Thursday, November 11, 2010

Gearing Up for Winter

This summer I used public transport a lot. Both for exercise and to extend the life of my car.
This is great during our fabulous Minnesota summers, but this could be unpleasant during the winter.

The benefits have been great, so I plan to continue with the plan into the winter as long as I can.
But I need to stay warm while walking and waiting at the bus stop.
After a bit of research, I found some great gear to keep me going on the cold days.

My criteria:
  • Lightweight
  • Effective against Minnesota winters
  • Easily stashed in my bag

The Bag:
Case Logic SNMB-15 15.4-Inch Canvas Messenger Bag with Laptop Storage (Green)Case Logic SNMB-15 15.4-Inch Canvas Messenger Bag with Laptop Storage
My beloved leather bag literally started falling apart this year, so I needed a replacement.  I greatly prefer leather or canvas because I find nylon bags abrasive and scuff up my clothes when walking long distances. This cost-effective canvas bag is my new commuter bag.
Love the rugged canvas, heavy-duty hardware, and overall design.
There are a few things I would change: Main flap could be bigger to offer better protection from the rain and snow. End pockets could be deeper to hold an umbrella.

The Lids:
Outdoor Research Peruvian Hat, Olive/Evergreen, LargeOutdoor Research Peruvian Hat
The very lightweight, windproof, and comfortable hat is now a permanent fixture in my commuter bag.
The side flaps completely cover the ears and protect the neck area as well.
The drawstring (which doesn't appear in the picture) can be used to tie the flaps up when the wind isn't blowing.
Simply a great piece of cold-weather gear!

Kangol Wool 504,Sea Green,XL USKangol Wool 504
This classic wool flat hat is great for the days when just a little protection is required. Sure, they're a little pricey, but just a terrific hat. The wool breathes nicely, and there's just enough bill to help with sun (when we see it.)
And, being "flat," it fits nicely in my bag when not needed.

Columbia Mens Bugascarf, Ranger, One SizeColumbia Men's Bugascarf
Nothing fancy. Just a nice polar fleece medium-length scarf. When you need it, you really need it. A little bulky to carry in the bag when not needed, but I'm probably actually using it most winter days.

The Safety Dance:
Nite Ize SLG-03-02 SpotLit Clip-on LED Go Anywhere Light, White
Nite Ize SpotLit Clip-on LED Go Anywhere Light
Winter is a dark time in Minnesota. Literally. To make myself more visible and to see where I'm going, I picked up some of these clip-on lights. I have a white one on my front jacket zipper and a red one on the back-end of my bag.
Very solid little lights. They appear to be marketed primarily for dog collars and they are built to withstand that sort of abuse. I need both hands to activate them, but I can do it pretty easily even with mittens on.
Each light uses TWO CR2016 batteries, I recommend picking up big pack of those on Amazon.

Sony Mdr-As20J Active Style Headphones with Soft Loop Hangers (Black)Sony MDR-AS20J
Great sounding, comfortable headphones that let you hear your surroundings. These work fine with my eyeglasses and my hats.
You can read more in Portable Headphones: A Personal History.

I've been using these a couple hours every day for over six months and they've been great.

Ready to Roll:
We've only had a few cold days so far, but I was nice and comfy with my new gear. With the Daylight Saving Time change, I won't need the lights for a few weeks, but they worked great on those cold, dark mornings.

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Tuesday, September 7, 2010

"Paywall" AND Bust

Rupert Murdoch

Rupert Murdoch made good on his plan to opt-out of the link economy and charge readers directly.
"The Times" and "The Sunday Times" now require a subscription account to view any content. "News of the World" will soon follow suit.
The papers projected a 90% drop in readership following the implementation of a "Pay Wall", and many observers think that may have been optimistic.

Even with a 90% drop in readership, this might be a good short-term business plan.
10% of the readers paying a subscription fee may very well be more money than they were making on ads for that other 90%.

But I say "short-term" because opting out of the link economy also removes you from the awareness of the younger readers. You also opt out of the promotional aspect of search engines and the blogosphere/Twitter/Facebook.
You're limiting your entire possible audience to those that already consume your product. When these reader die off or move to another publisher, there will be no more.

But it's even worse than that.
In the short term, Murdoch will lose the remaining advertising revenue. So the only income will be from subscriptions.
And who want to right to a declining audience? Shouldn't be long before the talent leaves as well.
Which probably means prices will have to increase, and subscriptions will decline even further.
While I believe that Murdoch is in complete denial about the future nature of publishing, I don't want to see great established papers spiral into the ground.
Aspects of these operations can and should be saved. But I fear that News Corp is committed to this delusional vision of the future and that it's going to crash and burn.

Or maybe it's just a bleak and dreary morning and I need some caffeine.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Ah... I Remember TV

I've gone without "cable" for well over a year. Maybe two.
The vast majority of my video content comes in podcast, DVD, or streaming internet form.
I have a nice antenna rig for over-the-air digital television but I rarely use it because I simply enjoy the other content more.

But this weekend, I watch NFL Preseason Football, Sunday morning news shows, and The Emmys in real time.

In Living Color:
Digital over-the-air is the way to watch events. Image quality blows away over-compressed Cable and Satellite. My friends and family have digital cable, and they don't understand why my TV looks so much better.


And a Word from our Sponsor:
The ads...
I had forgotten just how bad the advertising situation is in broadcast TV. The poor advertisers are paying for the repetitive and annoying interruptions. The networks are already brain dead and don't realize that more inventory does not equal more revenue. Ask any web publisher.

When a network shows me the same commercial four times in a single program they wasted my time, annoyed me, and diluted the value of their inventory.

On one medium-sized web site I worked with, we tried an experiment where we limited the total number of ad exposures a visitor would see in a given day. This drastically reduced our inventory, but even more drastically increased our CPM. And the users were thrilled that they weren't getting remnant network ads.

