Category Archives: Software

Words Without Toolbars

Sometimes we just have to get a lot of writing done in a short amount of time and we don’t want distractions. Maybe it’s your family holiday newsletter, a big work report,  a 50,000-word novel for NaNoWriMo, or a thesis or dissertation. Stuff needs to get done.

Full-featured word-processing programs are around to handle everything from a grocery list to a complicated mutli-page advertising brochure. But with more power comes more toolbars, windows, widgets and other user interface elements floating around your screen all trying to pull your attention.

If you need to knuckle down and crank it out, consider a free or cheap text editor or minimalist word processors that puts less stuff in the way between you and words. Once you get that first draft banged out, then you can go back to your standard word-processor for editing and formatting.

Want cheap? Just fire up the free text editor that came with your operating system, like Notepad or Wordpad for Windows or TextEdit on the Mac. These programs may have basic toolbars for formatting things like type styles, but overall, there’s not a lot of extras. But maybe you want something with a little more power under the hood, like the ability to sync with your online storage site of choice. To get a sampling of the many options out there, fire up your search engine and look for a variation of minimal word processors or distraction-free text editors. Here are a few to consider:

  • Notepad Classic or Notepad Next (Free for Windows 8 and Windows 10). A free, customizable old-school text editors from the Windows Store. Notepad Next works on mobile devices as well as on PCs.
  • Writer (Free for the Google Chrome browser). The free Writer extension for Chrome  calls itself a big Internet typewriter. It asks you to create an account and displays a classic fullscreen plain-text window in which to start composing. You also get basic tools like a word counter and can customize the look of the interface. Documents can be exported as text or PDF files.
  • OmmWriter Dana II ($5.11 for Windows, Mac, iOS for iPad). The program wants to be your private little writing space within the confines of your computer— where you can really focus on your work. While the user interface goes minimalist, the program does provide soothing background colors and audio soundtracks to sooth your mind so you can write.
  • Write! ($25 for Windows, Mac and Linux). In addition to a simple interface for composing your thoughts, Write! gives you cloud syncing, progress trackers, unlimited undos, a smart spellchecker and a bucket of other features.
  • WriteRoom ($10 for Mac). This Mac app is another full-screen writing environment that dumps ribbons, button and menus. If you first started using computers back in the 1980s, you can go retro and opt for the familiar old VDT green-text-on-black color scheme with a blinking cursor to get you going.

Once you pick a word processor that doesn’t drag your eyeballs away, go hardcore if you really need to get something done: Unplug your computer’s network connection — or just want until all the unsecured DVRs and webcams take down the Internet again. Sweet productivity at last!

Paint Job

Far from those blurry VGA days of early mobile photography, smartphone camera are getting better and better. These days, 8 to 16 megapixels of resolution are not uncommon on some models, as well as other features like selective focus, add-on lenses and HDR. It all adds up to the ability to produce amazing pictures on the same device you use to talk to your Mom and program the DVR over the Internet. Along with the built-in software that comes with your handset, plenty of third-party photo apps can make your pictures look even better — or more unique.

We’ve all seen filter apps like Instagram and Hipstamatic, which can be great if they produce the effects you’re trying to achieve with your pictures. If you really want that hand-made touch, consider apps that turn your pictures into digital paintings. Through filters and algorithms, these apps cam make your photo of the Empire State Building look like a painting of the Empire State Building. 

If you’ve got an Android phone, check out apps like the Photo Painter, which sells for a whopping $1.49. There’s also the free Oil Painting (shown above), Photo Oil Painter and Camera Illusion, all for Android. Camera Zoom FX, which is $2.99 and considered by many to be one of the best camera apps around, also has some artistic filters you can use to give your photos a new look.

WaterlogueBeeps

If you’re rocking an iOS device, you have plenty of apps to choose from as well. Waterlogue is one app that transforms your photos into digital watercolor paintings. For a mere $3, it does incredibly nice work, as shown directly above. Other options for the iPhone and its ilk include Paint FX for $2.99, AutoPainter for about a buck. Although it’s $7.99, the SketchMee app for iOS does a lovely job transforming your photos, especially portraits, into pencil-sketch art; the same company also has apps that can give your photos the oil-painting treatment, too.

