2007.03.31

Stuff I didn't pick up in Math class

22.56.01 - Mark

The web toy I'm building is all of a sudden becoming a pain in the ass. The design is more or less done, and most of the important features work, so tonight I set up a couple dozen fake users and a script to populate it with "answers" using random numbers, almost completely forgetting that all I would get would be a perfect real world example of the law of averages. D'oh!

I don't know that that's actually going to be a major concern, the test showed me that the scripts can handle the load, but I think some of the math powering the thing isn't what it should be, and I probably need to pull out the math books I've got floating around and read up on statistics. More importantly, I should probably be developing more social tools like implementing groups. That and test it with humans instead of random numbers.

Still, would have been nice to launch the site tomorrow. April 1st is an easy birthday to remember.

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Xcast or the podcast client iTunes should be

19.39.12 - Mark

I've been trying to get back into podcast consumption, but the lack of a solid podcatcher has been a hindrance (see also Hurray for iTunes (Not) and Transistr). The closest I've come is a beta app called Xcast and now that I've finally got it working (sort of) I feel safe making some comments on it.

First, its a beta. It's a nice beta, but it has a handful of sharp edges, like for instance, a near total lack of documentation. Look at the website, the documentation link isn't and the closest thing the develop offers is a screencast (although a nice one, its video when a few lines of text and a pretty picture work perfectly). I ran across an excuse somewhere about not being a text guy, but I'm sorry, if you can piece together a nice chunk of software, you can damned well hack together enough documentation to help people get it up and running. This is important for at least one reason. There's some serious setup involved.

On the surface, Xcast looks nice and feels fairly fast intuitive, but there's a whole mess of non-obvious features you need to configure before it actually works on autopilot. It takes almost no time at all to add an RSS feed and download elements, its not even that hard to find the preferences and schedule automatic downloads, but global settings for moving files into iTunes is conspicuously absent, at least one you know to look for such a setting, and if I remember the defaults correctly, downloading enclosures is a manual process.

Of all the podcatchers I've tried, all of them either moved files into your media player of choice or were designed to play/manage files without use of an external player. Xcast is the only one I can remember using that requires you to set that up yourself. I'd shake this off as a beta issue, but the App prides itself on its iTunes integration. (Which once set up seems to do just fine, sort of - starting to find a few bugs)

I haven't really given feed import export a show yet, and with my previous iTunes podcast collection boned there's no real way of testing the cleaning/management features, but it feels solid.

A couple other of other minor gripes would be the lack of bittorrent support and the odd way it manages regular RSS information, but I think Xcast is the podcast client iTunes should be. Simple, but full featured. Full RSS reader, feed management (smart feeds good), feed import and export, and smart management tools for the podcasts themselves.

Its not the app I really want to be using, but I think it will work for now.

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2007.03.30

The Stars My Destination

21.59.18 - Mark

I almost forgot how much I love The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester. I loved it the first time I picked it up several years ago, but I finished rereading it last night and I'm in love with it all over again. I'm sure at least part of that love is the elements of it that helped form cyberpunk (mega-corporations, amoral heros, and cybernetic upgrades) but there's so much more than that.

On rereading it the universe Bester crafts is eerily similar to the scifi worlds I tend to craft in my mind, and imagine as being more plausible. With the exception of the psychic elements of the book, everything in the book seems within the grasp of reality.

I don't know that I can adequately explain how much I love this book. If you like scifi at all, or even just a good story, go out and read it.

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2007.03.29

Potential Compact Camera

18.43.52 - Mark

I'm looking more and more at the Panasonic DCM-LX2 (aka the Leica D-Lux 3) but Ricoh just announced something that might be a dead on match for what I want. While it isn't out yet, and the only info on it is a press release, the GX100 looks like it hits on every bullet point in Camera Shopping, with the exception of 16:9 shooting. It even goes further than that. It also takes AAA batteries (nice to have in a pinch), has an accessory hot shoe for external flash and electronic viewfinder (not so sure about that) and takes conversion lenses.

I have no idea about the image quality, which is extremely important, and from what I've seen the price is well outside my range. The press release says 400 GBP, which Google translates as just under $800. In a way it is a fair price, the specs look like a DSLR disguised as a compact camera, but at $800 I could just as easily be looking at quality DSLR kits which while not as portable, are far more proven.

If I haven't committed to something by April, its one more camera to look at.

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Wonders of the Interwebs

17.51.42 - Mark

I love the interwebs, and despite doing it for years now I'm amazed at how I can find more interesting coverage of regional news from organizations half a world away. The UK version of this regional story, is so much better than the local article (and comes to me via California based WWdN).