Hulu certainly hasn't learned this lesson. And the broadcast networks haven't either.

The TWiT Network, an online podcast and live streaming network has this figured out. Two "live read" ads per hour and a "billboard" at the start of each show. They have an incredible CPM and are making money in the online world where most do not.

We Return to Our Regularly Scheduled Programming:
I'll continue to use the antenna for sports, weather, and the occasional episode of "The Big Bang Theory," but I'll still get most of my video from podcasts.

Monday, August 23, 2010

iPhone on Verizon? I'll Pass

If everything else remains the same, and Apple introduces an iPhone on Verizon, I'll pass.

Here's why:
  • CDMA
  • Data speed
  • Price

The current model for CDMA does not allow simultaneous voice and data. In August of 2009, the CDMA Development Group published a new specification that would allow simultaneous voice and data, but that will take time to roll out to all existing Verizon systems. Of course, an iPhone might be the incentive they need to do that quickly.
I use data during calls very often. Friends and family will call and ask for detailed local weather conditions while traveling or ask me to pull up some web-based information.

Data Speed
In most of the US, including here in the Twin Cities, the data speed on AT&T is generally faster than on Verizon. Connectivity on AT&T is worse, especially in dense business areas (all those ad folks carry iPhones...) My experience has been that I can stream internet radio throughout my drive/ride to any of regular destinations with one drop on 3G. If I'm conserving batteries, I'll switch to EDGE and do nearly as well.

This target keeps moving, and the companies make things complicated to it's hard to directly compare, but generally, AT&T data plans are slightly less expensive than Verizon.

And now for a little rant...
Since when did technology prices go UP? Like many Oligopolies, wireless data needs an outside player to shake things up. But like Cable, there is a physical location requirement that creates a high barrier to entry for a new competitor and allows the market leaders to engage in anti-competitive practices. 

Other Possibilities
If the Verizon iPhone has the new version of CDMA, then I will seriously consider it. As a phone, my AT&T iPhone is nearly useless. About one-third of my call never ring - straight to voicemail.
At one of my clients, I don't even try to make calls. I just use the Skype application and call over WiFi.

Tethering iPad
My dream solution is steno-pad-sized iPad with free WiFi tethering. If such a device came with a data-only plan I would jump all over it. Especially if was available with the Virgin pay-as-you-go data plan.

So I'm not all that excited about a Verizon iPhone. However, I desperate want it to be introduced so that we get some competition for data plans in the market. Right now, Android and iPhone are living in silos. I think having the iPone on multiple carriers in the US will create a little competition. Yes, I said "little." See the rant above.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

NAB Wants to Legally Require Buggy Whips

This time around, it's our friends, the music labels, that are performing their death rattles.
Under the current model, radio stations (well, over-the-air broadcast stations) get billed by the PROs (Performance Rights Organizations) to pay composers, but the labels don't collect anything.
Obviously this is because radio promotes music. It's free advertising.
Heck, in the 50's the labels would PAY stations to play their music so as to squeeze out competitors and independent artists.
Even though payola  scandals resulted in new laws, the practice is legal as long as it's disclosed. But that's not good for business so the labels continue to get caught secretly paying radio stations.

But now, the RIAA thinks Radio's free ride should end.

So with this threat in hand, the RIAA sat down with the NAB (National Association of Broadcasters) to come up with a proposal that they would love Congress to make into some sort of law.

Right now,  Radio and Music are both making money. Depending on the research you believe, they've never had a larger audience.
But Radio ad revenue is way down and new musical artists are opting out of the label system. So the end is coming.
Two threatened industries with lobbyists. This isn't going to go well, is it?

My favorite points from the joint proposal:

PERMANENT removal of CRB jurisdiction for terrestrial and streaming (Bold and caps, theirs)

The CRB is the "Copyright Royalty Board." Really? You want the pseudo-governmental agency responsible for setting your rates to just go away? 

Shocked. Shocked, I tell you!

Inclusion of radio chips on all mobile phones

Delusions of relevance.
I think this is the movie they are watching:

  1. Force every manufacturer to put a radio (presumably FM) in every phone
  2. Radio audience expands hugely and advertising revenue increases
  3. Radio stations grow and become predominant music distribution medium (see ya, Apple!)
  4. RIAA collects tons of royalties
A terrific tale of horror and suspense!
Let's pick at a few problems with this:
  1. If people wanted FM radios in their phones, manufacturers would already include them. The market has spoken, and most phones don't include FM radio
  2. One industry would get a law passed to force another industry to modify their products just to protect the first industry? Yeah. That's gonna happen.
  3. NAB states that radios are good from a "public safety perspective." Sure. But what's that got to do with phones? Why not mandate all wristwatches include radios? Why not issue free emergency band radios to every citizen? Why not short-wave radio? Should we require every phone to include a flashlight and a can of beans?

AFTRA issues resolved (agency commercial replacement on webcasts)

AFTRA is the main voice performers' union.
Part of the insanity in our current royalty-based system is the unions have rules which basically make it impossible to reuse the performance in some types of media.
I don't know the nature of the proposed resolution, but at one point AFTRA was saying that having a webcam in a radio studio changed the terms of employment.
AFTRA also claims that radio ads cannot be played on the Internet without additional performance royalties.
It will be interesting to see how they plan to resolve these issues.

These industries have built  legal and contractual walls to prevent competition from the outside.
But they've become so inbred that they cannot operate outside of those walls.

With every new content creator that opts out of the existing system the walls close in and the area outside of the walls gets larger.

Buggy Whip Photo by purpleslog

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Do Composers have a Future?

The consensus in the hive mind is that ideas are nothing. Implementation is everything.

