Sunday, 25 January 2009

In which I admit I am a dork

Instead of doing something productive today, I spent the day in San Antonio at an OpenStreetMap mapping party. I got to meet some interesting folks and play “OpenStreetMap teacher” some, and it’s nice to be reminded that at least one of my dopey childhood hobbies has some practical application in the real world. And of course I got to put some more miles on the new car, which was fun too.

Thanks to the folks at CloudMade, and particularly their community ambassador, for putting the meeting together as well as for the swag. I can’t quite figure out how they think they’re going to make money off of OSM, at least until the OSM data gets in a lot better shape, but I suppose that’s their problem and not mine.

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

GPS buying advice

Rich Owings of GPS Tracklog offers advice on must-have and less-worthwhile features for an automotive GPS. I’ll slightly dissent from Rich on the value of traffic information, although of the units I’ve used the Dash Express has the only helpful implementation* of traffic I’ve found so far—and with Dash leaving the hardware business it’s not clear that anyone will be filling the gap in the future—although TomTom’s HD Traffic is allegedly headed stateside in 2009.

* Virtually all of the existing products focus on Interstates and other freeways, which might be helpful in really big cities where there are multiple freeway routes to the same destination, but isn’t so helpful in the places I’ve lived where the question is not “which freeway should I take?” but “should I take the freeway or one of the 2–3 surface street options?” Dash at least has some data on traffic on the surface street network—but much of it relies on Dash getting more market penetration, which seems unlikely unless they’ve hooked up with a major player like TomTom to provide traffic services going forward.

Friday, 31 October 2008

From the department of good but massively overpriced ideas

This thermostat sounded like a really great idea until I learned it costs $385. Surely someone can come up with a “dumber” digital thermostat that you can remotely adjust over WiFi much cheaper without the silly color touchscreen.

Sunday, 12 October 2008

QotD, five miles uphill each way to school edition

Jacob T. Levy on his introduction of photos at his eponymous blog:

I hear that the interwebs are now capable of handling things that aren’t even text. (In my day, we browsed the interwebs on lynx in UNIX and read e-mail on Pine and we liked it!)

Heh; while my first exposure to true Internet access (in the summer of 1992, before the invention of the img tag and widespread use of the web) was rather more slick due to the wonders of NeXTSTEP, the ancient ancestor of Mac OS X, even that was an incredibly texty experience by today’s standards. Over the intervening years, I’ve certainly spent my fair share of time with lynx and Pine and their more modern siblings (elinks and mutt).

Friday, 19 September 2008


Via Ars Technica, yet another social networking site, this time for academics with extensive support for classifying yourself down to the most microscopic of subfields. So far it seems a little less sterile than LinkedIn, which is probably a good thing.

My profile is here, if you haven’t been blasted by an invite from me already.

Wednesday, 10 September 2008

Technology run amok

AVSForum user DigaDo describes a high-tech new antenna technology for digital television. This advanced device, however, is not recommended for use outdoors or in damp environments.

Tuesday, 2 September 2008


A new toy I found for Firefox via my referrer logs: Feedly. I guess the best way to understand it is that it’s like an alternative set of views for your existing Google Reader subscriptions that also mixes in your friends from Twitter and other sources. There’s a little bit of clunkiness compared to Reader, and obviously it’s Firefox-only, but I’ve enjoyed using it so far.

So, while you’re waiting for Google Chrome to be released for a platform you actually use and for the source so you can compile it on Debian/amd64 (hint, hint), at least you have something new to fiddle around with.

Tuesday, 5 August 2008

Green light specials

Today’s Signifying Nothing public service announcement follows.

Unless you plan to keep your clothes on, or are in the process of producing your one-person dramatic reenactment of Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, don’t sit in front of your MacBook if the little green light above the screen is on.

This concludes today’s Signifying Nothing public service announcement.

Saturday, 24 May 2008

CECB mini-review: LG/Zenith DTT900

To continue the CECB mini-review series, I picked up an LG/Zenith DTT900 at Circuit City in Southaven this evening with one of my two digital converter box coupons (and $24ish of my hard-earned money at Sam’s Town’s blackjack tables).