The story itself isn't all that interesting except for the involvement of pirates as part of Pastafarianism.

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Hurray for iTunes (Not)

02.02.21 - Mark

iTunes just completely choked on me. I've got a seriously corrupted library and while I've been able to save ratings and some playlists, its created a royal mess. I can deal with the screwy playlists (been needing to reorganize anyways) but in the process it ate my podcast subscriptions and I've got no way of removing those. Its not a matter of backing them up because there isn't anyway of backing up that information. Thank you Apple.

I was looking into other podcatchers before iTunes choked, but now I'm looking harder. The older iPodderX DMGs I have are corrupt, and Juice crashed on me before I managed to get five feeds entered in (not that it took me that long to remember the UI stinks). I'm trying out Xcast now, we'll see how it works. It looks nice and it feels quick, but it is a beta and there are some features I'd like that it doesn't seem to have (bittorrent support to name one).

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2007.03.25

Recharged

23.59.00 - Mark

Didn't quite manage Shutdown Day, but then again I didn't say I would (funny how that site has gone to hell). My brother needed some tech support and that slid into the 24th, however I did go more than 24 hours without using a computer. Wasn't hard, wasn't jonesing for an email fix.

In addition to getting away from computers, I got up to Raven Knob for the first time in months. I've mentioned in the past about how going to Raven Knob refreshes me. Doesn't matter if its a matter of hours or weeks, it is simultaneously relaxing and invigorating. Easily one of the most beautiful places I know of, its also a regular meeting spot for a number of good friends. The best tangible evidence of these statements. I've slept a less than five hours since Friday Morning (about 40 hours ago) and I'm perfectly awake. That or my circadian cycle is so fucked up I'm accidentally falling into a Core sleep variant of Polyphasic Sleep. It might be both.

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2007.03.22

A note to an idiot.

21.44.42 - Mark

To the fucktard on the trail today
you know who you are
with your two kids and your bike
and and your clear cut road rage

I'm sorry you felt that I cut you off
when I passed your bike
but sometimes it happens-
I did try to steer clear

I didn't hear any cruses
nor heard any brakes
but the trail itself
is only a few feet wide

With no injuries or foals
you sought your revenge
you positioned your bike
at the trails official end

You laid in wait
had your kids in tow
all making your strike
look like a regular break

You let me Dad pass
how nice of you
but before I followed
you made your move

I saw it in you eyes
before you moved your bike
what the fuck were you thinking
trying to get me to fly off my bike!

You're lucky I stopped
or I would have sued -
I'd have gone into the creek or maybe some posts
or worse of all t-boned you or you kids.

I would have taken the bird
maybe even a stern word
but inducing a wreak?
What does that solve?

(Writing this was a hell of a lot more relaxing than the usual long winded rant.)

Prose decoded: I'm traveling a decent speed on my bike when I pass another rider and his kids towards the end of a local and popular bike trail. I ride around a parking lot at end of trail to get an extra 1/8mile or so (its rounds out the mileage) by the time I get back to the trail, the guy and his kids are taking a break. My Dad, whose riding a few dozen yards ahead of me passes just fine. I get within 15 feet of this asshat and he starts moving himself and his bike deliberately into my path, almost entirely blocking the trail entrance. My options are: 1) Slam on the brakes and pray I don't T-bone the asshole and his bike, 2) slam on the brakes and try not to run over his kids, 3) veer off to my right and take a 7 foot fall into a very shallow creek or 4) veer off to the left and run into a nasty vehicle barrier. If I hadn't been watching out for the kids, and saw him moving into my path, I'd be typing this with a bad case of road rash and some nasty cuts. I managed to brake and evade, but his "justification" for his insane game of chicken? "How do you like being cut off?" It almost would have been worth it to.

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Camera Shopping (Warning: Long Rambling Post)

04.01.57 - Mark

I've been itching to replace my dead (via my own stupidity) Canon SD300 for a while now. It more than proved its worth but I'm only now starting to get the cash to replace it. What I'm finding however is there isn't a camera out there that matches the feature set I want. The following is a lot of thinking out load. The meat of the post is in the last paragraph or two.

Needs


Wants (where things get complicated)


What am I looking at. I'm really partial to Canons, not just because of the SD300, but also because I've never been disappointed in their products. I'm looking at the newer Digital ELPH cameras which are decedents of the SD300. That should be fairly obvious. The SD700 and SD800 are both tempting. They have image stabilization, and all of my accessories will work perfectly with the SD800 AFAICT, but they're currently a bit beyond what I'd like to pay and lack some of my wants. The SD800 also lacks some of the manual controls I need.