This attitude obviously comes into conflict with laws created by people who believe that a person can own an idea.

Short rant:
Seriously? When I first read about Patent and Copyright law at the tender age of 9, (what a freakin' precocious kid!) I thought I misunderstood. I asked adults about it and read everything I could find. It was stunning to me that somehow people went along with the private ownership of ideas.
End Rant.

I believe existing copyright law will become irrelevant in the near future. New creators are simply opting out of the existing licensing structures and selling their wares pretty much directly to the customer. The 35-year Termination Rights clause starts kicking in 2013 and we'll probably see the power of the  record labels decline even more rapidly at that point.

Please don't think that I'm encouraging anyone to break our current copyright laws. I'm the guy who's always annoying the Creatives with Rights and Clearances issues. "Did you license that font?" "Who's the rights holder for that photo?"

I suspect that by the time we ring in 2015 many popular new creators will be deploying content outside the current licensing systems. And the RIAA ("Recording Industry Association of America" the music label association), MPAA ("Motion Picture Association of America," the movie industry organization), and the PROs (Performance Rights Organizations) will not have enough operating funds to pursue enforcement of today's licenses.

I'm actually fine with most of this. Everything in entertainment production is going to get a lot cheaper. Right now, LA simply can't produce content for online distribution because of licensing and union contracts. And they can't compete against the next generation of content producers who choose to operate without that licensing safety net. Today's budgets for cheap reality TV will seem like fortunes compared to what these new shows are going to spend.

But the bottom line is that I think lots of people are going to have great careers in this new cheaper world. Not the million-dollar-an-episode sort of job, but realistic jobs where you can take care of your family and have a nice house.

Except composers and writers.
In a world where ideas are nothing, how do we pay the idea people?
Will it even be possible to someone to have a full-time job doing only composing?
This possibility troubles me because when I was a wee nerd, I hoped to be a composer.

But the end may already be here.
I just don't use rights-managed music, video or photos in my productions. Ever.
Because of low budgets, online distribution and the Creative Commons, I simply cannot do it.
But I'm all in favor of commissioning original works.

And that might be the model of the future:
Actually pay people for their work up front.
It seems a lot more fair than enticing them with dream of hitting the lottery if your work gets used in a syndicated TV show.
Can you imagine? Salaried composers for film and video! I think that's way cooler than the current model.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Copyright Holders Need to Wake Up

Today, most traditional content creators count on copyright as the legal basis for collecting royalties on their work. Those rights are violated when someone makes an unauthorized copy of the protected work.

But what is a "copy?"

There are legal definitions for things like vinyl records and cover bands.
Those laws and and definitions are being applied to data bits and mashups with very messy results.

But it's much more complicated than the rights holders can possibly imagine.

As we move to real "cloud storage" the concept of a "copy" of file just doesn't apply. An actual file image may not exist on any machine. Dozens or hundreds of copies of every portion of that file will exist across multiple devices.

Already, most of my files are replicated at least four times.

  1. The "original" on my laptop or tower.
  2. My "work" folder is cloned across my workstations.
  3. The on-site backup
  4. The off-site backup
  5. In the case of version-controlled files, there are hundreds of bits of file copied around.

Some of those files are works I did not create.
Harry Fox would like me to pay for every one of those "copies" of music files.

Hard drives fail.
Backups are mandatory.
And, despite the claims by some of the entertainment industry organizations, those copies are well within the Fair Use doctrine of the U.S. copyright law.

(Here's an interesting thought: technically a RAID level 5 could be considered to be making unauthorized copies of rights-managed material. Just saying...)

Now I would be willing to pay Harry Fox for every copy of every digital music file I make IF they would pay me a refund for every copy I destroy or lose.
No? Only seems fair.
How about they guarantee the availability of a free replacement for any file I should destroy or lose?

That's technically a possibility, but it takes us back to "cloud" situation where a file is everywhere and nowhere at the same time. And there's no such thing as a copy. And there's no business in collecting royalties on copies when there are no copies.

And you thought the music industry freaked out over file sharing.

Don't get me started on how stupid Patents are now that the hive mind is up and running.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Quick fix for Your gPodder YouTube feeds

YouTube changed something last month, and my YouTube feeds in gPodder started producing "404" errors.
Thomas Perl has already submitted a fix, but who knows when new packages will actually be released. And the Ubuntu package is two versions behind already.

So... If you're not afraid to edit a script file, you can fix your own installation while waiting for the new packages.

Now, I have to admit that I don't know how to edit as "root" using the graphic text editor, gEdit, but hopefully some will add that to the comments.

How I did it:
sudo vi /usr/share/pyshared/gpodder/

and in the section that reads

   if r2:
      next = '' + vid + '&t=' + + '&fmt=%d' % fmt_id
      log('YouTube link resolved: %s => %s', url, next)
      return next
NOTE: That is only one line although it looks like two line on the web page.

Comment out the line starting with "next" and add these two lines:
    d = {'video_id': vid, 't':, 'fmt': fmt_id}
     next = '' % d

The final product should look like:
   if r2:
     # next = '' + vid + '&t=' + + '&fmt=%d' % fmt_id
     d = {'video_id': vid, 't':, 'fmt': fmt_id}
      next = '' % d
      log('YouTube link resolved: %s => %s', url, next)
      return next
(I added to colors to show the change.)

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Plants vs Zombies Strategy Guide (Part I)

Plants v.s. Zombies appears to be a fun little puzzle game, but it is actually a very well done Tower Defense game. The Tower Defense genre was popularized as StarCraft custom maps. And my PvZ strategy strongly reflects my StarCraft experiences.

This guide isn't going to cover the basic mechanics of the game. There are many web sites out there that explain the different units in the game. Unfortunately, every online guide I've seen uses terrible strategies. With my techniques we will make success on each screen a virtual certainty. And we'll get all the achievements.

