Category Archives: Longer Posts

Marine Computing Part One

I’ve been fairly silent around these parts for the past while, mainly because I’ve been focussing on preparing myself and my boat for an imminent long sailing adventure. For those who are interested, my sailing blog has all the skinny on that.

However, I’ve been doing a lot of work on board to get the computer stuff all up and running. I’m still maybe only halfway there, but it occurred to me that it might be time to lay out the basics so far.

We moved on board with an iBook G4 and a PPC Mac Mini with an LCD monitor. We got a contraption called, unoriginally, a TV Box which allows the monitor to act as a tv monitor for using with our Wii. It’s quite an excellent set up, actually. The screen is crisp, and with the tv box connected to external speakers, the sound is great, too. We could hook up the cable to the tv box also, and we do have a tv antenna that terminates in a cable, but we’ve never bothered so far.

The Mini and monitor is not an acceptable set up for when we’re underway, though, and we also have another issue which persuaded us to invest in another laptop. We have a Pactor modem, which allows us to send and receive packet data over high frequency radio. This is useful for using email when we are at sea, which is a boon for communication as well as a great way to get reliable weather data. The trouble is that there is no non-Windows port of the mail software which works with the Pactor. Therefore, I wanted an Intel Mac laptop for running Windows or Darwine to use SailMail.

As a result, we picked up a 15″ MacBook Pro as part of the new plan. We chose the Pro because it has the ExpressCard slot, and we are thinking about using a cellular data card for internet when we are on the US coast. We haven’t yet gotten AirMail set up on it, or even tested the set up, but that’s on the list.

We’re using GPSNavX as our charting software, and it’s been fantastic. A very reasonable cost to do pretty much everything the well known Windows programs do, and without having to run Windows. It makes me very happy, and we saved a few BOAT units (bring out another thousand) by not getting a dedicated chartplotter.

Finally, when it was first announced, we participated in the Give 1 Get 1 promotion by the One Laptop Per Child organization, and got ourselves an XO laptop. I’ve been breaking it pretty mercilessly since I got it trying to see what it can do, and particularly to install a non-pdf ebook reader. I have a bunch of titles in plucker format, which I really like, and want to be able to read on the XO. The screen is a great size and the tablet and low power features seem to be ideal for ebook reading on the high seas. So I’ve spent a few days trying to install FBReader, with success coming only after completely screwing up the machine and having to reflash the OS. I did get the program installed by following the instructions and using the file found here. Now I’m starting to load a bunch of ebooks to an SD card and try it out.

More to come as the project progresses.

[Cross-posted to the sailing blog]

Kindling

As everyone probably knows, Amazon made a big stink recently with the launch of its ebook reader the Kindle (and the associated ebook store). I’m on a mailing list for authors who distribute on podiobooks.com, and the Kindle set that normally very quiet mailing list on fire. Everyone seemed to have a very strong opinion.

Now, I haven’t seen a Kindle, so I can’t comment on the use of the thing, though I know others who can. But I can talk about ebook readers in general from my own particular perspective.

I think it’s a pretty good guess the I am the target audience for this device. I love to read, and even though I’m quite fond of dead tree books, my lifestyle requires that I limit my physical media. I’ve been reading books primarily onscreen for a few years now, starting with pdf file on my laptop and most recently using Plucker on my old Palm Tungsten C.

I recently was looking into purchasing ebooks from the eReader store, and even though there are several titles I desperately want to read, I stopped short. It’s not the cost – they are reasonably priced compared to a paperback (particularly since I live in Canada, and book pricing here is insane). The problem is the DRM.

I’m convinced that my Palm device is dying, and I’ll probably have to replace it with something. I don’t know what I’m replacing it with, but whatever it is, I want the books I already have to be able to be used with the new device. DRM means that I’m locked to a particular device or reader, and I’m not willing to buy multiple copies of a book just to be able to read it wherever I want.

And that’s the main problem with the Kindle and Amazon’s ebook store (and other products like it). In a world where even the iTunes Music Store realizes that people don’t want their media locked to a product or device, ebooks that are crippled this way are just uninteresting to me. I’ll go to the library for books that I can’t get electronically, and stick to independents authors and public domain works that I can get in the formats I want. And that, my friends, is why the Kindle and ebook DRM sucks for authors. Because those are lost sales.

