Aviary Now Free


Aviary, a slick collection of browser-based design and editing tools that I wrote about last February, is now free.

From the Aviary blog:

We have long felt that to better serve our core mission our complete feature set needed to be in the hands of everyone – not just those who could afford it. Fortunately, our recent round of funding (by Spark Capital, Bezos Expeditions & others) enables us to finally achieve this goal…

Aviary remains a socially-focused suite of applications, meaning that sharing and derivative works are encouraged. ‘Free’ means that all users may now save private files, add custom watermarks or go watermark-free for creative works, and access all Aviary tutorials. As opposed to the free online version of Photoshop, there are also no storage limitations (Adobe charges you if you go over 2GB).

This is an amazing collection of free tools. For those who are following the current Flash debate, note that these tools are Adobe Flex/Air-based. For artists, note that you own full rights to all works you create with these tools. For those who can’t afford the pricey Adobe Creative Suite apps, note that this suite is a surprisingly powerful alternative.

I like to think of Aviary as a creative playground. Even if you own the Adobe Creative Suite, you may still find that the Aviary tools are a lot of fun to play around with, especially Peacock (the Effects Editor).

NaNoWriMo: Write a Novel in 30 days

National Novel Writing Month

On November 1, National Novel Writing Month kicks off for its tenth year. Entrants (you could be one of them!) commit to completing a 50,000-word novel in one month, completing the effort by midnight on Nov. 30. The rules are simple: start your oeuvre from scratch, meet the the minimum novel length, and submit your entry at the end of the month. That’s about all there is to it.

What a great idea. The writing window for the event is ludicrously short by design. Rest assured that your novel will probably suck, and take solace in the fact that most other entries will equally suck. Who cares? And that’s the point: it’s OK. Just write. A deadline imposed by an outside force may help you to finally start that great work of fiction lurking in the shadows of your mind. Focus on quantity, worry about the quality later. Starting the writing process is often the hardest part, and this yearly event is a clever, fun way to get you started.

So, if you’re up to the challenge, why not try out a couple of writing-focused Mac tools? Here’s a couple of good deals tied to the event:

Scrivener 1. Scrivener. Download the trial version of this excellent writing tool for a special extended period that runs through Dec. 7 (longer than the usual 30-day trial period). Use Scrivener to research, organize, and write your breakthrough novel. If you reach your 50,000-word NaNoWriMo goal, you can buy Scrivener for 50 percent off the regular price ($40). If you don’t make your goal, but still want to buy Scrivener, take advantage of a 20 percent discount by entering the discount code ‘NANOWRIMO’ in the coupon text field in their online store. Good deal. I’ve used Scrivener since July 2007, and I’m quite fond of it. It’s a great creative writing tool, and adapts well to a variety of research and writing tasks.

Storyist 2. Storyist. Here’s another novel-focused app that aims to serve your research, word processing, and storyboarding needs. If you want to buy a copy to help you through NaNoWriMo, you can get 25 percent off the purchase price of the boxed ($79) or download ($59) version of the app by entering the coupon code ‘NANOWRIMO’ in the coupon text field in their online store. If you want to try out Storyist for the duration of NaNoWriMo before you buy, send Storyist a message to get a trial copy that’ll keep working through the first week in December. If you decide to join the NaNoWriMo challenge and can make it to San Francisco for the kickoff event, you can get a free copy of the app. Lastly, Storyist is giving away two Kindles with $50 gift cards for those who raise the most money for the event — similar to a walk-a-thon, you can line up sponsors for your NaNoWriMo effort via Giftool.com if you’re so inclined. Proceeds go to creative writing programs around the world.

Aviary: Worth a Test Flight


Aviary, a collection of online design and editing tools, is an amazing technical feat.

A couple of weeks ago, Aviary brought their online vector editor out of Beta. It’s called Raven, and it joins, well, an aviary of other online applications: Phoenix (image editor), Peacock (dubbed a ‘visual laboratory’), Toucan (color manager), and Phoenix (an image editor).

