Google Desktop Search Beta

If you’re in love with Google and want to extend its all-seeing gaze to the intimate recesses of your hard drive, Google Desktop Search is the way to go. Google Desktop runs on your PC, but you access it via your web browser, submitting queries exactly as you would to www.google.com. In fact, when you do Google searches, it automatically interpolates any matching results from your hard drive — a disconcerting process, even though Google swears up and down that it’s not collecting or examining your personal information on its monstrous servers deep in the heart of Google Mountain.

However, Google Desktop takes a long time to index files the first time (more than five hours to scan about 3,800 files and nearly 10,000 Outlook messages, using the beta version we tested). Although we tested it on the same computer as Yahoo Desktop, it indexed fewer files because Google Desktop doesn’t index executables, archived Outlook folders, or Outlook contacts.

However, the Google Desktop interface is slick and easy to use. It presents search results as links in your browser, including two-line excerpts from matching text documents and thumbnail images of cached web pages (from either Internet Explorer or Firefox). And once the initial indexing is complete, Google Desktop captures news files and web pages quickly; they’ll show up in search results within a minute or two.

For power users who want to search every last item on their hard drives, we recommend Yahoo Desktop. But for most people, Google Desktop is easier to use and more effective. -Dylan Tweney

Best Feature: New files added to index within minutes
Worst Feature: Doesn’t search Outlook contacts

Google Desktop Search Beta
Price: Free
Requirements: Windows XP, 500MB of hard-disk space, and 128MB of RAM
desktop.google.com

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Link: Google Desktop Search Beta

Link broken? Try the Wayback Machine.

Google Desktop Search Beta

Konica Minolta Maxxum 7D

Maxxum 7DIf you’re a bit more serious about your digital photography, you probably want something that puts all of your camera’s manual controls right at your fingertips, like the Konica Minolta Maxxum 7D. This impressively large, traditional-looking digital SLR lays it all out, with a profusion of dials, knobs, and buttons for controlling shooting modes, white balance, flash and exposure compensation, and more. Learning to wrangle these controls takes time, but the payoff is that you can make quick adjustments to your shots without having to go through a bunch of onscreen menus.

The Maxxum 7D has a 2-inch LCD, which is a blessing for reviewing shots. It also displays current settings in a big, bright font, and automatically rotates this display when you turn the camera sideways.

The camera body works with any Konica Minolta AF lens; we tested it with a very-wide-angle, 17mm-35mm, f2.8-4.0 zoom lens that gave us terrific outdoor shots. The Maxxum 7D is extremely fast and takes excellent photos, but its clarity score of 2.5 is disappointing for such a high-end camera. Also, its controls are needlessly difficult, even after you learn how to work them. For that reason, we hesitate to recommend the Maxxum 7D to beginners — it’s definitely a camera that expects, and rewards, an experienced hand. -Dylan Tweney

Best Feature: Extremely speedy shooting
Worst Feature: Controls are too complicated

Konica Minolta Maxxum 7D
Price: $1,537 [body only]; $2,059 as tested
Weight: 2.9 pounds
Size: 6.1 x 5.7 x 4.2 inches
Specs: 6.1 megapixels; 2x optical zoom (as tested); 2.4-inch LCD; CF slot; USB connection; pop-up flash
www.konicaminolta.com

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Link: Konica Minolta Maxxum 7D

Link broken? Try the Wayback Machine.

Konica Minolta Maxxum 7D

Olympus Evolt E-300

Olympus Evolt E-300Some things a man just can’t explain: What drives him to drink. Why he can’t stop a-cussin’ and a-brawlin’. And why he lugs around a big, beefy digital SLR when there are pocketable cameras aplenty.

But when you start taking pictures with an SLR, you’ll understand. People straighten up a little more when you take their picture. Bystanders step out of the way of your shots. And your photos turn out bigger, better looking, and more impressive than ever before, thanks to your SLR’s bigger image sensor and superior optics.