To get all the achievements in the game, you need to play through Adventure (aka campaign) mode twice.
I actually employ just my Basic strategies the first time through Adventure.
On subsequent trips through Adventure mode, You may need more Advanced strategies.

The Pattern
Before we delve into the specifics, let's look at the basic pattern:

Basically, the most expensive units go on the left where they are safest from the zombies. On the right, we put a blocking unit and spikes. While zombies are working on the blocking units, they are taking damage from the spikes. Zombies don't eat spikes, and those spikes will stop the mechanical units in the back yard.

Minor variations on this pattern will get you through everything except the Roof levels and the mini games.

Basic Stuff:

  • Produce enough sun to always be building
  • Put the cheapest units in the most vulnerable positions
  • Keep the board balanced

Produce enough sun
Sunflowers are your only source of Sun through most of the game.
In the early stages of a given level, everything should go towards planting sunflowers.
I personally don't like to have any zombies get through in the first pass through Adventure mode, but if you're having difficulty getting enough Sun going, plan to sacrifice some of your lawn mowers early to allow more time for planting Sunflowers.

Sunflowers are one of the cheaper plants. So you want to plant them as far forward as possible to shield more expensive plants. In the early stages of a level, this means columns 3 and 4. I generally fill those columns with sunflowers. Plant shooting plants behind them in columns 1 and 2 and drop the occasional squash if needed to allow this pattern to be built.

If you construct this basic layout early, you will generally have more firepower than the zombies throughout the rest of the board. Just add more damage and defensive units to fill the board as the sun becomes available.

I generally avoid the inexpensive Sun-shrooms on the nighttime levels. They don't produce enough Sun early on to build enough to defend themselves.

Cheapest Units in Front:
Yet another reason to put your sunflowers in front of the Pea Shooters. If you aren't dealing enough damage to stop the zombies before they get your flowers, it's much better for them to eat a 50 point sunflower than a 100 point Pea Shooter. 

The only time I vary from this rule is in the nighttime levels, when I put Scaredy-shroom on the left. They're not expensive, but they are oh-so-delicate...

Keep the Board Balanced:
You don't want to be chasing zombies. After the first few zombies, you just want to implement the pattern you've selected. By balancing the board vertically, you be doing the same damage to any zombie that walks into the field of play.

I rarely employ one-shot units since a balanced board should keep the zombie population down in every row.
Bombs and peppers only get used when going for achievements. The Squash, however,  can be used to buy extra time in the early build phases.

In Part 2, we'll look at specific ways to defend against some of the tougher zombies. Part 3 will cover advanced techniques and achievements.

Monday, June 14, 2010

How Twitter SHOULD have Implemented "Short" URLS

Recently, Twitter announced their own URL-shortening service.

The reason we have "URL Shorteners" is because Twitter limits messages to 140 characters.
Most people think this means that Twitter messages are 140 characters long.

They are not.

They are only 140 characters long when they are sent over SMS.
And a "character" can be multiple bytes long if you're using Unicode characters.

Everything that uses the Twitter API, (and that's everything except SMS), has another layer of invisible metadata attached to it.
This metadata includes message and sender IDs, time, and even geo-location information. It's often larger than the actual message.

Most useful Twitter posts contain a link. And those links will often be longer than 140 characters on their own.

I understand why Twitter is introducing their own URL service: They want to track who's linking to what. This is extremely valuable data. Every time someone follow a compressed link, they are able to track it. This is particularly important for ads. Or, as they call them in the blog post "Promoted Tweets."

But Twitter's infrastructure is just not up to the task. They've proven time and time again that they don't know how to scale.

But back to my proposal: Twitter could remove most of the need for shorteners by allowing a full url link in the meta data of each post. ("Tweet" in Twitter's vernacular.)
Then, in the message itself just show a symbol or word for the link.
In this model, the link doesn't count towards the 140 characters. Heck, the position in the message could be in the metadata.
SMS clients wouldn't see the link.

"Smart" phones wouldn't have an issue, and most devices with built-in Twitter clients would still be able to follow links.
Only people using plain text-message-based Twitter would miss out on links, and their devices have terrible web capabilities if they have them at all.

In my proposal, I would only automatically pack one link into the metadata and let people use existing systems if they have more than one URL.
There's not technical reason for this: I think it would just make for simpler user interfaces.

Advantages of this model:
  • Users can use full URLS in their posts.
  • Followers can see full URLS (depending on how clients choose to implement the feature).
  • SMS users don't see links they can't click on.
  • Fast: compressed URL don't need to be looked up.
  • Very little extra overhead to Twitter's service.

  • Third-party URL redirectors/shorteners business could be seriously damaged.
  • Actual size of average Twitter message will probably increase.
  • Third-party gateways would have to be rewritten to handle links.
  • Client software will need an update.
  • Twitter will be able to track what URLs are posted to the system, but won't be able to track links used in third-party applications. Which is information they would love to have.

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Monday, May 17, 2010

The Facebook Contract

I think I know why people are angry at Facebook.

When discussing new media with clients, we often talk about The Transaction: You offer a (potential) customer something in return for permission to communicate with them.

"Social Networking" sites offer tools to easily communicate with and connect with your friends and colleagues. In return for the use of these tools, you give the site access to your connections and any other data you may share. In most cases they try to use this information to create more desirable advertising.

Both sides know what they are getting and everyone is happy.

But I think people are seeing Facebook as a Bait and Switch.
They gave their information in return for easy and private contact with their friends. But the product is no longer private. So people feel literally ripped off.
They bought one thing with their valuable information, and now have something different.
And the investment isn't just in information. Most people have a lot of time invested in Facebook.
The new Facebook might be better. It might be worse. But it's DIFFERENT.
And that, I suspect, is why people are having this emotional reaction to the changing Facebook policies.