Oh yeah, and $400 for an ebook reader? You’ve got to be kidding.

Banality of social networks is a feature, not a bug

I came across a great metaphor for relationships awhile ago – bricks and mortar. Bricks are the “big things” – the events of life that you share with friends. Mortar is the little, everyday stuff, that the people you are closest to just know about, often whether they want to or not.

As Scheherazade wrote in her original blog post that caught my eye, bricks get all the attention. When we think about communication, we think about the bricks. But mortar is what makes it all stick together, and without it there’s no solid foundation.

As I mentioned in what is now clearly the last Tech Watch podcast, I’ve been investigating online communities this year. At first, I was all about the bricks, here, too. I was posting in forums, making new friends and even trying to be a better email correspondent. Email, blogs, podcasts, forums – these are the online versions of going for coffee.

Meanwhile, I’d occasionally ignore a request to join facebook or Twitter, wondering what was the point? If you want to know what I’m doing just ask me or read my blog. It’s not hard to find me online, after all. But eventually I succumbed to facebook and now I’m flirting with Twitter. And yes, the updates can be overwhelming, and yes it’s almost always banal. But this is the mortar of relationships.

It’s true that I don’t need to know (or honestly, really care) if you’re pulling the weeds or late for work or getting a haircut today. But knowing that mundane boring stuff adds real context to the actual conversations we have, context that makes existing relationships richer and new relationships stronger.

I’ve come to realize that the banality of social networks is a feature, not a bug. It is the ability to tap into the mundane that is the reason why these kinds of social networks are so popular, and so annoying. We crave the mortar of relationships, even as we find it maddening. It’s addictive and repulsive. And surprisingly useful.

Kicking the iTunes Habit

iTunes

It’s not exactly that I don’t like iTunes – when I first started using it I was blown away by how great it was. And it just kept getting better until it hit that point. The point where it’s trying to do so many things that it doesn’t do anything right for me.

I admit that I’m not a lover of converged devices – I have a pda, a phone and a music player; they are all separate devices to perform separate functions. I like it that way.

I loved iTunes when it just played mp3s. I liked the music store, and it managed to suck some cash out of me over time. I even gave up iPodder (now Juice) for iTunes to manage my podcasts when iTunes 6 came out. But finally I had enough of putting up with things that weren’t exactly the way I wanted them in order to have it all in one place.

iTunes 7 takes a long time to load on my G4 iBook, and I was becoming less and less enchanted with the way it was handling podcasts. I also was having a harder time reconciling my strong dislike of digital rights management (wik) with my purchases from the iTunes music store. Something had to be done.

PodcastReadyI’ve already written about switching my podcast management from iTunes to PodcastReady. It’s somewhat imperfect, but it’s better than iTunes alone was for me. The success of that change has spurred me on to try and make a break. It’s not a clean break – I still use iTunes to update my iPod – but on the whole I’ve found better solutions for the individual tasks for which I used to use iTunes.

MP3 playback

Most of the time, I listen to audio on my iPod. On the go, I’m obviously using the portable player, but even at home I hook the iPod up to a small set of speakers. Combined with a third party remote control, I find using the iPod/speaker system ideal. When I do listen to audio on my laptop, I tend to use Quicktime player for single files – it opens a lot faster and seems to run a lot better than iTunes.

Get SongbirdI have also been experimenting with Songbird, an open source music player that has some really great features. One of which is that it’s a web browser as well as a media player, which means that it plays mp3 streams and embedded audio files on websites when you use it to browse.

Thanks to Songbird, I’ve been poking around various audio blogs and discovering all kinds of cool new music. Songbird isn’t a stable release yet, so it still has some problems, but already it’s showing so much promise that I think I might be able to really ditch iTunes when it’s ready for prime time.