These tools are powerful, free to use, and tightly integrated (meaning you can pass your work of art seamlessly back and forth between the different applications). But what really intrigues me about Aviary is where it’s heading.

In addition to the current flock of Aviary applications, there are many, many more interesting creative applications coming. We’re talking everything from an audio editor to a terrain generator to a word processor. And the Aviary team plans to eventually offer offline versions of their tools via Adobe AIR at some point in the future (interesting to note that Adobe already has an online office suite, and I’ve read that they plan to bring many of their creative tools to the web, a la Photoshop Express).

The tools at Aviary are free to use, and are well worth your time to check out. No, Phoenix is not as powerful as Photoshop. And no, Raven is not as powerful as Illustrator. But how many users really need that much power? For casual creation, artistic exploration, and simple projects, Aviary is fun and easy to use. I especially like experimenting with Peacock. If the interface seems weird, it’s only because we’ve become so use to Adobe’s way of doing things.


Basic usage is free. The catch is that Aviary is, at heart, a social site. So free usage means you are prepared to share your work of art with the world. Also, while you own the full rights to all works you create, Aviary retains a license to display any works you make viewable to the public “within Aviary and in any external publication provided it’s in a way that promotes Aviary.” Also note that your work will be accessible by others, so someone else can mash up your image and repost it. In this case, your name will appear in the attribution in the new derivative work. It’s a great model for encouraging social creativity and sharing.

If you want more control (and more privacy), a pro-level subscription is $10 a month. If you are interested in using these tools to create artwork for, say, a Web site, you’ll want to pay the fee. Not a bad deal when you factor in the considerable capabilities of these applications and compare with the cost of Adobe applications. No, Aviary is not as powerful as an Adobe app, but if you can’t afford or don’t want to purchase an Adobe app or Suite, Aviary offers some powerful tools to create some great art.

I’m an Adobe CS owner and daily user for work and home tasks. I like my Adobe applications. But I hope that services like Aviary thrive. I’d hate to see Adobe completely own the design and editing tool space both on and offline (… and they already own the offline space).

Competition is good, and Aviary is one of many alternatives out there offering innovation and quality service.

Free (as in beer) PhotoShop book: 3 days only

Free PhotoShop Book

Get your copy of The PhotoShop Anthology: 101 Web Design Tips, Tricks, Techniques by Corrie Hafley, offered for free by 99Designs for the next three days only. This 278-page book promotion is available until June 12, 2008 via sitepoint.com.

From sitepoint:

It’s brimming with tried and tested real-world Photoshop solutions that will add impact to your next web design project. If you’ve ever been stuck for inspiration, have puzzled over just how to create a shiny aqua-style button, or wanted to create that seamlessly tiling background image you saw on a site recently, you need download this book.

My opinion: I’ve downloaded the book and have perused the contents. This primer contains some good tips and time savers, especially for the beginner. Hey, it’s free. Check it out.

Scanner Art

Here’s a project idea for the long weekend. Have you heard of scanner art? The basic idea is this: you scan things and you try to make something something artistic with it. Is it art? Is it really photography? Some say yes, some say no. I say, ‘Who cares?’

I have found that I can get some extraordinary results with my trusty scanner (the Epson Perfection 4490). I particularly like how the scanner captures intricate detail in natural objects. Here are a few samples of items I’ve created (click for a larger view).