But while the design of pocket cameras has advanced by leaps and bounds over the past five years, digital SLRs haven’t progressed as much. They’re still too big and too heavy, and they ape the design of 35mm film cameras.

The Olympus Evolt E-300 is a step in the right direction: It’s an innovative, easy-to-use, fairly lightweight SLR that also happens to take terrific shots.

With a light path that turns horizontally inside the camera (instead of vertically), the Evolt E-300 has a low profile, without the knobby bump on the top that, in most SLRs, contains the viewfinder prism. The Evolt E-300 also has a self-cleaning image sensor: Whenever you turn on the camera, it briefly vibrates the CCD at 35KHz, shaking dust off the sensor like a dog shaking water off its fur. That should lead to sharper pictures, although its superiority over a cotton swab and alcohol is debatable.

The 14mm-45mm, f3.5-4.6 Zuiko zoom lens included with the camera is compact and extremely capable. The lens excels indoors, with a wide angle that’s perfect for group shots and parties, as well as a longer focal length for portraits and detail shots. The Evolt also accepts any lenses compatible with the Four Thirds System standard.

The Evolt E-300 produces crisp photos with outstanding color — it has the best automatic white balancing of any camera we’ve tested, resulting in accurately colored photos in nearly every situation. And it’s fast and responsive, with less shutter noise than most SLRs.

Another Evolt kit, with the same camera body and two lenses (the 14mm-45mm zoom plus a 40mm-150mm Zuiko zoom lens), is only $1,100. Those two lenses give you the 35mm film equivalent of 28mm-300mm — a remarkable range for the price. With the Evolt’s image quality, speed, and light weight, this two-lens kit is hands-down the best digital SLR value we’ve seen yet. -DylanTweney

Best Feature: Terrific image quality
Worst Feature: LCD seems scrawny

Olympus Evolt E-300
Price: $940
Weight: 2.1 pounds
Size: 5.7 x 5.5 x 3.2 inches
Specs: 8 megapixels; 3.2x optical zoom (as tested); 1.6-inch LCD; CF slot; USB connection; pop-up flash
www.olympusamerica.com

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Link: Olympus Evolt E-300

Link broken? Try the Wayback Machine.

Olympus Evolt E-300

Goodbye to cheap oil, and all that.

What happens if oil isn’t cheap anymore? Our farming and food systems collapse, the suburbs implode, a period of violence ensues, and in the end, we’re all living in small farming communities, riding bikes and milking cows by hand. So says James Howard Kunstler, who predicts this all may start to happen as soon as three years from now.

Ever since the end of World War II, we’ve embarked on this project to build ourselves a drive-in utopia — an economy based on suburban land development, eight-lane freeways lined with fry pits and hamburger shacks and a national big-box chain retail system. It has flourished because of two things: extraordinarily cheap energy and reliable supplies of it, and relative world peace. That has enabled big-box stores to develop 12,000-mile manufacturing and supply chains with the cheap labor overseas.

Goodbye to cheap oil, and all that.

Revenge of the Sith.

I’ve sat through Wagner operas that moved the plot forward faster.

Sure, the computer generated imagery is amazing–but overwhelming. It quickly become so ubiquitous that it’s no longer all that impressive (Coruscant looks a bit like Las Vegas at night, oh and look, here comes another floating droid), and without a really strong storyline, the story gets boring fast. The movie didn’t really pick up until 90 minutes in, when Anakin finally turns to the Dark Side. Eventually Yoda busts out some bad-ass Jedi moves, Obi-Wan and Anakin have a lightsaber duel over boiling lava, Padme dies, yadda yadda yadda, and we finally get to see the Darth Vader we know and love. Yes!

General Grievious — a hacking, coughing robot with a shriveled-up hot-dog for a heart? Kinda cool. But thank god there are no more of these movies planned, or we would no doubt be seeing a bad guy wielding eight lightsabers at once.