But Facebook has told us what they're doing every step of the way. Right?

No one reads Terms of Service, Privacy Policies, or End User License Agreements.
The REAL contract between users and site maintainers is written in actions.
Any site that believes it can define the relationship with the end user  is a site that has already failed.
Of course, this sort of thinking isn't unique to web sites. Television, Movies, Music, and Print all are in the process of learning this sometimes painful lesson. We just expect more from the people creating online content.

But when Facebook changed it actions (not just policies) to make it clear that nothing on Facebook is private, people learned their understanding of the site was wrong. Facebook's previous actions seem like a lie given the new policies and actions. I don't know about you, but when I discover that I believed something that proved false, I get angry. Mostly at myself for being a chump, but also at the entity that mislead me.

Facebook management really just needs to observe the Wil Wheaton Rule #5: "Don't be a dick."

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Wednesday, May 12, 2010

My Exit from Facebook

I'm fed up with Facebook and am working on my exit strategy.

Let's roll the clock back about a year and see what Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook had to say about another policy change:

In reality, we wouldn't share your information in a way you wouldn't want. The trust you place in us as a safe place to share information is the most important part of what makes Facebook work. Our goal is to build great products and to communicate clearly to help people share more information in this trusted environment.
Millions of users would argue that, today, Facebook is doing just that. Breaking our trust and sharing our information in a way we wouldn't want.

The point of Zuckerberg's post is that Facebook can't control what your friends do with your information.
That is very true.
If I share a picture with my friends (taken at say, a drunken St. Patrick's Day party), Facebook can't stop one of my friends from grabbing that picture and emailing to my boss.
But if I then choose to remove that friend from the people who can see my posts, Facebook should not show my new pictures to that person. Even if a mutual friend "likes" it.

Everyone in the online world is only two degrees away. Mix in the regular users and you're probably still less than four degrees. I know the difference between trusted friends and mortal enemies, but Facebook doesn't.

But that's not why I'm leaving Facebook.
I don't care about privacy. But the value offered by Facebook when we signed up was that they would allow us to easily post messages and pictures to a restricted group of friends.

That is no longer true. One of your friends clicking a "like" button, even if it's not on Facebook, could transmit a post or picture to the entire internet.
That person has no reasonable expectation that her action would have that consequence.
And you didn't take any action at all.
So that's just sneaky, sleazy, wrong, and evil.

 Facebook has destroyed their value proposition. If I want everything public, I'll just post to Twitter and FourSquare.

But even that's not I'm leaving Facebook.
It's because they keep changing the rules.
Or to put it more bluntly, they lie about what they intend to do with the information I share with them.
The value in the company lies in this information, and we need to stop rewarding them for bad behavior.
And the only way to stop feeding them information is to leave the system.

So here's what's going to happen.
  • When I chose to not to share my likes and interests with the entire world, Facebook deleted them from my profile.
  • I now log out every time I use Facebook so that other sites can't engage the Engine of Evil.
  • I'm confirming that all my photos are posted to other photo sharing sites.
  • I'm making sure all my contacts in my other services are up-to-date
  • In a couple weeks, I'll replace all the information in my profile with bogus data.
  • A few weeks later,  I'll delete (not "deactivate") my account. That way even if Facebook "preserves" by information, it will not be useful.

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Monday, May 10, 2010

Portable Headphones: A Personal History

I replaced another set of portable headphones last week. I've had my studio "cans" for a couple decades, but I can't find portable headphones or earbuds that hold up.

Let's run down my recent examples:

Original Apple iPod Touch earbuds
These signature white headphones are instantly recognizable. I don't want to advertise my product brands, so I'm not a fan of the white cord.  They hold up though - mine got handed down with the iPod Shuffle.
Audio quality: medium-to-poor
Durability: good
Pros: rigid style earbuds are good for working out and let you hear your environment.
Cons: not great audio quality, not very comfortable.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

How I Pay for My Free Media

As I've mentioned in previous articles, I've pretty much opted out of traditional Broadcast and Cable TV.
Unfortunately, most of the programs I watch do a very bad job of generating revenue from me.

The major studios still put out a few shows I like, but here's a typical day:

    When Ads Payment
Get Up:
Minnesota Public Radio (FM and streamed) Sponsorship messages hear sponsors, contribute
Morning Joe (MSNBC Podcast) none FAIL
Morning Drive Time:
Usually a TWiT Audio Podcast (This Week in Tech, This Week in Google, etc.) "live read" style ads listen to ads
Lunch Break:
Loaded (cnet) none (sometimes promotes another cnet property) FAIL
Usually followed by a game-industry related podcast or video (, Blizzard, G4TV, or cnet) some ads. some sponsorships. mostly fail
Rush Hour:
Buzz Out Loud (cnet) Often without an ad. Even when there is an ad, it usually misses the demo. mostly fail
Evening Work: Music time!
MP3s or Radio Paradise stream. occasional membership request buy CDs and tracks. Buy CDs using RP's Amazon link.
TV Time:
Episodic TV (Hulu, Web, recorded over-the-air, ripped DVDs) Only when watching Hulu (my last resort) Buy the DVDs. Watch the Hulu ads.
Podcasts (Dozens of HD video podcasts) TWiT and Revision3 shows have excellent ads. Most others do not. Shows like Mr. Deity solicit contributions. watch the ads, contribute
Movie/Late Night:
ripped DVD movies No adds Buy the DVDs. 
Rachel Maddow (MSNBC podcast) Cisco mention. Sometimes an ad for another network show. mostly fail

As you can see, most of the online methods don't really have a direct revenue model.
When I turned off my Cable, I set up a budget to support the programs I want.
For things I watch/listen to daily, I contribute $60/year.
For weekly/occasional shows, I contribute $25/year.
I actively promote my favorite shows and bands. I attend concerts and drag friends along.

