phone line avoidance

Char and I moved from Jamaica Plain to Somerville, and I had a feeling that our phone reception would suck in the new apartment. Indeed it does. Furthermore my phone, the Sony-Ericsson T610, is known as not getting the best reception in the first place. Basically, I can’t make or receive voice calls in my apartment without doing gymnastics or running outside. Suck.

So, the hunt was on for a solution to my phone reception woes. I saw three possible solutions:

  • Get a regular phone line (40$/mo)
  • Get a cell phone antenna booster (a real one) ($200+)
  • Get Skype VOIP working (.017/min)

All of these options required an initial payment, but Skype’s was by far the cheapest. For 10 you get about 10 hours of talk time. I was worried that, even though there’s a Skype linux client, there would be some problem with my microphone or something.

Skype works as advertised — very easy, no troubles. You have to remember the +1 before dialling an outside number. My dad said that the sound was a little low, so I got a 10$ microphone from Micro Center and hooked it up.

So now I can make outgoing calls with no problem. A note to my friends, when I make a Skype call the Caller ID shows up as “unknown.” So next time you get an Unknown call it might be me. As of yet there’s no way to get incoming calls from a phone. Skype says they’re working on that. For now, it’s easiest to send me a text message or instant message and ask me to call. I can still get and receive text from the apartment.

The rate is .017/min, which is low enough that I don’t care (micropayments in action!). I don’t use a phone enough to warrant a whole phone line, and trying to boost my cell phone reception is more faith-based than reailty-based.

For the investment I had to make (20$), Skype is a steal. Some people might be annoyed by the lack of phone handset, but I’m a hip young person and I can deal with talking at a laptop.

Pricewatch becomes more perfect has always been a great resource for finding cheap prices for computer hardware, but it always had a basic flaw — the cheapest prices are usually offered by the most disreputable vendors. So browsing pricewatch required a combination of correlating its search results with to see if the person selling the item was any good.

No more!

Now pricewatch lists the positive feedback rating for every company listed. woo!

mythtv: tv-out

A footnote to my work on my mythtv machine: Newer nvidia cards have amazingly well-supported tv output, so you can safely ditch crappy VGA to NTSC scan converters. Check the nvidia readme for the supported cards, and use the nvidia-settings tool to fine tune the picture. You can drag a slider bar and change the overscan as you watch!

iriver firmware!

Iriver finally released updated firmware! It’s about four months late, but it’s here. It says they’ve added gapless playback, but the way they describe it doesn’t sound right.

Oh well, too bad mine was stolen or I’d report on the improvements.

edit: After checking the iriver forums, it appears that after all this time the iriver people didn’t understand what people meant by gapless playback! While everyone was talking about the gap heard between tracks in a mix cd (which should be seamless, or gapless), they have added a feature to take out silence at the end of a track. There are still pauses between tracks. So they haven’t fixed anything. Oops!

It’s like a chart, only without the data

So Apple announced a new G5-based imac, with the disappointing detail that it contains an 18 month old graphics card. (The graphics industry has 6 month product cycles, so this translates to roughly 3 versions out of date).

Their ad copy claims otherwise of course:

Its a combination that delivers unparalleled 2D and 3D graphics performance and an immersive, photorealistic gaming experience with three times the frame rate of previous-generation processors.

And so of course they have a graphic to prove their point:

This is probably the worst graphic I’ve ever seen. It looks like it contains information — it’s got system specs and even a benchmark resolution — but that’s just a smokescreen. The graphic is relative, and doesn’t tell you if “baseline” is 60 frames per second or 6.

Apple can get away with this sort of manipulation because its customers tend to be insulated from the rest of the PC industry. The FX5200 is actually an “entry level” version versus its cousins the 5700 and 5900, and has been surpassed by the next-generation 6800 series. If Apple were to post actual framerates it would not compare so well to the x86 world, so they keep everything within their own universe.


Apple isn’t alone in presenting data poorly. TardOCP is famous for its data-filled, yet totally useless diagrams. Note the inconsistant resolution settings and unreadable colors!

a backtrace with umph

not what you expect to see when debugging an app:

Unhandled Exception: System.DllNotFoundException: sqlite
in <0x00053> (wrapper managed-to-native) Mono.Data.SqliteClient.SqliteConnection:sqlite_open (string,int,string&)
in [0x00031] (at /cvs/mcs/class/Mono.Data.SqliteClient/Mono.Data.SqliteClient/SqliteConnection.cs:157) Mono.Data.SqliteClient.SqliteConnection:Open ()
in [0x00063] (at /home/owen/src/gnome/dashboard/index/sources-manager.cs:101) Dashboard.Index.SourcesManager:.ctor (string)
in [0x00070] (at /home/owen/src/gnome/dashboard/index/index-manager.cs:93) Dashboard.Index.IndexManager:.ctor (string)
in [0x00013] (at /home/owen/src/gnome/dashboard/index/text-indexer.cs:38) FuckNut:Main (string[])

software I need

I often have ideas for software projects, some of which I even think I might be capable of writing. I don’t make time for writing software, however, so they never get done. In case I get amnesia and forget, here are some programs I wish I had (you can also interpret this as lame-o nerd posts wishlist):