With essentially the same setup and conditions (same television and el-cheapo VHF/UHF indoor antenna) as the RCA DTA800B tested before, the initial channel scan found the same 17 channels/sub-channels. However, the Zenith’s ability to manually add channels meant that I was able to add WMC-DT/NBC 5 (RF channel 52) and with some fiddling get a reasonably stable signal, something I was unable to accomplish with the RCA—this isn’t that surprising, since the Zenith is based on LG’s ATSC digital tuner chipset, which is known for its superior reception capabilities over most other silicon. In addition, other channels (WHBQ-DT/Fox 13, WPTY-DT/ABC 24, and WLMT-DT/CW 30) that were less-than-stable with the RCA were rock-solid with the Zenith. Bear in mind that WMC is running on a different frequency (and lower on its tower) than it will after the transition is complete in nine months, so indoor antennas in Shelby County at least should cope better with WMC when it is back on VHF channel 5.

The built-in guide is a little weaker than that included on the RCA model; the Zenith’s only shows program data for one channel at a time. The Zenith, however, has more functionality accessible from the remote control, including a “favorite channels” feature that would be useful for the compulsive surfer who isn’t interested in switching past the news and weather loops on 3–2 and 5–3 when doing the Letterman/Leno (or Conan/Craig) shuffle, and a sleep button. I also thought the Zenith’s menus were a little more polished and better organized.

On the antenna front, the Zenith, unlike the RCA, does not provide an attachment for digitally-steered “SmartAntennas,” which may be a consideration if you already have one of these (they are apparently uncommon at present) or have hard-to-tune channels in multiple directions which might benefit from this high-tech solution. The Zenith’s better signal-handling may reduce the need for a fancy antenna, however; either way, you should probably check out TVFool’s antenna aiming guide or the somewhat less-friendly CEA/NAB-sponsored AntennaWeb website to determine what sort of antenna solution is going to be necessary for you before spending money on one.

The only real problem I encountered in testing was that the “zoom” setting seemed to behave oddly; at first, letting it decide on its own seemed to work OK on some channels, but then I ended up with some bizarre “squeezed” pictures on several HD channels. Expect to manually fiddle with the zoom setting when channels switch between showing native 16:9 and pillarboxed 4:3 programs. Those who use closed captioning will also find that it seems to forget the CC setting when you switch channels, although I think there’s a menu option to leave closed captioning on all the time.

Finally, caveat emptor: many manufacturing runs of this converter, and its near twin sold by Best Buy under its Insignia house brand, apparently have an audio problem that certain TVs seem to be more susceptible to than others. The converter I purchased had a manufacturing date of April 2008, which has been reported to be the run in which this problem was fixed, and I observed no audio problems during my testing (on an admittedly low-end CRT stereo television/VCR over RCA cables).

Overall, I’d assess the LG/Zenith DTT900 as a better option for those who are planning to use the converter on a regular basis; however, if you’re simply buying a converter to serve as a “lifeline” when cable or satellite television is disrupted, or if you would like to take advantage of the SmartAntenna connectivity on that unit, the RCA model is probably adequate for most needs and seems to retail for about $10 less.

Monday, 19 May 2008

CECB mini-review: RCA DTA800B

Mom and I went to Wal-Mart today to pick up two digital converter boxes (specificlly coupon-eligible converter boxes, “CECBs”) as emergency backup for Comcast’s frequently-incompetent cable service in Memphis. It took about 15 minutes for the assorted checkout staff figured out how to ring up the converters and use the government coupons for them, but eventually we escaped with two RCA DTA800B converters.

I found the box relatively easy to use and hook up. The boxes included quick start guides in English and Spanish and full user manuals in both languages, as well as a programmable remote control (with batteries) and a short push-on coax (F-type) cable for attaching the box to a TV over the “antenna” TV input.

