Archive for the 'Technology' Category

Maker Faire NYC 2011 – “open” is the buzzword

Yesterday I spent the day at the 2011 NYC Maker Faire on the grounds of the NY Hall of Science in Queens, New York. I’ve seen videos of the Maker Faire in the San Francisco area for years and have been very envious. It looks like a very cool event where people are encouraged to make projects involving technology, art and anything cool and share them with others. There’s a great DIY spirit with a strong emphasis on teaching children to learn science skills and try to apply them to the real world. So me and my 7 year old son jumped into the car for the 2 hour drive into NYC. The very first area we came upon was the young maker’s pavilion. We spent a good hour checking out the tables and the various projects people had set up for the kids. We then checked out the live sized mouse trap. I got the sense the people behind it were performance artists types (tattoos & body piercing in abundance). It was a fun performance that a pretty large crowd of people enjoyed. As we walked into the main area we saw the the huge fire breathing metal dragon sculpture that we’ve seen in videos of the other Maker Faires:

We then checked a lot of the robotics stuff. My son was very excited to try controlling a human sized robot that a local high school team had built and entered into a national robotics competition. There was a ton of good stuff to see. My favourite were the Tesla Coils moving in sync with loud music. The videos of them on youtube don’t do them justice. You need to see them live:

One big negative related to Maker Faire was the overall lack of Linux. A lot of the vendors were espousing “open” like it was the buzzword bingo word of day. Sadly I did not see anyone running Linux in any capacity. I say it was about 90% windows and about 10% OSX. I did see see a ton of Android phones. It kinda irks me that an event about hacking, programming and sharing with a large “open” mindset is pretty oblivious to what F/OSS is all about. I went to one booth where they were doing CAD designs and building sculptures out of laser cut cardboard sheets. I spoke to the woman manning the booth and she told me they were using a program called Autodesk 123D that was “free”. She was emphatic that the designs were “open” and “sharable”. I asked her if it was a cross platform application and she nodded yes. When I got home in the evening I was very disappointed to find out that it’s windows only. Even worse it’s not even open, it’s just shareware. This trend of loosely using the terms “open” & “free” is a bit disturbing. Overall I think Maker Faire is a great event that should be checked out if you’re into technology & science. I just hope that in future events Linux is more prevalent and a more authentic F/OSS mentality takes root. It’s a bit sad when companies use marketing speak just to get into people’s “tech pants”.


Silicondust HDHomerun Prime Review

Silicon Dust HDHomerun Prime

My Silicondust HDHomerun Prime finally arrived this past Wednesday. Silicondust had some delays getting this product out the door and having a hurricane blowing up the east coast the same weekend as my shipment moved was not conductive to a quick delivery. The original HDHomerun was a dual unencrypted QAM/over the air digital tv tuner that had two co-axial inputs. It was a very solid device that ran for years on my MythTV system without any issues. The new Silicondust HDHomerun Prime is a cablecard compatible triple digital tuner. It has only one co-axial connection but you can record up to three digital channels at once! The big caveat is that you’ll be able to record encrypted cable channels that have their DRM flag set as “copy-freely”. What’s flagged as copy-freely will vary depending on your cable company. Most cable companies will leave everything as copy-freely with the exception of “premium” movie channels like HBO, Showtime, Cinemax, Starz, etc.. On the extreme negative end is Time Warner (in NYC &other markets) which encrypts all the channels and flags them as “copy-once” or “copy-never” regardless if the channel is “premium” or not. Your best bet is to do a little research to see where on this scale your cable provider lies and make an informed decision. I had a cablecard from RCN sitting on my desk for the last couple of weeks in anticipation of the Prime’s arrival. The cablecard setup process is threefold:
Activation, Pairing, Provisioning

Activation turns on the card. Pairing puts the cablecard as a registered device on the cable provider’s system. Provisioning is where the card is given access to all the content tiers you should be receiving. I’ve heard of lots of horror stories where the cablecard gets stuck in an unusable state somewhere along the setup. When I picked up the card up from RCN they gave me a piece of paper with the card describing the activation process. First call one number which will send a hard reset to all your cable boxes & cablecards. I had my Prime connected and ready to go and called the number. I saw my cable boxes getting reset. The HDHomerun Prime has an embedded webserver which you can access from any web browser. The pages show various status message such as activation, pairing and whether or not any of the tuners are tuned to channels along with signal strength. On one page I saw a message saying to call RCN’s activation number along with information for the card such as Mac address, serial number, device ID, etc.. I called the number and spoke to a service rep. I indicated I had a cablecard activation and mentioned I was using a network attached tv tuner device. I read off three sets of numbers to the rep and she read them back to me. She then put me on hold for about five minutes. After she returned she asked whether or not I could see any channels. The old hdhomerun_config_gui application somewhat works with the Prime. When you start the application you can see the three tuners but you can’t scan and tune them from inside the application. Open up a terminal window and tell the prime to tune to a certain channel:

hdhomerun_config 13104608 set /tuner0/vchannel 446

13104608 is the tuner ID and 446 is the channel I’m tuning to.