And don’t forget the filters and other features of Adobe Photoshop Touch for either iOS or Android. It’s $4.99 for the phone version and $9.99 for the tablet edition. And those with Windows Phone 8 handsets can tinker with images with Microsoft’s free Fresh Paint app. (These apps are just the tip of the iceberg, so spend some time in your local app store and see what suits you best from the dozens of options for every platform.)

And once you’ve made art out of your photos, wouldn’t it be cool to display them as art?  Many images make great desktop wallpaper, but some would look even better hanging on the wall.  If you want to go that route and print out your image, make sure your chosen app can output decent-size files — none of this 90 KB stuff.

Unless you’ve got a bunch of pro-quality printers around, you need to output the file to your computerand upload it to a digital-imaging service; you may also be able to upload it directly from your phone. Going for the art-museum approach? Use a service that outputs digital photos onto canvas or high-quality paper, suitable for framing.

If you’ve never heard of canvas printing, there are specialty services like CanvasPop and Canvas on Demand, for starters. Photo-printing companies you may already use, like Snapfish and Shutterfly, offer canvas-printing options alongside calendars, mugs, posters and everything else they can do with your uploaded images. Time-honored photo-finishers like Walgreens and Costco can also do canvas prints, too.

As you might expect from material costs, canvas prints are a bit more expensive than your glossy or matte 4 x 6 photos. Prices start around $30 for a smaller size in the 8 x 10 range, but it’s do-it-yourself art — no expensive supplies needed. Your kids won’t sit still for more than five seconds? Snap ’em and app ’em — and boom — you have an arty portrait of the brood, just in time to get it printed and framed for Grandma’s birthday.

The Paper Chase

A few weeks ago, we mentioned reports of a new Facebook app in the works — called sort of weirdly enough for the digital realm — by the name of Paper. Last week, Facebook confirmed Paper’s existence, put out a promo video and released the app on February 3rd. Many people virtually ran right over to the App Store to download it and check it out.

fbp1So just what is Paper? In short, it’s basically a new skin for your Facebook page that knocks it out of the endless vertical scroll format. Paper looks like a visual mashup of elements — part Flipboard’s mix of news and status updates, with a dash of the full-screen photo-treatment found Google+ and a splash of the modular tiles seen in Windows Phone. It’s customizable (to a certain degree) so you can arrange stuff the way you want to see it. With it, you flick through both your Facebook life and news from around the world.

fbp5Right now, the app is for iPhones running iOS 7 only. There’s no widescreen iPad HD version, nor is there an Android edition. (Perhaps the larger screen sizes of tablets and phablets defeats the purpose of having Facebook as a one-handed read.)

When you download the app on your iPhone and open it for the first time, it lifts your Facebook credentials from the regular Facebook app — if you have it installed. So there’s not much effort needed to get rolling in Paper.

fbp4The Paper app divides the screen into one large section at the top, and a series of smaller vertical tiles long the bottom half of the screen. You flick through each half of the screen to navigate through your chosen feeds: Facebook, Headlines, Tech, Pop Life and so on.

As usual, your Facebook feed shows the stuff from your friends, and the others (like Headlines) show articles from major news organizations and blogs on various topics . Overlaid icons at the top of the screen let you tap in to see Facebook messages and notifications without having to navigate away from the screen at hand.

Flick through the tiles along the bottom to glance at status updates and news dispatches in small type; tap one to make it readable.  A tutorial greets you the first time you open the app and explains all the various swipes and taps you need to do to navigate Paper. You may need to use it a few days to get the hang of what to swipe and where to flick, but here are some basic moves:

  • Drag down from the top of the screen to see your timeline, create posts, edit sections or adjust your settings.
  • Drag up on the top of a story tile to open the full version in the site. This part feels very Flipboardy.
  • Tap photos or videos to see them in full screen.
  • Drag a tile down to the bottom of the screen to return to the layout.

fbp2Who might like Paper? People who like all their information in one place, ready to be absorbed at a glance. Or maybe those who were bored with the regular Facebook mobile app.

But for those who like their Facebook feed all mixed together and linear — or who get mad every time Facebook redesigns itself — well, those folks will probably be annoyed with it. The app doesn’t feel as customizable as it could be with fonts and section topics. With iOS 7, there’s also the clashing UX issues of swiping the edges of the display and inadvertently summoning the iPhone’s Notifications screen or the Control Center.