I purchase about one traditional TV series season on DVD every month. At 12-24 hours per season, that's still more than I really have time to watch.

All total, I've traded in $100/month cable subscription for about $45 in sponsorships and purchases.
If the advertising industry ever understands how to sell ads on IPT, then I can hopefully cut that in half.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Internet-Delivered Media and Grilled Cheese

After well more than a year without TV, I recently purchased a new moderately-sized flat-screen television.

I got a really great antenna rig for Over-The-Air HD TV, and I hooked it up to my media center PC.

The images are incredible. Every rinky-dink station is broadcasting beautiful HD.
But the content is beyond inane. This is what "the average American" is watching?

Today, I had a late lunch on the couch, in front of my shiny new HD screen.
I watched a terrific internet-delivered program, "Design Outside the Box” (via GigaOm) while dining on a perfectly grilled cheese sandwich.

Using the television tuner, I could have watched Tyra give home-wreckers 15 minutes of fame.


The medium best known for porn, gay jokes and videos of crotch injuries is also the medium that’s letting a lot of people rise above the mire of broadcast television.

Sure, these programs are aimed at different audiences, but if I were into Fashion and Beauty, I think I would much rather watch an expert treating me like a thinking adult and presenting me with valuable information, than whatever it is that Tyra is doing.

What’s going on here?

Broadcast (and cable) television has created an unsustainable infrastructure that, in general, can’t afford niche programming, in-depth investigations, or scripted dramas.
The new media pioneers on the Internet are delivering all of these for a tiny fraction of the cost of broadcast/cable.
And since these programs cost so much less to produce and distribute, they need a much smaller audience to make them profitable.
As technology improves and as traditional TV people find themselves out of work, the independent internet programs are only going to get cheaper to produce and deliver.

So Broadcast will continue its descent into reality programming and tabloid journalism, while Internet programs will gain resources and become the source for higher quality programming.

And yes: Broadcast television appears to be mostly cheese. And it's getting a bit burnt around the edges. And someone replaced the actual cheese with a word from our sponsor...

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Monday, January 25, 2010

So... Video Piracy is Over Then?

In my presentations on our current media distribution systems, I often show estimates of unauthorized downloads.

I gather these numbers by watching the major bittorrent trackers and getting figures from the largest closed bittorrent communities.

But with the legal victories of the rights holders in 2009, the people distributing unauthorized file changed technologies. By moving to more decentralized models they've actually increased the rate at which files can be distributed and made it nearly impossible to track how many copies are going out.

I recently ran my analysis again for "Dollhouse." (Recently cancelled. Heavy geek audience.) Apparently, unauthorized downloads are down over 90%. Congratulations to the Television and Film industries for effectively eliminating piracy!
And download traffic in countries that have implemented "3 strikes" laws has completely stopped.

Of course, piracy hasn't stopped. In fact, anecdotal evidence indicates that unauthorized downloads of this particular program have more than doubled with recent episodes. But there is no way to confirm this based on numbers from the usual bittorrent trackers.

The producers of video content need to deal with reality and find a new strategy.

Perhaps the mythical Apple consumer device scheduled to be released later this week will give them a way to realistically play in the online world.

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Thursday, January 21, 2010

Evaluating the 2009 Predictions

At the beginning of 2009, I posted the obligatory predictions.Let's see how I did:

Increase in dog ownership
Up. way up. But oddly, cats even more.

Decline in Cable viewership
Yup. Viewers are down. But revenue is up. If you're still watching cable, you're getting ripped off.

The End of Twitter.
Not really. I assumed we'd see some sort of message discrimination in Twitter. The implementation of trends and lists certainly count towards this prediction, but I will count this as a "miss" since I really expected a larger change.

Edgar Allen Poe craze in Hollywood
Complete miss. James McTeigue started The Raven, but that's about it. Free stuff and Hollywood let it pass by.

Independent Media Productions
TWiT network really came on like gangbusters in 2009. In fact, that one "network" accounts for over half of my video viewing.
A number of terrific YouTube channels got popular in 2009.
We're seeing all of this programming become available on regular TVs with the Roku box and TVs with Yahoo Widgets.
Growth was huge, but we're not seeing penetration into the general TV-viewing public yet.

The End of "Trickle-Down Economics"
Refuses to die. Just this morning I was listening to a report that pointed out that businesses aren't spending. Of course, they're not. No sensible person will spend until they've replenished the reserves. Which adds a lot of friction to money flowing downstream.
Opinion on this topic seems to have changed, but policy has not.
"A rising yacht does not lift the tide."

Beginning of Free Energy
My prediction was that policies would be put in place that will us down the cheap energy in the United States.
That part seems to be correct.
The political battle is taking longer than expected, so that's disappointing.

Automotive Status Quo (With at least one company bankruptcy)
Nailed it.
No electric car for me. Detroit still looking almost as dumb as Hollywood.
Ford is actually embracing the Film model with high-tech gimmicks to entice customers to buy their evolutionary products.

The End of Tubes
Flat screens now account for all new TV sales, and one-half of American households now have an HDTV.  Not quite the universal adoption I was expecting, so I'll count that as "mixed."

Increased attendance at Farmer's Markets
Definitely true for the few markets I could get numbers from.
Many cities added more Farmers Markets in 2009.
This trend was already underway, so I don't think we can say the down economy was the reason people headed to the Farmers Markets in record numbers last year.

In my predictions for things We Won't See in 2009, I included "a competitor to the iPhone."
Almost made it! The Motorola Droid snuck in at the end of the year and was widely considered as the first legitimate iPhone competitor.