Podcasts

I’ve fully explained my solution for audio podcasts using PodcastReady and an automator workflow previously. I’ve been using this solution exclusively for almost three months now, and I have no interest in going back. Being able to micromanage my podcasts on an individual level from my desktop or online, plus being able to share episodes with friends are worth the extra step.

For video podcasts, I’ve been relying on the Democracy player and aggregator. I never use the player feature because it has the same problem for me as the iTunes video player – it’s choppy and slow and just doesn’t work right. So I either copy videos to my iPod or, more usually, I watch them using VLC.

Democracy’s great features include being able to set some feeds to automatically download new episodes while others don’t, and it’s a bittorrent client, so I can subscribe to bittorrent feeds. Altogether excellent. And it’s an open source project.

Democracy: Internet TV

Music store

The iTunes music store is handy. Distressingly handy. I remember that when it was going to be made available in Canada, it was a few days late, and I spent those days in a state of great distress. I couldn’t wait to browse and buy by track and get what I want instantly (or at least without getting dressed). I never was a huge music buyer, but I’d add things here and there to my cart, then every few months I’d remove half of it and buy the rest. I picked up a lot of great tunes that way.

eMusicBut the DRM restrictions on iTunes music really piss me off, and while there’s a ton of music, most of it is the same stuff everyone else listens to. I wanted free (as in speech) music, and I wanted something different. So I got a subscription to eMusic, which is a subscription-based music download site. You get 30 tracks a month for $9.99 USD, which you get to keep (unlike music rental subscriptions like Rhapsody), they are DRM-free MP3 files and the catalogue is great. It’s not necessarily full of the chart toppers, but there’s a bigger selection of well-known names than a site like (the also awesome) Magnatune.

And I discovered that there’s a fantastic extension for Songbird that incorporates eMusic downloads right into Songbird. If I browse eMusic using Songbird, I can preview tracks without opening another application, and if I like them I’m just one click away to adding them to my library. The extension makes it actually easier to buy music from eMusic than it is to buy from iTunes. And since it’s a “use it or lose it” subscription, I can try out new things without as much of a guilt trip. Plus, it works out to about 33 cents per track. What’s not to like?

Summary

iTunes is trying to do too many things for my liking. Preferring to have standalone solutions, I’ve found a bunch of great apps and services which take care of all my media needs. With the exception of eMusic, all of the items I’ve listed are free as in beer and most are free as in speech.

I’ve tried some other iTunes replacements over the years with varying degrees of success. Here are some of the also-rans (as in all things, your mileage may vary):

  • Yamipod – an alternative iPod manager
  • Transistr – the podcatcher formerly known as iPodder X, now on hiatus or something
  • djdownload.com – a pretty good selection of electronic-type tunes and dj stuff (note: IANADJ), but I could never get my account to work

How to watch podcasts

I recently discovered that a lot of visitors find this site searching for information about how to watch podcasts. Obviously, that’s because the name of my podcast is Tech Watch.

However, I can provide the answer to that question. Most video podcasts have a website where you can watch the episodes online in your web browser. If you want to subscribe, though, you’ll need both a podcast aggregator and a video player. This is where it can get tricky.

Formats

Unlike audio, which is almost always in mp3 format, video on the web comes in many different formats. If you want to learn more about the ins and outs of video formats, check out the wikipedia article (warning: it’s not for the faint of heart). Because of all the possible formats, you need a video player that will handle the different types of video your podcasts are delivering.

Player

Since iTunes is both a podcast aggregator and a video player, a lot of video podcasts are built to play in iTunes. This means they’ll also play using Quicktime player, and many will play on a video-enabled iPod. But those players won’t necessarily play everything you find on the web.

To be sure, I’d recommend VLC. It’s an open source media player for Windows, Mac OS X, Linux and others, and it plays just about everything. I’d argue that if you’ve found a video on the internet that won’t play in VLC, its creators don’t actually want anyone to watch it.

Subscribing

In order to subscribe to a video podcast and have the episodes automatically downloaded to your computer, you’ll need a podcast aggregator. iTunes is probably the most popular one, and it’s available for Windows and Mac.