Carpenter Bee
Bo Leaf
Cork Board

I was introduced to the concept of non-traditional scanner use several years ago while reading Edge.org, where the stunning work of Katinka Matson is often featured. Intrigued, I started experimenting with my scanner. I don’t have any sage advice about creating scanned artwork, but I do have a few tips:

• Ensure you clean the scanner bed really well before you scan
• Be prepared to spend several hours cleaning up dust and artifacts from each image you scan with your image editor of choice (even if you DO clean the bed well, you will spend a good deal of time on this task).
• I prefer to scan in the dark with the lid of the scanner open. It produces nice clean lines and a black background, which makes it easier to extract the image.
• This is a great way to experiment with your image editing program (I use Photoshop), particularly for creating interesting backgrounds, arrangements and frames.
• Try scanning anything and everything. For items that might damage your scanner bed glass, some say to try using a transparent film (e.g. a rigid piece of clear plastic of the type used to protect business reports in days past). Haven’t tried this myself — I just use the ‘be really, really careful when scanning’ method.
• Try playing around with arrangement and layering of your scanned items.
• Scan the same item from different angles, then try piecing it together the various images into one montage.
• Scan the same item at different resolutions, then try assembling something interesting from these scans.

If scanning objects appeals to you, check out Scanner Magic and Photo Vinc for more tips and ideas.

a.viary.com invitation

I received an invitation to beta test Aviary today, a new web-based creative suite from a company called Worth1000. I received access to Phoenix (an online image editor) and Peacock (an online pattern generator).

From the Aviary site:

Aviary is a suite of rich internet applications geared for artists of all genres. From image editing to typography to music to 3D to video, we have a tool for everything. At Worth1000, we are creating a complex ecosystem for artists and providing the world with free, capable collaborative tools and an approach to collaboration and rights management that will turn the marketplace for online art on its head.

I haven’t done much with it yet, but I tried it long enough to determine the image editor is responsive and fairly feature-rich. If you want to give it a try, shoot me an email. I have five two invitations to pass on.

Microsoft Launches WorldWide Telescope

I just spent an hour playing with Microsoft’s just-released WorldWide Telescope. At first glance, you may dismiss this is as just another space simulator like Starry Night, Stellarium, Celestia, or Google Earth. However, I think it will stand on its own as a unique and extraordinary offering.

WWT allows you to surf around the galaxy, seamlessly viewing stitched images from our civilization’s best telescopes. Panning and zooming around the galaxy is exceptionally fluid — faster and more immersive than other offerings I’ve seen. The technology behind this is Microsoft’s new high-performance “Visual Experience Engine.”

As one not ordinarily impressed by Microsoft products, I have to say that I really like WWT. The navigation controls are easy to use. The imagery is incredible. As you’re sailing along, the thumbnails along the bottom of the screen instantly update to show you what’s in the neighborhood. You can change views on the fly to look at galaxies, constellations, and other formations at different wavelengths. Overall, you get a sense of where you are in the universe better than other tools I’ve used. One other feature that stands out: slick multimedia guided tours from experts and enthusiasts — and you can create your own tour, too.

I’m always happy to see a new, free astronomy tool for the public. This is certainly a great addition. The only bad news is that it’s Windows-only.

I thought I wouldn’t get the chance to test this package out given the minimum system requirements to run WWT on your Mac:

– Microsoft® XP SP2 (minimum), Windows® Vista® (recommended) with BootCamp
– Mac with Intel Core 2 Duo (2.2 GHz or faster) processor recommended
– 1 gigabyte (GB) of RAM; 2 GB RAM recommended
– NVIDIA GeForce 8600M GT graphics card with 128-MB SDRAM or recommended
– HFS+ hard disk format (also known as Mac OS® Extended or HFS Plus) and 10 GB of available hard disk space
– 1440 x 900 or higher-resolution monitor

I don’t have Windows on BootCamp, but I do have VMWare Fusion 2.0 Beta. My Mac isn’t quite 2.2 GHz. But I decided to try it out anyway. After some wrangling, I got it to work. Here’s what I’m running:

– MS XP Home Edition SP2 on VMWare Fusion
– 24-inch iMac Core 2 Duo/2.16GHz/2MB RAM running Mac OS X 10.5.2
– VMWare Fusion 2.0 Beta (Settings: 2 virtual processors, 1120 MB RAM, Accelerated 3D graphics enabled)