Most of the prediction were "half true." Two were clearly correct, and three were complete misses. At 40%, I did way better than most people who stuck their necks out with silly predictions.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Media Center Revisited Part 4 - Don't Try This at Home

The new media center is working great.
It was a fun project, and it allows me to hide another computer in the house.
XBMC is terrific software and the interface gets even better with each version.

For me, the reason for having a Home Theater PC is to watch video distributed over bittorrent, podcasts, YouTube, and internet streaming video (IPTV).
Until recently, watching these sorts of programs required a computer.

But now we're seeing televisions with some of these features, and set-top devices designed to play Internet content.
Later this year, manufacturers are scheduled to release a whole slew of Blu-ray players with internet capabilities.

There are now many alternatives to building your own system.

Small "Computers"
Marketed as general-purpose computers, these small, powerful, and quiet computers work perfectly for Home Theater PCs.
Popular choices include the Apple Mac Mini and the Dell Zino. (Although the current Mac mini lacks a Blu-ray drive.)

There are also "nettop" computers which are basically the guts from netbook computers in a very small form factor.  Lifhacker ran a nice article on using one of these as an inexpensive XBMC box.

Blu-ray Players
Many high-end Blu-ray players now come with "BD-Live," a feature that allows them to play streaming content. BD-Live isn't very compelling since the content is title-specific. But many of these internet-capable players also include Netflix streaming, and that's an excellent way to get your movies for cheap.

Most of these devices don't have extra storage, and they won't let you rip your DVD content.

Game Consoles
All three major consoles support video streaming (although the Wii is not HD). Each has some proprietary programming. ("The Guild" runs on Xbox Live before any other platform.) And the PS3 has a built-in Blu-ray player.

Internet Set-top Boxes
For me, this will be the exciting category in 2010. These boxes include all of the media features of a traditional HTPC (Home Theater PC) out of the box. Hook it up to your TV just like a DVD player, and you have access to Internet content.
Most of these boxes can connect to external drives for increased storage or have upgradeable internal drives. They are all silent or nearly so. Most support paid (Netflix, Amazon On Demand, Vudu) video streaming.

Best of all, most are priced between $100 and $200 dollars. So they make an excellent upgrade to that big flat screen you bought last year.

WD Live Plays pretty much anything.
Tivo TCD series players Strong streaming support as part of the TiVo service
Boxee Box Boxee is a variation of XBMC with strong online and streaming support.
Roku Current king of the hill for streaming and podcasts, but the competition is catching up fast.
Vudu Box Highest quality video streams currently available. The service is also available on some TVs.

As of this writing, the Apple TV is no longer a player in this category. The iTunes store integration is still nice, but the other players offer many more features at a better price.

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Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Media Center Revisited Part 3 - Settling In

In our previous installment,  the software installation went pretty smoothly.

I'm able to watch my videos, listen to music, and even watch Flash video on the web.
A few problems remain:
  • VNC terminal isn't really working.
  • DVDs aren't showing up in XBMC.
  • After restarting, I lost my sound again.
  • Video (especially HD) is tearing pretty badly.
I'd also like to:
  • Listen to internet streaming radio
  • Watch streaming video
  • Automatically download podcasts

Time to make this puppy sing.

Fixing Problems:
Problem 1: vnc
vnc is a cross-platform remote desktop system.
I use it on all of my computers.
It's really nice for the media center since trying to install software or edit settings while sitting on the couch can be a problem with the screen so far away.

Issue: Screen and mouse are visible, but actions from clicks don't show up in my vnc client.

Cause: It turns out that the stuff that makes Karmic Koala so pretty is all the screen effects provided by something called Compiz. There's a known bug with Compiz and the ATI drivers used on this computer. Since this box is used almost exclusively for video anyway, we can turn off those pretty, pretty special effects.

Go to System:Preferences:Appearance. Then click on
the Visual Effects tab.

Set the effect to None and close the window.

If you'd like to easily switch these effects on and off, there's a nice little button you can install in the menu bar.

Problem 2: DVDs
Issue: DVDs are not being recognized by XBMC.
Solution: back to Synaptic (System:Administration:Synaptic Package Manager) and install udf and libudf0. UDF is the file system used on DVDs.
Some DVD still are having issues ("Kill Bill" for example), but the TV shows I tried are working.

When I get the extra drives, I'll probably rip the rest of my TV-on-DVD shows because the experience of watching the files is much richer than watching the DVD. (Better transport controls, show notes, bookmarks, etc.)

Problem 3: Sound Settings
Don't know why, but switching my selected audio output device from "Analog Headphones" to "Analog Output" solved the issue.

Problem 4: Video Tearing
I tried the various vertical sync and refresh option in XBMC, but many of those would cause XBMC to hang when not actually playing video. 

The ATI Catalyst Control Center was hiding under the Applications:Other menu. 
Setting the Wait for vertical refresh to Always On completely eliminated the tearing on moving video.

Adding New Services:
Podcasts (For listening/viewing in XBMC):
The built-in Rhythmbox Music Player can retrieve podcasts, but it just didn't work well for me.
There are some dedicated scripts to fetch podcasts, but I'm looking for a simpler solution.
The Banshee player did a much better job of managing podcasts. It is easily installed from the Ubuntu Software Center (Applications:Ubuntu Software Center).

Streaming Radio:
The built-in Rhythmbox Music Player streams radio just fine. Many of the presets didn't work so I just deleted them.
The Banshee Media Player also does a fine job of streaming radio.

Streaming TV:
The page on the XBMC wiki explains how to add both video and audio streaming to XBMC.
Now I have my favorite audio and video streams playing directly in XBMC so I can use the remote control.
There are no solutions available to play paid (Netflix, Amazon, Vudu) streams on linux.

I'll present a list of my current streams and podcasts in upcoming article.