But Paper is free, easy to install and worth a look if you like your news updates to be a mix of personal and  public. (Want more reviews? Time, The Verge, CNET and even MIT have weighed in.)

And if you don’t like Paper, go back to the old Facebook app. They haven’t taken it away. Yet, anyway.

Any Port in a Storm

January 2014 brought several winter blasts to the Midwest, South and Northeast — and a lot more indoor time for many people. But winter’s not over yet and if you’re running out of new games to play while you’re stuck inside during the next blizzard, consider taking a stroll through your app store for some old favorites in new formats.

mystFor example, remember Myst, the ground-breaking interactive adventure puzzle game with the lovely graphics that first appeared on the Mac in 1993 and went on to conquer just about every other platform in the years to come? There is now an official version of Myst for the iPhone and it costs a mere $5. You can also get the game’s sequel, Riven, for $4 in the App Store. And while there’s no official version of Myst for Android, developers for that platform have created similar puzzle games for the touchscreen. And fans of Myst, be sure to check out The Room, a tactile 3D puzzler from Fireproof Games for iOS, Kindle Fire and Android that costs just a few bucks. (A sequel, The Room 2, is also out for iOS now and headed to Android soon.)

Want a little something from the FPS Department? Going old school, you can find Castle Wolfenstein and Doom for iOS as well as the various Android versions and ports of the game, like AnDoom and DoomGLES. More recently, there’s also Call of Duty: Strike Team for iOS and Android.

Seeking adventure? There’s Baldur’s Gate for iPad as well as Balder’s Gate II or Final Fantasy V for Android and iOS. Ravensword: Shadowlands (which has been described as an equivalent to The Elder Scrolls) awaits on Android and iOS.

Now, if you have fond memories of a particular game but don’t see a version of it in your app store, check out the Games Finder site, which offers reviews and information on games that are sort of like other games. The Games Like Directory page can point you to an alphabetical list of games like RuneScape, Age of Empires, Harvest Moon, Diablo, World of Warcraft and more. Some games may be for mobile devices and some may be for the computer, console or a web browser, but it’s a great place to start your quest. (And for fans of Gears of War, Shadowgun for Android and iOS, has often been mentioned as a viable substitute.)

And remember, if you want to go way back, you can find many iconic arcade games available as mobile apps now, like Midway Arcade for iOS, NAMCO Arcade for iOS and Atari’s Greatest Hits for Android. If you’re browser bound, don’t forget the Console Living Room section of the Internet Archive (which also virtually houses the Classic PC Games collection), where you can really rock your Atari 2600 memories with dozens of old cartridge classics running in emulation. There’s nothing like warm memories of 8-bit glory to make you forget about Mother Nature pitching a hissy outside.

Write On!

It’s the middle of October now, which in addition to being in the height of the Fall Product Announcement Season, the annual NaNoWriMo event is just two weeks away. Never heard of NaNoWriMo? It’s been around since 1999, and NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month. It’s an Internet-based project designed to get creative people — wait for it — writing novels.

This is the challenge: You have from November 1 to November 30th to complete 50,000 words. Yes, 50,000 words s a bit short for a novel and to get that many words in 30 days, you need to crank out about 1700 of ’em a day. But the goal here is to get you writing. It doesn’t have to be good, it just has to be done. But you know what? If you complete the challenge, you have a first draft to build upon. You have completed perhaps the hardest part of the process: just getting started.

If you want to sign up, just head over to the NaNoWriMo site. Once you make a free account, you can track your daily progress, meet fellow writers, get encouragement and so on. Almost 84,000 people have signed up fore this year’s event already, so you won’t be alone.

nanowrimo

Now, knocking off around 1600-1700 words a day is going to take some time. You may have to get up early and squeeze in a few hundred words at lunchtime. This is where software — especially mobile programs that keep you focuses on the writing — can help you meet your word counts.

On the go? Grab a Bluetooth keyboard and your mobile device, and you’ve got a portable writing studio wherever you are. Next, check out your app store. For example, you can find desktop and mobile apps that help you see your book-in-progress with a helicopter view so you can keep track of your plot and dramatic arcs better. On the flip side, there are also so-called “distraction-free word processors” can help, too, by keeping you focused on a Spartan screen instead of procrastinating in formatting toolbars and menus.

