Archive for the ‘Internet’ Category

Quick & Dirty URL Shortener

Tuesday, August 31st, 2010

I’ve been wanting to develop a quick and dirty URL shortener for my own use for quite some time now, but never found the time or focus.

Then, this morning I stumbled across a blog entry by Barrett Lyon, offering a basic, quick and dirty URL shortener. I had it ported over to one of my servers in a matter of minutes, and decided to use one of my shortest domain names, jake.me, for my URL shortening.

So, for example, a link like:

http://www.bitsarecheap.com/2010/08/31/slow-motion-rain-showers-on-bonaire/

can be shortened to something like:

http://jake.me/Z90c

After a few more usability changes, my version of the URL shortener is now live. Of course, the ability to shorten URLs using my implementation of Barrett’s URL shortener is restricted to those who have a password to prevent spammers and malware distributors from using it for nefarious purposes.

If you’re someone trustworthy and personally known to me who wants to use the super special “jake.me” domain for shortened URLs, drop me an e-mail and I will give you access to the short URL generator. If you know me well, you’ll even know a better e-mail address for me than jake@richterscale.org (which I only check monthly or so) so that I might get your message more quickly.

And to Barrett: many thanks for posting your URL shortening code solution!

Sidekick LX 2009 is Disappointing

Wednesday, June 3rd, 2009

I’ve been a user and fan of T-Mobile’s Sidekick mobile phones since the original Sidekick because of several features – specifically the complete 5-line keyboard (numbers along the top instead of via a function key like on Blackberry phones) and the ability to use a secure terminal application (SSH) to manage my servers remotely.

Newer models over the years have become smaller, added additional communications bands (quad band now), better camera capabilities, and occasionally better connectivity.

The Sidekick is developed by a company called Danger, and manufactured by Sharp. However, Danger was acquired by Microsoft in the last year. I don’t know if this is the cause for the complaints I have with the latest Sidekick, the LX 2009, which shipped last month, but it’s possible.

In comparison to last year’s Sidekick LX, the new Sidekick LX 2009 adds 3G data services (which don’t appear appreciably faster than the prior 2.5G EDGE support), a higher resolution camera (which is definitely an improvement), GPS (also a nice feature), and proclaims to have Facebook, Twitter, and MySpace support built in. However, at least for Facebook and Twitter, which I have recently started using, the support is pretty poor. I only follow a few people on Twitter, but consistently get error messages about memory overflows on the Sidekick LX 2009. For Facebook, the content is rarely up to date relative to what I find through a web browser, and notifications almost never match those that are on-line waiting for me.

And perhaps even more annoying is that none of the applications I had relied on in the previous version of the Sidekick have been made available on the Sidekick LX 2009, including the terminal program I need for server management. And accessories for the phone, like belt holsters, are non-existent (the ones for last year’s model have been discontinued).

All in all, the Sidekick LX 2009 has great potential, but I am under the impression that the phone has been released well before the software was truly ready. Maybe in a few months, but it’s not ready for prime time at this point.

On The Richter Scale the Sidekick LX 2009 gets a 5.0 out of a possible 10.0.

Facebook Is a Sad Reminder of Age

Wednesday, September 3rd, 2008

I’m not really wild about social networks like MySpace and Facebook. Just about the only communications I have ever received via MySpace have been “friend” invites to see naked women on webcams – not that I’m averse to that, but there’s always some catch, like them wanting money for the viewing. And my nephew is on MySpace too – he’s just about the only real person I know on MySpace and that I’m friends with.

Facebook has been far better in terms of real friend invites – people I actually know from elsewhere have accounts there and occasionally even invite me to be their friend. How about that?

However, this morning, in processing another friend request (this one from my sister-in-law), I happened to click through to a link to find other people with whom I graduated from college back in, gulp…., 1985. There are a fair number of them on Facebook. And most of them have supplied photos with their profiles.

Imagine my surprise and disappointment as I’m scrolling through the list of 1985 Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute graduates to find that most of them look old. Some are balding, some have white hair, others look a fair bit older than “distinguished”, and a couple downright geriatric. Granted, we all graduated 23 years ago, but still… we’re all only in our mid-40s, right?

I know I have more gray and white hair than blonde these days, but I am still young at heart, but these profile photos brought back the harsh reality that people age, often more rapidly than expected. That reminder is not the best way to start a day.