Other Canon's I'm looking at are the A710, which is essentially the SD800, plumped up on AA batteries and given the option of conversion lenses. The Canon s80 and S70 are tempting, but they've got several strikes against them for reasons not on the list. The s70 does nearly everything I want, except video - which has a 30 second max, and can be purchased for under $300 is also 2 and a half years old. The S80 which fixes video (but drops RAW) is a year older and pushed my budget.

The Panasonic DMC-LX2 and its predecessor the LX1 have a damned near perfect feature set, only lacking of timelapse photography. The downside is that there are pretty strong arguments against their image quality. Watercolors are frequently mentioned in reviews, but shooting in RAW supposedly helps - some. The big downside is the price, which is well above my price range. The LX1 might be affordable off eBay, but it would be pushing it and I'm not fond of buying a used camera.

I'm likely missing a few potential options. For one thing I want to look at more of the Panasonics. I also find myself drifting away from the ultracompacts (like the Canon SDx00's) and more towards the regular compacts like the Canon A710 and the Panasonics. Fortunately I don't need it tomorrow, I've got a couple months to shop before I'd like to have a good camera in my hands, hopefully some prices will drop, deals will show up, and I'll have time to better refine my need/want list as well as compare image quality on flickr.

What bugs me is that camera shopping today feels a lot like computer shopping a few years ago. There's a big emphasis on meaningless numbers rather than on anything useful. When there's a shortcoming in the camera the response is to throw more pixels at the problem, which is often makes the problem worse. They're also taking away features, not adding them. Few of the compacts and none of the ultra-compacts I've looked at have RAW support, things like manual control and interesting features like time lapse photography are stripped away or avoided when all it would take is a bit of software that clearly exists.

Resources:
Digital Camera Resource Page
Digital Photography Review
Flickr Camera Finder

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2007.03.20

Coding mode.

23.50.15 - Mark

Funny how time disappears when you're working on a project. I'm juggling a couple small site designs and a renewed effort towards one of my own web 2.0-ish side project. I want to think I'm getting close to opening it up, but there are a few things that still need ironed out (which is important) and an unending list of features I'd like to add. Fortunately it's a web app and I can constantly release upgrades :)

My secret web project

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2007.03.17

Unsafe at any Amperage?

22.54.58 - Mark

There's a neat round table discussion over at MAKE showing the thought process behind a decision to drop a high voltage project from the 9th issue. The project in question recommended using parts from an old CRT monitor to build a small levitation device.

I've seen these before, they're pretty neat and I can see building one. Even if I don't build it I want to see that article. However I also understand the issues at hand, I've been active on hardware hacking forums for years, and I've seen several dozen sides to the dangers of CRTs argument.

I will personally do some work in AIO macs and have taken apart a couple of monitors, but mucking about in a CRT monitor isn't my idea of a real good time. To date, I've never been shocked and I only have a few basic rules I go by (good insulated gloves, treat CRTs with respect, always have someone nearby in case the worst happens)

Getting to the point, I don't know if they were right or wrong in the decision to kill the article. I'm almost inclined to say they were wrong in cutting it. There are still mentions of the lifter project (page 54 - Electrogravitics), and there were at least two projects in the fringe issue that dealt with high voltage devices (page 66 - Kirlian Photography and page 138 - TV Set Salvage).

What I would probably do, especially where there doesn't seem to be any really solid resource on the threat posed by CRTs, is publish more safety information. Every single science textbook I've ever laid hands on had one of its first chapters dedicated to safety. A safety column or mini-poster in each issue wouldn't add too much cost, but add a good deal of value. Outline the dangers in that quarter's issue and run down the safety measures.

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2007.03.16

...it's a feature.

08.04.37 - Mark

After weeks of research and shopping, my Mom and brother upgraded from a long line of dead or dying low end Motorola cell phones to a couple of Sony Ericssons (
w300 and w810i respectively). If I wasn't perfectly happy with the (unlocked and unbranded) Motorola L6 RAZR I bought a few months ago I'd be tempted to get the W810i for myself, because seems to be a well balanced multitasker. The phone quality is good, the OS is fast, responsive, and more or less organized, its got a 2MP camera that actually acts like a camera (to an extent) rather than a camera phone (the phone's form factor reflects this, too), it even supports up to 4GB memory sticks. Except...