Here’s a sampling of inventive writing programs for desktop and mobile devices:

  • Scrivener 2, writing-studio software for Windows and Mac OS X, is designed for long-form works and lets you collect your thoughts, notes and research within the program so they’re all in once place when you need to write fast. The program normally sells for $45, but there’s a free 30-day trial edition designed just for NaNoWriMo participants.
  • Storyist is similar outline/Word processing software for Mac OS X and iOS, Prices range from $10 for the iOS app to $60 for the desktop edition.
  • yWriter for Windows breaks your story into chapters and scenes so you can keep track of it better. And it’s free.
  • WriteRoom from Hog Bay Software is a fullscreen word-processor with nothing to draw your attention away from your words. Shown above, it’s available for Mac OS X or iOS ($5 to $10, depending on the version you want).
  • WriteWay for Windows is a story-based word-processor that helps you organize your book. Normally, it’s $35, but there’s a 30-day free trial — just long enough for your NaNoWriMo project.
  • Stenosaur, which calls itself a “personal microjournal” is a $3 iOS app from Axe Monkey. Sort of like a Twitter feed to yourself, you type in short bursts of thought, swim in your stream of consciousness, break through writer’s block and keep on going.

And when it comes to collecting ideas and keeping us focused on a project, let us not forget Evernote. The software works on mobile devices and desktop computers — and keeps them all in sync. And don’t forget Google Docs, Apple’s iCloud, Microsoft SkyDrive, Zoho Docs and the other online services that let you create and store documents.

Don’t think you can do 50,000 words in a month but want to explore shorter fiction? Check out Andrew Fitzgerald’s TED talk on the really short literary forms.

Get Your Motor Running

typeEngineLogo-200Are you all inspired and want to make your own iPad magazine after hearing Jocelyn Gonzales’s most excellent report on this week’s episode? Be sure to check out TypeEngine and I Care If You Listen — both the main blog and the magazine site. (And if any of the music featured in the segment perked up your ears, be sure and hit up the sites of BrangMary Kouyoumdjian and Spoken Folks to  find out more.) The other magazine apps mentioned — Lab Journal, The Loop Magazine and Bright Wall, Dark Room — are worth a look, too. Yo, the magazine business just got a lot easier to get into.

Movie Magic in Minutes

For many people, making your movies got a lot easier once the smartphones arrived on the scene because all of a sudden, you always had a video camera on hand. Sometimes, though, even after you shoot hours of clips, you only have a few seconds of really interesting stuff. But still, your parents want videos of the kids, your friends want to see the new puppy, and you can’t get out of it. But what can you do to keep a video entertaining even when you don’t have a lot of decent footage to work with?

Do what Hollywood does: Put all the good stuff in the trailer. Or, skip the script and lard it up with special effects. You can find apps for this sort of thing — most mobile stores have plenty of video-editing programs, but a couple here in this category stand out.

Trailers with iMovie for iOS
Thanks to Apple’s $5 iMovie app for iOS, you can take a total of 10 or 15 seconds of video, stick little clips into a template, customize the text in some prefab graphics — and crank out a summer-movie-style trailer in less than half an hour. (The trailer feature is included in the desktop version of iMovie for the Mac as well.)

To get started, pop open iMovie, tap the + icon. Instead of New Project, choose New Trailer. The app then walks you through the steps of making your whiz-bang trailer. To set the tone, you can choose from a variety of genres for the music and title sequence, like a Saul Bass-inspired 60’s spy movie, a love story, a horror film, a superhero-action flick or even a Bollywood-style musical.

iMovie1

Pick a style and tap the Create button. The next screen has two tabs — Outline and Storyboard. On the Outline screen, type in the personalized text you want to use for the titles. The Storyboard screen shows a bunch of rectangles. Here, you drag in video clips from your Camera Roll. The app tells you the type of shot to use so you match the title sequence – like an action shot or a close-up. The iMovie app also tells you how many seconds the clip will last in the sequence. By dragging your finger on the screen, you can select the exact frames from within the clip to appear.

iMovie2

Once you fill in all the text and fill up the rectangles with various clips, tap the Full Screen button to see the trailer play. You can go back and adjust the videos and text as needed. When finished, you can export the finished trailer to your Camera Roll or upload it to Facebook, YouTube, Vimeo or other video sites. You can see a sample of iMovie Trailers in action here.