Amazon’s Media Downloads – MP3s and Unbox

Monday, April 14th, 2008

When Amazon first announced they were going to be offering music without digital rights management (DRM) last year, I cheered, but didn’t do much else about it. However, while on an eight-week stint in a hotel in San Diego (which ended about two weeks ago) I decided to expand my music library, and checked out the Amazon MP3 download service. And I think it’s excellent. And Amazon’s DRMed Unbox video service isn’t too bad either.

The library of music content at Amazon is very extensive, with even brand new content available upon release by the record labels. And the prices aren’t too bad either – generally cheaper than the same music at iTunes, especially when you buy music by the album. I found album prices running from $7.99 to $9.99 typically.

To download a purchased album in MP3 format you need to install a small program from Amazon which actually performs the download, and, as I understand it, tags the MP3 files as being sold to you as the purchaser (presumably so that if you share them they can tag you for it). The Amazon MP3 downloader also lets you specify where to store the downloaded music, and you can also tell it to automatically add the newly download music to your iTunes or Windows Media Player libraries (but not both).

All the MP3s are encoded at 256Kbps, and sound great. Definitely a painless way to download music with no restrictions on your personal use of the files, unlike original iTunes songs. And, you can run the MP3s on any music player, whereas even the DRM-free iTunes downloads need to be converted into MP3 from Apple’s proprietary AAC format first.

As for video downloads, Amazon offers their Amazon Unbox service. This, sadly is DRMed, which makes it a pain to use, as you cannot convert the downloaded video into an MP4 file that you can play on an iPod, among other restrictions. Also, Unbox content is limited to either the machine you download the video on (for rentals) or you can designate two machines for “purchased” (not rented) content. Unbox works only on Windows-based PCs or on TiVo devices with current firmware.

Prices are the Amazon Unbox service are on par with iTunes – TV shows for $1.99 typically, and movies for around $9.99-14.99 (purchase) and less if rented. And, of course, some content not available at iTunes is available for legal downloadable viewing via Amazon Unbox and vice-versa. For example, we found Battlestar Galactica Season 4 on Amazon Unbox after not finding it on iTunes.

As with the MP3 downloads, the Amazon Unbox service requires the installation of a program on your PC. That program acts both as the video player and downloader, and does a pretty decent job. Visual artifacts in BSG4’s first episode were negligible on our 61” DLP display, and sound quality was excellent (and appeared to offer surround sound queues to our receiver unlike our experience with iTunes content on the Apple TV). Also, with at least the BSG4 shows we downloaded, we were able to start watching before the entire show had downloaded, so less planning required. We haven’t tested it with movies yet, and there doesn’t appear to be a separate category for HD content either.

The Amazon Unbox service, in addition to having less content (at least for what we’re interested in at this point), also has very strict requirements with respect to country of download. While iTunes lets a user with a U.S. billing address download content no matter where they happen to be in the world at the time of download, Amazon Unbox is very specific about the fact that downloads are only possible while physically in the U.S. This is similar to the restrictions imposed by the various TV networks on viewing past TV shows.

As I’ve stated before, I’m not thrilled with DRM because it makes you dependent on the vagaries and policies of the DRM provider, and you could well find yourself cut off from your content one day because of that. However, where it relates to content I am likely to only use once, like TV shows and movie rentals, I have less of an issue with it. I listen to my music library daily, so that needs to be DRM-free, but video does not – and if I want to watch a particular movie in the future, I can either buy it on physical media or rent it again.

I give the Amazon MP3 download service a 9.0 out 10.0 and the Amazon Unbox service a 7.0 out of 10.0 on The Richter Scale. The only way I can see to improve the Amazon MP3 service is to have a more complete library of all music and audio content available (some of the music I was looking for was not available in MP3 form, but they do have an excellent collection). The Amazon Unbox service needs more content, including HD content, and less restrictive use of content – I’d like to be able to play it on my iPod and not have to have a “Plays For Sure” compatible device (which Unbox does support for purchased content).

Apple TV Invades My Bedroom

Monday, April 14th, 2008

I recently purchased the new Apple TV with the 160GB internal storage drive as a way to get movies and other iTunes video content into my bedroom. My living room has an HP Digital Entertainment System PC, on which I can play iTunes videos, as well as video from other on-line sources, incidentally, which is why I didn’t need the Apple TV there.