This worked well for me, with a few caveats: I experienced video and audio stutters when clicking on an object for ‘more information’ or when starting up a tour. I also found the tours played back much more smoothly (with better image quality) after I let them play through once, and then played them again. I also had to reboot after I was finished running the application through VMWare — my Mac was quite sluggish afterwards. Not bad trade-offs, all things considered. One note: I tried cranking up the alloted RAM for my virtual Windows installation all the way up to 1830MB (VMWare’s recommended max for 2GB RAM), but this did not work. I experienced severe sluggishness, probably due to memory swapping. It worked fine once I turned the RAM back to 1120MB.

I would run BootCamp, but the version of Windows I own (Home Edition) is not compatible…and I don’t want to buy a newer version of Windows. If you’re in this camp (and your Mac is as good or better than mine), this is a working alternative if you want to try out WWT. It’s worth a look. If you run Windows on BootCamp, definitely give it a try.

Affordable Tapeless Video Capture

Here’s the second post from guest contributor Brandon who is currently attending the National Association of Broadcaster’s annual convention. Today’s topic is about tapeless video acquisition and how this tech is starting to filter down to consumer cameras. There are also many good tips here for those looking to buy a video camera. Enjoy.

NAB“Day two of NAB 2008 found me exploring yet another hall of the Las Vegas convention center. I know you’re eagerly waiting to find out what cool stuff I found but, unfortunately, there was nothing of direct Mac relevance. Everything I found today was geared (and priced) directly toward the professional video market.

To be honest, I spent the better part of the day evaluating industrial gear cases, and I just don’t think you’d find it that interesting. Unless of course, you’re willing to spend $600 on a camera case… No? Ok, then. In the interest of keeping fresh material coming in, I thought I’d talk a little about one of the trends in professional gear that is making good progress on it’s way down from the halls of NAB to the consumer market: tapeless acquisition.

Tapeless acquisition is a technology that is just now really beginning to realize its potential. A few years ago it was only available in high-end professional cameras. We’re talking cameras that cost more than the gross national products of many small South American countries. More recently, though, the technology has found it’s way into lower-end field cameras such as Panasonic’s P2 and Sony’s XDCAM lines. These are the cameras that serve as the primary tools of documentary crews, independent video journalists and anyone else who needs to move fast and shoot broadcast-quality footage. Essentially, they are BMWs compared to the higher-end ‘Ferraris’ of the camera world. The good news this year is that we’re beginning to see pro technology (such as quality tapeless acquisition) filter down to the consumer level at a Chevrolet price point!

So what does this mean for you? No more spending $5 for a single 60-minute DV cassette. Great! But wait, there’s always a catch isn’t there? Let’s take the JVC Everio line as an example. These cameras can store up to 37.5 hours of standard definition footage onto their 30GB hard drives, so the issue is not how much drive space you will need.

The first major issue is the compression used to obtain that very tempting specification. A great number of internet reviews of the Everio line indicate that the video produced is soft and exhibits obvious artifacts. This is not exactly what I would like to see in my preserved-for-posterity memories. The other issue is compatibility for playback and editing on your computer. Unless you intend to use the bundled proprietary software to chop your precious memories into bite-sized YouTube morsels, you’ll need to carefully check the compatibility of the camera with your editing software before purchasing.

For the readers of this site, you should know that the JVC cameras don’t bundle any Mac love. While the JVC website states that “third-party software is available for Macintosh,” I spent nearly 15 minutes (all my ADD would allow) searching for exactly what “third-party software” was available. Guess what…I need to keep looking. Now, in fairness to the little Everios, every report I’ve read indicates that the ‘direct from camera to DVD burner’ feature worked simply and flawlessly — but that really takes the fun out of the whole process.

While I’ve picked on JVC cameras here, these are issues that should be considered and researched when considering offerings from any of the major manufacturers.