  • GNOME panel rss ticker applet: Straw should integrate with the gnome panel to provide a ticker applet. Headlines would run by, and a click could either bring up the article in straw or the link in a browser. Perhaps it could sense mouse proximity and slow down the ticker as the mouse gets close. You could do cool things like make make stories which are repeated among multiple blogs bolder or bigger (could look at link targets or common keywords)
  • Live squencer / sampler for DJing: You could do live electronic music based on the idea of initiating samples and letting them loop. You could gang loops together and alter them (pan, pitch, etc) in real time, allowing a dj to do live production. The interface should be totally keyboard driven for convenience. On import, loops would be bpm’d so that they all line up perfectly
  • GStreamer-based video editing: Obviously people are working toward this and thinking about it, but after being trained on an Avid Nitris DS I think the OSS community should really aim high and look at what other people have done. Things like unbiquitous keyframing and a line graph view for those keyframes are extremely powerful features. This is one application where the HIG might have to go out the window. Editors don’t care about discoverable, they want every possible way to color-correct their video. The HIG is important, but don’t let it stand in the way of a top-class app. In other words, aiming to be an Adobe Premiere replacement isn’t going to cut it. If you can replace a 150,000$ package you’re going to be attractive. The product doesn’t have to have chroma-keying with spill mattes from day one, but someone on the project should at least know what that means, and the software should be extensible enough to support it.
  • Web-based RSS feed reading for mobile phones. oh wait I wrote that

I am being spammed by five-year-olds

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The Openness Factor

Recently I bought a hard-drive mp3 player for my girlfriend. There are a lot to choose from these days: the ipod, creative’s nomad line, the dell jukebox, the rio karma. To compare these devices, I made use of a few sites’ reviews, as well as the raw technical specs. After comparing price, battery life, disk space, and physical size, I finally settled on the Dell Jukebox.

While doing my research, I discovered there was another column on my spreadsheet that wasn’t well-covered in the online reviews: how open is the device? Taking my example, the ipod is totally open. You hook it up to your firewire port, and it pops up like a hard drive. “Uploading” mp3s is simply a matter of copying files from one hard drive to the other. The Dell Jukebox, in contrast, comes with Musicmatch, and thou shalt not use anything but Musicmatch to generate playlists and upload mp3s.

Luckily in my girlfriend’s case there is a great product that allows her to do everything she wants. But not everyone is so lucky. My brother got a cellphone, and rather than supporting the standard irda spec, it uses its own special spec which only works with its own crappy software. So he can’t beam his contacts from his old phone to his new phone. This is progress?

There is a war going on between closed, restrictive computing (represented by Windows and DRM and pay-as-you-go licensing) and open source (represented by Linux and free software and not making money easily). Open Source is doing quite well, but it’s got a bad Achille’s heel: hardware. If the open source movement loses access to hardware, it’s all but over. If the world becomes populated with Dell Jukeboxes that only work on one OS with certain software, open source is going to have to devote a lot of time to reverse-engineering and windows emulation. A reverse-engineered driver is usually not quite perfect, and takes a long time to write. By the time linux support is achieved, new models have already come out.

In order to combat this, hardware review sites should add a column to their reviews: the openness factor. It’s a simple measure of how open the device is — does the user have complete access to the device, or are they restricted at every turn? It should have a very easy scale:

  1. All but closed. The user can’t really do anything, and must keep paying to not do it. Typified by DivX, any mp3 service where you pay a monthly fee to play files, or a product that deliberately subverts a standard so you must use their software. Bonus points if the software you must pay extra for sucks and crashes all the time.
  2. Just open enough to make you angry. Like iTunes (not the ipod!), or the Dell Jukebox. You can do a little more with itunes than the crappier services, but it’s still restrictive. And you can download Red Chair’s software for the dell, but we’re lucky to have that.
  3. Just short of nirvana. Nvidia drivers for linux, for instance. It’s binary-only, but you can compile it for any i386 kernel. You’d like totally open-source drivers, but they (supposedly) have legal reasons why they can’t. It’s not perfect, but we can deal with it.
  4. Totally open. Think modern i386 computer hardware, or palmOS. You can do anything, run anything, rewire, hack, screw up, fix again.

I think those four options are enough to cover just about anything out there. The ipod gets a 3 because it’s not an open platform, but you can do just about anything. The tivo series one was a 3 because of its hackability (though it’s difficult), but the series two might get a 2 for being much harder to crack. Fours are sadly quite rare. Thankfully ones are also pretty rare. They tend not to last very long in the marketplace, as DivX and various mp3 services have discovered.

I think it would be a valuable public service if reviewers really started investigating these issues. My phone, the Sony-Ericsson T610, is a 3. You’ll never access the hardware that talks to the network, but you can do anything you want with the user interface. It’s also got bluetooth, you can do anything with emailing, etc etc. My brother’s phone gets a 2 — you can upload wallpapers, but you have to buy (no joke) an irda cable and use samsung’s software in order to do it. Had I read a review of Samsung’s phones that said “hey the irda on this phone doesn’t work with anything!” I might not have recommended he get it.

So I issue a call to reviewers: pay attention to the openness of the products you are reviewing. A device ranked 1 or 2 is a pain to use for everyone, not just open source fanatics like myself. If consumers are informed about what they can or can’t do with their new toys, they might buy smarter. If they buy smarter, hardware manufacturers will see it in their bottom lines and act accordingly.