Both boxes worked moderately well in southeast Memphis with a rather lame RCA unpowered indoor VHF/UHF antenna I picked up a while back, which is no Silver Sensor but a bit more compact to haul around, less likely to attract quizzical stares from airport security, and better than nothing at all. Neither box was able to scan WMC‘s rather weak digital signal (authorized at 394 kW but clearly not transmitting at anything close to that power) and there’s no manual tuning option. I’d imagine if I’d brought a decent directional antenna like the Silver Sensor I’d have gotten WMC and a more stable signal on some of the other channels.

So, overall, I have no real complaints about the boxes themselves, except for the lack of a manual tuning feature available on other converters, and the SmartAntenna feature will be nice for folks with hard-to-tune channels in multiple directions when you can actually buy one again. I’ll probably examine some of the other CECB models before settling on one, however, particularly now that it appears that the reported Zenith DTT900 audio problem is fixed in newer boxes.

Wednesday, 9 April 2008

CECB Reviews

AVS Forum poster “10frog” has posted a detailed side-by-side comparison of the Digital Stream DTX-9900 and Zenith DT900 digital television converter boxes, which may be useful for those of you who have taken my advice and gotten your government coupons. Both boxes are available at RadioShack (but typically each RS only carries one of the two—most of the RS’s around New Orleans seem to carry the Digital Stream box); the Zenith is allegedly available at Circuit City and the apparently-electrically-identical Insignia NS-DXA1 is on the shelves at Best Buy.

Meanwhile, Slashdot is claiming that at least one of the CECB peddlers on the Internet is a scam artist.

Wednesday, 26 March 2008

Finding numbers to stick in font-size-adjust

While fiddling around with my style sheets this morning, I discovered this web page which will allow you to calculate the right font-size-adjust value to specify in CSS for any locally-installed font, although I think the page only works with Firefox at the moment.

Sunday, 2 March 2008

Gotta love Network Solutions

The reason you can’t read this (yet): Network Solutions won’t let me renew my domain name until I prove to their satisfaction that I am who I say I am, and I can’t transfer my domain to any of the registrars who believe I am who I say I am because I need to prove I’m me to NSI first.

Friday, 22 February 2008

HD DVD is dead, long live HD (upscaled) DVD

You know, Toshiba won’t exactly be helping Blu-Ray adoption anytime soon by dumping a raft of players on the market that, in addition to playing HD DVDs, are extremely good upscaling DVD players in their own right, including being the only dedicated players I’ve seen that handle pillarboxing of 4:3 DVD content over HDMI correctly. At sane viewing distances, I suspect most non-videophiles couldn’t tell the difference between an upscaled DVD and high-def anyway—Jennifer Morrison doesn’t look any different in HD and upscaled DVD that I can tell.

That said, I can’t figure out why you’d even spend $50 at this point on an XBox HD DVD add-on, since it doesn’t upscale DVDs any better than the built-in DVD player on the box.

Thursday, 20 December 2007

Where do they teach this stuff?

Profgrrrrl demonstrates how to use a spreadsheet program to calculate grades. This seems like the sort of skill that ought to be taught somewhere in the curriculum, but I don’t recall ever being told to use a spreadsheet in school except to calculate basic descriptive statistics (means and standard deviations) for physics labs in college in some DOS version of Quattro Pro.

Of course, I’m the sort of person who grades things with denominators like 15, 45, and 60 and who created 11 nested IF formulas in Calc to assign letter grades in my classes this semester, so I’m clearly weird.

Update: Dr. Pion also responds to the initial post that started it all.

Monday, 10 December 2007

Adios CompUSA

As Jeff Licquia notes, CompUSA is getting out of the retail business. Granted, there isn’t a lot of stuff there you can’t find elsewhere, and compared to Newegg it’s not exactly a cheap place to get computer bits, but where else in the New Orleans area can I get a four-pin Y cable for my computer’s internal power supply or an SATA-to-IDE converter?

Not to mention that with Circuit City hemorrhaging money like there’s no tomorrow, sooner rather than later we’ll basically be down to Best Buy and the electronics section of Wal-Mart for those computer parts you just can’t live without for the 2–3 days it takes Newegg to get them here.