In the gui you will see a dropdown for the channels on the frequency you just tuned into. Pick one of the channels and hit the view button. VLC should now fire up and display the channel if it’s marked as copy freely. Update: I hear that if you download & compile the latest version of the hdhomerun_config directly from Silicondust it should work without having to do this. The version in the ubuntu repos is older.

I then proceeded to successfully tune in a bunch of different channels. As expected none of the movie channels would tune in. The customer rep then asked me to reboot my tuner to make sure the provisioning remained. I restarted the HDHomerun Prime. One minor issue I encountered is that the Prime has to run with dynamic IP assignment. So I had to turn my router’s dhcpd server. As far as I can tell the prime cannot be setup with static IP. After rebooting the Prime all my channels were still there. So after a 15 minute telephone call with RCN my Prime was working as it should. I then went about setting up the Prime as a capture device in MythTV. If you’re running MythTV 0.24.1 or greater the Prime works out of the box. The setup is pretty straightforward:
HDHomerun Prime Setup in MythTV

The setup in MythTV took about another 15 minutes with the majority of that time waiting for mythfilldatabase to complete the population of the channel listings for the new tuners.

Once the setup was completed I went for the gusto and scheduled 4 simultaneous HD recordings (1 on PVR-1212, 3 on the Prime). While all 4 recordings were going I then went to my family room and watched another HD recording on my Zotac based MythTV frontend. There were no noticeable hiccups, stutters, pixelization or audio out of sync issues. After the recordings finished I then watched all of them and they were perfect. The picture quality is pretty much identical to the cable box.

After a couple days of heavy use I’m very satisfied with the HDHomerun Prime. I’m now able to record a ton of HD content. While I wish Silicondust had released this product sooner you can’t fault them after encountering some manufacturing issues from their factory in China. The product itself is a solid successor to the original HDHomerun.

Sadly it seems Windows Media Center users are encountering a ton of issues with the Prime:
Silicon Dust forum

Whether those issues are DRM related or simply platform stability issues is of little concern to Linux users. They’re in dreamland if they expect patches from Microsoft in a timely manner to help alleviate their woes. They made their bed and they’ll have to sleep in it. Maybe some Windows MCE users will finally smarten up and become Linux/MythTV users? One can only hope they come to their senses.


What’s up?

Been too long since I’ve posted anything on this blog. What I have I been up to? Well, I sold the Archos 101 tablet in order to get a Viewsonic gtablet on the cheap from woot.com. It’s much more powerful than the Archos and actually has a dual core tegra2 processor in it. I’ve nuked the default version of android and installed Cyanogenmod 7 on it. It works very well and I’ve enjoyed using it every day. I even got the Netflix streaming application working on it without any issues. This year I’ve decided not to go to OLF (Ohio Linuxfest) for a couple reasons. First off I’ve been to the conference multiple times already. It’s a great show that I highly recommend people to attend if you’re interested in Linux and Open Source. Another reason I’m not going is that my proposed talk was rejected. While I enjoy going to Linux conferences and just hanging out I feel like I’ll get more out of the experience if I actually contribute with a talk. Finally I plan on attending the Maker Faire in NYC the weekend after OLF. I’ve heard so many good things about the Maker Faire (both in San Francisco and NYC) over the years that I feel I really need to finally check it out. I’m trying to get my kids interested in science and what better way than bringing the whole family along. Let me know if you plan on going and perhaps we can get together for a bit.


Got to play with the Motorola Xoom tablet

So I stopped by the local BestBuy store and played with the Motorola Xoom for a bit. Is it a really nice Android tablet? Absolutely. Is it nicer than the Apple iPad? Of course it is. It’s not even close. Is Honeycomb beautiful and a major leap for Android into the world of tablets? Yes, it’s really really is nice. Is the Motorola Xoom worth $799 and being locked into data plan? No, it isn’t. If Motorola wants to seriously challenge Apple they need to offer a wi-fi only version and drop the price by $200. End of story. Honestly if you don’t want an Android tablet that will require selling your children and body to science there are far better choices. Amazon has the the Archos 101 for $294. They also have the Archos 70 for $270. You buy also buy a Barnes & Noble Nook Color for $200 until March 3rd. You can install Cyanogenmod and make it a totally kick ass Android tablet and not just an ebook reader. Another option is get a Samsung Galaxy Tab for $499 (without contract) or $249 (with a 2 year data contract). Save your money and let the price of the Xoom come down. There is going to be a flood of Android tablets in the next year. Prices will drop. There will be many many options. In fact there already are.