However, I have to recommend Democracy (Windows, Mac OS X and Linux), which is specifically built for web video. It is both an aggregator and a player, and the player is built from the VLC code, so it plays just about everything. Democracy also is a bittorrent (wik) client and will save files from YouTube and Google video.

Regardless of which aggregator you choose, you can subscribe to a video podcast by clicking a link in the software’s directory or copying the feed URL from the podcast’s website into the aggregator. Whenever new episodes are released, the aggregator will automatically download the episodes to your computer. You do need to have the aggregator running in order for the downloads to happen.

Podcasts

If you already know what you want to watch, great! But if you are looking for new video podcasts, there are a few ways to find them. iTunes and Democracy each have directories where you can search for podcasts, and both offer recommendations.

You can also use a service like AmigoFish, where you rate shows and get recommendations based on your ratings. You can also check out popcurrent, which is like digg for podcasts, and – oh yeah – there’s now digg for podcasts.

If you’re really stuck, or just want to know what I watch, here are my personal picks:

Experiments in IPTV

Combining two of my current obsessions (soccer and technology), I am experimenting with an IPTV provider to get access to my beloved Champions League. Last year, we got our CL action through a subscription to a Real service. We had all the games on demand through streaming, and I just fed the signal through my laptop to the TV.

It was an imperfect solution – the games were completely inaccessible due to poor quality until a few days after they had been played, and the picture quality was often so poor that we were cheering on maroon blobs against blue blobs. However, entire games (as well as really well done ten minute highlight shows) on demand made it possible to follow every game in the championship.

This year, uefa.com has gone with a Windows Media streaming option which, due to the DRM involved, makes it impossible to access their service on anything but a Windows machine. After much cursing, another option had to be found.

The option we chose is ITVN, an IPTV provider. They send you a set-top box which plugs in to your ethernet connection at one end and your tv at the other. We’ve ordered the Irish soccer and rugby channel Setanta (ITVN also offers movies, music and porn as separate monthly packages, which we haven’t ordered).

We run the feed through our old school VCR so we can record games during the day, though it now seems that Setanta via ITVN will be offering on demand games shortly. If they offer everything on demand, this solution will finally be exactly what we want. The only trouble is that they seem to not be showing any Barcelona games.

The picture quality is as good as our crappy old tv can handle, and we could easily spend an obscene amount of time watching soccer thanks to this service. As I type, I’m half paying attention to the Le Mans-Nancy game (French League).

As much as my preference for IPTV is to have it through my laptop, bypassing any other hardware, if on demand programming becomes available, this solution seems to be ideal for what we need at this time.

Automating Podcasts using myPodder on an iPod

If you’re a power podcast user like me, you’ve probably found that iTunes doesn’t have the feature set you’re looking for in a podcatching client. That’s why I was thrilled to discover that myPodder, the client that goes with the online site Podcast Ready, now supports iPods. I was less than excited, though, when I discovered that “support” means that the application runs, not that you can actually play the stuff you download directly on your iPod.

So I figured out a way to use myPodder on my iPod without copying files to my desktop and adding them to my iPod using iTunes. This system is a little more complex than just running iTunes, but it makes full use of myPodder’s greatest asset – it runs right off the iPod, so you’re not tied to one machine like you are with iTunes.

Note: I’ve tested this only on a Mac with a 60GB iPod with video. In theory it should be the same on Windows and should work with all iPods except the shuffle (either flavour).

Obligatory Warning
: When fooling around with these things, sometimes stuff goes wrong. Always back up your files first; you may have to restore your iPod if things go screwy.

To get it all working, you’ll actually need two separate free applications – myPodder and YamiPod. myPodder is the podcatching client and YamiPod allows the podcasts you download to your iPod to be played by the iPod. There’s a special hidden filesystem on the iPod that actually contains the music files that you can hear, so just adding songs to the iPod as if it were a hard drive doesn’t cut it.