But let’s get back to the main benefit of tapeless acquisition. No capturing tapes! It’s really that simple. Not only do you no longer need to buy the expensive little things, you don’t have to spend all that time capturing them into the computer in order to work on your upcoming Academy Award-nominated cinematography. Assuming you do your research and get yourself a great little camera that works perfectly with your Mac, transferring video from you camera will be as simple as copying files from a thumb drive. If your camera is really cool, it will even utilize super-secret CIA scene detection technology to break your happy little trip to the zoo into distinct clips of monkeys, panda bears and tourists falling into the polar bear pit. You may not realize now how great of a time saver this is, but it is. Put it this way: the pros utilize modern indentured servitude (interns) so they don’t have to do it themselves. Most of us have to do it ourselves.

In summary: do your homework. Look for documented compatibility with your Mac and software. Pay attention to the little stickers that tell you what size CCD the camera has; more megapixels + bigger CCD = higher quality video. HD is cheap — and all HD cameras should give you the option to shoot standard definition as well, so look for HDV or AVCHD format cameras. Finally, be sure to buy a case to protect your investment…and remember: with video gear you really do get what you pay for.”

Live from NAB 2008!

NABI just received a dispatch from Brandon, a friend of mine lucky enough to be at the NAB Show in Nevada this week. He’s going to be sending in some items of interest to share from the convention this week. Here’s what he had to say about Day One:

“The National Association of Broadcasters annual convention is a massive event filling all four halls of the Las Vegas Convention Center. Having spent an entire day thoroughly exploring just one of the halls, I’d like to share a few items that caught my eye:

1. Logic Keyboard Refresh

Logic KeyboardFirst off are new keyboards offerings from Logic Keyboard. Switching from the old G5-style Apple keyboards to the newly redesigned Apple USB slim style, Logic Keyboard provides input devices with shortcut markings for many major creative applications such as Photoshop, Final Cut, Aperture and Avid. If your are frequent user of any of these programs but haven’t yet memorized the shortcuts, these keyboards are an excellent visual aid. The new style keyboards will be shipping in about a month and will maintain the previous model’s $50 price markup over the standard Apple keyboard.

2. Flip4Mac News

MacHeistNext, I’d like to share a little information I received from a Telestream rep regarding Flip4Mac. Since upgrading to Leopard, I’ve been experiencing serious problems with WMV playback. When trying to play any WMV file larger than 7-8MB, I get a status bar, the “spinning beach ball of doom” and a very, very, long wait. I’ve posted over various forums looking for help with this issue but it appeared I was the only one experiencing it. Thanks to the very helpful Telestream reps, I learned today that mine is not an isolated occurrence and they have received reports from many other users with same or similar issues. According to them, it is a (currently) unresolved conflict between Flip4Mac and any version of QuickTime more recent than 7.4.1. So how do you fix it? At this point the only options are to roll back QuickTime to 7.4.1 or live with it in the hopes that the next QuickTime update does the job. An ideal solution this isn’t, as many of the changes in the recent QuickTime updates are critical security fixes. I should point out that, as a long time user of Telestream’s professional products, I have found the company to be very quick at resolving issues I’ve had. Initial problems that arose after the release of Leopard resulted in an update within two or three short days. I’m confident that if a fix is not available in a reasonable time that the issue is beyond their control. My next conversation about it will be with Apple.

3. New offerings from LaCie

LaCieLast note of interest for today is a preview of new portable hard drive offerings from LaCie. Large capacity, small form and bus-powered! Everything a road warrior media producer could ask for! A new model of the Little Big Disk Quadra gives you 500GB from two drives in a RAID 0 configuration for read/write speed with eSATA, FireWire 400, FireWire 800 and USB 2.0 connections to get all that data to and from your computer. If you’re running FireWire, you will won’t even need the included power brick — so you end up with a package that would fit in my overly style-conscious girlfriend’s Italian purse, with room for all the mysterious things she carries in there! Of course, if you’re afraid she might hit you with said purse, as I often am, you may choose to go with the new Rugged Hard Disk with rubber bumper that surrounds a metal enclosure containing a shock absorber-mounted 320GB drive! In any case, now you can worry more about your head than your hard drive.