Open Standards What A Corrupted Term

After episode 142 of the Linux Action Show where the hosts exclaimed strongly against Google dropping h264 in favor of WebM largely because WebM is an “Open Standard” I was prompted to discuss this further in their forums and came to the the realization that I may have been completely misled as to what the term Open Standard truly means.

I subscribed to the definition that most fits Bruce Peren’s concept of Open Standard defining it, roughly, as a standard that is publicly available and can be implemented without restriction. Now he goes into more detail with six tenants and these are further expanded upon by a wonderful paper titled The Meaning of Open Standards.

Review the Wikipedia definition of Open Standard and it becomes apparent that there is no single consensus on what an Open Standard is. Most subscribe to something akin to Peren’s Six principles but what about ITU-T? Their definition states that an Open Standard is a standard that is collaboratively developed, balanced, publicly available and implementable via royalty free licenses or on reasonable terms and conditions. The last point contrasts Peren’s Point 3 – Royalty Free implementation and most other defintions. So which definition is right? They cannot all be? Yet it would appear that OpenStandards.net would have us believe they can all exist under the same umbrella.

On the Jupitercolony forums a contributer, ShawJGroff, replied to my post on this topic with the following statement:

“Open standard” describes the standard as an entity by itself: it does not describe the thing the standard is defining.

Now this is not a definition I have ever heard put forward for the term Open Standard. So if I re-iterate what my post was about: “Is h264 truly an Open Standard.” By his definition what is meant by saying h264 is an Open Standard is that the published standard for h264 is openly available to all and the term Open Standard in no way should be applied to the implementation of the technology, h264, detailed in the standard.

This is the the single most salient point I think that all definitions put forth for Open Standard agree upon. That the standard is open to all to read. There is no mention of implementation, privileges or restrictions put forth in this definition. So is this the true historical meaning of the term Open Standard? Has the term Open Standard become polluted over time particularly by members of the Free and Open Source movement to apply it more towards the tenants of Free and Open Software?

When Steve Jobs stands up and says h264 is an Open Standard are we bucking up against sociological, political and generational corruption of what he truly means? Is he saying that and Open Standard refers to the availability of the standard itself and has nothing to do with the implementation, restrictions or privileges defined by the standard and licenses applied to the standard? Is there a purposeful play on words here to describe a technology like h264 as an Open Standard thus playing to the popular “buzzword” term of the day ascribing Open Standard to be akin to Peren’s definition when in truth it is merely the publication of the h264 standard itself and nothing more?

Has the term Open Standard become too polluted now? I’d be interested to hear other people’s opinion.

Upgraded my Android phone to a Mytouch 4G (HTC Glacier)

I’ve had my Nexus One phone for around a year and for the most part really enjoyed using it. I’ve also enjoyed getting updates to Android before any other Android phone on the market. The only negative aspect is the limited on-board memory. On occasion towards the end of the day I might get a popup dialog saying I was running low on system memory. Recently my wife requested me to pick her up an Android based phone. Initially I was thinking of just picking up one of the low/middle level Android phones available for around $50. The LG Optimus L is pretty well rated. I would have to upgrade my plan on T-Mobile to a “Family Plan” with shared minutes between the 2 phones. I went to the T-Mobile store near my office and found out they were doing a buy one get one special for all their phones. Now I’ve checked out all of the Android phones and currently the best one being offered by T-Mobile is the Mytouch 4G. While it is not staggeringly more powerful than my Nexus One it does offer the following improvements:

  • more than 1 gig of internal memory available
  • slightly more crisper display than the Nexus One
  • front facing camera to do video chat via Qik
  • improved battery life
  • what T-Mobile calls 4G speeds
  • All the improvements over the Nexus One are nice but the most noticeable improvement is the overall network speed. With my Nexus One I was getting about 2 Mbit down and about 1 Mbit up in good conditions. With the Mytouch 4G I’m getting about 5.5 Mbit down and 2 Mbit up. While T-Mobile advertises this as 4G it really is HSPA+ which is technically more like 3.5G. As far as I can tell this is the fastest available mobile speed in my area. At my office myself and several of my co-workers compared our mobile carriers’ speed by using the Speed Test application. We compared my phone’s speed against an iPhone on AT&T and an HTC Incredible on Verizon. The Mytouch 4G on T-Mobile won handily. It wasn’t even close. I’ve had the phone for a couple weeks now and I’m really enjoying it. The phone is very well built and feels like a tank compared to the Samsung Nexus S with it’s somewhat flimsy plastic case. The video chat works with the only requirement being both parties have to be registered with Qik. I highly recommend the phone to anybody.