Tuesday, 25 September 2007

The contents of my APSA nametag barcode

Using the SWIPE Toolkit, I found out what Big Brother knew about me in Chicago due to the barcode on my name tag:


Nothing you couldn’t have figured out with Google, I suppose.

Thursday, 6 September 2007

New toys

It was a busy week in gadgets around the homestead:

Cell phone: I replaced my aging and bulky Samsung A940 with an LG Musiq LX570. I was originally tempted by the fancier RAZR2, but couldn’t justify spending the extra $150 for stuff I’d never use.

Motherboard and CPU in my office computer: I ditched the mysteriously-crashing (and also aging) AMD Athlon XP 1800+ (1.15 GHz) and Soyo motherboard in favor of an Intel Core 2 Duo E4400 (2 cores at 2 GHz), Intel DG965RY motherboard (I went with integrated graphics, since I have no plans to do anything fancier with 3D stuff than run Compiz Fusion), and 2 gigs of memory. I still need to figure out how to get Windows to boot again, but that’s not all that critical since the computer spends 99% of its life in Linux anyway.

Tuesday, 15 May 2007

Swivel (search) on this

Dave Zatz posts on TiVo’s new “Swivel Search” feature that broadens the built-in search for upcoming shows to also look for downloadable TiVoCast and Amazon Unbox programming that meets your interests. The use of tagging in particular looks potentially very interesting.

Add yourself to the priority list here or just wait a while and it will show up on your TiVo too.

Friday, 4 May 2007

The end of analog

Craig Newmark helpfully links to a website that does a good job of explaining the coming (in February 2009) shutdown of analog over-the-air television transmission in the United States.

Monday, 19 February 2007

The HDMI cable price scam

Moral of this story: buy the cheapest HDMI cable you can find, because it doesn’t make a damn bit of difference over the length of a normal cable run.

I’ve gotten some reasonable deals on closeout cables at Radio Shack and Wal-Mart in the past, but normally a trip online or to somewhere like Fry’s Electronics (alas, not in St. Louis) is the best option.

Thursday, 1 February 2007

Super Bowl Tech

Ars Technica gives an overview of much of the neat technology that CBS will be using to bring Super Bowl XLI into our homes on Sunday—in some of our homes, in glorious high definition to boot.

Tuesday, 26 December 2006

Mini-review: Inside the Machine

I recently finished reading my copy of Ars Technica editor Jon “Hannibal” Stokes’ new book on computer architecture, Inside the Machine; overall, I’d say it’s a pretty good semi-technical introduction to the field, but there are points at which Stokes seems to gloss over important details. Two examples: in one chapter he discusses “SPRs” without ever seeming to define the term, and there is no reference to the term in the index; he also seems to underplay the register-starved nature of the x86 ISA (which lagged behind its CISC contemporaries, the Motorola 680×0 series, much less the PowerPC RISC processors that competed with the Pentium and beyond) and the degree to which the Pentium and its successors had to work around that limitation. There are also the requisite number of typos and goofs for a first printing of a book. But overall, I enjoyed the book, which after all is aimed at the typical Ars Technica or AnandTech reader more than the budding computer engineering student.

Monday, 18 December 2006

WebCT sucks

I find that it takes about 17 more steps to accomplish anything in WebCT than in Blackboard. Mind you, I’m still not entirely sold on either as a content management system, but at least Blackboard worked without requiring me to do stupid things like “Update student view” on a regular basis. Not to mention that its grading system worked about 70% right, as opposed to WebCT's which manages about 40% on my scale. (I still had to calculate final grades using a spreadsheet formula with Blackboard because of my bizarre insistence on weighing exam grades based on student performance, but at least it could do a quiz average trivially... instead of making me produce a formula for that too, which appears to be WebCT’s approach.)

If it weren’t for the hassle and the FERPA issues, I’d just run Moodle on my Mac mini and be done with it.

Monday, 11 December 2006

Getting rid of the pesky Welcome screen

If you’re getting the Windows XP welcome screen on a system with just a single, password-less user, here’s the solution; apparently it is the result of something broken in .NET 1.1.