Special Effects with FxGuru for Android
Want to add some cool blockbuster action effects to your otherwise bland video clip of the kids standing around trying not to fight in the backyard? Check out FxGuru: Movie FX Director, which is available free in the Google Play Store. This is an app that lets you mix things like robots, explosions and spaceships into your own home video as you shoot it, because nothing jazzes up a scene like an alien spaceship hovering overhead. You get a few special effects for free — like the falling satellite or dancing Android man — and can buy more as inspiration overtakes you. The effects come in six-packs for about $6.50 each and you can add things like mech attacks and dinosaurs to the video.

The app is pretty easy to use. Just select an effect from the menu and FxGuru puts an outline of where that special effect will get overlaid onto your own live-action video. Tap the Record button and hold it for 10 to 20 seconds while you get the kids or the dog to do something related to the effect you picked.

FxGuru

Once you stop recording, FX Guru matches up timing and motion as it blends the effect to create a clip you can then e-mail, save to your Google Drive, post on YouTube or transfer by Bluetooth. You just need the kids to cooperate for less than a minute and then you can share a much more memorable video. Want to see a sample of FxGuru? Click here.

Got the hang of it? Next stop, Los Angeles — or at least to the phone when your mother calls and wants to know why there’s a T-Rex running through the backyard while her grandchildren are out there.

Don’t Sleep in the Subway, Baby

Sure Yahoo’s been on a spending spree, but Apple has been doing some shopping of its own this summer. Last week, it acquired two location-oriented companies, Locationary and HopStop.

HopStop, for those who haven’t had it save the bacon in a strange land, offers up door-to-door transit, walking, biking, and taxi directions in over 300 cities worldwide. No word on what Apple plans to do with the service (besides nuking the Windows Phone app version), but here’s hoping the transit directions get folded into the Apple Maps app so we all don’t have to refer to other apps to figure out our train plan. So go download the app or check out the mobile site now.

worldmap

But if HopStop isn’t your thing, what else can you use to navigate the labyrinth of a major metropolitan mass transit system and not get lost for days?

If you have an iPhone, you can get free maps and directions for 12 major transit systems with Embark for iOS. Boston, Chicago, London, Long Island, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Washington DC and most importantly, New York are among the cities serviced here. And Embark does not require an Internet connection so you can use it when you’re on a platform underground trying to figure out which train to take when the one you need is out of service. There’s also a free version for the Embark NYC Subway for Android.

But if New York City is the town you wish explore, our own Metropolitan Transit Authority Web site has a huge collection of links to mobile apps for Android, iOS, BlackBerry, Windows Phone and mobile Web. It’s a mix of official and third-party developers, but you can find 68 iPhone apps, 34 iPad apps, 33 Android apps, 8 BlackBerry apps and 8 Windows Phone apps listed.

Lest we forget, Google Maps for Android and iOS. The old reliable app includes transit guides for many cities and all kinds of navigational bells and whistles like audio turn-by-turn directions.

If you’re traveling or just want a really good pocket guide for your own hometown, check your phone’s app store and search for transit apps and local guides for specific cities. And while you’re loading up your phone with your transit app of choice, don’t forget to throw a few appropriate tunes on there as well. Safe travels, yo.

Photo Research

The new subscription-based Adobe Photoshop CC has upset some people. While those who use Adobe Photoshop professionally are probably going to stay with it because it’s the industry standard for pre-press and digital imaging work, others with lesser needs may be propelled to move to an alternative program.

The $100 Adobe Photoshop Elements will do for a lot of home users, you can also find free image-editing programs on the Web or maybe even right on your computer. So finding replacement software isn’t that hard — as long as it does all the things you used to be able to do in Photoshop. So how do you find out if a program does what you need it to do? Here are a few free alternatives and links to each one’s help guides and tutorial files so you can get an idea of just what it can (or cannot) do for you.

GIMP
Also known as the GNU Image Manipulation Program, this powerful cross-platform image editor can do a lot of the same heavy lifting that Photoshop does. GIMP is cross-platform (Windows, Mac and Linux among them) and it can seem dense and complex. But there’s help, including a Frequently Asked Questions page, which answers a lot of basic queries and even has a bit of cheeky humor.