Hopefully day two will bring plenty more interesting and exciting things for me to drool over. If so, and provided I don’t electrocute myself with my slobber, I’ll be back tomorrow with some more fun ideas for spending your tax refund from NAB 2008!”

Get your Mac ready for the Lunar Eclipse

If the skies are clear where you live tomorrow night (or tonight, depending on your time zone), don’t miss your chance to witness the last lunar eclipse until Dec. 2010.

The Stellarium View

Here in Hawaii, I’ll be heading out to the beach around 11 p.m. While I won’t be bringing my Mac with me, this event marks a great occasion to highlight a few of the astronomy programs available for OS X. These tools are excellent teaching aids and are just plain enjoyable. If you don’t have a Mac, no worries: each of these apps run on Mac, Windows, and Linux.

If you go outside to watch for the eclipse, keep an eye out for Saturn (if you have a telescope the rings will be visible) and Regulus (the 22nd brightest star in the night sky, in the Leo constellation).

Saturn and Regulus will be the brightest points in the sky nearest to the eclipsed moon. Exactly where they will appear relative to you, of course, will depend on your location and the time you go outside to have a look — but they will appear to be close to the moon.

Cloudy out? View the solar system on your Mac

1. StellariumFree. This planetarium application specializes on views of the sky from an earthly perspective. Enter your coordinates to see what’s going on in your sky on a given night. This is my app of choice for casual desktop sky-gazing; it’s also a great learning aid. I enjoy setting the program to fast-forward so I can watch the sky come to life in quicktime. There are many user-contributed scripts available to enhance your Stellarium experience which make an already interesting program even more engaging. This is a great program to keep on your Mac for those times when you want to quickly identify a star or constellation.

2. Google EarthFree. It isn’t just for earth-browsing any more. Check out the ‘Sky’ view mode for a full-featured astronomy package chock full of user-contributed goodness. I’ve lost many hours engrossed in the ‘Sky’ view; this Google Earth expansion is still a pretty new feature, but it keeps getting better and better.

3. CelestiaFree. Celestia doesn’t confine you to viewing stars from an earth-bound perspective. You are free to fly around the visible universe in dizzying three dimensions. There are many, many expansions available for Celestia that make it even more fun and valuable as a learning tool. The one thing about Celestia is that it’s not quite as easy to use as the other programs; still, it’s an amazing tool with a dedicated user base and it’s a joy to use.

4. Starry NightExpensive. I own an old Mac OS 9 version of Starry Night Pro and I still use it on my old iBook G4 in Classic mode (note that Classic only runs on Tiger and earlier versions of Mac OS X). It’s come a long way since then and is worth checking out if you really enjoy astronomy and want a feature-rich package with many great animations and photo-realistic imagery. Even the old version of Starry Night that I own is visually very beautiful. It’s a great teaching aid to view the solar system in motion from any perspective, watch eclipses, find satellites, view the earth from distant planets, and more. If you go for the Pro package, you can hook up your Mac to your telescope to track distant objects. My only problem with Starry Night is that it seems to have gone overboard a bit with commercialization — there are now at least six SN packages to choose from, and all of them are pricey.

My favorite experience with Starry Night? Heading out in a canoe late at night with my old iBook back in my home state of Maine on Nicatous Lake (far, far away from any light pollution), turning on Starry Night’s ‘night vision mode’ and spending a few hours looking up at the sky. Note that this is only enjoyable in the summer while doused with about one gallon of bug spray to keep the mosquitos away.

More Mac astronomy links

If Mac astronomy software interests you, check out Pure Mac’s comprehensive list of astronomy apps for more ideas. Hope the skies are clear wherever you may live.