It’s ALMOST as good as having someone real call you, and in this new-modern-era world, who needs real contact, right?
One that I’ve been particularly impressed with is Google Reader. It, like all other google services, requires a google account (but lets face it, how many of you DON’T have one?). Up until recently, I’ve been using Sage, the RSS reader extension for Firefox to aggregate my RSS feeds. One of the reasons that I really liked Sage was that it used my Firefox browser history to point out which feed items I’ve already read (ie if I visited Jane’s LJ, Sage would know, and it wouldn’t tell me that Jane had a new post that I hadn’t seen before). The problem with that, of course, is that if I visit Jane’s LJ while I was waiting for my next class at the computer lab and I read her latest post about wine glasses, then my Sage extension at home wouldn’t know, because — well, its at home.
Enter Google Reader. It is, like Sage, a RSS feed aggregator. It is also, like my.yahoo and livejournal friends page, completely online. But, it has a few distinguishing features. Not only does it aggregate feeds for me, so that I can read the latest posts on Jane’s LJ and Greg Mankiw’s blog, but unlike my.yahoo and Sage, it does not separate them into separate lists or groups of articles, but groups them all together in one big list for me to read. Moreover, it also notes which posts I’ve already read and since its online, it means that the stuff I read when away from my laptop is still marked as read!
You can also attach tags/labels to different feeds and even different posts. For instance, I put the Sinfest, Dilbert, and PhD Comics feeds under a label called “humor” and, if all I want to do is look at humorous stuff, I use Google Reader to show me only all feeds tagged “humor”.
Google Reader also lets you publicize your feeds. If anyone’s interested, I can give the feed URLs for some of my tags so that, if you wanted, you could be reading the same stuff I’m reading when I’m on break. On the sidebar of this site, for example, is a list of articles that I’ve found and clipped as “noteworthy”.
The thing I like the most about Google Reader’s interface, however, is the keyboard shortcuts. I’m not really a big mouse guy — blame my old HP laptop for having mouse buttons which didn’t work properly, so its good to be able to navigate the interface without having to use the mouse (even though I’m now a proud owner of a VAIO with functioning mousepad). On any article that I find to be interesting, I hit “L” and I can label it as “noteworthy”. If I want to read a specific feed, I hit “g” and then “u” and it takes me to a menu of the feeds that I subscribe to, and I can then choose it. If I want to read a specific label, I hit “g” and then “l” and then I get to a menu of labels that I’ve defined. On the main interface, I can move forward and backwards through any list I’m reading by hitting “j” or “k”, and if I want view the original website where the article came from, I only have to hit “v”. And, the interface is pretty mouse-intuitive as well (scrolling on your mousewheel does what you would expect it to), for those of you who are more into the mouse thing.
About the only complaint I have is that there is no way (at least not yet) to search all the feeds that I have read for stuff. I can only search for new feeds.
Anyways, if you started getting into the whole blogosphere/feed thing, I’d definitely recommend Google Reader as a way to keep track of things. And, if someone from Google is reading this, I’d like to get paid commission :-).
- Astonishing X-Men (Joss Whedon & John Cassaday) – From the creator of Buffy, Angel, and Firefly/Serenity, comes the core X-Men book. Whedon (who has grown greatly since his Buffy and Angel years) knows these characters well and is just in the middle of his third story arc where he has completely ripped the team apart from the inside. This is one of the best books Marvel has right now, and the only downside is that until September, Whedon was only able to get one issue out every two months — that sadistic bastard. One other tidbit, Whedon’s favorite character is Kitty Pryde (the girl who walks through walls) and his inspiration for Buffy and a good many of the female characters that he writes is her.
- Daredevil (Ed Brubaker & Michael Lark/Stefano Gaudiano) – For those out of comics, Brubaker’s name probably doesn’t sound very famous, but he started as an indy-comic writer — and a good one at that. Brubaker crafts excellent noir-ish stories. For that reason, I’m not as big a fan of his X-Men work, but I loved his work on Gotham Central (see below) and now he’s doing Daredevil justice. Not Ben Affleck-injustice, but Daredevil as he’s meant to be — bad ass, kicking ninja ass, surrounded by hot, scantily clad femme fatales. In terms of the story, I recommend you pick up the few issues just leading into the current story arc written by Brian Bendis (see below) which introduces you to more or less everything you need to know about the current one.
- New Avengers (Brian Bendis) – I have mixed feelings about Bendis. On the one hand, he can do very good work. His run on Daredevil was long and also very good, but mainly, I think, because Daredevil is not a talking-type of guy. Bendis tends to write very long, awkwardly long dialogue. But, he crafts very interesting plots. And New Avengers is currently Marvel’s flagship work. It starts the most popular Marvel heroes – Captain America, Iron Man, Wolverine, Spiderman, Luke Cage, Spiderwoman (no relation to Spiderman), and the Sentry. I think the work is a good you-don’t-need-to-know-crap introduction to the Marvel world, easy to read, and for the most part is pretty solid.
