Avoiding the Chasm

January 29, 2006

BBC Podcasts – December 2005

Filed under: Media — vextasy @ 10:50 pm

Earlier, I made reference to the published BBC podcast figures for July 2005. The BBC do not distinguish between on-demand streamed programmes and podcast downloads in their ongoing download and podcast trial. The figures for December 2005 are now available on the online statistics page and show that the monthly downloads figure for the BBC Radio 4 In Our Time programme has grown from 25,000 to 145,000 in the six months leading up to December 2005.

That’s quite a jump.


Mounting the Slug

Filed under: Technology — vextasy @ 10:16 am

Between the two of us, Fiona and I have a large collection of audio CDs, and an even larger stack of vinyl LPs which rarely see the light of day. I’d been planning for some time to find a mechanism that would make all of them more accessible. Over the Christmas period I purchased a Linksys NSLU2 (affectionately known as a SLUG) and a 250GB Buffalo DriveStation.

The Slug

The DriveStation is an external USB hard drive and the SLUG is a device that makes up to 2 USB drives visible on a LAN. Assembly is simple: Connect the SLUG to a 10/100 LAN using a RJ-45 Ethernet connector and connect the DriveStation to one of the SLUG’s two USB ports – it’s as simple as that. Once both devices are powered up the SLUG can be configured and the DriveStation formatted through a web-browser interface and in less than 10 minutes from opening the boxes the system is ready to use.

In operation, the external drive looks exactly like a shared drive on a networked PC would look but with the SLUG playing the role of the PC. Neither device contains a cooling fan and so both are almost silent in operation. The SLUG is about 5 inches high, 4 inches deep and about an inch wide. The DriveStation is about 7 inches high, 6 inches deep and about 2 inches wide. Their small size allows them to be tucked away, out of sight, and in our case connected directly to a wireless router which means that the huge storage capacity is available from anywhere within the home over the wireless LAN.

So far so good, but the interesting stuff is yet to come. The SLUG is a Linux powered device around which a community of open source developers have built a modified firmware (Unslung) and operating system which can be really easily installed. The modifications retain all of the existing functionality of the Linksys default firmware but turn the device into an accessible Linux system too.

The SLUG makes its USB attached drives visible as Samba shares. Samba is the well established application that runs on Linux and UNIX systems that wish to allow portions of their file storage to be visible in a Microsoft Windows network. But by upgrading the SLUG to the Unslung firmware it is possible to install a host of other applications too.

One of the first changes I made was to install OpenSSH which allows me to securely connect to the device from another machine on a connected network and gain shell access to the SLUG. This made it easy to upgrade the system yet further.

Once we had ripped a significant number of our CDs to the device using Windows Media Player or iTunes I looked around at alternative ways of making the music available. Several mechanisms are possible:

1. Using a simple network share, and mapping it to a local drive, is sufficient for Windows Media Player to pick up the files and include them in its library. Similarly iTunes can be persuaded to work in the same way although you need to be careful to ensure that it doesn’t attempt to make copies of the files on the PC from which it is running.
2. The free package mt-daapd is a great way to make audio on the SLUG accessible from systems running iTunes on the local LAN.
3. The very reasonably priced TwonkyVision package is a UPnP server that can deliver both audio and video from the SLUG to other network connected devices. The number of appliances capable of working with TwonkyVision is growing rapidly.

I tend to use Windows Media Player from my laptop and so the simple network share solution works for me.

The OpenVPN package for the SLUG enables you to take things a stage further. Installing OpenVPN allows a secure network connection to be made between two machines or two networks over the Internet. For me, this enables me to call up music stored on the SLUG at home from my work environment and play it through Windows Media Player as if it was stored locally.

I’m currently looking at hardware developments, such as the Noxon-2 or the Zensonic Z500, with a view to purchasing a UPnP capable device that will allow me to stream video direct to the lounge or music direct to any room in the house. Why get up to change a CD every half hour when you can compile a complete playlist of music in advance and forget about it!