The Apple TV was a breeze to install, as I opted for the direct-wired Ethernet connection instead of connecting to my slower WiFi network. The iTunes software installation on my notebook immediately recognized the Apple TV and started moving content over to it as well.

One glitch I ran into was that the iTunes synchronization did not copy my entire music library over to the Apple TV unit – only the last week’s worth of new music (courtesy of Amazon’s MP3 download service, which I like better than that of iTunes). Turns out the only way to force the copy of all my music over to the Apple TV was to highlight my entire library and “mark” each item (via the right-mouse-button context menu). Once I did that and resynchronized, everything moved over properly.

Video playback on the Apple TV is pretty good for regular TV shows – I have it connected to a 32” LCD panel via HDMI, and the visual compression artifacts were negligible on episodes of New Amsterdam, Reaper, and Supernatural. We also took advantage last night of the ability to rent and watch high definition (HD) movies, selecting Jodie Foster’s The Brave One as our test subject.

The movie took about 5 hours to download over our 2MBps connection. We had purchased it on Saturday evening in order to view it Sunday night, so the download time wasn’t a problem. It should be noted that some TV programming can be watched a minute or two into the download, instead of having to wait for the entire show to download, by the way.

The HD quality of the rented movie was very good – I could not discern any artifacts. The only disappointment other than the weak ending of the movie itself was that there was no embedded surround sound in the film. I don’t know if this is a normal situation or limited to just the movie we selected.

All the ordering and downloading can be done directly via the Apple TV, or also on the associated PC running iTunes. And you do need to have a Mac or PC to get the Apple TV running, incidentally. To order via the Apple TV, just enter your iTunes account information and password via the cool little remote control.

The cost for the HD rental was $4.99 ($3.99 for the non-HD version), which allows the movie to stay on your Apple TV (the only platform it will play on) for up to 30 days, and once you start watching the movie, you have 24 hours to finish it. Not unreasonable considering you don’t have to drive to the rental store to get the movie, but more expensive than a service like NetFlix if you’re an avid movie watcher.

From our perspective, it’s a lot cheaper than buying the movie on Blu-ray Disc, especially considering it wasn’t that great a movie (although Jodie Foster’s performance was pretty good).

The Apple TV, in addition to being a music and video jukebox, also offers photo storage and a related slideshow mode, and also has a YouTube viewing option where you can look at the most recent, most viewed, most popular, and searched for YouTube videos. Nice distraction, although it also serves as a reminder of how inane 99% of YouTube content can really be.

The current price of the Apple TV 160GB model is $329, and you must have a usable Internet connection, a local area network, and iTunes-capable personal computer to make it work.

My only technical annoyance with the Apple TV hardware is that is on all the time, and it runs hot. You can shut down (i.e. put in stand-by) the video output section (which is a major heat generator) of the Apple TV by pointing the remote control at the Apple TV, and then holding down the “play” button for six seconds, but this was not documented anywhere obvious. I stumbled across this tip during a Google search about the subject.

In terms of content, iTunes has a great selection of movies and TV shows, but frustratingly iTunes does not have everything I want to watch – shows like Battlestar Galactica Season 4, Private Practice, Torchwood, Pushing Daisies, Dexter Season 2, and Dr. Who were all not available, for example, requiring me to resort to Amazon Unbox or BitTorrent feeds.

I give the Apple TV a 7.0 out of 10.0 on The Richter Scale. It would rate higher if it were more eco-friendly in its power consumption and if it had greater content selection.

Live Blog Visuals – The Bloglines Image Wall

Friday, March 9th, 2007

In catching up on some blog reading via my favorite blog aggregrator, Bloglines I stumbled across a new feature the talented folks at Bloglines have developed. They call it the Bloglines Image Wall.

The Bloglines Image Wall is a 6×4 grid of images, generated dynamically, showing the latest images from blogs that Bloglines has indexed into their databases. And it changes while you watch. And if you want to see what blog a particular image comes from, just click on it to go to that blog. It’s a fascinating way to discover blogs you never knew existed (but it requires them to post pictures).

Apparently after they launched the Image Wall a few weeks ago, Bloglines discovered that it was being viewed in family and school environments – a problem since some blogs post images which might not be appropriate for some audiences, so the Image Wall has been moved to its own domain and features an 18+ warning on the home page.