    XML Fun! What I Learned Today

    I do not work with XML enough, that is a fact. Even more, like most technologies I come to I spend more time putzing around implementing it than I should researching it. Now XML is fairly straight forward but validating with a schema is not as easily grasped. So I am passing on some bits of info I learned today while pulling my hair out over some XML that was not validating.

    First, most validators suck. I went through a handful today, most of which just told me that it could not validate or gave me some error which was not at all helpful. I finally settled on this which provided the most information http://tools.decisionsoft.com/schemaValidate/. Had I started with this tool I could have saved a few hours of work.

    There are two element types: Simple and Complex. When validating with a schema be aware that simple elements cannot have attributes. Thus, if you have an element without any children but with attributes you must declare that element as a complex element and use extension:

    xs:element name="lemonTunaMan"
    xs:complexType
    xs:simpleContent
    xs:extension base="xs:string"
    xs:attribute name="HoagieGuy" type="xs:string" /
    /xs:extension
    /xs:simpleContent
    /xs:complexType
    /xs:element


    How about that?

    When working with child elements it i a good idea to be aware of occurrence and to specify occurrence. The way to do this is to specify minOccurs and/or maxOccurs. By default the values of these are 1. Now most documentation I was reviewing talked about and showed examples of using one or the other but not both which really threw me.

    I had a situation where the test instance I was using to pull the XML did not have complete data and therefore some child elements were not present. This kept throwing and error in validation. Now generally these elements would have values but I know in dealing with other people there is a great than average possibility that someone would not have entered in all the data necessary. Therefore, I needed to cover this base and not just ignore the problem.

    The value minOccurs specifies the minimum number of times a element can appear and maxOccurs specifies the maximum number of times. Again, left to defaults, not declaring in the schema, the values are 1 meaning that said element must appear once and only once. Now you can set minOccurs to 0 which means that the element can appear 0 or 1 time. NOTE: 0 or 1 time! You can set the values for maxOccurs to equal “unbound” which means that the element will appear 1 or more times. So what if you want to set an element that can appear 0 or more times? Well then you have to do this:

    xs:element name="hairShavingsColor" type="xs:string" minOccurs="0" maxOccurs="unbounded" /

    You must declare the minOccurs to equal 0 and the maxOccurs to equal “unbounded.” No where did I see this made evident I just happened upon it by deductive reasoning.

    Oh the fun! No my XML validates against the schema and all is well in my world until Monday when I add more elements!

    Happy days!

    Archos 101 Internet Tablet Review: Part 3 – Daily Use

    Now that I’ve had the Archos 101 for a couple weeks I’d like to discuss what I like using it for. The Archos seems to float between the family room and my bedroom. Generally in the family room we leave it plugged in and on with the photo slide show continuously running. The photo album application has some nice transitions and works as well as any dedicated digital picture frame. The kitchen in my house is right next to the family room. More than once the Archos has made its way into the kitchen and used for recipe reference while cooking. Streaming my MythTV videos around the house via UPnP is an absolute no brainer. The tablet detected my MythTV system right out of the box and works very well. Old school gaming on this device is simply awesome. Android has a wealth of emulators (NESoid, SNESoid, SGENoid, UAE4Droid, Gameboid) and access to tons of ROMS. I recently picked up a Wiimote game controller and it works very well on Android devices via the Wiimote controller application. Most of the emulators I listed are capable of using the wiimote as a game controller. This past weekend I had family over and the kids were literally fighting each other to get in line to try some old school gaming on the Archos 101. It’s a lot of fun. Plug in the Archos 101 to your HDTV via the hdmi connection and you now have a complete old school gaming system. The sound is even piped into the tv via the hdmi cable. Big win when you take into consideration that the more expensive Android tablets (Viewsonic gtablet & Samsung Galaxy Tab) require you to purchase a multimedia doc to get an hdmi out connection. As I mentioned in my previous post the kickstand on the Archos 101 is such a great idea. The fact that no other tablet manufacturer has implemented one so far is kinda mind blowing. Another area where the Archos 101 excels at is as indoor Ebook reader. Aldiko and the Kindle app work exceptionally well on a device with a bigger screen. Comics look absolutely stunning. I’m tempted to start buying electronic comics to have the excuse to use the Comics application. So far I’m very happy with the Archos 101. I like using it whenever I can. More expensive devices may have nicer displays but for $299 you get a nice mix of good hardware and a very capable version of Android out of the box. It’s by no means perfect but definitely very usable and tweakable. A solid purchase for the price.

