggest question now is . . . who will break the ice?

WordPress 101: Plugins

Up until now, I’ve kept the discussion focused on the WordPress.com edition of WordPress. Now, I’m going to talk about something only self-hosted WordPress users can fully enjoy – plugins. The WordPress developers were very shrewd and included a facility which makes it relatively simple (from a developer’s view) to create custom elements that will add functionality to a basic WordPress installation. Developers build there plugins using a standard model and the self-hosted version of WordPress includes a facility for selecting, installing and configuring them as part of your site.

WordPress.com users have the functionality of several basic plugins already built into their version of WordPress. We self-hosted folks will need to add them to our WordPress installation to have those same capabilities. However, there are currently more than 20,000 plugins available doing any number of amazing things. If you want some special functionality for your site, chances are good there’s a WordPress plugin that can do it.

Here’s a look at part of the installed plugins at the Moultrie Creek Books site. You see the plugin title and description along with links to activate/deactivate the plugin, configure any settings or edit the plugin. You’ll also see the version number of each plugin and links to the developer’s site and the plugin’s site. Notice that not all of these plugins are active. the Onswipe plugin has been installed, but isn’t being used. Normally, if a plugin isn’t being used, you would want to delete it from your site.

At the top of the screen and in the sidebar menu you see the option to add new plugins to your site. When you click on the Add New link, you will be taken to WordPress.org’s plugins directory where you can find and install the plugin of your choice. As you can see from this example, it isn’t the best way to browse for plugins. Use this once you know which plugin you want to install.

The best place to start is a visit to the WordPress Plugins Directory. Here you can browse through the available plugins and compare their features. You can look for plugins by clicking on a tag in the left sidebar or using the search facility.

Each plugin has its own page describing the plugin, including instructions and sometimes even screenshots of the plugin’s back-end screens and front-end effect. The more information included with the plugin, the better. Granted, some very good plugins have little or no information on their plugin page, but unless a plugin has been recommended by a trusted source, I keep looking. Notice on the right, the last updated, ratings and compatibility information. You want to be sure this plugin is being actively maintained and works with the version of WordPress you are using.

Once you’ve found the plugin you want, make note of its name and developer (many of the names are almost identical) then go back to your plugins screen, click Add New and enter that name into the search box. As you can see, you’ll still get a number of options. I’m looking for Austin Matzko’s backup plugin and he just happens to be at the top of the list. Normally, you would see an Install Now link just below the plugin’s title, but in this case I have already installed this plugin – on every one of my sites. More on that later.

Once installed, click the Activate link just under the title to turn it on. Most plugins also require some kind of configuration settings. Often, your active plugin appears in the Settings area of the site, like the sample you see here. Our database backup plugin appears in the Tools area and you’ll notice the SEO (search engine optimization) plugin has its own place in the menu. Be sure to read the instructions for your chosen plugin to determine exactly what you must do to configure each one. Something like the WP to Twitter plugin could be as simple as entering your Twitter login information while others require more complex information.

 

Here you see part of the database backup plugin’s settings screen. As you can see, you can perform on-demand backups and schedule automatic backups. I use the on-demand function before performing a WordPress upgrade, and I have this site scheduled to perform a backup every week and email the backup file to me.

Plugins get updated frequently. You’ll see a notice in the Updates section of your Dashboard. Each update should include information on what is included in the update – new features, bug fixes, etc. – and you should check this before you perform the update.

In this example, there aren’t any plugin updates, but I do have a theme update. Plugin updates will look very similar. All it takes to perform the update is to select the ones you wish to update, then click the Update Plugins button. You’ll be taken to a progress screen showing the progress of your updates and announcing a successful completion. It’s that easy.

Now that you see how plugins are managed in WordPress, you’re ready to put them to work on your site. I’ll be adding plugin reviews regularly, but one of the first ones I would recommend is the WP-DB-Backup plugin used here in my example. It really is as easy to manage as shown here. This plugin saved one of my veteran’s sites just a couple of months ago when the datacenter hosting the site took a hit from those awful storms that hit Dallas. Having database backups done and sent to me with no effort on my part not only keeps my work protected, but also simplifies my life. Let it do the same for you.

Tech Notes – 29 June 2012

Tropical storm Debby kept things wet and blustery much of the week, and while the rain has helped ease our drought problems we are glad to say goodbye to her. There’s still lots of interesting tech news to report so let’s get started.

Apple has finally released a podcast app [iOS – free] although Lifehacker prefers Downcast [iOS – $1.99] and I can see why. Kindle Fire and other Android devices can take advantage of BeyondPod [Android – free and $6.99] which supports both audio and video podcasts and integrates Google Reader as well. TuneIn Radio fans [iOS, Android, Blackberry & Windows Phone – free and $.99] know that it supports podcasts as well as radio. Did you know that TuneIn Radio is also available on your Roku box? Love it!

More ebook-building goodness with the addition of Folium Studio. You can build beautiful ebooks yourself or let them do it – all at a very reasonable price. It’s an online platform so this solution works for all users.

While we’re discussing book projects . . . Lynn Palermo, the Armchair Genealogist, has produced a great video as part of her Blog to Book project that shows how to structure your blog to support the book.

TextExpander [Mac – $34.99]  has upgraded their desktop edition with tons of new features. Unfortunately, Apple’s new restrictions has forced them out of the Mac App Store. The update from version 3 to version 4 is $15. The iOS version of TextExpander [$4.99] is still available in the app store.