Here are the details:

  1. Download myPodder for your desktop system. Currently, there are versions to support Mac OS X and Windows, and there is supposedly a linux version on the way.
  2. Plug your iPod into your computer. Make sure that it’s mounted, and that the following settings are selected in the iPod preferences in iTunes:
    • set iPod to act as a hard drive,
    • uncheck the box that forces iTunes to open when the iPod is connected, and
    • check the box to manually manage songs.
  3. Uncompress the downloaded myPodder file and install the application in the root folder on your iPod.
  4. Quit iTunes, but do not unmount the iPod.
  5. Run myPodder. Set up an account at Podcast Ready (if you haven’t already), and subscribe to the podcasts you want to listen to. Make sure your computer is connected to the internet, and download your podcasts.
  6. Meanwhile, download YamiPod (available for Mac OS X, Windows and linux). If you have been using iTunes 7 (it’s the one with the blue icon and the cover art toys), make sure you get the UNSTABLE BETA version of YamiPod (it’s worked perfectly marginally well for me, but it is a beta – your milage may vary).
  7. Install YamiPod in the root directory of your iPod, and run it. The first time you open YamiPod it could take a while. Be patient.
  8. Here’s the cool/tricky part: under Tools, choose Synchronize. Here, set up a Location (I called mine Podcast Ready), then choose a folder to synchronize. Then, choose the folder on your iPod where the downloaded podcasts reside (unless you’ve changed this setting in myPodder, it’s iPod/mac_myPodder Folder/Podcasts), and set this folder to synchronize with a playlist.Choose either a pre-existing regular playlist (not an iTunes Smart Playlist), or create a new playlist using YamiPod. Choose the option you want for synchronization – more information about the synchronization feature of YamiPod are found in its documentation. When your podcasts are finished downloading via myPodder, hit synchronize. Note that if you have “Show resume before synchronizing” checked, you’ll have to hit synchronize on the next dialog as well.

    Pretty soon, your new podcasts will show up in the playlist you’ve selected. You can unmount your iPod and listen to your shiny new podcasts, all without ever opening iTunes.

    Update:
    You can replace steps 6 though 8 by using an Automator Workflow.  I talk about it all here.

So, why would you want to do this? Here’s why I did it. First, Podcast Ready offers features unavailable in iTunes, such as setting separate download preferences for each feed, podcast recommendations (though AmigoFish is better), a private feed where you can put individual episodes and a social system where you can share episodes between friends automatically. (By the way, I am darusha on Podcast Ready, so feel free to add me as a friend and send me podcasts you like).

Second, you can update your podcasts from pretty much any internet-connected computer. In theory, you can install both Mac and Windows versions of each program, which is great if you have to use both systems for travel or work/home use.

Finally, as a podcast producer, I’m not thrilled that iTunes has become almost the only way people find out about podcasts. By supporting competition in the podcatching and podcast providing world, I’m exposing myself to different content as well as taking more control over where I get my information about new podcasts.

Disclosure: I’m not associated with any of the companies or programs I’ve named here.

There’s no such thing as a girl geek

It’s V Day and, more importantly, my birthday, so here’s a slightly self indulgent rant about a topic that’s has been needling me for awhile now.

Today, I read an article from the Tyee about geek chic, and why geeks are supposedly hot properties on the dating scene. I knew it was going to be a lame fluff piece, but why not get a little jolt of “I’m cool ’cause some magazine says so” on me-day? But, instead of getting a yay-me feeling, I got crazy-go-nuts mad.

According to this article, geek == boy, no exceptions. The article is all about why chicks dig dudes who are smart, tech-savvy and employable. You could quibble with everything used to describe a geek, but I expected those stereotypes. But what made me insane was the entire lack of even a hint that there could be such a thing as a female geek. Even when the article pointed out that women are becoming more interested in technology, computers and gadgets, that just means they are more inclined to hang out with geeks.

The article quotes Dr. Gisele Baxter, a prof at the University of British Columbia and a “pop culture expert” as saying that “as more girls get into aspects of technological culture formerly the domain of guys — gaming, music downloading, messaging, etc. — geeks are useful to know.” WTF?! What the hell is the definition of geek, then?

When I was a kid my parents told me the only thing I couldn’t be when I grew up was a father – it’s a sad state of affairs that so-called progressive media have a level of sexism that didn’t exist in my house over 20 years ago. No wonder schools have a hard time getting women to enrol in high-tech and engineering courses.