    Words of advice: Definitely check out in person any device you’re seriously considering purchasing if you can.


    My Laptop is Mine Again!

    Whoohoo! Paige’s new netbook came today – the System76 Starling. She is very happy, that she is. We got it all set up for here and transferred over her files from my System76 and sent her on her way. The Starling is running Ubuntu 10.06 netbook remix edition and she was not liking the interface so we switched her back to standard gnome and she is configuring away out there.

    The Starling is a nice little system. I am not too keen on the track pad but the rest of it has me envious. If it were my system I suspect I would become accustomed to the pad, but never-the-less; it’s all hers.\

    We spent the New Years holiday down with my Mother-in-Law in Chester, South Carolina. She runs a bed and breakfast out in the middle of no-where so cell phone’s were not working. On top of that the server seemed to drop down again the day after we left and did not come up. Long story short, the server hiccuped by my scripts caught it and for some reason, while the server was fine and running the isp was not reconnecting. I should have called them and will in the future. But….

    My M-I-L had a system she never used anymore with a hard drive that had gone south. She was going to get rid of it so I brought it home, slapped in an ancient ide drive (this thing has sata and it pains me, that it does), installed Arch and now I have a back door into my network should the server go down. So if the server goes and my back door is not accessible it is time to call the ISP (Cox, who has been very good to me).

    I had to work with the technicians today to get the IP working. I had done this a few months ago on my other server and it worked for a bit but then stopped. I chalked it up to a problem with my routing and since things were running very well for a while did not get around to fixing the problem. Well lo and behold here we are with a new machine and the same issue. I had to work with the Cox technicians to diagnose this and ultimately we could not figure out what the problem was.

    The last thing we tried was plugging the modem right into the nic and that worked. Plugged the modem back into the switch and the nic into the switch and all was fine. It survived a reboot too. For some reason before doing this the modem was not even picking up the node connected to it. Weird. They are going to send out a new modem.

    Well I am off now to bigger and better techie things. 2011 should be a lot more exciting and geeky for me.

    Archos 101 Internet Tablet Review: Part 2 – software

    In my last post I mostly talked about the hardware side of the Archos 101. Today I’m going to talk about the software, primarily the custom version of Android that Archos has developed. For the most part it is stock Android. Unlike the Viewsonic gTablet which has a horrible customized version of Android, Archos has wisely chosen to keep it simple. As a Nexus One owner I was immediately comfortable using the Archos 101. Everything is pretty familiar. The biggest glaring omission is that the original Android marketplace is not installed by default. Instead Archos has installed the Appslib marketplace. This is pretty limiting as far as the applications you can install. My guess is that Archos only wants to make available applications they know will scale up to a bigger screen. This will hopefully go away as the upcoming Honeycomb release of Android will address the tablet experience directly. Not to fear, some of the great people over at the XDA Forums have created a package that will install the regular marketplace in under a minute. The tablet has shipped with Android 2.1 but upon connecting to the internet you will see a firmware upgrade is available that will bring you up to Android 2.2. As others have reported there were periodic lagginess when having multiple applications open at once. Someone recommended doing a factory wipe to alleviate the issue. I tried this and noticed the issue has disappeared. With the upgrade to Android 2.2 there’s even a CPU scaling option. By default Archos has the CPU set to 800 mhz even thought the processor is 1 ghz. They do this to improve battery life. I decided to increase this to the “overdrive” setting and haven’t noticed any negative effects on the battery life. Everything is pretty quick and responsive. So far I’m enjoying Android on such a large device. Ebook reading is an absolute joy with Aldiko and the Kindle applications. Comics purchased from Comixology look absolutely stunning in their Android application. The web browser is pretty nice and looks good in both landscape and portrait modes. While media playback is generally very good there is the annoyance of not being able to play mpeg2 video or AC-3 audio by default. Archos wants users to buy a codec pack for 15 Euros?! An easy work around to this is installing the Rockplayer application. It seems a bit petty that Archos wants to charge extra for the ability to play back commonly used codecs. Another glaring issue is that there’s no hardware specific version of flashplayer for Archos Android devices. You can install the default player from the marketplace but it’s not hardware accelerated. It’s usable but not optimal. Supposedly Archos is working with Adobe to get an official package released soon. Some day to day observations in my next post.


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