Oh and, what to do with the hundreds of gigabytes of remaining storage? Well, it’s nice to know that somewhere, tucked away in the house, is a quiet and insignificant looking unit that contains a complete backup copy of all those files and photos that you think you have on DVD.

January 24, 2006

Top Ten Sources

Filed under: Media — vextasy @ 11:18 pm

I’ve just finished listening to Dave Winer’s Morning Coffee Notes interview with John Palfrey, founder of toptensources.com. In the interview, John Palfrey explains the ideas behind his site which empowers selected editors to manage a list of their top ten sources (a source being a web site or a blog or a feed). I like the sound of anything that helps improve my productivity whilst browsing, after all that is what is driving the aggregator movement. But in the back of my mind I kept thinking of how much I liked the Radio UserLand updates link which lets me see which other weblogs in the UserLand community have just been updated. Consider the following observations that I made whilst browsing the list of updated weblogs:

  1. It would appear that most of the people who have gone to the trouble to subscribe to Radio UserLand are interested in maintaining reasonable content.
  2. A certain amount of pleasure is derived from the uncertainty over the real quality of the weblog content.
  3. I like the fact that on each visit the updates page contains a different list of weblogs.
  4. A quick scan down the list of updated weblogs is all the human eye needs to identify interesting looking weblogs (in much the same way that it rejects spam emails by their titles).

Observations one and two combine to suggest that, within certain bounds, I am looking for an element of variability. Observations three and four hint that I would be happy to apply a personal filter to a larger list of candidate weblogs and that I enjoy the random nature of the presentation.

What does all this have to do with toptensources.com? Well, I question whether the top ten sources is what people really want or indeed whether there really is such a thing (even in the minds of the editors). For my part, I’d like to see a good ten random but reliable sources. How about tentopsources.com – nobody has taken it yet!

January 19, 2006

Radio Trouble

Filed under: Technology — vextasy @ 9:14 am

I had recently been experiencing intermittent problems with Radio UserLand on my laptop. Occasionally the Radio UserLand and its local webserver would fail to load correctly. After a reboot the problem would disappear but would return a day or so later. Finally the problem was diagnosed: A clash with the really excellent news aggregator SharpReader. Both Radio UserLand and SharpReader attempt to listen for connections on port 5335. Radio UserLand uses this port as its fixed local webserver port in addition to port 80 or a user defined alternative. SharpReader uses port 5335 to allow it to receive subscription information when a user clicks a Radio UserLand icon in a web page.


The solution is simple. From the General tab on SharpReader’s Tools:Option menu, deselect the option “Listen for subscriptions on port 5335” and harmony is restored.

Why was the problem intermittent? Quite simply because, like many people who tire of waiting for Windows to boot or who find themselves running short of RAM, I prefer to start most programs manually, on demand, instead of allowing them all to load at startup. In this case, whichever of Radio UserLand or SharpReader was manually started first claimed the port and the other one lost out.

January 15, 2006

A COMDEX Footnote

Filed under: Media — vextasy @ 9:43 am

Tidying out some papers this weekend I came across a copy of an editorial from BYTE magazine for February 1982 covering the November 1981 COMDEX exhibition in Las Vegas. Right at the foot of the article, in a section headed “Other Software Developments”, the editor notes:

Intel has signed agreements with both Microsoft and Digital
Research to distribute both companies’ operating systems for a wide
variety of Intel microcomputer systems and boards. This is a
continuation of an interesting phenomenon that began when IBM announced
it was going to make available both Microsoft’s DOS operating system
and CP/M-86 for the IBM Personal Computer. With corporate giants like
Intel giving Microsoft and Digital Research a boost, it appears that
both families of operating systems will coexist for quite some time.

Within three years the game was pretty much up for Digital Research’s CP/M with Microsoft’s MS-DOS gaining popularity. Digital Research almost came back again with DR-DOS but by then the goal posts had moved towards the GUI arena.