Slashdot and the Street

The Open Source and Anti-Globalization Movements: A Comparison

There are two grassroots groups getting headlines and causing consternation among CEOs and government leaders these days – the Open Source technology movement and the anti-globalization movement. They seem to be very different groups, but lately I have begun to wonder if they influence each other, or if there is some confluence of factors in the world today that are giving rise to these very different but in many ways quite similar ideas.

First, let’s look at Open Source. I’m using this term as a catch-all that includes everything from free/open source software, to Creative Commons and the work of the EFF. I’m including Open Source Culture and Free Culture in this category (that way no-one is happy). I’m not interested here in the semantic differences between these groups, rather that the ideas espoused my their members are part of significant discourse at all.

Many of the ideas that come out of these movements – the notion of freely sharing ideas and technologies or that it is more important to support innovation than it is to make money – tend to fly in the face of the idea of a completely unfettered market. This free market is the basis of the capitalist ideal that is the current dominant economic perspective. Certainly, many of the people and organizations involved in the Open Source movement are in business and would probably be quite put out to be described as anti-capitalist. However, the version of capitalism that is practiced by most large corporations is completely at odds with the idea that you would ever freely give anything to anyone. In a world where corporations try to patent ideas like internet cookies, the notion that real published authors would offer e-books for free download from their websites is anathema.

A prime example of this friction is the dispute between the entertainment industry and some members of the technology community over Digital Rights Management and limitations on the use of technology. A look at the hot cases over at the Electronic Frontier Foundation shows a list of big companies taking on independent programmers and writers as corporations try to asset their “right” to dominate the market with proprietary technologies. While the details of these cases vary, I believe the gist is the same: companies want to restrict what can be done with their products after the consumer has purchased the product. There is an interesting result here, since many of the consumers of technology products are technology makers as well. When you start telling engineers and other tinkerers that they are not allowed to take apart the toys they paid good money for, you’re starting a fight, which is a big part of the open source argument.

These concepts are very similar to the ideas that form the basis of the political anti-globalization movements. And again, there are many disparate groups that fall under the umbrella of “anti-globalization”. At one end are anarchic anti-capitalists and at the other end are business-people who simply believe that large multinational corporations need to be more closely regulated. While anti-globalization activists generally talk about the things they don’t like, some positive ideas are pretty common, such as supporting fair trade policies and community decision making.

There are a few obvious examples of the combination of the technological and the political. The Brazilian government’s recent advocacy of open source software springs to minds, as does Bill Gates’ now-infamous reference to copyright-reform advocates as communists. Over all, however, the open sourcers are not necessarily the same people rallying outside World Trade Organization meetings.

So, if these movements are not made up of the same people, do they influence each other and why have they become more prevalent at the same time? I believe that while both movements do have affirmative campaigns, the majority of people who join these groups are simply reacting to what they perceive as violations of their basic rights.

People are finding common ground with open source or anti-globalization in response to a particular event or opinion. Many of the people who form the grassroots of copyright reform do so because as consumers they feel immediately threatened by increasing restrictions on the way they use the media they have purchased. The mainstream of anti-globalization opposes specific practices – sweatshop labour, outsourcing of jobs, the corporatization of education.

And it is in the very things that people are railing against that I believe we find the true common ground between the technologists and the politico-economic. All of these groups are ultimately fighting “corporatocracy” – rule by corporations. As big business begins to control more and more of the workings of everyday life, many ordinary people have begun to rebel in ways that resonate with them. People in the technology industry and consumers of high tech goods have fought back – some by pirating software, some by sending a donation to the EFF. People who are more politically active march outside G8 meetings, write letters to their government representatives or buy sweatshop-free clothes.

While the activists and their tools are different and the organizations focus on separate issues, once one looks deeper, there is a clear connection between the roots of both open source and anti-globalization movements. Interestingly, it is a reaction against unfettered capitalism and the pure pursuit of profit. As critics simplistically slap labels like communist on those who oppose the wholesale corporatization of life, people who believe in the power of community over the power of corporations are fighting back – on Slashdot and on the street.