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Monday, January 18, 2010

Media Center Revisited Part 2 - Software Installation

In part 1, I updated the media center by replacing most of the parts.
Now that the machine is assembled, let's install the software.

Windows 7 is really great for home theater use, but I'm keeping it cheap with free software. Just like the previous build, I will use Ubuntu and XBMC.

Ubuntu has become my usual OS because it has been easy to install and is well supported.

Use another computer to:

Now just put the CD in the new machine and boot from it.
(I set the BIOS to boot from optical media first.)
Select Install Ubuntu and accept all the defaults.
Worked out of the box!

Allow the system updates to run. This took awhile for me.

Pull up Sytem:Administration:Hardware Drivers and make sure the ATI drivers are installed and active.
(Obviously, video drivers will vary by manufacturer.)

I now have a fully functional computer!

I actually spent quite a bit of time playing with the new features in this version of Ubuntu before getting back to my installation. I can highly recommend Karmic.

Back to the install:

First Hitch: XBMC is not in the Karmic repository for some reason.
Just follow the instructions on the XBMC Wiki to add it to your software sources.
I used the non-command-line method:
Bring up System:Administration:Software Sources and select the Other Software tab.
Add  the XBMC repository:

Close the Software Sources window.
Now open Synaptic and install the XBMC meta package.
While there, install "lirc" to give you remote control.

At this point, I could browse and watch my videos... except no sound.
A helpful person on the #ubuntu irc got me the fix.
Open the terminal window (Applications:Accessories:Terminal)
type "alsamixer" and hit ENTER:

use the arrow keys to turn up the volume.
Time to watch some video!

I use "sftp" (a file transfer protocol built into Secure Shell) for most of my local file transfers. All my machines, regardless of operating system, run ssh, so it's a universal file share for me.
Open Synaptic again and install ssh-server.
Now I can easily (and securely) transfer files from my Mac Server.

Now we just need DVD playback.
I followed the instructions on this post about installing medibuntu repositories, and we're good to go.
Whole process was under 2 hours.

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Sunday, January 17, 2010

Media Center Revisited Part I - The Hardware

The ultra-cheap Home Theater PC made it almost a year before it died.

It's being replaced with slightly more expensive version based on things I learned from the old one.

My criteria:
  • Able to pump out 1080p video
  • Digital audio out
  • HDMI
  • Quiet
  • Did I say Quiet?
  • Low power
  • Easy to assemble
  • Inexpensive

The dual-core Intel processors are still pretty expensive, and the current crop of AMD processors are pretty good, so I'm going AMD.
The Phenom II can be had for about $100.
An all-around excellent computing bargain.

Video Card:
The basic choices are on-board video, and a separate video card.
Pairing a less expensive board with a card designed for video works very well, but is slightly more expensive than the integrated boards based on the AMD 785G chipset. The reviews of the 785G are universally positive.
All the advanced features of the video system won't be used by current software, but should be viable for years to come.
So the video card will be 785G integrated video.

The Motherboard:
Choosing the 785G limits our choices for motherboards.
Tom's Hardware did a nice review of the Asus M4A785TD-V EVO board and that was good enough for me. If I build another one of these, I'd go with the micro-ATX version, but since I'm planning on a custom enclosure, I saved a few bucks by purchasing the full-sized ATX version.

Power Supply:
This made a huge difference. I had already purchased an Antec EarthWatt 450 for the old box, but that computer died before I got it installed. The new machine is drastically more quiet than the old one. Not quite silent, but very quiet.

I put a one terabyte SATA drive in to start. I plan to add two 1.5 drives to make it into my main household file server.

I kept all the other parts (Case, remote control, DVD drive,  etc.) from the old machine.

Assembly was very straightforward. The Asus board came with some nice headers so I could plug in all those little case wires into the headers and then plug that into the board. Made it very simple.

The only issue I had was that I had 2 ATA hard drives, an IDE CD drive, and the IDE DVD drive. The new motherboard only had 2 IDE connectors, so I decided to skip the old hard drives and put everything on the ATA drive. There are a ton of SATA and eSATA connectors. Again, this board should serve me for a long time.

The Price:
With some shopping around, I was able to get all the parts for around $450 including memory.

In part 2, I'll install the software.

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Thursday, January 14, 2010

It's Not 3D!

The 2010 Consumer Electronics Show was all about "3D" Televisions for the home.
Let's be clear: There's nothing "3D" about these displays. They are stereoscopic.

Much as stereoscopes completely replaced traditional albums of photographs in the 1850's... oh wait.
Here in the twenty-first century, most people still keep albums of traditional photographs.

Could stereoscopic photography be anything more than a fad?

Perhaps a little more...
I loved my ViewMaster back in the 1970's and in the 1980's one could purchase stereoscopic film cameras.
In 2010, we'll see a bunch of stereoscopic digital cameras.

But here's why the home stereoscopic TV fad will be particularly short lived:
  • Most homes just upgraded to digital TV at a price point the average consumer wouldn't have considered a decade ago. There is no way they can justify a new set.
  • Stereoscopic programming cannot be viewed while lying on the couch or in bed.
  • Those stupid glasses
  • The headaches caused by some of the viewing technology.
  • No programs. While there are a handful of movies that were shot in stereo, but most new programs will just be re-renders of digitally animated movies.

Did you really love "Avatar" enough to plunk down another two grand for a new TV, buy a new "3D" Blu-ray player, and sit perfectly upright wearing dorky glasses just so you can watch it at home?

But Gaming is whole other issue.

Gamers are used to strapping on a headset, so adding the glasses would not be a big deal.
We're used to sitting perfectly centered in front of a screen for hours at a time. I think stereoscopic monitors for gaming could become standard gear.

But I think you get a much more compelling 3D experience with something like this head-tracking demo.

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