...the thing reeks of DRM. Everything that this phone is designed to do, and do well, is locked up in a bastard combination of Sony and Cingular DRM. I'm not big on ringtones, neither is my brother, but the included ringtones almost explained why the ringtone industry is worth $3 billion a year. Being that the 810i is an MP3 phone we loaded a couple of songs off his computer and tried selecting them as ringtones. Didn't work. Turns out Cingular, in all its money grubbing anti-consumer glory disabled the feature. There are four ways of getting around the block.

1) You can buy the ringtone from Cingular - which won't work because the MP3s in question are all small indy artists (plus, even if he would want "My Humps" he'd have to pay for it)

2) You can chop out a clip that's less than ~1MB and use that. This one just seems stupid, its an MP3 phone, it would play full unencumbered MP3s as music, alarms, and ringtones. It also requires being a little technical and wasting a shitload of space on the phone (one version for a ringtone, one version for listening to)

3) The third option is to hack the phone's firmware and unbrand the device. Carrier's add a bunch of extra "features" like Cingular's MediaNet, Mail, and a handful of other things (including disabling full MP3 ringtones and themes options). This has the possible side effects of killing the phone and voiding the warranty. Not something I want to do because cell phones are commonly junk and need fixing or replacing every few months

4) We can throw DRM at it. Sony has a free program available (Mac and Windows, but they also mention Linux in the developer notes) that takes perfectly good, unencumbered MP3s and wraps them in good old fashioned DRM. Let's just take a moment to recognize just how ass-backwards this is.

They want you, the a perfectly legitimate user, to take your own non-DRMed MP3s and they want you to add a bunch of DRM to it, just so you can use those files on a device which doesn't actually need any special formats, DRM, or add ons to play the files in a way you the consumer wants to be able to use those files.

Last time I checked, DRM was a tool for Content publishers and owners to control their media and by extension crack down on piracy. I don't recall it being a tool for consumers.

I don't think Sony is actually to blame here, the fact that they're making the DRM Packager available to everyone and the fact that the unbranded unlocked phones don't have the bullshit limitations should prove that the carriers are to blame (if you actually need proof that the phone companies hate you the consumer).

There are a couple other things that I've read in reviews and haven't had a chance to look at yet, like disabling the "shutter" sound when taking pictures, and I personally like standard connections on my phones (standard mini-USB for docking/charging is great) but the Cingular imposed DRM bullshit makes me want to avoid dealing with locked and branded devices. I'd rather pay retail than have a crippled tool.

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2007.03.14

Wear and tear

22.29.50 - Mark

In the last 24 hours I've:



Even tho' I've probably got enough minor injuries to win a round of self-abuse bingo - if there was such a thing - I feel really good.

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Pi day

16.57.42 - Mark

It's March 14th again, which means it's Pi Day, one of the few Geek Holidays I can remember the date for, that and I rarely pass up a chance to have Pizza or Pie (even if I somehow managed to screwed up the pie crust for the first time in months). Homemade Apple pie to celebrate Pi Day (Edit - Despite messing up the crust, the pie was quite good)

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2007.03.12

Shutdown Day

18.02.15 - Mark

There's a campaign to get thousands of people to shutdown their computers on March 24th. (They're up to 43000 with a week and a half left) The first time I saw it was a few weeks ago, and I initially blew it off as a bunch of geeks daring each other to drop their tech addiction for a day. I don't think I've had to go without a working computer for more than a few hours in years, but I don't find it hard to turn off for a day or sometimes a week. In fact, every few months I find it necessary to get away from computers and recharge my own batteries, which after looking at the Shutdown Day site seems to be the whole point. I already know its going to be extremely easy to not use a computer on the 24th (CRK staff weekend) but I don't know that I'll make a pledge not to. Still, its a more worthwhile cause than I originally thought.

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2007.03.09

Unwanted Features

23.33.35 - Mark

The New York Times has gone off and done something annoying, they added pop-ups to their site. Not advertising pop-up, which are an active form of evil, or even their slightly tolerable cousin where you ask them to send a pop-up window with more information by clicking a clearly marked link. No what they've done is added an unwanted feature where if you double click on a word, any word, it brings up a popup window called "The New York Times: Reference Search for" what ever word you double clicked on. Frankly, its damned annoying.

I have a tendency to click around when reading a web page, I double click words, make random selections, ect. A side effect of being a tactile learner. Most pages, its not a problem, but every time I'm at the New York Times I have to concentrate on not clicking anything.

The only notice they give the user is in small print, well after the end of each article:


Tips

To find reference information about the words used in this article, double-click on any word, phrase or name. A new window will open with a dictionary definition or encyclopedia entry.


Unfortunately, as far as I can tel there are no "Tips" on how to disable this unwanted feature. Even browsing the help section of the site didn't produce anything helpful.

