Maryland Bar Bulletin
Publications : Bar Bulletin : March 2009

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 TECHNOLOGY TALK:

BY JOHN ANDERSON  

I love projects. The planning, the preparation, working on it (if I find the time) and the finished product. Unfortunately, I have more plans than finished products. What I enjoy most is learning something new, something I haven’t tried before. This has led me to picking up hobbies and activities I never knew I had either an interest or talent in.

As I begin looking forward to warmer weather, I also begin to do a little preemptive spring cleaning. I start with the basement and work my way up to the attic. I find my unfinished projects and make a decision. Keep it and finally finish it, or move on let it go? Oh, did I mention I’m a packrat? Sometimes it can be very hard to give up those half-finished projects I’ve invested my time in, but now that the kids are getting older I can justify clearing away the clutter by telling myself I’m making room for a project we can all do together.

There are a few places I keep going back to for ideas and inspiration. The sites I visit are Tutorial Websites. Many of these sites deal with a specific topic or type of interest. I love working with Photoshop, Adobe’s photo-editing tool. There are scores of sites that deal with every aspect of Photoshop, often offering multiple ways of arriving at a similar result. These sites are very helpful and great learning tools, but there are other sites that deal with just about anything you can think of.

SmartFlix.com. SmartFlix is sort of like NetFlix, the online movie-rental website. The difference is the types of movies they rent. If you have an interest or hobby, you will likely find someone selling videos on how to do it better or differently. These specialty videos can often be very expensive, ranging from $50 to $90 or higher. SmartFlix caters to the how-to market, offering instructional DVDs on topics like art, music, wood and metalworking, cooking and filmmaking. Their DVDs feature experts in their respective fields.

Most videos are $9.99 per week (a few are more), and if you rent a multi-DVD set the videos are discounted. You receive your video in a cardboard mailer and ship it back in the same carton it came in. Just stick the pre-printed return-address and return-postage label on the mailer and drop it in the mail. All postage is covered by the rental fee. SmartFlix is a great way to learn more about what you are already interested in or a starting point on a new hobby for which you just didn’t know where to begin.

Instructables.com. Instructables.com is another great place to find information on a variety of subjects, but there is one difference. Instructables.com is free. Instructables offers step-by-step instructions on all of their do-it-yourself (or DIY) projects as well as a downloadable PDF. The PDF download and a few other features require you to sign up as a member, but don’t worry – membership is also free. As an added bonus, some authors also include a streaming video version of some of their projects, allowing you to see it in action.

I don’t always go there looking for anything specific because I don’t always know what they’ll have or what will catch my eye. The site can be very addictive, and some of the projects are very offbeat (check the Offbeat section of the site). The submissions are often useful, sometimes entertaining and can surprise you with ingenuity, creativity and, in some cases, downright silliness. They also look like a lot of fun.

More video tutorials. While the Instructables site has videos here and there, there are other sites that focus primarily on providing free video tutorials. This can be very helpful when learning new software. Hearing the narrator and watching the cursor move around the screen while performing tasks is the next best thing to actually being in a classroom.

Here the topics begin to narrow to computer-related tutorials; it sort of goes with the territory. The exception, of course, is our old friend YouTube.

YouTube certainly has its entertainment value and is being used more and more as a marketing tool for people advertising their products or services, but it can also be an unexpected learning tool. Along with those people simply showing off their talents are those who are willing to share. Because of the huge number of videos to sort through, it would probably be better to search for a specific topic. If you find an active person posting helpful or interesting content, be sure to click the “Subscribe” button, that way you will be alerted when any new videos are posted by that user. If you are into DIY projects, then a good place to start would be makemagazine.

These sources of information and inspiration are a great springboard into trying something new. Experience is still the greatest teacher, and as you work on your own projects you may run into unexpected problems you need help with, or discover your own ingenious solution that you want to share with other. Sites like Instructables.com also allow you to interact with the authors and others interested in the subject using forums and the comment areas of the tutorial. Or, you could just publish your own tutorial.

Now, if you will excuse me, I’m going to finish clearing out the basement.

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Publications : Bar Bulletin: March 2008

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