- Checkmate (Greg Rucka) – Greg Rucka is, in my humble opinion, hands down the BEST comic book writer who’s working in the mainstream today. He does real justice to his characters, to his plotlines — and he even writes Wonder Woman well, which is actually quite hard to do if you think about it. He crafted this one to help show off the new DC universe to be a bit more realistic. Sure, there have been plenty of spyfics before, and stories about corrupt governments — but really, what would the world be like in a world where Superman and Green Lantern fly the skies? Enter Checkmate, an international spy organization that was created by the United Nations to deal with these issues. But, as we all know, the UN sucks — and the very interesting combination of heroes and villains which lead Checkmate (the individuals are named after Chess pieces, with the Black King and Queen and White King and Queen as the ruling members) have to deal with each other, with diplomatic niceties, and with a super-powered world. Ok, I’ve been rambling on enough, but I do think this book is solid and I encourage anyone who wants to give comics a try to read it.
- Fables (Bill Willngham & Mark Buckingham & James Jean on covers) – The only reason I mention James Jean is that his covers are absolutely BEAUTIFUL. Its one of the first reasons I picked it up. Fables isn’t DC per se, its under the Vertigo imprint, which some of you will recognize as the publisher of V for Vendetta and The Sandman and Watchmen. These are non-mainstream stories and typically deal with more adult themes/ideas (ohhh nooo.. its SEX!!! DRUGS! AHHHHHH). The premise behind Fables is that an evil empire run by the villainous Adversary has taken over the magical lands where our favorite fables (ie Jack and Jill, Snow White, the Big Bad Wolf, King Cole, Prince Charming, etc) lived. They are then forced to immigrate to our world — the “Mundy world” where they have lived for hundreds of years. Now, it sounds cheesy, but these aren’t your old bedtime story fables — Prince Charming is an adulterous, scheming man. The Big Bad Wolf, is Bigby the Wolf, a very talented detective, and Snow White is an administrative woman who absolutely detests Prince Charming, her ex-husband, and Goldilocks is an animal fable rights extremist. Throw in gratuitous amounts of sex, violence, politicking, and magic, and you have one of my favorite books ever. The art is nice, and the same team has been on the book since Issue 1 — which I encourage everyone to take a look at. If you’re not into superheroes, but want to read something good, I’d recommend starting with the first story arc and going from there.
- 52 (Greg Rucka, Geoff Johns, Mark Waid, Grant Morrison) – I’ve written a little too much about the books above, mainly because I feel the main comic lines that people are familiar with (the mainstream ones, ie Superman or Batman) are difficult to follow and have decayed in quality at least for now. One of the reasons, is because their best talent are busy at work on this book, 52, which comes out ONCE A WEEK. The four authors listed are some of the best talent in the business and are collaborating on a story which is supposed to redefine the universe that DC’s comics operate in. These are written well, they come out every week (so it gives you a reason to go into the comic store weekly), and are easy to understand. ’nuff said
Those were the currently ongoing series that I’d recommend. Here’s 3 more books that I’d recommend from a comic store’s “backfiles” — old issues or trade paperbacks (collections of comics w/o the ads) that are great:
- Identity Crisis (Brad Meltzer & Rags Morales & covers by Michael Turner) – Again I mention the coverist, because Turner is draws very nice covers (although his women look somewhat anorexic). Anyways, this story got national press attention for the way it took the biggest heroes from DC (the Justice League) and completely undermined how everyone saw them. It was a murder mystery. A love story. It had intense fight scenes. Brought in major players. And… on top of that, it is fairly approachable and its fairly important to understanding the DC Universe today.
- 1602 (Neil Gaiman & Andy Kubert) – This is a Marvel Neil Gaiman work which is a re-imagining of the Marvel universe if it took place in the 1600s. The reader gets to see very “period” art (including covers that look like they were etched in wood) and a crash course through the Marvel universe.
- Sandman (Neil Gaiman) – Gaiman’s very famous and very acclaimed series. He was originally asked to make stories from a Golden Age character named the Sandman — clearly, Gaiman did not do what he was asked. Instead, he crafted a very intricate set of stories involving Dream of the Endless. While I don’t like the interior art so much, Gaiman’s writing and the beautiful covers grealty make up for it.
There are of course other books that I would recommend, but I think these 9 make a good start for anyone who’s interested :-).
I decided to indulge in a little sci-fi geekdom and looked at some coverage of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine online and found this gem from Andrew Robinson about his experiences playing one of my favorite characters of all time, Elim Garak, the “plain, simple tailor” — and I happen to concur:
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Q: I’ve enjoyed your work ever since I saw you for the first time in “Dirty Harry,” and your portrayal of Garak on DS9 was one of the many reasons it was such an enjoyably complex and thought-provoking show. But for some reason DS9 is not the “popular” Trek, which I think is unfortunate. What’s your take on this?
AR: It’s not the most popular because it’s the most morally ambiguous. Whenever you have characters who are gray rather than black and white … Although they are more interesting, they are more difficult for people to get a handle on. I loved DS9 because they were gray, because the characters were not easily definable, but that’s not for everybody.