January 14, 2006

Thirty Years of Sharing

Filed under: Media, Software — vextasy @ 2:05 pm

The January 2006 edition of Dr Dobbs journal runs an article entitled Dr Dobb’s Journal @ 30 in which Michael Swaine tells the history of the development of the magazine from its birth in early 1976 as Dr. Dobb’s Journal of Computer Calisthenics & Orthodontia to its current form. The magazine was conceived at the point in time where the prospect of building or owning a personal computer became a financial reality for many hobbyists and the excitement that accompanied it was easy to sample.

A number of hardware vendors began turning out microcomputer kits which consisted of:

  • A simple CPU, such as Intel’s new microprocessor chip developed for the calculator market.
  • A storage device which might be a fixed or floppy disk, a magnetic or paper tape or more commonly a cassette recorder.
  • Some form of I/O device which, given a suitable interface, might be a teletype or even a keyboard and display but other times was little more than a set of dip switches and lights.

The concern among the hardware vendors was that people would not find an application for the hardware and so the marketers of the time declared that their use was “limited only by your imagination”.

In common with other electronic and computing magazines of the late 1970s and early 1980s, the journal retained a hands-on hobbyist feel even as more and more business application began to fill the non-editorial and classified pages. The emphasis was on sharing information to further extend the boundaries of what could be achieved on a limited budget – the journal even published a 4K BASIC language implementation in hex to key into the Altair.

In the 1980s, magazines commonly published listings as part of an article or in an appendix. When the computer games craze began, it was common to return from the newsagent with a fresh copy of a favourite computing magazine and begin the process of keying in pages of BASIC listing in the hope of playing what most modern teenagers today wouldn’t recognise as a game. Often the listing would contain a printing error and the following edition of the magazine would print the corrections required to make the game run.

Over the decades the journal published volumes of source code, ranging from byte-saving coding tricks for the 8080, Steve Wozniak’s floating-point routines for the 6502, Lawrence Livermore Labs BASIC, John Starkweather’s PILOT, implementations of PASCAL and FORTH, the full source code for an 8080 kernel, a portable screen-oriented editor and, very importantly, two C compilers and the beginnings of a toolset in C. All of these tools were freely available for the use of its readers.

Almost thirty years ago Jim Warren, the incumbent editor, wrote:

It is this open sharing that particularly delights me…We must all do what we can to encourage it. The sharing of ideas…allows us to stand on one another’s shoulders, instead of standing on one another’s feet…So continue to share your ideas, and continue to share your excitement.

January 8, 2006

Anamorphic Illusions

Filed under: Media — Tags: — vextasy @ 5:00 pm
Julian Beever creates anamorphic illusions, his canvas is the street pavement. He paints everyday objects as if they had been discarded right there on the street. These street paintings when viewed from the intended angle take on a 3D appearance, but when viewed from any other position betray their true and flat form. Not everyone appreciates pavement art. On occasions, a painting has to be abandoned after a complaint from a member of the public, perhaps after a full day’s work. The Real Thing


Filed under: Media — vextasy @ 4:54 pm

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
— Arthur C. Clarke

“When you come to the fork in the road, take it”
— L.P. Berra

“Stay hungry, stay foolish.”
— Steve Jobs

January 6, 2006

BBC Podcasts

Filed under: Media — vextasy @ 5:04 pm

Back in July 2005 I noted (elsewhere) that:

I heard some figures today from the BBC for the number of
downloads that it has recorded for some of its podcasts. The figures
came from an audio record of a BBC Radio 5 broadcast (a podcast) that
was transmitted in the first week of June 2005 and refer to the number
of individual downloads:

Reith Lectures – 50K
BBC Logo
In Our Time – 405K
Fighting Talk – 141K

In Our Time is now regularly hitting 25K downloads per month.

The BBC Press Office reports that combined download figures for all of its podcasts reached 100K a week during July. We must be due another statistics update soon.

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