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2007.03.08

Adventures in Tech Support Land

23.59.28 - Mark

As a geek, there's some sort of unwritten law that dictates that to maintain geek status we have to respond to the technical woes of friends and family, especially when those individuals think that we have the technical knowledge of Bill Gates (which is wrong in several ways). Usually these are simple problems and can be resolved by running spyware and antivirus software, or reinstalling a couple applications.

Then there are the real problems, like massive catastrophic hardware failures, or today's gem - recovering and modernizing database files made with an application that's 16 years old.

Now, it can be a little challenging to recover a word processing file made with a program that old, but it wouldn't be to bad since text files are more or less standardized. Databases on the other hard are wildly incompatible, even different versions of the same software will change significantly. Microsoft Access won't deal with Filemaker Pro and neither plays nice with MySQL, while Filemaker 7 will damn near refuse to work with files made with Filemaker 6. Yet, that's to this user's decision not to keep the database software up-to-date I had the pleasure of getting the information from a Filemaker 1 (circa 1991) database file working in Filemaker Pro 8.5 (circa 2006). To make matters worse, the data structure was pretty bad (read: horrible)

I got the job done, but it makes me all the more thankful for comma-delineated text files and TextWrangler

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2007.03.07

Visualizations

00.33.22 - Mark

I wish I had this...
Anti-anti-piracy poster
...when I posted this a couple weeks ago.

via WWdN/Boing Boing (you try chasing down the original sources)

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2007.03.06

Returning Sensations

23.51.58 - Mark

The few hours it takes local anesthetics to wear off makes for an interesting opportunity in exploring your own senses. The right side of my mouth was pumped full of anesthetic a little more than eight hours ago (damned cavities), and only now is the last of it fading off. Taking a drink from a glass, and not actually feeling the glass against your lips, feeling pressure, but not contact, or seeing if you can taste things but not feel. Weird experiences that make you realize how amazing the human body is.

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2007.03.03

DNS Swindling

15.12.47 - Mark

or, Never let a domain name you want to keep go into "Redemption Period"

I'm doing some web work for a local business, and when I met with them a couple days ago I quickly learned that they already had a domain name. I've actually found it pretty common for small business to have domain names but lack anything more than a place holder, if anything.

Anyways, I start checking to see what needs to be done to start building a usable site. Well it turns out, the domain name registration didn't get renewed, and the domain in question is locked into a special state of hell known as a "redemption period".

In theory, redemption periods are a good thing. Recently expired domain names don't instantly fall back into the public pool, but they also fail to work and are gradually removed from the system. If you forget to renew, didn't get the notices because of an out of control spam filter, failed to keep your DNS records perfectly up to sate, or some other semi-legitimate reason, you get the shock of learning your domain no longer works, but have the ability to buy redemption by paying a fee (all of this applies for the next phase "pending deletion", a more expensive period of hell I'm not going to delve into)

Now, what would be an appropriate fee? Most domain names on the web are registered at discount registrars, like GoDaddy, Yahoo, and others who sell domains for a little more than the wholesale cost of the domains. For most domains, wholesale cost is under $10. Looking into the Redemption Fee, it started out as being $85, with a goal of $40 after development costs were recovered. Seems fair enough, it's enough that if I'm ever hit with it, I'll be sure to renew in time. Except, that's not the pricing I'm seeing.

When I figured out my client's Registrar, iPowerWeb (who are only a domain name reseller for TuCows), and after finding nothing useful on their site, I called their tech support (in a word, miserable) and after half a hour of waiting learned that their redemption fee is $160! As far as I can tell, this is actually a pretty common number, but its eight times what my client probably paid to register the domain for three years, and four times what ICANN's wholesale target price is for redemption renewals, and twice what GoDaddy charges. Hell, it might be cheaper to let it expire and use various services to play the drop market (Good article about snatching up expiring domain names)

I'm not sure what my client is going to do. I laid out the options, but in all honesty I'm not sure what I'd do. This is lose, lose for the consumer.

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2007.03.01

Transistr

23.59.29 - Mark

It's occurred to me that Transistr the renamed and upgraded version of iPodderX was supposed to be released in March 2006 (Look at the source code on the homepage). It's been over a year now and while I stopped listening to podcasts for a few months last year (not by choice, a dead iPod and a near dead iBook will do that to you) I've started up again using iTunes. Unfortunately, Apple's idiot proof user interface makes it a pain to manage, and lacks all of the more powerful features I was using before. I don't know of a podcatching client that suits my needs better than iPodderX did, unfortunately they stopped selling iPodderX before I started using it.

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