- Tabbed Browsing – This is to me, hands down, the main reason that I chose to use Mozilla products from the get go (yes, I was one of those tech nerds who was using Mozilla back when their icon was a Godzilla breathing fire). One would think that with both Windows and the Mac employing some form of taskbar, that it would actually be very simple to switch between program windows when you’re browsing the web, but for one reason or another, its always a bit awkward. Tabbing, on other hand, allows you to be reading multiple pages at the same time, all in the same window. In Firefox, you can use Ctrl+T to create a new tab, you can also click Ctrl while you click on a link to open it in a new tab, use the context menu when you right click on a link to open a specific link in a new tab, or even use your midde-click button to force things to open in a new tab. It cuts down on clutter in my taskbar (and to my understanding, memory usage by your computer) and is particularly helpful when I’m doing Google or Wikipedia searches to have one tab be my search results and all the other tabs to be links in the search result.
- Integrated Search Engine – Firefox comes with several search engines programmed in by default on the upper-right-hand textbar in the browser screen. You don’t have to go to google or yahoo or wikipedia to do your searches, all you have to do is click on the textbar, type, and hit enter.
- Download manager – A lot of people already have programs like Gozilla, but Firefox comes built-in with a download manager (hit Ctrl+Shift+D) allowing a quick and easy place to find the information on the names, sizes, and locations of the files you’ve downloaded, and gives you a way to quickly pause, resume, and restart downloads.
- Customizability – I may never buy a Mac, but I like the way Safari looks so I’ve happened to pick a Safari/iMac like skin for my Firefox browser (and also for my Thunderbird email program which is also, by the way, made by the Mozilla people). I understand there are mods for Internet Explorer, but the fact that themes are so custom-built into Firefox and so easy to use/deploy is another plus
- Bookmarks – I remember trying to use the Internet Explorer bookmark manager … that’s why I never had bookmarks in IE. In Firefox, the Bookmarks manager is a great deal more intuitive (its organized in a similar fashion to Windows Explorer), and a great deal more useful. I’ve set up a lot of my bookmarks so that I can quickly type say “menu” in my location bar and it’ll jump straight to what Harvard Dining Services is offering for the day.
- Rendering Engine – As a person who used to have to help manage websites, I can remember the nightmare of trying to get web code to work in both Internet Explorer and Netscape — that was one of the big reasons I kept both browsers on my computer so that I could see the occasional website which did not work. For the most part, I have not seen a website that hasn’t been rendered correctly in Firefox (although I have seen many websites that just aren’t rendered well in IE).
- Internal Search – You hit Ctrl+F, type any phrase and Firefox starts searching AS YOU TYPE the window that you’re looking at.
- Extensions – I think the number two reason that I choose to use Mozilla are the wealth of extensions and addons that exist (and are, for the most part, located in a central location), making my life a good deal easier, such as:
- AdBlock – Lets you block banners and Flash and internal frames with just a click. It also lets you specify RegExpns and URLs of websites which feed advertisements to allow you to craft smarter blocking systems. Better still, an Extension called the Adblock Filterset.G comes built in with a list of websites and RegExpns which have more or less killed almost all the advertisements that I’ve ever encountered. I don’t even see Google Ads anymore 🙂
- ForecastFox – Puts weather icons in the bottom right of my screen which let me quickly check the weather. It seems kinda stupid, but its very helpful, especially on the damn east coast where the weather changes every two hours.
- Google Toolbar for Firefox – I have to say this is a MUCH better toolbar than the one for Internet Explorer. It provides more or less all of the same functionality (except for popup blocking but that’s because Firefox has its own popup blocker) but is more customizable and detects phishing sites (website scams where a website pretends to be your EBay account just to get your account information).
- IE Tab – For the occasional website that requires Internet Explorer, this extension allows you to render websites with Internet Explorer in Firefox. You can even set it so that any website which you know looks better or works better in IE (ie Windows Update, Microsoft Sharepoint servers) will by default be rendered in the Internet Explorer engine rather than Firefox’s.
- Sage – I used to rely on Google’s Feed Readers and my My.Yahoo start page to aggregate RSS feeds, but now, I just use Sage, which allows me to quickly scan all my RSS feeds and provides a useful SKINNABLE interface such that I can quickly read the stuff that I want to check everyday.
- All-In-One Sidebar – A really useful extension which takes advantage and really upgrades the sidebar that comes with Firefox. It lets you customize the Sidebar, and puts all sorts of functionality into it (ie puts your download manager there, your extension manager, etc)
- Deepest Sender – I think I’ve mentioned this before, but I use this extension to update my Blogger and LJ.
- Scrapbook – Ever wanted to save a website that you’ve really liked but know that you probably won’t get everything (ie the specific text that you’ve typed, the specific graphic that you’ve set it at, etc etc) because Internet Explorer’s save feature only saves the raw HTML and image files? Scrapbook makes it so that it saves EVERYTHING about the page.
- Image Toolbar – Something that I actually missed from Internet Explorer was the little icons that pop up when your mouse is over an image that lets you copy or save the image. This extension brings those icons back :-).
I actually have several more extensions installed (ie an IRC chat extension, a web developer extension, a nice Calculator which lets you type expressions [like on a graphing calculator] which it will then evaluate, and some random aesthetic and web design ones, but I think listing eight reasons and nine extensions is sufficient 🙂