Revenge of the Sith.

Writing advice from Cory.

Sci fi author and EFF publicist Cory Doctorow (see my 2003 interview with him) has some good advice on writing. “Every morning I get up and I spend half an hour writing 250 words on the novel and a year later I have a book.” Plus three rules of thumb for novel writing:

“… at every turn of the book your protagonist has to try and solve a problem and that problem has to get worse through no fault of his own.”

“Think of any story, any narrative, as a journey during which someone’s emotional state changes.”

And, “… a story has some emotional impact on the reader. … your reader has to feel some emotion too.”

Writing advice from Cory.

Everything Bad’s Not Bad

Wired News reviews Steven Johnson’s book Everything Bad Is Good For You and wonders: If video games are making us smarter, why can’t we solve problems like Iraq and Social Security?

The answer’s easy: Make a killer first person shooter called Iraq: The Game and a gripping multiplayer online game called Social Security: Quest for Power. Make sure their respective universes are filled with realistic simulations and tons of real data. Then sit back and harvest the collective intelligence as gamers start playing through the simulations.

Update 5/31: Too busy to read Johnson’s book? The Guardian digests it. “This book is an old-fashioned work of persuasion that aims to convince you of one thing: that I am one of the most influential social commentators of the 21st century.” …

Everything Bad’s Not Bad

Writing in the age of piracy.

John Scalzi is not worried about the state of book publishing in an age of easily made, widely-distributed digital copies:

I write books, but you know what? I’m not a book writer, any more than a musician is an LP musician or an MP3 musician. The book is the container. It’s not destiny.

Want to know more about the business of writing, today and tomorrow? Scalzi nails it.

Whatever: Writing in the Age of Piracy

Writing in the age of piracy.

E3 notes.

Just came back from a few days at E3, the massive video game conference that happens every year in Los Angeles. As usual, it was an experience in sensory overload that left me exhausted and slightly depressed by the end. A few things of note:

First person shooters are getting a little boring. Sure, the realism of these things is incredible now, and the Xbox 360 demos were almost cinematic in quality. But frankly, I’m getting kind of tired of gritty, dark visions of the future (or of 1940s Europe, or of the fantastical Age of Elves and Monsters) where all you do is blast people and things into oblivion.

One thing that would make me sit up and take notice: Corpses. In every one of these games, your enemies just evaporate after you kill them. I have yet to see a game where the bodies just pile up, and then you have to climb over them to get around. Now that would be gritty and dark. It would also add some realism to historical command & conquer strategy games. (A slight exception: in Grand Theft: Auto San Andreas, bodies lie there until an ambulance comes and carts them away–but they don’t present any kind of obstacle.)

The Nintendo DS, despite being a distant second to the Sony PSP in terms of console quality, is everywhere. They’ve sold 5 million of the things to date. I see them everywhere, and at the show, there were dozens of people — grownups — downloading Nintendo’s free games at the wireless kiosk, using their own DS systems. I have yet to see anyone in the real world playing a PSP.

The U.S. Army has its own video game–with more than 5 million downloads, it’s an incredibly popular one–and it was promoting the game with a big camouflage tent, and actual soldiers, stationed in front of the convention center. Talk about blurring the lines between fantasy and reality. Hey kids! Hone your skills playing first person shooters–then join the Army and get a real gun!

The crowd at E3 is surprisingly diverse. Sure, most of the attendees were men, but there were more women than I expected (and I’m not counting the booth babes), and there were people of nearly every color, class, and style of dress. It was way more diverse than any computer convention I’ve been to. Cause for optimism.

E3 notes.

Roomba love me.

Looks like Clara, who took a Sharper Image robot vacuum I was reviewing to preschool for show & tell, isn’t the only kid who loves to play with Roomba. And why not? Roombas are cute, unpredictable, a little bit scary (but not too much), and they’re vacuum cleaners–an endless source of fascination for many preschoolers I know.

Roomba love me.