Mac|Life has a great article on how to create a journal using iPhoto on the iPad/iPhone. This is my favorite feature on iPhoto and this article is a great overview on how the journal works. Unfortunately, this feature isn’t available on the desktop version.

Here’s a hands-on look at the new Facebook plugin for WordPress (self-hosted) sites via @DearMYRTLE.

Skype users should find these Mashable tips useful.

Save A Grave sends us to a very special National Geographic program on Arlington at Netflix

While you’ll always find the best genealogy reads at Moultrie Creek Books, you might also find Caroline Pointer’s Family History Book Club a fun way to find interesting books and share your thoughts on them with others.

You may already be aware that I am a big Twitter fan. I think Twitter a fabulous news source and the growing number of apps that turn tweets into gorgeous reading experiences all agree with me too. The Twitter posts you see here are totally functional. If you are a Twitter user, you can follow, retweet or respond to any of the tweets included in this post. If you’re not a Twitter user, grab a copy of The Twitter Book and go sign up today. You’ll be pleasantly surprised.

Keep the people of Colorado in your prayers as they battle these awful fires. A donation to The Salvation Army or Red Cross will help assist the tens of thousands who have been forced from their homes.

 

 

Digital Storytelling – On the Spot Stories

If you have an iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch, add the free Blurb Mobile app and you’ve got a quick and easy way to capture and share any special moment as a delightful multimedia storybook. Grab some photos and a video clip or two using your device’s camera, then pop them into the Blurb mobile app, add some captions and even audio clips recorded using the app. You can rearrange, resize and style your story in a matter of minutes then publish it (requires Internet connection) to your profile at Blurb. Your stories can also be shared on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr or by email.

My stories page in my Blurb profile.

Don’t think you’re confined to just photos, videos and audio clips. In my Sketches story I took several digital sketches I’d created on my iPad, used the Photogene app to add titles to one of them, and created a simple art gallery to show them off. Just about anything you can get into your photo library can be included in a Blurb Mobile story.

Viewing a story online at Blurb

Once published, your story can be viewed online at Blurb. You have the option of making it a public or private story. People viewing your story can comment on it and share it with others.

The story catalog on my iPad.

You can also show off your stories right on your device. Here you see the catalog of stories created on my iPad. Note that your stories are not synched across devices and your online catalog. A story can be viewed on the device but not published online.

A story being viewed on the iPad

On my iPad, there are two viewing options. Tap the finger icon at the top right side of the screen to manually move through the story. Tap the tv icon to view it as a movie. While the iPhone/iTouch devices are much easier for capturing photos and videos, it’s hard to beat the iPad to view your stories.

Blurb Mobile is a great way to quickly share the fun of a live event – wedding, graduation, baby’s first words or steps – with those who can’t be there. Using the iPhone or a 3G iPad, you can upload them or email them right on the spot. It can also be used creatively to tell stories of your ancestors using scanned images and documents.

Although the app is free, a 99¢ in-app purchase extends the limits on photos, videos and audio that can be included in any story and provides additional themes. Give it a test drive and see if there’s a place for Blurb Mobile in your storytelling toolbox.

Found Ephemera – Vintage Travel Posters

Dover Publications is know for its huge collection of royalty-free vintage clipart. There are dozens of books (many with companion CDs) providing thousands of beautiful design elements as well as clipart on just about any subject. I’m always checking Amazon to see what Dover bargains I can grab. This sample of vintage travel posters, luggage labels and old postcards can be used in any number of digital storytelling projects.

Publishing Tools – Layout Software

A simple family newsletter created with Pages in layout mode.

Layout applications – also known as desktop publishing software – are the applications a designer uses to layout a magazine, book, newsletter or any number of other print projects. Superficially, it may look much like a word processing application, but it is an entirely different animal. You won’t find outline support, grammar checking and other authoring tools that are so useful when writing your story, but you will find the tools that add all the design pizzazz readers expect in a magazine or graphical book.

These applications are handy for many family history projects. The most common is the newsletter with all its columns, precisely-placed photos and other design elements. They can be quite useful for many family history publishing projects because they can handle the complex formatting they often require. A family cookbook is one good example. Reunion programs and souvenir booklets can really shine with a bit of layout magic added. Thanks to these apps, you can also construct things like a group chart that crosses a two-page spread or use a photograph as the background to your text. You can combine photos, color and graphical elements to lead the reader’s eye to the content you want them to read. Yes, all this requires effort, but the result can be quite stunning.

These apps are great for smaller projects too. From business cards to greeting cards to reunion flyers, a layout application can serve many purposes.

Although professional apps such as Adobe’s InDesign are way above most budgets, there are several good, affordable options that will serve the family publisher well. Here’s an overview.

Mac users can take advantage of these applications:

  • Pages [$19.99] offers both a word-processing mode and a page layout mode so it can serve as both an authoring and layout platform. Note that you will still be working with two separate documents – the manuscript and the layout – and copy/pasting the manuscript text to the layout document.
  • iStudio Publisher [$17.99] is a full-featured layout application that includes support for exporting to ePub format. I don’t believe iStudio supports images in ePubs yet.

Layout options for Windows users include:

In addition, the open source Scribus application is available for Windows, Mac and Linux systems.

Does design and layout sound too intimidating? Take a look at Robin Williams’ delightful primer, The Non-Designer’s Design Book. It’s a fun book full of useful information and great examples.