You can also find a user manual in both HTML and PDF formats, plus a whole section of illustrated tutorials for learning how to do specific things like creating icons, making animations, blending exposures or creating contrast masks. The program has online documentation in several different languages. GIMP comes with a built-in help system too. When you are in the program, press F1 for context-sensitive help.

GIMPmenus

If you simply must have a big old printed book, No Starch Press has a 676-page manual called The Book of GIMP for $50 and you can download a free sample chapter from the site. There’s also GIMP for Beginners, for $45 from Apress.

Picasa
Google’s free photo program for Windows and Mac OS X can do more than some people give it credit for. Sure, it imports pictures off the camera, but it can also do photo-editing tasks like redeye reduction, cropping, straightening, simple retouching, color and contrast adjustments and includes a bunch of tints and filters. You can also do side-by-side editing to see how your changes are affecting the image. If you want to dig deeper into Picasa, check out Google’s Help Guide and well as the site’s pages for “how to” and troubleshooting.

Pixlr
This popular Web-and-mobile photo editor has a pretty sophisticated toolbox that can handle layers, masks, silos if you need more than the basic cropping and redeye reduction powers. Pixlr has mobile apps for Android and iOS and works well as an online editor. If you need help, check out the “community-powered support” on its site.

Windows Photo Gallery
This freebie from Microsoft has been around in some form for several versions (including Windows Vista) and now has tools like the panorama-maker and Photo Fuse, where you can combine the good parts of two bad photos into one decent image. While Windows 8 has a Photos app that doesn’t do much besides cropping and rotating, you can find more useful image-editing apps in the Windows Store.

iPhoto
Apple has been including iPhoto, its image organizer and editor, with Mac OS X since 2002 and the current version is iPhoto ’11. There are also mobile versions of the program for Apple’s iOS devices. Apple tutorials. The software’s sharing and printing features — including the ability to share directly to Facebook and Flickr or to make books, calendars and cards out of your pictures — are easy to grasp. iPhoto can do much more, though, including color adjustment, cropping, rotating, retouching and special effects. You can find video demonstrations on the Find Out How page for iPhoto ’11 and Aperture and Apple has an iPhoto support section of its site if you have specific questions you want to research. There’s also a Help guide built into the program.

These are just a few of the free photo-editing programs out there and plenty of other freebies (and some fine commercial software) can be found with a few quick Web searches. Just read up, make sure your new program can do all the stuff you used to do in Adobe Photoshop and ease on down the road.

Google’s Nexus Keyboard is Now Available as a Standalone App

If you’ve listened to this week’s COLLECTOR’S EDITION 50th EPISODE OF POP TECH JAM (shame on you if you haven’t) you know all about my travails attempting to root a Samsung Galaxy S4 phone. I don’t want to spoil things for anyone so let’s just say it did not go well.

One of the main reasons for my attempted rooting was to allow installation of awesome new applications from small, nimble developers that are passionate about what they do. I looked forward to loading bar-raising apps that would extend the functionality of Samsung’s well regarded new flagship phone far beyond what its bloatware ladened factory image would allow. Ironically, the app that has most dramatically improved the phone’s functionality and usability is as far from revolutionary as you can get and was developed by a huge corporate behemoth. Oh, and it doesn’t need superuser permissions.

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Google Keyboard, free from Google’s app market Play, is the same stock Android keyboard found on the Nexus series of tablets and phones and on plain vanilla installs of Android made available as a standalone application. While the Galaxy S4 is an exceptional smartphone, its most glaring weakness, beyond the many useless apps it crams onto the phone, is the keyboard. The Samsung keyboard is inaccurate, offers up terrible predictions and is pretty much useless for anyone who has large fingers.

In contrast, the free Google keyboard app is accurate, has a voice dictation option and a gesture typing feature that lets you slide your finger across the keyboard without lifting it from the screen to enter a word.  The Swype app from Nuance does a much better job at this sort of modified “keying” but Google’s version is very effective. I would rate it above Swiftkey’s Flow for accuracy but below Swype.

If you find the Samsung Touchwiz or the HTC Sense keyboards difficult to use or just too inaccurate to trust try Google Keyboard before shelling out cash for a replacement app. While the other apps may offer more fancy features the Google app does yeoman’s work. And did I mention it’s free? We LOVE free around here…